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BY NATHAN DRAKE. (1)
As this spirited imitation of Juvenal forms an epoch in our author's literary life, and is one of his best poetical productions, I shall consider it as introductory to an uninterrupted consideration of his compositions in this branch, and to a discussion of his general character as a poet; and this plan I shall pursue with regard to the other numerous departments of literature in which he excelled, and according to the order in which the first in merit of a class shall in succession rise to view; persuaded that, by this mode, the monotony arising from a stricter chronological detail of his various writings, the arrangement hitherto adopted by his biographers, may, in a great measure, be obviated.
Of the three imitators of the third satire of the Roman
poet, Boileau, Oldham, and Johnson, the latter is, by many degrees, the most vigorous and poetical. No man, indeed, was better calculated to transfuse the stern invective, the sublime philosophy, and nervous painting of Juvenal, than our author; and his "London," whilst it rivals the original in these respects, is, at the same time, greatly superior to it in purity of illustration, and harmony of versification. The felicity with which he
(1) [From "Essays, critical and historical, illustrative of the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler:" by Nathan Drake, M. D. Part II. "The Literary Life of Dr. Johnson." 2 vols. 1806.]
has adapted the imagery and allusions of the Latin poem to modern manners, vices, and events; and the richness and depth of thought which he exhibits when the hint is merely taken from the Roman bard, or when he chooses altogether to desert him, are such as to render this satire the noblest moral poem in our language.
At the period when Johnson wrote his "London (')," he must, from his peculiar circumstances, have been prone to imbibe all the warmth and indignation of the ancient satirist, who depicts in the boldest colours the unmerited treatment to which indigence is subjected, and the multiform oppressions arising from tyranny and ill-acquired wealth. He was indeed, at this time, "steeped up to the lips in poverty," and was likewise a zealous opponent of what he deemed a corrupt administration. It is impossible to read the following passage, one of the finest in the poem, and especially its concluding line, which the author distinguished by CAPITALS, without deeply entering into, and severely sympathising with, the feelings and sufferings of the writer :
"By numbers here from shame or censure free,
This, only this, the rigid law pursues,
Wakes from his dream, and labours for a joke;
"Of all the griefs that harass the distress'd,
"Has Heaven reserved, in pity to the poor,
(1) [One of the warmest patrons of Johnson's "London," on its first appearance in 1738, was GENERAL OGLETHORPE; and the Doctor, throughout life, gratefully acknowledged the kind and effectual support which he gave to that poem, though totally unacquainted with its author. The accompanying engraving is made from a pen-and-ink sketch, taken February 28th, 1785, by the late Samuel Ireland, while the General was attending the sale of Dr. Johnson's library at Christie's great room in Pall Mall. The original is in the possession of Mr. Upcott. He died in the July following, in his eighty-fifth year.]
No secret island in the boundless main !
583. "Vanity of Human Wishes."
The "Vanity of Human Wishes," the subject of which is in a great degree founded on the Alcibiades of Plato, possesses not the point and fire which animate the "London. It breathes, however, a strain of calm and dignified philosophy, much more pleasing to the mind, and certainly much more consonant to truth, than the party exaggeration of the prior satire. The poet's choice of modern examples, in place of those brought forward by the ancient bard, is happy and judicious; and he has every where availed himself, and in a style the most impressive, of the solemnity, the pathos, and sublime morality of the Christian code.
To enter into competition with the tenth satire of Juvenal, which is, without doubt, the most perfect composition of its author, was a daring and a hazardous attempt. Dryden had led the way, and, though occasionally successful, has failed to equal the general merit of the Latin poem. The imitation of Johnson, on the contrary, may be said to vie with the Roman in every line, and in some instances to surpass the original; particularly in the sketch of Charles, and in the conclusion of the satire, which, though nobly moral as it is in the page of Juvenal, is greatly heightened by the pen of Johnson, and forms one of the finest lessons of piety and resignation discoverable in the words of any uninspired writer. After reprobating the too frequent folly of our wishes and our prayers, it is inquired of the poet, whether we shall upon no occasion implore the mercy of the skies? He replies :
"Inquirer, cease; petitions yet remain,
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.