Dr Johnson, the greatest writer of critical prose in the English language, was able to impart to his readers both human nature in general, and the character of Englishness in particular
I still remember the day when the set texts for my A Level English course were announced. For Shakespeare, we had Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry IV Part 1, As You Like It and the Sonnets. And for the pre-1785 paper, Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, Ben Jonson’s Alchemist, the Penguin anthology of The Metaphysical Poets and Dr Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare. I can’t help feeling like an old fogey when I interview prospective candidates for Warwick nowadays. They are the brightest and best of our youth, with CVs testifying to immense industry and ambition, but the A Level syllabus has not put them through their paces as this course did me. Very few of them have heard of either Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson, or his great editor and commentator, Dr Samuel Johnson, who was born in Lichfield 300 years ago this month.
I was lucky in my teacher. Mr Adams looked a little like Dr Johnson himself, especially after he damaged his knee and hobbled into class with a club-like walking stick, which he would beat on the desk as he pronounced sonorous literary judgments, some of which have stayed with me these 35 years. “John Donne makes Tom Stoppard seem like tennis for rabbits”; “Dr Johnson was a contentious old noddy.” In showing me how Dr Johnson freighted every sentence with attention and affection, he taught me how to write. Whole swathes of the Preface to Shakespeare were carved into my consciousness. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion.”
And, like all great teachers, Mr Adams directed us beyond the set syllabus. We read Johnson’s strange novel Rasselas and the satirical poem The Vanity of Human Wishes; we were given cyclostyled extracts from The Rambler and The Lives of the Poets. We were made to ponder a major insight in a minor book review: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”
With the possible exception of his true successor (though his political and moral opposite) William Hazlitt, Dr Johnson is the greatest writer of critical prose in the English language. James Boswell tells us how he did it:
Sir Joshua Reynolds once asked him by what means he had attained his extraordinary accuracy and flow of language. He told him, that he had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion, and in every company: to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in; and that by constant practice, and never suffering any careless expressions to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him.
We hear that the next Conservative government intends to slash the current administration’s bloated budget for consultancy. Could they not improve the quality of public discourse at a stroke by consulting that old Tory, Dr Johnson? Imagine a short edict going out to every civil servant and quangocrat in the land: “Never suffer any careless expression to escape you or attempt to deliver your thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner.” Johnson would instantly have seen the emperor’s new clothes on the back of the modern phenomenon of consultancy, predicated as it is on jargon, cliché and linguistic obfuscation.
What Johnson knew, and imparted to his readers without a single careless expression, was human nature in general and the character of Englishness in particular.
The son of a bookseller, he dropped out of Oxford because he was unable to pay the fees. He began his career as a schoolmaster. The school failed and he walked from Lichfield to London with his pupil David Garrick, who would become the greatest actor of the age, perhaps of any age. Johnson’s admiration for him knew no bounds, yet he always harboured doubts about the theatre. That was partly because it was hard for the sometime master to find himself struggling to forge a living from his pen in Grub Street while the pupil found wealth and unprecedented fame on the boards. But it was also because the actor’s art of flighty impersonation was at odds with the supreme Johnsonian virtues of integrity and sincerity.
In the preface to his earliest work, a translation of a traveller’s tale, Johnson noted how the story revealed that human nature is the same in every nation. In every individual and every community we find “a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason.” Johnson’s was an exemplary life because he was steadfast in his pursuit of virtue and reason, whilst never denying his own vices and the power of his passions. He knew humankind’s need for a moral and spiritual compass, but also recognised the force of our bodily desires.
James Boswell — himself a man of gargantuan bodily passions — caught this duality to a tee in The Life of Samuel Johnson. There is a marvellous moment early in the book when in one sentence Dr Johnson asks Garrick not to invite him backstage any more because “the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities”, then in the next breath Boswell writes: “In 1750 he came forth in the character for which he was eminently qualified, a majestick teacher of moral and religious wisdom.”
The vehicle for that teaching was the periodical essay, or what we would now call the “think piece” of our more serious journalism. The Spectator and The Tatler of Addison and Steele had fallen by the wayside, so Johnson single-handedly revived the genre with The Rambler, in which he pronounced twice weekly (publication Tuesdays and Saturdays) on books, on politics, on morals, on life. He keeps returning his reader to the essential things. The opening of Rambler 81 condenses his idea of a Christian society into two sentences of compelling lucidity:
The measure of Justice prescribed to us, in our transactions with others, is remarkably clear and comprehensive: “whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do unto them.” A law by which every claim of right may be immediately adjusted, as far as the private conscience requires to be informed; a law, of which every man may find exposition in his own breast, and which may always be observed by honesty of intention and purity of will.
