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Garrick; and it does not appear that, during those years, David Garrick saw much of his fellow-townsman.
Johnson came up to London precisely at the time when the condition of a man of letters was most miserable and degraded. It was a dark night between two sunny days. The age of patronage had passed away. The age of general curiosity and intelligence had not arrived. The number of readers is at present so great, that a popular author_may subsist in comfort and opulence on the profits of his works. In the reigns of William the Third, of Anne, and of George the First, even such men as Congreve and Addison would scarcely have been able to live like gentlemen by the mere sale of their writings. But the deficiency of the natural demand for literature was, at the close of the seventeenth and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, more than made up by artificial encouragement, by a vast system of bounties and premiums. There was, perhaps, never a time at which the rewards of literary merit were so splendid, at which men who could write well found such easy admittance into the most distinguished society, and to the highest honours of the state. The chiefs of both the great parties into which the kingdom was divided patronized literature with emulous munificence. Congreve, when he had scarcely attained his majority, was rewarded for his first comedy with places which made him independent for life ... Rowe was not only Poet-Laureate, but also Land-Surveyor of the Customs in the Port of London, Clerk of the Council to the Prince of Wales, and Secretary of the Presentations to the Lord Chancellor ... Locke was Commissioner of Appeals and of the Board of Trade. Newton was Master of the Mint. Stepney and Prior were employed in embassies of high dignity and importance. Gay, who commenced life as apprentice to a silk-mercer, became a Secretary of Legation at five-and-twenty ... Swift, but for the unconquerable prejudice of the Queen, would have been a bishop. Oxford, with his white staff' in his hand, passed through the crowd of his suitors to wel. come Parnell, when that ingenious writer deserted the Whigs. Steele was a Commissioner of Stamps and a Member of Parliament. Arthur Mainwaring was a Commissioner of the Customs and Auditor of the Imprest. Tickell was Secretary to the Lords Justices of Ireland. Addison was Secretary of State.
This liberal patronage was brought into fashion, as it seems, by the magnificent Dorset, almost the only noble versifier in the court of Charles the Second, who possessed talents for composition which were independent of the aid of a coronet. Montague owed his elevation to the favour of Dorset, and imitated, through the whole course of his life, the liberality to which he was himself so greatly indebted. The Tory leaders, Harley and Bolingbroke, in particular, vied with the chiefs of the Whig party in zeal for the encouragement of letters. But soon after the accession of the House of Hanover a change took place. The supreme power passed to a man who cared little for poetry or eloquence. The importance of the House of Commons was constantly on the increase. The
government was under the necessity of bartering, for Parliamentary support, much of that patronage which had been employed in fostering literary merit; and Walpole was by no means inclined to devote any part of the fund of corruption to purposes which he considered as idle. He had eminent talents for government and for debate. But he had paid little attention to books, and felt little respect for authors. He had observed that some of the distinguished writers whom the favour of Halifax had turned into states. men, had been
mere incumbrances to their party, dawdlers in office, and mutes in Parliament. During the whole course of his administration, therefore, he scarcely befriended a single man of genius. The best writers of the age gave all their support to the Opposition, and contributed to excite that discontent which, after plunging the nation into a foolish and unjust war, overthrew the Minister to make room for men less able and equally immoral. The Opposition could reward its eulogists with little more than promises and caresses. St. James's would give nothing ; Leicester House had nothing to give.
Thus, at the time when Johnson commenced his literary career, a writer had little to hope from the patronage of powerful individuals. The patronage of the public did not yet furnish the means of comfortable subsistence. The prices paid by booksellers to authors were so low, that a man of considerable talents and unremitting industry could do little more than provide for the day which was passing over him. The lean kine had eaten up the fat kine. The thin and withered ears had devoured the good
The season of rich harvests was over, and the period of famine had begun. All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. That word denoted a creature dressed like a scare-crow, familiar with compters* and spunginghouses, and perfectly qualified to decide on the comparative merits of the Common Side in the King's Bench prison and of Mount Scoundrel in the FleetEven the poorest pitied him: and they well might pity him: for, if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute. To lodge in a garret up four pair of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footmen out of place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub-street to St. George's-fields, and from St. George's-fields to the alleys behind St. Martin's-church; to sleep on a bulk in June, and amidst the ashes of a glass-house in December ; to die in an hospital and be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kit-cat or the Scriblerus club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been entrusted with embassies to the High Allies--who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albemarle-street or in Paternoster-row.
