Samuel Johnson, in Rambler No. 184, likens the serendipitous manner in which the subject of an essay — or that of any work of art — is realized by the writer or artist, to the role that chance plays in the actions of one's life. Johnson describes the ease of finding a subject for an essayist; the method he claims to be universal is simply to choose whatever thoughts exist when the writer's deadline is closing in.
As every scheme of life, so every form of writing, has its advantages and inconveniences, though not mingled in the same proportions. The writer of essays escapes many embarrassments to which a large work would have exposed him; he seldom harasses his reason with long trains of consequences, dims his eyes with the perusal of antiquated volumes, or burthens his memory with great accumulations of preparatory knowledge. A careless glance upon a favourite author, or transient survey of the varieties of life, is sufficient to supply the first hint or seminal idea, which, enlarged by the gradual accretion of matter stored in the mind, is by the warmth of fancy easily expanded into flowers, and sometimes ripened into fruit.
The most frequent difficulty by which the authors of these petty compositions are distressed, arises from the perpetual demand of novelty and change. The compiler of a system of science lays his invention at rest, and employs only his judgment, the faculty exerted with least fatigue. Even the relator of feigned adventures, when once the principal characters are established, and the great events regularly connected, finds incidents and episodes crowding upon his mind; every change opens new views, and the latter part of the story grows without labour out of the former. But he that attempts to entertain his reader with unconnected pieces, finds the irksomeness of his task rather increased than lessened by every production. The day calls afresh upon him for a new topick, and he is again obliged to choose, without any principle to regulate his choice. It is indeed true, that there is seldom any necessity of looking far, or inquiring long for a proper subject. Every diversity of art or nature, every publick blessing or calamity, every domestick pain or gratification, every sally of caprice, blunder of absurdity, or stratagem of affectation, may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity. But it often happens, that the judgment is distracted with boundless multiplicity, the imagination ranges from one design to another, and the hours pass imperceptibly away, till the composition can be no longer delayed, and necessity enforces the use of those thoughts which then happen to be at hand. The mind, rejoicing at deliverance on any terms from perplexity and suspense, applies herself vigorously to the work before her, collects embellishments and illustrations, and sometimes finishes, with great elegance and happiness, what in a state of ease and leisure she never had begun.
It is not commonly observed, how much, even of actions, considered as particularly subject to choice, is to be attributed to accident, or some cause out of our own power, by whatever name it be distinguished. To close tedious deliberations with hasty resolves, and after long consultations with reason to refer the question to caprice, is by no means peculiar to the essayist. Let him that peruses this paper review the series of his life, and inquire how he was placed in his present condition. He will find, that of the good or ill which he has experienced, a great part came unexpected, without any visible gradations of approach; that every event has been influenced by causes acting without his intervention; and that whenever he pretended to the prerogative of foresight, he was mortified with new conviction of the shortness of his views.
Johnson speaks on the subject of writing and the processes used by writers, ostensibly including himself, in an ironically patronizing tone. The essay seems to be of a self-deprecating nature until the fourth paragraph, when he explains that to consider oneself above such reliance on chance, when writing or otherwise, is to be incorrect.
1. In the first paragraph, Johnson lists several actions usually involved in writing larger works. What is he trying to say about his profession or his peers in choosing to use the language that he does in these sentences ("harasses his reason", "dims his eyes", "burthens his memory")?
2. Johnson calls judgment "the faculty exerted with least fatigue" during the second paragraph. Why include that line?
3. Johnson states that "Every diversity of art or nature . . . may supply matter to him whose only rule is to avoid uniformity." Is he referring to only writers whom this describes, or is he saying that avoiding uniformity is inherently the only concern any writer has?
4. Is Johnson's aim in this essay to defend himself and other writers? Does he assume that the reader agrees with his initial condescending (albeit ironic) statements about writing?
Last modified 22 September 2012