‘MR. BOSWELL TO DR. JOHNSON.
‘Edinburgh, Feb. 2,1775.
‘ . . . As to Macpherson,’ I am anxious to have from yourself a full and pointed account of what has passed between you and him. It is confidently told here, that before your book came out he sent to you, to let you know that he understood you meant to deny the authenticity of Ossian’s poems; that the originals were in his possession; that you might have inspection of them, and might take the evidence of people skilled in the Erse language; and that he hoped, after this fair offer, you would not be so uncandid as to assert that he had refused reasonable proof. That you paid no regard to his message, but published your strong attack upon him; and then he wrote a letter to you, in such terms as he thought suited to one who had not acted as a man of veracity.’ . . .
What words were used by Mr. Macpherson in his letter to the venerable Sage, I have never heard; but they are generally said to have been of a nature very different from the language of literary contest. Dr. Johnson’s answer appeared in the news-papers of the day, and has since been frequently re-published; but not with perfect accuracy. I give it as dictated to me by himself, written down in his presence, and authenticated by a note in his own handwriting, ‘This, I think, is a true copy.’
‘MR. JAMES MACPHERSON— I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.
‘What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable; and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.’
Mr. Macpherson little knew the character of Dr. Johnson, if he supposed that he could be easily intimidated; for no man was ever more remarkable for personal courage. He had, indeed, an aweful dread of death, or rather, ‘of something after death;’ and what rational man, who seriously thinks of quitting all that he has ever known, and going into a new and unknown state of being, can be without that dread? But his fear was from reflection; his courage natural. His fear, in that one instance, was the result of philosophical and religious consideration. He feared death, but he feared nothing else, not even what might occasion death. Many instances of his resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with many balls, he put in six or seven, and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me, that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round-house. In the playhouse at Lichfield, as Mr. Garrick informed me, Johnson having for a moment quitted a chair which was placed for him between the side-scenes, a gentleman took possession of it, and when Johnson on his return civilly demanded his seat, rudely refused to give it up; upon which Johnson laid hold of it, and tossed him and the chair into the pit. Foote, who so successfully revived the old comedy, by exhibiting living characters, had resolved to imitate Johnson on the stage, expecting great profits from his ridicule of so celebrated a man. Johnson being informed of his intention, and being at dinner at Mr. Thomas Davies’s the bookseller, from whom I had the story, he asked Mr. Davies ‘what was the common price of an oak stick;’ and being answered six-pence, ‘Why then, Sir, (said he,) give me leave to send your servant to purchase me a shilling one. I’ll have a double quantity; for I am told Foote means to take me off, as he calls it, and I am determined the fellow shall not do it with impunity. Davies took care to acquaint Foote of this, which effectually checked the wantonness of the mimick. Mr. Macpherson’s menaces made Johnson provide himself with the same implement of defence; and had he been attacked, I have no doubt that, old as he was, he would have made his corporal prowess be felt as much as his intellectual.
His Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland is a most valuable performance. Johnson’s grateful acknowledgements of kindnesses received in the course of this tour, completely refute the brutal reflections which have been thrown out against him, as if he had made an ungrateful return; and his delicacy in sparing in his book those who we find from his letters to Mrs. Thrale were just objects of censure, is much to be admired. His candour and amiable disposition is conspicuous from his conduct, when informed by Mr. Macleod, of Rasay, that he had committed a mistake, which gave that gentleman some uneasiness. He wrote him a courteous and kind letter, and inserted in the news-papers an advertisement, correcting the mistake.
As to his prejudice against the Scotch, which I always ascribed to that nationality which he observed in THEM, he said to the same gentleman, ‘When I find a Scotchman, to whom an Englishman is as a Scotchman, that Scotchman shall be as an Englishman to me.’ His intimacy with many gentlemen of Scotland, and his employing so many natives of that country as his amanuenses, prove that his prejudice was not virulent; and I have deposited in the British Museum, amongst other pieces of his writing, the following note in answer to one from me, asking if he would meet me at dinner at the Mitre, though a friend of mine, a Scotchman, was to be there:—
‘Mr. Johnson does not see why Mr. Boswell should suppose a Scotchman less acceptable than any other man. He will be at the Mitre.’
My much-valued friend Dr. Barnard, now Bishop of Killaloc, having once expressed to him an apprehension, that if he should visit Ireland he might treat the people of that country more unfavourably than he had done the Scotch, he answered, with strong pointed double-edged wit, ‘Sir, you have no reason to be afraid of me. The Irish are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, Sir; the Irish are a FAIR PEOPLE; — they never speak well of one another.’
All the miserable cavillings against his Journey, in newspapers, magazines, and other fugitive publications, I can speak from certain knowledge, only furnished him with sport. At last there came out a scurrilous volume, larger than Johnson’s own, filled with malignant abuse, under a name, real or fictitious, of some low man in an obscure corner of Scotland, though supposed to be the work of another Scotchman, who has found means to make himself well known both in Scotland and England. The effect which it had upon Johnson was, to produce this pleasant observation to Mr. Seward, to whom he lent the book: ‘This fellow must be a blockhead. They don’t know how to go about their abuse. Who will read a five-shilling book against me? No, Sir, if they had wit, they should have kept pelting me with pamphlets.’
On Tuesday, March 21, I arrived in London; and on repairing to Dr. Johnson’s before dinner, found him in his study, sitting with Mr. Peter Garrick, the elder brother of David, strongly resembling him in countenance and voice, but of more sedate and placid manners. Johnson informed me, that ‘though Mr. Beauclerk was in great pain, it was hoped he was not in danger, and that he now wished to consult Dr. Heberden to try the effect of a NEW UNDERSTANDING.’ Both at this interview, and in the evening at Mr. Thrale’s where he and Mr. Peter Garrick and I met again, he was vehement on the subject of the Ossian controversy; observing, ‘We do not know that there are any ancient Erse manuscripts; and we have no other reason to disbelieve that there are men with three heads, but that we do not know that there are any such men.’ He also was outrageous upon his supposition that my countrymen ‘loved Scotland better than truth,’ saying, ‘All of them — nay not all — but DROVES of them, would come up, and attest any thing for the honour of Scotland.’ He also persevered in his wild allegation, that he questioned if there was a tree between Edinburgh and the English border older than himself. I assured him he was mistaken, and suggested that the proper punishment would be that he should receive a stripe at every tree above a hundred years old, that was found within that space. He laughed, and said, ‘I believe I might submit to it for a BAUBEE!’
The doubts which, in my correspondence with him, I had ventured to state as to the justice and wisdom of the conduct of Great-Britain towards the American colonies, while I at the same time requested that he would enable me to inform myself upon that momentous subject, he had altogether disregarded; and had recently published a pamphlet, entitled, Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress.
He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he had said of them, ‘Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.’
Of this performance I avoided to talk with him; for I had now formed a clear and settled opinion, that the people of America were well warranted to resist a claim that their fellow-subjects in the mother-country should have the entire command of their fortunes, by taxing them without their own consent; and the extreme violence which it breathed, appeared to me so unsuitable to the mildness of a christian philosopher, and so directly opposite to the principles of peace which he had so beautifully recommended in his pamphlet respecting Falkland’s Islands, that I was sorry to see him appear in so unfavourable a light.
