Thursday, February 11, 2010

Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, Penguin Classics, New York, 2007.

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and persue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the histories of Rasselas prince of Abissinia. (opening sentence, 7)

The sides of the mountains were covered with trees, the banks of the brooks were diversified with flowers; every blast shook spices from the rocks, and every month dropped fruits upon the ground. All animals that bite the grass, or brouse the shrub, whether wild or tame, wandered in this extensive circuit, secured from beasts of prey by the mountains which confined them. … All the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded. / The valley, wide and fruitful, supplied its inhabitants with the necessaries of life, and all delights and superfluities were added at the annual visit which the emperour paid his children, when the iron gate was opened to the sound of musick; (8)

The house, which was so large as to be fully known to none but some ancient officers who successively inherited the secrets of the place, was built as if suspicion herself had dictated the plan. To every room there was an open and secret passage, every square had a communication with the rest, either from the upper stories by private galleries, or by subterranean passages from the lower apartments. (9)

They wandered in gardens of fragrance, and slept in the fortresses of security. (9)

To heighten their opinion of their own felicity, they were daily entertained with songs, the subject of which was the Happy Valley. (10)

The intermediate hours are tedious and gloomy; I long again to be hungry that I may again quicken my attention. The birds peck the berries or the corn, and fly away to the groves where they sit in seeming happiness on the branches, and waste their lives in tuning one unvaried series of sounds. I likewise can call the lutanist and the sunger, but the sounds that pleased me yesterday weary me to day, and will grow yet more wearisome to morrow. (11)

After this he lifted up his head, and seeing the moon rising, walked towards the palace. As he passed through the fields, and saw the animals around him, ‘Ye’, said he, ‘are happy, and need not envy me that walk thus among you, burthened with myself; nor do I, ye gentle beings, envy your felicity; for it is not the felicity of man. I have many distresses from which ye are free; I fear pain when I do not feel it; I sometimes shrink at evil recollected, and sometimes start at evils anticipated: surely the equity of providence has balanced peculiar sufferings with peculiar enjoyments.’ (11)

…receive some solace of the miseries of life, from consciousness of the delicacy with which he felt, … (11)

‘I fly from pleasure,’ said the prince, ‘because pleasure has ceased to please; (12)

When I see the kids and the lambs chasing one another, I fancy that I should be happy if I had something to persue. … I have already too much; give me something to desire.’ / The old man was surprised at this new species of affliction, and knew not what to reply, yet was unwilling to be silent. ‘Sir’, said he, ‘if you had seen the miseries of the world, you would know how to value your present state.’ ‘Now,’ said the prince, ‘you have given me something to desire; I shall long to see the miseries of the world, since the sight of them is necessary to happiness.’ (13)

He was now no longer gloomy and unsocial; but, considering himself as master of a secret stock of happiness, which he could enjoy only by concealing it, he affected to be busy in all schemes of diversion, (14)

His chief amusement was to picture to himself that world which he had never seen; to place himself in various condition; to be entangled in imaginary difficulties, and to be engaged in wild adventures: but his benevolence always terminated his projects in the relief of distress, the detection of fraud, the defeat of oppression, and the diffusion of happiness. (14)

He passed week after week in clambering the mountains, to see if there was any aperture which the bushes might conceal, but found all the summits inaccessible by their prominence. (16)

The time, however, passed cheerfully away: in the morning he rose with new hope, in the evening applauded his own diligence, and in the night slept sound after his fatigue. He met a thousand amusements which beguiled his labour, and diversified his thoughts. He discerned the various instincts of animals, and properties of plants, and found the place replete with the contemplation, if he should never be able to accomplish his flight; rejoicing that his endeavours, though yet unsuccessful, had supplied him with a source of inexhaustible enquiry. (17)

By a wheel, which the stream turned, he forced the water into a tower, whence it was distributed to all the apartments of the palace. He erected a pavilion in the garden, around which he kept the air always cool by artificial showers. One of the groves, appropriated to the ladies, was ventilated by fans, to which the rivulet that run through it gave a constant motion; and instruments of soft musick were placed at proper distances, of which some played by the impulse of the wind, and some by the power of the stream. (18)

‘The labour of rising from the ground,’ said the artist, ‘will be great, as we see it in the heavier domestick fowls; but, as we mount higher, the earth’s attraction, and the body’s gravity, will be gradually diminished, till we shall arrive at a region where the man will float in the air without any tendency to fall: no care will then be necessary, but to move forwards, which the gentlest impulse will effect. You, Sir, whose curiosity is so extensive, will easily conceive with what pleasure a philosopher, furnished with wings, and hovering in the sky, would see the earth, and all its inhabitants, rolling beneath him, and presenting to him successively, by its diurnal motion, all the countries within the same parallel. (19)

‘Nothing,’ replied the artist, ‘will be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome. (19)

