The Rambler Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Regularly every Tuesday and Saturday during the years 1750 to 1752 Samuel Johnson published one of the more than two hundred essays that make up the RAMBLER. He records in one of the later papers the difficulties a man with his procrastinating temperament had in meeting a regular deadline like this one, and he indicates that many of his brief moralizing works were hastily composed and sent off to the press unrevised. It is thus especially remarkable that his essays give such a uniformly polished, coherent effect. The style is throughout dignified, and balanced, and the arguments of the moral and philosophical dissertations are inevitably clear and logical.

Johnson departed in the RAMBLER from the typical pattern of the popular eighteenth century periodical essay as it was developed by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the TATLER and the SPECTATOR. He considered his role as essayist to be that of teacher, rather than that of entertainer. While he included a number of amusing sketches in his collection, even the most humorous have moral overtones, and the majority of the papers are general comments on human faults and weaknesses. He indicates that some of his readers protested at the prevailing tone of seriousness in his work, but he did not yield to their criticism; it is only in his later groups of essays, the IDLER and the ADVENTURER, that he allowed his mood to mellow and consented to discuss lighter topics in a less lofty style than that of the RAMBLER.

One philosophical theme runs throughout all of the RAMBLER essays, giving unity to the diverse topics Johnson treated, that of the “Vanity of Human Wishes,” the futility of man’s quest for happiness in riches, fame, beauty, success in business, society, marriage, or friendship. Johnson speaks with deep understanding of the way human beings tend to live always in the future, forever hoping for the improvement of their states, improvement that rarely comes. He begins his second essay by remarking that “the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time, now in our power, to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us has been frequently remarked. . . .”

Johnson treated this general theme in a number of different ways, sometimes speaking in the abstract about the nature of fame, hope, or the uses of time, sometimes implying the same conclusions by relating the histories of individuals. He many times created imaginary correspondents whose letters he reproduces without comment, leaving the reader to draw the obvious conclusions.

Cupidus, for example, whose name suggests greed, writes to the Rambler about his long, frustrating wait for riches. The estate that was to be his had been left to his three aunts during their lifetime, and he passed many years in anxious inquiries about the state of their health, fearing that they might marry and leave heirs of their own and despairing of ever gaining his fortune. When the third sister finally died at the age of ninety-four, Cupidus expected to find happiness at last. Yet he confesses at the end of his letter that his joy was short-lived. “I had formed schemes which I cannot execute, I had supposed events which did not come to pass, and the rest of my life must pass in craving solitude, unless you can find some remedy for a mind, corrupted with an inveterate disease of wishing, and unable to think on anything but wants, which reason tells me will never be supplied.”

Another letter relates the tribulations of Victoria, who was raised by her mother to assume that beauty...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)