* i. e., one accustomed to borrow money of bill-discounters. “ Spunginghouses,” now happily abolished, were places whither persons arrested for debt were taken, in order to try to find bail for the amount for which they were sued, being meanwhile compelled to submit to the most exorbitant charges.
t i. e., as to the comparative merits of the lowest parts of the two prisons. The “Fleet” is now abolished and destroyed.
As every climate has its peculiar diseases, so every walk of life has its peculiar temptations. The literary character, assuredly, has always had its share of faults, vanity, jealousy, morbid sensibility. To these faults were now superadded the faults which are com. monly found in men whose livelihood is precarious, and whose principles are exposed to the trial of severe distress. All the vices of the gambler and of the beggar were blended with those of the author. The prizes in the wretched lottery of book-making were scarcely less ruinous than the blanks. If good fortune came, it came in such a manner that it was almost certain to be abused. After months of starvation and despair, a full third night* or a well-received dedication filled the pocket of the lean, ragged, unwashed poet with guineas. He hastened to enjoy those luxuries with the images of which his mind had been haunted while he was sleeping amidst the cinders, and eating potatoes at the Irish ordinary in Shoe-lane. A week of taverns soon qualified him for another year of night-cellars. Such was the life of Savage, of Boyce, and of a crowd of others. Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats ; sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn;
sometimes standing at the window of an eatinghouse in Porridge Island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste; they knew luxury; they knew beggary; but they never knew comfort. These men were irreclaimable. They looked on a regular and frugal life with the same aversion which an old gipsy or a Mohawk hunter feels for a stationary abode, and for the restraints and securities of civilized communities. They were as untamable, as much wedded to their desolate freedom, as the wild ass. They could no more be broken into the offices of social man than the unicorn could be trained to serve and abide by the crib. It was well if they did not like beasts of a still fiercer race, tear the hands which ministered to their necessities. To assist them was impossible ; and the most benevolent of mankind at length became weary of giving relief which was dissipated with the wildest profusion as soon as it had been received. If a sum was bestowed on the wretched adventurer, such as, properly hus. banded, might have supplied him for six months, it was instantly spent in strange freaks of sensuality ; and before forty-eight hours had elapsed, the poet was again pestering all his acquaintance for
* It was customary for the writer of a successful piece to receive the profits of the third night's performance as the first instalment of his remuneration, and, if it continued to occupy the stage, of the sixth and ninth nights, and frequently of several more, In latter times, plays are frequently bonght at once.
twopence to get a plate of shin of beef at a subterraneous cookshop. If his friends gave him an asylum in their houses, those houses were forthwith turned into taverns. All order was destroyed; all business was suspended. The most good-natured host began to repent of his eagerness to serve a man of genius in distress, when he heard his guest roaring for fresh punch at five o'clock in the morning.
A few eminent writers were more fortunate. Pope had been raised above poverty by the active patronage which, in his youth, both the great political parties had extended to his Homer. Young had received the only pension ever bestowed, to the best of our recollection, by Sir Robert Walpole, as the reward of mere literary merit. One or two of the many poets who attached themselves to the Opposition, Thomson in particular, and Mallet, obtained, after much severe suffering, the means of subsistence from their political friends. Richardson, like a man of sense, kept his shop; and his shop kept him, which his novels, admirable as they were, would scarcely have done. But nothing could be more deplorable than the state, even of the ablest men, who at that time depended for subsistence on their writings. Johnson, Collins, Fielding, and Thomson, were certainly four of the most distinguished persons that England produced during the eighteenth century. It is well known that they were all four arrested for debt.