On Friday, March 24, I met him at the LITERARY CLUB, where were Mr. Beauclerk, Mr. Langton, Mr. Colman, Dr. Percy, Mr. Vesey, Sir Charles Bunbury, Dr. George Fordyce, Mr. Steevens, and Mr. Charles Fox. Before he came in, we talked of his Journey to the Western Islands, and of his coming away ‘willing to believe the second sight,’ which seemed to excite some ridicule. I was then so impressed with the truth of many of the stories of it which I had been told, that I avowed my conviction, saying, ‘He is only WILLING to believe: I DO believe. The evidence is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not fill a quart bottle will fill a pint bottle. I am filled with belief.’ ‘Are you? (said Colman,) then cork it up.’
I found his Journey the common topick of conversation in London at this time, wherever I happened to be. At one of Lord Mansfield’s formal Sunday evening conversations, strangely called Levees, his Lordship addressed me, ‘We have all been reading your travels, Mr. Boswell.’ I answered, ‘I was but the humble attendant of Dr. Johnson.’ The Chief Justice replied, with that air and manner which none, who ever saw and heard him, can forget, ‘He speaks ill of nobody but Ossian.’
Johnson was in high spirits this evening at the club, and talked with great animation and success. He attacked Swift, as he used to do upon all occasions. The Tale of a Tub is so much superiour to his other writings, that one can hardly believe he was the authour of it: ‘there is in it such a vigour of mind, such a swarm of thoughts, so much of nature, and art, and life.’ I wondered to hear him say of Gulliver’s Travels, ‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.’ I endeavoured to make a stand for Swift, and tried to rouse those who were much more able to defend him; but in vain. Johnson at last, of his own accord, allowed very great merit to the inventory of articles found in the pocket of the Man Mountain, particularly the description of his watch, which it was conjectured was his God; as he consulted it upon all occasions. He observed, that ‘Swift put his name to but two things, (after he had a name to put,) The Plan for the Improvement of the English Language, and the last Drapier’s Letter.’
From Swift, there was an easy transition to Mr. Thomas Sheridan — JOHNSON. ‘Sheridan is a wonderful admirer of the tragedy of Douglas, and presented its authour with a gold medal. Some years ago, at a coffee-house in Oxford, I called to him, “Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Sheridan, how came you to give a gold medal to Home, for writing that foolish play?” This you see, was wanton and insolent; but I MEANT to be wanton and insolent. A medal has no value but as a stamp of merit. And was Sheridan to assume to himself the right of giving that stamp? If Sheridan was magnificent enough to bestow a gold medal as an honorary reward of dramatick excellence, he should have requested one of the Universities to choose the person on whom it should be conferred. Sheridan had no right to give a stamp of merit: it was counterfeiting Apollo’s coin.’
On Monday, March 27, I breakfasted with him at Mr Strahan’s. He told us, that he was engaged to go that evening to Mrs. Abington’s benefit. ‘She was visiting some ladies whom I was visiting, and begged that I would come to her benefit. I told her I could not hear: but she insisted so much on my coming, that it would have been brutal to have refused her.’ This was a speech quite characteristical. He loved to bring forward his having been in the gay circles of life; and he was, perhaps, a little vain of the solicitations of this elegant and fashionable actress. He told us, the play was to be the The Hypocrite, altered from Cibber’s Nonjuror, so as to satirize the Methodists. ‘I do not think (said he,) the character of The Hypocrite justly applicable to the Methodists, but it was very applicable to the Nonjurors.’
Mr. Strahan had taken a poor boy from the country as an apprentice, upon Johnson’s recommendation. Johnson having enquired after him, said, ‘Mr. Strahan, let me have five guineas on account, and I’ll give this boy one. Nay if a man recommends a boy, and does nothing for him, it is sad work. Call him down.’
I followed him into the court-yard, behind Mr. Strahan’s house; and there I had a proof of what I had heard him profess, that he talked alike to all. ‘Some people tell you that they let themselves down to the capacity of their hearers. I never do that. I speak uniformly, in as intelligible a manner as I can.’
‘Well, my boy, how do you go on?’—‘Pretty well, Sir; but they are afraid I an’t strong enough for some parts of the business.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, I shall be sorry for it; for when you consider with how little mental power and corporeal labour a printer can get a guinea a week, it is a very desirable occupation for you. Do you hear — take all the pains you can; and if this does not do, we must think of some other way of life for you. There’s a guinea.’
Here was one of the many, many instances of his active benevolence. At the same time, the slow and sonorous solemnity with which, while he bent himself down, he addressed a little thick short-legged boy, contrasted with the boy’s aukwardness and awe, could not but excite some ludicrous emotions.
I met him at Drury-lane play-house in the evening. Sir Joshua Reynolds, at Mrs. Abington’s request, had promised to bring a body of wits to her benefit; and having secured forty places in the front boxes, had done me the honour to put me in the group. Johnson sat on the seat directly behind me; and as he could neither see nor hear at such a distance from the stage, he was wrapped up in grave abstraction, and seemed quite a cloud, amidst all the sunshine of glitter and gaiety. I wondered at his patience in sitting out a play of five acts, and a farce of two. He said very little; but after the prologue to Bon Ton had been spoken, which he could hear pretty well from the more slow and distinct utterance, he talked of prologue-writing, and observed, ‘Dryden has written prologues superiour to any that David Garrick has written; but David Garrick has written more good prologues than Dryden has done. It is wonderful that he has been able to write such variety of them.’
At Mr. Beauclerk’s, where I supped, was Mr. Garrick, whom I made happy with Johnson’s praise of his prologues; and I suppose, in gratitude to him, he took up one of his favourite topicks, the nationality of the Scotch, which he maintained in a pleasant manner, with the aid of a little poetical fiction. ‘Come, come, don’t deny it: they are really national. Why, now, the Adams are as liberal-minded men as any in the world: but, I don’t know how it is, all their workmen are Scotch. You are, to be sure, wonderfully free from that nationality: but so it happens, that you employ the only Scotch shoe-black in London.’ He imitated the manner of his old master with ludicrous exaggeration; repeating, with pauses and half-whistlings interjected,
‘Os homini sublime dedit — caelumque tueri
Jussit — et erectos ad sidera — tollere vultus’;
looking downwards all the time, and, while pronouncing the four last words, absolutely touching the ground with a kind of contorted gesticulation.
Garrick, however, when he pleased, could imitate Johnson very exactly; for that great actor, with his distinguished powers of expression which were so universally admired, possessed also an admirable talent of mimickry. He was always jealous that Johnson spoke lightly of him. I recollect his exhibiting him to me one day, as if saying, ‘Davy has some convivial pleasantry about him, but ’tis a futile fellow;’ which he uttered perfectly with the tone and air of Johnson.
