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DIALOGUES OF THE DEAD.
NO. 1. STANDING at the door of the Library in Conduit-street on one of these fine summer evenings, after the hubbub of carriages had passed away and left that part of the town somewhat tranquil, I observed three extraordinary figures making their way down the street and gazing with a strange curiosity upon every house as they passed. One was a painful-looking old gentleman, with a cross visage embayed in as cross a wig: he was a large man, with a spacious forehead and shoulders, evincing strength of brain as well as muscle. His companions seemed to share his curiosity and astonishment, but not his spleen. One was a shabby-looking rake, with his hand as consequentially stuck in his empty pocket as if it anchored in gold coin, and the cock of his hat was arranged to make amends for its rusty triteness. The other was a simple, bachelor-like mortal, in a peach-bloom coloured coat, with open mouth, vacant eyes, and long upper lip, that gave a queer air of precision to his look : he seemed, like his companions, to be quite in a quandary of amazement, out of which he awoke on perceiving that any one regarded him; when he brushed the stray snuff off the breast of his coat, and looked as spruce as possible for a few minutes.
The three wights made a dead pause opposite the shop-window of No.50, and darted their noses, like storks, at a volume there displayed. It was “ Table Talk," Vol. II; and the cross-looking fellow took a huge pinch of snuff as soon as he read the title. He pointed his stick to the door-way in what I thought a rude manner, for to all appearance he poked me in the stomach ; however, I felt it not. And thereupon an awe came over me that held me stock-still where I stood. My gentlemen made but little of such an obstacle, but passed clean through me and the door-way, without disturbing either the nap of my coat or the hair of my head. Ghosts they were for certain ; but whose?-that was a point soon ascertained from my acquaintance with Reynolds's canvass. The big fellow was no less a man than Dr. Johnson himself ; he that followed in his wake was Goldsmith ; and the other, though I knew not his countenance, could be none other than Dick Savage.
With the freedom of the old literati they had pierced beyond the sacred barrier of the counter, and had dispersed themselves into divers corners of that labyrinth of books and shelves. Johnson was among the quartos " grappling with whole libraries." Savage had run through most of the new poems, and in his progress had found time to damn the Excursion, and to pocket the five Cantos of Don Juan. But what should Goldy be studying ? By Jupiter, his own image and gay coat in the glass! The publications of the last fifty years, to see which he had travelled some billions of miles, he had forgotten in a moment, and was busied in arranging, or endeavouring to arrange, his stock in the new mode of a St. Andrew's cross, when Savage touched him on the shoulder, with an “Eh, Goldy, still at that old frontispiece of thine? Why, man you thought yourself a great fellow for having written two poems of some four hundred lines in each : look here ! look here! and look here !—Verse by wholesale, and good verse too. Why, thou wouldst now be but a grasshopper chirping among such a multitude of nightingales.
Johnson. Poetry, Sir, is not to be weighed by the pound. Little as I am acquainted with the contents of these poetical quartos, I would venture to assert that one of the sententious lines of our old school might be dilated into two or three pages of the new. Body o' me, it's impossible for any man to think a volume of new poetic thought every year.
Savage. Thought, Doctor, thought! what has thought to do with poetry? May not a man tell a story in verse every year?
Johnson. Nay, Sir, every hour for that matter : but the second will be but a repetition of the first. The age is right, however, and so are its writers, in multiplying duplicates of their genius, in case of that universal wreck of literature which must be one day expected to take place.
Goldsmith. Is this poetry, Doctor ?
Savage. Worthy Doctor, you 're in your old way again. Why, man, there 's not a word in your own dictionary, which may not be denied, in stubborn precision, of every imaginable and unimaginable thing. Call these productions what you will, there is thought in them, deep and new-philosophic, refined, and passionate thought, clothed in numbers that have their charms, though perhaps not for our ears.
Goldsmith. But how came these fellows to slight and despise us? Savage. No man slights thee, Goldy.
Goldsmith. No one ever speaks of me, and yet every scribbling dog
Savage. Hath his day—and why not? The world must talk on disputable subjects, if it intend to talk any time; and Goldsmith's merit is no disputable point: that would never do. A man that wishes to give scope to his tongue or his pen, must uphold a comfortable paradox, and there can be no fear that he will ever lack matter. “ Pope is not a poet,"—“Such a gentleman is,”--these are the ever-springing wells of disputation, without which people now-a-days would never get through the world. They are a sort of pocket-arguments, pulled out on all occasions, like the quizzes of our days, to fill up the vacant intervals of solitude or conversation.
