The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., by James Boswell

1769: AETAT. 60.

I came to London in the autumn, and having informed him that I was going to be married in a few months, I wished to have as much of his conversation as I could before engaging in a state of life which would probably keep me more in Scotland, and prevent me seeing him so often as when I was a single man; but I found he was at Brighthelmstone with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale.

After his return to town, we met frequently, and I continued the practice of making notes of his conversation, though not with so much assiduity as I wish I had done. At this time, indeed, I had a sufficient excuse for not being able to appropriate so much time to my Journal; for General Paoli, after Corsica had been overpowered by the monarchy of France, was now no longer at the head of his brave countrymen, but having with difficulty escaped from his native island, had sought an asylum in Great-Britain; and it was my duty, as well as my pleasure, to attend much upon him. Such particulars of Johnson’s conversation at this period as I have committed to writing, I shall here introduce, without any strict attention to methodical arrangement. Sometimes short notes of different days shall be blended together, and sometimes a day may seem important enough to be separately distinguished.

He said, he would not have Sunday kept with rigid severity and gloom, but with a gravity and simplicity of behaviour.

I told him that David Hume had made a short collection of Scotticisms. ‘I wonder, (said Johnson,) that HE should find them.’

On the 30th of September we dined together at the Mitre. I attempted to argue for the superior happiness of the savage life, upon the usual fanciful topicks. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there can be nothing more false. The savages have no bodily advantages beyond those of civilised men. They have not better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears. No, Sir; you are not to talk such paradox: let me have no more on’t. It cannot entertain, far less can it instruct. Lord Monboddo, one of your Scotch Judges, talked a great deal of such nonsense. I suffered HIM; but I will not suffer YOU.’— BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, does not Rousseau talk such nonsense?’ JOHNSON. ‘True, Sir, but Rousseau KNOWS he is talking nonsense, and laughs at the world for staring at him.’ BOSWELL. ‘How so, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, a man who talks nonsense so well, must know that he is talking nonsense. But I am AFRAID, (chuckling and laughing,) Monboddo does NOT know that he is talking nonsense.’ BOSWELL. ‘Is it wrong then, Sir, to affect singularity, in order to make people stare?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, if you do it by propagating errour: and, indeed, it is wrong in any way. There is in human nature a general inclination to make people stare; and every wise man has himself to cure of it, and does cure himself. If you wish to make people stare by doing better than others, why, make them stare till they stare their eyes out. But consider how easy it is to make people stare by being absurd. I may do it by going into a drawing-room without my shoes. You remember the gentleman in The Spectator, who had a commission of lunacy taken out against him for his extreme singularity, such as never wearing a wig, but a night-cap. Now, Sir, abstractedly, the night-cap was best; but, relatively, the advantage was overbalanced by his making the boys run after him.’

Talking of a London life, he said, ‘The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom.’ BOSWELL. ‘The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; but that is occasioned by the largeness of it, which is the cause of all the other advantages.’ BOSWELL. ‘Sometimes I have been in the humour of wishing to retire to a desart.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you have desart enough in Scotland.’

Although I had promised myself a great deal of instructive conversation with him on the conduct of the married state, of which I had then a near prospect, he did not say much upon that topick. Mr. Seward heard him once say, that ‘a man has a very bad chance for happiness in that state, unless he marries a woman of very strong and fixed principles of religion.’ He maintained to me, contrary to the common notion, that a woman would not be the worse wife for being learned; in which, from all that I have observed of Artemisias, I humbly differed from him.

When I censured a gentleman of my acquaintance for marrying a second time, as it shewed a disregard of his first wife, he said, ‘Not at all, Sir. On the contrary, were he not to marry again, it might be concluded that his first wife had given him a disgust to marriage; but by taking a second wife he pays the highest compliment to the first, by shewing that she made him so happy as a married man, that he wishes to be so a second time.’ So ingenious a turn did he give to this delicate question. And yet, on another occasion, he owned that he once had almost asked a promise of Mrs. Johnson that she would not marry again, but had checked himself. Indeed, I cannot help thinking, that in his case the request would have been unreasonable; for if Mrs. Johnson forgot, or thought it no injury to the memory of her first love — the husband of her youth and the father of her children — to make a second marriage, why should she be precluded from a third, should she be so inclined? In Johnson’s persevering fond appropriation of his Tetty, even after her decease, he seems totally to have overlooked the prior claim of the honest Birmingham trader. I presume that her having been married before had, at times, given him some uneasiness; for I remember his observing upon the marriage of one of our common friends, ‘He has done a very foolish thing, Sir; he has married a widow, when he might have had a maid.’

