‘To SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS, IN LEICESTER-FIELDS.
‘DEAR SIR— When I came to Lichfield, I found that my portrait had been much visited, and much admired. Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place; and I was pleased with the dignity conferred by such a testimony of your regard.
‘Be pleased, therefore, to accept the thanks of, Sir, your most obliged and most humble servant,
‘Ashbourn in Derbyshire,
July 17, 1771.’
‘Compliments to Miss Reynolds.’
In his religious record of this year, we observe that he was better than usual, both in body and mind, and better satisfied with the regularity of his conduct. But he is still ‘trying his ways’ too rigorously. He charges himself with not rising early enough; yet he mentions what was surely a sufficient excuse for this, supposing it to be a duty seriously required, as he all his life appears to have thought it. ‘One great hindrance is want of rest; my nocturnal complaints grow less troublesome towards morning; and I am tempted to repair the deficiencies of the night.’ Alas! how hard would it be if this indulgence were to be imputed to a sick man as a crime. In his retrospect on the following Easter-Eve, he says, ‘When I review the last year, I am able to recollect so little done, that shame and sorrow, though perhaps too weakly, come upon me.’
In 1772 he was altogether quiescent as an authour; but it will be found from the various evidences which I shall bring together that his mind was acute, lively, and vigorous.
‘TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR— That you are coming so soon to town I am very glad; and still more glad that you are coming as an advocate. I think nothing more likely to make your life pass happily away, than that consciousness of your own value, which eminence in your profession will certainly confer. If I can give you any collateral help, I hope you do not suspect that it will be wanting. My kindness for you has neither the merit of singular virtue, nor the reproach of singular prejudice. Whether to love you be right or wrong, I have many on my side: Mrs. Thrale loves you, and Mrs. Williams loves you, and what would have inclined me to love you, if I had been neutral before, you are a great favourite of Dr. Beattie.25
‘Of Dr. Beattie I should have thought much, but that his lady puts him out of my head; she is a very lovely woman.
‘The ejection which you come hither to oppose, appears very cruel, unreasonable, and oppressive. I should think there could not be much doubt of your success.
‘My health grows better, yet I am not fully recovered. I believe it is held, that men do not recover very fast after threescore. I hope yet to see Beattie’s College: and have not given up the western voyage. But however all this may be or not, let us try to make each other happy when we meet, and not refer our pleasure to distant times or distant places.
‘How comes it that you tell me nothing of your lady? I hope to see her some time, and till then shall be glad to hear of her. I am, dear Sir, &c.
‘March 15, 1772.’
25 Boswell had given Beattie a letter of introduction to Johnson the preceding summer — ED.
On the 21st of March, I was happy to find myself again in my friend’s study, and was glad to see my old acquaintance, Mr. Francis Barber, who was now returned home. Dr. Johnson received me with a hearty welcome; saying, ‘I am glad you are come.’
I thanked him for showing civilities to Beattie. ‘Sir, (said he,) I should thank YOU. We all love Beattie. Mrs. Thrale says, if ever she has another husband, she’ll have Beattie. He sunk upon us that he was married; else we should have shewn his lady more civilities. She is a very fine woman. But how can you shew civilities to a nonentity? I did not think he had been married. Nay, I did not think about it one way or other; but he did not tell us of his lady till late.’
He then spoke of St. Kilda, the most remote of the Hebrides. I told him, I thought of buying it. JOHNSON. ‘Pray do, Sir. We will go and pass a winter amid the blasts there. We shall have fine fish, and we will take some dried tongues with us, and some books. We will have a strong built vessel, and some Orkney men to navigate her. We must build a tolerable house: but we may carry with us a wooden house ready made, and requiring nothing but to be put up. Consider, Sir, by buying St. Kilda, you may keep the people from falling into worse hands. We must give them a clergyman, and he shall be one of Beattie’s choosing. He shall be educated at Marischal College. I’ll be your Lord Chancellor, or what you please.’ BOSWELL. ‘Are you serious, Sir, in advising me to buy St. Kilda? for if you should advise me to go to Japan, I believe I should do it.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why yes, Sir, I am serious.’ BOSWELL. ‘Why then, I’ll see what can be done.’