I cannot too frequently request of my readers, while they peruse my account of Johnson’s conversation, to endeavour to keep in mind his deliberate and strong utterance. His mode of speaking was indeed very impressive; and I wish it could be preserved as musick is written, according to the very ingenious method of Mr. Steele, who has shewn how the recitation of Mr. Garrick, and other eminent speakers, might be transmitted to posterity IN SCORE.
Next day I dined with Johnson at Mr. Thrale’s. He attacked Gray, calling him ‘a dull fellow.’ BOSWELL. ‘I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.’ He then repeated some ludicrous lines, which have escaped my memory, and said, ‘Is not that GREAT, like his Odes?’ Mrs. Thrale maintained that his Odes were melodious; upon which he exclaimed,
‘Weave the warp, and weave the woof;’—
I added, in a solemn tone,
‘The winding-sheet of Edward’s race.’
‘THERE is a good line.’ ‘Ay, (said he,) and the next line is a good one,’ (pronouncing it contemptuously;)
‘Give ample verge and room enough.’—
‘No, Sir, there are but two good stanzas in Gray’s poetry, which are in his Elegy in a Country Church-yard.’ He then repeated the stanza,
‘For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,’ &c.
mistaking one word; for instead of precincts he said confines. He added, ‘The other stanza I forget.’
A young lady who had married a man much her inferiour in rank being mentioned, a question arose how a woman’s relations should behave to her in such a situation; and, while I recapitulate the debate, and recollect what has since happened, I cannot but be struck in a manner that delicacy forbids me to express. While I contended that she ought to be treated with an inflexible steadiness of displeasure, Mrs. Thrale was all for mildness and forgiveness, and, according to the vulgar phrase, ‘making the best of a bad bargain.’ JOHNSON. Madam, we must distinguish. Were I a man of rank, I would not let a daughter starve who had made a mean marriage; but having voluntarily degraded herself from the station which she was originally entitled to hold, I would support her only in that which she herself had chosen; and would not put her on a level with my other daughters. You are to consider, Madam, that it is our duty to maintain the subordination of civilized society; and when there is a gross and shameful deviation from rank, it should be punished so as to deter others from the same perversion.’
On Friday, March 31, I supped with him and some friends at a tavern. One of the company29 attempted, with too much forwardness, to rally him on his late appearance at the theatre; but had reason to repent of his temerity. ‘Why, Sir, did you go to Mrs. Abington’s benefit? Did you see?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir.’ ‘Did you hear?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir.’ ‘Why then, Sir, did you go?’ JOHNSON. ‘Because, Sir, she is a favourite of the publick; and when the publick cares the thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit too.’
29 Very likely Boswell. — HILL.
Next morning I won a small bet from Lady Diana Beauclerk, by asking him as to one of his particularities, which her Ladyship laid I durst not do. It seems he had been frequently observed at the Club to put into his pocket the Seville oranges, after he had squeezed the juice of them into the drink which he made for himself. Beauclerk and Garrick talked of it to me, and seemed to think that he had a strange unwillingness to be discovered. We could not divine what he did with them; and this was the bold question to be put. I saw on his table the spoils of the preceding night, some fresh peels nicely scraped and cut into pieces. ‘O, Sir, (said I,) I now partly see what you do with the squeezed oranges which you put into your pocket at the Club.’ JOHNSON. ‘I have a great love for them.’ BOSWELL. ‘And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them, it seems, very neatly, and what next?’ JOHNSON. ‘Let them dry, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘And what next?’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then the world must be left in the dark. It must be said (assuming a mock solemnity,) he scraped them, and let them dry, but what he did with them next, he never could be prevailed upon to tell.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, you should say it more emphatically:— he could not be prevailed upon, even by his dearest friends, to tell.’
He had this morning received his Diploma as Doctor of Laws from the University of Oxford. He did not vaunt of his new dignity, but I understood he was highly pleased with it.
I observed to him that there were very few of his friends so accurate as that I could venture to put down in writing what they told me as his sayings. JOHNSON. ‘Why should you write down MY sayings?’ BOSWELL. ‘I write them when they are good.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, you may as well write down the sayings of any one else that are good.’ But WHERE, I might with great propriety have added, can I find such?
Next day, Sunday, April 2, I dined with him at Mr. Hoole’s. We talked of Pope. JOHNSON. ‘He wrote, his Dunciad for fame. That was his primary motive. Had it not been for that, the dunces might have railed against him till they were weary, without his troubling himself about them. He delighted to vex them, no doubt; but he had more delight in seeing how well he could vex them.’
His Taxation no Tyranny being mentioned, he said, ‘I think I have not been attacked enough for it. Attack is the re-action; I never think I have hit hard, unless it rebounds.’ BOSWELL. ‘I don’t know, Sir, what you would be at. Five or six shots of small arms in every newspaper, and repeated cannonading in pamphlets, might, I think, satisfy you. But, Sir, you’ll never make out this match, of which we have talked, with a certain political lady,30 since you are so severe against her principles.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, I have the better chance for that. She is like the Amazons of old; she must be courted by the sword. But I have not been severe upon her.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yes, Sir, you have made her ridiculous.’ JOHNSON. ‘That was already done, Sir. To endeavour to make HER ridiculous, is like blacking the chimney.’
30 Croker identifies her as Mrs. Macaulay. See p. 119. — ED.
I talked of the cheerfulness of Fleet-street, owing to the constant quick succession of people which we perceive passing through it. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, Fleet-street has a very animated appearance; but I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing-cross.’
He made the common remark on the unhappiness which men who have led a busy life experience, when they retire in expectation of enjoying themselves at ease, and that they generally languish for want of their habitual occupation, and wish to return to it. He mentioned as strong an instance of this as can well be imagined. ‘An eminent tallow-chandler in London, who had acquired a considerable fortune, gave up the trade in favour of his foreman, and went to live at a country-house near town. He soon grew weary, and paid frequent visits to his old shop, where he desired they might let him know their melting-days, and he would come and assist them; which he accordingly did. Here, Sir, was a man, to whom the most disgusting circumstance in the business to which he had been used was a relief from idleness.’
On Wednesday, April 5, I dined with him at Messieurs Dilly’s, with Mr. John Scott of Amwell, the Quaker, Mr. Langton, Mr. Miller, (now Sir John,) and Dr. Thomas Campbell, an Irish clergyman, whom I took the liberty of inviting to Mr. Dilly’s table, having seen him at Mr. Thrale’s, and been told that he had come to England chiefly with a view to see Dr. Johnson, for whom he entertained the highest veneration. He has since published A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland, a very entertaining book, which has, however, one fault; — that it assumes the fictitious character of an Englishman.
We talked of publick speaking — JOHNSON. ‘We must not estimate a man’s powers by his being able, or not able to deliver his sentiments in publick. Isaac Hawkins Browne, one of the first wits of this country, got into Parliament, and never opened his mouth. For my own part, I think it is more disgraceful never to try to speak, than to try it and fail; as it is more disgraceful not to fight, than to fight and be beaten.’ This argument appeared to me fallacious; for if a man has not spoken, it may be said that he would have done very well it he had tried; whereas, if he has tried and failed, there is nothing to be said for him. ‘Why then, (I asked,) is it thought disgraceful for a man not to fight, and not disgraceful not to speak in publick?’ JOHNSON. ‘Because there may be other reasons for a man’s not speaking in publick than want of resolution: he may have nothing to say, (laughing.) Whereas, Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.’
