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

1784: AETAT. 75.

And now I am arrived at the last year of the life of SAMUEL JOHNSON, a year in which, although passed in severe indisposition, he nevertheless gave many evidences of the continuance of those wondrous powers of mind, which raised him so high in the intellectual world. His conversation and his letters of this year were in no respect inferiour to those of former years.

In consequence of Johnson’s request that I should ask our physicians about his case, and desire Sir Alexander Dick to send his opinion, I transmitted him a letter from that very amiable Baronet, then in his eighty-first year, with his faculties as entire as ever; and mentioned his expressions to me in the note accompanying it: ‘With my most affectionate wishes for Dr. Johnson’s recovery, in which his friends, his country, and all mankind have so deep a stake:’ and at the same time a full opinion upon his case by Dr. Gillespie, who, like Dr. Cullen, had the advantage of having passed through the gradations of surgery and pharmacy, and by study and practice had attained to such skill, that my father settled on him two hundred pounds a year for five years, and fifty pounds a year during his life, as an honorarium to secure his particular attendance.

I also applied to three of the eminent physicians who had chairs in our celebrated school of medicine at Edinburgh, Doctors Cullen, Hope, and Monro.

All of them paid the most polite attention to my letter, and its venerable object. Dr. Cullen’s words concerning him were, ‘It would give me the greatest pleasure to be of any service to a man whom the publick properly esteem, and whom I esteem and respect as much as I do Dr. Johnson.’ Dr. Hope’s, ‘Few people have a better claim on me than your friend, as hardly a day passes that I do not ask his opinion about this or that word.’ Dr. Monro’s, ‘I most sincerely join you in sympathizing with that very worthy and ingenious character, from whom his country has derived much instruction and entertainment.’

‘TO THE REVEREND DR. TAYLOR, ASHBOURNE, DERBYSHIRE.

‘DEAR SIR— What can be the reason that I hear nothing from you? I hope nothing disables you from writing. What I have seen, and what I have felt, gives me reason to fear every thing. Do not omit giving me the comfort of knowing, that after all my losses I have yet a friend left.

‘I want every comfort. My life is very solitary and very cheerless. Though it has pleased GOD wonderfully to deliver me from the dropsy, I am yet very weak, and have not passed the door since the 13th of December. I hope for some help from warm weather, which will surely come in time.

‘I could not have the consent of the physicians to go to church yesterday; I therefore received the holy sacrament at home, in the room where I communicated with dear Mrs. Williams, a little before her death. O! my friend, the approach of death is very dreadful. I am afraid to think on that which I know I cannot avoid. It is vain to look round and round for that help which cannot be had. Yet we hope and hope, and fancy that he who has lived to-day may live to-morrow. But let us learn to derive our hope only from GOD.

‘In the mean time, let us be kind to one another. I have no friend now living but you and Mr. Hector, that was the friend of my youth. Do not neglect, dear Sir, yours affectionately,

‘London, Easter-Monday, April 12, 1784.’

‘SAM. JOHNSON.’

What follows is a beautiful specimen of his gentleness and complacency to a young lady his god-child, one of the daughters of his friend Mr. Langton, then I think in her seventh year. He took the trouble to write it in a large round hand, nearly resembling printed characters, that she might have the satisfaction of reading it herself. The original lies before me, but shall be faithfully restored to her; and I dare say will be preserved by her as a jewel as long as she lives.

‘TO MISS JANE LANGTON, IN ROCHESTER, KENT.

‘MY DEAREST MISS JENNY— I am sorry that your pretty letter has been so long without being answered; but, when I am not pretty well, I do not always write plain enough for young ladies. I am glad, my dear, to see that you write so well, and hope that you mind your pen, your book, and your needle, for they are all necessary. Your books will give you knowledge, and make you respected; and your needle will find you useful employment when you do not care to read. When you are a little older, I hope you will be very diligent in learning arithmetick, and, above all, that through your whole life you will carefully say your prayers, and read your Bible. I am, my dear, your most humble servant,

‘May 10, 1784.’

‘SAM. JOHNSON.’

On Wednesday, May 5, I arrived in London, and next morning had the pleasure to find Dr. Johnson greatly recovered. I but just saw him; for a coach was waiting to carry him to Islington, to the house of his friend the Reverend Mr. Strahan, where he went sometimes for the benefit of good air, which, notwithstanding his having formerly laughed at the general opinion upon the subject, he now acknowledged was conducive to health.

One morning afterwards, when I found him alone, he communicated to me, with solemn earnestness, a very remarkable circumstance which had happened in the course of his illness, when he was much distressed by the dropsy. He had shut himself up, and employed a day in particular exercises of religion — fasting, humiliation, and prayer. On a sudden he obtained extraordinary relief, for which he looked up to Heaven with grateful devotion. He made no direct inference from this fact; but from his manner of telling it, I could perceive that it appeared to him as something more than an incident in the common course of events. For my own part, I have no difficulty to avow that cast of thinking, which by many modern pretenders to wisdom is called SUPERSTITIOUS. But here I think even men of dry rationality may believe, that there was an intermediate interposition of Divine Providence, and that ‘the fervent prayer of this righteous man’ availed.

