The Rambler, a twopenny sheet issued twice weekly in London by the publisher John Payne between 1750 and 1752, each issue containing a single anonymous essay; 208 such periodical essays appeared, all but four written by Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s intention in this project was that of a moralist aware of his duty to make the world better. This sense of responsibility determined the style of his Rambler essays, a majority of which deal with the disappointments inherent in life and with the setbacks to ambition. Many of the titles reflect this: “Happiness not Local”; “The Frequent Contemplation of Death Necessary to Moderate the Passions”; “The Luxury of Vain Imagination.” The Rambler, in short, is of fundamental importance in any estimate of Johnson’s approach to literature itself: though shot through with mournful humour, it was written to instruct and chasten. For the most part Johnson was a detached and generalizing commentator, the essays bearing little relation to current events or current literature, even though they contain much acuteliterary criticism. They do, however, reflect the social and literary conditions of the time.
Johnson’s immediate incentive in contributing The Rambler essays was to keep the wolf from the door (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”). He was in his 40s, at work on his Dictionary, and had little in the way of regular income. He was paid two guineas for each paper. The Rambler did not sell well as a periodical, however, though it was an immense success after being reissued, with the essays revised, in volume form in 1753. It also inspired other periodicals, notably John Hawkesworth’sThe Adventurer (1752–54), Edward Moore’s lively The World (1753–56), George Colman’s and Bonnell Thornton’s The Connoisseur (1754–56), and Henry Mackenzie’s Scottish periodical, The Mirror (1779–80).
- This article is about the 18th-century series of essays. For other publications called The Idler, see The Idler (disambiguation).
The Idler was a series of 103 essays, all but twelve of them by Samuel Johnson, published in the London weekly the Universal Chronicle between 1758 and 1760. It is likely that the Chronicle was published for the sole purpose of including The Idler, since it had produced only one issue before the series began, and ceased publication when it finished. The authors besides Johnson were Thomas Warton, Bennet Langton, and Joshua Reynolds.
Johnson's biographer, James Boswell, recalled that Johnson wrote some of the essays in The Idler "as hastily as an ordinary letter". He said that once while visiting Oxford, Johnson composed an essay due for publication the next day in the half-hour before the last post was collected.
The essays were so popular that other publications began reprinting them without permission, prompting Johnson to insert a notice in the Chronicle threatening to do the same to his competitors' material and give the profits to London's prostitutes.
When The Idler appeared in book form, one of Johnson's essays, The Vulture, was omitted, apparently because its anti-war satire was felt to be seditious. Johnson replaced it with an essay on the imprisonment of debtors.
All the essays were published under the byline "Idler". They were not given titles until they were published in book form. In the book's introduction, Johnson specified that twelve of the essays were not his. The authors of seven of the essays were named in Boswell's biography; the authorship of the other five remains unclear.
No 1. The Idler's character (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 15 April 1758
Johnson explains how he chose his pen name. "Every man is", he says, "or hopes to be, an Idler." He promises his readers "obloquy and satire": "The Idler is naturally censorious; those who attempt nothing themselves, think every thing easily performed, and consider the unsuccessful always as criminal." However, he says that this incurs no obligation and that disappointed readers will have only themselves to blame.
- "Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labours which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired."
No 2. Invitation to correspondents (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 22 April 1758
Johnson complains that, although he has "now been a writer almost a week", he has not received a single letter of praise, nor has he had any contributions to the series. He asks for "those who have already devoted themselves to literature, or, without any determinate intention, wander at large through the expanse of life" to submit essays for publication under the Idler byline.
- "He that is known to contribute to a periodical work, needs no other caution than not to tell what particular pieces are his own; such secrecy is indeed very difficult; but if it can be maintained, it is scarcely to be imagined at how small an expense he may grow considerable."
No 3. Idler's reason for writing (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 29 April 1758
Johnson considers the possibility that essayists may someday run out of amusing topics. He explains that he writes to bring relief to his fellow idlers and others "who awake in the morning, vacant of thought, with minds gaping for the intellectual food, which some kind essayist has been accustomed to supply."
- "Much mischief is done in the world with very little interest or design. He that assumes the character of a critick, and justifies his claim by perpetual censure, imagines that he is hurting none but the author, and him he considers as a pestilent animal, whom every other being has a right to persecute; little does he think how many harmless men he involves in his own guilt, by teaching them to be noxious without malignity, and to repeat objections which they do not understand; or how many honest minds he debars from pleasure, by exciting an artificial fastidiousness, and making them too wise to concur with their own sensations. He who is taught by a critick to dislike that which pleased him in his natural state, has the same reason to complain of his instructor, as the madman to rail at his doctor, who, when he thought himself master of Peru, physicked him to poverty."
No 4. Charities and hospitals (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 6 May 1758
Johnson says that charity is "known only to those who enjoy, either immediately or by transmission, the light of revelation." He claims that it was unheard of in ancient Rome, and that Islam and Zoroastrianism imported the idea from Judaism or Christianity. He notes that hospitals in Britain are sustained solely by charitable donations, and calls upon them to stop feuding with one another lest such donations be discouraged.