We drank tea with Mrs. Williams. I had last year the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Thrale at Dr. Johnson’s one morning, and had conversation enough with her to admire her talents, and to shew her that I was as Johnsonian as herself. Dr. Johnson had probably been kind enough to speak well of me, for this evening he delivered me a very polite card from Mr. Thrale and her, inviting me to Streatham.

On the 6th of October I complied with this obliging invitation, and found, at an elegant villa, six miles from town, every circumstance that can make society pleasing. Johnson, though quite at home, was yet looked up to with an awe, tempered by affection, and seemed to be equally the care of his host and hostess. I rejoiced at seeing him so happy.

He played off his wit against Scotland with a good humoured pleasantry, which gave me, though no bigot to national prejudices, an opportunity for a little contest with him. I having said that England was obliged to us for gardeners, almost all their good gardeners being Scotchmen. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that is because gardening is much more necessary amongst you than with us, which makes so many of your people learn it. It is ALL gardening with you. Things which grow wild here, must be cultivated with great care in Scotland. Pray now (throwing himself back in his chair, and laughing,) are you ever able to bring the SLOE to perfection?’

I boasted that we had the honour of being the first to abolish the unhospitable, troublesome, and ungracious custom of giving vails to servants. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you abolished vails, because you were too poor to be able to give them.’

Mrs. Thrale disputed with him on the merit of Prior. He attacked him powerfully; said he wrote of love like a man who had never felt it: his love verses were college verses; and he repeated the song ‘Alexis shunn’d his fellow swains,’ &c., in so ludicrous a manner, as to make us all wonder how any one could have been pleased with such fantastical stuff. Mrs. Thrale stood to her gun with great courage, in defence of amorous ditties, which Johnson despised, till he at last silenced her by saying, ‘My dear Lady, talk no more of this. Nonsense can be defended but by nonsense.’

Mrs. Thrale then praised Garrick’s talent for light gay poetry; and, as a specimen, repeated his song in Florizel and Perdita, and dwelt with peculiar pleasure on this line:

‘I’d smile with the simple, and feed with the poor.’

JOHNSON. ‘Nay, my dear Lady, this will never do. Poor David! Smile with the simple; — What folly is that? And who would feed with the poor that can help it? No, no; let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich.’ I repeated this sally to Garrick, and wondered to find his sensibility as a writer not a little irritated by it. To sooth him, I observed, that Johnson spared none of us; and I quoted the passage in Horace, in which he compares one who attacks his friends for the sake of a laugh, to a pushing ox, that is marked by a bunch of hay put upon his horns: ‘foenum habet in cornu.’ ‘Ay, (said Garrick vehemently,) he has a whole MOW of it.’

He would not allow much merit to Whitefield’s oratory. ‘His popularity, Sir, (said be,) is chiefly owing to the peculiarity of his manner. He would be followed by crowds were he to wear a night-cap in the pulpit, or were he to preach from a tree.’

On the evening of October 10, I presented Dr. Johnson to General Paoli. I had greatly wished that two men, for whom I had the highest esteem, should meet. They met with a manly ease, mutually conscious of their own abilities, and of the abilities of each other. The General spoke Italian, and Dr. Johnson English, and understood one another very well, with a little aid of interpretation from me, in which I compared myself to an isthmus which joins two great continents. Upon Johnson’s approach, the General said, ‘From what I have read of your works, Sir, and from what Mr. Boswell has told me of you, I have long held you in great veneration.’ The General talked of languages being formed on the particular notions and manners of a people, without knowing which, we cannot know the language. We may know the direct signification of single words; but by these no beauty of expression, no sally of genius, no wit is conveyed to the mind. All this must be by allusion to other ideas. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) you talk of language, as if you had never done any thing else but study it, instead of governing a nation.’ The General said, ‘Questo e un troppo gran complimento;’ this is too great a compliment. Johnson answered, ‘I should have thought so, Sir, if I had not heard you talk.’ The General asked him, what he thought of the spirit of infidelity which was so prevalent. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, this gloom of infidelity, I hope, is only a transient cloud passing through the hemisphere, which will soon be dissipated, and the sun break forth with his usual splendour.’ ‘You think then, (said the General,) that they will change their principles like their clothes.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, if they bestow no more thought on principles than on dress, it must be so.’ The General said, that ‘a great part of the fashionable infidelity was owing to a desire of shewing courage. Men who have no opportunities of shewing it as to things in this life, take death and futurity as objects on which to display it.’ JOHNSON. ‘That is mighty foolish affectation. Fear is one of the passions of human nature, of which it is impossible to divest it. You remember that the Emperour Charles V, when he read upon the tomb-stone of a Spanish nobleman, “Here lies one who never knew fear,” wittily said, “Then he never snuffed a candle with his fingers.”’