On Saturday, May 15, I dined with him at Dr. Brocklesby’s, where were Colonel Vallancy, Mr. Murphy, and that ever-cheerful companion Mr. Devaynes, apothecary to his Majesty. Of these days, and others on which I saw him, I have no memorials, except the general recollection of his being able and animated in conversation, and appearing to relish society as much as the youngest man. I find only these three small particulars:— When a person was mentioned, who said, ‘I have lived fifty-one years in this world without having had ten minutes of uneasiness;’ he exclaimed, ‘The man who says so, lies: he attempts to impose on human credulity.’ The Bishop of Exeter in vain observed, that men were very different. His Lordship’s manner was not impressive, and I learnt afterwards that Johnson did not find out that the person who talked to him was a Prelate; if he had, I doubt not that he would have treated him with more respect; for once talking of George Psalmanazar, whom he reverenced for his piety, he said, ‘I should as soon think of contradicting a BISHOP.’ One of the company59 provoked him greatly by doing what he could least of all bear, which was quoting something of his own writing, against what he then maintained. ‘What, Sir, (cried the gentleman,) do you say to

“The busy day, the peaceful night,

Unfelt, uncounted, glided by?”’—

Johnson finding himself thus presented as giving an instance of a man who had lived without uneasiness, was much offended, for he looked upon such a quotation as unfair. His anger burst out in an unjustifiable retort, insinuating that the gentleman’s remark was a sally of ebriety; ‘Sir, there is one passion I would advise you to command: when you have drunk out that glass, don’t drink another.’ Here was exemplified what Goldsmith said of him, with the aid of a very witty image from one of Cibber’s Comedies: ‘There is no arguing with Johnson; for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.’ Another was this: when a gentleman of eminence in the literary world was violently censured for attacking people by anonymous paragraphs in news-papers; he, from the spirit of contradiction as I thought, took up his defence, and said, ‘Come, come, this is not so terrible a crime; he means only to vex them a little. I do not say that I should do it; but there is a great difference between him and me; what is fit for Hephaestion is not fit for Alexander.’ Another, when I told him that a young and handsome Countess had said to me, ‘I should think that to be praised by Dr. Johnson would make one a fool all one’s life;’ and that I answered, ‘Madam, I shall make him a fool to-day, by repeating this to him,’ he said, ‘I am too old to be made a fool; but if you say I am made a fool, I shall not deny it. I am much pleased with a compliment, especially from a pretty woman.’

59 Boswell himself, likely enough. — HILL.

On the evening of Saturday, May 15, he was in fine spirits, at our Essex-Head Club. He told us, ‘I dined yesterday at Mrs. Garrick’s, with Mrs. Carter, Miss Hannah More, and Miss Fanny Burney. Three such women are not to be found: I know not where I could find a fourth, except Mrs. Lennox, who is superiour to them all.’ BOSWELL. ‘What! had you them all to yourself, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘I had them all as much as they were had; but it might have been better had there been more company there.’ BOSWELL. ‘Might not Mrs. Montagu have been a fourth?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, Mrs. Montagu does not make a trade of her wit; but Mrs. Montagu is a very extraordinary woman; she has a constant stream of conversation, and it is always impregnated; it has always meaning.’ BOSWELL. ‘Mr. Burke has a constant stream of conversation.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; if a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke under a shed, to shun a shower, he would say —“this is an extraordinary man.” If Burke should go into a stable to see his horse drest, the ostler would say —“we have had an extraordinary man here.”’ BOSWELL. ‘Foote was a man who never failed in conversation. If he had gone into a stable —’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, if he had gone into a stable, the ostler would have said, “here has been a comical fellow”; but he would not have respected him.’ BOSWELL. ‘And, Sir, the ostler would have answered him, would have given him as good as he brought, as the common saying is.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; and Foote would have answered the ostler. — When Burke does not descend to be merry, his conversation is very superiour indeed. There is no proportion between the powers which he shews in serious talk and in jocularity. When he lets himself down to that, he is in the kennel.’ I have in another place opposed, and I hope with success, Dr. Johnson’s very singular and erroneous notion as to Mr. Burke’s pleasantry. Mr. Windham now said low to me, that he differed from our great friend in this observation; for that Mr. Burke was often very happy in his merriment. It would not have been right for either of us to have contradicted Johnson at this time, in a Society all of whom did not know and value Mr. Burke as much as we did. It might have occasioned something more rough, and at any rate would probably have checked the flow of Johnson’s good-humour. He called to us with a sudden air of exultation, as the thought started into his mind, ‘O! Gentlemen, I must tell you a very great thing. The Empress of Russia has ordered the Rambler to be translated into the Russian language: so I shall be read on the banks of the Wolga. Horace boasts that his fame would extend as far as the banks of the Rhone; now the Wolga is farther from me than the Rhone was from Horace.’ BOSWELL. ‘You must certainly be pleased with this, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘I am pleased, Sir, to be sure. A man is pleased to find he has succeeded in that which he has endeavoured to do.’

One of the company mentioned his having seen a noble person driving in his carriage, and looking exceedingly well, notwithstanding his great age. JOHNSON. ‘Ah, Sir; that is nothing. Bacon observes, that a stout healthy old man is like a tower undermined.’

