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

1780: AETAT. 71.

In 1780, the world was kept in impatience for the completion of his Lives of the Poets, upon which he was employed so far as his indolence allowed him to labour.

His friend Dr. Lawrence having now suffered the greatest affliction to which a man is liable, and which Johnson himself had felt in the most severe manner; Johnson wrote to him in an admirable strain of sympathy and pious consolation.


‘DEAR SIR— At a time when all your friends ought to shew their kindness, and with a character which ought to make all that know you your friends, you may wonder that you have yet heard nothing from me.

‘I have been hindered by a vexatious and incessant cough, for which within these ten days I have been bled once, fasted four or five times, taken physick five times, and opiates, I think, six. This day it seems to remit.

‘The loss, dear Sir, which you have lately suffered, I felt many years ago, and know therefore how much has been taken from you, and how little help can be had from consolation. He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.

‘Our first recourse in this distressed solitude, is, perhaps for want of habitual piety, to a gloomy acquiescence in necessity. Of two mortal beings, one must lose the other; but surely there is a higher and better comfort to be drawn from the consideration of that Providence which watches over all, and a belief that the living and the dead are equally in the hands of God, who will reunite those whom he has separated; or who sees that it is best not to reunite. I am, dear Sir, your most affectionate, and most humble servant,

‘January 20, 1780.’


On the 2nd of May I wrote to him, and requested that we might have another meeting somewhere in the North of England, in the autumn of this year.

From Mr. Langton I received soon after this time a letter, of which I extract a passage, relative both to Mr. Beauclerk and Dr. Johnson.

‘The melancholy information you have received concerning Mr. Beauclerk’s death is true. Had his talents been directed in any sufficient degree as they ought, I have always been strongly of opinion that they were calculated to make an illustrious figure; and that opinion, as it had been in part formed upon Dr. Johnson’s judgment, receives more and more confirmation by hearing what, since his death, Dr. Johnson has said concerning them; a few evenings ago, he was at Mr. Vesey’s, where Lord Althorpe, who was one of a numerous company there, addressed Dr. Johnson on the subject of Mr. Beauclerk’s death, saying, “Our CLUB has had a great loss since we met last.” He replied, “A loss, that perhaps the whole nation could not repair!” The Doctor then went on to speak of his endowments, and particularly extolled the wonderful ease with which he uttered what was highly excellent. He said, that “no man ever was so free when he was going to say a good thing, from a LOOK that expressed that it was coming; or, when he had said it, from a look that expressed that it had come.” At Mr. Thrale’s, some days before when we were talking on the same subject, he said, referring to the same idea of his wonderful facility, “That Beauclerk’s talents were those which he had felt himself more disposed to envy, than those of any whom he had known.”

‘On the evening I have spoken of above, at Mr. Vesey’s, you would have been much gratified, as it exhibited an instance of the high importance in which Dr. Johnson’s character is held, I think even beyond any I ever before was witness to. The company consisted chiefly of ladies, among whom were the Duchess Dowager of Portland, the Duchess of Beaufort, whom I suppose from her rank I must name before her mother Mrs. Boscawen, and her elder sister Mrs. Lewson, who was likewise there; Lady Lucan, Lady Clermont, and others of note both for their station and understandings. Among the gentlemen were Lord Althorpe, whom I have before named, Lord Macartney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lord Lucan, Mr. Wraxal, whose book you have probably seen, The Tour to the Northern Parts of Europe; a very agreeable ingenious man; Dr. Warren, Mr. Pepys, the Master in Chancery, whom I believe you know, and Dr. Barnard, the Provost of Eton. As soon as Dr. Johnson was come in and had taken a chair, the company began to collect round him, till they became not less than four, if not five, deep; those behind standing, and listening over the heads of those that were sitting near him. The conversation for some time was chiefly between Dr. Johnson and the Provost of Eton, while the others contributed occasionally their remarks.’

On his birth-day, Johnson has this note: ‘I am now beginning the seventy-second year of my life, with more strength of body, and greater vigour of mind, than I think is common at that age.’ But still he complains of sleepless nights and idle days, and forgetfulness, or neglect of resolutions. He thus pathetically expresses himself — ‘Surely I shall not spend my whole life with my own total disapprobation.’

Mr. Macbean, whom I have mentioned more than once, as one of Johnson’s humble friends, a deserving but unfortunate man, being now oppressed by age and poverty, Johnson solicited the Lord Chancellor Thurlow, to have him admitted into the Charterhouse. I take the liberty to insert his Lordship’s answer, as I am eager to embrace every occasion of augmenting the respectable notion which should ever be entertained of my illustrious friend:—


‘London, October 24, 1780.


