“My other works are wine and water, but my Rambler is pure wine.”
So Johnson told his friend Samuel Rogers. His estimation must have been bolstered by one of the few recorded remarks left by his wife, Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter, who died in 1752: “I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this.”
Many agree. The two-hundred eight Rambler essays were published on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 1750 to 1752. It’s remarkable to consider that one of the prose monuments of the language, a document that might rightly be sent into outer space to represent our species, started life as a periodical written to deadlines. W. Jackson Bate writes in his life of Johnson:
“Certainly the Rambler essays were written more rapidly and with less leisure to outline, consider, or improve them than the works of any other major moralist. Many were written without even being read over once by him before they were printed.”
I’ve started a nightly regimen of rereading two or three Rambler essays, in sequence, before going to sleep. I’ve always favored closing the day with familiar texts, not as a soporific but an inducement to thought. I like to think before sleep. On rare occasions, what I’ve read appears in a dream (it happened last week when I found myself walking with cloistered monks in robes after reading Aquinas). More often, I wake with the previous night’s reading, at least a phrase or image, percolating in my consciousness.
Friday morning I woke to this passage from Rambler #3 (March 27, 1750):
"The task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them; either to let new light in upon the mind, and open new scenes to the prospect, or to vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions, to spread such flowers over the regions through which the intellect has already made its progress, as may tempt it to return, and take a second view of things hastily passed over, or negligently regarded."
The Rambler essays are a bountiful garden of "such flowers.”
[Go here to read The Rambler 1-54; here for 55-112; here for 171-208.]