Samuel Johnson


Essay by Samuel Johnson

John Sheffield, descended from a long series of illustrious ancestors, was born in 1649, the son of Edmund, earl of Mulgrave, who died in 1658[207]. The young lord was put into the hands of a tutor, with whom he was so little satisfied, that he got rid of him in a short time, and, at an age not exceeding twelve years, resolved to educate himself. Such a purpose, formed at such an age, and successfully prosecuted, delights as it is strange, and instructs as it is real.

His literary acquisitions are more wonderful, as those years in which they are commonly made were spent by him in the tumult of a military life, or the gaiety of a court. When war was declared against the Dutch, he went, at seventeen, on board the ship in which prince Rupert and the duke of Albemarle sailed, with the command of the fleet; but, by contrariety of winds, they were restrained from action. His zeal for the king's service was recompensed by the command of one of the independent' troops of horse, then raised to protect the coast.

Next year he received a summons to parliament, which, as he was then but eighteen years old, the earl of Northumberland censured as at least indecent, and his objection was allowed. He had a quarrel with the earl of Rochester, which he has, perhaps, too ostentatiously related, as Rochester's surviving sister, the lady Sandwich, is said to have told him with very sharp reproaches.

When another Dutch war, 1672, broke out, he went again a volunteer in the ship which the celebrated lord Ossory commanded; and there made, as he relates, two curious remarks.


"I have observed two things, which I dare affirm, though not generally believed. One was, that the wind of a cannon bullet, though flying never so near, is incapable of doing the least harm; and, indeed, were it otherwise, no man above deck would escape. The other was, that a great shot may be sometimes avoided, even as it flies, by changing one's ground a little; for, when the wind sometimes blew away the smoke, it was so clear a sunshiny day, that we could easily perceive the bullets, that were half-spent, fall into the water, and from thence bound up again among us, which gives sufficient time for making a step or two on any side; though, in so swift a motion, 'tis hard to judge well in what line the bullet comes, which, if mistaken, may, by removing, cost a man his life, instead of saving it."

His behaviour was so favourably represented by lord Ossory, that he was advanced to the command of the Catharine, the best second-rate ship in the navy.

He afterwards raised a regiment of foot, and commanded it as colonel. The land-forces were sent ashore by prince Rupert; and he lived in the camp very familiarly with Schomberg. He was then appointed colonel of the old Holland regiment, together with his own; and had the promise of a garter, which he obtained in his twenty-fifth year. He was, likewise, made gentleman of the bedchamber. He afterwards went into the French service, to learn the art of war under Turenne, but staid only a short time. Being, by the duke of Monmouth, opposed in his pretensions to the first troop of horse-guards, he, in return, made Monmouth suspected by the duke of York. He was not long after, when the unlucky Monmouth fell into disgrace, recompensed with the lieutenancy of Yorkshire and the government of Hull.

Thus rapidly did he make his way both to military and civil honours and employments; yet, busy as he was, he did not neglect his studies, but, at least, cultivated poetry; in which he must have been early considered as uncommonly skilful, if it be true which is reported, that, when he was yet not twenty years old, his recommendation advanced Dryden to the laurel.

The Moors having besieged Tangier, he was sent, 1680, with two thousand men to its relief. A strange story is told of danger to which he was intentionally exposed in a leaky ship, to gratify some resentful jealousy of the king, whose health he, therefore, would never permit at his table, till he saw himself in a safer place. His voyage was prosperously performed in three weeks; and the Moors, without a contest, retired before him.

In this voyage he composed the Vision; a licentious poem, such as was fashionable in those times, with little power of invention or propriety of sentiment.

At his return he found the king kind, who, perhaps, had never been angry; and he continued a wit and a courtier, as before.

At the succession of king James, to whom he was intimately known, and by whom he thought himself beloved, he naturally expected still brighter sunshine; but all know how soon that reign began to gather clouds. His expectations were not disappointed; he was immediately admitted into the privy council, and made lord chamberlain. He accepted a place in the high commission, without knowledge, as he declared after the revolution, of its illegality. Having few religious scruples, he attended the king to mass, and kneeled with the rest, but had no disposition to receive the Romish faith, or to force it upon others; for when the priests, encouraged by his appearances of compliance, attempted to convert him, he told them, as Burnet has recorded, that he was willing to receive instruction, and that he had taken much pains to believe in God, who made the world and all men in it; but that he should not be easily persuaded "that man was quits, and made God again."

A pointed sentence is bestowed by successive transmission on the last whom it will fit: this censure of transubstantiation, whatever be its value, was uttered long ago by Anne Askew, one of the first sufferers for the protestant religion, who, in the time of Henry the eighth, was tortured in the Tower; concerning which there is reason to wonder that it was not known to the historian of the reformation.

In the revolution he acquiesced, though he did not promote it. There was once a design of associating him in the invitation of the prince of Orange; but the earl of Shrewsbury discouraged the attempt, by declaring that Mulgrave would never concur. This king William afterwards told him; and asked what he would have done if the proposal had been made? "Sir," said he, "I would have discovered it to the king whom I then served." To which king William replied, "I cannot blame you."

Finding king James irremediably excluded, he voted for the conjunctive sovereignty, upon this principle, that he thought the titles of the prince and his consort equal, and it would please the prince, their protector, to have a share in the sovereignty. This vote gratified king William; yet, either by the king's distrust or his own discontent, he lived some years without employment. He looked on the king with malevolence, and, if his verses or his prose may be credited, with contempt. He was, notwithstanding this aversion or indifference, made marquis of Normanby, 1694; but still opposed the court on some important questions; yet, at last, he was received into the cabinet council, with a pension of three thousand pounds.