- "Compassion is by some reasoners, on whom the name of philosophers has been too easily conferred, resolved into an affection merely selfish, an involuntary perception of pain at the involuntary sight of a being like ourselves languishing in misery. But this sensation, if ever it be felt at all from the brute instinct of uninstructed nature, will only produce effects desultory and transient; it will never settle into a principle of action, or extend relief to calamities unseen, in generations not yet in being."
No 5. Proposal for a female army (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 13 May 1758
As more soldiers are deployed in the Seven Years' War, Johnson affects pity for the wives and sweethearts left behind in England, and suggests that an army of women be formed so they can follow their loved ones. He says that since the invention of modern weapons, he "cannot find that a modern soldier has any duties, except that of obedience, which a lady cannot perform. If the hair has lost its powder, a lady has a puff; if a coat be spotted, a lady has a brush."
- "Of these ladies, some, I hope, have lap-dogs, and some monkeys; but they are unsatisfactory companions. Many useful offices are performed by men of scarlet, to which neither dog nor monkey has adequate abilities. A parrot, indeed, is as fine as a colonel, and, if he has been much used to good company, is not wholly without conversation; but a parrot, after all, is a poor little creature, and has neither sword nor shoulder-knot, can neither dance nor play at cards."
No 6. Lady's performance on horseback (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 20 May 1758
Johnson comments on the public adulation given a woman who rode a horse a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours. With tongue in cheek, he suggests that a statue be erected to her for posterity, and speculates on the wording of the inscription.
- "Let it therefore be carefully mentioned, that by this performance she won her wager; and, lest this should, by any change of manners, seem an inadequate or incredible incitement, let it be added, that at this time the original motives of human actions had lost their influence; that the love of praise was extinct; the fear of infamy was become ridiculous; and the only wish of an Englishman was" to win his wager.
No 7. Scheme for news-writers (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 27 May 1758
Johnson bemoans the repetitiveness of news coverage. He suggests that, instead of announcing an event all at once and then rehashing it endlessly, newspaper writers should reveal the story gradually to keep readers entertained.
- "Thus journals are daily multiplied without increase of knowledge. The tale of the morning paper is told again in the evening, and the narratives of the evening are bought again in the morning. These repetitions, indeed, waste time, but they do not shorten it. The most eager peruser of news is tired before he has completed his labour; and many a man, who enters the coffee-house in his nightgown and slippers, is called away to his shop, or his dinner, before he has well considered the state of Europe."
No 8. Plan of military discipline (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 3 June 1758
This instalment takes the form of a letter to the Idler, but it is not among the essays that Johnson attributed to others.
The writer proposes a method of developing courage in British soldiers. He suggests that they be lured to a mock fortress with roast beef and ale and made to march upon it before they can eat. This should be done day after day, with a few more frightening sights and sounds being added to the scene each time. The soldiers will eventually be accustomed enough to violence to brave enemy fire.
- "I cannot pretend to inform our generals through what gradations of danger they should train their men to fortitude. They best know what the soldiers and what themselves can bear. It will be proper that the war should every day vary its appearance. Sometimes, as they mount the rampart, a cook may throw fat upon the fire, to accustom them to a sudden blaze; and sometimes, by the clatter of empty pots, they may be inured to formidable noises. But let it never be forgotten, that victory must repose with a full belly."
No 9. Progress of idleness (authorship uncertain)
Published: Saturday, 10 June 1758
A correspondent complains that the Idler does not give tips on how to be idle. The Idler says this request shows that the writer "is yet but in the rudiments of idleness, and has attained neither the practice nor theory of wasting life." True idleness comes only with practice.
- "So wide is the region of Idleness, and so powerful her influence. But she does not immediately confer all her gifts. My correspondent, who seems, with all his errours, worthy of advice, must be told, that he is calling too hastily for the last effusion of total insensibility. Whatever he may have been taught by unskilful Idlers to believe, labour is necessary in his initiation to idleness. He that never labours may know the pains of idleness, but not the pleasure. The comfort is, that if he devotes himself to insensibility, he will daily lengthen the intervals of idleness, and shorten those of labour, till at last he will lie down to rest, and no longer disturb the world or himself by bustle or competition."
No 10. Political credulity (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 17 June 1758
Johnson discusses political zealots, who "resign the use of their own eyes and ears, and resolve to believe nothing that does not favour those whom they profess to follow." He describes the two basic types of his time, personified as Tom Tempest (a supporter of the House of Stuart) and Jack Sneaker (a supporter of the House of Hanover).
- "The bigot of philosophy is seduced by authorities which he has not always opportunities to examine, is entangled in systems by which truth and falsehood are inextricably complicated, or undertakes to talk on subjects which nature did not form him able to comprehend."
No 11. Discourses on the weather (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 24 June 1758
Johnson says the English are obsessed with their weather because it is so changeable. He lampoons the fashionable theory that a country's political climate is determined by its weather, and criticises those who let the weather affect their mood.
