“You can never be wise until you learn to love reading.”
Greetings, my fellow bibliophiles!
Today, I’m incredibly excited to bring you
!. Henry’s knowledge of literature, genre, and criticism is matched only by the brilliance of his prose. If you are at all a fan of literature, and as readers of I’m sure that you are, you will absolutely love .In the following essay, Henry discusses the author that made him: Samuel Johnson. Enjoy!
Tutorials were normally run in pairs, but we had an odd number in our group, and, by remaining tactically silent during the selection process, I managed to become the only person who got solo tuition that term. And so, from January to March, over eight weeks, I was privileged to choose the authors I wanted to study and to get dedicated time to discussing them with an expert. What else had I gone to study an English degree for? And naturally, I opted to spend two of those weeks on Samuel Johnson. I had read some of his work and was already hooked.
Johnson is, after Shakespeare, the major figure of English literature. Oh Milton and Chaucer and Spenser and Dryden and Wordsworth and whoever else will be claimed,—but no. No. Johnson wrote the dictionary, literally, in seven years, with only a handful of helpers. He was the first editor to restore the text of Shakespeare to its origins. (So many editors had decided they knew better than Shakespeare, and substituted his words.) And, he mastered several mediums: poetry, essays, moral tales, biography, literary criticism. Johnson is canonised in all of these.
He also wrote sermons, legal opinions, journalism, a play, was a Latin scholar, and excelled in conversation—so much so that the famous quotes of his that you read online are just as likely to be from his conversation as from his writings. No other literary figure can claim so much scope, accomplishment, or influence.
Reading Johnson, therefore, is a mighty task. I failed. Sure, I read a good chunk of the poetry, some of the Lives of the Poets, the essays; and I made a running jump at Boswell; I was absorbed by Rasselas. But I was so preoccupied by his prose style, I had to read it all again and again and again. Johnsonian prose opens with sub-clauses, so that a series of elaborations or qualifications are proposed, before the sentence ends, in what is known as the periodic style, on the main idea.
Here, as an example, is the opening of Rasselas, a book that caught my imagination like a fairy-tale during those two marvellous weeks:
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
As well as putting the real information at the end of the sentence—attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia—Johnson uses parallelism: he balances fancy and hope, age and youth, the present and the morrow; he sets up three grand statements, in which the words run fleet like darting shadows in a wood—whispers, eagerness, phantoms, promises, deficiencies—and then he pulls up short, whack!, with some real talk. All that hope and optimism, he implies, is an illusion. Credulity was neatly planted at the start, meaning, as he defined it in the dictionary, easiness of belief. But there are no easy beliefs in Johnson. The final parallel in this sentence is between credulity and the closing clause, warning of disappointments to come.
This is all achieved through a sound knowledge of rhetoric, learned from the Latin he studied as a child. But he perfected it, he brought a whole style of writing to a peak. It acted on me like a vision of greatness. I was in awe.
This mastery of rhetoric—the ability to balance ideas and words so carefully, and thus to juxtapose ideas, leading to sharp conclusions—makes Johnson the great moralist of English literature. Every page contains some declamation, some timeless observation, some wisdom. Some readers find him windy and wordy, pompous and prolix. To me, he is the J.S. Bach of English prose: formal, precise, expansive, universal.
When I became a blogger, my obsession turned into a series of essays. Where was Samuel Johnson in 1745? Was he a sado-masochist? Why was he a late bloomer? What role does he play in Progress Studies? How can he help you make better New Year’s Resolutions? Why did he go and investigate a reported ghost?
What has affected me most though is the question of biography. Johnson is the man who reformed English biography, who made it into a high art. Without his Rambler essays explaining what biography ought to be, and his examples in the Lives of the Poets, we wouldn’t have all the shelves and shelves of wonderful biography that exist today. I subsequently studied for an MA in biography, and my forthcoming book about late bloomers is half a review of social science, half biographical profiles of notable late bloomers. And, of course, Johnson has a chapter all of his own.
But this fascination with biography isn’t, strictly, just a fascination with Johnson. I was mesmerised by the Life of Johnson, written by James Boswell. This is a gargantuan book, stuffed full of letters, conversations, discursions, discussions, anecdotes, snippets, pronouncements, gossip. It it a panorama and a mosaic, a portrait and a curated pile of fragments. It does what biography ought to do, and which no biography has quite done since: it shows you the person, up close, personal, in immense detail.
For many years, I carried round my copy of Boswell. And over time I have come to see Boswell as something of an equal to Johnson, at least as a biographer. Boswell knew what topics to start talking about to get the best from Johnson. He, too, was a vast and vivid individual, just as worthy of his place in the greatest biography ever written. Johnson devised the theory of what biography ought to be—Boswell accomplished it.
Not all of this was discussed in those tutorials, of course. We talked about Johnson’s disregard of Milton and Donne, about the fact that he isn’t a truly great poet, about what I then saw as the boastfulness of Boswell. At the time, I was most interested in poetry, most interested in Johnson as a critic. The more I have read Johnson since, the more I have heard the poetry in his own tones, and seen that what he identified as the core aspect of poetry, “the art of uniting pleasure with truth”, was the centre of all his own work, too.
I have subsequently found that Johnson was the most perspicacious of the literary writers: he knew economics before Adam Smith, could talk with accustomed knowledge about manufacturing, and wrote perceptively about feminism nearly a century before J.S. Mill and Harriet Taylor, saying:
Men know that women are an overmatch for them, and therefore they choose the weakest or the most ignorant. If they did not think so, they never could be afraid of women knowing as much as themselves.
Beyond all this, Johnson was a living sermon of determination: plagued by illness mental and physical; tormented by the idea of hell and the possibility of madness; agitated by his constant struggle for accomplishment and his incapacity for meeting the dreams of his youth; Johnson spent his life resisting depression, living with compulsions and twiches, and searching for money. Living in this way is what made him a great critic. Who else could write this, as a footnote:
When we are young we busy ourselves in forming schemes for succeeding time, and miss the gratifications that are before us; when we are old we amuse the languour of age with the recollection of youthful pleasures or performances; so that our life, of which no part is filled with the business of the present time, resembles our dreams after dinner, when the events of the morning are mingled with the designs of the evening.
His work is a consolation and an encomium, an acceptance and a prayer, encouraging us not to get lost to the dreams after dinner or the designs of the evening, but to fill the business of the present time.
This essay is supposed to be about one book that made me, but there is no one book with Johnson. He is so uniquely ever-present in his work, that where Boswell ends, Johnson’s writing begins. No-one else talks as they write, and writes as they talk, as much as he. With all his rolling pronouncement and proclamations, it is impossible to separate the man from the work. Whether you read Boswell or Johnson, you are in the presence of the great man.
I have become so dogmatically biographical that I see no gap between the book and the man: Johnson is the book.