Monday, April 15, 2024

'Stimulated to Vigour and Activity'

When John Ruskin (b. 1819) traveled as a boy, his father packed in his luggage four small volumes of Dr. Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays. In his peculiar memoir Praeterita (1885), Ruskin tells us “had it not been for constant reading of the Bible, I might probably have taken Johnson for my model of English,” and continues: 

“I valued his sentences not primarily because they were symmetrical, but because they were just, and clear; it is a method of judgment rarely used by the average public, who ask from an author always, in the first place, arguments in favour of their own opinions, in elegant terms . . .”


Who can imagine the father of an adolescent boy today packing Johnson with his toothbrush and underwear. Even I wouldn’t have done that but it makes sense for an evangelical family of the Victorian era. Johnson’s work might pass as secular scripture. And I agree that most of us can learn from the clarity and forcefulness of his prose.  


Three years after his final Rambler essay was published in 1755, Johnson resumed writing periodical essays in The Idler on April 15, 1758. Boswell tells us his friend wrote some of The Idler essays “as hastily as an ordinary letter.” John Wain in his biography of Johnson says they are “lighter and less ambitious” than The Rambler, which doesn’t seem quite accurate, but he adds: “The firm moral purpose is as evident as it always was, but there is more sense of holiday and fun.” In his first Idler, Johnson writes: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” This is written by the man who had already published “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his Dictionary and the Rambler and Adventurer essays, among much else.


I would distinguish idleness from laziness, though I do recognize a lazy streak in myself. The only antidote is more work, sometimes accomplished only through an act of will. Idleness can be a virtue, especially when contrasted with manic busyness. I like Johnson’s summation:  


“The Idler, though sluggish, is yet alive, and may sometimes be stimulated to vigour and activity. He may descend into profoundness, or tower into sublimity; for the diligence of an Idler is rapid and impetuous, as ponderous bodies forced into velocity move with violence proportionate to their weight.”


Richard Zuelch said...

On Ruskin: In a used bookshop recently, I bought his "Modern Painters" (1843-1860) in the 5-volume Everyman's Library edition (1906).

On Johnson: I'm reading the essay on Johnson in "English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries" by J. W. H. Atkins (1951) as well as the chapter on him by A. R. Humphreys in "The Pelican Guide to English Literature: Volume 4: From Dryden to Johnson," edited by Boris Ford (1957).

I'm also looking forward to receiving in the mail a printing of Johnson's book on his tour of the Scottish Highlands with James Boswell that was published 100 years ago this year.

Must keep the eyeballs busy.

Nige said...

If only Ruskin had taken Johnson as his model of English, rather than the Bible!