It will be wise to face at once the charge so often
brought against these writings, that they are dull. 
M. Taine, who somehow got hold of the mistaken idea
that Johnson"s periodical essays are the favourite read- 
ing of the English people, has lent his support to this
charge. Wishing to know what ideas had made Johnson
popular, he turned over the pages of his Dictionary, 
his eight volumes of essays, his biographies, his number- 
less articles, his conversation so carefully collected, and
he yawned. " His truths," says this critic, " are too true, 
we already know his precepts by heart. We learn from
him that life is short, and we ought to improve the few
moments granted us ; that a mother ought not to bring
up her son as a fop ; that a man ought to repent of his
faults and yet avoid superstition ; that in everything we
ought to be active and not hurried. We thank him for
these sage counsels, but we mutter to ourselves that we
could have done very well without them." I will not
continue the quotation. It is clear that M. Taine’s study
of Johnson was limited to a table of contents. What he
says amounts to this that Johnson"s writings are a
treasury of commonplaces ; and in this opinion he cer- 
tainly has the concurrence of a good many of Johnson’s
fellow countrymen, who have either refused to read the
works or have failed after a gallant attempt. 

A commonplace, I take it, is an oft-repeated truth
which means nothing to the hearer of it. But for the
most perfect kind of commonplace we must enlarge this
definition by adding that it means nothing also to the
speaker of it. Now it cannot be denied that Johnson"s
essays are full of commonplace in the first and narrower
sense. When he came before the public as a periodical
writer, he presented the world with the odd spectacle of
a journalist who cared passionately for truth and nothing
at all for novelty. The circulation of The Rambler was
about five hundred copies, and the only number of it
which had a great sale was a paper by Richardson, 
teaching unmarried ladies the advantages of a domestic
reputation and a devout bearing at church as effective
lures for husbands. Johnson"s papers often handle well- 
worn moral themes in general and dogmatic language, 
without any effort to commend them to the reader by
particular experiences. He did not conceal from him- 
self the difficulty of making any impression on the wider
public " a multitude fluctuating in pleasures or im- 
mersed in business, without time for intellectual amuse- 

In many passages of his works he shows a keen
appreciation of the obstacles to be surmounted before
an author can capture the attention and wield the sym- 
pathies of his readers. The chief of these obstacles is
the deep and sincere interest which every author feels in his
own work and which he imagines will be communicated automatically to the reader. 
"We are seldom  tiresome to ourselves." Every book that can be called
a book has had one interested and excited reader. It is
surely a strange testimony to the imperfection of human
sympathy and the isolation of the single mind that some
books have had only one. 

An author’s favourite method of attack in the attempt
to cross the barrier that separates him from his reader
is the method of surprise. The writer who can startle
his public by an immediate appeal to the livelier passions
and sentiments is sure of a hearing, and can thereafter
gain attention even for the commonplace. This method
was never practised by Johnson. He despised it, for he
knew that what he had to say was no commonplace, so
far as he himself was concerned. Among all his dis- 
courses on human life he utters hardly a single precept
which had not been brought home to him by living
experience. The pages of The Rambler, if we can read
them, are aglow with the earnestness of dear-bought
conviction, and rich in conclusions gathered not from
books but from life and suffering.

It is here that the biography of the writer helps us. If he will not come to meet us,
we can go to meet him. Any reader who acquaints himself intimately with the records of Johnson’s
life, and then reads The Rambler, must be very insensible if he does not find it one of the most moving
of books. It was so to Boswell, who says that he could never read
the following sentence without feeling his frame thrill : 

“1 think there is some reason for questioning whether
the body and mind are not so proportioned that the one
can bear all which can be inflicted on the other ; whether^ 
virtue cannot stand its ground as long as life, and whether
a soul well principled will not be separated sooner than