Into calamities and difficulties such as these Johnson plunged in his twenty-eighth year. From that time till he was three or four and fifty, we have little information respecting him-little, we mean, compared with the full and accurate information which we possess respecting his proceedings and habits towards the close of his life. He emerged at length from cock-lofts and sixpenny ordinaries into the society of the polished and the opulent. His fame was established. A pension, sufficient for his wants, had been conferred on him ; and he came forth to astonish a generation with which he had almost as little in common as with Frenchmen or Spaniards.
In his early years he had occasionally seen the great; but he had seen them as a beggar. He now came among them as a companion. The demand for amusement and instruction had, during the course of twenty years, been gradually increasing. The price of literary labour had risen ; and those rising men of letters with whom Johnson was henceforth to associate were for the most part persons widely different from those who had walked about with him all night in the streets for want of a lodging. Burke, Robertson, the Wartons, Gray, Mason, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Beattie, Sir William Jones, Goldsmith, and Churchill, were the most distinguished writers of what may be called the second generation of the Johnsonian age. Of these men, Churchill was the only one in whom we can trace the stronger lineaments of that character which, when Johnson first came up to London, was common among authors. Of the rest, scarcely any had felt the pressure of severe poverty. Almost all had been early admitted into the most respectable society on an equal footing. They were men of quite a different species from the dependents of Curll and Osborne.
Johnson came among them the solitary specimen of a past age, the last survivor of the genuine race of Grub-street hacks; the last of that generation of authors whose abject misery and whose dissolute manners_had furnished inexhaustible matter to the satirical genius of Pope. From nature he had received an uncouth figure, a diseased constitution, and an irritable temper. The manner in which the earlier years of his manhood had been passed had given to his demeanour, and even to his moral character, some peculiarities appalling to the civilized beings who were the companions of his old age. The perverse irregularity of his hours, the slovenliness of his person, his fits of strenuous exertion, interrupted by long intervals of sluggishness, his strange abstinence, and his equally strange voracity, his active benevolence, contrasted with the constant rudeness and the occasional ferocity of his manners in society, made him, in the opinion of those with whom he lived during the last twenty years of his life, a complete original. An original he was, undoubtedly, in some respects; but, if we possessed full information concerning those who shared his early hardships, we should probably find that what we call his singularities of manner were, for the most part, failings, which he had in common with the class to which he belonged. He ate at Streatham-park* as he had been used to eat behind the screen at St. John's-gate,t when he was ashamed to show his ragged clothes. He ate, as it was natural that a man should eat, who, during a great part of his life, had passed the morning in doubt whether he should have food for the afternoon. The habits of his early life had accustomed him to bear privation with fortitude, but not to taste pleasure with moderation. He could fast; but, when he did not fast, he tore his dinner like a famished wolf, with the veins swelling on his forehead, and the perspiration running down his cheeks. He scarcely ever took wine ; but, when he drank it, he drank it greedily and in large tumblers. These were, in fact, mitigated symptoms of that same moral disease which raged with such deadly malignity in his friends, Savage and Boyce. The roughness and violence which he showed in society were to be expected from a man whose temper, not naturally gentle, had been long tried by the bitterest calamities, by the want of meat, of fire, and of clothes, by the importunity of creditors, by the insolence of booksellers, by the derision of fools, by the insincerity of patrons, by that bread which is the bitterest of all food, by those stairs which are the most toilsome of all paths, by that deferred hope which makes the heart sick. Through all these things the illdressed, coarse, ungainly pedant had struggled manfully up to
* The abode of Mr. and Mrs. Thrale.
† In Clerkenwell. The chair in which Dr. Johnson used to sit is still shown in the room of this interesting station of the Knights of St. John, long since converted into a tavern and assembly-house.