‘I have this moment received your letter, dated the 19th, and returned from Bath.

‘In the beginning of the summer I placed one in the Chartreux, without the sanction of a recommendation so distinct and so authoritative as yours of Macbean; and I am afraid, that according to the establishment of the House, the opportunity of making the charity so good amends will not soon recur. But whenever a vacancy shall happen, if you’ll favour me with notice of it, I will try to recommend him to the place, even though it should not be my turn to nominate. I am, Sir, with great regard, your most faithful and obedient servant,


Being disappointed in my hopes of meeting Johnson this year, so that I could hear none of his admirable sayings, I shall compensate for this want by inserting a collection of them, for which I am indebted to my worthy friend Mr. Langton, whose kind communications have been separately interwoven in many parts of this work. Very few articles of this collection were committed to writing by himself, he not having that habit; which he regrets, and which those who know the numerous opportunities he had of gathering the rich fruits of Johnsonian wit and wisdom, must ever regret. I however found, in conversations with him, that a good store of Johnsoniana was treasured in his mind; and I compared it to Herculaneum, or some old Roman field, which when dug, fully rewards the labour employed. The authenticity of every article is unquestionable. For the expression, I, who wrote them down in his presence, am partly answerable.

‘There is nothing more likely to betray a man into absurdity than CONDESCENSION; when he seems to suppose his understanding too powerful for his company.’

‘Having asked Mr. Langton if his father and mother had sat for their pictures, which he thought it right for each generation of a family to do, and being told they had opposed it, he said, “Sir, among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may not be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.”’

‘John Gilbert Cooper related, that soon after the publication of his Dictionary, Garrick being asked by Johnson what people said of it, told him, that among other animadversions, it was objected that he cited authorities which were beneath the dignity of such a work, and mentioned Richardson. “Nay, (said Johnson,) I have done worse than that: I have cited THEE, David.”’

‘When in good humour he would talk of his own writings with a wonderful frankness and candour, and would even criticise them with the closest severity. One day, having read over one of his Ramblers, Mr. Langton asked him, how he liked that paper; he shook his head, and answered, “too wordy.” At another time, when one was reading his tragedy of Irene to a company at a house in the country, he left the room; and somebody having asked him the reason of this, he replied, “Sir, I thought it had been better.”’

‘He related, that he had once in a dream a contest of wit with some other person, and that he was very much mortified by imagining that his opponent had the better of him. “Now, (said he,) one may mark here the effect of sleep in weakening the power of reflection; for had not my judgement failed me, I should have seen, that the wit of this supposed antagonist, by whose superiority I felt myself depressed, was as much furnished by me, as that which I thought I had been uttering in my own character.”’

‘Of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he said, “Sir, I know no man who has passed through life with more observation than Reynolds.”’

‘He repeated to Mr. Langton, with great energy, in the Greek, our SAVIOUR’S gracious expression concerning the forgiveness of Mary Magdalen, ‘[Greek text omitted]. “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.” He said, “the manner of this dismission is exceedingly affecting.”’

‘Talking of the Farce of High Life below Stairs, he said, “Here is a Farce, which is really very diverting when you see it acted; and yet one may read it, and not know that one has been reading any thing at all.”’

‘He used at one time to go occasionally to the green room of Drury-lane Theatre, where he was much regarded by the players, and was very easy and facetious with them. He had a very high opinion of Mrs. Clive’s comick powers, and conversed more with her than with any of them. He said, “Clive, Sir, is a good thing to sit by; she always understands what you say.” And she said of him, “I love to sit by Dr. Johnson; he always entertains me.” One night, when The Recruiting Officer was acted, he said to Mr. Holland, who had been expressing an apprehension that Dr. Johnson would disdain the works of Farquhar; “No, Sir, I think Farquhar a man whose writings have considerable merit.”’

‘His friend Garrick was so busy in conducting the drama, that they could not have so much intercourse as Mr. Garrick used to profess an anxious wish that there should be. There might, indeed, be something in the contemptuous severity as to the merit of acting, which his old preceptor nourished in himself, that would mortify Garrick after the great applause which he received from the audience. For though Johnson said of him, “Sir, a man who has a nation to admire him every night, may well be expected to be somewhat elated;” yet he would treat theatrical matters with a ludicrous slight. He mentioned one evening, “I met David coming off the stage, drest in a woman’s riding-hood, when he acted in The Wonder; I came full upon him, and I believe he was not pleased.”’

