Trinity College, Dublin, at this time surprised Johnson with a spontaneous compliment of the highest academical honours, by creating him Doctor of Laws.
He appears this year to have been seized with a temporary fit of ambition, for he had thoughts both of studying law and of engaging in politics. His ‘Prayer before the Study of Law’ is truly admirable:—
‘Sept. 26, 1765.
‘Almighty GOD, the giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual; enable me, if it be thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful, and instruct the ignorant; to prevent wrongs and terminate contentions; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain, to thy glory and my own salvation, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake. Amen.’
This year was distinguished by his being introduced into the family of Mr. Thrale, one of the most eminent brewers in England, and Member of Parliament for the borough of Southwark. Foreigners are not a little amazed when they hear of brewers, distillers, and men in similar departments of trade, held forth as persons of considerable consequence. In this great commercial country it is natural that a situation which produces much wealth should be considered as very respectable; and, no doubt, honest industry is entitled to esteem. But, perhaps, the too rapid advance of men of low extraction tends to lessen the value of that distinction by birth and gentility, which has ever been found beneficial to the grand scheme of subordination. Johnson used to give this account of the rise of Mr. Thrale’s father: ‘He worked at six shillings a week for twenty years in the great brewery, which afterwards was his own. The proprietor of it had an only daughter, who was married to a nobleman. It was not fit that a peer should continue the business. On the old man’s death, therefore, the brewery was to be sold. To find a purchaser for so large a property was a difficult matter; and, after some time, it was suggested, that it would be adviseable to treat with Thrale, a sensible, active, honest man, who had been employed in the house, and to transfer the whole to him for thirty thousand pounds, security being taken upon the property. This was accordingly settled. In eleven years Thrale paid the purchase-money. He acquired a large fortune, and lived to be Member of Parliament for Southwark. But what was most remarkable was the liberality with which he used his riches. He gave his son and daughters the best education. The esteem which his good conduct procured him from the nobleman who had married his master’s daughter, made him be treated with much attention; and his son, both at school and at the University of Oxford, associated with young men of the first rank. His allowance from his father, after he left college, was splendid; no less than a thousand a year. This, in a man who had risen as old Thrale did, was a very extraordinary instance of generosity. He used to say, “If this young dog does not find so much after I am gone as he expects, let him remember that he has had a great deal in my own time.”’
The son, though in affluent circumstances, had good sense enough to carry on his father’s trade, which was of such extent, that I remember he once told me, he would not quit it for an annuity of ten thousand a year; ‘Not (said he,) that I get ten thousand a year by it, but it is an estate to a family.’ Having left daughters only, the property was sold for the immense sum of one hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds; a magnificent proof of what may be done by fair trade in no long period of time.
Mr. Thrale had married Miss Hesther Lynch Salusbury, of good Welsh extraction, a lady of lively talents, improved by education. That Johnson’s introduction into Mr. Thrale’s family, which contributed so much to the happiness of his life, was owing to her desire for his conversation, is very probable and a general supposition: but it is not the truth. Mr. Murphy, who was intimate with Mr. Thrale, having spoken very highly of Dr. Johnson, he was requested to make them acquainted. This being mentioned to Johnson, he accepted of an invitation to dinner at Thrale’s, and was so much pleased with his reception, both by Mr. and Mrs. Thrale, and they so much pleased with him, that his invitations to their house were more and more frequent, till at last he became one of the family, and an apartment was appropriated to him, both in their house in Southwark, and in their villa at Streatham.
Johnson had a very sincere esteem for Mr. Thrale, as a man of excellent principles, a good scholar, well skilled in trade, of a sound understanding, and of manners such as presented the character of a plain independent English Squire. As this family will frequently be mentioned in the course of the following pages, and as a false notion has prevailed that Mr. Thrale was inferiour, and in some degree insignificant, compared with Mrs. Thrale, it may be proper to give a true state of the case from the authority of Johnson himself in his own words.