At the accession of queen Anne, whom he is said to have courted when they were both young, he was highly favoured. Before her coronation. 1702, she made him lord privy seal, and, soon after, lord lieutenant of the north Riding of Yorkshire. He was then named commissioner for treating with the Scots about the union; and was made, next year, first, duke of Normanby, and then of Buckinghamshire, there being suspected to be somewhere a latent claim to the title of Buckingham[208].

Soon after, becoming jealous of the duke of Marlborough, he resigned the privy seal, and joined the discontented tories in a motion, extremely offensive to the queen, for inviting the princess Sophia to England. The queen courted him back with an offer no less than that of the chancellorship; which he refused. He now retired from business, and built that house in the Park, which is now the queen's, upon ground granted by the crown.

When the ministry was changed, 1710, he was made lord chamberlain of the household, and concurred in all transactions of that time, except that he endeavoured to protect the Catalans. After the queen's death, he became a constant opponent of the court; and, having no publick business, is supposed to have amused himself by writing his two tragedies. He died February 24, 1720-21.

He was thrice married; by his first two wives he had no children; by his third, who was the daughter of king James, by the countess of Dorchester, and the widow of the earl of Anglesey, he had, besides other children that died early, a son born in 1716, who died in 1735, and put an end to the line of Sheffield. It is observable, that the duke's three wives were all widows. The dutchess died in 1742.

His character is not to be proposed as worthy of imitation. His religion he may be supposed to have learned from Hobbes; and his morality was such as naturally proceeds from loose opinions. His sentiments with respect to women he picked up in the court of Charles; and his principles concerning property were such as a gaming-table supplies. He was censured as covetous, and has been defended by an instance of inattention to his affairs; as if a man might not at once be corrupted by avarice and idleness. He is said, however, to have had much tenderness, and to have been very ready to apologize for his violences of passion.

He is introduced into this collection only as a poet; and, if we credit the testimony of his contemporaries, he was a poet of no vulgar rank. But favour and flattery are now at an end; criticism is no longer softened by his bounties, or awed by his splendour; and, being able to take a more steady view, discovers him to be a writer that sometimes glimmers, but rarely shines; feebly laborious, and, at best, but pretty. His songs are upon common topicks; he hopes, and grieves, and repents, and despairs, and rejoices, like any other maker of little stanzas: to be great, he hardly tries; to be gay, is hardly in his power[209].

In the Essay on Satire he was always supposed to have had the help of Dryden. His Essay on Poetry is the great work for which he was praised by Roscommon, Dryden, and Pope; and, doubtless, by many more, whose eulogies have perished.

Upon this piece he appears to have set a high value; for he was all his life improving it by successive revisals, so that there is scarcely any poem to be found of which the last edition differs more from the first. Amongst other changes, mention is made of some compositions of Dryden, which were written after the first appearance of the essay.

At the time when this work first appeared, Milton's fame was not yet fully established, and, therefore, Tasso and Spenser were set before him. The two last lines were these. The epick poet, says he,

  Must above Milton's lofty flights prevail,
  Succeed where great Torquato, and where greater Spenser, fail.

The last line in succeeding editions was shortened, and the order of names continued; but now Milton is at last advanced to the highest place, and the passage thus adjusted:

  Must above Tasso's lofty flights prevail,
  Succeed where Spenser, and ev'n Milton, fail.

Amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent: lofty does not suit Tasso so well as Milton.

One celebrated line seems to be borrowed. The essay calls a perfect character,

  A faultless monster which the world ne'er saw.

Scaliger, in his poems, terms Virgil "sine labe monstrum." Sheffield can scarcely be supposed to have read Scaliger's poetry; perhaps he found the words in a quotation.

Of this essay, which Dryden has exalted so highly, it may be justly said, that the precepts are judicious, sometimes new, and often happily expressed; but there are, after all the emendations, many weak lines, and some strange appearances of negligence; as, when he gives the laws of elegy, he insists upon connexion and coherence; without which, says he,

  'Tis epigram, 'tis point, 'tis what you will;
  But not an elegy, nor writ with skill,
  No Panegyrick, nor a Cooper's Hill.

Who would not suppose that Waller's Panegyrick and Denham's Cooper's Hill were elegies?

His verses are often insipid; but his memoirs are lively and agreeable; he had the perspicuity and elegance of an historian, but not the fire and fancy of a poet.



[Footnote 207: His mother was Elizabeth, one of the daughters of Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex. M.]

[Footnote 208: In the earliest editions of the duke's works he is styled duke of Buckingham; and Walpole, in his Catalogue of Noble Authors, mentions a wish, cherished by Sheffield, to be confounded with his predecessor in the title; "but he would more easily," remarks Walpole, sarcastically, "have been mistaken with the other Buckingham, if he had not written at all." Burnet also, and other authorities, speak of him under the title of duke of Buckingham. His epitaph, being in Latin, will not settle the point. It is to be regretted, therefore, that Johnson adduced no better evidence for his doubt than his own unsupported assertion. ED.]

[Footnote 209: "The life of this peer takes up fourteen pages and a half in folio, in the General Dictionary, where it has little pretensions to occupy a couple: but his pious relict was always purchasing places for him, herself, and their son, in every suburb of the temple of fame; a tenure, against which, of all others, quo-warrantos are sure to take place. The author of the article in the dictionary calls the duke one of the most beautiful prose writers, and greatest poets, of his age: which is also, he says, proved by the finest writers, his contemporaries; certificates that have little weight, where the merit is not proved by the author's own works. It is certain, that his grace's compositions in prose have nothing extraordinary in them; his poetry is most indifferent, and the greatest part of both is already fallen into total neglect." Walpole's Noble Authors, vol. i. p. 436 of his works.]