In 1777, it appears from his Prayers and Meditations, that Johnson suffered much from a state of mind ‘unsettled and perplexed,’ and from that constitutional gloom, which, together with his extreme humility and anxiety with regard to his religious state, made him contemplate himself through too dark and unfavourable a medium. It may be said of him, that he ‘saw GOD in clouds.’ Certain we may be of his injustice to himself in the following lamentable paragraph, which it is painful to think came from the contrite heart of this great man, to whose labours the world is so much indebted: ‘When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time with some disorders of body, and disturbances of the mind, very near to madness, which I hope He that made me will suffer to extenuate many faults, and excuse many deficiencies.’ But we find his devotions in this year eminently fervent; and we are comforted by observing intervals of quiet, composure, and gladness.
On Easter-day we find the following emphatick prayer:
‘Almighty and most merciful Father, who seest all our miseries, and knowest all our necessities, look down upon me, and pity me. Defend me from the violent incursion [incursions] of evil thoughts, and enable me to form and keep such resolutions as may conduce to the discharge of the duties which thy providence shall appoint me; and so help me, by thy Holy Spirit, that my heart may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found, and that I may serve thee with pure affection and a cheerful mind. Have mercy upon me, O GOD, have mercy upon me; years and infirmities oppress me, terrour and anxiety beset me. Have mercy upon me, my Creator and my Judge. [In all dangers protect me.] In all perplexities relieve and free me; and so help me by thy Holy Spirit, that I may now so commemorate the death of thy Son our Saviour JESUS CHRIST, as that when this short and painful life shall have an end, I may, for his sake, be received to everlasting happiness. Amen.’
‘SIR ALEXANDER DICK TO DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
‘Prestonfield, Feb. 17, 1777.
‘SIR, I had yesterday the honour of receiving your book of your Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which you was so good as to send me, by the hands of our mutual friend, Mr. Boswell, of Auchinleck; for which I return you my most hearty thanks; and after carefully reading it over again, shall deposit in my little collection of choice books, next our worthy friend’s Journey to Corsica. As there are many things to admire in both performances, I have often wished that no Travels or Journeys should be published but those undertaken by persons of integrity and capacity to judge well, and describe faithfully, and in good language, the situation, condition, and manners of the countries past through. Indeed our country of Scotland, in spite of the union of the crowns, is still in most places so devoid of clothing, or cover from hedges and plantations, that it was well you gave your readers a sound Monitoire with respect to that circumstance. The truths you have told, and the purity of the language in which they are expressed, as your Journey is universally read, may, and already appear to have a very good effect. For a man of my acquaintance, who has the largest nursery for trees and hedges in this country, tells me, that of late the demand upon him for these articles is doubled, and sometimes tripled. I have, therefore, listed Dr. Samuel Johnson in some of my memorandums of the principal planters and favourers of the enclosures, under a name which I took the liberty to invent from the Greek, Papadendrion. Lord Auchinleck and some few more are of the list. I am told that one gentleman in the shire of Aberdeen, viz. Sir Archibald Grant, has planted above fifty millions of trees on a piece of very wild ground at Monimusk: I must enquire if he has fenced them well, before he enters my list; for, that is the soul of enclosing. I began myself to plant a little, our ground being too valuable for much, and that is now fifty years ago; and the trees, now in my seventy-fourth year, I look up to with reverence, and shew them to my eldest son now in his fifteenth year, and they are full the height of my country-house here, where I had the pleasure of receiving you, and hope again to have that satisfaction with our mutual friend, Mr. Boswell. I shall always continue, with the truest esteem, dear Doctor, your much obliged, and obedient humble servant,
‘To JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR— It is so long since I heard any thing from you, that I am not easy about it; write something to me next post. When you sent your last letter, every thing seemed to be mending; I hope nothing has lately grown worse. I suppose young Alexander continues to thrive, and Veronica is now very pretty company. I do not suppose the lady is yet reconciled to me, yet let her know that I love her very well, and value her very much. . . .
‘Poor Beauclerk still continues very ill. Langton lives on as he used to do. His children are very pretty, and, I think, his lady loses her Scotch. Paoli I never see.
‘I have been so distressed by difficulty of breathing, that I lost, as was computed, six-and-thirty ounces of blood in a few days. I am better, but not well. . . .
‘Mrs. Williams sends her compliments, and promises that when you come hither, she will accommodate you as well as ever she can in the old room. She wishes to know whether you sent her book to Sir Alexander Gordon.
‘My dear Boswell, do not neglect to write to me; for your kindness is one of the pleasures of my life, which I should be sorry to lose. I am, Sir, your humble servant,
‘February 18, 1777.’
‘To DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
‘Glasgow, April 24, 1777.
‘MY DEAR SIR, . . . My wife has made marmalade of oranges for you. I left her and my daughters and Alexander all well yesterday. I have taught Veronica to speak of you thus; — Dr. JohnSON, not JohnSTON. I remain, my dear Sir, your most affectionate, and obliged humble servant,
‘TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR, . . . Tell Mrs. Boswell that I shall taste her marmalade cautiously at first. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Beware, says the Italian proverb, of a reconciled enemy. But when I find it does me no harm, I shall then receive it and be thankful for it, as a pledge of firm, and, I hope, of unalterable kindness. She is, after all, a dear, dear lady. . . .
‘I am, dear Sir, your most affectionate humble servant,
‘May 3, 1777.’
‘TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘Southill, Sept. 26, 1777.
‘DEAR SIR, You will find by this letter, that I am still in the same calm retreat, from the noise and bustle of London, as when I wrote to you last. I am happy to find you had such an agreeable meeting with your old friend Dr. Johnson; I have no doubt your stock is much increased by the interview; few men, nay I may say, scarcely any man, has got that fund of knowledge and entertainment as Dr. Johnson in conversation. When he opens freely, every one is attentive to what he says, and cannot fail of improvement as well as pleasure.
‘The edition of The Poets, now printing, will do honour to the English press; and a concise account of the life of each authour, by Dr. Johnson, will be a very valuable addition, and stamp the reputation of this edition superiour to any thing that is gone before. The first cause that gave rise to this undertaking, I believe, was owing to the little trifling edition of The Poets, printing by the Martins, at Edinburgh, and to be sold by Bell, in London. Upon examining the volumes which were printed, the type was found so extremely small, that many persons could not read them; not only this inconvenience attended it, but the inaccuracy of the press was very conspicuous. These reasons, as well as the idea of an invasion of what we call our Literary Property, induced the London Booksellers to print an elegant and accurate edition of all the English Poets of reputation, from Chaucer to the present time.