‘I know no man, (said he,) who is more master of his wife and family than Thrale. If he but holds up a finger, he is obeyed. It is a great mistake to suppose that she is above him in literary attainments. She is more flippant; but he has ten times her learning: he is a regular scholar; but her learning is that of a school-boy in one of the lower forms.’ My readers may naturally wish for some representation of the figures of this couple. Mr. Thrale was tall, well proportioned, and stately. As for Madam, or my Mistress, by which epithets Johnson used to mention Mrs. Thrale, she was short, plump, and brisk. She has herself given us a lively view of the idea which Johnson had of her person, on her appearing before him in a dark-coloured gown: ‘You little creatures should never wear those sort of clothes, however; they are unsuitable in every way. What! have not all insects gay colours?’ Mr. Thrale gave his wife a liberal indulgence, both in the choice of their company, and in the mode of entertaining them. He understood and valued Johnson, without remission, from their first acquaintance to the day of his death. Mrs. Thrale was enchanted with Johnson’s conversation, for its own sake, and had also a very allowable vanity in appearing to be honoured with the attention of so celebrated a man.
Nothing could be more fortunate for Johnson than this connection. He had at Mr. Thrale’s all the comforts and even luxuries of life; his melancholy was diverted, and his irregular habits lessened by association with an agreeable and well-ordered family. He was treated with the utmost respect, and even affection. The vivacity of Mrs. Thrale’s literary talk roused him to cheerfulness and exertion, even when they were alone. But this was not often the case; for he found here a constant succession of what gave him the highest enjoyment: the society of the learned, the witty, and the eminent in every way, who were assembled in numerous companies, called forth his wonderful powers, and gratified him with admiration, to which no man could be insensible.
In the October of this year he at length gave to the world his edition of Shakspeare, which, if it had no other merit but that of producing his Preface, in which the excellencies and defects of that immortal bard are displayed with a masterly hand, the nation would have had no reason to complain.
In 1764 and 1765 it should seem that Dr. Johnson was so busily employed with his edition of Shakspeare, as to have had little leisure for any other literary exertion, or, indeed, even for private correspondence. He did not favour me with a single letter for more than two years, for which it will appear that he afterwards apologised.
He was, however, at all times ready to give assistance to his friends, and others, in revising their works, and in writing for them, or greatly improving their Dedications. In that courtly species of composition no man excelled Dr. Johnson. Though the loftiness of his mind prevented him from ever dedicating in his own person, he wrote a very great number of Dedications for others. Some of these, the persons who were favoured with them are unwilling should be mentioned, from a too anxious apprehension, as I think, that they might be suspected of having received larger assistance; and some, after all the diligence I have bestowed, have escaped my enquiries. He told me, a great many years ago, ‘he believed he had dedicated to all the Royal Family round;’ and it was indifferent to him what was the subject of the work dedicated, provided it were innocent. He once dedicated some Musick for the German Flute to Edward, Duke of York. In writing Dedications for others, he considered himself as by no means speaking his own sentiments.
I returned to London in February,21 and found Dr. Johnson in a good house in Johnson’s Court, Fleet-street, in which he had accommodated Miss Williams with an apartment on the ground floor, while Mr. Levet occupied his post in the garret: his faithful Francis was still attending upon him. He received me with much kindness. The fragments of our first conversation, which I have preserved, are these:
I told him that Voltaire, in a conversation with me, had distinguished Pope and Dryden thus:—‘Pope drives a handsome chariot, with a couple of neat trim nags; Dryden a coach, and six stately horses.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, the truth is, they both drive coaches and six; but Dryden’s horses are either galloping or stumbling: Pope’s go at a steady even trot.’ He said of Goldsmith’s Traveller, which had been published in my absence, ‘There has not been so fine a poem since Pope’s time.’
Talking of education, ‘People have now a-days, (said he,) got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chymistry by lectures. — You might teach making of shoes by lectures!’