On Thursday, April 6, I dined with him at Mr. Thomas Davies’s, with Mr. Hicky, the painter, and my old acquaintance Mr. Moody, the player.
Dr. Johnson, as usual, spoke contemptuously of Colley Cibber. ‘It is wonderful that a man, who for forty years had lived with the great and the witty, should have acquired so ill the talents of conversation: and he had but half to furnish; for one half of what he said was oaths.’ He, however, allowed considerable merit to some of his comedies, and said there was no reason to believe that the Careless Husband was not written by himself. Davies said, he was the first dramatick writer who introduced genteel ladies upon the stage. Johnson refuted this observation by instancing several such characters in comedies before his time. DAVIES. (trying to defend himself from a charge of ignorance,) ‘I mean genteel moral characters.’ ‘I think (said Hicky,) gentility and morality are inseparable.’ BOSWELL. ‘By no means, Sir. The genteelest characters are often the most immoral. Does not Lord Chesterfield give precepts for uniting wickedness and the graces? A man, indeed, is not genteel when he gets drunk; but most vices may be committed very genteelly: a man may debauch his friend’s wife genteelly: he may cheat at cards genteelly.’ HICKY. ‘I do not think THAT is genteel.’ BOSWELL. ‘Sir, it may not be like a gentleman, but it may be genteel.’ JOHNSON. ‘You are meaning two different things. One means exteriour grace; the other honour. It is certain that a man may be very immoral with exteriour grace. Lovelace, in Clarissa, is a very genteel and a very wicked character. Tom Hervey, who died t’other day, though a vicious man, was one of the genteelest men that ever lived.’ Tom Davies instanced Charles the Second. JOHNSON. (taking fire at any attack upon that Prince, for whom he had an extraordinary partiality,) ‘Charles the Second was licentious in his practice; but he always had a reverence for what was good. Charles the Second knew his people, and rewarded merit. The Church was at no time better filled than in his reign. He was the best King we have had from his time till the reign of his present Majesty, except James the Second, who was a very good King, but unhappily believed that it was necessary for the salvation of his subjects that they should be Roman Catholicks. HE had the merit of endeavouring to do what he thought was for the salvation of the souls of his subjects, till he lost a great Empire. WE, who thought that we should NOT be saved if we were Roman Catholicks, had the merit of maintaining our religion, at the expence of submitting ourselves to the government of King William, (for it could not be done otherwise,)— to the government of one of the most worthless scoundrels that ever existed. No; Charles the Second was not such a man as ——-, (naming another King). He did not destroy his father’s will. He took money, indeed, from France: but he did not betray those over whom he ruled: he did not let the French fleet pass ours. George the First knew nothing, and desired to know nothing; did nothing, and desired to do nothing: and the only good thing that is told of him is, that he wished to restore the crown to its hereditary successor.’ He roared with prodigious violence against George the Second. When he ceased, Moody interjected, in an Irish tone, and with a comick look, ‘Ah! poor George the Second.’
I mentioned that Dr. Thomas Campbell had come from Ireland to London, principally to see Dr. Johnson. He seemed angry at this observation. DAVIES. ‘Why, you know, Sir, there came a man from Spain to see Livy; and Corelli came to England to see Purcell, and when he heard he was dead, went directly back again to Italy.’ JOHNSON. ‘I should not have wished to be dead to disappoint Campbell, had he been so foolish as you represent him; but I should have wished to have been a hundred miles off.’ This was apparently perverse; and I do believe it was not his real way of thinking: he could not but like a man who came so far to see him. He laughed with some complacency, when I told him Campbell’s odd expression to me concerning him: ‘That having seen such a man, was a thing to talk of a century hence,’— as if he could live so long.
We got into an argument whether the Judges who went to India might with propriety engage in trade. Johnson warmly maintained that they might. ‘For why (he urged,) should not Judges get riches, as well as those who deserve them less?’ I said, they should have sufficient salaries, and have nothing to take off their attention from the affairs of the publick. JOHNSON. ‘No Judge, Sir, can give his whole attention to his office; and it is very proper that he should employ what time he has to himself, to his own advantage, in the most profitable manner.’ ‘Then, Sir, (said Davies, who enlivened the dispute by making it somewhat dramatick,) he may become an insurer; and when he is going to the bench, he may be stopped — “Your Lordship cannot go yet: here is a bunch of invoices: several ships are about to sail.”’ JOHNSON. Sir, you may as well say a Judge should not have a house; for they may come and tell him, “Your Lordship’s house is on fire;” and so, instead of minding the business of his Court, he is to be occupied in getting the engine with the greatest speed. There is no end of this. Every Judge who has land, trades to a certain extent in corn or in cattle; and in the land itself, undoubtedly. His steward acts for him, and so do clerks for a great merchant. A Judge may be a farmer; but he is not to geld his own pigs. A Judge may play a little at cards for his amusement; but he is not to play at marbles, or at chuck-farthing in the Piazza. No, Sir; there is no profession to which a man gives a very great proportion of his time. It is wonderful, when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge of any profession. No man would be a Judge, upon the condition of being totally a Judge. The best employed lawyer has his mind at work but for a small proportion of his time; a great deal of his occupation is merely mechanical. I once wrote for a magazine: I made a calculation, that if I should write but a page a day, at the same rate, I should, in ten years, write nine volumes in folio, of an ordinary size and print.’ BOSWELL. ‘Such as Carte’s History?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir. When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.’
We spoke of Rolt, to whose Dictionary of Commerce Dr. Johnson wrote the Preface. JOHNSON. ‘Old Gardner the bookseller employed Rolt and Smart to write a monthly miscellany, called The Universal Visitor. There was a formal written contract, which Allen the printer saw. Gardner thought as you do of the Judge. They were bound to write nothing else; they were to have, I think, a third of the profits of this sixpenny pamphlet; and the contract was for ninety-nine years. I wish I had thought of giving this to Thurlow, in the cause about Literary Property. What an excellent instance would it have been of the oppression of booksellers towards poor authours!’ (smiling.) Davies, zealous for the honour of THE TRADE, said, Gardner was not properly a bookseller. JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir; he certainly was a bookseller. He had served his time regularly, was a member of the Stationers’ company, kept a shop in the face of mankind, purchased copyright, and was a bibliopole, Sir, in every sense. I wrote for some months in The Universal Visitor, for poor Smart, while he was mad, not then knowing the terms on which he was engaged to write, and thinking I was doing him good. I hoped his wits would soon return to him. Mine returned to me, and I wrote in The Universal Visitor no longer.
Friday, April 7, I dined with him at a Tavern, with a numerous company.
One of the company suggested an internal objection to the antiquity of the poetry said to be Ossian’s, that we do not find the wolf in it, which must have been the case had it been of that age.