Johnson. But how can you explain the inclination so universally evinced to fall foul of me upon every occasion. Fellows, Sir, that dared not look upon my face when living, spurn at me now that I am laid low.
Savage. Confess, my lexicographer, do you not deserve it? Such will ever be the case. Aristocracies and dictatorships usurped in literature will always be disowned by the succeeding age. Would that the principle were known, that genius might be contented with being humble, and dulness know the vanity of attempting to be otherwise.
Johnson. Nay, I speak not of controverting my principles, of calling my critical opinions in question: I speak of a tendency to depreciate, and even to deny, my talents. That they were thrown away-frittered in periodical writing and common-place essayism--that they were not
aided by systematic reading or thought, I am willing to allow; but why deny me all ?
Sarage. Few have dared to do so. Perhaps you have heard those few. Malevolent critics often speak through a tube to the ear of the author alone, and no wight else heedeth them. Censure and refutation how could you escape ?-you, who have spoken more wisdom, perhaps, than any one writer, and certainly with less meditation, striking out every thing from the intuitive light of the moment-every truth separate from its fellow, connected by no chain of reasoning or argument.-You that have spoken upon every subject, and liest like a huge whale upon the waters of literature--an object that no harpooning critic can either avoid or miss. You must hear, Doctor, without grumbling.
Johnson. 'Tis true, Dick, I am to the present age what Hobbes was to ours; upon whose steel-cap," some one observes, every puny warrior would try his sword.
Sarage. There were other points of resemblance between you both. Were you not a pair of incorrigible Tories?
Goldsmith. Who talks of Tories? Have you not lived long enough in the other world to be sick of political cant? Do you remember, both of you walking round St. James's-square the space of a live-long night, vowing, in the might of your patriotism,“ to stand by the nation, and this when, to my knowledge, you had neither chair to sit on, nor bed on which to repose.
Johnson. Sarage. S
“ Stand by the nation !" ha! ha! ha! Goldsmith. But, Savage, you that have been so often and so lately here on furlough, what new book is the world talking of at this blessed moment?
Surage. Of the last Scotch novel, to be sure-Nigel they call it. From the lady of quality to the London 'prentice all are thumbing it. Many a boat, rowed by hand in gay livery, has been launched at its suggestion. Greenwich Park has been inundated with visitors every Sunday since its publication. The youth of the metropolis will have the author of the Common Council; and the colliers of Whitefriars are clubbing to present him with a silver pen.
Johnson. Who is this said Scotchman, Sir ?
Sarage. This unsaid Scotchman you mean, Doctor. One who knows how to be national without prejudice or illiberality.
Johnson. Humph! The days were, Dick, thou durst not thus have answered me.
Sarage. Come, Samuel. I disappeared before the days of your dictatorship
Johnson. Let it rest. But this Scotch Dictator, whom the Londoners worship
Sarage. No Dictator, merely Prætor; one that giveth shows to the people. His fiats in criticism are not to be so esteemed as thine were. The worst things of Dryden have found favour in his eyes; and his panegyrics upon contemporaries are marked by too little discrimination.
Goldsmith. But forty odd volumes! The Vicar was quite enough for me.
Savage. He must have brought to his task an immense fund of reading and taste, with a quantum sufficit of gentlemanly feeling, not over deep, and much too fond of sticking close to probability and propriety. His pages seem often flat to minds of strong passion.
Johnson. That, Sir, is an excellence. Prose should not meddle with passion. It is the province of poetry alone.
Sarage. The best point about the Scotch novels is, that they are a perfect manual of true gentility. They will do for England in the way of general refinement and honourable feeling, more than all the court etiquette, conventional politeness, or didactic poetry, could ever effect. I may be allowed to judge of what the want of such feelings are. Johnson. Hath this age produced any thing like Rasselas?
Sarage. No, Doctor; the world is tired of allegory, of visions, apologues, and all the pretty little vehicles and go-carts of morality, so much in vogue during our time.