He was engaged to dine abroad, and asked me to return to him in the evening at nine, which I accordingly did.
We drank tea with Mrs. Williams, who told us a story of second sight, which happened in Wales where she was born. He listened to it very attentively, and said he should be glad to have some instances of that faculty well authenticated. His elevated wish for more and more evidence for spirit, in opposition to the groveling belief of materialism, led him to a love of such mysterious disquisitions. He again justly observed, that we could have no certainty of the truth of supernatural appearances, unless something was told us which we could not know by ordinary means, or something done which could not be done but by supernatural power; that Pharaoh in reason and justice required such evidence from Moses; nay, that our Saviour said, ‘If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin.’
We talked of the Roman Catholick religion, and how little difference there was in essential matters between ours and it. JOHNSON. ‘True, Sir; all denominations of Christians have really little difference in point of doctrine, though they may differ widely in external forms. There is a prodigious difference between the external form of one of your Presbyterian churches in Scotland, and a church in Italy; yet the doctrine taught is essentially the same.
In the morning we had talked of old families, and the respect due to them. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you have a right to that kind of respect, and are arguing for yourself. I am for supporting the principle, and am disinterested in doing it, as I have no such right.’ BOSWELL. ‘Why, Sir, it is one more incitement to a man to do well.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, and it is a matter of opinion, very necessary to keep society together. What is it but opinion, by which we have a respect for authority, that prevents us, who are the rabble, from rising up and pulling down you who are gentlemen from your places, and saying, “We will be gentlemen in our turn?” Now, Sir, that respect for authority is much more easily granted to a man whose father has had it, than to an upstart, and so Society is more easily supported.’ BOSWELL. ‘At present, Sir, I think riches seem to gain most respect.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, riches do not gain hearty respect; they only procure external attention. A very rich man, from low beginnings, may buy his election in a borough; but, coeteris paribus, a man of family will be preferred. People will prefer a man for whose father their fathers have voted, though they should get no more money, or even less. That shows that the respect for family is not merely fanciful, but has an actual operation. If gentlemen of family would allow the rich upstarts to spend their money profusely, which they are ready enough to do, and not vie with them in expence, the upstarts would soon be at an end, and the gentlemen would remain: but if the gentlemen will vie in expence with the upstarts, which is very foolish, they must be ruined.’
On Monday, March 23, I found him busy, preparing a fourth edition of his folio Dictionary. Mr. Peyton, one of his original amanuenses, was writing for him.
He seemed also to be intent on some sort of chymical operation. I was entertained by observing how he contrived to send Mr. Peyton on an errand, without seeming to degrade him. ‘Mr. Peyton — Mr. Peyton, will you be so good as to take a walk to Temple-Bar? You will there see a chymist’s shop; at which you will be pleased to buy for me an ounce of oil of vitriol; not spirit of vitriol, but oil of vitriol. It will cost three half-pence.’ Peyton immediately went, and returned with it, and told him it cost but a penny.
On Saturday, March 27, I introduced to him Sir Alexander Macdonald, with whom he had expressed a wish to be acquainted. He received him very courteously.
