« PreviousContinue »
There is yet another aspect in which Dr. Johnson may be regarded; as belonging to a literary circle, of which he was the main prop and stay. In conjunction with Sir Joshua Reynolds, he had formed a small, but well-selected knot of friends, which, proudly, without any distinctive epithet, was called, or called itself, The Club. It has continued in regular succession, and with no sign of languor or decay, to the present year, preserving in three large folio volumes, authentic annals of its course. Certainly in Dr. Johnson's times at least, it exercised a considerable influence on the literature and public opinion of the day. The year of its foundation was 1764, and the number of original members only nine. That number they increased by degrees to between thirty and forty. They met at first for suppers, but towards 1772, agreed that instead of supping they would dine together once in every fortnight during the Session of Parliament; and such the general rule has since remained. The dinnerhour at that period was, we find, half-past four. The first meeting, however, recorded in their books was not till the 7th of April, 1775, at the Turk's Head, in Gerard Street. When some years afterwards that tavern was closed, they removed to another, but have now for upwards of half a century held their meetings at the Thatched House, St. James's Street. They have no permanent officer besides their Treasurer (at present the Dean of St. Paul's), the Chair being taken by all the members in rotation according to the alphabetical order of their names, and each member being bound by no engagement or necessity to send excuses, but free to the last moment to come or stay away at his pleasure.
Some slight "Curiosities of Literature" may be gleaned from the records of " the Club." Since 1832, all the members present are wont, before they separate, to subscribe their names, but in previous years it was the presiding member only; and on one occasion, the 23rd of April, 1793, when Boswell filled the chair, his signature appears most unlike his usual one, sprawling in blotted zig-zags across the page, and clearly denoting one of those Bacchanalian exces«es (confined, let us hope, to him singly) such as he relates of himself in the isle of Skye.* In contrast with this too convivial scene, may be mentioned one of solitary grandeur. On December 13. 1825, the Earl of Liverpool being then Prime Minister, resolved to dine at the Club. By a singular chance, no other member happened to form the same purpose for that day, and thus Lord Liverpool passed the evening entirely alone. It appears from the books that the Prime Minister summoned to his aid one bottle of Madeira, of which, however, we may be sure that, according to his usual custom, he took but a very moderate share. This,—as a veteran and much respected member writes to me, —" was the day of the great run on the London "Bankers, when Mr. Huskisson said that the whole "financial transactions of England were within half an "hour of being reduced to barter; and the Prime Minister "of England being the only man who dined at the Club "on that day is one of the most singular events that I "know of in personal history." f
Among the original members of the Club, when formed in 1764, were Mr. Burke and Dr. Goldsmith. Among those who joined it within the next twenty years, the span of Johnson's life, were Fox, Sheridan and Windham, Adam Smith and Gibbon, Bishop Percy, and Sir William Scott. To these were added other persons of far less eminence, but of cultivated minds and pleasant manners, able both to call forth and to appreciate the genius of the rest. Such, for example, was Henry Viscount Palmerston, who died in 1*02 ; a man known in the sphere of politics, and deserving also to be known in the sphere of poetry.J
* "A third bowl (of punch) was made, and that, too, was "finished; . . . . but of what passed I have no recollection with "any accuracy. It was near five in the morning when I got to bed. "I awaked at noon with a severe head-ache. About one Dr. "Johnson came into my room and accosted me, — 'What, drunk "' yet ?"' (Tour to the Hebrides, Sept. 1773.)
'f Letter dated February 4. 1852. In another communication the same gentleman adds: "I think there was but one instance in which "only two attended at the Club, — Hookham Frere and Lord « Holland."
J His epitaph on his first wife, who had died of a decline in 1769, is printed in the Annual Register for 1777, but without his name. It thus commences :—
Such was Topham Beauclerk, a man of wit and taste. Such also was Boswell, whose biography of Johnson contains several most spirited and life-like descriptions of the meetings which he had attended. "As we close his "book," says an accomplished critic, "the club-room is "before us." The principle was then and is still, to combine, so far as possible, men of every profession and of every party. Not that the Club has always and invariably done itself honour, either in those whom it has rejected or in those whom it has chosen. A distinguished poet was black-balled in March, 1803. A distinguished statesman was black-balled in April, 1818. One or two examples of injudicious selection might be as readily adduced. Yet upon the whole, the character of the Club has been worthily maintained. Such minds as that of Burke, or that of Johnson, do not indeed appear at every period, and ages may ensue before we look upon their like again; but still, giving due weight to that consideration for the present time, a member of the Club will have little cause to complain of the degeneracy of mankind so long as he enjoys the high privilege of sharing in the converse of Mr. Hallam and Mr. Macaulay, Dean Milman and Bishop Wilberforce, Dr. Holland and Monsieur Van de Weyer, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Aberdeen.
