The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. VIIX: British
Fictions and Facts of Country Life
By Samuel Johnson (17091784)
From The Idler
DICK SHIFTER was born in Cheapside, and, having passed reputably through all the classes of St. Pauls school, has been for some years a student in the Temple. He is of opinion that intense application dulls the faculties, and thinks it necessary to temper the severity of the law by books that engage the mind but do not fatigue it. He has therefore made a copious collection of plays, poems, and romances, to which he has recourse when he fancies himself tired with statutes and reports; and he seldom inquires very nicely whether he is weary or idle.
Dick has received from his favourite authors very strong impressions of a country life; and though his farthest excursions have been to Greenwich on one side and Chelsea on the other, he has talked for several years, with great pomp of language and elevation of sentiments, about a state too high for contempt and too low for envy, about homely quiet and blameless simplicity, pastoral delights and rural innocence.
His friends who had estates in the country often invited him to pass the summer among them, but something or other had always hindered him, and he considered that to reside in the house of another man was to incur a kind of dependence inconsistent with that laxity of life which he had imaged as the chief good.
This summer he resolved to be happy, and procured a lodging to be taken for him at a solitary house, situated about thirty miles from London, on the banks of a small river, with corn-fields before it, and a hill on each side covered with wood. He concealed the place of his retirement, that none might violate his obscurity; and promised himself many a happy day when he should hide himself among the trees, and contemplate the tumults and vexations of the town.
He stepped into the post-chaise with his heart beating and his eyes sparkling, was conveyed through many varieties of delightful prospects, saw hills and meadows, corn-fields and pasture, succeed each other, and for four hours charged none of his poets with fiction or exaggeration. He was now within six miles of happiness; when, having never felt so much agitation before, he began to wish his journey at an end, and the last hour was passed in changing his posture and quarrelling with his driver.
An hour may be tedious, but cannot be long. He at length alighted at his new dwelling, and was received as he expected. He looked round upon the hills and rivulets, but his joints were stiff and his muscles sore, and his first request was to see his bed-chamber.
He rested well, and ascribed the soundness of his sleep to the stillness of the country. He expected from that time nothing but nights of quiet and days of rapture, and, as soon as he had risen, wrote an account of his new state to one of his friends in the Temple.
I never pitied thee before. I am now, as I could wish every man of wisdom and virtue to be, in the regions of calm content and placid meditation; with all the beauties of nature soliciting my notice, and all the diversities of pleasure courting my acceptance; the birds are chirping in the hedges, and the flowers blooming in the mead; the breeze is whistling in the wood, and the sun dancing on the water. I can now say, with truth, that a man, capable of enjoying the purity of happiness, is never more busy than in his hours of leisure, nor ever less solitary than in a place of solitude.
When he had sent away his letter he walked into the wood, with some inconvenience from the furze that pricked his legs and the briers that scratched his face. He at last sat down under a tree, and heard with great delight a shower, by which he was now wet, rattling among the branches. This, said he, is the true image of obscurity; we hear of troubles and commotions, but never feel them.
His amusement did not overpower the calls of nature, and he therefore went back to order his dinner. He knew that the country produces whatever is eaten or drunk, and, imagining that he was now at the source of luxury, resolved to indulge himself with dainties which he supposed might be procured at a price next to nothing, if any price at all was expected; and intended to amaze the rustics with his generosity, by paying more than they would ask. Of twenty dishes which he named, he was amazed to find that scarcely one was to be had; and heard, with astonishment and indignation, that all the fruits of the earth were sold at a higher price than in the streets of London.
His meal was short and sullen, and he retired again to his tree, to inquire how dearness could be consistent with abundance, or how fraud could be practised by simplicity. He was not satisfied with his own speculations, and, returning home early in the evening, went a while from window to window, and found that he wanted something to do.
He inquired for a newspaper, and was told that farmers never minded news, but that they could send for it from the ale-house. A messenger was despatched, who ran away at full speed, but loitered an hour behind the hedges, and at last coming back with his feet purposely bemired, instead of expressing the gratitude which Mr. Shifter expected for the bounty of a shilling, said that the night was wet and the way dirty, and he hoped that his Worship would not think it much to give him half a crown.
Dick now went to bed with some abatement of his expectations; but sleep, I know not how, revives our hopes and rekindles our desires. He rose early in the morning, surveyed the landscape, and was pleased. He walked out, and passed from field to field, without observing any beaten path, and wondered that he had not seen the shepherdesses dancing, nor heard the swains piping to their flocks.
At last he saw some reapers and harvest-women at dinner. Here, said he, are the true Arcadians, and advanced courteously toward them, as afraid of confusing them by the dignity of his presence. They acknowledged his superiority by no other token than that of asking him for something to drink. He imagined that he had now purchased the privilege of discourse, and began to descend to familiar questions, endeavouring to accommodate his discourse to the grossness of rustic understandings. The clowns soon found that he did not know wheat from rye, and began to despise him; one of the boys, by pretending to show him a birds nest, decoyed him into a ditch; and one of the wenches sold him a bargain.
This walk had given him no great pleasure; but he hoped to find other rustics less coarse of manners and less mischievous of disposition. Next morning he was accosted by an attorney, who told him that, unless he made Farmer Dobson satisfaction for trampling his grass, he had orders to indict him. Shifter was offended, but not terrified; and telling the attorney that he was himself a lawyer, talked so volubly of pettifoggers and barraters, that he drove him away.
Finding his walks thus interrupted, he was inclined to ride, and being pleased with the appearance of a horse that was grazing in a neighbouring meadow, inquired the owner; who warranted him sound, and would not sell him but that he was too fine for a plain man. Dick paid down the price, and, riding out to enjoy the evening, fell with his new horse into a ditch. They got out with difficulty, and as he was going to mount again, a countryman looked at the horse and perceived him to be blind. Dick went to the seller and demanded back his money; but he was told that a man who rented his ground must do the best for himself; that his landlord had his rent though the year was barren; and that, whether horses had eyes or no, he should sell them to the highest bidder.