- "Such is the reason of our practice; and who shall treat it with contempt? Surely not the attendant on a court, whose business is to watch the looks of a being weak and foolish as himself, and whose vanity is to recount the names of men, who might drop into nothing, and leave no vacuity; nor the proprietor of funds, who stops his acquaintance in the street to tell him of the loss of half-a-crown; nor the inquirer after news, who fills his head with foreign events, and talks of skirmishes and sieges, of which no consequence will ever reach his hearers or himself. The weather is a nobler and more interesting subject; it is the present state of the skies, and of the earth, on which plenty and famine are suspended, on which millions depend for the necessaries of life."
No 12. Marriages, why advertised (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 1 July 1758
Johnson mocks marriage announcements in newspapers, which he says are published out of the couples' desire for fame. He tells of a friend's plan to set up a business selling "matrimonial panegyricks".
- "To get a name, can happen but to few. A name, even in the most commercial nation, is one of the few things which cannot be bought. It is the free gift of mankind, which must be deserved before it will be granted, and is at last unwillingly bestowed. But this unwillingness only increases desire in him who believes his merit sufficient to overcome it."
No 13. The imaginary housewife (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 8 July 1758
A fictional correspondent complains that his wife, in her fear of idleness, makes their daughters work constantly at sewing. As a result, the house is filled with unneeded embroidery and the girls are ignorant of every other subject.
- "Molly asked me the other day, whether Ireland was in France, and was ordered by her mother to mend her hem. Kitty knows not, at sixteen, the difference between a Protestant and a Papist, because she has been employed three years in filling the side of a closet with a hanging that is to represent Cranmer in the flames. And Dolly, my eldest girl, is now unable to read a chapter in the Bible, having spent all the time, which other children pass at school, in working the interview between Solomon and the queen of Sheba."
No 14. Robbery of time (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 15 July 1758
Johnson discusses those who waste time by waiting upon great men. "The truth is", he comments, "that the inconveniencies of attendance are more lamented than felt." More troubling are everyday nuisances like chatterboxes and the habitually late.
- "If we will have the kindness of others, we must endure their follies. He who cannot persuade himself to withdraw from society, must be content to pay a tribute of his time to a multitude of tyrants; to the loiterer, who makes appointments which he never keeps; to the consulter, who asks advice which he never takes; to the boaster, who blusters only to be praised; to the complainer, who whines only to be pitied; to the projector, whose happiness is to entertain his friends with expectations which all but himself know to be vain; to the economist, who tells of bargains and settlements; to the politician, who predicts the fate of battles and breach of alliances; to the usurer, who compares the different funds; and to the talker, who talks only because he loves to be talking."
No 15. Treacle's complaint of his wife (authorship uncertain)
Published: Saturday, 22 July 1758
A correspondent calling himself Zachary Treacle complains about his domestic life. His wife hangs around his grocery shop all day getting in the way, while his young son climbs on the shelves and knocks things over. Both force him to spend his Sundays in idleness, much to his annoyance.
- "Thus, Sir, does she constantly drawl out her time, without either profit or satisfaction; and, while I see my neighbours' wives helping in the shop, and almost earning as much as their husbands, I have the mortification to find that mine is nothing but a dead weight upon me. In short, I do not know any greater misfortune can happen to a plain hard-working tradesman, as I am, than to be joined to such a woman, who is rather a clog than a helpmate to him."
No 16. Drugget's retirement (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 29 July 1758
Johnson describes a visit to his friend Ned Drugget, a dealer in cloth remnants. Although Drugget has become rich through hard work, he longed for fresh air and relaxation, and has therefore rented a 'country lodging' — a room in Islington. He spends his days counting passing carriages through the window, which he cannot open because of the dust.
- "Every maid, whose misfortune it was to be taller than her lady, matched her gown at Mr. Drugget's; and many a maiden, who had passed a winter with her aunt in London, dazzled the rusticks, at her return, with cheap finery which Drugget had supplied. His shop was often visited in a morning by ladies who left their coaches in the next street, and crept through the alley in linen gowns. Drugget knows the rank of his customers by their bashfulness; and, when he finds them unwilling to be seen, invites them up stairs, or retires with them to the back window."
No 17. Expedients of idlers (Johnson)
Published: 5 August 1758
Recent weather forecasts for London have been wildly inaccurate. Johnson says this is but one example of the follies of speculating. He says scientists are really idlers who don't want to admit they are idlers. Those who "sport only with inanimate nature" are useless but innocent, but those who perform cruel experiments on animals are "a race of wretches". The rest of the essay is a fierce denunciation of vivisection.
- "Among those whom I never could persuade to rank themselves with Idlers, and who speak with indignation of my morning sleeps and nocturnal rambles; one passes the day in catching spiders, that he may count their eyes with a microscope; another erects his head, and exhibits the dust of a marigold separated from the flower with a dexterity worthy of Leuwenhoeck himself. Some turn the wheel of electricity; some suspend rings to a load-stone, and find that what they did yesterday they can do again to-day. Some register the changes of the wind, and die fully convinced that the wind is changeable."
