In his incomparable biography of Samuel Johnson, Boswell recounts that while the poet, critic, essayist, and lexicographer was researching his Lives of the Poets (1781), the last of his great literary projects, “the tranquility of the metropolis of Great Britain was unexpectedly disturbed by the most horrid series of outrage that ever disgraced a civilized country.” The Gordon Riots broke out, and for six days and nights, the London mob pillaged and terrorized the city, ostensibly in response to Parliament’s relaxation of the laws against Catholics.
Prisons were emptied, distilleries plundered, Catholic chapels destroyed, the houses of magistrates ransacked and set afire, and over 200 of the agitators shot dead by the militia sent out to quell them. Lord George Gordon, who had been accused of instigating the riot, was tried for treason but acquitted, the court finding that the Scottish peer in charge of the Protestant Association might not be playing with the full shilling but intended no violence and, in fact, sought to discourage it. “For God’s sake go home and be quiet, make no riot and noise,” Gordon urged the mob.
Over one hundred and thirty rioters were arrested on capital offenses and twenty-six were hanged. Conspiracy theories abounded. “What a nation is Scotland,” the diarist Horace Walpole (1717-97) wrote after the riots, “in every reign engendering traitors to the State, and false and pernicious to the kings that favour it the most.” Edmund Burke (1729-97), perhaps the most notorious advocate of England’s Catholics, defied the mob by refusing to lay low, adamant that he would be “neither… forced nor intimidated from the strait line of what was right.”
Johnson sent his dear friend Hester Thrale an eyewitness account of the riots. “On Friday, the good Protestants met in St. George’s Field,” he wrote, “and marching to Westminster insulted the Lords and Commons, who all bore it with great tameness.” While admitting that he could give “no exact Journal of a weeks defiance of Government,” he did relay what he saw of the general mayhem:
On Tuesday night they pulled down Fieldings house [and]… leaving Fieldings ruins they went to Newgate to demand their companions who had been seized demolishing the Chapel. The Keeper could not release them but by the Mayor’s permission which he went to ask, at his return he found all the prisoners released, and Newgate in a blaze. They then went to Bloomsbury and fastened upon Lord Mansfield’s house, which they pulled down and, and as for his goods they wholly burnt them. They have since gone to Cane Wood, but a guard was there before them. They plundered some papists I think and burnt a Mass house in Moorfields.… At night they set fire to the fleet and to the kingsbench, and I know not how many other places; you might see the glare of conflagration fill the sky… Such a time of terrour you have been happy in not seeing.
The magistrate Sir John Fielding (1721-80) was sympathetic to the Toleration Acts of 1778, which granted concessions to the country’s Catholics, as was the judge William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-1793). When Benjamin Franklin learned of Mansfield’s travails, he was exultant. “Lord Mansfield’s house is burnt, with all his furniture, pictures, books and papers,” the American diplomat wrote from Paris. “Thus, he, who approved the burning of American houses, has had fire brought home to him.” Comically enough, it was the libertine John Wilkes (1725-97) who thwarted the mob from breaking into the Bank of England, a defense of property for which his radical friends never forgave him.
After the rioting was put down, Johnson wrote Mrs. Thrale: “Every body walks, and eats and sleeps in security.” He was happy to relate that “Government now acts again with its proper force and we are all again under the protection of the King and the Laws,” though he was also certain that “the history of the last week would fill You with amazement, it is without any modern example.” Christopher Hibbert, a good Johnsonian in his own right as well as a crack popular historian, wrote his first book on the riots, King Mob (1958), which remains the liveliest account.
Order and disorder were abiding preoccupations of Johnson, whether in the realm of ethics, language, literature, or religion, as this splendid Selected Works amply demonstrates. The crowning volume in Yale’s 23-volume edition of Johnson’s collected writings, the anthology includes generous selections from every genre in which “the great cham of literature” shone – essays, fiction, poetry, criticism, sermons, political commentary, biography, travel writing, and, of course, lexicography.
Thanks to Robert DeMaria Jr.’s inspired editing, here are selections from Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays; his great rendering of Juvenal’s satire, “The Vanity of Human Wishes;” his moving sermon on the death of his wife Tetty; his life of Savage, his philosophical Oriental tale, Rasselas; his Preface to the Dictionary; his Shakespeare criticism; choice extracts from A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, a number of complete lives from his critical masterpiece, Lives of the Poets, including those of Milton, Cowley, Pope and Gray; and much else. Sumptuously produced and nicely annotated, Samuel Johnson: Selected Works will delight old and form many new Johnsonians.
In On Poetry and Poets (1957), T.S Eliot said that the poet in Johnson lay great store by edification, a quality which Eliot approved, even though he acknowledged that in his own time the word had become “an object of derision.” If the word ‘to edify’ came into the language meaning ‘to build,’ it evolved into one meaning ‘to build in holiness.’ Johnson defined the word in his Dictionary as “The act of building up man in the faith; improvement in holiness.” Eliot ended his essay by observing that “amongst the varieties of chaos in which we find ourselves… one is a chaos of language, in which there are… no standards of writing, and an increasing indifference to etymology and the history of the use of words.”
Our chaos might be a good deal more fundamental than the one Eliot endured, but that is precisely one reason why we, too, must endeavor to grow in holiness. A confused world can always use more saints. We can also agree with Eliot that “we need to be repeatedly reminded” of “the responsibility of our poets and critics” for “the preservation of the language,” and certainly this marvelous anthology of Johnson’s edifying work accomplishes that salutary object as well.
(Postscript: On January 20th, Prof. Howard Weinbrot died unexpectedly as a result of COVID complications. A long-term member of the editorial board of Yale’s edition of Johnson’s work, Prof. Weinbrot was also an incisive critic of 18th-century verse satire. My family and I keep this good and beloved scholar and his family in our family prayers.)
Samuel Johnson: Selected Works—The Yale Edition
Edited by Robert De Maria, Jr., Stephen Fix, Howard D. Weinbrot
Yale University Press 2021
Hardcover, 818 pages
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