SIR A. ‘I think, Sir, almost all great lawyers, such at least as have written upon law, have known only law, and nothing else.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir; Judge Hale was a great lawyer, and wrote upon law; and yet he knew a great many other things; and has written upon other things. Selden too.’ SIR A. ‘Very true, Sir; and Lord Bacon. But was not Lord Coke a mere lawyer?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, I am afraid he was; but he would have taken it very ill if you had told him so. He would have prosecuted you for scandal.’ BOSWELL. ‘Lord Mansfield is not a mere lawyer. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. I never was in Lord Mansfield’s company; but Lord Mansfield was distinguished at the University. Lord Mansfield, when he first came to town, “drank champagne with the wits,” as Prior says. He was the friend of Pope.’ SIR A. ‘Barristers, I believe, are not so abusive now as they were formerly. I fancy they had less law long ago, and so were obliged to take to abuse, to fill up the time. Now they have such a number of precedents, they have no occasion for abuse.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, they had more law long ago than they have now. As to precedents, to be sure they will increase in course of time; but the more precedents there are, the less occasion is there for law; that is to say, the less occasion is there for investigating principles.’ SIR A. ‘I have been correcting several Scotch accents in my friend Boswell. I doubt, Sir, if any Scotchman ever attains to a perfect English pronunciation.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, few of them do, because they do not persevere after acquiring a certain degree of it. But, Sir, there can be no doubt that they may attain to a perfect English pronunciation, if they will. We find how near they come to it; and certainly, a man who conquers nineteen parts of the Scottish accent, may conquer the twentieth. But, Sir, when a man has got the better of nine tenths he grows weary, he relaxes his diligence, he finds he has corrected his accent so far as not to be disagreeable, and he no longer desires his friends to tell him when he is wrong; nor does he choose to be told. Sir, when people watch me narrowly, and I do not watch myself, they will find me out to be of a particular county. In the same manner, Dunning may be found out to be a Devonshire man. So most Scotchmen may be found out. But, Sir, little aberrations are of no disadvantage. I never catched Mallet in a Scotch accent; and yet Mallet, I suppose, was past five-and-twenty before he came to London.’
I again visited him at night. Finding him in a very good humour, I ventured to lead him to the subject of our situation in a future state, having much curiosity to know his notions on that point. . . .
BOSWELL. ‘I do not know whether there are any well-attested stories of the appearance of ghosts. You know there is a famous story of the appearance of Mrs. Veal, prefixed to Drelincourt on Death.’ JOHNSON. ‘I believe, Sir, that is given up. I believe the woman declared upon her death-bed that it was a lie.’ BOSWELL. ‘This objection is made against the truth of ghosts appearing: that if they are in a state of happiness, it would be a punishment to them to return to this world; and if they are in a state of misery, it would be giving them a respite.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, as the happiness or misery of embodied spirits does not depend upon place, but is intellectual, we cannot say that they are less happy or less miserable by appearing upon earth.’
We went down between twelve and one to Mrs. Williams’s room, and drank tea. I mentioned that we were to have the remains of Mr. Gray, in prose and verse, published by Mr. Mason. JOHNSON. ‘I think we have had enough of Gray. I see they have published a splendid edition of Akenside’s works. One bad ode may be suffered; but a number of them together makes one sick.’ BOSWELL. ‘Akenside’s distinguished poem is his Pleasures of Imagination; but for my part, I never could admire it so much as most people do.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I could not read it through.’ BOSWELL. ‘I have read it through; but I did not find any great power in it.’
On Tuesday, March 31, he and I dined at General Paoli’s.
Dr. Johnson went home with me to my lodgings in Conduit-street and drank tea, previous to our going to the Pantheon, which neither of us had seen before.
He said, ‘Goldsmith’s Life of Parnell is poor; not that it is poorly written, but that he had poor materials; for nobody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.’
I said, that if it was not troublesome and presuming too much, I would request him to tell me all the little circumstances of his life; what schools he attended, when he came to Oxford, when he came to London, &c. &c. He did not disapprove of my curiosity as to these particulars; but said, ‘They’ll come out by degrees as we talk together.’
We talked of the proper use of riches. JOHNSON. ‘If I were a man of a great estate, I would drive all the rascals whom I did not like out of the county at an election.’
We then walked to the Pantheon. The first view of it did not strike us so much as Ranelagh, of which he said, the ‘coup d’oeil was the finest thing he had ever seen.’ The truth is, Ranelagh is of a more beautiful form; more of it or rather indeed the whole rotunda, appears at once, and it is better lighted. However, as Johnson observed, we saw the Pantheon in time of mourning, when there was a dull uniformity; whereas we had seen Ranelagh when the view was enlivened with a gay profusion of colours. Mrs. Bosville, of Gunthwait, in Yorkshire, joined us, and entered into conversation with us. Johnson said to me afterwards, ‘Sir, this is a mighty intelligent lady.’