Dr. Johnson went home with me, and drank tea till late in the night. He said, ‘General Paoli had the loftiest port of any man he had ever seen.’ He denied that military men were always the best bred men. ‘Perfect good breeding,’ he observed, ‘consists in having no particular mark of any profession, but a general elegance of manners; whereas, in a military man, you can commonly distinguish the BRAND of a soldier, l’homme d’epee.’

Dr. Johnson shunned to-night any discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate. ‘Sir, (said he,) we KNOW our will is free, and THERE’S an end on’t.’

He honoured me with his company at dinner on the 16th of October, at my lodgings in Old Bond-street, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Garrick, Dr. Goldsmith, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Bickerstaff, and Mr. Thomas Davies. Garrick played round him with a fond vivacity, taking hold of the breasts of his coat, and, looking up in his face with a lively archness, complimented him on the good health which he seemed then to enjoy; while the sage, shaking his head, beheld him with a gentle complacency. One of the company not being come at the appointed hour, I proposed, as usual upon such occasions, to order dinner to be served; adding, ‘Ought six people to be kept waiting for one?’ ‘Why, yes, (answered Johnson, with a delicate humanity,) if the one will suffer more by your sitting down, than the six will do by waiting.’ Goldsmith, to divert the tedious minutes, strutted about, bragging of his dress, and I believe was seriously vain of it, for his mind was wonderfully prone to such impressions. ‘Come, come, (said Garrick,) talk no more of that. You are, perhaps, the worst — eh, eh!’— Goldsmith was eagerly attempting to interrupt him, when Garrick went on, laughing ironically, ‘Nay, you will always LOOK like a gentleman; but I am talking of being well or ILL DREST.’ ‘Well, let me tell you, (said Goldsmith,) when my tailor brought home my bloom-coloured coat, he said, “Sir, I have a favour to beg of you. When any body asks you who made your clothes, be pleased to mention John Filby, at the Harrow, in Waterlane.”’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that was because he knew the strange colour would attract crowds to gaze at it, and thus they might hear of him, and see how well he could make a coat even of so absurd a colour.’

After dinner our conversation first turned upon Pope. Johnson said, his characters of men were admirably drawn, those of women not so well. He repeated to us, in his forcible melodious manner, the concluding lines of the Dunciad. While he was talking loudly in praise of those lines, one of the company22 ventured to say, ‘Too fine for such a poem:— a poem on what?’ JOHNSON, (with a disdainful look,) ‘Why, on DUNCES. It was worth while being a dunce then. Ah, Sir, hadst THOU lived in those days! It is not worth while ‘being a dunce now, when there are no wits.’ Bickerstaff observed, as a peculiar circumstance, that Pope’s fame was higher when he was alive than it was then. Johnson said, his Pastorals were poor things, though the versification was fine. He told us, with high satisfaction, the anecdote of Pope’s inquiring who was the authour of his London, and saying, he will be soon deterre. He observed, that in Dryden’s poetry there were passages drawn from a profundity which Pope could never reach. He repeated some fine lines on love, by the former, (which I have now forgotten,) and gave great applause to the character of Zimri. Goldsmith said, that Pope’s character of Addison shewed a deep knowledge of the human heart. Johnson said, that the description of the temple, in The Mourning Bride, was the finest poetical passage he had ever read; he recollected none in Shakspeare equal to it. ‘But, (said Garrick, all alarmed for the ‘God of his idolatry,’) we know not the extent and variety of his powers. We are to suppose there are such passages in his works. Shakspeare must not suffer from the badness of our memories.’ Johnson, diverted by this enthusiastick jealousy, went on with greater ardour: ‘No, Sir; Congreve has NATURE;’ (smiling on the tragick eagerness of Garrick;) but composing himself, he added, ‘Sir, this is not comparing Congreve on the whole, with Shakspeare on the whole; but only maintaining that Congreve has one finer passage than any that can be found in Shakspeare. Sir, a man may have no more than ten guineas in the world, but he may have those ten guineas in one piece; and so may have a finer piece than a man who has ten thousand pounds: but then he has only one ten-guinea piece. What I mean is, that you can shew me no passage where there is simply a description of material objects, without any intermixture of moral notions, which produces such an effect.’ Mr. Murphy mentioned Shakspeare’s description of the night before the battle of Agincourt; but it was observed, it had MEN in it. Mr. Davies suggested the speech of Juliet, in which she figures herself awaking in the tomb of her ancestors. Some one mentioned the description of Dover Cliff. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; it should be all precipice — all vacuum. The crows impede your fall. The diminished appearance of the boats, and other circumstances, are all very good descriptions; but do not impress the mind at once with the horrible idea of immense height. The impression is divided; you pass on by computation, from one stage of the tremendous space to another. Had the girl in The Mourning Bride said, she could not cast her shoe to the top of one of the pillars in the temple, it would not have aided the idea, but weakened it.’

