Samuel Johnson

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The Rambler, Number 4, Saturday 31 March 1750

This essay shows Johnson’s style at its best. Terse and epigrammatic, learned, yet the sense absolutely clear and available to nearly every reader; and the thought, whilst clear, so deeply penetrating that it is relevant to this day. Comparison with Johnson’s contemporaries will show just how remarkable this is.

Johnson’s address is to the recently published novels of Samuel Richardson (Pamela, 1740-1; Clarissa, 1747-8) Tobias Smollett (The Adventures of Roderick Random, 1748) and Henry Fielding (Joseph Andrews, 1742; Tom Jones, 1749).

Johnson observes that in contrast to the older “heroic romances”, which could use all manner of marvellous expedients to maintain narrative interest, this new “ comedy of romance … brings about natural events by easy means”. As it plausibly represents contemporary common life, it has to be based on “accurate observation of the living world” and so the contemporary readier is able to criticize its veracity, as the shoemaker criticized a sandal ill-painted by Apelles, the Greek master. But Johnson also distrusts the ability of young readers to distinguish truth from falsehood, and as he realizes the power of the new genre to “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence”, he is concerned that the genre must make clear distinctions between vice and virtue so that the young will not be misled. Characters which mix good and bad qualities are dangerous and should be eschewed—and it seems certain Johnson has Tom Jones in view because in it Fielding tells us “not to condemn a character as a bad one because he is not perfectly a good one”. Rather, for Johnson, fictions should show virtue rewarded, as do Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.

The terms of Johnson’s argument will resurface in many essays on the novel in the years that follow, notably those of Sir Walter Scott between 1815 and 1830. Although the word “realism” would not be applied to the novel until 1835, Johnson is already in effect making the disctinction between the “realistic” and the “fantastic”. The conceptual issue he raises about good and bad and mixed characters, and how narratives affirm or reprove certain kinds of behaviour, will continue to exercise critics and film censors until at least the 1960s.

(Robert Clark)

Simul et jucunda et idenea discere Vitae. Horace (1)

And join both profit and delight in one. Creech (2)

The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.

This kind of writing may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comic poetry. Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means, and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder; it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.

I remember a remark made by Scaliger upon Pontanus, (3) that all his writings are filled with the same images; and that if you take from him his lilies and his roses, his satyrs and his dryads, he will have nothing left that can be called poetry. In like manner, almost all the fictions of the last age will vanish, if you deprive them of a hermit and a wood, a battle and a shipwreck.

Why this wild strain of imagination found reception so long, in polite and learned ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that while readers could be procured, the authors were willing to continue it; for when a man had by practice gained some fluency of language, he had no farther care than to retire to his closet, let loose his invention, and heat his mind with incredibilities; a book was thus produced without fear of criticism, without the toil of study, without knowledge of nature, or acquaintance with life.

The task of our present writers is very different; it requires, together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse and accurate observation of the living world. Their performances have, as Horace expresses it, plus oneris, quanto veniae minus, little indulgence, and therefore more difficulty. (4) These are engaged in portraits of which every one knows the original, and can detect any deviation from exactness of resemblance. Other writings are safe, except from the malice of learning, but these are in danger from every common reader; as the slipper ill-executed was censured by a shoemaker who happened to stop in his way at the Venus of Apelles. (5)

But the fear of not being approved as just copiers of human manners, is not the most important concern that an author of this sort ought to have before him. These books are written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

That the highest degree of reverence should be paid to youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears, are precepts extorted by sense and virtue from an ancient writer, by no means eminent for chastity of thought. (6) The same kind, though not the same degree of caution, is required in every thing which is laid before them, to secure them from unjust prejudices, perverse opinions and incongruous combinations of images.

In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men that the reader was in very little danger of making any applications to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellences in common with himself.

But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man, young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing his behaviour and success, to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.

For this reason these familiar histories may perhaps be made of greater use than the solemnities of professed morality, and convey the knowledge of vice and virtue with more efficacy than axioms and definitions. But if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.

The chief advantage which these fictions have over real life is that their authors are at liberty, though not to invent, yet to select objects, and to cull from the mass of mankind, those individuals upon which the attention ought most to be employed; as a diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by art, and placed in such a situation as to display that lustre which before was buried among common stones.

It is justly considered as the greatest excellency of art to imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation: greater care is still required in representing life, which is so often discoloured by passion, or deformed by wickedness. If the world be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the eye immediately upon mankind as upon a mirror which shows all that presents itself without discrimination.

It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character, that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a narrative, that the train of events is agreeable to observation and experience, for that observation which is called knowledge of the world will be found much more frequently to make men cunning than good. The purpose of these writings is surely not only to show mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less hazard; to teach the means of avoiding the snares which are laid by Treachery for Innocence, without infusing any wish for that superiority with which the betrayer flatters his vanity; to give the power of counteracting fraud, without the temptation to practise it; to initiate youth by mock encounters in the art of necessary defence, and to increase prudence without impairing virtue.

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit.

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the art of murdering without pain.

Some have advanced, without due attention to the consequences of this notion, that certain virtues have their correspondent faults, and therefore that to exhibit either part is to deviate from probability. Thus men are observed by Swift to be “grateful in the same degree as they are resentful.” This principle, with others of the same kind, supposes man to act from a brute impulse, and pursue a certain degree of inclination, without any choice of the object; for, otherwise, though it should be allowed that gratitude and resentment arise from the same constitution of the passions, it follows not that they will be equally indulged when reason is consulted; yet unless that consequence be admitted, this sagacious maxim becomes an empty sound, without any relation to practice or to life.

Nor is it evident, that even the first motions to these effects are always in the same proportion. For pride, which produces quickness of resentment, will obstruct gratitude, by unwillingness to admit that inferiority which obligation implies; and it is very unlikely, that he who cannot think he receives a favour, will acknowledge or repay it.

It is of the utmost importance to mankind, that positions of this tendency should be laid open and confuted; for while men consider good and evil as springing from the same root, they will spare the one for the sake of the other, and in judging, if not of others at least of themselves, will be apt to estimate their virtues by their vices. To this fatal error all those will contribute, who confound the colours of right and wrong, and instead of helping to settle their boundaries, mix them with so much art, that no common mind is able to disunite them.

In narratives, where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolution of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shown, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind: wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred. The Roman tyrant was content to be hated, if he was but feared; (7) and there are thousands of the readers of romances willing to be thought wicked, if they may be allowed to be wits. It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts; that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy.

Notes

1 Horace, Ars Poetica 334. “to say what is at once pleasing and helpful to life.”
2. Thomas Creech (1659-1700, translator of Lucretius.
3. Giovanni Pontano Ponatanus (1425-1503). Italian poet criticized by Julius Scaliger (1484-1558) in his Poetics , V. iv. (before 1581). 4. Horace, Epistulae 2, I, 170: “the greater the burden, the less the indulgence”.
5. Apelles, famous painter in 4th C BCE Greece who painted an image of Venus (Aphrodite) rising from the sea which was much described but is now lost. The idea of this image inspired many paintings in the Classical World, and later in the European Renaissance, notably by Botticelli (c. 1485) and by Titian (c. 1520). Pliny’s Natural History 35, 10, recounts the famous tale of how a shoemaker criticised Apelles’ representation of a sandal, and then presumed to criticise the leg. Apelles’ response led to the proverb “Ne sutor ultra crepidan” [Let not the shoemaker go beyond the shoe], or as we now say, “Shoemaker, stick to your last.”
6. Juvenal, Satires, XIV, 48-9.
7. Gaius Caligula, quoting Accius, as reported by Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum IV, xx. 10.

Contributed by Robert Clark.