Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea
Posted by: Ioan Stoica
Samuel Johnson published the first article of The Rambler in March, 1750; by March 1752, when he had done, he had published 208 articles. The Rambler is a didactic publication, the purpose of Johson’s work being “to instruct mankind; to teach the happiness of virtue …” (Mudford 75). This aim to provide instruction is consistent with the 18th century notion of writing, in general. Dryden, Pope, and Johnson—they all believed that literature should be didactic, delivering moral and practical knowledge. In the third article of The Rambler, Johnson says that “the task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them…” (No. 3).
His 5th article “On Spring” is interesting because it illustrates how Johnson wrote for The Rambler. “On Spring” was published on Tuesday, April 3, 1750, while The Rambler was a new thing for readers. The subject of the article completely agrees with the season of the year when it was composed: Johnson considers the beautiful aspects of spring, and he gives advice on how his audience can make the best of the season. Young people, those without much education, who “want subjects for reflection” are Johnson’s intended audience in this article; he instructs them to reflect on nature. Johnson promotes nature as a source of knowledge and entertainment.
That Samuel Johnson idealizes nature should not be surprising—this is a common tendency of his era. For Johnson, as for Dryden and Pope, nature is an ideal subject in literature, because it is universal; it affords instruction and pleasure. However, on the occasion of this article, Johnson does not speak of nature only as it relates to literature, but also of nature as most of us understand it—that is, the outdoors, the lakes, the trees, the birds, etc. His argument is that, for his audience, nature can be a proper, innocent subject for reflection; in fact, by directing their attention towards nature, his readers can find “new reasons for adoring the sovereign Author of the universe”. The previous quotation illustrates how Johnson tends to amplify his subject, how he “adorns” it. But let me give another quote to show how rhetorically eccentric Johnson is. Towards the end of the article, he says “he that enlarges his curiosity after the works of nature, demonstrably multiplies the inlets to happiness”.
But his argument is not very convincing. First, Johnson uses the appeal to good consequences, when he promises his readers will find happiness and reasons to love God if they contemplate nature. This type of appeal is a fallacy, and Johnson does not even try to support his assertions. Second, nature, as the road to piety and happiness, is a false cause. Johnson’s elevated propositions lack proofs, in this article.
While “On Spring” may leave some readers unconvinced, Johnson’s purpose in this article and the entire publication is praiseworthy. To demonstrate that Johnson has noble intentions, the following quote is sufficient: he wants “the younger part of [his] readers… to acquire, while their minds may be yet impressed with new images, a love of innocent pleasures, and an ardour for useful knowledge”. Although in this article Johnson does not manage to direct his readers towards “useful knowledge”, the previous quote illustrates that Johnson tries to teach his audience, and while he does not accomplish his purpose completely in “On Spring”, elsewhere in The Ramble, readers of our generation may still find useful instruction.