‘Once he asked Tom Davies, whom he saw drest in a fine suit of clothes, “And what art thou to-night?” Tom answered, “The Thane of Ross;” (which it will be recollected is a very inconsiderable character.) “O brave!” said Johnson.

‘Of Mr. Longley, at Rochester, a gentleman of very considerable learning, whom Dr. Johnson met there, he said, “My heart warms towards him. I was surprised to find in him such a nice acquaintance with the metre in the learned languages; though I was somewhat mortified that I had it not so much to myself, as I should have thought.”’

‘Talking of the minuteness with which people will record the sayings of eminent persons, a story was told, that when Pope was on a visit to Spence at Oxford, as they looked from the window they saw a Gentleman Commoner, who was just come in from riding, amusing himself with whipping at a post. Pope took occasion to say, “That young gentleman seems to have little to do.” Mr. Beauclerk observed, “Then, to be sure, Spence turned round and wrote that down;” and went on to say to Dr. Johnson, “Pope, Sir, would have said the same of you, if he had seen you distilling.” JOHNSON. “Sir, if Pope had told me of my distilling, I would have told him of his grotto.”’

‘He would allow no settled indulgence of idleness upon principle, and always repelled every attempt to urge excuses for it. A friend one day suggested, that it was not wholesome to study soon after dinner. JOHNSON. “Ah, Sir, don’t give way to such a fancy. At one time of my life I had taken it into my head that it was not wholesome to study between breakfast and dinner.”’

‘Dr. Goldsmith, upon occasion of Mrs. Lennox’s bringing out a play, said to Dr. Johnson at THE CLUB, that a person had advised him to go and hiss it, because she had attacked Shakspeare in her book called Shakspeare Illustrated. JOHNSON. “And did not you tell him he was a rascal?” GOLDSMITH. “No, Sir, I did not. Perhaps he might not mean what he said.” JOHNSON. “Nay, Sir, if he lied, it is a different thing.” Colman slily said, (but it is believed Dr. Johnson did not hear him,) “Then the proper expression should have been — Sir, if you don’t lie, you’re a rascal.”’

‘His affection for Topham Beauclerk was so great, that when Beauclerk was labouring under that severe illness which at last occasioned his death, Johnson said, (with a voice faultering with emotion,) “Sir, I would walk to the extent of the diameter of the earth to save Beauclerk.”’

‘Johnson was well acquainted with Mr. Dossie, authour of a treatise on Agriculture; and said of him, “Sir, of the objects which the Society of Arts have chiefly in view, the chymical effects of bodies operating upon other bodies, he knows more than almost any man.” Johnson, in order to give Mr. Dossie his vote to be a member of this Society, paid up an arrear which had run on for two years. On this occasion he mentioned a circumstance as characteristick of the Scotch. “One of that nation, (said he,) who had been a candidate, against whom I had voted, came up to me with a civil salutation. Now, Sir, this is their way. An Englishman would have stomached it, and been sulky, and never have taken further notice of you; but a Scotchman, Sir, though you vote nineteen times against him, will accost you with equal complaisance after each time, and the twentieth time, Sir, he will get your vote.”’

‘Talking on the subject of toleration, one day when some friends were with him in his study, he made his usual remark, that the State has a right to regulate the religion of the people, who are the children of the State. A clergyman having readily acquiesced in this, Johnson, who loved discussion, observed, “But, Sir, you must go round to other States than your own. You do not know what a Bramin has to say for himself. In short, Sir, I have got no further than this: Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test.”’

‘Goldsmith one day brought to THE CLUB a printed Ode, which he, with others, had been hearing read by its authour in a publick room at the rate of five shillings each for admission. One of the company having read it aloud, Dr. Johnson said, “Bolder words and more timorous meaning, I think never were brought together.”

‘Talking of Gray’s Odes, he said, “They are forced plants raised in a hot-bed; and they are poor plants; they are but cucumbers after all.” A gentleman present, who had been running down Ode-writing in general, as a bad species of poetry, unluckily said, “Had they been literally cucumbers, they had been better things than Odes.”— “Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) for a HOG.”’

‘It is very remarkable, that he retained in his memory very slight and trivial, as well as important things. As an instance of this, it seems that an inferiour domestick of the Duke of Leeds had attempted to celebrate his Grace’s marriage in such homely rhimes as he could make; and this curious composition having been sung to Dr. Johnson he got it by heart, and used to repeat it in a very pleasant manner. Two of the stanzas were these:—

“When the Duke of Leeds shall married be

To a fine young lady of high quality,

How happy will that gentlewoman be

In his Grace of Leeds’s good company.

