« PreviousContinue »
contemptuously. One feels, in so doing, as if one avenged the insolence with which they tyrannized over their contemporaries." .
“ The two greatest men of the last century in our national literature, the greatest in comprehensiveness of mind and variety of talent, were undoubtedly Bishop Warburton and Dr Johnson. For a long period of time, they exercised a kind of joint domination over the republic of letters-a dominion which, in the former, chiefly arose from the bardy and unshrinking defiance of public opinion he exhibited, backed by extraordinary intellectual force and vigour ; and, in the latter, had its origin in the universal awe and veneration his genius and character had excited. In the one, it was a tribute which fear of an immediate consequent castigation compelled all to pay ; in the other, it was an homage more voluntary, because less enforced, to powers of the highest magnitude, and virtue of the most unblemished purity. The one, accounting dissent from his favourite theories as a crime of the blackest dye, punished all non-conformists to the idol he had set up with a most merciless measure of pains and penalties; while the latter, possessing, indeed, not less of haughtiness and irritability, but more of prudence, had the good sense to leave to public opinion his justification against the attacks of his enemies. This joint and equal literary supremacy, notwithstanding that it was occasionally disturbed by frequent murmurings of jealousy in the former, and growlings of fearless opposition in the latter, continued, without being shaken by intestine division, till the former had lost, in inanity and dotage, his great mental acuteness and strength,-and thus the latter had, by the departure of his rival, become the sole literary potentate of his country. Time, however, which as frequently consigns to neglect the meritorious productions of literature, as it showers down an increase of fame on the compositions of deserving genius, has long since quieted the bustle which the pen of Warburton always excited in his lifetime ; and his name, once numbered amongst the mighty of the earth, has been for some time subjected to a partial if not total neglect. As the Roman Catholic church treated the bones of Wickliffe with contumely, whom, living, they could not overcome ; so the public seem determined to revenge upon Warburton, when dead, the contempt they experienced from his haughtiness, and the unwillinglypaid devotion which he enforced to his powers when living. And in the length of time which has elapsed from the period of his decease to the present day, many a kick has been inflicted on the dead lion by animals who could not have dared to approach him while capable of defending and revenging himself. Popular hostility, as well as private, ought, however, to give place to candid examination and allowance; and when exercised against a deserving subject, will only, in the end, reflect disgrace upon itself for an unworthy exercise of power. The fame of Warburton must, therefore, at length experience a renewal of its brightness; and though perhaps shorn of some of its beams, will receive its merited due at the hands of posterity. A very different effect has time had over the fame of his great competitor : its only influence has been in showering down additional lustre on the name of Samuel Johnson, and giving to it that fixed and permanent basis and foundation, which it is only for posterity to bestow. The best proof which can be given of the extensive circulation of his writings, is the visible effect which they have had over literature and criticism; and the incontestable assistance they have afforded to the great march of the human mind: while the works of Warburton stand unnumbered amongst the standard productions
in theology and criticism ; and his great work, the Divine Legation, remains, to use the words of Gibbon, “a monument, crumbling in the dust of the vigour and weakness of the human mind.” As there is, I believe, no writing extant in which the merits of these extraordinary men have been made the subject of comparative criticism, though certainly the most alike in the peculiarities of their mental character of any of the literary worthies of their age, the most equal in force of intellect and universality of power,--an examination and inquiry into their respective talents and characters may not be without its particular benefit. It will, at least, be of use in displaying how far it is possible for abilities the most splendid to seduce their possessor to extravagance in the search for originality; and how transient and momentary is the fame of paradoxical ingenuity, when compared with that which rests on the immobility of established truth !
“ To the peculiar education of Warburton may be ascribed most of the peculiarities of his character. Himself, at first, an obscure provincial attorney, undisciplined in the regular course of academical study ; and refused, when he had even risen to celebrity, a common academical honour; owing none of the varied exuberance of his knowledge to professors or professorships, to universities or colleges; he naturally cherished a secret dislike to the regular disciplinarians of learning ; and it was at once his delight and his pride, to confound the followers of the beaten path of study, by recondite and variously sparkling erudition—to oppose himself to whole cohorts of the standard corps of literature, in the confidence of his own individual power ; to strike out new paths in learning, and open new vistas in knowledge, with the rapidity of an enchanter; to demolish the old and stationary structures of theology and literature, and overturn them from their foun. dations, for the purpose of erecting his own novelties in their stead, which supplied what they wanted of solidity, by speciousness and splendour ; and to dazzle and astound the supporters of established principles and maxims, by combating them with a force of reason, and strength of logic, which was, perhaps, as unexampled as it was audacious. His learning and his mental powers were equally established without assistance, and his haughtiness loved to shew how his inbred mental vigour had triumphed over difficulties. From the same source arose both the excellencies and defects of his character. No pruning hand had ever been exerted to remove the excrescencies which had been generated in his mind, and to tame and sober the wildness and extravagance with which it was so often overshadowed. Thus his intellect rose up in rough and unshorn mightiness, and with it the pullulating seeds of sophistical ingenuity, which grew with its growth and strengthened with its strength, till at last he became an inveterate and radicated system-monger, and his mind a repositary, where every subject in theology, criticism, or literature, had an hypothesis ready prepared for it. Nor less powerful in its influence on his character, was the first reception he met with in literature,—in the universal war, which seemed, at his first rise, to be proclaimed against him. That his innovating and paradoxical spirit should procure him many adversaries, was hardly to be doubted; but, as if the hypotheses he advanced were matter of established belief, he resented every departure from them, as a departure from truth itself; and his ungovernable haughtiness, and impatience of contradiction, flamed out in angry defiance against his opposers, and overwhelmed them with an overpowering torrent of scurrility and abuse, which was served by an inexpungable force of argument, and strengthened by an unequalled promp
titude of wit. From these primary circumstances, his mind received an indelible impression; and from his first advance to greatness, to his last approach to imbecility, he was the same, and unchanged; the same constructor of systems, the same desperate controversialist, the same dogmatical decider, the same determined oppugner of whatever authority had sanctioned in theology, or common sense established in taste. The rea sources of his ingenuity were not exhausted by timethe severity of his pen was not composed by age-and Lowth, on whom his last attack was made, was no less fated than his first antagonist, Tillard, to receive the overflowings of his gall.
“The character of Dr Johnson was, perhaps, not less influenced by external circumstances, but they had much less influence on the purely intellectual part of it. If the early difficulties through which he struggled, in conjunction with the original irritability of his system, gave a strong tinge of morosity to his character, that morosity was not communicated entire and unsoftened to his writings. It did not form a constituent and essential part of his compositions—a kind of perpetual and inseparable quality of the mind ; nor was the same itch for controversy so completely engrafted into, and connected with it. He had not any of that foolish knight-errantry, which leads forth its votaries to renew, in the intellectual arena, the ancient feats of personal prowess and individual strength; and which would sally forth, manfully dealing its blows to the right hand and to the left, careless on whom they fell, and regard. less what side they injured, for no certain purpose, or visible design, save to manifest the mightiness of its own strength. He did not vainly and ridiculously oppose himself to the world; for he well knew, that he who takes the world for his opponent, is sure, in the end, not to win; and that, at last, his consolation will