It appears from his notes of the state of his mind, that he suffered great perturbation and distraction in 1768. Nothing of his writing was given to the publick this year, except the Prologue to his friend Goldsmith’s comedy of The Good-natured Man. The first lines of this Prologue are strongly characteristical of the dismal gloom of his mind; which in his case, as in the case of all who are distressed with the same malady of imagination, transfers to others its own feelings. Who could suppose it was to introduce a comedy, when Mr. Bensley solemnly began,
‘Press’d with the load of life, the weary mind
Surveys the general toil of human kind.’
But this dark ground might make Goldsmith’s humour shine the more.
In the spring of this year, having published my Account of Corsica, with the Journal of a Tour to that Island, I returned to London, very desirous to see Dr. Johnson, and hear him upon the subject. I found he was at Oxford, with his friend Mr. Chambers, who was now Vinerian Professor, and lived in New Inn Hall. Having had no letter from him since that in which he criticised the Latinity of my Thesis, and having been told by somebody that he was offended at my having put into my Book an extract of his letter to me at Paris, I was impatient to be with him, and therefore followed him to Oxford, where I was entertained by Mr. Chambers, with a civility which I shall ever gratefully remember. I found that Dr. Johnson had sent a letter to me to Scotland, and that I had nothing to complain of but his being more indifferent to my anxiety than I wished him to be. Instead of giving, with the circumstances of time and place, such fragments of his conversation as I preserved during this visit to Oxford, I shall throw them together in continuation.
Talking of some of the modern plays, he said False Delicacy was totally void of character. He praised Goldsmith’s Good-natured Man; said, it was the best comedy that had appeared since The Provoked Husband, and that there had not been of late any such character exhibited on the stage as that of Croaker. I observed it was the Suspirius of his Rambler. He said, Goldsmith had owned he had borrowed it from thence. ‘Sir, (continued he,) there is all the difference in the world between characters of nature and characters of manners; and THERE is the difference between the characters of Fielding and those of Richardson. Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer than characters of nature, where a man must dive into the recesses of the human heart.’
It always appeared to me that he estimated the compositions of Richardson too highly, and that he had an unreasonable prejudice against Fielding. In comparing those two writers, he used this expression: ‘that there was as great a difference between them as between a man who knew how a watch was made, and a man who could tell the hour by looking on the dial-plate.’
‘I have not been troubled for a long time with authours desiring my opinion of their works. I used once to be sadly plagued with a man who wrote verses, but who literally had no other notion of a verse, but that it consisted of ten syllables. Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate, was to him a verse:
Lay your knife and your fork, across your plate.
As he wrote a great number of verses, he sometimes by chance made good ones, though he did not know it.’
Johnson expatiated on the advantages of Oxford for learning. ‘There is here, Sir, (said he,) such a progressive emulation. The students are anxious to appear well to their tutors; the tutors are anxious to have their pupils appear well in the college; the colleges are anxious to have their students appear well in the University; and there are excellent rules of discipline in every college. That the rules are sometimes ill observed, may be true; but is nothing against the system. The members of an University may, for a season, be unmindful of their duty. I am arguing for the excellency of the institution.’
He said he had lately been a long while at Lichfield, but had grown very weary before he left it. BOSWELL. ‘I wonder at that, Sir; it is your native place.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, so is Scotland YOUR native place.’
His prejudice against Scotland appeared remarkably strong at this time. When I talked of our advancement in literature, ‘Sir, (said he,) you have learnt a little from us, and you think yourselves very great men. Hume would never have written History, had not Voltaire written it before him. He is an echo of Voltaire.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, we have Lord Kames.’ JOHNSON. ‘You HAVE Lord Kames. Keep him; ha, ha, ha! We don’t envy you him. Do you ever see Dr. Robertson?’ BOSWELL. ‘Yes, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘Does the dog talk of me?’ BOSWELL. ‘Indeed, Sir, he does, and loves you.’ Thinking that I now had him in a corner, and being solicitous for the literary fame of my country, I pressed him for his opinion on the merit of Dr. Robertson’s History of Scotland. But, to my surprize, he escaped. —‘Sir, I love Robertson, and I won’t talk of his book.’