‘Accordingly a select number of the most respectable booksellers met on the occasion; and, on consulting together, agreed, that all the proprietors of copy-right in the various Poets should be summoned together; and when their opinions were given, to proceed immediately on the business. Accordingly a meeting was held, consisting of about forty of the most respectable booksellers of London, when it was agreed that an elegant and uniform edition of The English Poets should be immediately printed, with a concise account of the life of each authour, by Dr. Samuel Johnson; and that three persons should be deputed to wait upon Dr. Johnson, to solicit him to undertake the Lives, viz., T. Davies, Strahan, and Cadell. The Doctor very politely undertook it, and seemed exceedingly pleased with the proposal. As to the terms, it was left entirely to the Doctor to name his own: he mentioned two hundred guineas:40 it was immediately agreed to; and a farther compliment, I believe, will be made him. A committee was likewise appointed to engage the best engravers, viz., Bartolozzi, Sherwin, Hall, etc. Likewise another committee for giving directions about the paper, printing, etc., so that the whole will be conducted with spirit, and in the best manner, with respect to authourship, editorship, engravings, etc., etc. My brother will give you a list of the Poets we mean to give, many of which are within the time of the Act of Queen Anne, which Martin and Bell cannot give, as they have no property in them; the proprietors are almost all the booksellers in London, of consequence. I am, dear Sir, ever your’s,
40 Johnson’s moderation in demanding so small a sum is extraordinary. Had he asked one thousand, or even fifteen hundred guineas, the booksellers, who knew the value of his name, would doubtless have readily given it. They have probably got five thousand guineas by this work in the course of twenty-five years. — MALONE.
A circumstance which could not fail to be very pleasing to Johnson occurred this year. The Tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbury, written by his early companion in London, Richard Savage, was brought out with alterations at Drury-lane theatre. The Prologue to it was written by Mr. Richard Brinsley Sheridan; in which, after describing very pathetically the wretchedness of
‘Ill-fated Savage, at whose birth was giv’n
No parent but the Muse, no friend but Heav’n:’
he introduced an elegant compliment to Johnson on his Dictionary, that wonderful performance which cannot be too often or too highly praised; of which Mr. Harris, in his Philological Inquiries, justly and liberally observes: ‘Such is its merit, that our language does not possess a more copious, learned, and valuable work.’ The concluding lines of this Prologue were these:—
‘So pleads the tale that gives to future times
The son’s misfortunes and the parent’s crimes;
There shall his fame (if own’d to-night) survive,
Fix’d by THE HAND THAT BIDS OUR LANGUAGE LIVE.’
Mr. Sheridan here at once did honour to his taste and to his liberality of sentiment, by shewing that he was not prejudiced from the unlucky difference which had taken place between his worthy father and Dr. Johnson. I have already mentioned, that Johnson was very desirous of reconciliation with old Mr. Sheridan. It will, therefore, not seem at all surprizing that he was zealous in acknowledging the brilliant merit of his son. While it had as yet been displayed only in the drama, Johnson proposed him as a member of THE LITERARY CLUB, observing, that ‘He who has written the two best comedies of his age, is surely a considerable man.’ And he had, accordingly, the honour to be elected; for an honour it undoubtedly must be allowed to be, when it is considered of whom that society consists, and that a single black ball excludes a candidate.
On the 23rd of June, I again wrote to Dr. Johnson, enclosing a ship-master’s receipt for a jar of orange-marmalade, and a large packet of Lord Hailes’s Annals of Scotland.
‘DR. JOHNSON TO MRS. BOSWELL.
‘MADAM— Though I am well enough pleased with the taste of sweetmeats, very little of the pleasure which I received at the arrival of your jar of marmalade arose from eating it. I received it as a token of friendship, as a proof of reconciliation, things much sweeter than sweetmeats, and upon this consideration I return you, dear Madam, my sincerest thanks. By having your kindness I think I have a double security for the continuance of Mr. Boswell’s, which it is not to be expected that any man can long keep, when the influence of a lady so highly and so justly valued operates against him. Mr. Boswell will tell you that I was always faithful to your interest, and always endeavoured to exalt you in his estimation. You must now do the same for me. We must all help one another, and you must now consider me, as, dear Madam, your most obliged, and most humble servant,
‘July 22, 1777.’
‘To JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
‘DEAR SIR— I am this day come to Ashbourne, and have only to tell you, that Dr. Taylor says you shall be welcome to him, and you know how welcome you will be to me. Make haste to let me know when you may be expected.
‘Make my compliments to Mrs. Boswell, and tell her, I hope we shall be at variance no more. I am, dear Sir, your most humble servant,
‘August 30, 1777.’
On Sunday evening, Sept. 14, I arrived at Ashbourne, and drove directly up to Dr. Taylor’s door. Dr. Johnson and he appeared before I had got out of the post-chaise, and welcomed me cordially.
I told them that I had travelled all the preceding night, and gone to bed at Leek in Staffordshire; and that when I rose to go to church in the afternoon, I was informed there had been an earthquake, of which, it seems, the shock had been felt in some degree at Ashbourne. JOHNSON. ‘Sir it will be much exaggerated in popular talk: for, in the first place, the common people do not accurately adapt their thoughts to the objects; nor, secondly, do they accurately adapt their words to their thoughts: they do not mean to lie; but, taking no pains to be exact, they give you very false accounts. A great part of their language is proverbial. If anything rocks at all, they say it rocks like a cradle; and in this way they go on.
The subject of grief for the loss of relations and friends being introduced, I observed that it was strange to consider how soon it in general wears away. Dr. Taylor mentioned a gentleman of the neighbourhood as the only instance he had ever known of a person who had endeavoured to RETAIN grief. He told Dr. Taylor, that after his Lady’s death, which affected him deeply, he RESOLVED that the grief, which he cherished with a kind of sacred fondness, should be lasting; but that he found he could not keep it long. JOHNSON. ‘All grief for what cannot in the course of nature be helped, soon wears away; in some sooner, indeed, in some later; but it never continues very long, unless where there is madness, such as will make a man have pride so fixed in his mind, as to imagine himself a King; or any other passion in an unreasonable way: for all unnecessary grief is unwise, and therefore will not be long retained by a sound mind. If, indeed, the cause of our grief is occasioned by our own misconduct, if grief is mingled with remorse of conscience, it should be lasting.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, we do not approve of a man who very soon forgets the loss of a wife or a friend.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, we disapprove of him, not because he soon forgets his grief, for the sooner it is forgotten the better, but because we suppose, that if he forgets his wife or his friend soon, he has not had much affection for them.’
I was somewhat disappointed in finding that the edition of The English Poets, for which he was to write Prefaces and Lives, was not an undertaking directed by him: but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any poet the booksellers pleased. I asked him if he would do this to any dunce’s works, if they should ask him. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, and SAY he was a dunce.’ My friend seemed now not much to relish talking of this edition.
After breakfast,41 Johnson carried me to see the garden belonging to the school of Ashbourne, which is very prettily formed upon a bank, rising gradually behind the house. The Reverend Mr. Langley, the head-master, accompanied us.
41 Next morning. — ED.
We had with us at dinner several of Dr. Taylor’s neighbours, good civil gentlemen, who seemed to understand Dr. Johnson very well, and not to consider him in the light that a certain person did, who being struck, or rather stunned by his voice and manner, when he was afterwards asked what he thought of him, answered. ‘He’s a tremendous companion.’
Johnson told me, that ‘Taylor was a very sensible acute man, and had a strong mind; that he had great activity in some respects, and yet such a sort of indolence, that if you should put a pebble upon his chimney-piece, you would find it there, in the same state, a year afterwards.’