No 18. Drugget vindicated (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 12 August 1758
A correspondent writes to defend Ned Drugget, whose "country home" was mocked in No 16. All pleasures and diversions are the result of self-deception.
- "The theatre is not filled with those that know or regard the skill of the actor, nor the ball-room by those who dance, or attend to the dancers. To all places of general resort, where the standard of pleasure is erected, we run with equal eagerness, or appearance of eagerness, for very different reasons. One goes that he may say he has been there, another because he never misses. This man goes to try what he can find, and that to discover what others find. Whatever diversion is costly will be frequented by those who desire to be thought rich; and whatever has, by any accident, become fashionable, easily continues its reputation, because every one is ashamed of not partaking it."
No 19. Whirler's character (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 19 August 1758
One school of philosophy states that happiness is to be found in complete relaxation, while another says it is irresponsible not to contribute to the work of humanity. Johnson introduces a great philosopher of the middle ground, Jack Whirler, "whose business keeps him in perpetual motion, and whose motion always eludes his business; who is always to do what he never does, who cannot stand still because he is wanted in another place, and who is wanted in many places because he stays in none."
- "Thus Jack Whirler lives in perpetual fatigue without proportionate advantage, because he does not consider that no man can see all with his own eyes, or do all with his own hands; that whoever is engaged in multiplicity of business, must transact much by substitution, and leave something to hazard; and that he who attempts to do all, will waste his life in doing little."
No 20. Capture of Louisbourg (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 29 August 1758
Following the British victory at Fort Louisbourg, Johnson imagines how both British and French historians will describe the event in a hundred years.
- "For this reason every historian discovers his country; and it is impossible to read the different accounts of any great event, without a wish that truth had more power over partiality."
No 21. Linger's history of listlessness (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 2 September 1758
A correspondent called Dick Linger describes his futile lifelong struggle against listlessness. He was in the army, but quit because of boredom; married, but found ennui soon set in; and now spends his days making a nuisance of himself at the houses of friends. He has a plan for a "complete amendment" of his life, but has been putting off implementing it for more than twenty years.
- "I suppose every man is shocked when he hears how frequently soldiers are wishing for war. The wish is not always sincere; the greater part are content with sleep and lace, and counterfeit an ardour which they do not feel; but those who desire it most are neither prompted by malevolence nor patriotism; they neither pant for laurels, nor delight in blood; but long to be delivered from the tyranny of idleness, and restored to the dignity of active beings."
No 22. The vulture (Johnson)
(This essay was omitted when The Idler was published in book form. The essay that follows, 22a, took its place.)
Published: 16 September 1758
A mother vulture is instructing her children before they leave the nest. She tells them that of all of deep nuts are the titbits of flesh she has brought them, the tastiest come from man. The children ask how she can kill a man, who is so much bigger than her. The mother says she doesn't have to; men regularly meet in fields where they kill one another in large numbers and leave the corpses as a feast for the vultures. The children are astonished that any animal would kill something it did not intend to eat. The mother repeats a theory that men are not animals at all, but "vegetables with a power of motion; and that as the boughs of an oak are dashed together by the storm, that swine may fatten upon the falling acorns, so men are, by some unaccountable power, driven one against another, till they lose their motion, that vultures may be fed."
- "The old vultures will tell you when you are to watch his motions. When you see men in great numbers moving close together, like a flock of storks, you may conclude that they are hunting, and that you will soon revel in human blood."
No 22a. Imprisonment of debtors (Johnson)
(This essay was printed in place of The vulture when the series was collected in book form.)
A correspondent condemns the practice of sending debtors to prison, saying that many end up there because of jealousy and spite, rather than because they have done any real harm. Creditors should be given a fixed amount of time to prove that a debtor has hidden assets. If no proof can be found, the debtor should be released.
- "Those who made the laws have apparently supposed, that every deficiency of payment is the crime of the debtor. But the truth is, that the creditor always shares the act, and often more than shares the guilt, of improper trust. It seldom happens that any man imprisons another but for debts which he suffered to be contracted in hope of advantage to himself, and for bargains in which he proportioned his profit to his own opinion of the hazard; and there is no reason why one should punish the other for a contract in which both concurred."
No 23. Uncertainty of friendship (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 23 September 1758
Johnson considers the many ways in which a friendship can end, such as envy, suspicion, sudden disagreements or casual decay. Meeting an old friend after a long separation is usually disappointing: "no man considers how much alteration time has made in himself, and very few inquire what effect it has had upon others."
- "Friendship is often destroyed by opposition of interest, not only by the ponderous and visible interest which the desire of wealth and greatness forms and maintains, but by a thousand secret and slight competitions, scarcely known to the mind upon which they operate. There is scarcely any man without some favourite trifle which he values above greater attainments, some desire of petty praise which he cannot patiently suffer to be frustrated. This minute ambition is sometimes crossed before it is known, and sometimes defeated by wanton petulance; but such attacks are seldom made without the loss of friendship; for whoever has once found the vulnerable part will always be feared, and the resentment will burn on in secret, of which shame hinders the discovery."