22 Everyone guesses that ‘one of the company’ was Boswell. — HILL.

Talking of a Barrister who had a bad utterance, some one, (to rouse Johnson,) wickedly said, that he was unfortunate in not having been taught oratory by Sheridan. JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, if he had been taught by Sheridan, he would have cleared the room.’ GARRICK. ‘Sheridan has too much vanity to be a good man.’ We shall now see Johnson’s mode of DEFENDING a man; taking him into his own hands, and discriminating. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. There is, to be sure, in Sheridan, something to reprehend, and every thing to laugh at; but, Sir, he is not a bad man. No, Sir; were mankind to be divided into good and bad, he would stand considerably within the ranks of good. And, Sir, it must be allowed that Sheridan excels in plain declamation, though he can exhibit no character.’

Mrs. Montagu, a lady distinguished for having written an Essay on Shakspeare, being mentioned; REYNOLDS. ‘I think that essay does her honour.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir: it does HER honour, but it would do nobody else honour. I have, indeed, not read it all. But when I take up the end of a web, and find it packthread, I do not expect, by looking further, to find embroidery. Sir, I will venture to say, there is not one sentence of true criticism in her book.’ GARRICK. ‘But, Sir, surely it shews how much Voltaire has mistaken Shakspeare, which nobody else has done.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, nobody else has thought it worth while. And what merit is there in that? You may as well praise a schoolmaster for whipping a boy who has construed ill. No, Sir, there is no real criticism in it: none shewing the beauty of thought, as formed on the workings of the human heart.’

The admirers of this Essay may be offended at the slighting manner in which Johnson spoke of it; but let it be remembered, that he gave his honest opinion unbiassed by any prejudice, or any proud jealousy of a woman intruding herself into the chair of criticism; for Sir Joshua Reynolds has told me, that when the Essay first came out, and it was not known who had written it, Johnson wondered how Sir Joshua could like it. At this time Sir Joshua himself had received no information concerning the authour, except being assured by one of our most eminent literati, that it was clear its authour did not know the Greek tragedies in the original. One day at Sir Joshua’s table, when it was related that Mrs. Montagu, in an excess of compliment to the authour of a modern tragedy, had exclaimed, ‘I tremble for Shakspeare;’ Johnson said, ‘When Shakspeare has got —— for his rival, and Mrs. Montagu for his defender, he is in a poor state indeed.’

On Thursday, October 19, I passed the evening with him at his house. He advised me to complete a Dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland, of which I shewed him a specimen. ‘Sir, (said he,) Ray has made a collection of north-country words. By collecting those of your country, you will do a useful thing towards the history of the language. He bade me also go on with collections which I was making upon the antiquities of Scotland. ‘Make a large book; a folio.’ BOSWELL. ‘But of what use will it be, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Never mind the use; do it.’