I said there was not half a guinea’s worth of pleasure in seeing this place. JOHNSON. ‘But, Sir, there is half a guinea’s worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it.’ BOSWELL. ‘I doubt, Sir, whether there are many happy people here.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, there are many happy people here. There are many people here who are watching hundreds, and who think hundreds are watching them.’
Happening to meet Sir Adam Fergusson, I presented him to Dr. Johnson. Sir Adam expressed some apprehension that the Pantheon would encourage luxury. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) I am a great friend to publick amusements; for they keep people from vice. You now (addressing himself to me,) would have been with a wench, had you not been here. — O! I forgot you were married.’
Sir Adam suggested, that luxury corrupts a people, and destroys the spirit of liberty. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that is all visionary. I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the danger of the abuse of power is nothing to a private man. What Frenchman is prevented from passing his life as he pleases?’ SIR ADAM. ‘But, Sir, in the British constitution it is surely of importance to keep up a spirit in the people, so as to preserve a balance against the crown.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the crown? The crown has not power enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny, that will keep us safe under every form of government. Had not the people of France thought themselves honoured as sharing in the brilliant actions of Lewis XIV, they would not have endured him; and we may say the same of the King of Prussia’s people.’ Sir Adam introduced the ancient Greeks and Romans. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, the mass of both of them were barbarians. The mass of every people must be barbarous where there is no printing, and consequently knowledge is not generally diffused. Knowledge is diffused among our people by the news-papers.’ Sir Adam mentioned the orators, poets, and artists of Greece. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I am talking of the mass of the people. We see even what the boasted Athenians were. The little effect which Demosthenes’s orations had upon them, shews that they were barbarians.’
On Sunday, April 5, after attending divine service at St. Paul’s church, I found him alone.
He said, he went more frequently to church when there were prayers only, than when there was also a sermon, as the people required more an example for the one than the other; it being much easier for them to hear a sermon, than to fix their minds on prayer.
On Monday, April 6, I dined with him at Sir Alexander Macdonald’s, where was a young officer in the regimentals of the Scots Royal, who talked with a vivacity, fluency, and precision so uncommon, that he attracted particular attention. He proved to be the Honourable Thomas Erskine, youngest brother to the Earl of Buchan, who has since risen into such brilliant reputation at the bar in Westminster-hall.
Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, ‘he was a blockhead;’ and upon my expressing my astonishment at so strange an assertion, he said, ‘What I mean by his being a blockhead is that he was a barren rascal.’ BOSWELL. ‘Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson’s, than in all Tom Jones. I, indeed, never read Joseph Andrews.’ ERSKINE. ‘Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.’
We talked of gaming, and animadverted on it with severity. JOHNSON. ‘Nay, gentlemen, let us not aggravate the matter. It is not roguery to play with a man who is ignorant of the game, while you are master of it, and so win his money; for he thinks he can play better than you, as you think you can play better than he; and the superiour skill carries it.’ ERSKINE. ‘He is a fool, but you are not a rogue.’ JOHNSON. ‘That’s much about the truth, Sir. It must be considered, that a man who only does what every one of the society to which he belongs would do, is not a dishonest man. In the republick of Sparta, it was agreed, that stealing was not dishonourable, if not discovered. I do not commend a society where there is an agreement that what would not otherwise be fair, shall be fair; but I maintain, that an individual of any society, who practises what is allowed, is not a dishonest man.’ BOSWELL. ‘So then, Sir, you do not think ill of a man who wins perhaps forty thousand pounds in a winter?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I do not call a gamester a dishonest man; but I call him an unsocial man, an unprofitable man. Gaming is a mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good. Trade gives employment to numbers, and so produces intermediate good.’
On Thursday, April 9, I called on him to beg he would go and dine with me at the Mitre tavern. He had resolved not to dine at all this day, I know not for what reason; and I was so unwilling to be deprived of his company, that I was content to submit to suffer a want, which was at first somewhat painful, but he soon made me forget it; and a man is always pleased with himself when he finds his intellectual inclinations predominate.