A High Church Anglican who wrestled with his conscience and his melancholy in prayers and meditation of deep humility, Johnson found both personal comfort and political wisdom in the words of Jesus. In building a theory of rights on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount, he became zealous against every form of slavery. Invited back to Oxford as a celebrity, he shocked the dons with his post-prandial toast, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” More importantly, he carried his principles into his private life, taking a motley assortment of waifs and strays into his household. And loving them.
He was a man of prodigious industry, who singlehandedly compiled A Dictionary of the English Language:
ADAMS But, Sir, how can you do this in three years?
JOHNSON Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.
ADAMS But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary.
JOHNSON Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.
To be fair, the Dictionary took him eight years. But that was no reason for him constantly to berate himself for sloth.
No sooner had he finished the dictionary than he set to work on a new edition of the complete plays of Shakespeare, with commentary. Where the words of Jesus gave him his model of virtue, in those of Shakespeare he found the perfect account of human failings, especially his own. There is no better example than his note to the duke’s great speech on life and death in the third act of Measure for Measure. “Thou hast nor youth, nor age; / But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep, / Dreaming on both.” Johnson glosses, with a clear eye on his own restless inability to live in the moment:
When we are young we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languor of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.
Literary criticism in Johnson’s time, as in ours, was dominated by French theory. Johnson’s riposte is English common sense. Where the French tangled themselves in the rules of art, Johnson’s only principle was truth to life. Voltaire threw up his hands in horreur at Shakespeare’s mingling of tragedy and comedy, kings and clowns. Johnson replies that that is how life is:
Shakespeare’s plays are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination…in which, at the same time, the reveler is hasting to his wine, and the mourner
burying his friend.
Johnson’s own public persona was deeply Shakespearean, one part moralist, the other part stand-up comedian. A Tory in an age of Whig supremacy, he was anything but politically correct. His notorious prejudices were above all provocations to debate. He loved to bait Boswell, his Scotch biographer. Hence the great riff on “noble prospects” of the Scottish landscape:
“I believe, Sir, you have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”
Boswell knew how to take it on the chin: he records that “this unexpected and pointed sally produced a roar of applause.” It’s all in the comic timing.
Johnson lived through an age of financial speculation, unprecedented consumer spending and a rampant press. As has often been remarked, the new power of the press meant that celebrity culture had its origins in the 18th century: the antics of actresses and courtesans filled the gossip columns, while Garrick was the first genuinely international star actor. There were even celebrity criminals, such as Dr William Dodd, who ran out of credit and committed the capital offence of forging a bond in the name of the Earl of Chesterfield. Johnson, who crossed swords with Chesterfield himself over the question of literary patronage, did everything he could on Dodd’s behalf, but there was no reprieve and the execution was a media event as baroque as the obsequies of Jade Goody or Michael Jackson.
It was also an age when the English did a good line in venal politicians. But, unlike some nations, we neither tolerated nor executed them. Thanks to satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, we were just very good at exposing, excoriating and ridiculing them. Johnson’s breakthrough in Grub Street came from his work as a parliamentary sketch writer. Since there were reporting restrictions on what was actually said in parliament, he took to making up the speeches and putting them into the mouths of the Honourable Members. His column in The Gentleman’s Magazine was called “Reports of the Debates in the Senate of Lilliput.”
In 1767 Johnson devoted his Idler magazine to an essay on “The Bravery of the English Common Soldiers.” The French do leadership, the Prussians do military discipline, says Johnson, but what the English do best is courage on the part of the other ranks. The excellence of the British army, he suggests, is forged not on the playing fields of Eton but on the unruly Saturday night streets of our towns and cities:
Whence then is the courage of the English vulgar? It proceeds, in my opinion, from that dissolution of dependence which obliges every man to regard his own character … every man that crowds our streets is a man of honour, disdainful of obligation, impatient of reproach … I do not deny that some inconveniences may from time to time proceed … but good and evil will grow up in this world together; and they who complain, in peace, of the insolence of the populace, must remember, that their insolence in peace is bravery in war.
Remember the boys in Helmand next time you get angry about the brawl outside the pub.
In and around the life and work of Dr Johnson we find many of the things that the English have a right to be patriotic about: our language, our Shakespeare, our refusal to be bullied and bossed around, our sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous, our actors, our gift for biography, our robust opinions and our melancholy realism, our capacity to survive so long as we have a cup of tea.