I complained that he had not mentioned Garrick in his Preface to Shakspeare; and asked him if he did not admire him. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, as “a poor player, who frets and struts his hour upon the stage;”— as a shadow.’ BOSWELL. ‘But has he not brought Shakspeare into notice?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, to allow that, would be to lampoon the age. Many of Shakspeare’s plays are the worse for being acted: Macbeth, for instance.’ BOSWELL. ‘What, Sir, is nothing gained by decoration and action? Indeed, I do wish that you had mentioned Garrick.’ JOHNSON. ‘My dear Sir, had I mentioned him, I must have mentioned many more: Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Cibber — nay, and Mr. Cibber too; he too altered Shakspeare.’ BOSWELL. ‘You have read his apology, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, it is very entertaining. But as for Cibber himself, taking from his conversation all that he ought not to have said, he was a poor creature. I remember when he brought me one of his Odes to have my opinion of it; I could not bear such nonsense, and would not let him read it to the end; so little respect had I for THAT GREAT MAN! (laughing.) Yet I remember Richardson wondering that I could treat him with familiarity.’

I mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. JOHNSON. ‘Most of them, Sir, have never thought at all.’ BOSWELL. ‘But is not the fear of death natural to man?’ JOHNSON. ‘So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.’ He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the aweful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: ‘I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between GOD and myself.’

Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others; — JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, Sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good: more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.’ BOSWELL. ‘But suppose now, Sir, that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.’ JOHNSON. ‘I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.’ BOSWELL. ‘Would you eat your dinner that day, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me. Why, there’s Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plumb-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetic feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.’

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ‘This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself. And as to his not sleeping, Sir; Tom Davies is a very great man; Tom has been upon the stage, and knows how to do those things. I have not been upon the stage, and cannot do those things.’ BOSWELL. ‘I have often blamed myself, Sir, for not feeling for others as sensibly as many say they do.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, don’t be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They PAY you by FEELING.’

BOSWELL. ‘Foote has a great deal of humour?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘He has a singular talent of exhibiting character.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is not a talent; it is a vice; it is what others abstain from. It is not comedy, which exhibits the character of a species, as that of a miser gathered from many misers: it is farce, which exhibits individuals.’ BOSWELL. ‘Did not he think of exhibiting you, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, fear restrained him; he knew I would have broken his bones. I would have saved him the trouble of cutting off a leg; I would not have left him a leg to cut off.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, is not Foote an infidel?’ JOHNSON. ‘I do not know, Sir, that the fellow is an infidel; but if he be an infidel, he is an infidel as a dog is an infidel; that is to say, he has never thought upon the subject.’23 BOSWELL. ‘I suppose, Sir, he has thought superficially, and seized the first notions which occurred to his mind.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why then, Sir, still he is like a dog, that snatches the piece next him. Did you never observe that dogs have not the power of comparing? A dog will take a small bit of meat as readily as a large, when both are before him.’

23 When Mr. Foote was at Edinburgh, he thought fit to entertain a numerous Scotch company, with a great deal of coarse jocularity, at the expense of Dr. Johnson, imagining it would be acceptable. I felt this as not civil to me; but sat very patiently till he had exhausted his merriment on that subject; and then observed, that surely Johnson must be allowed to have some sterling wit, and that I had heard him say a very good thing of Mr. Foote himself. ‘Ah, my old friend Sam (cried Foote,) no man says better things; do let us have it.’ Upon which I told the above story, which produced a very loud laugh from the company. But I never saw Foote so disconcerted. — BOSWELL.

BOSWELL. ‘What do you think of Dr. Young’s Night Thoughts, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, there are very fine things in them.’ BOSWELL. ‘Is there not less religion in the nation now, Sir, than there was formerly?’ JOHNSON. ‘I don’t know, Sir, that there is.’ BOSWELL. ‘For instance, there used to be a chaplain in every great family, which we do not find now.’ JOHNSON. ‘Neither do you find any of the state servants, which great families used formerly to have. There is a change of modes in the whole department of life.’

Next day, October 20, he appeared, for the only time I suppose in his life, as a witness in a Court of Justice, being called to give evidence to the character of Mr. Baretti, who having stabbed a man in the street, was arraigned at the Old Bailey for murder. Never did such a constellation of genius enlighten the aweful Sessions-House, emphatically called JUSTICE HALL; Mr. Burke, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Beauclerk, and Dr. Johnson: and undoubtedly their favourable testimony had due weight with the Court and Jury. Johnson gave his evidence in a slow, deliberate, and distinct manner, which was uncommonly impressive. It is well known that Mr. Baretti was acquitted.