An essay, written by Mr. Deane, a divine of the Church of England, maintaining the future life of brutes, by an explication of certain parts of the scriptures, was mentioned, and the doctrine insisted on by a gentleman who seemed fond of curious speculation. Johnson, who did not like to hear of any thing concerning a future state which was not authorised by the regular canons of orthodoxy, discouraged this talk; and being offended at its continuation, he watched an opportunity to give the gentleman a blow of reprehension. So, when the poor speculatist, with a serious metaphysical pensive face, addressed him, ‘But really, Sir, when we see a very sensible dog, we don’t know what to think of him;’ Johnson, rolling with joy at the thought which beamed in his eye, turned quickly round, and replied, ‘True, Sir: and when we see a very foolish FELLOW, we don’t know what to think of HIM.’ He then rose up, strided to the fire, and stood for some time laughing and exulting.
I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. Johnson. ‘Why, no, Sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity.’
A gentleman talked to him of a lady whom he greatly admired and wished to marry, but was afraid of her superiority of talents. ‘Sir, (said he,) you need not be afraid; marry her. Before a year goes about, you’ll find that reason much weaker, and that wit not so bright.’ Yet the gentleman may be justified in his apprehension by one of Dr. Johnson’s admirable sentences in his life of Waller: ‘He doubtless praised many whom he would have been afraid to marry; and, perhaps, married one whom he would have been ashamed to praise. Many qualities contribute to domestic happiness, upon which poetry has no colours to bestow; and many airs and sallies may delight imagination, which he who flatters them never can approve.’
He praised Signor Baretti. ‘His account of Italy is a very entertaining book; and, Sir, I know no man who carries his head higher in conversation than Baretti. There are strong powers in his mind. He has not, indeed, many hooks; but with what hooks he has, he grapples very forcibly.’
At this time I observed upon the dial-plate of his watch a short Greek inscription, taken from the New Testament, [Greek text omitted], being the first words of our SAVIOUR’S solemn admonition to the improvement of that time which is allowed us to prepare for eternity: ‘the night cometh when no man can work.’ He sometime afterwards laid aside this dial-plate; and when I asked him the reason, he said, ‘It might do very well upon a clock which a man keeps in his closet; but to have it upon his watch which he carries about with him, and which is often looked at by others, might be censured as ostentatious.’ Mr. Steevens is now possessed of the dial-plate inscribed as above.
He remained at Oxford a considerable time; I was obliged to go to London, where I received his letter, which had been returned from Scotland.
‘TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘MY DEAR BOSWELL— I have omitted a long time to write to you, without knowing very well why. I could now tell why I should not write; for who would write to men who publish the letters of their friends, without their leave? Yet I write to you in spite of my caution, to tell you that I shall be glad to see you, and that I wish you would empty your head of Corsica, which I think has filled it rather too long. But, at all events, I shall be glad, very glad to see you. I am, Sir, yours affectionately,
‘Oxford, March 23, 1768.’
Upon his arrival in London in May, he surprized me one morning with a visit at my lodgings in Half-Moon-street, was quite satisfied with my explanation, and was in the kindest and most agreeable frame of mind. As he had objected to a part of one of his letters being published, I thought it right to take this opportunity of asking him explicitly whether it would be improper to publish his letters after his death. His answer was, ‘Nay, Sir, when I am dead, you may do as you will.’
He talked in his usual style with a rough contempt of popular liberty. ‘They make a rout about UNIVERSAL liberty, without considering that all that is to be valued, or indeed can be enjoyed by individuals, is PRIVATE liberty. Political liberty is good only so far as it produces private liberty. Now, Sir, there is the liberty of the press, which you know is a constant topick. Suppose you and I and two hundred more were restrained from printing our thoughts: what then? What proportion would that restraint upon us bear to the private happiness of the nation?’
This mode of representing the inconveniences of restraint as light and insignificant, was a kind of sophistry in which he delighted to indulge himself, in opposition to the extreme laxity for which it has been fashionable for too many to argue, when it is evident, upon reflection, that the very essence of government is restraint; and certain it is, that as government produces rational happiness, too much restraint is better than too little. But when restraint is unnecessary, and so close as to gall those who are subject to it, the people may and ought to remonstrate; and, if relief is not granted, to resist. Of this manly and spirited principle, no man was more convinced than Johnson himself.
His sincere regard for Francis Barber, his faithful negro servant, made him so desirous of his further improvement, that he now placed him at a school at Bishop Stortford, in Hertfordshire. This humane attention does Johnson’s heart much honour. Out of many letters which Mr. Barber received from his master, he has preserved three, which he kindly gave me, and which I shall insert according to their dates.
‘TO MR. FRANCIS BARBER.
‘DEAR FRANCIS— I have been very much out of order. I am glad to hear that you are well, and design to come soon to see you. I would have you stay at Mrs. Clapp’s for the present, till I can determine what we shall do. Be a good boy.