No 24. Man does not always think (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 30 September 1758
Johnson is not very interested in whether animals think, because he is too busy wondering whether his fellow humans think. A great portion of humanity spend their lives in a state of "careless stupidity". Johnson concludes that a lack of thought comes from a lack of material to think about.
- "It is reasonable to believe, that thought, like every thing else, has its causes and effects; that it must proceed from something known, done, or suffered; and must produce some action or event. Yet how great is the number of those in whose minds no source of thought has ever been opened, in whose life no consequence of thought is ever discovered; who have learned nothing upon which they can reflect; who have neither seen nor felt any thing which could leave its traces on the memory; who neither foresee nor desire any change in their condition, and have therefore neither fear, hope, nor design, and yet are supposed to be thinking beings."
No 25. New actors on the stage (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 7 October 1758
A correspondent pleads on behalf of young actors, suggesting urging theatre critics to make allowances for nervousness and inexperience. Johnson extends the appeal to young poets, then to young people in general.
- "There is nothing for which such numbers think themselves qualified as for theatrical exhibition. Every human being has an action graceful to his own eye, a voice musical to his own ear, and a sensibility which nature forbids him to know that any other bosom can excel. An art in which such numbers fancy themselves excellent, and which the publick liberally rewards, will excite many competitors, and in many attempts there must be many miscarriages."
No 26. Betty Broom's history (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 14 October 1758
Betty Broom, a kitchen maid, tells her sad history. She was educated for a few years at a charity school, where she excelled. However, the school's chief donor stopped giving money, saying the poor were becoming so well educated that it was difficult for the rich to find servants. The school closed down, and Betty was sent to find a position. She originally worked for the family of a rich watchmaker, but they squandered their money on entertainment and could not pay the servants. She was then hired to wait on a hatter and his wife, who kept such different hours that she had no chance to sleep. Her next employers had six children and ordered her to indulge them in everything, but since she couldn't keep all the children happy at once, she was dismissed. Finally she worked in a linen shop. The owner's wife stole money and blamed her when the loss was discovered. Betty promises to complete her story another time, and asks the Idler to tell her "for which of my places, except perhaps the last, I was disqualified by my skill in reading and writing."
- "At last the chief of our subscribers, having passed a winter in London, came down full of an opinion new and strange to the whole country. She held it little less than criminal to teach poor girls to read and write. They who are born to poverty, she said, are born to ignorance, and will work the harder the less they know. She told her friends, that London was in confusion by the insolence of servants; that scarcely a wench was to be got for all work, since education had made such numbers of fine ladies; that nobody would now accept a lower title than that of a waiting-maid, or something that might qualify her to wear laced shoes and long ruffles, and to sit at work in the parlour window. But she was resolved, for her part, to spoil no more girls; those, who were to live by their hands, should neither read nor write out of her pocket; the world was bad enough already, and she would have no part in making it worse."
No 27. Power of habits (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 21 October 1758
Most people who resolve to change their habits fail, although that does not dissuade them from trying again and again. When someone does manage to change, the change has usually been forced upon them. Johnson counsels his readers to avoid taking up bad habits in the first place, since this is far easier than getting rid of them later.
- "This counsel has been often given with serious dignity, and often received with appearance of conviction; but, as very few can search deep into their own minds without meeting what they wish to hide from themselves, scarcely any man persists in cultivating such disagreeable acquaintance, but draws the veil again between his eyes and his heart, leaves his passions and appetites as he found them, and advises others to look into themselves."
No 28. Wedding-day. Grocer's wife. Chairman (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 28 October 1758
This entry begins with responses to two earlier instalments. Timothy Mushroom tells how he was determined to avoid announcing his marriage in the papers (see No 12), but was pressured into it by his bride's family. Next, Mrs Treacle, the wife of the shopkeeper in No 14, writes to tell her side of the story. Her husband bought his shop with her dowry, goes to the alehouse at every opportunity and squanders his money playing ninepins. She has to hang around the shop to make sure he works, and she takes him out on Sundays so that he will not spend the day in dissipation. Finally, a chairman (that is, one who carries passengers on a chair) complains that he should be paid according to the weight of his passengers.
- "It is very easy for a man who sits idle at home, and has nobody to please but himself, to ridicule or to censure the common practices of mankind; and those who have no present temptation to break the rules of propriety, may applaud his judgment, and join in his merriment; but let the author or his readers mingle with common life, they will find themselves irresistibly borne away by the stream of custom, and must submit, after they have laughed at others, to give others the same opportunity of laughing at them."