On Sunday, May 16, I found him alone; he talked of Mrs. Thrale with much concern, saying, ‘Sir, she has done every thing wrong, since Thrale’s bridle was off her neck;’ and was proceeding to mention some circumstances which have since been the subject of publick discussion, when he was interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Douglas, now Bishop of Salisbury.

In one of his little manuscript diaries, about this time, I find a short notice, which marks his amiable disposition more certainly than a thousand studied declarations. —‘Afternoon spent cheerfully and elegantly, I hope without offence to GOD or man; though in no holy duty, yet in the general exercise and cultivation of benevolence.’

On Monday, May 17, I dined with him at Mr. Dilly’s, where were Colonel Vallancy, the Reverend Dr. Gibbons, and Mr. Capel Lofft, who, though a most zealous Whig, has a mind so full of learning and knowledge, and so much exercised in various departments, and withal so much liberality, that the stupendous powers of the literary Goliath, though they did not frighten this little David of popular spirit, could not but excite his admiration. There was also Mr. Braithwaite of the Post-office, that amiable and friendly man, who, with modest and unassuming manners, has associated with many of the wits of the age. Johnson was very quiescent to-day. Perhaps too I was indolent. I find nothing more of him in my notes, but that when I mentioned that I had seen in the King’s library sixty-three editions of my favourite Thomas a Kempis, amongst which it was in eight languages, Latin, German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Arabick, and Armenian, he said, he thought it unnecessary to collect many editions of a book, which were all the same, except as to the paper and print; he would have the original, and all the translations, and all the editions which had any variations in the text. He approved of the famous collection of editions of Horace by Douglas, mentioned by Pope, who is said to have had a closet filled with them; and he added, every man should try to collect one book in that manner, and present it to a publick library.’

On Wednesday, May 19, I sat a part of the evening with him, by ourselves. I observed, that the death of our friends might be a consolation against the fear of our own dissolution, because we might have more friends in the other world than in this. He perhaps felt this as a reflection upon his apprehension as to death; and said, with heat, ‘How can a man know WHERE his departed friends are, or whether they will be his friends in the other world? How many friendships have you known formed upon principles of virtue? Most friendships are formed by caprice or by chance, mere confederacies in vice or leagues in folly.’

We talked of our worthy friend Mr. Langton. He said, ‘I know not who will go to Heaven if Langton does not. Sir, I could almost say, Sit anima mea cum Langtono.’ I mentioned a very eminent friend as a virtuous man. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; but ——— has not the evangelical virtue of Langton. ——— I am afraid, would not scruple to pick up a wench.’

He however charged Mr. Langton with what he thought want of judgment upon an interesting occasion. ‘When I was ill, (said he,) I desired he would tell me sincerely in what he thought my life was faulty. Sir, he brought me a sheet of paper, on which he had written down several texts of Scripture, recommending christian charity. And when I questioned him what occasion I had given for such an animadversion, all that he could say amounted to this — that I sometimes contradicted people in conversation. Now what harm does it do to any man to be contradicted?’ BOSWELL. ‘I suppose he meant the MANNER of doing it; roughly — and harshly.’ JOHNSON. ‘And who is the worse for that?’ BOSWELL. ‘It hurts people of weak nerves.’ JOHNSON. ‘I know no such weak-nerved people.’ Mr. Burke, to whom I related this conference, said, ‘It is well, if when a man comes to die, he has nothing heavier upon his conscience than having been a little rough in conversation.’

Johnson, at the time when the paper was presented to him, though at first pleased with the attention of his friend, whom he thanked in an earnest manner, soon exclaimed, in a loud and angry tone, ‘What is your drift, Sir?’ Sir Joshua Reynolds pleasantly observed, that it was a scene for a comedy, to see a penitent get into a violent passion and belabour his confessor.

He had dined that day at Mr. Hoole’s, and Miss Helen Maria Williams being expected in the evening, Mr. Hoole put into his hands her beautiful Ode on the Peace: Johnson read it over, and when this elegant and accomplished young lady was presented to him, he took her by the hand in the most courteous manner, and repeated the finest stanza of her poem; this was the most delicate and pleasing compliment he could pay. Her respectable friend, Dr. Kippis, from whom I had this anecdote, was standing by, and was not a little gratified.

Miss Williams told me, that the only other time she was fortunate enough to be in Dr. Johnson’s company, he asked her to sit down by him, which she did, and upon her inquiring how he was, he answered, ‘I am very ill indeed, Madam. I am very ill even when you are near me; what should I be were you at a distance?’

He had now a great desire to go to Oxford, as his first jaunt after his illness; we talked of it for some days, and I had promised to accompany him. He was impatient and fretful to-night, because I did not at once agree to go with him on Thursday. When I considered how ill he had been, and what allowance should be made for the influence of sickness upon his temper, I resolved to indulge him, though with some inconvenience to myself, as I wished to attend the musical meeting in honour of Handel, in Westminster-Abbey, on the following Saturday.

In the midst of his own diseases and pains, he was ever compassionate to the distresses of others, and actively earnest in procuring them aid, as appears from a note to Sir Joshua Reynolds, of June, in these words:—‘I am ashamed to ask for some relief for a poor man, to whom, I hope, I have given what I can be expected to spare. The man importunes me, and the blow goes round. I am going to try another air on Thursday.’

