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The Idler may be ranked among the best attempts which have been made to render our common newspapers the medium of rational amusement, and it maintained its ground in this character longer than any of the papers which have been brought forward by Colman and others on the same plana. Dr. Johnson first inserted this production in the Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette, April 15, 1758, four years after he had desisted from his labours as an essayist. It would seem probable, that Newbery, the publisher of the Chronicle, projected it as a vehicle for Johnson's essays, since it ceased to appear when its pages were no longer enlivened by the humour of the Idler.
It is well known, that Johnson was not “built of the press and pen b" when he composed the Rambler ; but his sphere of observation had been much enlarged since its publication, and his more ample means no longer suffered his genius to be “ limited by the narrow conversation, to which men in want are inevitably condemned.” “ The sublime philosophy of the Rambler cannot properly be said to have portrayed the manners of the times; it has seldom touched on subjects so transient and fugitive, but has displayed the more fixed and invariable operations of the human
* The Genius was published by Colman in the St. James's Chronicle, 1761, 1762. The Gentleman, by the same author, came out in the London-Packet, 1775. The Grumbler was the production of the Antiquary Grose, and appeared in the English Chronicle, 1791. Owen Feltham.
c Preface to Shakespeare.
heart d.” But the Idler breathes more of a worldly spirit, and savours less of the closet than Johnson's earlier essays; and, accordingly, we find delineated in its diversified pages the manners and characters of the day in amusing variety and contrast.
Written professedly for a paper of miscellaneous intelligence, the Idler dwells on the passing incidents of the day, whether serious or light®, and abounds with party and political allusion. Johnson ever surveyed mankind with the eye of a philosopher; but his own easier circumstances would now present the world's aspect to him in brighter, fairer colours. Besides, he could, with more propriety and less risk of misapprehension, venture to trifle now, than when first he addressed the public.
The World' had diffused its precepts, and corrected the fluctuating manners of fashion, in the tone of fashionable raillery ; and the Connoisseurs, by its gay and sparkling effusions, had forwarded the advance of the public mind to that last stage of intellectual refinement, in which alone a relish exists for delicate and half latent irony. The plain and literal citizens of an earlier period, who conned over what was so nominated in the bond,” would have misapprehended that graceful playfulness of satire, elegant and fanciful as ever charmed the leisure of the literary loungers of Athens. For, in the writings of Bonnel Thornton and Colman, the philosophy of Aristippus may indeed be said to be revived h. We would not, however, be supposed, by these allusions, to imply that all the papers of the Idler are light and sportive; or that Johnson for a moment lost sight of a grand moral end in all his discussions. His mind only accommodated itself to the circumstances in which it was placed, and diligently sought to avail itself of each varying opportunity to admonish and to benefit, whether from the chair of philosophic reproof or in the cheerful, social circle. Whatever faults have been charged upon the Idler may be traced, we conceive, to this source. Nobody at times,
Country Spectator, No. 1.
e Idler, No. 6. The World was published in 1753. & The Connoisseur appeared in 1754.
h See Dr. Drake's Essays, II.
said Johnson, talks more laxly than I do'. And this acknowledged propensity may well be presumed to have affected the humorous and almost conversational tone of the work before us. In the conscious pride of mental might and in the easier moments of conversations, that illuminated the minds of Reynoldsk and of Burke, Johnson delighted to indulge in a lively sophistry which might sometimes deceive himself, when at first he merely wished to sport in elegant raillery or ludicrous paradox. When these sallies were recorded and brought to bear against him on future occasions, irritated at their misconstruction and conscious to himself of an upright intention, or at most of only a wish to promote innocent cheerfulness, he was too stubborn in retracting what he had thus advanced. Hence, when menaced with a prosecution for his definition of Excise in his Dictionary, so far from offering apology or promising alteration, he called, in his Idler, a Commissioner of Excise the lowest of human beings, and classes him with the scribbler for a party! So strange a definition and still less pardonable adherence to it can only be justified on the ground of Johnson's warm feelings for the comfort of the middle class of society. He knew that the execution of the excise laws involved an intrusion into the privacies of domestic life, and often violated the fireside of the unoffending and quiet tradesman. He, therefore, disliked those laws altogether, and his warm-hearted disposition would not allow him to calculate on their abstract advantages with modern political economists, who, in their generalizing doctrines, too frequently overlook individual comfort and interests. His remarks, in the same paper, on the edition of the Pleas of the Crown cannot be thus vindicated, and we must here lament an error in an otherwise honest and well-intentioned mindm. Every impartial reader of his works may thus easily trace to their origin Johnson's chief political errors, and his re
i Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. * See life of Sir Joshua Reynolds, prefixed to his works by Malone, i. 28,&c.
See Idler, No. 65 and Mr. Chalmers' Preface to vol. 33 of the British Essayists.
- See Gentleman's Magazine 1706. p. 272.
search must terminate in admiration of a writer, who never prostituted his pen to fear or favour ; and who, though erroneous often in his estimate of men and measures, still, in his support of a party, firmly believed himself to be the advocate of morality and right. His tenderness of spirit, his firm principles and his deep sense of the emptiness of human pursuits are visible amidst the lighter papers of the Idler, and his serious reflections are, perhaps, more strikingly affecting as contrasted with mirthfulness and pleasantry.
His concluding paper and the on the death of his mother have, perhaps, never been surpassed. Here is no affectation of sentimentality, no morbid and puling complaints, but the dignified and chastened expression of sorrow, which a mind, constituted as Johnson's, must have experienced on the departure of a mother.
A lieart, tender and susceptible of pathetic emotion, as his was, must have deeply felt, how dreary it is to walk downward to the grave unregarded by her “who has looked on our childhood.” Occasions for more violent and perturbed grief may occur to us in our passage through life, but the gentle, quiet death of a mother speaks to us with "still small voice" of our wasting years, and breaks completely and, at once, our earliest and most cherished associations. This tenderness of spirit seems ever to have actuated Johnson, and he is surely greatest when he breathes it forth over the sorrows and miseries of man. Even in his humorous papers, he never wounds feeling for the sake of raising a laugh, nor sports with folly, but in the hope of reclaiming the vicious and with the design of warning the young of the delusion and danger of an example, which can only be imitated by the forfeiture of virtue and the practice of vice. “In whatever he undertook, it was his determined purpose to rectify the heart, to purify the passions, to give ardour to virtue and confidence to truth 0.”
» Idler, No. 41.
CONTENTS OF THE FOURTH VOLUME.