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The Rambler No. 4

By Samuel Johnson

  • Transcription, correction, editorial commentary, and markup: Tonya Howe

  • THE
    RAMBLER.
    Numb. 4. Price 2d.
    Saturday, 31 March 1750
    Simul et jucunda et idonea dicere Vitae.HOR.

    THE Works of Fiction, with which the present Generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit Life in its true State, diversified only by Accidents that daily happen in the World, and influenced by those Passions and Qualities which are really to be found in conversing with Mankind.

    THIS Kind of Writing may be termed not improperly the Comedy of Romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the Rules of Comic Poetry. Its Province is to bring about natural Events by easy Means, and to keep up Curiosity without the Help of Wonder: it is therefore precluded from the Machines and Expedients of the Heroic Romance, and can neither employ Giants to snatch away a Lady from the nuptial Rites, nor Knights to bring her back from Captivity; it can neither bewilder its Personages in Desarts, nor lodge them in imaginary Castles.

    I REMEMBER a Remark made by Scaliger upon Potanus, that all his Writings are filled with Images, and that [end page 19] if you take from him his Lillies and his Roses, his Satyrs and his Dryads, he will have nothing left that can be called Poetry. In like Manner, almost all the Fictions of the last Age will vanish, if you deprive them of a Hermit and a Wood, a Battle and a Shipwreck.

    WHY this wild strain of Imagination found Reception so long, in polite and learned Ages, it is not easy to conceive; but we cannot wonder that, while Readers could be procured, the Authors were willing to continue it: For when a Man had, by Practice some Fluency of Language, he had no farther Care than to retire to his Closet, let loose his Invention, and heat his Mind with Incredibilities; and a Book was thus produced without Fear of Criticism, without the Toil of Study, without Knowledge of Nature, or Acquaintance with Life.

    THE Task of our present Writers is very different; it requires, together with that Learning which is to be gained from Books, that Experience which can never be attained by solitary Diligence, but must arise from general Converse, and accurate Observation of the living World. Their Performances have, as Horace expresses it, plus oneris quantum veniae minus, little Indulgence, and therefore more Difficulty. They are engaged in Portraits of which every one knows the Original, and can therefore detect any Deviation from Exactness of Resemblance. Other writings are safe, except from the Malice of Learning; but these are in Danger from every common Reader; as the Slipper ill executed was censured by a Shoemaker who happened to stop in his Way at the Venus of Apelles.

    BUT the Danger of not being approved as just Copyers of human Manners, is not the most important Apprehension that an Author of this Sort ought to have before him. These Books are written chiefly to the Young, the Ignorant, and the Idle, to whom they serve as Lectures of Conduct, and Introductions into Life. They are the Entertainment of Minds unfurnished with Ideas, and therefore [end page 20] easily susceptible of Impressions; not fixed by Principles, and therefore easily following the Current of Fancy; not informed by Experience, and Consequently open to every false Suggestion and partial Account.

    THAT the highest Degree of Reverence should be paid to Youth, and that nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their Eyes or Ears, are Precepts extorted by Sense and Virtue from an ancient Writer by no Means eminent for Chastity of Thought. The same Kind, tho' not the same Degree of Caution, is required in every thing which is laid before them, to secure them from unjust Prejudices, perverse Opinions, and incongruous Combinations of Images.

    IN the Romances formerly written every Transaction and Sentiment was so remote from all that passes among Men, that the Reader was in very little danger of making any Applications to himself; the Virtues and Crimes were equally beyond his Sphere of Activity; and he amused himself with Heroes and with Traitors, Deliverers and Persecutors, as with Beings of another Species, whose Actions were regulated upon Motives of their own, and who had neither Faults nor Excellences in common with himself.

    BUT when an Adventurer is levelled with the rest of the World, and acts in such Scenes of the universal Drama, as may be the Lot of any other Man; young Spectators fix their Eyes upon him with closer Attention, and hope by observing his Behaviour and Success to regulate their own Practices, when they shall be engaged in the like Part.

    FOR this Reason these familiar Histories may perhaps be made of greater Use than the Solemnities of professed Morality, and convey the Knowledge of Vice and Virtue with more Efficacy than Axioms and Definitions. But if the Power of Example is so great, as to take Possession of the Memory by a kind of Violence, and produce Effects almost without the Intervention of the Will, Care ought [end page 21] to be taken that, when the Choice is unrestrained, the best Examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its Effects.

    THE chief Advantages which these Fictions have over real Life is, that their Authors are at liberty, tho' not to invent, yet to select Objects, and to cull from the Mass of Mankind, those Individuals upon which the Attention ought most to be employ'd; as a Diamond, though it cannot be made, may be polished by Art, and placed in such a Situation, as to display that Lustre which before was buried among common Stones.