On Thursday, June 3, the Oxford post-coach took us up in the morning at Bolt-court. The other two passengers were Mrs. Beresford and her daughter, two very agreeable ladies from America; they were going to Worcestershire, where they then resided. Frank had been sent by his master the day before to take places for us; and I found, from the waybill, that Dr. Johnson had made our names be put down. Mrs. Beresford, who had read it, whispered me, ‘Is this the great Dr. Johnson?’ I told her it was; so she was then prepared to listen. As she soon happened to mention in a voice so low that Johnson did not hear it, that her husband had been a member of the American Congress, I cautioned her to beware of introducing that subject, as she must know how very violent Johnson was against the people of that country. He talked a great deal, but I am sorry I have preserved little of the conversation. Miss Beresford was so much charmed, that she said to me aside, ‘How he does talk! Every sentence is an essay.’ She amused herself in the coach with knotting; he would scarcely allow this species of employment any merit. ‘Next to mere idleness (said he,) I think knotting is to be reckoned in the scale of insignificance; though I once attempted to learn knotting. Dempster’s sister (looking to me,) endeavoured to teach me it; but I made no progress.’

I was surprised at his talking without reserve in the publick post-coach of the state of his affairs; ‘I have (said he,) about the world I think above a thousand pounds, which I intend shall afford Frank an annuity of seventy pounds a year.’ Indeed his openness with people at a first interview was remarkable. He said once to Mr. Langton, ‘I think I am like Squire Richard in The Journey to London, “I’m never strange in a strange place.”’ He was truly SOCIAL. He strongly censured what is much too common in England among persons of condition — maintaining an absolute silence, when unknown to each other; as for instance, when occasionally brought together in a room before the master or mistress of the house has appeared. ‘Sir, that is being so uncivilised as not to understand the common rights of humanity.’

At the inn where we stopped he was exceedingly dissatisfied with some roast mutton which we had for dinner. The ladies I saw wondered to see the great philosopher, whose wisdom and wit they had been admiring all the way, get into ill-humour from such a cause. He scolded the waiter, saying, ‘It is as bad as bad can be: it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-drest.’

He bore the journey very well, and seemed to feel himself elevated as he approached Oxford, that magnificent and venerable seat of learning, Orthodoxy, and Toryism. Frank came in the heavy coach, in readiness to attend him; and we were received with the most polite hospitality at the house of his old friend Dr. Adams, Master of Pembroke College, who had given us a kind invitation. Before we were set down, I communicated to Johnson, my having engaged to return to London directly, for the reason I have mentioned, but that I would hasten back to him again. He was pleased that I had made this journey merely to keep him company. He was easy and placid with Dr. Adams, Mrs. and Miss Adams, and Mrs. Kennicot, widow of the learned Hebraean, who was here on a visit. He soon dispatched the inquiries which were made about his illness and recovery, by a short and distinct narrative; and then assuming a gay air, repeated from Swift —

‘Nor think on our approaching ills,

And talk of spectacles and pills.’

I fulfilled my intention by going to London, and returned to Oxford on Wednesday the 9th of June, when I was happy to find myself again in the same agreeable circle at Pembroke College, with the comfortable prospect of making some stay. Johnson welcomed my return with more than ordinary glee.

Next morning at breakfast, he pointed out a passage in Savage’s Wanderer, saying, ‘These are fine verses.’ ‘If (said he,) I had written with hostility of Warburton in my Shahspeare, I should have quoted this couplet:—

“Here Learning, blinded first and then beguil’d,

Looks dark as Ignorance, as Fancy wild.”

You see they’d have fitted him to a T,’ (smiling.) Dr. ADAMS. ‘But you did not write against Warburton.’ JOHNSON. No, Sir, I treated him with great respect both in my Preface and in my Notes.’

After dinner, when one of us talked of there being a great enmity between Whig and Tory; — Johnson. ‘Why not so much, I think, unless when they come into competition with each other. There is none when they are only common acquaintance, none when they are of different sexes. A Tory will marry into a Whig family, and a Whig into a Tory family, without any reluctance. But indeed, in a matter of much more concern than political tenets, and that is religion, men and women do not concern themselves much about difference of opinion; and ladies set no value on the moral character of men who pay their addresses to them; the greatest profligate will be as well received as the man of the greatest virtue, and this by a very good woman, by a woman who says her prayers three times a day.’ Our ladies endeavoured to defend their sex from this charge; but he roared them down! ‘No, no, a lady will take Jonathan Wild as readily as St. Austin, if he has threepence more; and, what is worse, her parents will give her to him. Women have a perpetual envy of our vices; they are less vicious than we, not from choice, but because we restrict them; they are the slaves of order and fashion; their virtue is of more consequence to us than our own, so far as concerns this world.’

