A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

13

The age of Johnson

No personality in the history of English literature is more powerful than Samuel Johnson (1709-84). The magnetism of the man reaches us through two channels, that of his own work, and that of the greatest biography in our language by James Boswell (1740-95). The Life of Johnson is strictly outside our immediate period in that it was not published until 1791, well after Johnson’s death. But we cannot ignore it in looking at Johnson; and the fidelity of Boswell’s reportage is such that one can allow it to fill out the picture as naturally as one allows Keats’s letters to colour one’s reading of his poems. Even so one must remember that Boswell’s first meeting with Johnson, in 1763, occurred when Johnson was already fifty-four and had acquired the eminence and freedom from financial cares which it had taken him over thirty years to purchase.

Johnson survives in verbal and visual portraiture at the centre of the famous club which included Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke and Goldsmith. These, and men of the quality of Garrick, Dr Burney and Boswell, gathered round the table to leave behind them a mythology of conversational brilliance in which theme after theme is crowned by the master’s sage and spontaneous virtuosity. The mythology lives because it is genuine; because the famous epigrammatic ripostes enshrine not only superlative common sense but also a fine sense of humour. Ponderous wisdom is made palatable by ironic overstatement, or crisp rhetorical elegance is lavished on a leg-pull. Thus Johnson reacted with unpredictable acuteness to praise of a violinist’s performance. ‘Difficult do you call it, Sir? I wish it were impossible.’ And when Boswell told of attending a Quaker meeting where a woman preached, he said, ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not well done; but you are surprised to

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