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Mackenzie, Miss Edgeworth, and Mr Roscoe, shew that they have caught, in a greater or less degree, the vigour, precision, and dignity, as well as the splendour, expansion, and harmony, which characterize the style of Johnson. Aspiring genius, aiming at composition in history, criticism, and philosophy,in each succeeding generation, will adopt his rich and nervous style with advantage, as it harmonizes most happily with topics of weight, splendour, and dignity. But let men of moderate conceptions beware of ill-judged imitations, Their attempt to copy his language is Salmoneus thundering at Elis, or a mortal wielding the spear of Achilles. It is to raise a melancholy contrast between the slimness of the thought, and the capacity of the expression ; to cover the bead of a pigmy with the casque of a giant *.
* The “ Criticism on Gray's Elegy” is exempted from the censure of the professed imitations of the form rather than the spirit of his style, as it has not only the peculiarities of his phraseology, but the prominent features of his style of criticism. Dr Burrowes's essay on his style in the “ Transactions of the Irish Academy," vo.. i. furnishes an example of it.
As a poet, his merit, though considerable, yet falls far short of that which he has displayed in those departments of literature in which we have surveyed him. As far as strength of expression, fertility of invention, and abundance of imagery, constitute poetry, he is much more a poet in his prose works than in his metrical compositions. Passion, to the merit of which he was blind and uncharitable, is so much the soul and essence of poetry, that without it rhyme and metre are vain. There may be smoothness, syllabic arrangment, and good sense in a metrical composition ; but there can be no true poetry without imagery, warm expression, and an enthusiasm which intoxicates the reader, lifts him above the ground, and makes him forget that he is mortal. Ratiocination prevailed in Johnson much more than sensibility. He has no daring sublimities nor gentle graces. He never glows with the enthusiasm of inspiration, nor kindles a sympathetic emotion in the bosom of his reader. He makes no excursions “ beyond the visible diurnal sphere,” por “ es
says knowledge denied to ears of flesh and blood." He never strays beyond the walks of mere modern life, back to the regions of Gothic fancy, the dominions of pure poetry. He constantly addresses himself to the understanding. His poems are the plain and sensible effusions of a mind never hurried beyond itself, to which the use of rhyme adds no beauty, and from which the use of prose would detract no force. His versification is correct, splendid, and harmonious, but his pauses are not sufficiently varied to secure him from the imputation of monotony. He seems never at a loss for rhyme, or destitute of a proper expression. The purity and energy of the diction, and the weight and compression of the sentiment, appear admirably adapted to didactic, ethic, and satiric poetry, for which his powers were equally, and perhaps alone qualified. These observations do not detract from his merit, as the professed disciple of Pope, rather than of Milton. Judging of his Irene, the Imitations of Juvenal, the Prologue on the opening of Drury-lane
Theatre, and the stanzas on the death of Mr Ro. bert Levett, by his own poetical standard, we may claim for him a distinguished place in the school of the great “ poet of reason," and “ the prince of rhyme.”
The tragedy of Irene may be considered as the greatest effort of his genius. The substance of the story is shortly this : In 1453, Mahomet the Great, first emperor of the Turks, laid siege to Constantinople; and having reduced the place, became enamoured of a fair Greek, whose name was Irene. The sultan invited her to embrace the law of Mahomet, and to grace his throne. Enraged at this intended marriage, the janizaries formed a conspiracy to dethrone the emperor. To avert the impending danger, Ma. homet, in a full assembly of the grandees, s catching with one hand,” as Knolles expresses it, “ the fair Greek by the hair of her head, and drawing his faulchion with the other, he, at one blow, struck off her head, to the great terror of them all ; and having 50 done, said unto them, “ Now, by this, judge whether your emperor is able to bridle his affections or not.” The story is simple, and it remained for Johnson to amplify it with proper episodes, and give it complication and variety. But he has altered the character and catastrophe, which he found in the historian, so as to diminish the dramatic effect. Many faults may be found with the conduct of the fable. The principal one is, that the plot is double, and has the most striking faults of such a fable ; for it divides. the spectator's attention and regard between characters whose interests are opposite, and whose happiness or misery is made to depend upon the same events. We cannot hope the escape of Demetrius and Aspasia, without dreading the condemnation of Irene ; and our wishes as to each, operating in contradiction, must diminish our concern for both. The catastrophe, which is made to depend upon the fate of Irene, is meanly worked up. It is brought about too suddenly, without a due connection with preparatory incidents, and at the very moment when we have not lei.