He observed, that to reason philosophically on the nature of prayer, was very unprofitable.
Talking of ghosts, he said, he knew one friend, who was an honest man and a sensible man, who told him he had seen a ghost, old Mr. Edward Cave, the printer at St. John’s Gate. He said, Mr. Cave did not like to talk of it, and seemed to be in great horrour whenever it was mentioned. BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, what did he say was the appearance?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, something of a shadowy being.’
On Friday, April 10, I dined with him at General Oglethorpe’s, where we found Dr. Goldsmith.
I started the question whether duelling was consistent with moral duty. The brave old General fired at this, and said, with a lofty air, ‘Undoubtedly a man has a right to defend his honour.’ GOLDSMITH. (turning to me,) ‘I ask you first, Sir, what would you do if you were affronted?’ I answered I should think it necessary to fight. ‘Why then, (replied Goldsmith,) that solves the question.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, it does not solve the question. It does not follow that what a man would do is therefore right.’ I said, I wished to have it settled, whether duelling was contrary to the laws of Christianity. Johnson immediately entered on the subject, and treated it in a masterly manner; and so far as I have been able to recollect, his thoughts were these: ‘Sir, as men become in a high degree refined, various causes of offence arise; which are considered to be of such importance, that life must be staked to atone for them, though in reality they are not so. A body that has received a very fine polish may be easily hurt. Before men arrive at this artificial refinement, if one tells his neighbour he lies, his neighbour tells him he lies; if one gives his neighbour a blow, his neighbour gives him a blow: but in a state of highly polished society, an affront is held to be a serious injury. It must therefore be resented, or rather a duel must be fought upon it; as men have agreed to banish from their society one who puts up with an affront without fighting a duel. Now, Sir, it is never unlawful to fight in self-defence. He, then, who fights a duel, does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence; to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society. I could wish there was not that superfluity of refinement; but while such notions prevail, no doubt a man may lawfully fight a duel.’
The General told us, that when he was a very young man, I think only fifteen, serving under Prince Eugene of Savoy, he was sitting in a company at table with a Prince of Wirtemberg. The Prince took up a glass of wine, and, by a fillip, made some of it fly in Oglethorpe’s face. Here was a nice dilemma. To have challenged him instantly, might have fixed a quarrelsome character upon the young soldier: to have taken no notice of it might have been considered as cowardice. Oglethorpe, therefore, keeping his eye upon the Prince, and smiling all the time, as if he took what his Highness had done in jest, said ‘Mon Prince — ’. (I forget the French words he used, the purport however was,) ‘That’s a good joke; but we do it much better in England;’ and threw a whole glass of wine in the Prince’s face. An old General who sat by, said, ‘Il a bien fait, mon Prince, vous l’avez commence:’ and thus all ended in good humour.
Dr. Johnson said, ‘Pray, General, give us an account of the siege of Belgrade.’ Upon which the General, pouring a little wine upon the table, described every thing with a wet finger: ‘Here we were, here were the Turks,’ &c. &c. Johnson listened with the closest attention.
A question was started, how far people who disagree in a capital point can live in friendship together. Johnson said they might. Goldsmith said they could not, as they had not the idem velle atque idem nolle — the same likings and the same aversions. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, you must shun the subject as to which you disagree. For instance, I can live very well with Burke: I love his knowledge, his genius, his diffusion, and affluence of conversation; but I would not talk to him of the Rockingham party.’ GOLDSMITH. ‘But, Sir, when people live together who have something as to which they disagree, and which they want to shun, they will be in the situation mentioned in the story of Bluebeard: “You may look into all the chambers but one.” But we should have the greatest inclination to look into that chamber, to talk of that subject.’ JOHNSON. (with a loud voice,) ‘Sir, I am not saying that YOU could live in friendship with a man from whom you differ as to some point: I am only saying that I could do it. You put me in mind of Sappho in Ovid.’