The rain continued longer and with more violence than had been ever known: the clouds broke on the surrounding mountains, and the torrents streamed into the plain on every side, till the cavern was too narrow to discharge the water. The lake overflowed its banks, and all the level of the valley was covered with the inundation. The eminence, on which the palace was built, and some other spots of rising ground, were all that the eye could now discover. The herds and flocks left the pastures, and both the wild beasts and the tame retreated to the mountains. (21)

‘Sir’, said Imlac, ‘my history will not be long: the life that is devoted to knowledge passes silently away, and is very little diversified by events. To talk in publick, to think in solitude, to read and to hear, to enquire, and answer enquiries, is the business of a scholar. [To talk…a scholar: Cf. A Fragment of the late Dr. Johnson on the Character and Duty of an Academick, included in John Moir, Hospitality: A Discourse (London: 1793): ‘An academick is a man supported at the public cost, and dignified with public honours, that he may attain and impart wisdom. He is maintained by the public, that he may study at leisure; he is dignified with honours, that he may teach with weight. The great duty therefore of an academick is diligence of inquiry, and liberality of communication’ (p. 43). Cf. also Adventurer 85 (p. 416): ‘To read, write, and converse in due proportions, is…the business of a man of letters.’] (22)

‘This,’ said the prince, ‘I do not understand, but I had rather hear thee than dispute. Continue thy narration.’ (23)

‘We laid our money upon camels, concealed in bales of cheap goods, and traveled to the shore of the Red Sea. When I cast my eye on the expanse of waters my heart bounded like that of a prisoner escaped. (24)

‘When I first entered upon the world of waters, and lost sight of land, I looked round about me with pleasing terrour, [pleasing terrour: ‘Notion associated with the experience of the sublime—with ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’, as Edmund Burke writes in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the sublime and Beautiful (1757; ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin 1998), p. 86). Imlac’s emotion echo Burke’s assertions that ‘the ocean is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close’ (p. 92).] (25)

they were my enemies because they grieved to think me rich, and my oppressors because they delighted to find me weak.’ (26)

Whatever be the reason, it is commonly observed that the early writers are in possession of nature, and their followers of art: that the first excel in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement. [the first excel…refinement: Homer and Virgil were sometimes distinguished in this way. Cf. SJ’s ‘Life of Dryden’: ‘In the comparison of Homer and Virgil the discriminative excellence of Homer is elevation and comprehension of thought, and that of Virgil is grace and splendor of diction’ (Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birbeck Hill, 3 vols. (Oxfored: Claredon Press, 1905), I, pp. 447-8).] (28)

‘When this thought had taken possession of my mind, I considered every moment as wasted which did not bring me nearer to Abissinia. I hastened into Egypt, and, notwithstanding my impatience, was detained ten months in the contemplation of its ancient magnificence, and in enquiries after the remains of its ancient learning. (33)

I live in the crowds of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself, and am only loud and merry to conceal my sadness. (43)

In the assembly, where you passed the last night, there appeared such spriteliness of air, and volatility of fancy, as might have suited beings of an higher order, formed to inhabit serener regions inaccessible to care or sorrow: yet, believe me, prince, there was not one who did not dread the moment when solitude should deliver him to the tyranny of reflection.’ (43)

‘Youth,’ cried he, ‘is the time of gladness: I will join myself to the young men, whose only business is to gratify their desires, and whose time is all spent in a succession of enjoyments.’ / To such societies he was readily admitted, but a few days brought him back weary and disgusted. Their mirth was without images, their laughter without motive; their pleasures were gross and sensual, in which the mind had no part…he thought it unsuitable to a reasonable being to act without a plan, and to be sad or cheerful only by chance.’ (44)

The proposal pleased them, and they induced the shepherds, by small presents and familiar questions, to tell their opinion of their own state: they were so rude and ignorant, so little able to compare the good with the evil of the occupation, and so indistinct in their narratives and descriptions, that very little could be learned from them. But it was evident that their heats were cankered with discontent; that they considered themselves as condemned to labour for the luxury of the rich, and looked up with stupid malevolence toward those that were placed above them.
The princess pronounced with vehemence, that she would never suffer these envious savages to be her companions, and that she should not soon be desirous of seeing any more specimens of rustick happiness; but could not believe that all the accounts of primeval pleasures were fabulous, and was yet in doubt whether life had any thing that could be justly preferred to the placid gratifications of fields and woods. She hoped that the time would come, when, with a few virtuous and elegant companions, she should gather flowers planted by her own hand, fondle the lambs of her own ewe, and listen, without care, among brooks and breezes, to one of her maidens reading in the shade. (48-49)

‘For some time after my retreat, I rejoiced like a tempest-beaten sailor at his entrance into the harbour, being delighted with the sudden change of the noise and hurry of war, to stillness and repose. When the pleasure of novelty went away, I employed my hours in examining the plants which grow in the valley, and the minerals which I collected from the rocks. But that enquiry is now grown tasteless and irksome. I have been for some time unsettled and distracted: my mind is disturbed with a thousand perplexities of doubt, and vanities of imagination, which hourly prevail upon me, because I have no opportunities of relaxation and diversion. I am sometimes ashamed to think that I could not secure myself from vice, but retiring from exercise of virtue, … In solitude, if I escape the example of bad men, I want likewise the counsel and conversation of the good. (52)