And here is the proper place to give an account of Johnson’s humane and zealous interference in behalf of the Reverend Dr. William Dodd, formerly Prebendary of Brecon, and chaplain in ordinary to his Majesty; celebrated as a very popular preacher, an encourager of charitable institutions, and authour of a variety of works, chiefly theological. Having unhappily contracted expensive habits of living, partly occasioned by licentiousness of manners, he in an evil hour, when pressed by want of money, and dreading an exposure of his circumstances, forged a bond of which he attempted to avail himself to support his credit, flattering himself with hopes that he might be able to repay its amount without being detected. The person, whose name he thus rashly and criminally presumed to falsify, was the Earl of Chesterfield, to whom he had been tutor, and who, he perhaps, in the warmth of his feelings, flattered himself would have generously paid the money in case of an alarm being taken, rather than suffer him to fall a victim to the dreadful consequences of violating the law against forgery, the most dangerous crime in a commercial country; but the unfortunate divine had the mortification to find that he was mistaken. His noble pupil appeared against him, and he was capitally convicted.
Johnson told me that Dr. Dodd was very little acquainted with him, having been but once in his company, many years previous to this period (which was precisely the state of my own acquaintance with Dodd); but in his distress he bethought himself of Johnson’s persuasive power of writing, if haply it might avail to obtain for him the Royal Mercy. He did not apply to him directly, but, extraordinary as it may seem, through the late Countess of Harrington, who wrote a letter to Johnson, asking him to employ his pen in favour of Dodd. Mr. Allen, the printer, who was Johnson’s landlord and next neighbour in Bolt-court, and for whom he had much kindness, was one of Dodd’s friends, of whom to the credit of humanity be it recorded, that he had many who did not desert him, even after his infringement of the law had reduced him to the state of a man under sentence of death. Mr. Allen told me that he carried Lady Harrington’s letter to Johnson, that Johnson read it walking up and down his chamber, and seemed much agitated, after which he said, ‘I will do what I can;’— and certainly he did make extraordinary exertions.
He this evening, as he had obligingly promised in one of his letters, put into my hands the whole series of his writings upon this melancholy occasion.
Dr. Johnson wrote in the first place, Dr. Dodd’s Speech to the Recorder of London, at the Old-Bailey, when sentence of death was about to be pronounced upon him.
He wrote also The Convict’s Address to his unhappy Brethren, a sermon delivered by Dr. Dodd, in the chapel of Newgate.
The other pieces mentioned by Johnson in the above-mentioned collection, are two letters, one to the Lord Chancellor Bathurst, (not Lord North, as is erroneously supposed,) and one to Lord Mansfield; — A Petition from Dr. Dodd to the King; — A Petition from Mrs. Dodd to the Queen; — Observations of some length inserted in the news-papers, on occasion of Earl Percy’s having presented to his Majesty a petition for mercy to Dodd, signed by twenty thousand people, but all in vain. He told me that he had also written a petition from the city of London; ‘but (said he, with a significant smile) they MENDED it.’
The last of these articles which Johnson wrote is Dr. Dodd’s last solemn Declaration, which he left with the sheriff at the place of execution.
I found a letter to Dr. Johnson from Dr. Dodd, May 23, 1777, in which The Convict’s Address seems clearly to be meant.
‘I am so penetrated, my ever dear Sir, with a sense of your extreme benevolence towards me, that I cannot find words equal to the sentiments of my heart. . . . ’
On Sunday, June 22, he writes, begging Dr. Johnson’s assistance in framing a supplicatory letter to his Majesty.
This letter was brought to Dr. Johnson when in church. He stooped down and read it, and wrote, when he went home, the following letter for Dr. Dodd to the King:
‘SIR— May it not offend your Majesty, that the most miserable of men applies himself to your clemency, as his last hope and his last refuge; that your mercy is most earnestly and humbly implored by a clergyman, whom your Laws and Judges have condemned to the horrour and ignominy of a publick execution. . . . ’
Subjoined to it was written as follows:—
‘TO DR. DODD.
‘SIR— I most seriously enjoin you not to let it be at all known that I have written this letter, and to return the copy to Mr. Allen in a cover to me. I hope I need not tell you, that I wish it success. — But do not indulge hope. — Tell nobody.’
It happened luckily that Mr. Allen was pitched on to assist in this melancholy office, for he was a great friend of Mr. Akerman, the keeper of Newgate. Dr. Johnson never went to see Dr. Dodd. He said to me, ‘it would have done HIM more harm, than good to Dodd, who once expressed a desire to see him, but not earnestly.’
All applications for the Royal Mercy having failed, Dr. Dodd prepared himself for death; and, with a warmth of gratitude, wrote to Dr. Johnson as follows:—
‘June 25, Midnight.
‘Accept, thou GREAT and GOOD heart, my earnest and fervent thanks and prayers for all thy benevolent and kind efforts in my behalf — Oh! Dr. Johnson! as I sought your knowledge at an early hour in life, would to heaven I had cultivated the love and acquaintance of so excellent a man! — I pray GOD most sincerely to bless you with the highest transports — the infelt satisfaction of HUMANE and benevolent exertions! — And admitted, as I trust I shall be, to the realms of bliss before you, I shall hail YOUR arrival there with transports, and rejoice to acknowledge that you was my Comforter, my Advocate and my FRIEND! GOD BE EVER WITH YOU!’
Dr. Johnson lastly wrote to Dr. Dodd this solemn and soothing letter:—
‘TO THE REVEREND DR. DODD.
‘DEAR SIR— That which is appointed to all men is now coming upon you. Outward circumstances, the eyes and the thoughts of men, are below the notice of an immortal being about to stand the trial for eternity, before the Supreme Judge of heaven and earth. Be comforted: your crime, morally or religiously considered, has no very deep dye of turpitude. It corrupted no man’s principles; it attacked no man’s life. It involved only a temporary and reparable injury. Of this, and of all other sins, you are earnestly to repent; and may GOD, who knoweth our frailty, and desireth not our death, accept your repentance, for the sake of his SON JESUS CHRIST our Lord.
‘In requital of those well-intended offices which you are pleased so emphatically to acknowledge, let me beg that you make in your devotions one petition for my eternal welfare. I am, dear Sir, your affectionate servant,
‘June 26, 1777.’
Under the copy of this letter I found written, in Johnson’s own hand, ‘Next day, June 27, he was executed.’
Tuesday, September 16, Dr. Johnson having mentioned to me the extraordinary size and price of some cattle reared by Dr. Taylor, I rode out with our host, surveyed his farm, and was shown one cow which he had sold for a hundred and twenty guineas, and another for which he had been offered a hundred and thirty. Taylor thus described to me his old schoolfellow and friend, Johnson: ‘He is a man of a very clear head, great power of words, and a very gay imagination; but there is no disputing with him. He will not hear you, and having a louder voice than you, must roar you down.’
