Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAP. XLIII.

BISHOP WARBURTON AND DR JOHNSON.

6 We were talking the other evening of reviewers ; since that time I have met with a clever article in Blackwood's Magazine relative to the two most distinguished critics of the last century, Bishop Warburton and Dr Johnson. Boswell has immortalized the latter in such a manner, has so softened his dogmatism and rudeness by the friendly admiration with which, if I may use the expression, he has enambered him, that it is impossible to read his work without being persuaded that the Doctor was a very learned, and something too of a wise as well as a good man. As for the Bishop, I suspect it would puzzle you to find a person now alive who, from his own knowledge, can tell you either of the powers or the productions by which he arrogated, while alive, so much pre-eminence to himself. Without the work of Boswell, the fame of the Doctor would rest almost entirely on his own Dictionary, which, though a compilation of considerable industry and acumen, cannot be regarded as any very extraordinary achievement. A few of the Lives of the Poets are highly respectable; Rasselas is a sonorous enough thing of its kind; and some of the papers in the Rambler would obtain insertion in the magazines of the present day. His Tour to the

out the work of the pre-eminence in, he arrogated, Hebrides might also be spoken of as a very creditable work.”

“ My love,” exclaimed the Bachelor, “ what blasphemy is that you are uttering! I shudder with the idea of what might be our fortune, were it possible for " the colossus of learning” to hear you speaking in such a strain.”

"« And knock that fellow and that woman down,'. as Peter Pindar makes him say, would, I doubt not, be the gentlest thing we should hear from him," replied Egeria; “ but, for all that, we ought not to be deterred from speaking the truth, and what I have said is the plain fact. Nevertheless, such is the impression of the Doctor's character, left by the perusal, many years ago, of Boswell's, unequalled. and matchless piece of biography, that I have a strong affection for his surly merits ; for in that work I count him, as it were, a living friend, whom I can occasionally consult. But Warburton,-peace to hïs manes !—I am really malicious enough to wish he were now alive, and subject to the irreverent spirit of modern criticism. How delightful to see such a plethory of arrogance subjected to the bleeding and blistering of the reviews! With all his overweening presumption, however, it would seem that he did possess talent as well as learning; and the ingenious author of the dissertation before me has estimated his abilities, as compared with those of Johnson, with a degree of tact and discrimination that will, perhaps, do as much for his fame as any thing that he himself has or could have written. Of such bugbears it is pleasant to speak

I congaffection force of biograBoswell's unco

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 thë 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

« PreviousContinue »