    IT is justly considered as the greatest Excellency of Art, to imitate Nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those Parts of Nature, which are most proper for Imitation: Greater Care is still required in representing Life, which is so often discoloured by Passion, or deformed by Wickedness. If the World be promiscuously described, I cannot see of what use it can be to read the Account; or why it may not be as safe to turn the Eye immediately upon Mankind, as upon a Mirror which shows all that presents itself without Discrimination.

    IT is therefore not a sufficient Vindication of a Character, that it is drawn as it appears; for many Characters ought never to be drawn; nor of a Narrative, that the Train of Events is agreeable to Observation and Experience; for that Observation which is called Knowledge of the World, will be found much more frequently to make Men cunning than Good. The Purpose of these Writings is surely not only to show Mankind, but to provide that they may be seen hereafter with less Hazard; to teach the Means of avoiding the Snares which are laid by TREACHERY for INNOCENCE, without infusing any Wish for that Superiority with which the Betrayer flatters his Vanity; to give the Power of counteracting Fraud, without the Temptation to practise it; to initiate Youth by mock Encounters in the Art of Necessary Defense, and to increase Prudence without impairing Virtue. [end page 22]

    MANY Writers, for the sake of following Nature, so mingle good and bad Qualities in their principal Personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their Adventures with Delight, and are led by Degrees to interest ourselves in their Favour, we lose the Abhorrence of their Faults, because they do not hinder our Pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some Kindness for being united with so much Merit.

    THERE have been Men indeed splendidly wicked, whose Endowments threw a Brightness on their Crimes, and whom scarce any Villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their Excellencies; but such have been in all Ages the great Corruptors of the World, and their Resemblance ought no more to be preserved, than the Art of Murdering without Pain.

    SOME have advanced, without due Attention to the Consequences of this Notion, that certain Virtues have their correspondent Faults, and therefore that to exhibit either apart is to deviate from Probability. Thus Men are observed by Swift to be grateful in the same Degree as they are resentful. This Principle, with others of the same Kind, supposes Man to act from a brute Impulse, and persue a certain Degree of Inclination, without any Choice of the Object; for, otherwise, though it should be allowed that Gratitude and Resentment arise from the same Constitution of the Passions, it follows not that they will be equally indulged when Reason is consulted; yet unless that Consequence be admitted, this sagacious Maxim becomes an empty Sound, without any Relation to Practice or to Life.

    NOR is it evident, that even the first Motions to these Effects are always in the same Proportion. For Pride, which produces Quickness of Resentment, will frequently obstruct Gratitude, by Unwillingness to admit that Inferiority which Obligation necessarily implies; and it is surely very unlikely, that he who cannot think he receives a Favour will ever acknowledge it. [end page 23]

    IT is of the utmost Importance to Mankind, that Positions of this Tendency should be laid open and confuted; for while Men consider Good and Evil as springing from the same Root, they will spare the one for the sake of the other, and in judging, if not of others at least of themselves, will be apt to estimate their Virtues by their Vices. To this fatal Error all those will contribute, who confound the Colours of Right and Wrong, and instead of helping to settle their Boundaries, mix them with so much Art, that no common Mind is able to disunite them.

    IN Narratives, where historical Veracity has no Place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect Idea of Virtue; of Virtue not angelical, nor above Probability, for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest Kind that Humanity can reach, which, when exercised in such Trials as the various Revolutions of Things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some Calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for Vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the Graces of Gaiety, or the Dignity of Courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the Mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise Hatred by the Malignity of its Practices; and Contempt, by the Meanness of its Stratagems; for while it is supported by either Parts or Spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred. The Roman Tyrant was content to be hated, if he was but feared; and there are Thousands of the Readers of Romances willing to be thought wicked, if they may be allowed to be Wits. It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that Virtue is the highest Proof of Understanding, and the only solid Basis of Greatness; and that Vice is the natural Consequence of narrow Thoughts, that it begins in Mistake, and ends in Ignominy. [end page 24]