In the evening, the Reverend Mr. Seward, of Lichfield, who was passing through Ashbourne in his way home, drank tea with us. Johnson described him thus:—‘Sir, his ambition is to be a fine talker; so he goes to Buxton, and such places, where he may find companies to listen to him. And, Sir, he is a valetudinarian, one of those who are always mending themselves. I do not know a more disagreeable character than a valetudinarian, who thinks he may do any thing that is for his ease, and indulges himself in the grossest freedoms: Sir, he brings himself to the state of a hog in a stye.’
Dr. Taylor’s nose happening to bleed, he said, it was because he had omitted to have himself blooded four days after a quarter of a year’s interval. Dr. Johnson, who was a great dabbler in physick, disapproved much of periodical bleeding. ‘For (said he,) you accustom yourself to an evacuation which Nature cannot perform of herself, and therefore she cannot help you, should you, from forgetfulness or any other cause, omit it; so you may be suddenly suffocated. You may accustom yourself to other periodical evacuations, because should you omit them, Nature can supply the omission; but Nature cannot open a vein to blood you.’—‘I do not like to take an emetick, (said Taylor,) for fear of breaking some small vessels.’—‘Poh! (said Johnson,) if you have so many things that will break, you had better break your neck at once, and there’s an end on’t. You will break no small vessels:’ (blowing with high derision.)
The horrour of death which I had always observed in Dr. Johnson, appeared strong to-night. I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time. He said, ‘he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him.’ He added, that it had been observed, that scarce any man dies in publick, but with apparent resolution; from that desire of praise which never quits us. I said, Dr. Dodd seemed to be willing to die, and full of hopes of happiness. ‘Sir, (said he,) Dr. Dodd would have given both his hands and both his legs to have lived. The better a man is, the more afraid he is of death, having a clearer view of infinite purity.’ He owned, that our being in an unhappy uncertainty as to our salvation, was mysterious; and said, ‘Ah! we must wait till we are in another state of being, to have many things explained to us.’ Even the powerful mind of Johnson seemed foiled by futurity.
On Wednesday, September 17, Dr. Butter, physician at Derby, drank tea with us; and it was settled that Dr. Johnson and I should go on Friday and dine with him. Johnson said, ‘I’m glad of this.’ He seemed weary of the uniformity of life at Dr. Taylor’s.
Talking of biography, I said, in writing a life, a man’s peculiarities should be mentioned, because they mark his character. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities: the question is, whether a man’s vices should be mentioned; for instance, whether it should be mentioned that Addison and Parnell drank too freely: for people will probably more easily indulge in drinking from knowing this; so that more ill may be done by the example, than good by telling the whole truth.’ Here was an instance of his varying from himself in talk; for when Lord Hailes and he sat one morning calmly conversing in my house at Edinburgh, I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that ‘If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it really as it was:’ and when I objected to the danger of telling that Parnell drank to excess, he said, that ‘it would produce an instructive caution to avoid drinking, when it was seen, that even the learning and genius of Parnell could be debased by it.’ And in the Hebrides he maintained, as appears from my Journal, that a man’s intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life.
Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor’s large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. ‘That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson’s birth-day.’ When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly,) ‘he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.’
Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy. I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.
I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. ‘Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.’
He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. ‘He puts (said he,) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.’ JOHNSON. ‘What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, ——— has taken to an odd mode. For example, he’d write thus:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray.”
Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he’d think fine. — Stay; — we’ll make out the stanza:
“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life’s evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?”’
BOSWELL. ‘But why smite his bosom, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, to shew he was in earnest,’ (smiling.)— He at an after period added the following stanza:
‘Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh’d;
— Scarce repress’d the starting tear; —
When the smiling sage reply’d —
— Come, my lad, and drink some beer.’
I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:—‘Don’t trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.’
Friday, September 19, after breakfast Dr. Johnson and I set out in Dr. Taylor’s chaise to go to Derby. The day was fine, and we resolved to go by Keddlestone, the seat of Lord Scarsdale, that I might see his Lordship’s fine house. I was struck with the magnificence of the building; and the extensive park, with the finest verdure, covered with deer, and cattle, and sheep, delighted me. The number of old oaks, of an immense size, filled me with a sort of respectful admiration: for one of them sixty pounds was offered. The excellent smooth gravel roads; the large piece of water formed by his Lordship from some small brooks, with a handsome barge upon it; the venerable Gothick church, now the family chapel, just by the house; in short, the grand group of objects agitated and distended my mind in a most agreeable manner. ‘One should think (said I,) that the proprietor of all this MUST be happy.’—‘Nay, Sir, (said Johnson,) all this excludes but one evil — poverty.’
Our names were sent up, and a well-drest elderly housekeeper, a most distinct articulator, shewed us the house; which I need not describe, as there is an account of it published in Adam’s Works in Architecture. Dr. Johnson thought better of it to-day than when he saw it before; for he had lately attacked it violently, saying, ‘It would do excellently for a town-hall. The large room with the pillars (said he,) would do for the Judges to sit in at the assizes; the circular room for a jury-chamber; and the room above for prisoners.’ Still he thought the large room ill lighted, and of no use but for dancing in; and the bed-chambers but indifferent rooms; and that the immense sum which it cost was injudiciously laid out. Dr. Taylor had put him in mind of his APPEARING pleased with the house. ‘But (said he,) that was when Lord Scarsdale was present. Politeness obliges us to appear pleased with a man’s works when he is present. No man will be so ill bred as to question you. You may therefore pay compliments without saying what is not true. I should say to Lord Scarsdale of his large room, “My Lord, this is the most COSTLY room that I ever saw;” which is true.’
Dr. Manningham, physician in London, who was visiting at Lord Scarsdale’s, accompanyed us through many of the rooms, and soon afterwards my Lord himself, to whom Dr. Johnson was known, appeared, and did the honours of the house. We talked of Mr. Langton. Johnson, with a warm vehemence of affectionate regard, exclaimed, ‘The earth does not bear a worthier man than Bennet Langton.’ We saw a good many fine pictures, which I think are described in one of Young’s Tours. There is a printed catalogue of them which the housekeeper put into my hand; I should like to view them at leisure. I was much struck with Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream by Rembrandt. We were shown a pretty large library. In his Lordship’s dressing-room lay Johnson’s small Dictionary: he shewed it to me, with some eagerness, saying, ‘Look’ye! Quae terra nostri non plena laboris.’ He observed, also, Goldsmith’s Animated Nature; and said, ‘Here’s our friend! The poor Doctor would have been happy to hear of this.’
In our way, Johnson strongly expressed his love of driving fast in a post-chaise. ‘If (said he,) I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation.’ I observed, that we were this day to stop just where the Highland army did in 1745. JOHNSON. ‘It was a noble attempt.’ BOSWELL. ‘I wish we could have an authentick history of it.’ JOHNSON. ‘If you were not an idle dog you might write it, by collecting from every body what they can tell, and putting down your authorities.’ BOSWELL. ‘But I could not have the advantage of it in my life-time.’ JOHNSON. ‘You might have the satisfaction of its fame, by printing it in Holland; and as to profit, consider how long it was before writing came to be considered in a pecuniary view. Baretti says, he is the first man that ever received copy-money in Italy.’ I said that I would endeavour to do what Dr. Johnson suggested and I thought that I might write so as to venture to publish my History of the Civil War in Great-Britain in 1745 and 1746, without being obliged to go to a foreign press.
