book cover imageThe History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,
by Samuel Johnson.
Edited by Warren Fleischauer.
New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 1962. 189 pp.
[Edition reviewed; Penguin edition (Kindle); Free edition (Kindle)]

Warren Fleischauer’s edition of Rasselas cannot fail to become the one regularly used in college courses. It is a model, indeed, for editors of other such books. The design is elegant, the type large, and the price remarkably low (seventy-five cents). What is more, Dr. Fleischauer has provided both an admirable introduction and a bibliography that will prove valuable to students, not to say teachers, including as it does, besides the more familiar critical articles, those essays by Belloc and Chesterton that somehow elude most listings. Editor and publisher are both to be congratulated.

With the possible exception of The Lives of the Poets, Rasselas contains more of Johnson, explores more of his characteristic concerns, and explores them in greater depth than any of his other works. Here we find him at his best on morality, on the nature of the soul, on literature, marriage, celibacy, sanity and madness, solitude, philosophy, pilgrimages, ghosts, and politics. In Rasselas we have his conclusions about all these subjects; subjects he had so often discussed at Bolt Court or at The Club. Rasselas, accordingly, is a kind of touchstone for appreciation of Johnson. Those who like Rasselas—Boswell and Belloc read it every year—are the real Johnsonians.

Rasselas appeared at almost the same time as Candide, and for that reason, and because they are superficially alike in form and message, they have often been compared. Yet, as Boswell said, “though the proposition illustrated by both these works was the same, namely, that in our present state there is more evil than good, the intention of the writers was very different.” They indeed differ markedly in the effect they have upon the reader. “No good man is the better for having read Candide,” wrote Hilaire Belloc, “but every man is the better for having read Rasselas.”

Both Boswell and Belloc discern that it is Voltaire’s intention to make his reader feel superior. Encouraging a certain kind of arrogance, he makes us feel that other men are fools. Johnson, however, does the opposite, as anyone will understand who listens to the somber music of his opening sentence, surely one of the great openings in literature. “Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue 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 be supplied by the morrow, attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.” The opening sentence: but its effect, a matter of rhythm, of periodicity, as much as of meaning, is rather as if a gate had closed. It is precisely this irony, of beginnings that are really endings, of hopes doomed by the nature of things to frustration, that is at the center of the tale and is recapitulated in its various incidents as the story unfolds.

Like Voltaire, then, Johnson knows that men are credulous, that they listen to the whispers of fancy; but unlike Voltaire, who scorns them for it, Johnson feels a profound compassion that can be heard in his prose and that finds dramatic expression in the relationship between the experienced Imlac and the ingenuous young prince. Voltaire was a master of contempt, Johnson a man of caritas, and they epitomize opposite tendencies in the culture of the Enlightenment.

Johnson’s caritas is one reason why Rasselas, anything but a cheerful book, does not leave the reader depressed. Another is its paradoxically therapeutic effect. By no means what Hazlitt thought it, “the most melancholy and debilitating moral speculation that ever was put forth,” Rasselas actually is bracing, life-enhancing.

Realizing that the desire for felicity renders us discontented with our present condition, Johnson persuades us that felicity is not attainable on earth. He thus rescues the present moment from the tyranny of unfulifilable hopes. He helps us—F. R. Leavis’s phrase comes to mind—to live where we stand. Furthermore, in addition to this recovering of the present moment, Rasselas makes a number of important affirmations, and these gain in power, in validity, by reason of the fact that they are not defeated by Johnson’s knowledge that “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.”

For one thing, Johnson thinks the great poet has a noble calling. In a justly famous passage, Imlac, celebrating the “perfect poet,” rises to heights of eloquence.

“To a poet nothing can be useless . . . The plants of the garden, the animals of the wood, the minerals of the earth, and meteors of the sky, must all concur to store his mind with inexhaustible variety: for every idea is useful for the enforcement or decoration of moral or religious truth . . . But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet: he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life . . . He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age and country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same.”

A passage of such energy, Hazlitt to the contrary, is scarcely debilitating.

Johnson, like most of the other great men of the English Enlightenment, but unlike the French, was an orthodox Christian. The “unhappiness of human life,” he told Boswell, “gives us reason to hope for a future state of compensation, that there may be a perfect system; but of that we were not sure, ’til we had a positive revelation.” Rasselas, demonstrating the unhappiness of human life, makes in Imlac’s arguments for the immortality of the soul its religious affirmation.

Finally, there is Imlac’s quiet courage, which comes to stand for the courage implicit in the human enterprise itself. The special drama of Imlac, as the Italian critic Agostino Lombardo has shown, springs from the fact that he too “is engaged on his own account, and not only as companion and guide, and he continues this search although, unlike Rasselas, he knows from his own experience that the quest [for happiness] is vain and illusory.” His decision to go on, in the teeth of the evidence, justifies Lombardo’s sense of him as prefiguring those modern Existentialist heroes who affirm a meaning beyond the experience of meaninglessness. 

Jeffrey Hart was, at the time of writing, Assistant Professor of English, Columbia University.