VI. AUTUMN: 1763-80

In 1765 he moved from the Inner Temple to a three-story house at No. 7 Johnson’s Court in Fleet Street; it was named after an earlier resident. There Boswell found him on returning from the Continent. In July he was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Dublin; now for the first time he was Dr. Johnson, but he never attached the title to his name.140

In October, 1765, he issued in eight volumes his edition of Shakespeare, eight years later than he had promised it to his subscribers. He dared to point out faults, absurdities, and childish verbal conceits in the Bard; he censured him for having no moral purpose; he thought that Shakespeare had left “perhaps not one play which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion.”141 But he praised the poet for subordinating the love interest in the greater dramas, and for making his protagonists not heroes but men; and he vigorously defended, against Voltaire, Shakespeare’s neglect of the unities of time and place.142 Critics challenged many of his comments and corrections; the edition was superseded by Edmund Malone’s in 1790; but Malone acknowledged that his own edition was based on Johnson’s, and he overvalued Johnson’s preface as “perhaps the finest composition in our language.”143

In 1767, while visiting Buckingham Palace, Johnson came upon George III; they exchanged compliments. Meanwhile the friendship with Boswell warmed to such a degree that in 1773 Johnson accepted his admirer’s invitation to join him in a tour of the Hebrides. It was a brave undertaking for a man of sixty-four. It began with a long and arduous stagecoach ride from London to Edinburgh. There he met Robertson, but refused to meet Hume. On August 18 he and Boswell and a servant started north in a post chaisealong the east coast to Aberdeen; thence they struck across the rugged Highlands through Banff to Inverness, and then mostly on horseback through Anoch to Glenelg on the west coast. There they tock a boat to the island of Skye, which they toured rather thoroughly from September 2 to October 3. They encountered many hardships, which Johnson took with glum courage; he slept upon hay in barns, evaded vermin, clambered over rocks, and rode with precarious dignity on ponies hardly larger than himself. At one stop a lady of the Macdonald clan sat on his knee and kissed him. “Do it again,” he said, “and let us see who will tire first.”144 On October 3 the party left by open boat for a forty-mile ride to the island of Coll and thence to the island of Mull. They crossed back to the mainland on October 22, and then traveled through Argyllshire via Dumbarton and Glasgow to Auchinleck (November 2). There Johnson met Boswell’s father, who entertained him honorably, though lamenting his anti-Scot prejudices; they had a debate so violent that Boswell refused to record it. Boswell Senior afterward dubbed Johnson “Ursa Major,” which the son gracefully interpreted as meaning not Great Bear but “a constellation of genius and learning.”145 The travelers reached Edinburgh November 9, eighty-three days after leaving it. Looking back upon their hardships, they “heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the specious advantages of a state of nature.” Johnson left Edinburgh November 22, and reached London on the twenty-sixth. In 1775 he published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland; it was not as racy as even the bowdlerized account that Boswell issued in 1785 as A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, for philosophy is less interesting than biography; but some passages146 have a placid beauty that reveal Johnson again as a master of English prose.

On April 1, 1775, Oxford finally came around to giving Johnson the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law. In March, 1776, he moved for the last time, to No. 8 Bolt Court, taking his motley family with him. In a strange mood of exuberance he wrote to the Lord Chamberlain (April 11, 1776) asking for an apartment in Hampton Court Palace: “I hope that to a man who has had the honor of vindicating his Majesty’s government, a retreat in one of his houses may not be improperly or unworthily allowed.”147 The Lord Chamberlain regretted that there was a surfeit of applicants.

One more achievement remained. Forty London booksellers joined in preparing a many-volumed edition of the English poets, and asked Johnson to introduce each poet with a biography. They let him name his terms; he required £200; had he “asked one thousand, or even fifteen hundred guineas,” said Malone, “the booksellers, who knew the value of his name, would doubtless have readily given it.”148 Johnson had thought of writing “little lives”; he forgot that one of the laws of composition is that a pen in motion, like matter in Newton’s first law, continues in motion unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it from without. Of the minor poets he wrote with laudable brevity, but with Milton, Addison, and Pope he let himself go, and wrote essays—of sixty, forty-two, 102 pages—that are among the finest specimens of literary criticism in the English language.

His view of Milton was colored by his dislike of the Puritans, their politics, and their regicide. He read Milton’s prose as well as his verse, and called him “an acrimonious and surly republican.”149 The essay on Pope (which in the original edition ran to 373 pages) was the last blow struck for the classic style in English poetry, by the greatest inheritor of that style in English prose. He, who knew Greek well, supposed that Pope’s translation of the Iliad had improved upon Homer. He praised Gray’s “Elegy,” but dismissed the odes as cluttered with mythological machinery. When the ten volumes of The Lives of the Poets were published (1779-81), some readers were shocked by Johnson’s unorthodox but pontifical judgments, his insensitivity to the subtler graces of poetry, his tendency to rate and berate poets according to the moral tendency of their poems and their lives. Walpole declared, “Dr. Johnson has indubitably neither taste nor ear nor criterion of judgment but his old woman’s prejudices,”150 and laughed at “this weight on stilts,” who “seems to have read the ancients with no view but of pilfering polysyllables.”151 Why, then, are these Lives more widely and fondly read than any other product of Johnson’s pen? Perhaps because of those very prejudices and the candor of their expression. He made literary criticism a living force, and almost raised the dead with his chastisements.

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