Johnson. I believe you, Sir: having no taste for the commodity itself, they can dispense with the vehicles.
Savage. The present is not an immoral age, Doctor, but it is a fastidious one; and if morality as a theme displeases it, it is that our worthy contemporaries and their immediate predecessors converted it into an utter common-place.
Johnson. Is it thus you speak of Addison and ****, the Spectator and the Rambler ?
Sarage. Were the Numbers of the Spectator published now for the first time, they would be thought flat; and the ponderous verbosity of the Rambler would sink any periodical of the present day.
Goldsmith. Hold, Doctor : lay down the big book, for the love of God. No quarrelling! Let us not shame the peaceful realms we came from.
Sarage. Bear with and pardon me, mine old friend. My late visits to earth have metamorphosed me into a genius of the present day --pert, proud, and flippant, an assertor of all things, and upholder of
To-morrow, mayhap, I shall praise you to the skies, and condemn the dull wits that have succeeded you to the dungeons of the Dunciad.
Johnson. Thou wert ever, Sir, an unprincipled vagabond. And I well believe thy assertion of typifying in thine own person the genius of the present age. I know not how it is, but long tranquillity has silenced my tongue. I have learned to think, not argue. Once I mistook them for the same.
Goldsmith. But the poets, Dick—who be the poets now-a-day, with the voluminous works of whom you just bearded me?
Sarage. The Novelist we have just spoken of, is also a poet, a great and a voluminous one. But in truth the canvass of poetry was too confined for his pencil. Nor was his feeling deep and condensed enough for verse. His conceptions appear not to advantage when directly told : the egotism of the old simple spirit of chivalry would not now be borne. It is only when developed in action, that it excites our admiration, without awakening ridicule.
Johnson. Though I know not the author, there is truth in what you advance. Had Don Quixote never opened his mouth, the world would not have taken the history of his adventures as a jest.
Goldsmith. But is not the drama the proper place for developing sentiment in action ?
Savage. True, but novels are the drama of the day. The stage has irrecoverably fallen.
Johnson. And why, Sir ?
Savage. A thousand different causes are imagined: a thousand different remedies assigned. Some attribute public apathy to the great events that have lately occupied the interest and attention of Europe. Others attribute it to the increasing vogue of political economy, and such dry studies. While others see the cause of all in a general want of talent--a dearth of good poets and good actors. The last I contradict plumply,
Johnson. And as to the other two :-were there no great events in the age
of Elizabeth ? Sir, was the Reformation nothing, as an object to engross public concern—the Spanish Armada too? As to what you call political economy-a name, I do not well understand, but a thing indeed which it is absurd hoping ever to see—were not tragedies written in the days of Bacon and Locke?
Goldsmith. Perhaps authors do not enough consult the taste of the town.
Savage. Taste of the town! Alas! the town is much changed since we knew it of old. Taste it has none, but for milling-matches and “Life in London.”
Johnson. What's all that, Sir ?
Johnson. A taste for boxing may not be elegant; but it is at least manly, and undeniably antique. Milton recommends it strongly in his treatise on education. They must be also practised," saith the veteran, “in all the locks and gripes of wrastling, wherein Englishmen were wont to excell, as need may often be in fight to tugge, to grapple, and to close." But how can pugilism interfere with the stage ?
Savage. Well thou knowest, Doctor, that the small, current chat of town is the life and soul of every thing within its walls, be it of amusement or importance. And you must know, that instead of going to the pit, or to Wills's, the youth now-a-days, Templars, apprentices, &c. all drive to Moulsey, or walk to the Fives Court; and the Fancy, as a general topic, has utterly superseded the stage.
Johnson. Wrong, Sir, wrong, all this. Still there must be a deeper cause.
Savage. If I ventured to assign one, it would be the early perfection, or rather the perfectionated rudeness, of the drama; which, whether it checks rivalry, or excites imitation, is in either case calculated to debar us from all hopes of possessing a drama suited to our advanced tastes.
Johnson. But comedy, Sir.
Johnson. From what you say of the Scotch Novelist, he would write better comedies than tragedies.
Sarage. Undoubtedly; but the wise ones think otherwise.
Johnson. Then the wise ones err:-Addison in the same manner remained blind to what he might do. What a noble comedy we should have possessed from the hand that drew Sir Roger de Coverley and Will