At night I supped with him at the Mitre tavern, that we might renew our social intimacy at the original place of meeting. But there was now a considerable difference in his way of living. Having had an illness, in which he was advised to leave off wine, he had, from that period, continued to abstain from it, and drank only water, or lemonade.
I told him that a foreign friend of his, whom I had met with abroad, was so wretchedly perverted to infidelity, that he treated the hopes of immortality with brutal levity; and said, ‘As man dies like a dog, let him lie like a dog.’ JOHNSON. ‘IF he dies like a dog, LET him lie like a dog.’ I added, that this man said to me, ‘I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he must be very singular in his opinion, if he thinks himself one of the best of men; for none of his friends think him so.’— He said, ‘no honest man could be a Deist; for no man could be so after a fair examination of the proofs of Christianity.’ I named Hume. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; Hume owned to a clergyman in the bishoprick of Durham, that he had never read the New Testament with attention.’ I mentioned Hume’s notion, that all who are happy are equally happy; a little miss with a new gown at a dancing school ball, a general at the head of a victorious army, and an orator, after having made an eloquent speech in a great assembly. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that all who are happy, are equally happy, is not true. A peasant and a philosopher may be equally SATISFIED, but not equally HAPPY. Happiness consists in the multiplicity of agreeable consciousness. A peasant has not capacity for having equal happiness with a philosopher.’
Dr. Johnson was very kind this evening, and said to me ‘You have now lived five-and-twenty years, and you have employed them well.’ ‘Alas, Sir, (said I,) I fear not. Do I know history? Do I know mathematicks? Do I know law?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, though you may know no science so well as to be able to teach it, and no profession so well as to be able to follow it, your general mass of knowledge of books and men renders you very capable to make yourself master of any science, or fit yourself for any profession.’ I mentioned that a gay friend had advised me against being a lawyer, because I should be excelled by plodding block-heads. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, in the formulary and statutory part of law, a plodding block-head may excel; but in the ingenious and rational part of it a plodding block-head can never excel.’
I talked of the mode adopted by some to rise in the world, by courting great men, and asked him whether he had ever submitted to it. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I never was near enough to great men, to court them. You may be prudently attached to great men and yet independent. You are not to do what you think wrong; and, Sir, you are to calculate, and not pay too dear for what you get. You must not give a shilling’s worth of court for six-pence worth of good. But if you can get a shilling’s worth of good for six-pence worth of court, you are a fool if you do not pay court.’
I talked to him a great deal of what I had seen in Corsica, and of my intention to publish an account of it. He encouraged me by saying, ‘You cannot go to the bottom of the subject; but all that you tell us will be new to us. Give us as many anecdotes as you can.’
Our next meeting at the Mitre was on Saturday the 15th of February, when I presented to him my old and most intimate friend, the Reverend Mr. Temple, then of Cambridge. I having mentioned that I had passed some time with Rousseau in his wild retreat, and having quoted some remark made by Mr. Wilkes, with whom I had spent many pleasant hours in Italy, Johnson said (sarcastically,) ‘It seems, Sir, you have kept very good company abroad, Rousseau and Wilkes!’ Thinking it enough to defend one at a time, I said nothing as to my gay friend, but answered with a smile, ‘My dear Sir, you don’t call Rousseau bad company. Do you really think HIM a bad man?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, if you are talking jestingly of this, I don’t talk with you. If you mean to be serious, I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been. Three or four nations have expelled him; and it is a shame that he is protected in this country.’ BOSWELL. ‘I don’t deny, Sir, but that his novel may, perhaps, do harm; but I cannot think his intention was bad.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that will not do. We cannot prove any man’s intention to be bad. You may shoot a man through the head, and say you intended to miss him; but the Judge will order you to be hanged. An alleged want of intention, when evil is committed, will not be allowed in a court of justice. Rousseau, Sir, is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation, than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.’ BOSWELL. ‘Sir, do you think him as bad a man as Voltaire?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.’
On his favourite subject of subordination, Johnson said, ‘So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.’