Goldsmith told us, that he was now busy in writing a natural history, and, that he might have full leisure for it, he had taken lodgings, at a farmer’s house, near to the six milestone, on the Edgeware road, and had carried down his books in two returned post-chaises. He said, he believed the farmer’s family thought him an odd character, similar to that in which the Spectator appeared to his landlady and her children: he was The Gentleman. Mr. Mickle, the translator of The Lusiad, and I went to visit him at this place a few days afterwards. He was not at home; but having a curiosity to see his apartment, we went in and found curious scraps of descriptions of animals, scrawled upon the wall with a black lead pencil.
On Saturday, April 11, he appointed me to come to him in the evening, when he should be at leisure to give me some assistance for the defence of Hastie, the schoolmaster of Campbelltown, for whom I was to appear in the house of Lords. When I came, I found him unwilling to exert himself. I pressed him to write down his thoughts upon the subject. He said, ‘There’s no occasion for my writing. I’ll talk to you.’ . . .
Of our friend, Goldsmith, he said, ‘Sir, he is so much afraid of being unnoticed, that he often talks merely lest you should forget that he is in the company.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yes, he stands forward.’ JOHNSON. ‘True, Sir; but if a man is to stand forward, he should wish to do it not in an aukward posture, not in rags, not so as that he shall only be exposed to ridicule.’ BOSWELL. ‘For my part, I like very well to hear honest Goldsmith talk away carelessly.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why yes, Sir; but he should not like to hear himself.’ . . .
On Tuesday, April 14, the decree of the Court of Session in the schoolmaster’s cause was reversed in the House of Lords, after a very eloquent speech by Lord Mansfield, who shewed himself an adept in school discipline, but I thought was too rigorous towards my client. On the evening of the next day I supped with Dr. Johnson, at the Crown and Anchor tavern, in the Strand, in company with Mr. Langton and his brother-in-law, Lord Binning.
I talked of the recent expulsion of six students from the University of Oxford, who were methodists and would not desist from publickly praying and exhorting. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that expulsion was extremely just and proper. What have they to do at an University who are not willing to be taught, but will presume to teach? Where is religion to be learnt but at an University? Sir, they were examined, and found to be mighty ignorant fellows.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, was it not hard, Sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings?’ JOHNSON. ‘I believe they might be good beings; but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.’ Lord Elibank used to repeat this as an illustration uncommonly happy.
Desirous of calling Johnson forth to talk, and exercise his wit, though I should myself be the object of it, I resolutely ventured to undertake the defence of convivial indulgence in wine, though he was not to-night in the most genial humour. After urging the common plausible topicks, I at last had recourse to the maxim, in vino veritas, a man who is well warmed with wine will speak truth. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be an argument for drinking, if you suppose men in general to be liars. But, Sir, I would not keep company with a fellow, who lyes as long as he is sober, and whom you must make drunk before you can get a word of truth out of him.’
At this time it appears from his Prayers and Meditations, that he had been more than commonly diligent in religious duties, particularly in reading the Holy Scriptures. It was Passion Week, that solemn season which the Christian world has appropriated to the commemoration of the mysteries of our redemption, and during which, whatever embers of religion are in our breasts, will be kindled into pious warmth.
I paid him short visits both on Friday and Saturday, and seeing his large folio Greek Testament before him, beheld him with a reverential awe, and would not intrude upon his time. While he was thus employed to such good purpose, and while his friends in their intercourse with him constantly found a vigorous intellect and a lively imagination, it is melancholy to read in his private register, ‘My mind is unsettled and my memory confused. I have of late turned my thoughts with a very useless earnestness upon past incidents. I have yet got no command over my thoughts; an unpleasing incident is almost certain to hinder my rest.’ What philosophick heroism was it in him to appear with such manly fortitude to the world while he was inwardly so distressed! We may surely believe that the mysterious principle of being ‘made perfect through suffering’ was to be strongly exemplified in him.
On Sunday, April 19, being Easter-day, General Paoli and I paid him a visit before dinner.