Miss Adams mentioned a gentleman of licentious character, and said, ‘Suppose I had a mind to marry that gentleman, would my parents consent?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, they’d consent, and you’d go. You’d go though they did not consent.’ Miss ADAMS. ‘Perhaps their opposing might make me go.’ JOHNSON. ‘O, very well; you’d take one whom you think a bad man, to have the pleasure of vexing your parents. You put me in mind of Dr. Barrowby, the physician, who was very fond of swine’s flesh. One day, when he was eating it, he said, “I wish I was a Jew.” “Why so? (said somebody;) the Jews are not allowed to eat your favourite meat.” “Because, (said he,) I should then have the gust of eating it, with the pleasure of sinning.”’ Johnson then proceeded in his declamation.

Miss Adams soon afterwards made an observation that I do not recollect, which pleased him much: he said with a good-humoured smile, ‘That there should be so much excellence united with so much DEPRAVITY, is strange.’

Indeed, this lady’s good qualities, merit, and accomplishments, and her constant attention to Dr. Johnson, were not lost upon him. She happened to tell him that a little coffeepot, in which she had made his coffee, was the only thing she could call her own. He turned to her with a complacent gallantry, ‘Don’t say so, my dear; I hope you don’t reckon my heart as nothing.’

On Friday, June 11, we talked at breakfast, of forms of prayer. JOHNSON. ‘I know of no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer.’ DR. ADAMS. (in a very earnest manner:) ‘I wish, Sir, you would compose some family prayers.’ JOHNSON. ‘I will not compose prayers for you, Sir, because you can do it for yourself. But I have thought of getting together all the books of prayers which I could, selecting those which should appear to me the best, putting out some, inserting others, adding some prayers of my own, and prefixing a discourse on prayer.’ We all now gathered about him, and two or three of us at a time joined in pressing him to execute this plan. He seemed to be a little displeased at the manner of our importunity, and in great agitation called out, ‘Do not talk thus of what is so aweful. I know not what time GOD will allow me in this world. There are many things which I wish to do.’ Some of us persisted, and Dr. Adams said, ‘I never was more serious about any thing in my life.’ JOHNSON. ‘Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered.’ And then he put his hands before his face, and reclined for some time upon the table.

Dr. Johnson and I went in Dr. Adams’s coach to dine with Dr. Nowell, Principal of St. Mary Hall, at his beautiful villa at Iffley, on the banks of the Isis, about two miles from Oxford. While we were upon the road, I had the resolution to ask Johnson whether he thought that the roughness of his manner had been an advantage or not, and if he would not have done more good if he had been more gentle. I proceeded to answer myself thus: ‘Perhaps it has been of advantage, as it has given weight to what you said: you could not, perhaps, have talked with such authority without it.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; I have done more good as I am. Obscenity and Impiety have always been repressed in my company.’ BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir; and that is more than can be said of every Bishop. Greater liberties have been taken in the presence of a Bishop, though a very good man, from his being milder, and therefore not commanding such awe. Yet, Sir, many people who might have been benefited by your conversation, have been frightened away. A worthy friend of ours has told me, that he has often been afraid to talk to you.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he need not have been afraid, if he had any thing rational to say. If he had not, it was better he did not talk.’

We talked of a certain clergyman of extraordinary character, who by exerting his talents in writing on temporary topicks, and displaying uncommon intrepidity, had raised himself to affluence. I maintained that we ought not to be indignant at his success; for merit of every sort was entitled to reward. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I will not allow this man to have merit. No, Sir; what he has is rather the contrary; I will, indeed, allow him courage, and on this account we so far give him credit. We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway, than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch, and knocks you down behind your back. Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue, that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.’

Mr. Henderson, with whom I had sauntered in the venerable walks of Merton College, and found him a very learned and pious man, supped with us. Dr. Johnson surprised him not a little, by acknowledging with a look of horrour, that he was much oppressed by the fear of death. The amiable Dr. Adams suggested that GOD was infinitely good. JOHNSON. ‘That he is infinitely good, as far as the perfection of his nature will allow, I certainly believe; but it is necessary for good upon the whole, that individuals should be punished. As to an INDIVIDUAL, therefore, he is not infinitely good; and as I cannot be SURE that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.’ (looking dismally). DR. ADAMS. ‘What do you mean by damned?’ JOHNSON. (passionately and loudly,) ‘Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly!’ DR. ADAMS. ‘I don’t believe that doctrine.’ JOHNSON. ‘Hold, Sir, do you believe that some will be punished at all?’ DR. ADAMS. ‘Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.’ JOHNSON. Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatever. There is not infinite goodness physically considered; morally there is.’ BOSWELL. ‘But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?’ JOHNSON. ‘A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.’ MRS. ADAMS. ‘You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.’ JOHNSON. ‘Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.’ He was in gloomy agitation, and said, ‘I’ll have no more on’t.’ If what has now been stated should be urged by the enemies of Christianity, as if its influence on the mind were not benignant, let it be remembered, that Johnson’s temperament was melancholy, of which such direful apprehensions of futurity are often a common effect. We shall presently see that when he approached nearer to his aweful change, his mind became tranquil, and he exhibited as much fortitude as becomes a thinking man in that situation.

From the subject of death we passed to discourse of life, whether it was upon the whole more happy or miserable. Johnson was decidedly for the balance of misery: in confirmation of which I maintained, that no man would choose to lead over again the life which he had experienced. Johnson acceded to that opinion in the strongest terms.

