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

1749: AETAT. 40.

In January, 1749, he published the Vanity of human Wishes, being the Tenth Satire of Juvenal imitated. He, I believe, composed it the preceding year. Mrs. Johnson, for the sake of country air, had lodgings at Hampstead, to which he resorted occasionally, and there the greatest part, if not the whole, of this Imitation was written. The fervid rapidity with which it was produced, is scarcely credible. I have heard him say, that he composed seventy lines of it in one day, without putting one of them upon paper till they were finished. I remember when I once regretted to him that he had not given us more of Juvenal’s Satires, he said he probably should give more, for he had them all in his head; by which I understood that he had the originals and correspondent allusions floating in his mind, which he could, when he pleased, embody and render permanent without much labour. Some of them, however, he observed were too gross for imitation.

The profits of a single poem, however excellent, appear to have been very small in the last reign, compared with what a publication of the same size has since been known to yield. I have mentioned, upon Johnson’s own authority, that for his London he had only ten guineas; and now, after his fame was established, he got for his Vanity of Human Wishes but five guineas more, as is proved by an authentick document in my possession.

His Vanity of Human Wishes has less of common life, but more of a philosophick dignity than his London. More readers, therefore, will be delighted with the pointed spirit of London, than with the profound reflection of The Vanity of Human Wishes. Garrick, for instance, observed in his sprightly manner, with more vivacity than regard to just discrimination, as is usual with wits: ‘When Johnson lived much with the Herveys, and saw a good deal of what was passing in life, he wrote his London, which is lively and easy. When he became more retired, he gave us his Vanity of Human Wishes, which is as hard as Greek. Had he gone on to imitate another satire, it would have been as hard as Hebrew.’

Garrick being now vested with theatrical power by being manager of Drury-lane theatre, he kindly and generously made use of it to bring out Johnson’s tragedy, which had been long kept back for want of encouragement. But in this benevolent purpose he met with no small difficulty from the temper of Johnson, which could not brook that a drama which he had formed with much study, and had been obliged to keep more than the nine years of Horace, should be revised and altered at the pleasure of an actor. Yet Garrick knew well, that without some alterations it would not be fit for the stage. A violent dispute having ensued between them, Garrick applied to the Reverend Dr. Taylor to interpose. Johnson was at first very obstinate. ‘Sir, (said he) the fellow wants me to make Mahomet run mad, that he may have an opportunity of tossing his hands and kicking his heels.’ He was, however, at last, with difficulty, prevailed on to comply with Garrick’s wishes, so as to allow of some changes; but still there were not enough.

Dr. Adams was present the first night of the representation of Irene, and gave me the following account: ‘Before the curtain drew up, there were catcalls whistling, which alarmed Johnson’s friends. The Prologue, which was written by himself in a manly strain, soothed the audience, and the play went off tolerably, till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bowstring round her neck. The audience cried out “Murder! Murder!” She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive.’ This passage was afterwards struck out, and she was carried off to be put to death behind the scenes, as the play now has it. The Epilogue, as Johnson informed me, was written by Sir William Yonge. I know not how his play came to be thus graced by the pen of a person then so eminent in the political world.

Notwithstanding all the support of such performers as Garrick, Barry, Mrs. Cibber, Mrs. Pritchard, and every advantage of dress and decoration, the tragedy of Irene did not please the publick. Mr. Garrick’s zeal carried it through for nine nights, so that the authour had his three nights’ profits; and from a receipt signed by him, now in the hands of Mr. James Dodsley, it appears that his friend Mr. Robert Dodsley gave him one hundred pounds for the copy, with his usual reservation of the right of one edition.

When asked how he felt upon the ill success of his tragedy, he replied, ‘Like the Monument;’ meaning that he continued firm and unmoved as that column. And let it be remembered, as an admonition to the genus irritabile of dramatick writers, that this great man, instead of peevishly complaining of the bad taste of the town, submitted to its decision without a murmur. He had, indeed, upon all occasions, a great deference for the general opinion: ‘A man (said he) who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.’

On occasion of his play being brought upon the stage, Johnson had a fancy that as a dramatick authour his dress should be more gay than what he ordinarily wore; he therefore appeared behind the scenes, and even in one of the side boxes, in a scarlet waistcoat, with rich gold lace, and a gold-laced hat. He humourously observed to Mr. Langton, ‘that when in that dress he could not treat people with the same ease as when in his usual plain clothes.’ Dress indeed, we must allow, has more effect even upon strong minds than one should suppose, without having had the experience of it. His necessary attendance while his play was in rehearsal, and during its performance, brought him acquainted with many of the performers of both sexes, which produced a more favourable opinion of their profession than he had harshly expressed in his Life of Savage. With some of them he kept up an acquaintance as long as he and they lived, and was ever ready to shew them acts of kindness. He for a considerable time used to frequent the Green Room, and seemed to take delight in dissipating his gloom, by mixing in the sprightly chit-chat of the motley circle then to be found there. Mr. David Hume related to me from Mr. Garrick, that Johnson at last denied himself this amusement, from considerations of rigid virtue; saying, ‘I’ll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.’

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