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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 11386

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

I have come now to Dr. Johnson, and it is almost a test of a true man of letters that he should love him.

He was rugged and prejudiced, but magnanimous; impatient with the presumptuous, tender to modest ignorance, proudly independent of the patronage of the great, and was often doing deeds of noble self-sacrifice by stealth.

Through long years of hard, unremitting toil for his daily bread he lived bravely and sturdily, with no extraneous help but his stout oak stick-an unconquerable man.

His prose rises on occasion to a measured and stately grandeur above the reach of any of his contemporaries.

It was not often that he unveiled to the public gaze the beatings of his own noble heart, or invited the world to contemplate the depression and suffering amid which his unending labours were accomplished.

The concluding page of the preface to the first edition of the great Dictionary is, therefore, the more precious and moving. I know not why this majestic utterance came to be deleted in later editions; certainly it sanctifies, and as it were crowns with a crown of sorrow, the greatest work of his life; and with reverent sympathy and unstinted admiration I reproduce it here:-

"Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot ultimately be defeated: tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration: we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.

"In hope of giving longevity to that which its own nature forbids to be immortal, I have devoted this book, the labour of years, to the honour of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology to the nations of the continent. The chief glory of every people arises from its authors; whether I shall add anything by my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left to time: much of my life has been lost under the pressure of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me; but I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.

"When I am animated by this wish, I look with pleasure on my book, however defective, and deliver it to the world with the spirit of a man that has endeavoured well. That it will immediately become popular I have not promised to myself: a few wild blunders and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance in contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never can be wanting some, who distinguish desert, who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he whose design includes whatever language can express must often speak of what he does not understand; that a writer will sometimes be hurried by eagerness to the end, and sometimes faint with weariness under a task which Scaliger compares to the labours of the anvil and the mine; that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present; that sudden fits of inadvertency will surprise vigilance, slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain trace his memory at the moment of need for that which yesterday he knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his thoughts to-morrow.

"In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns, yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow; and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied critics of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its economy, and give their second editions another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude what would it avail me?

"I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds; I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise."

This seems to me to be the noblest passage that Johnson ever wrote.

Almost all the most magnificent utterances of man are tinged with sadness. In this they possess a quality t

hat is almost inseparable from grandeur wherever displayed. No man of sensibility and taste feels it possible to make jokes himself, or to tolerate them from others when in the presence of the Falls of Niagara, or a tempest at sea, or when he views from a peak in the Andes-as I have done-the sun descent into the Pacific. The greatest pictures painted by man touch the heart rather than elate it; and genius finds its highest expression not in comedy, but in tragedy.

And this need cause us no surprise when we consider how much of the great work in letters and in art is directly due to the writer possessing in full measure the gift of sympathy.

People with this gift, even if they are without the faculty of expression, are beloved by those about them, which must bring them happiness.

Till he was over fifty Dr. Johnson's life was a weary struggle with poverty. He wrote Rasselas under the pressure of an urgent need of money to send to his dying mother. His wife died some few years earlier. I have always thought that the sad reflections he put into the mouth of an old philosopher towards the end of the story were indeed the true expressions of his own tired heart:-

"Praise," said the sage with a sigh, "is to an old man an empty sound. I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake the honours of her husband.

"I have outlived my friends and my rivals. Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself. Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended; but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection or esteem. Something they may take away, but they can give me nothing. Riches would now be useless, and high employment would be pain. My retrospect of life recalls to my view many opportunities of good neglected, much time squandered upon trifles, and more lost in idleness and vacancy. I leave many great designs unattempted, and many great attempts unfinished.

"My mind is burdened with no heavy crime, and therefore I compose myself to tranquillity; endeavour to abstract my thoughts from hopes and cares, which, though reason knows them to be vain, still try to keep their old possession of the heart; expect, with serene humility, that hour which nature cannot long delay; and hope to possess, in a better state, that happiness which here I could not find, and that virtue which here I have not attained."

From the results of Rasselas he sent his mother money, but she had expired before it reached her.

Down to the time of Dr. Johnson it was the custom for writers of books and poems to seek and enjoy the patronage of some great nobleman, to whom they generally dedicated their works.

And in pursuance of that custom Dr. Johnson, when he first issued the plan or prospectus of his great Dictionary in 1747, addressed it to Lord Chesterfield, who was regarded as the most brilliant and cultivated nobleman of his time. Lord Chesterfield, however, took no notice of the matter till the Dictionary was on the point of coming out in 1755, and then wrote some flippant remarks about it in a publication called The World.

At this Dr. Johnson wrote a letter to the condescending peer, which became celebrated throughout England and practically put an end to writers seeking the patronage of the great.

This wonderful letter concludes thus:-

"Seven years, my lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.

"The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

"Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

"Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my lord,-your lordship's most humble, most obedient servant. SAM. JOHNSON."

Boswell's life of Dr. Johnson when you come to read it, as you will be sure to do by and by, has left a living picture of this great and good man for all future generations to enjoy, extenuating nothing to his quaintness, directness, and proneness to contradiction for its own sake, yet unveiling everywhere the deep piety and fine magnanimity of his character. He suffered much, but never complained, and certainly must be numbered among the great men of letters who have found true consolation and support in every circumstance of life in an earnest and fervent faith.

Your loving old


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