On Sunday, June 13, our philosopher was calm at breakfast. There was something exceedingly pleasing in our leading a College life, without restraint, and with superiour elegance, in consequence of our living in the Master’s house, and having the company of ladies. Mrs. Kennicot related, in his presence, a lively saying of Dr. Johnson to Miss Hannah More, who had expressed a wonder that the poet who had written Paradise Lost should write such poor Sonnets:— ‘Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.’

On Monday, June 14, and Tuesday, 15, Dr. Johnson and I dined, on one of them, I forget which, with Mr. Mickle, translator of the Lusiad, at Wheatley, a very pretty country place a few miles from Oxford; and on the other with Dr. Wetherell, Master of University College. From Dr. Wetherell’s he went to visit Mr. Sackville Parker, the bookseller; and when he returned to us, gave the following account of his visit, saying, ‘I have been to see my old friend, Sack Parker; I find he has married his maid; he has done right. She had lived with him many years in great confidence, and they had mingled minds; I do not think he could have found any wife that would have made him so happy. The woman was very attentive and civil to me; she pressed me to fix a day for dining with them, and to say what I liked, and she would be sure to get it for me. Poor Sack! He is very ill, indeed. We parted as never to meet again. It has quite broke me down.’ This pathetic narrative was strangely diversified with the grave and earnest defence of a man’s having married his maid. I could not but feel it as in some degree ludicrous.

In the morning of Tuesday, June 15, while we sat at Dr. Adams’s, we talked of a printed letter from the Reverend Herbert Croft, to a young gentleman who had been his pupil, in which he advised him to read to the end of whatever books he should begin to read. JOHNSON. ‘This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through? These Voyages, (pointing to the three large volumes of Voyages to the South Sea, which were just come out) WHO will read them through? A man had better work his way before the mast, than read them through; they will be eaten by rats and mice, before they are read through. There can be little entertainment in such books; one set of Savages is like another.’ BOSWELL. ‘I do not think the people of Otaheite can be reckoned Savages.’ JOHNSON. ‘Don’t cant in defence of Savages.’ BOSWELL. ‘They have the art of navigation.’ JOHNSON. ‘A dog or a cat can swim.’ BOSWELL. ‘They carve very ingeniously.’ JOHNSON. ‘A cat can scratch, and a child with a nail can scratch.’ I perceived this was none of the mollia tempora fandi; so desisted.

Upon his mentioning that when he came to College he wrote his first exercise twice over; but never did so afterwards; MISS ADAMS. ‘I suppose, Sir, you could not make them better?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Madam, to be sure, I could make them better. Thought is better than no thought.’ MISS ADAMS. ‘Do you think, Sir, you could make your Ramblers better?’ JOHNSON. ‘Certainly I could.’ BOSWELL. ‘I’ll lay a bet, Sir, you cannot.’ JOHNSON. ‘But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better.’ BOSWELL. ‘But you may add to them. I will not allow of that.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, there are three ways of making them better; — putting out — adding — or correcting.’

During our visit at Oxford, the following conversation passed between him and me on the subject of my trying my fortune at the English bar: Having asked whether a very extensive acquaintance in London, which was very valuable, and of great advantage to a man at large, might not be prejudicial to a lawyer, by preventing him from giving sufficient attention to his business; — JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you will attend to business, as business lays hold of you. When not actually employed, you may see your friends as much as you do now. You may dine at a Club every day, and sup with one of the members every night; and you may be as much at publick places as one who has seen them all would wish to be. But you must take care to attend constantly in Westminster-Hall; both to mind your business, as it is almost all learnt there, (for nobody reads now;) and to shew that you want to have business. And you must not be too often seen at publick places, that competitors may not have it to say, “He is always at the Playhouse or at Ranelagh, and never to be found at his chambers.” And, Sir, there must be a kind of solemnity in the manner of a professional man. I have nothing particular to say to you on the subject. All this I should say to any one; I should have said it to Lord Thurlow twenty years ago.’

On Wednesday, June 19, Dr. Johnson and I returned to London; he was not well to-day, and said very little, employing himself chiefly in reading Euripides. He expressed some displeasure at me, for not observing sufficiently the various objects upon the road. ‘If I had your eyes, Sir, (said he,) I should count the passengers.’ It was wonderful how accurate his observation of visual objects was, notwithstanding his imperfect eyesight, owing to a habit of attention. That he was much satisfied with the respect paid to him at Dr. Adams’s is thus attested by himself: ‘I returned last night from Oxford, after a fortnight’s abode with Dr. Adams, who treated me as well as I could expect or wish; and he that contents a sick man, a man whom it is impossible to please, has surely done his part well.’

After his return to London from this excursion, I saw him frequently, but have few memorandums: I shall therefore here insert some particulars which I collected at various times.

It having been mentioned to Dr. Johnson that a gentleman who had a son whom he imagined to have an extreme degree of timidity, resolved to send him to a publick school, that he might acquire confidence; —‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is a preposterous expedient for removing his infirmity; such a disposition should be cultivated in the shade. Placing him at a publick school is forcing an owl upon day.’

Speaking of a gentleman whose house was much frequented by low company; ‘Rags, Sir, (said he,) will always make their appearance where they have a right to do it.’