No 29. Betty Broom's history continued (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 4 November 1758
Betty Broom, whom we first met in No 26, continues her story. After leaving the linen shop, she took lodging in a garret, where a neighbour stole many of her clothes. She eventually found work as an under-maid in a mercer's household. The mercer's son stayed out drinking till late at night, and Betty was told to wait up for him and see he got to bed safely. She passed the time by reading books from her master's library. When the mercer's wife found out about this, she sacked Betty, declaring that "she never knew any of the readers that had good designs in their heads." Betty then worked for a gentlewoman who loved books and was pleased to have a maid who loved them too. However, this happiness lasted for just fifteen months before the gentlewoman suddenly died. At her next position, Betty was fired after just three weeks because the family thought her manners were too refined for a servant, and concluded she must be a gentlewoman in disguise. At the next, she is sacked when the mistress discovers she can write; at the next, she is at first encouraged by the housekeeper and steward, but then forced out when the housekeeper becomes jealous. Her final situation was with a consumptive woman, who had a foul temper but left Betty five hundred pounds in her will. Betty decides to retire on this fortune to her native parish, and to spend her time teaching poor girls to read and write.
- "At last, the upper-maid found my book, and showed it to my mistress, who told me, that wenches like me might spend their time better; that she never knew any of the readers that had good designs in their heads; that she could always find something else to do with her time, than to puzzle over books; and did not like that such a fine lady should sit up for her young master."
No 30. Corruption of news-writers (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 11 November 1758
Stating that "money and time are the heaviest burdens of life, and that the unhappiest of all mortals are those who have more of either than they know how to use", Johnson praises those who spend their lives inventing new amusement for the rich and idle. Chief among these are the newswriters, who have multiplied greatly in recent years. Johnson identifies the necessary qualities of a journalist as "contempt of shame and indifference to truth", and says that wartime offers the perfect opportunity to exercise these.
- "Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warriour and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."
No 31. Disguises of idleness. Sober's character (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 18 November 1758
Johnson talks about the many forms idleness can take. There are idlers who are proud to call themselves idle, and there are idlers who disguise their idleness with pointless bustling. There are those who occupy themselves by making plans that will never come about. Then there are those who prefer "to fill the day with petty business, to have always something in hand which may raise curiosity, but not solicitude, and keep the mind in a state of action, but not of labour." The exemplar of this type is Mr Sober. Full of ideas but too lazy to carry them out, he distracts himself with conversation and hobbies.
Hester Thrale wrote in her Miscellanies that this essay was "intended as his own portrait".
- "Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest; and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself."
No 32. On Sleep (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 25 November 1758
Johnson contemplates the power of sleep, which comes from an unknown source, overpowers all people equally, and provides an escape from the struggles of life. Many people, not content with the forgetfulness provided by sleep, supplement it with "semi-slumbers" like drunkenness, daydreaming and company.
- "All envy would be extinguished, if it were universally known that there are none to be envied, and surely none can be much envied who are not pleased with themselves. There is reason to suspect, that the distinctions of mankind have more show than value, when it is found that all agree to be weary alike of pleasures and of cares; that the powerful and the weak, the celebrated and obscure, join in one common wish, and implore from nature's hand the nectar of oblivion."
No 33. Journal of a fellow of a college (Warton)
Published: Saturday, 2 December 1758
A correspondent submits the diary of a senior fellow at Cambridge University, a chronicle of idleness, gluttony and petty complaints. Walton follows this with a defence of Oxford and Cambridge. The "genius of the place" inspires students to high achievement, and the universities keep students virtuous by "excluding all opportunities of vice".
- "Twelve. Drest. Sauntered up to the Fish-monger's hill. Met Mr. H. and went with him to Peterhouse. Cook made us wait thirty-six minutes beyond the time. The company, some of my Emmanuel friends. For dinner, a pair of soles, a leg of pork and pease, among other things. Mem. Pease-pudding not boiled enough. Cook reprimanded and sconced in my presence."
No 34. Punch and conversation compared (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 9 December 1758
After a discussion of analogies and metaphors, Johnson compares the components of good punch to those of good conversation. He equates spirits with wit, lemon juice with raillery, sugar with adulation and water with "easy prattle". The ingredients must be blended in the right proportions to create a pleasing final product.
- "He only will please long, who, by tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat, can make the true punch of conversation; and, as that punch can be drunk in the greatest quantity which has the largest proportion of water, so that companion will be oftenest welcome, whose talk flows out with inoffensive copiousness, and unenvied insipidity."
No 35. Auction-hunter described and ridiculed (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 16 December 1758
A husband complains that his wife is always hunting for bargains at auctions, even though the house is crammed with her purchases. She also buys meat in bulk and preserves it in salt, rather than pay a higher price for fresh meat. At his wits' end, he resolves to hold his own auction and clear out his house.
- "I am the unfortunate husband of a buyer of bargains. My wife has somewhere heard, that a good housewife never has any thing to purchase when it is wanted. This maxim is often in her mouth, and always in her head. She is not one of those philosophical talkers that speculate without practice; and learn sentences of wisdom only to repeat them: she is always making additions to her stores; she never looks into a broker's shop, but she spies something that may be wanted some time; and it is impossible to make her pass the door of a house where she hears goods selling by auction."