Some talked of the right of society to the labour of individuals, and considered retirement as a desertion of duty. Others readily allowed, that there was a time when the claims of the publick were satisfied, and when a man might properly sequester himself, to review his life, and purify his heart. (53)

Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures. (61)

While courts are disturbed with intestine competitions, and ambassadours are negotiating in foreign countries, the smith still plies his anvil, … (63)

…I am sometimes disposed to think with the severer casuists of most nations, that marriage is rather permitted than approved, and that none, but by the instigations of a passion too much indulged, entangle themelves with indissoluble compacts.’ / ‘You seem to forget,’ replied Rasselas, ‘that you have, even now, represented celibacy as less happy than marriage. Both conditions may be bad, but they cannot both be worst. … To the mind, as to the eye, it is difficult to compare with exactness objects vast in their extent, and various in their parts. (64)

You surely conclude too hastily from the infelicity of marriage against its institution; will not the misery of life prove equally that life cannot be the gift of heaven? The world must be peopled by marriage, or peopled without it.’ / ‘How the world is to be peopled,’ returned Nekayah, ‘is not my care, and needs not be yours. I see no danger that the present generation should omit to leave successors behind them: we are not now equiring for the world, but for ourselves.’ (65)

‘It seems to me,’ said Imlac, ‘that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live. (68)

Whoever thou art, that, not content with a moderate condition, imaginest happiness in royal magnificence, and dreamest that command or riches can feed the appetite of novelty with perpetual gratifications, survey the pyramids, and confess thy folly!’ (74)

I was weary of looking in the morning on things from which I had turned away weary in the evening: I therefore was at last willing to observe the starts rather than do nothing, (87)

But to a man like the Arab such beauty was only a flower casually plucked and carelessly thrown away. Whatever pleasures he might find among them, they were not those of friendship or society. When they were plaing about him he looked on them with inattentive superiority: when they vied for his regard he sometimes turned away disgusted. As they had no knowledge, their talk could take nothing from the tediousness of life: as they had no choice, their fondness, or appearance of fondness, excited in him neither pride nor gratitude; he was not exalted in his own esteem by the smiles of a woman who saw no other man, nor was much obliged by that regard, of which he could never know the sincerity, and which he might often perceive to be exerted not so much to delight him as to pain a rival. (89)

I have possessed for five years the regulation of weather, and the distribution of the seasons: … I have administered this great office with exact justice, and made to the different nations of the earth an impartial dividend of rain and sunshine. What must have been the misery of half the globe, if I had limited the clouds to particular regions, or confined the sun to either side of the equator?” (93)

‘ “About ten years ago,” said he, “my daily observations of the changes of the sky led me to consider, whether, if I had the power of the seasons, I could confer greater plenty upon the inhabitants of the earth. This contemplation fastened on my mind, and I sat days and nights in imaginary dominion, pouring upon this country and that the showers of fertility, and seconding every fall of rain with a due proportion of sunshine. I had yet only the will to do good, and did not imagine that I should ever have the power. / “ ‘One day as I was looking on the fields withering with heat, I felt in my mind a sudden wish that I could send rain on the southern mountains, and raise the Nile to an inundation. In the hurry of my imagination I command, with that of the inundation, I found that the clouds had listned to my lips.” … ‘ “Why, Sir,” said I, “do you call that incredible, which you know, or think you know, to be true.” / ‘ “Because,” said he, “I cannot prove it by any external evidence; and I know too well the laws of demonstration to think that my conviction ought to influence another, who cannot, like me, be conscious of its force. I, therefore, shall not attempt to gain credit by disputation. It is sufficient that I fell this power, that I have long possessed, and every day exerted it. But the life of man is short, the infirmities of age increase upon me, and the time will soon come when the regulator of the year must mingle with the dust. The care of appointing a successor has long disturbed me; … 94-95)

‘Sir,’ said the princess, ‘an evening walk must give to a man of learning, like you, pleasures which ignorance and youth can hardly conceive. You know the qualities and the causes of all that you behold, the laws by which the river flows, the periods in which the planets perform their revolutions. Every thing must supply you with contemplation, and renew the consciousness of your own dignity.’ / ‘Lady,’ answered he, ‘let the gay and the vigorous expect pleasure in their excursions, it is enough that age can obtain ease. To me the world has lost its novelty: I look round, and see what I remember to have seen in happier days. I rest against a tree, and consider, that in the same shade I once disputed upon the annual overflow of the Nile with a friend who is now silent in the grave. I cast my eyes upwards, fix them on the changing moon, and think with pain on the vicissitudes of life. I have ceased to take much delight in physical truth; for what have I to do with those things which I am soon to leave?’ (99)


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