The mention of the wolf had led Johnson to think of other wild beasts; and while Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr. Langton were carrying on a dialogue about something which engaged them earnestly, he, in the midst of it, broke out, ‘Pennant tells of Bears —’ [what he added, I have forgotten.] They went on, which he being dull of hearing, did not perceive, or, if he did, was not willing to break off his talk; so he continued to vociferate his remarks, and BEAR (‘like a word in a catch’ as Beauclerk said,) was repeatedly heard at intervals, which coming from him who, by those who did not know him, had been so often assimilated to that ferocious animal, while we who were sitting around could hardly stifle laughter, produced a very ludicrous effect. Silence having ensued, he proceeded: ‘We are told, that the black bear is innocent; but I should not like to trust myself with him.’ Mr. Gibbon muttered, in a low tone of voice, ‘I should not like to trust myself with YOU.’ This piece of sarcastick pleasantry was a prudent resolution, if applied to a competition of abilities.
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.
Mrs. Prichard being mentioned, he said, ‘Her playing was quite mechanical. It is wonderful how little mind she had. Sir, she had never read the tragedy of Macbeth all through. She no more thought of the play out of which her part was taken, than a shoemaker thinks of the skin, out of which the piece of leather, of which he is making a pair of shoes, is cut.’
On Saturday, April 8, I dined with him at Mr. Thrale’s, where we met the Irish Dr. Campbell. Johnson had supped the night before at Mrs. Abington’s, with some fashionable people whom he named; and he seemed much pleased with having made one in so elegant a circle. Nor did he omit to pique his MISTRESS a little with jealousy of her housewifery; for he said, (with a smile,) ‘Mrs. Abington’s jelly, my dear lady, was better than yours.’
Mrs. Thrale, who frequently practised a coarse mode of flattery, by repeating his bon-mots in his hearing, told us that he had said, a certain celebrated actor was just fit to stand at the door of an auction-room with a long pole, and cry ‘Pray gentlemen, walk in;’ and that a certain authour, upon hearing this, had said, that another still more celebrated actor was fit for nothing better than that, and would pick your pocket after you came out. JOHNSON. ‘Nay, my dear lady, there is no wit in what our friend added; there is only abuse. You may as well say of any man that he will pick a pocket. Besides, the man who is stationed at the door does not pick people’s pockets; that is done within, by the auctioneer.’
On Monday, April 10, I dined with him at General Oglethorpe’s, with Mr. Langton and the Irish Dr. Campbell, whom the General had obligingly given me leave to bring with me. This learned gentleman was thus gratified with a very high intellectual feast, by not only being in company with Dr. Johnson, but with General Oglethorpe, who had been so long a celebrated name both at home and abroad.
I must, again and again, intreat of my readers not to suppose that my imperfect record of conversation contains the whole of what was said by Johnson, or other eminent persons who lived with him. What I have preserved, however, has the value of the most perfect authenticity.
He urged General Oglethorpe to give the world his Life. He said, ‘I know no man whose Life would be more interesting. If I were furnished with materials, I should be very glad to write it.’
Mr. Scott of Amwell’s Elegies were lying in the room. Dr. Johnson observed, ‘They are very well; but such as twenty people might write.’ Upon this I took occasion to controvert Horace’s maxim,
‘———— mediocribus esse poetis
Non Di, non homines, non concessere columnae.’
For here, (I observed,) was a very middle-rate poet, who pleased many readers, and therefore poetry of a middle sort was entitled to some esteem; nor could I see why poetry should not, like every thing else, have different gradations of excellence, and consequently of value. Johnson repeated the common remark, that, ‘as there is no necessity for our having poetry at all, it being merely a luxury, an instrument of pleasure, it can have no value, unless when exquisite in its kind.’ I declared myself not satisfied. ‘Why then, Sir, (said he,) Horace and you must settle it.’ He was not much in the humour of talking.
No more of his conversation for some days appears in my journal, except that when a gentleman told him he had bought a suit of lace for his lady, he said, ‘Well, Sir, you have done a good thing and a wise thing.’ ‘I have done a good thing, (said the gentleman,) but I do not know that I have done a wise thing.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; no money is better spent than what is laid out for domestick satisfaction. A man is pleased that his wife is drest as well as other people; and a wife is pleased that she is drest.’
On Friday, April 14, being Good-Friday, I repaired to him in the morning, according to my usual custom on that day, and breakfasted with him. I observed that he fasted so very strictly, that he did not even taste bread, and took no milk with his tea; I suppose because it is a kind of animal food.
I told him that I had been informed by Mr. Orme, that many parts of the East-Indies were better mapped than the Highlands of Scotland. JOHNSON. ‘That a country may be mapped, it must be travelled over.’ ‘Nay, (said I, meaning to laugh with him at one of his prejudices,) can’t you say, it is not WORTH mapping?’
As we walked to St. Clement’s church, and saw several shops open upon this most solemn fast-day of the Christian world, I remarked, that one disadvantage arising from the immensity of London, was, that nobody was heeded by his neighbour; there was no fear of censure for not observing Good-Friday, as it ought to be kept, and as it is kept in country-towns. He said, it was, upon the whole, very well observed even in London. He, however, owned, that London was too large; but added, ‘It is nonsense to say the head is too big for the body. It would be as much too big, though the body were ever so large; that is to say, though the country were ever so extensive. It has no similarity to a head connected with a body.’
Dr. Wetherell, Master of University College, Oxford, accompanied us home from church; and after he was gone, there came two other gentlemen, one of whom uttered the commonplace complaints, that by the increase of taxes, labour would be dear, other nations would undersell us, and our commerce would be ruined. JOHNSON. (smiling,) ‘Never fear, Sir. Our commerce is in a very good state; and suppose we had no commerce at all, we could live very well on the produce of our own country.’ I cannot omit to mention, that I never knew any man who was less disposed to be querulous than Johnson. Whether the subject was his own situation, or the state of the publick, or the state of human nature in general, though he saw the evils, his mind was turned to resolution, and never to whining or complaint.
We went again to St. Clement’s in the afternoon. He had found fault with the preacher in the morning for not choosing a text adapted to the day. The preacher in the afternoon had chosen one extremely proper: ‘It is finished.’
After the evening service, he said, ‘Come, you shall go home with me, and sit just an hour.’ But he was better than his word; for after we had drunk tea with Mrs. Williams, he asked me to go up to his study with him, where we sat a long while together in a serene undisturbed frame of mind, sometimes in silence, and sometimes conversing, as we felt ourselves inclined, or more properly speaking, as HE was inclined; for during all the course of my long intimacy with him, my respectful attention never abated, and my wish to hear him was such, that I constantly watched every dawning of communication from that great and illuminated mind.
He again advised me to keep a journal fully and minutely, but not to mention such trifles as, that meat was too much or too little done, or that the weather was fair or rainy. He had, till very near his death, a contempt for the notion that the weather affects the human frame.