When we arrived at Derby, Dr. Butter accompanied us to see the manufactory of china there. I admired the ingenuity and delicate art with which a man fashioned clay into a cup, a saucer, or a tea-pot, while a boy turned round a wheel to give the mass rotundity. I thought this as excellent in its species of power, as making good verses in ITS species. Yet I had no respect for this potter. Neither, indeed, has a man of any extent of thinking for a mere verse-maker, in whose numbers, however perfect, there is no poetry, no mind. The china was beautiful, but Dr. Johnson justly observed it was too dear; for that he could have vessels of silver, of the same size, as cheap as what were here made of porcelain.
I felt a pleasure in walking about Derby such as I always have in walking about any town to which I am not accustomed. There is an immediate sensation of novelty; and one speculates on the way in which life is passed in it, which, although there is a sameness every where upon the whole, is yet minutely diversified. The minute diversities in every thing are wonderful. Talking of shaving the other night at Dr. Taylor’s, Dr. Johnson said, ‘Sir, of a thousand shavers, two do not shave so much alike as not to be distinguished.’ I thought this not possible, till he specified so many of the varieties in shaving; — holding the razor more or less perpendicular; — drawing long or short strokes; — beginning at the upper part of the face, or the under; — at the right side or the left side. Indeed, when one considers what variety of sounds can be uttered by the windpipe, in the compass of a very small aperture, we may he convinced how many degrees of difference there may be in the application of a razor.
We dined with Dr. Butter, whose lady is daughter of my cousin Sir John Douglas, whose grandson is now presumptive heir of the noble family of Queensberry. Johnson and he had a good deal of medical conversation. Johnson said, he had somewhere or other given an account of Dr. Nichols’s discourse De Animia Medica. He told us ‘that whatever a man’s distemper was, Dr. Nichols would not attend him as a physician, if his mind was not at ease; for he believed that no medicines would have any influence. He once attended a man in trade, upon whom he found none of the medicines he prescribed had any effect: he asked the man’s wife privately whether his affairs were not in a bad way? She said no. He continued his attendance some time, still without success. At length the man’s wife told him, she had discovered that her husband’s affairs WERE in a bad way. When Goldsmith was dying, Dr. Turton said to him, “Your pulse is in greater disorder than it should be, from the degree of fever which you have: is your mind at ease?” Goldsmith answered it was not.’
Dr. Johnson told us at tea, that when some of Dr. Dodd’s pious friends were trying to console him by saying that he was going to leave ‘a wretched world,’ he had honesty enough not to join in the cant:—‘No, no, (said he,) it has been a very agreeable world to me.’ Johnson added, ‘I respect Dodd for thus speaking the truth; for, to be sure, he had for several years enjoyed a life of great voluptuousness.
He told us, that Dodd’s city friends stood by him so, that a thousand pounds were ready to be given to the gaoler, if he would let him escape. He added, that he knew a friend of Dodd’s, who walked about Newgate for some time on the evening before the day of his execution, with five hundred pounds in his pocket, ready to be paid to any of the turnkeys who could get him out: but it was too late; for he was watched with much circumspection. He said, Dodd’s friends had an image of him made of wax, which was to have been left in his place; and he believed it was carried into the prison.
Johnson disapproved of Dr. Dodd’s leaving the world persuaded that The Convict’s Address to his unhappy Brethren was of his own writing. ‘But, Sir, (said I,) you contributed to the deception; for when Mr. Seward expressed a doubt to you that it was not Dodd’s own, because it had a great deal more force of mind in it than any thing known to be his, you answered — “Why should you think so? Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”’ JOHNSON. Sir, as Dodd got it from me to pass as his own, while that could do him any good, there was an IMPLIED PROMISE that I should not own it. To own it, therefore, would have been telling a lie, with the addition of breach of promise, which was worse than simply telling a lie to make it be believed it was Dodd’s. Besides, Sir, I did not DIRECTLY tell a lie: I left the matter uncertain. Perhaps I thought that Seward would not believe it the less to be mine for what I said; but I would not put it in his power to say I had owned it.’
He said, ‘Goldsmith was a plant that flowered late. There appeared nothing remarkable about him when he was young; though when he had got high in fame, one of his friends began to recollect something of his being distinguished at College. Goldsmith in the same manner recollected more of that friend’s early years, as he grew a greater man.’
I mentioned that Lord Monboddo told me, he awaked every morning at four, and then for his health got up and walked in his room naked, with the window open, which he called taking an air bath; after which he went to bed again, and slept two hours more. Johnson, who was always ready to beat down any thing that seemed to be exhibited with disproportionate importance, thus observed: ‘I suppose, Sir, there is no more in it than this, he awakes at four, and cannot sleep till he chills himself, and makes the warmth of the bed a grateful sensation.’
I talked of the difficulty of rising in the morning. Dr. Johnson told me, ‘that the learned Mrs. Carter, at that period when she was eager in study, did not awake as early as she wished, and she therefore had a contrivance, that, at a certain hour, her chamber-light should burn a string to which a heavy weight was suspended, which then fell with a strong sudden noise: this roused her from sleep, and then she had no difficulty in getting up.’ But I said THAT was my difficulty; and wished there could be some medicine invented which would make one rise without pain, which I never did, unless after lying in bed a very long time.
Johnson advised me to-night not to REFINE in the education of my children. ‘Life (said he,) will not bear refinement: you must do as other people do.’
As we drove back to Ashbourne, Dr. Johnson recommended to me, as he had often done, to drink water only: ‘For (said he,) you are then sure not to get drunk; whereas if you drink wine you are never sure.’ I said, drinking wine was a pleasure which I was unwilling to give up, ‘Why, Sir, (said he,) there is no doubt that not to drink wine is a great deduction from life; but it may be necessary.’ He however owned, that in his opinion a free use of wine did not shorten life; and said, he would not give less for the life of a certain Scotch Lord (whom he named) celebrated for hard drinking, than for that of a sober man. ‘But stay, (said he, with his usual intelligence, and accuracy of enquiry,) does it take much wine to make him drunk?’ I answered, ‘a great deal either of wine or strong punch.’—‘Then (said he,) that is the worse.’ I presume to illustrate my friend’s observation thus: ‘A fortress which soon surrenders has its walls less shattered than when a long and obstinate resistance is made.’
I ventured to mention a person who was as violent a Scotsman as he was an Englishman; and literally had the same contempt for an Englishman compared with a Scotsman, that he had for a Scotsman compared with an Englishman; and that he would say of Dr. Johnson, ‘Damned rascal! to talk as he does of the Scotch.’ This seemed, for a moment, ‘to give him pause.’ It, perhaps, presented his extreme prejudice against the Scotch in a point of view somewhat new to him, by the effect of CONTRAST.
By the time when we returned to Ashbourne, Dr. Taylor was gone to bed. Johnson and I sat up a long time by ourselves.
On Saturday, September 20, after breakfast, when Taylor was gone out to his farm, Dr. Johnson and I had a serious conversation by ourselves on melancholy and madness.
