G.K. Chesterton


This essential comedy of Johnson's character is one which has never, oddly enough, been put upon the stage. There was in his nature one of the unconscious and even agreeable contradictions loved by the true comedian. It is a contradiction not at all uncommon in men of fertile and forcible minds. I mean a strenuous and sincere belief in convention, combined with a huge natural inaptitude for observing it. Somebody might make a really entertaining stage-scene out of the inconsistency, while preserving a perfect unity in the character of Johnson. He would have innocently explained that a delicacy towards females is what chiefly separates us from barbarians with one foot on a lady's skirt and another through her tambour-frame. He would prove that mutual concessions are the charm of city life, while his huge body blocked the traffic of Fleet Street: and he would earnestly demonstrate the sophistry of affecting to ignore small things, with sweeping gestures that left them in fragments all over the drawing-room floor. Yet his preaching was perfectly sincere and very largely right. It was inconsistent with his practice; but it was not inconsistent with his soul, or with the truth of things. 


In passing, it may be said that many sayings about Johnson have been too easily swallowed because they were mere sayings of his contemporaries and intimates. But most of his contemporaries, as was natural, saw him somewhat superficially ; and most of his intimates were wits, who would not lose the chance of an epigram. In one instance especially I think they managed to miss the full point of the Johnsonian paradox, the combination of great external carelessness with considerable internal care. I mean in those repeated and varied statements of Boswell and the others that Johnson "talked for victory." This only happened, I think, when the talk had already become a fight; and every man fights for victory. There is nothing else to fight for. It is true that towards the end of an argument Johnson would shout rude remarks; but so have a vast number of the men, wise and foolish, who have argued with each other in taverns. The only difference is that Johnson could think of rather memorable remarks to shout. I fancy his friends sometimes blamed him, not because he talked for victory, but because he got it. If the idea is that his eye was first on victory and not on truth, I know no man in human history of whom this would be more untrue. Nothing is more notable in page after page of Boswell's biography than the honest effort of Johnson to get his enormous, perhaps elephantine, brain to work on any problem however small that is presented to it, and to produce a sane and reliable reply. On the maddest stretch of metaphysics or the most trivial trouble of clothes or money, he always begins graciously and even impartially. The mountain is in travail to bring forth the mouse so long as it is a live mouse. 


The legend yet alive connects Samuel Johnson chiefly with his Dictionary; and there is a sense in which the symbol is not unfit. In so far as a dictionary is dead and mechanical it is specially inadequate to embody one of the most vital and spirited of human souls. Even in so far as a dictionary is serious it is scarce specially appropriate ; for Johnson was not always formally serious ; was sometimes highly flippant and sometimes magnificently coarse. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Johnson was like a dictionary. He took each thing, big or small, as it came. He told the truth, but on miscellaneous matters and in an accidental order. One might even amuse oneself with making another Johnson s Dictionary of his conversation, in the order of A, B and C. "Abstain; I can, but not be temperate. Baby; if left alone in tower with. Catholics ; harmlessness of doctrines of," and so on. No man, I think, ever tried to make all his talk as accurate and not only as varied as a dictionary. But then in his Dictionary there was no one to contradict him. And here we find again the true difference between the Works and the Life. 


Johnson, it may be repeated, was a splendidly sane man who knew he was a little mad. He was the exact opposite of the literary man of proverbial satire ; the poet of Punch and " the artistic temperament." He was the very opposite of the man who rejoices with the skylark and quarrels with the dinner; who is an optimist to his publisher, and a pessimist to his wife. Johnson was melancholy by physical and mental trend ; and grew sad in hours of mere, expansion and idleness. But his unconquerable courage and commonsense led him to defy his own temperament in every detail of daily life; so that he was cheerful in his conversation and sad only in his books. Had Johnson been in the place of the minor poet of modern satire, his wife and his cook would have had all his happiness. The sky lark would have had to bear all his depression ; and would probably have borne it pretty well. 


It is for this reason that ever since the great Boswellian revelation (one might almost say apocalypse) every one must feel such works as the Vanity of Human Wishes as insufficient or even conceivably monotonous. We are alone with the shades of the great mind; without allowing for the thousand lights of laughter, encouragement and camaraderie which he perpetually permitted to play over them and dispel them; we are in some sense seeing the battle without waiting for the victory. And in this connection, as in many others, we are prone to forget one very practical consideration ; that a poet, or a symbolic romancer, will generally tend to describe not so much the mental attitudes which he seriously thinks right, as those which are so temperamentally tied on to him, that he knows he can describe them well. Merely as an artist, he is less troubled about the truth, than about whether he can tell it truly. And it was hard if Johnson could not get something out of some of his black hours. 