I mentioned the advice given us by philosophers, to console ourselves, when distressed or embarrassed, by thinking of those who are in a worse situation than ourselves. This, I observed, could not apply to all, for there must be some who have nobody worse than they are. JOHNSON. ‘Why, to be sure, Sir, there are; but they don’t know it. There is no being so poor and so contemptible, who does not think there is somebody still poorer, and still more contemptible.’
As my stay in London at this time was very short, I had not many opportunities of being with Dr. Johnson; but I felt my veneration for him in no degree lessened, by my having seen multoram hominum mores et urbes. On the contrary, by having it in my power to compare him with many of the most celebrated persons of other countries, my admiration of his extraordinary mind was increased and confirmed.
The roughness, indeed, which sometimes appeared in his manners, was more striking to me now, from my having been accustomed to the studied smooth complying habits of the Continent; and I clearly recognised in him, not without respect for his honest conscientious zeal, the same indignant and sarcastical mode of treating every attempt to unhinge or weaken good principles.
One evening when a young gentleman teized him with an account of the infidelity of his servant, who, he said, would not believe the scriptures, because he could not read them in the original tongues, and be sure that they were not invented, ‘Why, foolish fellow, (said Johnson,) has he any better authority for almost every thing that he believes?’ BOSWELL. ‘Then the vulgar, Sir, never can know they are right, but must submit themselves to the learned.’ JOHNSON. ‘To be sure, Sir. The vulgar are the children of the State, and must be taught like children.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then, Sir, a poor Turk must be a Mahometan, just as a poor Englishman must be a Christian?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir; and what then? This now is such stuff as I used to talk to my mother, when I first began to think myself a clever fellow; and she ought to have whipt me for it.’
Another evening Dr. Goldsmith and I called on him, with the hope of prevailing on him to sup with us at the Mitre. We found him indisposed, and resolved not to go abroad. ‘Come then, (said Goldsmith,) we will not go to the Mitre to-night, since we cannot have the big man with us.’ Johnson then called for a bottle of port, of which Goldsmith and I partook, while our friend, now a water-drinker, sat by us. GOLDSMITH. ‘I think, Mr. Johnson, you don’t go near the theatres now. You give yourself no more concern about a new play, than if you had never had any thing to do with the stage.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, our tastes greatly alter. The lad does not care for the child’s rattle, and the old man does not care for the young man’s whore.’ GOLDSMITH. ‘Nay, Sir, but your Muse was not a whore.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I do not think she was. But as we advance in the journey of life, we drop some of the things which have pleased us; whether it be that we are fatigued and don’t choose to carry so many things any farther, or that we find other things which we like better.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, why don’t you give us something in some other way?’ GOLDSMITH. ‘Ay, Sir, we have a claim upon you.’ JOHNSON. No, Sir, I am not obliged to do any more. No man is obliged to do as much as he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself. If a soldier has fought a good many campaigns, he is not to be blamed if he retires to ease and tranquillity. A physician, who has practised long in a great city, may be excused if he retires to a small town, and takes less practice. Now, Sir, the good I can do by my conversation bears the same proportion to the good I can do by my writings, that the practice of a physician, retired to a small town, does to his practice in a great city.’ BOSWELL. ‘But I wonder, Sir, you have not more pleasure in writing than in not writing.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you MAY wonder.’
He talked of making verses, and observed, ‘The great difficulty is to know when you have made good ones. When composing, I have generally had them in my mind, perhaps fifty at a time, walking up and down in my room; and then I have written them down, and often, from laziness, have written only half lines. I have written a hundred lines in a day. I remember I wrote a hundred lines of The Vanity of Human Wishes in a day. Doctor, (turning to Goldsmith,) I am not quite idle; I made one line t’other day; but I made no more.’ GOLDSMITH. ‘Let us hear it; we’ll put a bad one to it.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, I have forgot it.’
‘TO BENNET LANGTON, ESQ., AT LANGTON, NEAR SPILSBY, LINCOLNSHIRE
‘DEAR SIR— What your friends have done, that from your departure till now nothing has been heard of you, none of us are able to inform the rest; but as we are all neglected alike, no one thinks himself entitled to the privilege of complaint.