I told him that our friend Goldsmith had said to me, that he had come too late into the world, for that Pope and other poets had taken up the places in the Temple of Fame; so that, as but a few at any period can possess poetical reputation, a man of genius can now hardly acquire it. JOHNSON. ‘That is one of the most sensible things I have ever heard of Goldsmith. It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult. Ah, Sir, that should make a man think of securing happiness in another world, which all who try sincerely for it may attain. In comparison of that, how little are all other things! The belief of immortality is impressed upon all men, and all men act under an impression of it, however they may talk, and though, perhaps, they may be scarcely sensible of it.’ I said, it appeared to me that some people had not the least notion of immortality; and I mentioned a distinguished gentleman of our acquaintance. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, if it were not for the notion of immortality, he would cut a throat to fill his pockets.’ When I quoted this to Beauclerk, who knew much more of the gentleman than we did, he said, in his acid manner, ‘He would cut a throat to fill his pockets, if it were not for fear of being hanged.’
He was pleased to say, ‘If you come to settle here, we will have one day in the week on which we will meet by ourselves. That is the happiest conversation where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments.’ In his private register this evening is thus marked, ‘Boswell sat with me till night; we had some serious talk.’ It also appears from the same record, that after I left him he was occupied in religious duties, in ‘giving Francis, his servant, some directions for preparation to communicate; in reviewing his life, and resolving on better conduct.’ The humility and piety which he discovers on such occasions, is truely edifying. No saint, however, in the course of his religious warfare, was more sensible of the unhappy failure of pious resolves, than Johnson. He said one day, talking to an acquaintance on this subject, ‘Sir Hell is paved with good intentions.’
On Sunday, April 16, being Easter Day, after having attended the solemn service at St. Paul’s, I dined with Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Williams. I maintained that Horace was wrong in placing happiness in Nil admirari, for that I thought admiration one of the most agreeable of all our feelings; and I regretted that I had lost much of my disposition to admire, which people generally do as they advance in life. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, as a man advances in life, he gets what is better than admiration — judgement, to estimate things at their true value.’ I still insisted that admiration was more pleasing than judgement, as love is more pleasing than friendship. The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love, like being enlivened with champagne. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; admiration and love are like being intoxicated with champagne; judgement and friendship like being enlivened. Waller has hit upon the same thought with you: but I don’t believe you have borrowed from Waller. I wish you would enable yourself to borrow more.’
He then took occasion to enlarge on the advantages of reading, and combated the idle superficial notion, that knowledge enough may be acquired in conversation. ‘The foundation (said he,) must be laid by reading. General principles must be had from books, which, however, must be brought to the test of real life. In conversation you never get a system. What is said upon a subject is to be gathered from a hundred people. The parts of a truth, which a man gets thus, are at such a distance from each other that he never attains to a full view.’
On Tuesday, April 15, he and I were engaged to go with Sir Joshua Reynolds to dine with Mr. Cambridge, at his beautiful villa on the banks of the Thames, near Twickenham. Dr. Johnson’s tardiness was such, that Sir Joshua, who had an appointment at Richmond, early in the day, was obliged to go by himself on horseback, leaving his coach to Johnson and me. Johnson was in such good spirits, that every thing seemed to please him as we drove along.
Our conversation turned on a variety of subjects. He thought portrait-painting an improper employment for a woman. ‘Publick practice of any art, (he observed,) and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.’ I happened to start a question, whether, when a man knows that some of his intimate friends are invited to the house of another friend, with whom they are all equally intimate, he may join them without an invitation. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; he is not to go when he is not invited. They may be invited on purpose to abuse him’ (smiling).
As a curious instance how little a man knows, or wishes to know, his own character in the world, or, rather, as a convincing proof that Johnson’s roughness was only external, and did not proceed from his heart, I insert the following dialogue. JOHNSON. ‘It is wonderful, Sir, how rare a quality good humour is in life. We meet with very few good humoured men.’ I mentioned four of our friends, none of whom he would allow to be good humoured. One was ACID, another was MUDDY, and to the others he had objections which have escaped me. Then, shaking his head and stretching himself at ease in the coach, and smiling with much complacency, he turned to me and said, ‘I look upon MYSELF as a good humoured fellow.’ The epithet FELLOW, applied to the great Lexicographer, the stately Moralist, the masterly critick, as if he had been SAM Johnson, a mere pleasant companion, was highly diverting; and this light notion of himself struck me with wonder. I answered, also smiling, ‘No, no, Sir; that will NOT do. You are good natured, but not good humoured: you are irascible. You have not patience with folly and absurdity. I believe you would pardon them, if there were time to deprecate your vengeance; but punishment follows so quick after sentence, that they cannot escape.
I had brought with me a great bundle of Scotch magazines and news-papers, in which his Journey to the Western Islands was attacked in every mode; and I read a great part of them to him, knowing they would afford him entertainment. I wish the writers of them had been present: they would have been sufficiently vexed. One ludicrous imitation of his style, by Mr. Maclaurin, now one of the Scotch Judges, with the title of Lord Dreghorn, was distinguished by him from the rude mass. ‘This (said he,) is the best. But I could caricature my own style much better myself.’ He defended his remark upon the general insufficiency of education in Scotland; and confirmed to me the authenticity of his witty saying on the learning of the Scotch; —‘Their learning is like bread in a besieged town: every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal.’ ‘There is (said he,) in Scotland, a diffusion of learning, a certain portion of it widely and thinly spread. A merchant there has as much learning as one of their clergy.
No sooner had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room, intent on poring over the backs of the books. Sir Joshua observed, (aside,) ‘He runs to the books, as I do to the pictures: but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.’ Mr. Cambridge, upon this, politely said, ‘Dr. Johnson, I am going, with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.’ Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about, and answered, ‘Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and the backs of books in libraries.’ Sir Joshua observed to me the extraordinary promptitude with which Johnson flew upon an argument. ‘Yes, (said I,) he has no formal preparation, no flourishing with his sword; he is through your body in an instant.’
Johnson was here solaced with an elegant entertainment, a very accomplished family, and much good company; among whom was Mr. Harris of Salisbury, who paid him many compliments on his Journey to the Western Islands.
The common remark as to the utility of reading history being made; — JOHNSON. ‘We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentick history. That certain Kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend upon as true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then, Sir, you would reduce all history to no better than an almanack, a mere chronological series of remarkable events.’ Mr. Gibbon, who must at that time have been employed upon his History, of which he published the first volume in the following year, was present; but did not step forth in defence of that species of writing. He probably did not like to TRUST himself with JOHNSON!
The Beggar’s Opera, and the common question, whether it was pernicious in its effects, having been introduced; — JOHNSON. ‘As to this matter, which has been very much contested, I myself am of opinion, that more influence has been ascribed to The Beggar’s Opera, than it in reality ever had; for I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation. At the same time I do not deny that it may have some influence, by making the character of a rogue familiar, and in some degree pleasing.’ Then collecting himself as it were, to give a heavy stroke: ‘There is in it such a LABEFACTATION of all principles, as may be injurious to morality.’
While he pronounced this response, we sat in a comical sort of restraint, smothering a laugh, which we were afraid might burst out.
