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These political allusions, however, are deviations from the general plan, which will be pardoned when we contemplate the general merit of the Idler. The character he assumed was in some degree, and by his own confession, derived from his personal habits. In representing idleness in various lights, but particularly with a view to the labours of the student, he evidently drew from sources with which he was well acquainted. "He describes the miseries of idleness," says his Biographer, "with the lively sensations of one who has felt them, and in his private memorandums while engaged in it, we find, "This year I hope to learn diligence."" The character of Sober, in No. 31, is evidently his own portrait, and much of the Journal in No. 67, although written by his friend Mr. Langton belongs to him. In his Life we find how frequently he was disturbed from such placid employment as "reading the Scriptures, with Grotius."
As papers of equal excellence with those in the Rambler, Mr. Boswell has selected Nos. 14, 24, 41, 43, 51, 52, 58, 89, and 103, to which a few others may with the same justice be added. But the chief excellence of the Idler is the dry and grave humour with which public or private folly is exposed. Of this we have an instance, out of many that might be mentioned, in No. 6, on a lady's wonderful performance on horseback. This was founded on a real incident. A young lady laid a wager, that she would ride a thousand miles in a thousand hours. She was allowed six weeks, but per
formed the feat within a month, "lying by," as the account states, only two days at Newmarket. "At her coming in, the country-people strewed flowers in her way, and made great rejoicings on the occasion *." This news arrived in London May 6th, and Johnson instantly seized so fertile a topic of ridicule.
The whimsical characters or oddities in this work are numerous and original, and exhibit our author as excelling in genuine humour, a talent which some, it is impossible to say why, have been inclined to deny him. His right, however, to the full honours of that species of wit, will be decidedly established, if almost any characters drawn by former Essayists are brought into comparison with Tom Tempest and Jack Sneaker in No. 10, Ned Drugget in No. 16, Jack Whirler in No. 19, Dick Linger in No. 21, Mrs. Plenty in No. 35, the City Wit in No. 47, Will Marvel in No. 49, Sophron in No. 57, Dick Minim in Nos. 60 and 61, Dick Shifter in No. 71, the Club in No. 78 and 83, and the Good Sort of Woman in No. 100. These are sketches, indeed, but they are the sketches of a master, with an eye observant of real life and manners, and catching the ridicu lous in every situation.
In these little Essays, our author also sometimes animadverted on the publications as well as on the incidents of the times. Petvin's "Letters concerning Mind," afforded him an opportunity of ridiculing the terrific diction, the in
London Chronicle, May 6th, 1758.
tention of which is to frighten and amaze, and its natural effect to drive away the reader. The passage he quotes, is sufficiently ludicrous without any illustration.
When the sequel to Lord Clarendon's History was published, the difficulties through which that work struggled into light, led our author's mind to consider the common fate of posthumous publications. In the course of this, in No 65, he adverts to the literary history of Swift, Pope, Peiresc, and others, but makes a remark on Hale's Pleas of the Crown,' which did not pass without animadversion; "How Hale would have borne the mutilations which his Pleas of the Crown have suffered from the Editor, they who know his character will easily conceive." As this bore hard upon the character of Mr. Emlyn, to whom Sir Joseph Jekyll, Master of the Rolls, committed the care, as Editor, of the History of the Pleas of the Crown,' an anonymous correspondent, in the Gentleman's Magazine*, undertook to vindicate him, and I think with success, although I must speak with deference on a subject of this nature. The same writer endeavours to account for Bishop Burnet's manuscript History of his own Times,' not having been deposited in any public library, of which also our author complains; but he was either unconvinced or neglectful, for in the subsequent editions of the Idler, he made no alteration in these passages. It cannot be concealed that on some occasions Dr. Johnson was obsti
* 1760, p. 272.
nately averse to withdraw what he had once advanced, although he might without shame or loss of fame have confessed that he had discovered reason to change his opinion, or had been convinced by his opponent. In one instance only in this work, he recalled what he had asserted: finding that some of his remarks on imprisonment for debt, in Nos. 22 and 38, were founded on an erroneous calculation, he acknowledges this in the second edition. But in the paper in which mention is made of Hale's Pleas of the Crown, he retains, very probably contrary to remonstrance, an expression of extraordinary harshness: "The authenticity of Clarendon's History, though printed with the sanction of one of the first Universities of the world, had not an unexpected manuscript been accidentally discovered, would, with the help of factious incredulity, have been brought into question by the two lowest of all human beings, a scribbler for a party, and a Commissioner of Excise." The persons alluded to were Mr. John Oldmixon, and George Ducket, Esq. The character of Oldmixon may be given up without regret, but certainly our author lived to prove that a writer for a party is not one of the two lowest of human beings, and might in his cooler moments allow that a Commissioner of Excise is not ex officio the other.
It was, however, a failing in this otherwise excellent and illustrious character, that by such means he sometimes committed his occasional ill-humour to paper, and that even in works where it might have been thought there was
little temptation to indulge it. His opinion of Commissioners of Excise in the Idler is, in truth, a sequel to his definition of Excise in his Dictionary: "a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom Excise is paid." Mr. Boswell was informed that the Commissioners of Excise being offended by this severe reflection, consulted Mr. Murray, then Attorney-General, and afterwards the celebrated Earl of Mansfield, to know whether redress could be legally obtained, and Mr. Murray's opinion is said to have been, that the passage might be considered as actionable, but that it would be more prudent in the Board not to prosecute. Dr. Johnson, who probably heard of this application, and was unfriendly to the government-measures of the time, not only made no alteration in his subsequent editions, in the definition, which indeed yet remains, but carried his animosity still further by the contemptuous mention of the character of a Commissioner in the Idler.
This obstinate retention of what he had once written, can be exemplified in other words, to the definitions of which we may suppose many objections would be made, and sometimes not without justice. A lady once asked him how he came to define pastern, the "knee of a horse," and he candidly pleaded ignorance, but suffered it to remain for several editions. He retained his definition of pension also, although it gave his enemies a momentary triumph over him. Alias, under which he had introduced his con