‘I should have known nothing of you or of Langton, from the time that dear Miss Langton left us, had not I met Mr. Simpson, of Lincoln, one day in the street, by whom I was informed that Mr. Langton, your Mamma, and yourself, had been all ill, but that you were all recovered.
‘That sickness should suspend your correspondence, I did not wonder; but hoped that it would be renewed at your recovery.
‘Since you will not inform us where you are, or how you live, I know not whether you desire to know any thing of us. However, I will tell you that THE CLUB subsists; but we have the loss of Burke’s company since he has been engaged in publick business, in which he has gained more reputation than perhaps any man at his [first] appearance ever gained before. He made two speeches in the House for repealing the Stamp-act, which were publickly commended by Mr. Pitt, and have filled the town with wonder.
‘Burke is a great man by nature, and is expected soon to attain civil greatness. I am grown greater too, for I have maintained the news-papers these many weeks; and what is greater still, I have risen every morning since New-year’s day, at about eight; when I was up, I have indeed done but little; yet it is no slight advancement to obtain for so many hours more, the consciousness of being.
‘I wish you were in my new study; I am now writing the first letter in it. I think it looks very pretty about me.
‘Dyer is constant at THE CLUB; Hawkins is remiss; I am not over diligent. Dr. Nugent, Dr. Goldsmith, and Mr. Reynolds, are very constant. Mr. Lye is printing his Saxon and Gothick Dictionary; all THE CLUB subscribes.
‘You will pay my respects to all my Lincolnshire friends. I am, dear Sir, most affectionately your’s,
‘March 9, 1766.
The Honourable Thomas Hervey and his lady having unhappily disagreed, and being about to separate, Johnson interfered as their friend, and wrote him a letter of expostulation, which I have not been able to find; but the substance of it is ascertained by a letter to Johnson in answer to it, which Mr. Hervey printed. The occasion of this correspondence between Dr. Johnson and Mr. Harvey, was thus related to me by Mr. Beauclerk. ‘Tom Harvey had a great liking for Johnson, and in his will had left him a legacy of fifty pounds. One day he said to me, “Johnson may want this money now, more than afterwards. I have a mind to give it him directly. Will you be so good as to carry a fifty pound note from me to him?” This I positively refused to do, as he might, perhaps, have knocked me down for insulting him, and have afterwards put the note in his pocket. But I said, if Harvey would write him a letter, and enclose a fifty pound note, I should take care to deliver it. He accordingly did write him a letter, mentioning that he was only paying a legacy a little sooner. To his letter he added, “P. S. I am going to part with my wife.” Johnson then wrote to him, saying nothing of the note, but remonstrating with him against parting with his wife.’
In February, 1767, there happened one of the most remarkable incidents of Johnson’s life, which gratified his monarchical enthusiasm, and which he loved to relate with all its circumstances, when requested by his friends. This was his being honoured by a private conversation with his Majesty, in the library at the Queen’s house. He had frequently visited those splendid rooms and noble collection of books, which he used to say was more numerous and curious than he supposed any person could have made in the time which the King had employed. Mr. Barnard, the librarian, took care that he should have every accommodation that could contribute to his ease and convenience, while indulging his literary taste in that place; so that he had here a very agreeable resource at leisure hours.
His Majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent, Mr. Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King was, and, in obedience to his Majesty’s commands, mentioned that Dr. Johnson was then in the library. His Majesty said he was at leisure, and would go to him; upon which Mr. Barnard took one of the candles that stood on the King’s table, and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his Majesty had the key. Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered him, ‘Sir, here is the King.’ Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.