We talked of a young gentleman’s31 marriage with an eminent singer, and his determination that she should no longer sing in publick, though his father was very earnest she should, because her talents would be liberally rewarded, so as to make her a good fortune. It was questioned whether the young gentleman, who had not a shilling in the world, but was blest with very uncommon talents, was not foolishly delicate, or foolishly proud, and his father truely rational without being mean. Johnson, with all the high spirit of a Roman senator, exclaimed, ‘He resolved wisely and nobly to be sure. He is a brave man. Would not a gentleman be disgraced by having his wife singing publickly for hire? No, Sir, there can be no doubt here. I know not if I should not PREPARE myself for a publick singer, as readily as let my wife be one.’
31 Probably Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose romantic marriage with the beautiful Elizabeth Linley took place in 1773. He became a member of the Club on Johnson’s proposal. See below, p. 325. — ED.
Johnson arraigned the modern politicks of this country, as entirely devoid of all principle of whatever kind. ‘Politicks (said he,) are now nothing more than means of rising in the world. With this sole view do men engage in politicks, and their whole conduct proceeds upon it.’
Somebody found fault with writing verses in a dead language, maintaining that they were merely arrangements of so many words, and laughed at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for sending forth collections of them not only in Greek and Latin, but even in Syriac, Arabick, and other more unknown tongues. JOHNSON. ‘I would have as many of these as possible; I would have verses in every language that there are the means of acquiring. Nobody imagines that an University is to have at once two hundred poets; but it should be able to show two hundred scholars. Pieresc’s death was lamented, I think, in forty languages. And I would have had at every coronation, and every death of a King, every Gaudium, and every Luctus, University verses, in as many languages as can be acquired. I would have the world to be thus told, “Here is a school where every thing may be learnt.”’
Having set out next day on a visit to the Earl of Pembroke, at Wilton, and to my friend, Mr. Temple, at Mamhead, in Devonshire, and not having returned to town till the second of May, I did not see Dr. Johnson for a considerable time, and during the remaining part of my stay in London, kept very imperfect notes of his conversation, which had I according to my usual custom written out at large soon after the time, much might have been preserved, which is now irretrievably lost.
On Monday, May 8, we went together and visited the mansions of Bedlam. I had been informed that he had once been there before with Mr. Wedderburne, (now Lord Loughborough,) Mr. Murphy, and Mr. Foote; and I had heard Foote give a very entertaining account of Johnson’s happening to have his attention arrested by a man who was very furious, and who, while beating his straw, supposed it was William Duke of Cumberland, whom he was punishing for his cruelties in Scotland, in 1746. There was nothing peculiarly remarkable this day; but the general contemplation of insanity was very affecting. I accompanied him home, and dined and drank tea with him.
On Friday, May 12, as he had been so good as to assign me a room in his house, where I might sleep occasionally, when I happened to sit with him to a late hour, I took possession of it this night, found every thing in excellent order, and was attended by honest Francis with a most civil assiduity. I asked Johnson whether I might go to a consultation with another lawyer upon Sunday, as that appeared to me to be doing work as much in my way, as if an artisan should work on the day appropriated for religious rest. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, when you are of consequence enough to oppose the practice of consulting upon Sunday, you should do it: but you may go now. It is not criminal, though it is not what one should do, who is anxious for the preservation and increase of piety, to which a peculiar observance of Sunday is a great help. The distinction is clear between what is of moral and what is of ritual obligation.’
On Saturday, May 13, I breakfasted with him by invitation, accompanied by Mr. Andrew Crosbie, a Scotch Advocate, whom he had seen at Edinburgh, and the Hon. Colonel (now General) Edward Stopford, brother to Lord Courtown, who was desirous of being introduced to him. His tea and rolls and butter, and whole breakfast apparatus were all in such decorum, and his behaviour was so courteous, that Colonel Stopford was quite surprized, and wondered at his having heard so much said of Johnson’s slovenliness and roughness.
I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, ‘much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: ‘He laughs like a rhinoceros.’
‘TO BENNET LANGTON, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR— I have an old amanuensis in great distress. I have given what I think I can give, and begged till I cannot tell where to beg again. I put into his hands this morning four guineas. If you could collect three guineas more, it would clear him from his present difficulty. I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
‘May 21, 1775.’
After my return to Scotland, I wrote three letters to him.
‘TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR— I am returned from the annual ramble into the middle counties. Having seen nothing I had not seen before, I have nothing to relate. Time has left that part of the island few antiquities; and commerce has left the people no singularities. I was glad to go abroad, and, perhaps, glad to come home; which is, in other words, I was, I am afraid, weary of being at home, and weary of being abroad. Is not this the state of life? But, if we confess this weariness, let us not lament it, for all the wise and all the good say, that we may cure it. . . .
‘Mrs. Thrale was so entertained with your Journal,32 that she almost read herself blind. She has a great regard for you.
‘Of Mrs. Boswell, though she knows in her heart that she does not love me, I am always glad to hear any good, and hope that she and the little dear ladies will have neither sickness nor any other affliction. But she knows that she does not care what becomes of me, and for that she may be sure that I think her very much to blame.
‘Never, my dear Sir, do you take it into your head to think that I do not love you; you may settle yourself in full confidence both of my love and my esteem; I love you as a kind man, I value you as a worthy man, and hope in time to reverence you as a man of exemplary piety. I hold you, as Hamlet has it, “in my heart of hearts,” and therefore, it is little to say, that I am, Sir, your affectionate humble servant,
‘London, Aug. 27, 1775.’
32 My Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which that lady read in the original manuscript. — BOSWELL.
‘TO MR. ROBERT LEVET.
‘Paris,33 Oct. 22, 1775.
‘DEAR SIR— We are still here, commonly very busy in looking about us. We have been to-day at Versailles. You have seen it, and I shall not describe it. We came yesterday from Fontainbleau, where the Court is now. We went to see the King and Queen at dinner, and the Queen was so impressed by Miss,34 that she sent one of the Gentlemen to enquire who she was. I find all true that you have ever told me of Paris. Mr. Thrale is very liberal, and keeps us two coaches, and a very fine table; but I think our cookery very bad. Mrs. Thrale got into a convent of English nuns; and I talked with her through the grate, and I am very kindly used by the English Benedictine friars. But upon the whole I cannot make much acquaintance here; and though the churches, palaces, and some private houses are very magnificent, there is no very great pleasure after having seen many, in seeing more; at least the pleasure, whatever it be, must some time have an end, and we are beginning to think when we shall come home. Mr. Thrale calculates that, as we left Streatham on the fifteenth of September, we shall see it again about the fifteenth of November.
33 Written from a tour in France with the Thrales, Johnson’s only visit to the Continent. — ED.
34 Miss Thrale.
‘I think I had not been on this side of the sea five days before I found a sensible improvement in my health. I ran a race in the rain this day, and beat Baretti. Baretti is a fine fellow, and speaks French, I think, quite as well as English.
‘Make my compliments to Mrs. Williams; and give my love to Francis; and tell my friends that I am not lost. I am, dear Sir, your affectionate humble, &c.