Of the same gentleman’s mode of living, he said, ‘Sir, the servants, instead of doing what they are bid, stand round the table in idle clusters, gaping upon the guests; and seem as unfit to attend a company, as to steer a man of war.’

A dull country magistrate gave Johnson a long tedious account of his exercising his criminal jurisdiction, the result of which was his having sentenced four convicts to transportation. Johnson, in an agony of impatience to get rid of such a companion, exclaimed, ‘I heartily wish, Sir, that I were a fifth.’

Johnson was present when a tragedy was read, in which there occurred this line:—

‘Who rules o’er freemen should himself be free.’

The company having admired it much, ‘I cannot agree with you (said Johnson). It might as well be said —

‘Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.’

Johnson having argued for some time with a pertinacious gentleman; his opponent, who had talked in a very puzzling manner, happened to say, ‘I don’t understand you, Sir:’ upon which Johnson observed, ‘Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.’

Talking to me of Horry Walpole, (as Horace late Earl of Orford was often called,) Johnson allowed that he got together a great many curious little things, and told them in an elegant manner. Mr. Walpole thought Johnson a more amiable character after reading his Letters to Mrs. Thrale: but never was one of the true admirers of that great man. We may suppose a prejudice conceived, if he ever heard Johnson’s account to Sir George Staunton, that when he made the speeches in parliament for the Gentleman’s Magazine, ‘he always took care to put Sir Robert Walpole in the wrong, and to say every thing he could against the electorate of Hanover.’ The celebrated Heroick Epistle, in which Johnson is satyrically introduced, has been ascribed both to Mr. Walpole and Mr. Mason. One day at Mr. Courtenay’s, when a gentleman expressed his opinion that there was more energy in that poem than could be expected from Mr. Walpole; Mr. Warton, the late Laureat, observed, ‘It may have been written by Walpole, and BUCKRAM’D by Mason.’

Sir Joshua Reynolds having said that he took the altitude of a man’s taste by his stories and his wit, and of his understanding by the remarks which he repeated; being always sure that he must be a weak man who quotes common things with an emphasis as if they were oracles; Johnson agreed with him; and Sir Joshua having also observed that the real character of a man was found out by his amusements — Johnson added, ‘Yes, Sir; no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.’

I have mentioned Johnson’s general aversion to a pun. He once, however, endured one of mine. When we were talking of a numerous company in which he had distinguished himself highly, I said, ‘Sir, you were a COD surrounded by smelts. Is not this enough for you? at a time too when you were not FISHING for a compliment?’ He laughed at this with a complacent approbation. Old Mr. Sheridan observed, upon my mentioning it to him, ‘He liked your compliment so well, he was willing to take it with PUN SAUCE.’ For my own part, I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.

Mr. Burke uniformly shewed Johnson the greatest respect; and when Mr. Townshend, now Lord Sydney, at a period when he was conspicuous in opposition, threw out some reflection in parliament upon the grant of a pension to a man of such political principles as Johnson; Mr. Burke, though then of the same party with Mr. Townshend, stood warmly forth in defence of his friend, to whom, he justly observed, the pension was granted solely on account of his eminent literary merit. I am well assured, that Mr. Townshend’s attack upon Johnson was the occasion of his ‘hitching in a rhyme;’ for, that in the original copy of Goldsmith’s character of Mr. Burke, in his Retaliation, another person’s name stood in the couplet where Mr. Townshend is now introduced:—

‘Though fraught with all learning kept straining his throat,

To persuade Tommy Townshend to lend him a vote.’

It may be worth remarking, among the minutiae of my collection, that Johnson was once drawn to serve in the militia, the Trained Bands of the City of London, and that Mr. Rackstrow, of the Museum in Fleet-street, was his Colonel. It may be believed he did not serve in person; but the idea, with all its circumstances, is certainly laughable. He upon that occasion provided himself with a musket, and with a sword and belt, which I have seen hanging in his closet.

An authour of most anxious and restless vanity being mentioned, ‘Sir, (said he,) there is not a young sapling upon Parnassus more severely blown about by every wind of criticism than that poor fellow.’

The difference, he observed, between a well-bred and an ill-bred man is this: ‘One immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion. You love the one till you find reason to hate him; you hate the other till you find reason to love him.’

A foppish physician once reminded Johnson of his having been in company with him on a former occasion; ‘I do not remember it, Sir.’ The physician still insisted; adding that he that day wore so fine a coat that it must have attracted his notice. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) had you been dipt in Pactolus I should not have noticed you.’

He seemed to take a pleasure in speaking in his own style; for when he had carelessly missed it, he would repeat the thought translated into it. Talking of the Comedy of The Rehearsal, he said, ‘It has not wit enough to keep it sweet.’ This was easy; he therefore caught himself, and pronounced a more round sentence; ‘It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.’

Though he had no taste for painting, he admired much the manner in which Sir Joshua Reynolds treated of his art, in his Discourses to the Royal Academy. He observed one day of a passage in them, ‘I think I might as well have said this myself:’ and once when Mr. Langton was sitting by him, he read one of them very eagerly, and expressed himself thus:—‘Very well, Master Reynolds; very well, indeed. But it will not be understood.’