His Majesty began by observing, that he understood he came sometimes to the library; and then mentioning his having heard that the Doctor had been lately at Oxford, asked him if he was not fond of going thither. To which Johnson answered, that he was indeed fond of going to Oxford sometimes, but was likewise glad to come back again. The King then asked him what they were doing at Oxford. Johnson answered, he could not much commend their diligence, but that in some respects they were mended, for they had put their press under better regulations, and were at that time printing Polybius. He was then asked whether there were better libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. He answered, he believed the Bodleian was larger than any they had at Cambridge; at the same time adding, ‘I hope, whether we have more books or not than they have at Cambridge, we shall make as good use of them as they do.’ Being asked whether All-Souls or Christ-Church library was the largest, he answered, ‘All-Souls library is the largest we have, except the Bodleian.’ ‘Aye, (said the King,) that is the publick library.’
His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said ‘I do not think you borrow much from any body.’ Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer. ‘I should have thought so too, (said the King,) if you had not written so well.’— Johnson observed to me, upon this, that ‘No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay. It was decisive.’ When asked by another friend, at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, whether he made any reply to this high compliment, he answered, ‘No, Sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign.’ Perhaps no man who had spent his whole life in courts could have shewn a more nice and dignified sense of true politeness, than Johnson did in this instance.
His Majesty having observed to him that he supposed he must have read a great deal; Johnson answered, that he thought more than he read; that he had read a great deal in the early part of his life, but having fallen into ill health, he had not been able to read much, compared with others: for instance, he said he had not read much, compared with Dr. Warburton. Upon which the King said, that he heard Dr. Warburton was a man of such general knowledge, that you could scarce talk with him on any subject on which he was not qualified to speak; and that his learning resembled Garrick’s acting, in its universality. His Majesty then talked of the controversy between Warburton and Lowth, which he seemed to have read, and asked Johnson what he thought of it. Johnson answered, ‘Warburton has most general, most scholastick learning; Lowth is the more correct scholar. I do not know which of them calls names best.’ The King was pleased to say he was of the same opinion; adding, ‘You do not think, then, Dr. Johnson, that there was much argument in the case.’ Johnson said, he did not think there was. ‘Why truly, (said the King,) when once it comes to calling names, argument is pretty well at an end.’
His Majesty then asked him what he thought of Lord Lyttelton’s History, which was then just published. Johnson said, he thought his style pretty good, but that he had blamed Henry the Second rather too much. ‘Why, (said the King,) they seldom do these things by halves.’ ‘No, Sir, (answered Johnson,) not to Kings.’ But fearing to be misunderstood, he proceeded to explain himself; and immediately subjoined, ‘That for those who spoke worse of Kings than they deserved, he could find no excuse; but that he could more easily conceive how some might speak better of them than they deserved, without any ill intention; for, as Kings had much in their power to give, those who were favoured by them would frequently, from gratitude, exaggerate their praises; and as this proceeded from a good motive, it was certainly excusable, as far as errour could be excusable.’
The King then asked him what he thought of Dr. Hill. Johnson answered, that he was an ingenious man, but had no veracity; and immediately mentioned, as an instance of it, an assertion of that writer, that he had seen objects magnified to a much greater degree by using three or four microscopes at a time, than by using one. ‘Now, (added Johnson,) every one acquainted with microscopes knows, that the more of them he looks through, the less the object will appear.’ ‘Why, (replied the King,) this is not only telling an untruth, but telling it clumsily; for, if that be the case, every one who can look through a microscope will be able to detect him.’
‘I now, (said Johnson to his friends, when relating what had passed) began to consider that I was depreciating this man in the estimation of his Sovereign, and thought it was time for me to say something that might be more favourable.’ He added, therefore, that Dr. Hill was, notwithstanding, a very curious observer; and if he would have been contented to tell the world no more than he knew, he might have been a very considerable man, and needed not to have recourse to such mean expedients to raise his reputation.
The King then talked of literary journals, mentioned particularly the Journal des Savans, and asked Johnson if it was well done. Johnson said, it was formerly very well done, and gave some account of the persons who began it, and carried it on for some years; enlarging, at the same time, on the nature and use of such works. The King asked him if it was well done now. Johnson answered, he had no reason to think that it was. The King then asked him if there were any other literary journals published in this kingdom, except the Monthly and Critical Reviews; and on being answered there were no other, his Majesty asked which of them was the best: Johnson answered, that the Monthly Review was done with most care, the Critical upon the best principles; adding that the authours of the Monthly Review were enemies to the Church. This the King said he was sorry to hear.