We entered seriously upon a question of much importance to me, which Johnson was pleased to consider with friendly attention. I had long complained to him that I felt myself discontented in Scotland, as too narrow a sphere, and that I wished to make my chief residence in London, the great scene of ambition, instruction, and amusement: a scene, which was to me, comparatively speaking, a heaven upon earth. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I never knew any one who had such a GUST for London as you have: and I cannot blame you for your wish to live there: yet, Sir, were I in your father’s place, I should not consent to your settling there; for I have the old feudal notions, and I should be afraid that Auchinleck would be deserted, as you would soon find it more desirable to have a country-seat in a better climate.’
I suggested a doubt, that if I were to reside in London, the exquisite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’
He said, ‘A country gentleman should bring his lady to visit London as soon as he can, that they may have agreeable topicks for conversation when they are by themselves.’
We talked of employment being absolutely necessary to preserve the mind from wearying and growing fretful, especially in those who have a tendency to melancholy; and I mentioned to him a saying which somebody had related of an American savage, who, when an European was expatiating on all the advantages of money, put this question: ‘Will it purchase OCCUPATION?’ JOHNSON. ‘Depend upon it, Sir, this saying is too refined for a savage. And, Sir, money WILL purchase occupation; it will purchase all the conveniences of life; it will purchase variety of company; it will purchase all sorts of entertainment.’
I talked to him of Forster’s Voyage to the South Seas, which pleased me; but I found he did not like it. ‘Sir, (said he,) there is a great affectation of fine writing in it.’ BOSWELL. ‘But he carries you along with him.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; he does not carry ME along with him: he leaves me behind him: or rather, indeed, he sets me before him; for he makes me turn over many leaves at a time.’
On Sunday, September 21, we went to the church of Ashbourne, which is one of the largest and most luminous that I have seen in any town of the same size. I felt great satisfaction in considering that I was supported in my fondness for solemn publick worship by the general concurrence and munificence of mankind.
Johnson and Taylor were so different from each other, that I wondered at their preserving an intimacy. Their having been at school and college together, might, in some degree, account for this; but Sir Joshua Reynolds has furnished me with a stronger reason; for Johnson mentioned to him, that he had been told by Taylor he was to be his heir. I shall not take upon me to animadvert upon this; but certain it is, that Johnson paid great attention to Taylor. He now, however, said to me, ‘Sir, I love him; but I do not love him more; my regard for him does not increase. As it is said in the Apocrypha, “his talk is of bullocks:” I do not suppose he is very fond of my company. His habits are by no means sufficiently clerical: this he knows that I see; and no man likes to live under the eye of perpetual disapprobation.’
I have no doubt that a good many sermons were composed for Taylor by Johnson. At this time I found, upon his table, a part of one which he had newly begun to write: and Concio pro Tayloro appears in one of his diaries. When to these circumstances we add the internal evidence from the power of thinking and style, in the collection which the Reverend Mr. Hayes has published, with the SIGNIFICANT title of ‘Sermons LEFT FOR PUBLICATION by the Reverend John Taylor, LL.D.,’ our conviction will be complete.
I, however, would not have it thought, that Dr. Taylor, though he could not write like Johnson, (as, indeed, who could?) did not sometimes compose sermons as good as those which we generally have from very respectable divines. He shewed me one with notes on the margin in Johnson’s handwriting; and I was present when he read another to Johnson, that he might have his opinion of it, and Johnson said it was ‘very well.’ These, we may be sure, were not Johnson’s; for he was above little arts, or tricks of deception.
I mentioned to Johnson a respectable person of a very strong mind, who had little of that tenderness which is common to human nature; as an instance of which, when I suggested to him that he should invite his son, who had been settled ten years in foreign parts, to come home and pay him a visit, his answer was, ‘No, no, let him mind his business. JOHNSON. ‘I do not agree with him, Sir, in this. Getting money is not all a man’s business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.’
In the evening, Johnson, being in very good spirits, entertained us with several characteristical portraits. I regret that any of them escaped my retention and diligence. I found, from experience, that to collect my friend’s conversation so as to exhibit it with any degree of its original flavour, it was necessary to write it down without delay. To record his sayings, after some distance of time, was like preserving or pickling long-kept and faded fruits, or other vegetables, which, when in that state, have little or nothing of their taste when fresh.
I shall present my readers with a series of what I gathered this evening from the Johnsonian garden.
‘Did we not hear so much said of Jack Wilkes, we should think more highly of his conversation. Jack has great variety of talk, Jack is a scholar, and Jack has the manners of a gentleman. But after hearing his name sounded from pole to pole, as the phoenix of convivial felicity, we are disappointed in his company. He has always been AT ME: but I would do Jack a kindness, rather than not. The contest is now over.’
‘Colley Cibber once consulted me as to one of his birthday Odes, a long time before it was wanted. I objected very freely to several passages. Cibber lost patience, and would not read his Ode to an end. When we had done with criticism, we walked over to Richardson’s, the authour of Clarissa and I wondered to find Richardson displeased that I “did not treat Cibber with more RESPECT.” Now, Sir, to talk of RESPECT for a PLAYER!’ (smiling disdainfully.) BOSWELL. ‘There, Sir, you are always heretical: you never will allow merit to a player.’ JOHNSON. ‘Merit, Sir! what merit? Do you respect a rope-dancer, or a ballad-singer?’ BOSWELL. ‘No, Sir: but we respect a great player, as a man who can conceive lofty sentiments, and can express them gracefully.’ JOHNSON. ‘What, Sir, a fellow who claps a hump on his back, and a lump on his leg, and cries “I am Richard the Third”? Nay, Sir, a ballad-singer is a higher man, for he does two things; he repeats and he sings: there is both recitation and musick in his performance: the player only recites.’ BOSWELL. ‘My dear Sir! you may turn anything into ridicule. I allow, that a player of farce is not entitled to respect; he does a little thing: but he who can represent exalted characters, and touch the noblest passions, has very respectable powers; and mankind have agreed in admiring great talents for the stage. We must consider, too, that a great player does what very few are capable to do: his art is a very rare faculty. WHO can repeat Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” as Garrick does it?’ JOHNSON. ‘Any body may. Jemmy, there (a boy about eight years old, who was in the room,) will do it as well in a week.’ BOSWELL. ‘No, no, Sir: and as a proof of the merit of great acting, and of the value which mankind set upon it, Garrick has got a hundred thousand pounds.’ JOHNSON. ‘Is getting a hundred thousand pounds a proof of excellence? That has been done by a scoundrel commissary.’
This was most fallacious reasoning. I was SURE, for once, that I had the best side of the argument. I boldly maintained the just distinction between a tragedian and a mere theatrical droll; between those who rouse our terrour and pity, and those who only make us laugh. ‘If (said I,) Betterton and Foote were to walk into this room, you would respect Betterton much more than Foote.’ JOHNSON. ‘If Betterton were to walk into this room with Foote, Foote would soon drive him out of it. Foote, Sir, quatenus Foote, has powers superiour to them all.’