There is another cause that makes his works, as it were, a little monochrome in comparison with the rattling kaleidoscope of his conversations. I mean the fact, very characteristic of his century, and very uncharacteristic of our own, that if he had essential intellectual injustices (and he had one or two), he did not set out to have them. With the pen positively in his hand, he felt like a judge, as if he had the judge's wig on his head. It required social collision and provocation to sting him into some of those superb exaggerations, things that were the best he ever said, but things that he never would have written. It was that eighteenth-century idea of a responsible and final justice in the arts. Our own time has run away from it, as it has run away from all the really virile and constructive parts of Rationalism, retaining only a few fragments of its verbalism and its historical ignorance. 


For all these reasons it is difficult to keep Johnson's actual literary works in a proper prominence among all the facts and fables about him; just as it might be difficult successfully to exhibit six fine etchings or steel engravings among all the gorgeous landscapes or gaudy portraits of the Royal Academy. But if people infer that the etchings and engravings are not good of their kind, then they are very much mistaken. All these Johnsonian etchings fulfil the best artistic test of etching; they are very thoroughly in black and white. All these steel engravings are really steel engravings; they are graven by a brain of steel. What Macaulay said about Johnson in this respect is both neat and true: unlike most of the things he said about Johnson, which were neat and false. Macaulay not only understood Johnsonian criticism, but he foresaw most modern criticism, when he said that the Doctor s comments always at least meant something. He belonged to an age and school that loved to be elaborately lucid; but one must mean something to be able to explain it six times over. Many a modern critic, called delicate, elusive, reticent, subtle, individual, has gained this praise by saying something once which anyone could see to be rubbish if he had said it twice.


It is with some such considerations that the modern reader should sit down to enjoy the very enjoyable Rasselas or the still more enjoyable Lives of the Poets. He must get rid of the lazy modern legend that whenever Johnson decides he dogmatizes, and that whenever he dogmatizes he bullies. He must be quit of the commonplace tradition that when Johnson uses a long word he is using a sort of scholastic incantation more or less analogous to a curse. He must put himself into an attitude adequately appreciative of the genuine athletics of the intellect in which these giants indulged. Never mind whether the antithesis seems forced; enquire how many modern leader-writers would have been able to force it. Never mind whether the logic seems to lead a man to the right conclusion; ask how many modern essayists have enough logic to lead them anywhere. Wisdom doubtless is a better thing than wit; but when we read the rambling polysyllables of our modern books and magazines, I think it is much clearer that we have lost the wit than it is that we have found the wisdom, 


If we pass from the style to the substance of Johnson's criticisms, we find a further rebuke to our own time. The fallacy in the mere notion of progress or " evolution" is simply this; that as human history really goes one has only to be old-fashioned long enough to be in the very newest fashion. If there were a lady old enough and vain enough to wear an Empire dress since the marriage of Marie Louise, she would have had the first and nearest adumbration of a hobble skirt. If one ancient polytheist had survived long enough he might have lived to hear an Oxford don say to me at a dinner-party that perhaps we are not living in a Universe, but in a Multiverse. This same law, that by lagging behind the times one can generally get in front of them; has operated to the advantage of Johnson. Johnson happened to grow up in an old tradition in the early eighteenth century, before his friend Garrick and others had made the great Shakespeare boom. He therefore wrote of Shakespeare just as if Shakespeare had been a human being; and has been reviled ever since for his vandalism and lack of imagination. In our own time, however, we have seen Mr. Bernard Shaw clinging to the pedestal of Johnson as Caesar to that of Pompey; and protesting (with an exactly typical combination of impudence and truth) that he, Bernard Shaw, is the old classical critic, and has only been carrying on out of the eighteenth century, the old classical criticism of Shakespeare. It is well to take this thought through our excursions into The Lives of the Poets. Every comment is lucid; do not be in haste to call any comment antiquated ; you never know when it will be new. 



For Johnson is immortal in a more solemn sense than that of the common laurel. He is as immortal as mortality. The world will always return to him, almost as it returns to Aristotle; because he also judged all things with a gigantic and detached good sense. One of the bravest men ever born, he was nowhere more devoid of fear than when he confessed the fear of death. There he is the mighty voice of all flesh ; heroic because it is timid. In the bald catalogue of biography with which I began, I purposely omitted the deathbed in the old bachelor house in Bolt Court in 1784. That was no part of the sociable and literary Johnson but of the solitary and immortal one. I will not say that he died alone with God, for each of us will do that; but he did in a doubtful and changing world what in securer civilizations the saints have done. He detached himself from time as in an ecstasy of impartiality; and saw the ages with an equal eye. He was not merely alone with God; he even shared the loneliness of God, which is love.