The conversation next turned on the Philosophical Transactions, when Johnson observed, that they had now a better method of arranging their materials than formerly. ‘Aye, (said the King,) they are obliged to Dr. Johnson for that;’ for his Majesty had heard and remembered the circumstance, which Johnson himself had forgot.
His Majesty expressed a desire to have the literary biography of this country ably executed, and proposed to Dr. Johnson to undertake it. Johnson signified his readiness to comply with his Majesty’s wishes.
During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. After the King withdrew, Johnson shewed himself highly pleased with his Majesty’s conversation, and gracious behaviour. He said to Mr. Barnard, ‘Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.’ And he afterwards observed to Mr. Langton, ‘Sir, his manners are those of as fine a gentleman as we may suppose Lewis the Fourteenth or Charles the Second.’
At Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, where a circle of Johnson’s friends was collected round him to hear his account of this memorable conversation, Dr. Joseph Warton, in his frank and lively manner, was very active in pressing him to mention the particulars. ‘Come now, Sir, this is an interesting matter; do favour us with it.’ Johnson, with great good humour, complied.
He told them, ‘I found his Majesty wished I should talk, and I made it my business to talk. I find it does a man good to be talked to by his Sovereign. In the first place, a man cannot be in a passion —.’ Here some question interrupted him, which is to be regretted, as he certainly would have pointed out and illustrated many circumstances of advantage, from being in a situation, where the powers of the mind are at once excited to vigorous exertion, and tempered by reverential awe.
During all the time in which Dr. Johnson was employed in relating to the circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s the particulars of what passed between the King and him, Dr. Goldsmith remained unmoved upon a sopha at some distance, affecting not to join in the least in the eager curiosity of the company. He assigned as a reason for his gloom and seeming inattention, that he apprehended Johnson had relinquished his purpose of furnishing him with a Prologue to his play, with the hopes of which he had been flattered; but it was strongly suspected that he was fretting with chagrin and envy at the singular honour Dr. Johnson had lately enjoyed. At length, the frankness and simplicity of his natural character prevailed. He sprung from the sopha, advanced to Johnson, and in a kind of flutter, from imagining himself in the situation which he had just been hearing described, exclaimed, ‘Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than I should have done; for I should have bowed and stammered through the whole of it.’
His diary affords no light as to his employment at this time. He passed three months at Lichfield; and I cannot omit an affecting and solemn scene there, as related by himself:—
‘Sunday, Oct. 18, 1767. Yesterday, Oct. 17, at about ten in the morning, I took my leave for ever of my dear old friend, Catharine Chambers, who came to live with my mother about 1724, and has been but little parted from us since. She buried my father, my brother, and my mother. She is now fifty-eight years old.
‘I desired all to withdraw, then told her that we were to part for ever; that as Christians, we should part with prayer; and that I would, if she was willing, say a short prayer beside her. She expressed great desire to hear me; and held up her poor hands, as she lay in bed, with great fervour, while I prayed, kneeling by her, nearly in the following words:
‘Almighty and most merciful Father, whose loving kindness is over all thy works, behold, visit, and relieve this thy servant, who is grieved with sickness. Grant that the sense of her weakness may add strength to her faith, and seriousness to her repentance. And grant that by the help of thy Holy Spirit, after the pains and labours of this short life, we may all obtain everlasting happiness, through JESUS CHRIST our Lord; for whose sake hear our prayers. Amen. Our Father, &c.
‘I then kissed her. She told me, that to part was the greatest pain that she had ever felt, and that she hoped we should meet again in a better place. I expressed, with swelled eyes, and great emotion of tenderness, the same hopes. We kissed, and parted. I humbly hope to meet again, and to part no more.’
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