She shall have all that’s fine and fair,

And the best of silk and satin shall wear;

And ride in a coach to take the air,

And have a house in St. James’s-square.”

To hear a man, of the weight and dignity of Johnson, repeating such humble attempts at poetry, had a very amusing effect. He, however, seriously observed of the last stanza repeated by him, that it nearly comprized all the advantages that wealth can give.

‘An eminent foreigner, when he was shewn the British Museum, was very troublesome with many absurd inquiries. “Now there, Sir, (said he,) is the difference between an Englishman and a Frenchman. A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows any thing of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say.”

‘His unjust contempt for foreigners was, indeed, extreme. One evening, at old Slaughter’s coffee-house, when a number of them were talking loud about little matters, he said, “Does not this confirm old Meynell’s observation — For any thing I see, foreigners are fools.”’

‘He said, that once, when he had a violent tooth-ache, a Frenchman accosted him thus:—“Ah, Monsieur vous etudiez trop.”’

‘Colman, in a note on his translation of Terence, talking of Shakspeare’s learning, asks, “What says Farmer to this? What says Johnson?” Upon this he observed, “Sir, let Farmer answer for himself: I never engaged in this controversy. I always said, Shakspeare had Latin enough to grammaticise his English.”’

‘A clergyman, whom he characterised as one who loved to say little oddities, was affecting one day, at a Bishop’s table, a sort of slyness and freedom not in character, and repeated, as if part of The Old Man’s Wish, a song by Dr. Walter Pope, a verse bordering on licentiousness. Johnson rebuked him in the finest manner, by first shewing him that he did not know the passage he was aiming at, and thus humbling him:

“Sir, that is not the song: it is thus.” And he gave it right. Then looking stedfastly on him, “Sir, there is a part of that song which I should wish to exemplify in my own life:—

“May I govern my passions with absolute sway!”’

‘He used frequently to observe, that men might be very eminent in a profession, without our perceiving any particular power of mind in them in conversation. “It seems strange (said he,) that a man should see so far to the right, who sees so short a way to the left. Burke is the only man whose common conversation corresponds with the general fame which he has in the world. Take up whatever topick you please, he is ready to meet you.”’

‘Mr. Langton, when a very young man, read Dodsley’s Cleone, a Tragedy, to him, not aware of his extreme impatience to be read to. As it went on he turned his face to the back of his chair, and put himself into various attitudes, which marked his uneasiness. At the end of an act, however, he said, “Come let’s have some more, let’s go into the slaughter-house again, Lanky. But I am afraid there is more blood than brains.”

‘Snatches of reading (said he,) will not make a Bentley or a Clarke. They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous. I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading any thing that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the ease, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study.’

‘A gentleman who introduced his brother to Dr. Johnson was earnest to recommend him to the Doctor’s notice, which he did by saying, “When we have sat together some time, you’ll find my brother grow very entertaining.”—“Sir, (said Johnson,) I can wait.”’

‘In the latter part of his life, in order to satisfy himself whether his mental faculties were impaired, he resolved that he would try to learn a new language, and fixed upon the Low Dutch, for that purpose, and this he continued till he had read about one half of Thomas a Kempis; and finding that there appeared no abatement of his power of acquisition, he then desisted, as thinking the experiment had been duly tried.’

‘Mr. Langton and he having gone to see a Freemason’s funeral procession, when they were at Rochester, and some solemn musick being played on French horns, he said, “This is the first time that I have ever been affected by musical sounds;” adding, “that the impression made upon him was of a melancholy kind.” Mr. Langton saying, that this effect was a fine one — JOHNSON. “Yes, if it softens the mind, so as to prepare it for the reception of salutary feelings, it may be good: but inasmuch as it is melancholy per se, it is bad.”’

‘Goldsmith had long a visionary project, that some time or other when his circumstances should be easier, he would go to Aleppo, in order to acquire a knowledge as far as might be of any arts peculiar to the East, and introduce them into Britain. When this was talked of in Dr. Johnson’s company, he said, “Of all men Goldsmith is the most unfit to go out upon such an inquiry; for he is utterly ignorant of such arts as we already possess, and consequently could not know what would be accessions to our present stock of mechanical knowledge. Sir, he would bring home a grinding barrow, which you see in every street in London, and think that he had furnished a wonderful improvement.”’