Almost every number of The Rambler contains re- 
flections and thoughts which cease to be commonplace
when the experiences that suggested them are re- 
membered. For more than thirty years of his mature
life Johnson was poor, often miserably poor. There are
three degrees of poverty, he said want of riches, want
of competence, and want of necessaries. He had known
them all. He spoke little of this in his later years ; 
there is no pleasure, he said, in narrating the annals of
beggary. But his knowledge of poverty has expressed
itself more than once in the quiet commonplaces of The
. Again, he was tortured by what he called
indolence, but what was more probably natural fatigue
consequent upon the excessive nervous expenditure of
his bouts of hard work. And this too finds expression
in The Rambler. " Indolence," he says, " is one of the
vices from which those whom it infects are seldom re- 
formed. Every other species of luxury operates upon
some appetite that is quickly satiated, and requires some
concurrence of art or accident which every place will
not supply ; but the desire of ease acts equally at all
hours, and the longer it is indulged is the more increased. 
To do nothing is in every man's power ; we can never
want an opportunity of omitting duties." The topics ol
The Rambler are many, but the great majority of them
are drawn from the graver aspects of life, and it is when
he treats of fundamental duties and inevitable sorrows, 
bereavement, and disease, and death, that Johnson rises
to his full stature. When he ventures to emulate the
tea-table morality of the Spectator he has not a light or
happy touch. Yet his knowledge of the human mind
is not only much more profound than Addison's, it is
also more curious and subtle. In an essay on bashfulness
he first investigates its causes, and finds the chief of
them in too high an opinion of our own importance. 
Then he applies the remedy : 

" The most useful medicines are often unpleasing to
the taste. Those who are oppressed by their own repu- 
tation will, perhaps, not be comforted by hearing that
their cares are unnecessary. But the truth is that no
man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He
that considers how little he dwells upon the condition
of others, will learn how little the attention of others is
attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing
before us, of whom, perhaps, not one appears to deserve
our notice, or excite our sympathy, we should remember
that we likewise are lost in the same throng ; that the
eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in
a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost
which we can reasonably hope or fear is, to fill a vacant
hour with prattle, and be forgotten." 

This is prose that will not suffer much by comparison
with the best in the language. It is strange to remember, 
as we read some of the noblest of Johnson's sentences, 
that they were written in a periodical paper for the enter- 
tainment of chance readers. His essay on Revenge
concludes with an appeal not often to be found in the
pages of a society journal : " Of him that hopes to be
forgiven, it is indispensably required that he forgive. 
It is therefore superfluous to urge any other motive. 
On this great duty eternity is suspended; and to him
that refuses to practice it, the throne of mercy is in- 
accessible, and the Saviour of the world has been born
in vain." 

The passages that I have quoted from The Rambler
are perhaps enough to illustrate what Johnson means
when he speaks, in the last number, of his services
to the English language. "Something, perhaps, I have
added to the elegance of its construction, and something
to the harmony of its cadence." Later criticism has
been inclined to say rather that he subdued the syntax
of his native tongue to a dull mechanism, and taught
it a drowsy tune. But this is unjust. It is true that he
loved balance and order, and that the elaborate rhetorical
structure of his sentences is very ill-adapted to describe
the trivial matters to which he sometimes applies it, such
as the arrival of a lady at a country house:

 "When a tiresome and. vexatious journey of four days had
brought me to the house, where invitation, regularly sent
for seven years together, had at last induced me to pass
the summer, I was surprised, after the civilities of my
first reception, to find, instead of the leisure and tran- 
quillity which a rural life always promises, and, if well
conducted, might always afford, a confused wildness of
care, and a tumultuous hurry of diligence, by which every
face was clouded and every motion agitated."

In a sentence like this, the ear, which has been trained to love
completeness and symmetry, shows itself exorbitant in its
demands, and compels even the accidents of domestic life
to happen in contrasted pairs. The idle antithetical mem- 
bers of the sentence have been compared to those false
knobs and handles which are used, for the sake of sym- 
metry, in a debased style of furniture. But this occasional
fault of the formal Johnsonian syntax is of a piece with
its merits. The sentence is very complex, and when no
member of it is idle, when every antithesis makes room
for some new consideration, it can be packed full of
meaning, so that it exhibits a subject in all its bearings, 
and in a few lines does the work of a chapter. When
Johnson is verbose and languid, it is often because his
subject is slight, and does not yield him matter enough
to fill his capacious style. The syntax is still a stately
organ, fitted to discourse great music, but the bellows are
poor and weak. When his mind gets to work on a sub- 
ject that calls forth all his powers, his vigour and versa- 
tility, displayed within a narrow compass, are amazing. 

-- From Walter Raleigh's Six Essays on Johnson (1910)