On the 26th of October, we dined together at the Mitre tavern. I found fault with Foote for indulging his talent of ridicule at the expence of his visitors, which I colloquially termed making fools of his company. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, when you go to see Foote, you do not go to see a saint: you go to see a man who will be entertained at your house, and then bring you on a publick stage; who will entertain you at his house, for the very purpose of bringing you on a publick stage. Sir, he does not make fools of his company; they whom he exposes are fools already: he only brings them into action.’

We went home to his house to tea. Mrs. Williams made it with sufficient dexterity, notwithstanding her blindness, though her manner of satisfying herself that the cups were full enough appeared to me a little aukward; for I fancied she put her finger down a certain way, till she felt the tea touch it.24 In my first elation at being allowed the privilege of attending Dr. Johnson at his late visits to this lady, which was like being e secretioribus consiliis, I willingly drank cup after cup, as if it had been the Heliconian spring. But as the charm of novelty went off, I grew more fastidious; and besides, I discovered that she was of a peevish temper.

24 Boswell afterwards learned that she felt the rising tea on the outside of the cup. — ED.

There was a pretty large circle this evening. Dr. Johnson was in very good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects. Mr. Fergusson, the self-taught philosopher, told him of a new-invented machine which went without horses: a man who sat in it turned a handle, which worked a spring that drove it forward. ‘Then, Sir, (said Johnson,) what is gained is, the man has his choice whether he will move himself alone, or himself and the machine too.’ Dominicetti being mentioned, he would not allow him any merit. ‘There is nothing in all this boasted system. No, Sir; medicated baths can be no better than warm water: their only effect can be that of tepid moisture.’ One of the company took the other side, maintaining that medicines of various sorts, and some too of most powerful effect, are introduced into the human frame by the medium of the pores; and, therefore, when warm water is impregnated with salutiferous substances, it may produce great effects as a bath. This appeared to me very satisfactory. Johnson did not answer it; but talking for victory, and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber’s comedies: ‘There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.’ He turned to the gentleman, ‘well, Sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated; but be sure that the steam be directed to thy HEAD, for THAT is the PECCANT PART.’ This produced a triumphant roar of laughter from the motley assembly of philosophers, printers, and dependents, male and female.

I know not how so whimsical a thought came into my mind, but I asked, ‘If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a newborn child with you, what would you do?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I should not much like my company.’ BOSWELL. ‘But would you take the trouble of rearing it?’ He seemed, as may well be supposed, unwilling to pursue the subject: but upon my persevering in my question, replied, ‘Why yes, Sir, I would; but I must have all conveniencies. If I had no garden, I would make a shed on the roof, and take it there for fresh air. I should feed it, and wash it much, and with warm water to please it, not with cold water to give it pain.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, does not heat relax?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you are not to imagine the water is to be very hot. I would not CODDLE the child. No, Sir, the hardy method of treating children does no good. I’ll take you five children from London, who shall cuff five Highland children. Sir, a man bred in London will carry a burthen, or run, or wrestle, as well as a man brought up in the hardiest manner in the country.’ BOSWELL. ‘Good living, I suppose, makes the Londoners strong.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I don’t know that it does. Our Chairmen from Ireland, who are as strong men as any, have been brought up upon potatoes. Quantity makes up for quality.’ BOSWELL. ‘Would you teach this child that I have furnished you with, any thing?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, I should not be apt to teach it.’ BOSWELL. ‘Would not you have a pleasure in teaching it?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, I should NOT have a pleasure in teaching it.’ BOSWELL. ‘Have you not a pleasure in teaching men? — THERE I have you. You have the same pleasure in teaching men, that I should have in teaching children.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, something about that.’

I had hired a Bohemian as my servant while I remained in London, and being much pleased with him, I asked Dr. Johnson whether his being a Roman Catholick should prevent my taking him with me to Scotland. JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir, if HE has no objection, you can have none.’ BOSWELL. ‘So, Sir, you are no great enemy to the Roman Catholick religion.’ JOHNSON. ‘No more, Sir, than to the Presbyterian religion.’ BOSWELL. ‘You are joking.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, I really think so. Nay, Sir, of the two, I prefer the Popish.’ BOSWELL. ‘How so, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, the Presbyterians have no church, no apostolical ordination.’ BOSWELL. ‘And do you think that absolutely essential, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, as it was an apostolical institution, I think it is dangerous to be without it. And, Sir, the Presbyterians have no public worship: they have no form of prayer in which they know they are to join. They go to hear a man pray, and are to judge whether they will join with him.’