‘Greek, Sir, (said he,) is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.’

‘Johnson one day gave high praise to Dr. Bentley’s verses in Dodsley’s Collection, which he recited with his usual energy. Dr. Adam Smith, who was present, observed in his decisive professorial manner, “Very well — Very well.” Johnson however added, “Yes, they ARE very well, Sir; but you may observe in what manner they are well. They are the forcible verses of a man of a strong mind, but not accustomed to write verse; for there is some uncouthness in the expression.”’

‘Drinking tea one day at Garrick’s with Mr. Langton, he was questioned if he was not somewhat of a heretick as to Shakspeare; said Garrick, “I doubt he is a little of an infidel.”—“Sir, (said Johnson,) I will stand by the lines I have written on Shakspeare in my Prologue at the opening of your Theatre.” Mr. Langton suggested, that in the line

“And panting Time toil’d after him in vain,”

Johnson might have had in his eye the passage in The Tempest, where Prospero says of Miranda,

“——-She will outstrip all praise,

And make it halt behind her.”

Johnson said nothing. Garrick then ventured to observe, “I do not think that the happiest line in the praise of Shakspeare.” Johnson exclaimed (smiling,) “Prosaical rogues! next time I write, I’ll make both time and space pant.”’

‘It is well known that there was formerly a rude custom for those who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they passed, in the most abusive language they could invent, generally, however, with as much satirical humour as they were capable of producing. Addison gives a specimen of this ribaldry, in Number 383 of The Spectator, when Sir Roger de Coverly and he are going to Spring-garden. Johnson was once eminently successful in this species of contest; a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, “Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.” One evening when he and Mr. Burke and Mr. Langton were in company together, and the admirable scolding of Timon of Athens was mentioned, this instance of Johnson’s was quoted, and thought to have at least equal excellence.’

‘As Johnson always allowed the extraordinary talents of Mr. Burke, so Mr. Burke was fully sensible of the wonderful powers of Johnson. Mr. Langton recollects having passed an evening with both of them, when Mr. Burke repeatedly entered upon topicks which it was evident he would have illustrated with extensive knowledge and richness of expression; but Johnson always seized upon the conversation, in which, however, he acquitted himself in a most masterly manner. As Mr. Burke and Mr. Langton were walking home, Mr. Burke observed that Johnson had been very great that night; Mr. Langton joined in this, but added, he could have wished to hear more from another person; (plainly intimating that he meant Mr. Burke.) “O, no (said Mr. Burke,) it is enough for me to have rung the bell to him.”’

‘Beauclerk having observed to him of one of their friends, that he was aukward at counting money, “Why, Sir, (said Johnson,) I am likewise aukward at counting money. But then, Sir, the reason is plain; I have had very little money to count.”’

‘Goldsmith, upon being visited by Johnson one day in the Temple, said to him with a little jealousy of the appearance of his accommodation, “I shall soon be in better chambers than these.” Johnson at the same time checked him and paid him a handsome compliment, implying that a man of his talents should be above attention to such distinctions — “Nay, Sir, never mind that. Nil te quaesiveris extra.”’

‘When Mr. Vesey was proposed as a member of The LITERARY CLUB, Mr. Burke began by saying that he was a man of gentle manners. “Sir, (said Johnson,) you need say no more. When you have said a man of gentle manners; you have said enough.”’

‘The late Mr. Fitzherbert told Mr. Langton that Johnson said to him, “Sir, a man has no more right to SAY an uncivil thing, than to ACT one; no more right to say a rude thing to another than to knock him down”’

‘Richardson had little conversation, except about his own works, of which Sir Joshua Reynolds said he was always willing to talk, and glad to have them introduced. Johnson when he carried Mr. Langton to see him, professed that he could bring him out into conversation, and used this allusive expression, “Sir, I can make him REAR.” But he failed; for in that interview Richardson said little else than that there lay in the room a translation of his Clarissa into German.’

‘Once when somebody produced a newspaper in which there was a letter of stupid abuse of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of which Johnson himself came in for a share — “Pray,” said he, “let us have it read aloud from beginning to end;” which being done, he with a ludicrous earnestness, and not directing his look to any particular person, called out, “Are we alive after all this satire!”’

‘Of Dr. Goldsmith he said, “No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.”’

‘An observation of Bathurst’s may be mentioned, which Johnson repeated, appearing to acknowledge it to be well founded, namely, it was somewhat remarkable how seldom, on occasion of coming into the company of any new person, one felt any wish or inclination to see him again.’

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