    From Horace's Ars Poetica 334, meaning "to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life." The link redirects to the Perseus Project edition.Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or Horace, was a Roman lyric poet of the 1st century BCE. The image above is a broze portrait medal containing his likeness, dating to the 4th century CE, housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, and available via Encyclopedia Britannica. The link redirects to Encyclopedia Britannica.Heroic romance is a genre that flourished during the 17th century and remained popular, as parodied by Charlotte Lennox in The Female Quixote, into the 18th. It had a profound influence on the development of the novel, though many writers of the 18th century would work to dissociate the genres, as Johnson does here. Formally loose in structure, heroic romances also "deliberately eschew[ed] contemporaneity"; their plots featured courtly lovers engaged in "heroic stories of love and war in a remote and idealized past" (1046), as Shellinger states in the Encyclopedia of the Novel. Some representative heroic romances include Euphues by John Lyly, L'Astrée by Honore d'Urfé, and Artamène by Madame de Scudéry. The image above shows the frontispiece engraving of Book 1 of the 10-book Artamène, from the University of Neuchâtel's The Artamène Project. The in-text link redirects to Shellinger's Encylcopedia of the Novel.Johnson alludes to Giulio Cesare della Scala, an Italian humanist scholar working during the Renaissance. The specific reference is uncertain, but likely to be a poet referenced in Scaliger's Seven Books about Poetry or Poetices Libri Septem (1591). Michael Gamer's digital edition locates the reference in 6.4 of that book. The link redirects to a general Wikipedia entry on Scaliger.This quote, from Horace's Epistles 2.1, appears at line 170. In his epistle to Augustus, Horace is mounting a defense of contemporary poetry and decrying the poor taste of the public. Here he argues that though comic subjects are thought easier to write, they are actually more challenging than tragic subjects because readers give them less "indulgence." The link redirects to the Perseus Project edition.Johnson alludes here to a story from Pliny the Elder's Natural History (35.36). The in-text link redirects you to the Natural History, in English, at the Perseus Project.Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, Venus is a signifier of love, sex, propsperity, and desire. The in-text link redirects to general information on Wikipedia.Apelles of Kos is a Greek painter of the 4th century BCE. Johnson here alludes to a lost painting of Venus Anadyomenes, or Venus rising from the sea. The in-text link redirects to general information on Wikipedia.Johnson here uses the term "familiar history" to describe the probable fictions produced by "our present Writers." The term suggests the truth-value associated with many eighteenth-century fictions that, like Robinson Crusoe or Pamela, were advertised as having been largely written by the characters themselves. These are supposedly true histories, memoirs, or other accounts of people who would seem familiar to contemporary audiences.Johnson references eighteenth-century thought about the power of the imagination to affect the body regardless of the will, like that discussed by Michele de Montaigne. The in-text link redirects to Montaigne's essay "On the Power of the Imagination." For information about the power of the female imagination to create monstrous beings, see , among other works, Marie Hélène Huet's Monstrous Imagination (1993)."Promiscuous" here refers to a lack of distinction or discrimination; it is not primarily sexual. The in-text link redirects to a Google N-Gram graph charting the usage of the term over time.Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish satiric author of the early 18th century, is most well-known today for writing Gulliver's Travels. The title page to the first edition of Gulliver's Travels, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, is above. The in-text link redirects to a biographical essay by Ian Campbell Ross (2016), and readers may also be interested in this 2017 online exhibition about Swift from the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.From the second volume of the Miscellanies, compiled by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, this particular quotation is from "Thoughts on Various Subjects," a collection of witty aphorisms by Pope and contained in the second volume. The in-text link redirects you to the English Short Title Catalogue entry for the Miscellanies.According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "part" used in this sense (II.15) refers to "A personal quality or attribute, esp. of an intellectual kind; an ability, gift, or talent." The in-text link redirects to Jack Lynch's "Guide to Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary," which includes a definition of this word.To be a "wit" in the eighteenth century was to be clever. But it could also be a term of derision, referring to a set of people who claimed false cleverness. Here, Johnson is suggesting that such people would rather be thought by others to be clever, even at the expense of being thought wicked. The in-text link redirects to Jack Lynch's "Guide to Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary," which includes a definition of this word.

    Sources

  • London: Printed for J[ohn]. Payne, and J. Bouquet, in Pater-noster-Row; where letters for the author are received, [1750-1752]. Saturday, 31 March 1750. . First edition. The accompanying page image is sourced from the Michigan State University Special Collections library.
  • Public domain electronic facsimile copy: Google eBook. . Link . This electronic edition is a reprint of the first collected UK edition.
  • More information on available editions is available through the English Short Title Catalog and Eighteenth-Century Book Tracker.

    Editorial Statements

  • This text is prepared as part of the Literature in Context project, which provides an accessible, curated, and marked-up selection of primary sources relevant to the study and the teaching of British and American literature of the 18th century. This project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by faculty at The University of Virginia and Marymount University.
  • Materials have been transcribed from and checked against first editions, where possible. See the Sources section.
  • Original spelling and capitalization is retained, though the long s has been silently modernized and ligatured forms are not encoded.
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  • Research informing these annotations draws on publicly-accessible resources, with links provided where possible. Annotations have also included common knowledge, defined as information that can be found in multiple reliable sources. If you notice an error in these annotations, please contact lic.open.anthology@gmail.com.
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