We talked of sounds. The General said, there was no beauty in a simple sound, but only in an harmonious composition of sounds. I presumed to differ from this opinion, and mentioned the soft and sweet sound of a fine woman’s voice. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, if a serpent or a toad uttered it, you would think it ugly.’ BOSWELL. ‘So you would think, Sir, were a beautiful tune to be uttered by one of those animals.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, it would be admired. We have seen fine fiddlers whom we liked as little as toads.’ (laughing.)
While I remained in London this spring, I was with him at several other times, both by himself and in company. I dined with him one day at the Crown and Anchor tavern, in the Strand, with Lord Elibank, Mr. Langton, and Dr. Vansittart of Oxford. Without specifying each particular day, I have preserved the following memorable things.
I regretted the reflection in his Preface to Shakspeare against Garrick, to whom we cannot but apply the following passage: ‘I collated such copies as I could procure, and wished for more, but have not found the collectors of these rarities very communicative.’ I told him, that Garrick had complained to me of it, and had vindicated himself by assuring me, that Johnson was made welcome to the full use of his collection, and that he left the key of it with a servant, with orders to have a fire and every convenience for him. I found Johnson’s notion was, that Garrick wanted to be courted for them, and that, on the contrary, Garrick should have courted him, and sent him the plays of his own accord. But, indeed, considering the slovenly and careless manner in which books were treated by Johnson, it could not be expected that scarce and valuable editions should have been lent to him.
A gentleman26 having to some of the usual arguments for drinking added this: ‘You know, Sir, drinking drives away care, and makes us forget whatever is disagreeable. Would not you allow a man to drink for that reason?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he sat next YOU.’
26 The gentleman most likely is Boswell. — HILL.
A learned gentleman who in the course of conversation wished to inform us of this simple fact, that the Counsel upon the circuit at Shrewsbury were much bitten by fleas, took, I suppose, seven or eight minutes in relating it circumstantially. He in a plenitude of phrase told us, that large bales of woollen cloth were lodged in the town-hall; — that by reason of this, fleas nestled there in prodigious numbers; that the lodgings of the counsel were near to the town-hall; — and that those little animals moved from place to place with wonderful agility. Johnson sat in great impatience till the gentleman had finished his tedious narrative, and then burst out (playfully however), ‘It is a pity, Sir, that you have not seen a lion; for a flea has taken you such a time, that a lion must have served you a twelvemonth.’
He would not allow Scotland to derive any credit from Lord Mansfield; for he was educated in England. ‘Much (said he,) may be made of a Scotchman, if he be CAUGHT young.’
He said, ‘I am very unwilling to read the manuscripts of authours, and give them my opinion. If the authours who apply to me have money, I bid them boldly print without a name; if they have written in order to get money, I tell them to go to the booksellers, and make the best bargain they can.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, if a bookseller should bring you a manuscript to look at?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I would desire the bookseller to take it away.’
I mentioned a friend of mine who had resided long in Spain, and was unwilling to return to Britain. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he is attached to some woman.’ BOSWELL. ‘I rather believe, Sir, it is the fine climate which keeps him there.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, how can you talk so? What is CLIMATE to happiness? Place me in the heart of Asia, should I not be exiled? What proportion does climate bear to the complex system of human life? You may advise me to go to live at Bologna to eat sausages. The sausages there are the best in the world; they lose much by being carried.’
On Saturday, May 9, Mr. Dempster and I had agreed to dine by ourselves at the British Coffee-house. Johnson, on whom I happened to call in the morning, said he would join us, which he did, and we spent a very agreeable day, though I recollect but little of what passed.
He said, ‘Walpole was a minister given by the King to the people: Pitt was a minister given by the people to the King — as an adjunct.’
‘The misfortune of Goldsmith in conversation is this: he goes on without knowing how he is to get off. His genius is great, but his knowledge is small. As they say of a generous man, it is a pity he is not rich, we may say of Goldsmith, it is a pity he is not knowing. He would not keep his knowledge to himself.’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48