On Monday, September 22, when at breakfast, I unguardedly said to Dr. Johnson, ‘I wish I saw you and Mrs. Macaulay together.’ He grew very angry; and, after a pause, while a cloud gathered on his brow, he burst out, ‘No, Sir; you would not see us quarrel, to make you sport. Don’t you know that it is very uncivil to PIT two people against one another?’ Then, checking himself, and wishing to be more gentle, he added, ‘I do not say you should be hanged or drowned for this; but it IS very uncivil.’ Dr. Taylor thought him in the wrong, and spoke to him privately of it; but I afterwards acknowledged to Johnson that I was to blame, for I candidly owned, that I meant to express a desire to see a contest between Mrs. Macaulay and him; but then I knew how the contest would end; so that I was to see him triumph. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you cannot be sure how a contest will end; and no man has a right to engage two people in a dispute by which their passions may be inflamed, and they may part with bitter resentment against each other. I would sooner keep company with a man from whom I must guard my pockets, than with a man who contrives to bring me into a dispute with somebody that he may hear it. This is the great fault of ——— (naming one of our friends,) endeavouring to introduce a subject upon which he knows two people in the company differ.’ BOSWELL. ‘But he told me, Sir, he does it for instruction.’ JOHNSON. ‘Whatever the motive be, Sir, the man who does so, does very wrong. He has no more right to instruct himself at such risk, than he has to make two people fight a duel, that he may learn how to defend himself.’
He found great fault with a gentleman of our acquaintance for keeping a bad table. ‘Sir, (said he,) when a man is invited to dinner, he is disappointed if he does not get something good. I advised Mrs. Thrale, who has no card-parties at her house, to give sweet-meats, and such good things, in an evening, as are not commonly given, and she would find company enough come to her; for every body loves to have things which please the palate put in their way, without trouble or preparation.’ Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.
Mr. Burke’s Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, on the affairs of America, being mentioned, Johnson censured the composition much, and he ridiculed the definition of a free government, viz. ‘For any practical purpose, it is what the people think so.’—‘I will let the King of France govern me on those conditions, (said he,) for it is to be governed just as I please.’ And when Dr. Taylor talked of a girl being sent to a parish workhouse, and asked how much she could be obliged to work, ‘Why, (said Johnson,) as much as is reasonable: and what is that? as much as SHE THINKS reasonable.’
Dr. Johnson obligingly proposed to carry me to see Islam, a romantick scene, now belonging to a family of the name of Port, but formerly the seat of the Congreves. I suppose it is well described in some of the Tours. Johnson described it distinctly and vividly, at which I could not but express to him my wonder; because, though my eyes, as he observed, were better than his, I could not by any means equal him in representing visible objects. I said, the difference between us in this respect was as that between a man who has a bad instrument, but plays well on it, and a man who has a good instrument, on which he can play very imperfectly.
I recollect a very fine amphitheatre, surrounded with hills covered with woods, and walks neatly formed along the side of a rocky steep, on the quarter next the house with recesses under projections of rock, overshadowed with trees; in one of which recesses, we were told, Congreve wrote his Old Bachelor. We viewed a remarkable natural curiosity at Islam; two rivers bursting near each other from the rock, not from immediate springs, but after having run for many miles under ground. Plott, in his History of Staffordshire, gives an account of this curiosity; but Johnson would not believe it, though we had the attestation of the gardener, who said, he had put in corks, where the river Manyfold sinks into the ground, and had catched them in a net, placed before one of the openings where the water bursts out. Indeed, such subterraneous courses of water are found in various parts of our globe.
Talking of Dr. Johnson’s unwillingness to believe extraordinary things I ventured to say, ‘Sir, you come near Hume’s argument against miracles, “That it is more probable witnesses should lie, or be mistaken, than that they should happen.” JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, Hume, taking the proposition simply, is right. But the Christian revelation is not proved by the miracles alone, but as connected with prophecies, and with the doctrines in confirmation of which the miracles were wrought.’
In the evening, a gentleman-farmer, who was on a visit at Dr. Taylor’s, attempted to dispute with Johnson in favour of Mungo Campbell, who shot Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune, upon his having fallen, when retreating from his Lordship, who he believed was about to seize his gun, as he had threatened to do. He said, he should have done just as Campbell did. JOHNSON. ‘Whoever would do as Campbell did, deserves to be hanged; not that I could, as a juryman, have found him legally guilty of murder; but I am glad they found means to convict him.’ The gentleman-farmer said, ‘A poor man has as much honour as a rich man; and Campbell had THAT to defend.’ Johnson exclaimed, ‘A poor man has no honour.’ The English yeoman, not dismayed, proceeded: ‘Lord Eglintoune was a damned fool to run on upon Campbell, after being warned that Campbell would shoot him if he did.’ Johnson, who could not bear any thing like swearing, angrily replied, “He was NOT a DAMNED fool: he only thought too well of Campbell. He did not believe Campbell would be such a DAMNED scoundrel, as to do so DAMNED a thing.’ His emphasis on DAMNED, accompanied with frowning looks, reproved his opponent’s want of decorum in HIS presence.
During this interview at Ashbourne, Johnson seemed to be more uniformly social, cheerful, and alert, than I had almost ever seen him. He was prompt on great occasions and on small. Taylor, who praised every thing of his own to excess; in short, ‘whose geese were all swans,’ as the proverb says, expatiated on the excellence of his bull-dog, which, he told us, was ‘perfectly well shaped.’ Johnson, after examining the animal attentively, thus repressed the vain-glory of our host:—‘No, Sir, he is NOT well shaped; for there is not the quick transition from the thickness of the fore-part, to the TENUITY— the thin part — behind — which a bull-dog ought to have.’ This TENUITY was the only HARD WORD that I heard him use during this interview, and it will be observed, he instantly put another expression in its place. Taylor said, a small bull-dog was as good as a large one. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; for, in proportion to his size, he has strength: and your argument would prove, that a good bull-dog may be as small as a mouse.’ It was amazing how he entered with perspicuity and keenness upon every thing that occurred in conversation. Most men, whom I know, would no more think of discussing a question about a bull-dog, than of attacking a bull.
I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendour of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity. Showers of them have been discharged at my Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides; yet it still sails unhurt along the stream of time, and, as an attendant upon Johnson,
‘Pursues the triumph, and partakes the gale.’
One morning after breakfast, when the sun shone bright, we walked out together, and ‘pored’ for some time with placid indolence upon an artificial water-fall, which Dr. Taylor had made by building a strong dyke of stone across the river behind the garden. It was now somewhat obstructed by branches of trees and other rubbish, which had come down the river, and settled close to it. Johnson, partly from a desire to see it play more freely, and partly from that inclination to activity which will animate, at times, the most inert and sluggish mortal, took a long pole which was lying on a bank, and pushed down several parcels of this wreck with painful assiduity, while I stood quietly by, wondering to behold the sage thus curiously employed, and smiling with an humorous satisfaction each time when he carried his point. He worked till he was quite out of breath; and having found a large dead cat so heavy that he could not move it after several efforts, ‘Come,’ said he, (throwing down the pole,) ‘YOU shall take it now;’ which I accordingly did, and being a fresh man, soon made the cat tumble over the cascade. This may be laughed at as too trifling to record; but it is a small characteristick trait in the Flemish picture which I give of my friend, and in which, therefore I mark the most minute particulars. And let it be remembered, that Aesop at play is one of the instructive apologues of antiquity.