It is to be regretted that he did not write an account of his travels in France; for as he is reported to have once said, that ‘he could write the Life of a Broomstick,’ so, notwithstanding so many former travellers have exhausted almost every subject for remark in that great kingdom, his very accurate observation, and peculiar vigour of thought and illustration, would have produced a valuable work.
When I met him in London the following year, the account which he gave me of his French tour, was, ‘Sir, I have seen all the visibilities of Paris, and around it; but to have formed an acquaintance with the people there, would have required more time than I could stay. I was just beginning to creep into acquaintance by means of Colonel Drumgold, a very high man, Sir, head of L’Ecole Militaire, a most complete character, for he had first been a professor of rhetorick, and then became a soldier. And, Sir, I was very kindly treated by the English Benedictines, and have a cell appropriated to me in their convent.’
He observed, ‘The great in France live very magnificently, but the rest very miserably. There is no happy middle state as in England. The shops of Paris are mean; the meat in the markets is such as would be sent to a gaol in England: and Mr. Thrale justly observed, that the cookery of the French was forced upon them by necessity; for they could not eat their meat, unless they added some taste to it. The French are an indelicate people; they will spit upon any place. At Madame ———‘s, a literary lady of rank, the footman took the sugar in his fingers, and threw it into my coffee. I was going to put it aside; but hearing it was made on purpose for me, I e’en tasted Tom’s fingers. The same lady would needs make tea a l’Angloise. The spout of the tea-pot did not pour freely; she had the footman blow into it. France is worse than Scotland in every thing but climate. Nature has done more for the French; but they have done less for themselves than the Scotch have done.’
It happened that Foote was at Paris at the same time with Dr. Johnson, and his description of my friend while there, was abundantly ludicrous. He told me, that the French were quite astonished at his figure and manner, and at his dress, which he obstinately continued exactly as in London; — his brown clothes, black stockings, and plain shirt. He mentioned, that an Irish gentleman said to Johnson, ‘Sir, you have not seen the best French players.’ JOHNSON. ‘Players, Sir! I look on them as no better than creatures set upon tables and joint-stools to make faces and produce laughter, like dancing dogs.’—‘But, Sir, you will allow that some players are better than others?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, as some dogs dance better than others.’
While Johnson was in France, he was generally very resolute in speaking Latin. It was a maxim with him that a man should not let himself down, by speaking a language which he speaks imperfectly. Indeed, we must have often observed how inferiour, how much like a child a man appears, who speaks a broken tongue. When Sir Joshua Reynolds, at one of the dinners of the Royal Academy, presented him to a Frenchman of great distinction, he would not deign to speak French, but talked Latin, though his Excellency did not understand it, owing, perhaps, to Johnson’s English pronunciation: yet upon another occasion he was observed to speak French to a Frenchman of high rank, who spoke English; and being asked the reason, with some expression of surprise — he answered, ‘because I think my French is as good as his English.’ Though Johnson understood French perfectly, he could not speak it readily, as I have observed at his first interview with General Pauli, in 1769; yet he wrote it, I imagine, pretty well.
Here let me not forget a curious anecdote, as related to me by Mr. Beauclerk, which I shall endeavour to exhibit as well as I can in that gentleman’s lively manner; and in justice to him it is proper to add, that Dr. Johnson told me I might rely both on the correctness of his memory, and the fidelity of his narrative. ‘When Madame de Boufflers was first in England, (said Beauclerk,) she was desirous to see Johnson. I accordingly went with her to his chambers in the Temple, where she was entertained with his conversation for some time. When our visit was over, she and I left him, and were got into Inner Temple-lane, when all at once I heard a noise like thunder. This was occasioned by Johnson, who it seems, upon a little recollection, had taken it into his head that he ought to have done the honours of his literary residence to a foreign lady of quality, and eager to shew himself a man of gallantry, was hurrying down the stair-case in violent agitation. He overtook us before we reached the Temple-gate, and brushing in between me and Madame de Boufflers, seized her hand, and conducted her to her coach. His dress was a rusty brown morning suit, a pair of old shoes by way of slippers, a little shrivelled wig sticking on the top of his head, and the sleeves of his shirt and the knees of his breeches hanging loose. A considerable crowd of people gathered round, and were not a little struck by this singular appearance.’
He spoke Latin with wonderful fluency and elegance. When Pere Boscovich was in England, Johnson dined in company with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, and at Dr. Douglas’s, now Bishop of Salisbury. Upon both occasions that celebrated foreigner expressed his astonishment at Johnson’s Latin conversation. When at Paris, Johnson thus characterised Voltaire to Freron the Journalist: ‘Vir est acerrimi ingenii et paucarum literarum.’
In the course of this year Dr. Burney informs me that ‘he very frequently met Dr. Johnson at Mr. Thrale’s, at Streatham, where they had many long conversations, often sitting up as long as the fire and candles lasted, and much longer than the patience of the servants subsisted.’
A few of Johnson’s sayings, which that gentleman recollects, shall here be inserted.
‘I never take a nap after dinner but when I have had a bad night, and then the nap takes me.’
‘The writer of an epitaph should not be considered as saying nothing but what is strictly true. Allowance must be made for some degree of exaggerated praise. In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.’
‘There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.’
‘More is learned in publick than in private schools, from emulation; there is the collision of mind with mind, or the radiation of many minds pointing to one centre. Though few boys make their own exercises, yet if a good exercise is given up, out of a great number of boys, it is made by somebody.’
‘I hate by-roads in education. Education is as well known, and has long been as well known, as ever it can be. Endeavouring to make children prematurely wise is useless labour. Suppose they have more knowledge at five or six years old than other children, what use can be made of it? It will be lost before it is wanted, and the waste of so much time and labour of the teacher can never be repaid. Too much is expected from precocity, and too little performed. Miss —— was an instance of early cultivation, but in what did it terminate? In marrying a little Presbyterian parson, who keeps an infant boarding-school, so that all her employment now is,
“To suckle fools, and chronicle small-beer.”
She tells the children, “This is a cat, and that is a dog, with four legs and a tail; see there! you are much better than a cat or a dog, for you can speak.” If I had bestowed such an education on a daughter, and had discovered that she thought of marrying such a fellow, I would have sent her to the Congress.’
‘After having talked slightingly of musick, he was observed to listen very attentively while Miss Thrale played on the harpsichord, and with eagerness he called to her, “Why don’t you dash away like Burney?” Dr. Burney upon this said to him, “I believe, Sir, we shall make a musician of you at last.” Johnson with candid complacency replied, “Sir, I shall be glad to have a new sense given to me.”’
‘He had come down one morning to the breakfast-room, and been a considerable time by himself before any body appeared. When, on a subsequent day, he was twitted by Mrs. Thrale for being very late, which he generally was, he defended himself by alluding to the extraordinary morning, when he had been too early. “Madame, I do not like to come down to VACUITY.”’
‘Dr. Burney having remarked that Mr. Garrick was beginning to look old, he said, “Why, Sir, you are not to wonder at that; no man’s face has had more wear and tear.”’
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:48