« PreviousContinue »
THE years of Samuel Johnson's life were momentous years in the history of England. Born in 1709, a few days after the victory of Malplaquet had been won by England's greatest general, the sounds that surrounded his cradle were of political rejoicing. But even now Marlborough's influence was on the wane, and the earliest talk that Johnson could understand at all must have been of the abandonment by the Treaty of Utrecht of England's main purpose in the war—the exclusion of the Bourbons from the throne of Spain. And before his eyes were finally closed in 1784 the Independence of America had been acknowledged. Nor were the changes less in domestic history. His father, he tells us ', would talk with him about Sacheverell's trial, which led to the overthrow of the Whigs under Anne ; and Johnson lived to see the premiership of the younger Pitt. Such years could not be otherwise than years of vast intensity of national life, and, for good or evil, that intensity has left its mark in a most striking degree upon the products of the time. It was a period when men worked hard, talked hard, swore hard, drank hard, and, generally, lived hard. At such a time no man must come to the front whose hands cannot keep his head. The intellectual contests were of the roughest, and epithets could be freely bandied about which are no longer to be heard in polite society. It was then correct and natural in the eyes of men to hate a political opponent :-Johnson loved a good hater. A more refined intellect was in some danger of not having strength enough for the time; of being trampled on, as Johnson trampled upon Gray. Such a social atmosphere was clearly suited to the survival only of the intellectually fittest, and Johnson was in this sense eminently fit. Thus whilst great men-some of England's greatest--were at work to make the time, it is also in
1 p. 34.