When I observed to him that Painting was so far inferiour to Poetry, that the story or even emblem which it communicates must be previously known, and mentioned as a natural and laughable instance of this, that a little Miss on seeing a picture of Justice with the scales, had exclaimed to me, ‘See, there’s a woman selling sweetmeats;’ he said, ‘Painting, Sir, can illustrate, but cannot inform.’

No man was more ready to make an apology when he had censured unjustly, than Johnson. When a proof-sheet of one of his works was brought to him, he found fault with the mode in which a part of it was arranged, refused to read it, and in a passion desired that the compositor might be sent to him. The compositor was Mr. Manning, a decent sensible man, who had composed about one half of his Dictionary, when in Mr. Strahan’s printing-house; and a great part of his Lives of the Poets, when in that of Mr. Nichols; and who (in his seventy-seventh year), when in Mr. Baldwin’s printing-house, composed a part of the first edition of this work concerning him. By producing the manuscript, he at once satisfied Dr. Johnson that he was not to blame. Upon which Johnson candidly and earnestly said to him, ‘Mr. Compositor, I ask your pardon. Mr. Compositor, I ask your pardon, again and again.’

His generous humanity to the miserable was almost beyond example. The following instance is well attested:— Coming home late one night, he found a poor woman lying in the street, so much exhausted that she could not walk; he took her upon his back, and carried her to his house, where he discovered that she was one of those wretched females who had fallen into the lowest state of vice, poverty, and disease. Instead of harshly upbraiding her, he had her taken care of with all tenderness for a long time, at considerable expence, till she was restored to health, and endeavoured to put her into a virtuous way of living.

He once in his life was known to have uttered what is called a BULL: Sir Joshua Reynolds, when they were riding together in Devonshire, complained that he had a very bad horse, for that even when going down hill he moved slowly step by step. ‘Ay (said Johnson,) and when he goes up hill, he STANDS STILL.’

He had a great aversion to gesticulating in company. He called once to a gentleman who offended him in that point, ‘Don’t ATTITUDENISE.’ And when another gentleman thought he was giving additional force to what he uttered, by expressive movements of his hands, Johnson fairly seized them, and held them down.

Mr. Steevens, who passed many a social hour with him during their long acquaintance, which commenced when they both lived in the Temple, has preserved a good number of particulars concerning him, most of which are to be found in the department of Apothegms, &c. in the Collection of Johnson’s Works. But he has been pleased to favour me with the following, which are original:—

‘Dr. Johnson once assumed a character in which perhaps even Mr. Boswell never saw him. His curiosity having been excited by the praises bestowed on the celebrated Torre’s fireworks at Marybone-Gardens, he desired Mr. Steevens to accompany him thither. The evening had proved showery; and soon after the few people present were assembled, publick notice was given, that the conductors to the wheels, suns, stars, &c., were so thoroughly water-soaked, that it was impossible any part of the exhibition should be made. “This is a mere excuse, (says the Doctor,) to save their crackers for a more profitable company. Let us but hold up our sticks, and threaten to break those coloured lamps that surround the Orchestra, and we shall soon have our wishes gratified. The core of the fireworks cannot be injured; let the different pieces be touched in their respective centers, and they will do their offices as well as ever.” Some young men who overheard him, immediately began the violence he had recommended, and an attempt was speedily made to fire some of the wheels which appeared to have received the smallest damage; but to little purpose were they lighted, for most of them completely failed. The authour of The Rambler, however, may be considered, on this occasion, as the ringleader of a successful riot, though not as a skilful pyrotechnist.’

‘It has been supposed that Dr. Johnson, so far as fashion was concerned, was careless of his appearance in publick. But this is not altogether true, as the following slight instance may show:— Goldsmith’s last Comedy was to be represented during some court-mourning: and Mr. Steevens appointed to call on Dr. Johnson, and carry him to the tavern where he was to dine with others of the Poet’s friends. The Doctor was ready dressed, but in coloured cloaths; yet being told that he would find every one else in black, received the intelligence with a profusion of thanks, hastened to change his attire, all the while repeating his gratitude for the information that had saved him from an appearance so improper in the front row of a front box. “I would not (added he,) for ten pounds, have seemed so retrograde to any general observance.”

‘He would sometimes found his dislikes on very slender circumstances. Happening one day to mention Mr. Flexman, a Dissenting Minister, with some compliment to his exact memory in chronological matters; the Doctor replied, “Let me hear no more of him, Sir. That is the fellow who made the Index to my Ramblers, and set down the name of Milton thus: Milton, MR. John.”’

In the course of this work a numerous variety of names has been mentioned, to which many might be added. I cannot omit Lord and Lady Lucan, at whose house he often enjoyed all that an elegant table and the best company can contribute to happiness; he found hospitality united with extraordinary accomplishments, and embellished with charms of which no man could be insensible.

On Tuesday, June 22, I dined with him at THE LITERARY CLUB, the last time of his being in that respectable society. The other members present were the Bishop of St. Asaph, Lord Eliot, Lord Palmerston, Dr. Fordyce, and Mr. Malone. He looked ill; but had such a manly fortitude, that he did not trouble the company with melancholy complaints. They all shewed evident marks of kind concern about him, with which he was much pleased, and he exerted himself to be as entertaining as his indisposition allowed him.

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