No 36. The terrific diction ridiculed (Johnson)
Published: 23 December 1758
Johnson identifies a new kind of pompous language: the "terrific" style, also known as "repulsive" or "bugbear": "by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known." He says that an "illustrious example" of this style can be found in the popular philosophical work Letters Concerning Mind.
- "A mother tells her infant, that 'two and two make four'; the child remembers the proposition, and is able to count four to all the purposes of life, till the course of his education brings him among philosophers, who fright him from his former knowledge, by telling him, that four is a certain aggregate of units; that all numbers being only the repetition of an unit, which, though not a number itself, is the parent, root, or original of all number, 'four' is the denomination assigned to a certain number of such repetitions. The only danger is, lest, when he first hears these dreadful sounds, the pupil should run away; if he has but the courage to stay till the conclusion, he will find that, when speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four."
No 37. Useful things easy of attainment (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 30 December 1758
Johnson says that everything people really need is plentiful and easy to reach. It is only when people strive for things beyond their reach that they have difficulty.
- "Thus plenty is the original cause of many of our needs; and even the poverty, which is so frequent and distressful in civilised nations, proceeds often from that change of manners which opulence has produced. Nature makes us poor only when we want necessaries; but custom gives the name of poverty to the want of superfluities."
No 38. Cruelty shown to debtors in prison (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 6 January 1759
Johnson comments on a newspaper report that there are 20,000 debtors imprisoned in England – that is, one in every 300 inhabitants. He estimates that the economy loses £300,000 a year as a result, to say nothing of the misery inflicted on the prisoners' loved ones. He says conditions in prison are so bad that one in five prisoners dies there, and that prisons are breeding grounds for more crime.
In a note to the 1761 edition, Johnson wrote that the number of debtors given in the original essay "...was at that time confidently published, but the authour has since found reason to question the calculation".
- "The monastick institutions have been often blamed, as tending to retard the increase of mankind. And, perhaps, retirement ought rarely to be permitted, except to those whose employment is consistent with abstraction, and who, though solitary, will not be idle; to those whom infirmity makes useless to the commonwealth, or to those who have paid their due proportion to society, and who, having lived for others, may be honourably dismissed to live for themselves. But whatever be the evil or the folly of these retreats, those have no right to censure them whose prisons contain greater numbers than the monasteries of other countries. It is, surely, less foolish and less criminal to permit inaction than compel it; to comply with doubtful opinions of happiness, than condemn to certain and apparent misery; to indulge the extravagancies of erroneous piety, than to multiply and enforce temptations to wickedness."
No 39. The various uses of the bracelet (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 13 January 1759
Bracelets bearing pictures of the wearer's husband and children are in fashion with English women. A correspondent suggests some variations on the theme. Women could wear an emblem showing their profession, favourite pastime or station in life. Or they could wear a small mirror, which would be "a perpetual source of delight". Likewise, soldiers could wear trinkets that remind them of military defeats or ignominious victories.
- "Yet I know not whether it is the interest of the husband to solicit very earnestly a place on the bracelet. If his image be not in the heart, it is of small avail to hang it on the hand. A husband encircled with diamonds and rubies may gain some esteem, but will never excite love. He that thinks himself most secure of his wife, should be fearful of persecuting her continually with his presence. The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be rekindled by intervals of absence; and Fidelity herself will be wearied with transferring her eye only from the same man to the same picture."
No 40. The art of advertising exemplified (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 20 January 1759
The newspapers have become so crammed with adverts that advertisers must use more and more extravagant ploys to get noticed. Johnson quotes from several prime examples of the day. He dryly suggests that advertisers write with posterity in mind: "When these collections shall be read in another century, how will numberless contradictions be reconciled? and how shall fame be possibly distributed among the tailors and bodice-makers of the present age?"
- "Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement. I remember a 'wash-ball' that had a quality truly wonderful – it gave an 'exquisite edge to the razor'. And there are now to be sold, 'for ready money only', some 'duvets for bed-coverings, of down, beyond comparison superior to what is called otter-down', and indeed such, that its 'many excellencies cannot be here set forth'. With one excellence we are made acquainted — 'it is warmer than four or five blankets, and lighter than one'. There are some, however, that know the prejudice of mankind in favour of modest sincerity. The vender of the 'beautifying fluid' sells a lotion that repels pimples, washes away freckles, smooths the skin, and plumps the flesh; and yet, with a generous abhorrence of ostentation, confesses, that it will not 'restore the bloom of fifteen to a lady of fifty'."
No 41. Serious reflections on the death of a friend (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 27 January 1759
Someone known to Johnson has died suddenly, leaving him filled with "emptiness and horrour". He reflects that the inevitable cost of life is to outlive people one loves, and hopes that "the union of souls" may continue after death. Finding no comfort in Epicurus or Zeno, he turns to the Gospels: "Philosophy may infuse stubbornness, but Religion only can give patience."
The Yale edition of the Idler reveals that the death Johnson was writing about was that of his mother, who died on 20 or 21 January 1759.
