Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1551

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...

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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 was the single goal to be achieved in life; she spent her childhood in learning the accomplishments of a lady of fashion and protecting her complexion and her figure, and she was duly introduced to society, where she was flattered and fussed over until she contracted smallpox. When she recovered, she found that her looks, and with them all the attention she had had in the past, had vanished. She writes that she now realizes the necessity for valuing more permanent qualities than beauty; time would have banished her fair appearance if disease had not.

In addition to numerous letters such as these, Johnson wrote several Oriental fables, similar to his RASSELAS, to illustrate his moral themes. He tells of Obidah, a Near Eastern gentleman who set forth across a beautiful plain one morning, following those paths that seemed to him loveliest, confident that they led him in the direction of the main road toward his destination, and then discovered that he was hopelessly lost. This tale illustrates, as the hermit who rescued Obidah and sent him on his way, says: “Human life is the journey of a day. We rise in the morning of youth, full of vigour and full of expectation; we set forward with spirit and hope . . . and travel on a while in the straight road of piety towards the mansions of rest.” Gradually we are drawn away from this road by our search for ease and pleasure, until “the darkness of old age begins to invade us, and disease and anxiety obstruct our way. We then look back upon our lives with horror, with sorrow, with repentance; and wish, but too often vainly wish, that we had not forsaken the ways of virtue.” Other fables point up the folly of trusting in wealth to provide loyal friends or popularity, the advantages of moderate wants, and the impossibility of trusting absolutely in anyone but God.

Although such themes as these recur most often in the RAMBLER, Johnson dealt with a number of other subjects as well. He devotes several essays to marriage and the problems of those alliances based on wealth, social position, or even on affection that rested on insufficient knowledge of character. He also treats the follies of the housewife who has no interests but in her pies and her embroidery, of the mother who is so anxious to be the center of society that she is violently jealous of her own growing daughter, of the London belle who longs for the idyllic quiet of the countryside, then finds that she has no inner resources for amusing herself when she is removed from balls, card games, plays, and concerts. These brief, witty character sketches, in which Johnson most resembles Addison and Steele, provide welcome light intervals in otherwise serious volumes.

There is, interspersed throughout the RAMBLER, a considerable number of essays that contain serious literary criticism. One of the first of these works, a discussion of the writing of fiction, sets forth Johnson’s conviction that literature has an important didactic function. He points out the dangers he sees in the modern novel, which is aimed primarily at impressionable young people. Since this kind of work is as true to life as its author can make it, its characters are apt to be taken as models by youthful readers. Johnson is particularly disturbed by the tendency to present characters who combine large measures of both virtue and vice: “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 excellences; 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.”

Johnson wrote several highly technical essays on Milton’s versification in PARADISE LOST, pointing out the genius and the flaws in the sounds of his words, the cadences of his lines, and his handling of technical problems of metrics. Of greater interest than these specialized discussions is Johnson’s critical analysis of Milton’s blank verse tragedy, SAMSON AGONISTES. He praises the poem for its wisdom, its moral tone, and the beauty of many of the passages, but he feels that it fails to fulfill Aristotle’s principle that the action of a drama must lead inevitably to the catastrophe. Johnson contends that the scenes with Manoa, Delilah, and Harapha that compose the body of Milton’s play have no real bearing on the conclusion and that consequently, in spite of its virtues, the drama is a failure.

Johnson concluded the RAMBLER papers with a statement of what he felt he had accomplished in his essays, freely admitting that the nature of the publication made unevenness in the quality of various selections inevitable. He expresses the hope that he has been able in his works to “refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations,” and that he has “added to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence.”

He makes no apology for the prevailing tone of seriousness; his “principal design,” he states firmly, was “to inculcate wisdom or piety.” He sees his papers on “the idle sports of imagination” and his literary criticism as distinctly subordinate to the moral essays, and he concludes with his desire that he may be “numbered among the writers who have given ardour to virtue, and confidence to truth.”

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