I proceeded: ‘What do you think, Sir, of Purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this.’ BOSWELL. ‘But then, Sir, their masses for the dead?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, if it be once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for THEM, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life.’ BOSWELL. ‘The idolatry of the Mass?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there is no idolatry in the Mass. They believe god to be there, and they adore him.’ BOSWELL. ‘The worship of Saints?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, they do not worship saints; they invoke them; they only ask their prayers. I am talking all this time of the DOCTRINES of the Church of Rome. I grant you that in PRACTICE, Purgatory is made a lucrative imposition, and that the people do become idolatrous as they recommend themselves to the tutelary protection of particular saints. I think their giving the sacrament only in one kind is criminal, because it is contrary to the express institution of CHRIST, and I wonder how the Council of Trent admitted it.’ BOSWELL. ‘Confession?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, I don’t know but that is a good thing. The scripture says, “Confess your faults one to another,” and the priests confess as well as the laity. Then it must be considered that their absolution is only upon repentance, and often upon penance also. You think your sins may be forgiven without penance, upon repentance alone.’

When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavoured to maintain that the fear of it might be got over. I told him that David Hume said to me, he was no more uneasy to think he should NOT BE after this life, than that he HAD NOT BEEN before he began to exist. JOHNSON. Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad: if he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all he has.’ BOSWELL. ‘Foote, Sir, told me, that when he was very ill he was not afraid to die.’ JOHNSON. ‘It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.’ BOSWELL. ‘But may we not fortify our minds for the approach of death?’ Here I am sensible I was in the wrong, to bring before his view what he ever looked upon with horrour; for although when in a celestial frame, in his Vanity of Human Wishes he has supposed death to be ‘kind Nature’s signal for retreat,’ from this state of being to ‘a happier seat,’ his thoughts upon this aweful change were in general full of dismal apprehensions. His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisaeum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him. To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, ‘No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.’ He added, (with an earnest look,) ‘A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’

I attempted to continue the conversation. He was so provoked, that he said, ‘Give us no more of this;’ and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, ‘Don’t let us meet tomorrow.’

I went home exceedingly uneasy. All the harsh observations which I had ever heard made upon his character, crowded into my mind; and I seemed to myself like the man who had put his head into the lion’s mouth a great many times with perfect safety, but at last had it bit off.

Next morning I sent him a note, stating, that I might have been in the wrong, but it was not intentionally; he was therefore, I could not help thinking, too severe upon me. That notwithstanding our agreement not to meet that day, I would call on him in my way to the city, and stay five minutes by my watch. ‘You are, (said I,) in my mind, since last night, surrounded with cloud and storm. Let me have a glimpse of sunshine, and go about my affairs in serenity and chearfulness.’

Upon entering his study, I was glad that he was not alone, which would have made our meeting more awkward. There were with him, Mr. Steevens and Mr. Tyers, both of whom I now saw for the first time. My note had, on his own reflection, softened him, for he received me very complacently; so that I unexpectedly found myself at ease, and joined in the conversation.

I whispered him, ‘Well, Sir, you are now in good humour. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir.’ I was going to leave him, and had got as far as the staircase. He stopped me, and smiling, said, ‘Get you gone IN;’ a curious mode of inviting me to stay, which I accordingly did for some time longer.

This little incidental quarrel and reconciliation, which, perhaps, I may be thought to have detailed too minutely, must be esteemed as one of many proofs which his friends had, that though he might be charged with bad humour at times, he was always a good-natured man; and I have heard Sir Joshua Reynolds, a nice and delicate observer of manners, particularly remark, that when upon any occasion Johnson had been rough to any person in company, he took the first opportunity of reconciliation, by drinking to him, or addressing his discourse to him; but if he found his dignified indirect overtures sullenly neglected, he was quite indifferent, and considered himself as having done all that he ought to do, and the other as now in the wrong.

I went to him early on the morning of the tenth of November. ‘Now (said he,) that you are going to marry, do not expect more from life, than life will afford. You may often find yourself out of humour, and you may often think your wife not studious enough to please you; and yet you may have reason to consider yourself as upon the whole very happily married.’

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31