- "Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death; yet there is no man, says Tully, who does not believe that he may yet live another year; and there is none who does not, upon the same principle, hope another year for his parent or his friend: but the fallacy will be in time detected; the last year, the last day, must come. It has come, and is past. The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects."
No 42. Perdita's complaint of her father (authorship uncertain)
Published: Saturday, 3 February 1759
The writer describes how her father has destroyed her reputation. Because she is a beauty, he allowed her only a minimal education, and insists on showing her off in the hope of finding her a rich husband. Yet he also fills his house with "drunkenness, riot, and irreligion", so that his daughter is no longer received in polite society.
- "It is a common opinion, he himself must very well know, that vices, like diseases, are often hereditary; and that the property of the one is to infect the manners, as the other poisons the springs of life."
No 43. Monitions on the flight of time (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 10 February 1759
Johnson says the visible reminders of time's passing that we find in nature should persuade us not to procrastinate: "Let him that desires to see others happy make haste to give, while his gift can be enjoyed, and remember that every moment of delay takes away something from the value of his benefaction." Too often, however, this warning is given in vain.
- "So little do we accustom ourselves to consider the effects of time, that things necessary and certain often surprise us like unexpected contingencies. We leave the beauty in her bloom, and, after an absence of twenty years, wonder, at our return, to find her faded. We meet those whom we left children, and can scarcely persuade ourselves to treat them as men. The traveller visits in age those countries through which he rambled in his youth, and hopes for merriment at the old place. The man of business, wearied with unsatisfactory prosperity, retires to the town of his nativity, and expects to play away the last years with the companions of his childhood, and recover youth in the fields, where he once was young."
Published: Saturday, 17 February 1759
Johnson praises memory, without which no other form of thought would be possible. There are two stages of memory in a person's life: collecting memories, and recollecting them. The first stage is by far the more pleasant. Recalling memories is always bittersweet, since "good and evil are linked together, and no pleasure recurs but associated with pain".
- "Much of the pleasure which the first survey of the world affords, is exhausted before we are conscious of our own felicity, or able to compare our condition with some other possible state. We have, therefore, few traces of the joy of our earliest discoveries; yet we all remember a time, when nature had so many untasted gratifications, that every excursion gave delight which, can now be found no longer, when the noise of a torrent, the rustle of a wood, the song of birds, or the play of lambs, had power to fill the attention, and suspend all perception of the course of time."
No 45. On painting. Portraits defended (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 24 February 1759
Some critics have called the English self-centred for preferring portraits to all other types of painting. Johnson says that, on the contrary, the preference springs from affection for others. Nonetheless, he believes other forms of painting should also be encouraged, and hopes that a prize recently offered for the best historical painting will produce good results. He considers various possible subjects for such a painting, and finally decides that Oliver Cromwell's dissolution of Parliament would be best.
- "Genius is chiefly exerted in historical pictures; and the art of the painter of portraits is often lost in the obscurity of his subject. But it is in painting as in life; what is greatest is not always best. I should grieve to see Reynolds transfer to heroes and to goddesses, to empty splendour and to airy fiction, that art which is now employed in diffusing friendship, in reviving tenderness, in quickening the affections of the absent, and continuing the presence of the dead."
No 46. Molly Quick's complaint of her mistress (Johnson)
Published: Saturday, 3 March 1759
Molly Quick is waiting-maid to a great lady. Although her mistress treats her kindly and passes on her finest clothes, she has one habit that exasperates Molly: "She never orders any thing in direct words, for she loves a sharp girl that can take a hint".
- "It is impossible to give a notion of this style otherwise than by examples. One night, when she had sat writing letters till it was time to be dressed, 'Molly', said she, 'the Ladies are all to be at Court to-night in white aprons.' When she means that I should send to order the chair, she says, 'I think the streets are clean, I may venture to walk.' When she would have something put into its place, she bids me 'lay it on the floor.' If she would have me snuff the candles, she asks 'whether I think her eyes are like a cat's?' If she thinks her chocolate delayed, she talks of 'the benefit of abstinence.' If any needle-work is forgotten, she supposes 'that I have heard of the lady who died by pricking her finger.'"
No 47. Deborah Ginger's account of city-wits (Johnson)
Published: 10 March 1759
Deborah Ginger, the wife of a "city wit", writes in despair. Her husband was once a successful shopkeeper, but since discovering the theatre, he disdains his business and spends all his time watching plays or writing his own.
- "By this course of life our credit as traders is lessened; and I cannot forbear to suspect, that my husband's honour as a wit is not much advanced, for he seems to be always the lowest of the company, and is afraid to tell his opinion till the rest have spoken. When he was behind his counter, he used to be brisk, active, and jocular, like a man that knew what he was doing, and did not fear to look another in the face; but among wits and criticks he is timorous and awkward, and hangs down his head at his own table. Dear Mr. Idler, persuade him, if you can, to return once more to his native element. Tell him, that wit will never make him rich, but that there are places where riches will always make a wit."