Dr. Goldsmith, the contemporary and friend of Dr. Johnson, seemed a very different person to those who met him at the Club, or in society, and to those who read his books. In the latter we find the most admirable humour blended with tenderness and grace. Such productions as his " Vicar of Wakefield," or "Deserted Village," have wound themselves around the inmost chords of English feeling. In conversation, on the contrary, he seemed to
"Whoe'er like me with trembling anguish brings"His heart's whole treasure to fair Bristol's springs;"Whoe'er like me, to soothe disease and pain,"Shall pour those salutary springs in vain;"Condemned like me to hear the faint reply,"To mark the fading cheek, the sinking eye,"From the chill'd brow to wipe the damps of death,"And watch in dumb despair the shortening breath;
"If chance directs him to this artless line,
"Let the sad mourner know his pangs were mine!"
lose both his presence of mind and his powers of language; while an irritable vanity, ever deeming itself slighted or aggrieved, left him open to many a charge of fretfulness and folly. He would repine because a puppetshow was regarded in his company; he would strut around the room to exhibit on all sides, and to the best advantage, his new bloom-coloured coat. "No man," said Dr. Johnson, " was more foolish when he had not a "pen in his hand." Yet on some rare occasions, Johnson himself might feel the keen edge of his unpremeditated wit. Thus, one day, as they chanced to be discussing the composition of fables, Goldsmith cried, with equal truth and aptness, " Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you "seem to think; for, if you had to write a fable upon "fishes, you would make all your little fishes talk like "whales !"*
As poets it may be said, both of Johnson and of Goldsmith, that they belonged to the school of Pope. Not that men of so much genius could ever be mere imitators. The poetry of each has distinctive signs of its own; that of Johnson being marked especially by vigour and strong sense, and that of Goldsmith by sweetness and grace. Still, however, not merely they, but nearly all the writers of verse at that period, appear to have mainly kept in view the model of the Bard of Twickenham. The common notion seemed to be, that those who deviated from his standard were worthy only of a place in his Dunciad. Few, or none, could catch his spirit, but many adopt his metre or ape his correctness. The tribe of his copyists grew by repetition feebler and feebler, and lower and lower, until it sunk at last to the depth of Mr. Hayley. To this taste or temper of the age there were two most especial exceptions, in the case of Gray and the case of Cowper.
Gray, as the inmate of a hall at Cambridge, as one seldom absent from the schools, might well have been forgiven for adhering implicitly to the common models. Yet his strain of the Welsh Bard, and his snatches from
* Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. iii. p 274. ed. 1839. A few more such instances are drawn out in array by the friendly zeal of Mr. Prior in his valuable biography of Goldsmith, voL ii. p. 479.
the Runic, show with how bold a flight he could soar into the open sky. It is needless to praise where there are none to disapprove. It is striking, however, to observe the beauty of that stanza which he expunged from his "Elegy on a Country Churchyard;"* so that it might almost be said, that even the leavings of Gray are superior to the finished compositions of other men. Again, when we reflect how frequently the invasion of the Roman Empire by the Barbaric tribes has engaged the pen of other writers from Jornandes down to Gibbon, it is worthy of note that so much of eloquence and imagery should remain to be compressed by this poet within the narrow compass of four lines, f
The Life of Cowper, as Mr. Southey with feeling and fidelity portrays it, is one of the most painful in our literary annals. Genius was to him a fatal and an evil gift. His sensitive frame of mind, and his spirits broken since his boyhood, sunk him into melancholy, and sometimes into madness. His circumstances gave him little cause for either. He had advantages of birth, and might have had advantages of fortune. He was grand-nephew of the Chanchellor and Earl of that name. He was trained in a conveyancer's office, and fitted for promotion in the law. Through the influence of his family he soon obtained a lucrative and easy clerkship in the House of Lords. But the mere prospect of having to raise his voice in public drove him to utter distraction and attempts at suicide. He resigned his office, and after a long blank interval of
* "Here scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
"I wonder that Gray could have the heart to omit it," says Lord Byron in his Diary, February 27. 1821.
f " With grim delight the brood of winter view
I was told by Sir Robert Peel that he was consulted by another eminent statesman on his design (from which there was some difficulty in dissuading him) of quoting these noble lines in the House of Commons as applied to the Russian invasion of France in 1814.