‘My compliments to Mrs. Clapp and to Mr. Fowler. I am, your’s affectionately,
‘May 28, 1768.’
Soon afterwards, he supped at the Crown and Anchor tavern, in the Strand, with a company whom I collected to meet him. They were Dr. Percy, now Bishop of Dromore, Dr. Douglas, now Bishop of Salisbury, Mr. Langton, Dr. Robertson the Historian, Dr. Hugh Blair, and Mr. Thomas Davies, who wished much to be introduced to these eminent Scotch literati; but on the present occasion he had very little opportunity of hearing them talk, for with an excess of prudence, for which Johnson afterwards found fault with them, they hardly opened their lips, and that only to say something which they were certain would not expose them to the sword of Goliath; such was their anxiety for their fame when in the presence of Johnson. He was this evening in remarkable vigour of mind, and eager to exert himself in conversation, which he did with great readiness and fluency; but I am sorry to find that I have preserved but a small part of what passed.
He was vehement against old Dr. Mounsey, of Chelsea College, as ‘a fellow who swore and talked bawdy.’ ‘I have been often in his company, (said Dr. Percy,) and never heard him swear or talk bawdy.’ Mr. Davies, who sat next to Dr. Percy, having after this had some conversation aside with him, made a discovery which, in his zeal to pay court to Dr. Johnson, he eagerly proclaimed aloud from the foot of the table: ‘O, Sir, I have found out a very good reason why Dr. Percy never heard Mounsey swear or talk bawdy; for he tells me, he never saw him but at the Duke of Northumberland’s table.’ ‘And so, Sir, (said Johnson loudly, to Dr. Percy,) you would shield this man from the charge of swearing and talking bawdy, because he did not do so at the Duke of Northumberland’s table. Sir, you might as well tell us that you had seen him hold up his hand at the Old Bailey, and he neither swore nor talked bawdy; or that you had seen him in the cart at Tyburn, and he neither swore nor talked bawdy. And is it thus, Sir, that you presume to controvert what I have related?’ Dr. Johnson’s animadversion was uttered in such a manner, that Dr. Percy seemed to be displeased, and soon afterwards left the company, of which Johnson did not at that time take any notice.
Swift having been mentioned, Johnson, as usual, treated him with little respect as an authour. Some of us endeavoured to support the Dean of St. Patrick’s by various arguments. One in particular praised his Conduct of the Allies. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, his Conduct of the Allies is a performance of very little ability.’ ‘Surely, Sir, (said Dr. Douglas,) you must allow it has strong facts.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why yes, Sir; but what is that to the merit of the composition? In the Sessions-paper of the Old Bailey, there are strong facts. Housebreaking is a strong fact; robbery is a strong fact; and murder is a MIGHTY strong fact; but is great praise due to the historian of those strong facts? No, Sir. Swift has told what he had to tell distinctly enough, but that is all. He had to count ten, and he has counted it right.’ Then recollecting that Mr. Davies, by acting as an INFORMER, had been the occasion of his talking somewhat too harshly to his friend Dr. Percy, for which, probably, when the first ebullition was over, he felt some compunction, he took an opportunity to give him a hit; so added, with a preparatory laugh, ‘Why, Sir, Tom Davies might have written The Conduct of the Allies.’ Poor Tom being thus suddenly dragged into ludicrous notice in presence of the Scottish Doctors, to whom he was ambitious of appearing to advantage, was grievously mortified. Nor did his punishment rest here; for upon subsequent occasions, whenever he, ‘statesman all over,’ assumed a strutting importance, I used to hail him —‘the Authour of The Conduct of the Allies.’
When I called upon Dr. Johnson next morning, I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial prowess the preceding evening. ‘Well, (said he,) we had good talk.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yes, Sir; you tossed and gored several persons.’
The late Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune, who loved wit more than wine, and men of genius more than sycophants, had a great admiration of Johnson; but from the remarkable elegance of his own manners, was, perhaps, too delicately sensible of the roughness which sometimes appeared in Johnson’s behaviour. One evening about this time, when his Lordship did me the honour to sup at my lodgings with Dr. Robertson and several other men of literary distinction, he regretted that Johnson had not been educated with more refinement, and lived more in polished society. ‘No, no, my Lord, (said Signor Baretti,) do with him what you would, he would always have been a bear.’ ‘True, (answered the Earl, with a smile,) but he would have been a DANCING bear.’
To obviate all the reflections which have gone round the world to Johnson’s prejudice, by applying to him the epithet of a BEAR, let me impress upon my readers a just and happy saying of my friend Goldsmith, who knew him well: ‘Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner; but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48