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13 January, 2012
The Glory Of English Prose|
11. Dr. Johnson
by Coleridge, Stephen
|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
"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.
This seems to me to be the noblest passage that Johnson ever
"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."
Almost all the most magnificent utterances of man are tinged
with sadness. In this they possess a quality that 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
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
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
"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.
From the results of Rasselas he sent his mother money,
but she had expired before it reached her.
"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."
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
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.
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.
"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."
Your loving old