Talking of Rochester’s Poems, he said, he had given them to Mr. Steevens to castrate for the edition of the poets, to which he was to write Prefaces. Dr. Taylor (the only time I ever heard him say any thing witty) observed, that if Rochester had been castrated himself, his exceptionable poems would not have been written.’ I asked if Burnet had not given a good Life of Rochester. JOHNSON. ‘We have a good Death: there is not much Life.’ I asked whether Prior’s Poems were to be printed entire: Johnson said they were. I mentioned Lord Hailes’s censure of Prior, in his Preface to a collection of Sacred Poems, by various hands, published by him at Edinburgh a great many years ago, where he mentions, ‘those impure tales which will be the eternal opprobrium of their ingenious authour.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, Lord Hailes has forgot. There is nothing in Prior that will excite to lewdness. If Lord Hailes thinks there is, he must be more combustible than other people.’ I instanced the tale of Paulo Purganti and his Wife. JOHNSON. Sir, there is nothing there, but that his wife wanted to be kissed when poor Paulo was out of pocket. No, Sir, Prior is a lady’s book. No lady is ashamed to have it standing in her library.’
The hypochondriack disorder being mentioned, Dr. Johnson did not think it so common as I supposed. ‘Dr. Taylor (said he,) is the same one day as another. Burke and Reynolds are the same; Beauclerk, except when in pain, is the same. I am not so myself; but this I do not mention commonly.’
Dr. Johnson advised me to-day, to have as many books about me as I could; that I might read upon any subject upon which I had a desire for instruction at the time. ‘What you read THEN (said he,) you will remember; but if you have not a book immediately ready, and the subject moulds in your mind, it is a chance if you again have a desire to study it.’ He added, ‘If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better when a man reads from immediate inclination.’
He repeated a good many lines of Horace’s Odes, while we were in the chaise. I remember particularly the Ode Eheu fugaces.
He told me that Bacon was a favourite authour with him; but he had never read his works till he was compiling the English Dictionary, in which, he said, I might see Bacon very often quoted. Mr. Seward recollects his having mentioned, that a Dictionary of the English Language might be compiled from Bacon’s writings alone, and that he had once an intention of giving an edition of Bacon, at least of his English works, and writing the Life of that great man. Had he executed this intention, there can be no doubt that he would have done it in a most masterly manner.
Wishing to be satisfied what degree of truth there was in a story which a friend of Johnson’s and mine had told me to his disadvantage, I mentioned it to him in direct terms; and it was to this effect: that a gentleman who had lived in great intimacy with him, shewn him much kindness, and even relieved him from a spunging-house, having afterwards fallen into bad circumstances, was one day, when Johnson was at dinner with him, seized for debt, and carried to prison; that Johnson sat still undisturbed, and went on eating and drinking; upon which the gentleman’s sister, who was present, could not suppress her indignation: ‘What, Sir, (said she,) are you so unfeeling, as not even to offer to go to my brother in his distress; you who have been so much obliged to him?’ And that Johnson answered, ‘Madam, I owe him no obligation; what he did for me he would have done for a dog.’
Johnson assured me, that the story was absolutely false: but like a man conscious of being in the right, and desirous of completely vindicating himself from such a charge, he did not arrogantly rest on a mere denial, and on his general character, but proceeded thus:—‘Sir, I was very intimate with that gentleman, and was once relieved by him from an arrest; but I never was present when he was arrested, never knew that he was arrested, and I believe he never was in difficulties after the time when he relieved me. I loved him much; yet, in talking of his general character, I may have said, though I do not remember that I ever did say so, that as his generosity proceeded from no principle, but was a part of his profusion, he would do for a dog what he would do for a friend: but I never applied this remark to any particular instance, and certainly not to his kindness to me. If a profuse man, who does not value his money, and gives a large sum to a whore, gives half as much, or an equally large sum to relieve a friend, it cannot be esteemed as virtue. This was all that I could say of that gentleman; and, if said at all, it must have been said after his death. Sir, I would have gone to the world’s end to relieve him. The remark about the dog, if made by me, was such a sally as might escape one when painting a man highly.’
On Tuesday, September 23, Johnson was remarkably cordial to me. It being necessary for me to return to Scotland soon, I had fixed on the next day for my setting out, and I felt a tender concern at the thought of parting with him. He had, at this time, frankly communicated to me many particulars, which are inserted in this work in their proper places; and once, when I happened to mention that the expence of my jaunt would come to much more than I had computed, he said, ‘Why, Sir, if the expence were to be an inconvenience, you would have reason to regret it: but, if you have had the money to spend, I know not that you could have purchased as much pleasure with it in any other way.’
I perceived that he pronounced the word heard, as if spelt with a double e, heerd, instead of sounding it herd, as is most usually done. He said, his reason was, that if it was pronounced herd, there would be a single exception from the English pronunciation of the syllable ear, and he thought it better not to have that exception.
In the evening our gentleman-farmer, and two others, entertained themselves and the company with a great number of tunes on the fiddle. Johnson desired to have ‘Let ambition fire thy mind,’ played over again, and appeared to give a patient attention to it; though he owned to me that he was very insensible to the power of musick. I told him, that it affected me to such a degree, as often to agitate my nerves painfully, producing in my mind alternate sensations of pathetick dejection, so that I was ready to shed tears; and of daring resolution, so that I was inclined to rush into the thickest part of the battle. ‘Sir, (said he,) I should never hear it, if it made me such a fool.’
This evening, while some of the tunes of ordinary composition were played with no great skill, my frame was agitated, and I was conscious of a generous attachment to Dr. Johnson, as my preceptor and friend, mixed with an affectionate regret that he was an old man, whom I should probably lose in a short time. I thought I could defend him at the point of my sword. My reverence and affection for him were in full glow. I said to him, ‘My dear Sir, we must meet every year, if you don’t quarrel with me.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, you are more likely to quarrel with me, than I with you. My regard for you is greater almost than I have words to express; but I do not choose to be always repeating it; write it down in the first leaf of your pocket-book, and never doubt of it again.’
I talked to him of misery being ‘the doom of man’ in this life, as displayed in his Vanity of Human Wishes. Yet I observed that things were done upon the supposition of happiness; grand houses were built, fine gardens were made, splendid places of publick amusement were contrived, and crowded with company. JOHNSON. ‘Alas, Sir, these are all only struggles for happiness. When I first entered Ranelagh, it gave an expansion and gay sensation to my mind, such as I never experienced any where else. But, as Xerxes wept when he viewed his immense army, and considered that not one of that great multitude would be alive a hundred years afterwards, so it went to my heart to consider that there was not one in all that brilliant circle, that was not afraid to go home and think; but that the thoughts of each individual there, would be distressing when alone.’
I suggested, that being in love, and flattered with hopes of success; or having some favourite scheme in view for the next day, might prevent that wretchedness of which we had been talking. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it may sometimes be so as you suppose; but my conclusion is in general but too true.’
While Johnson and I stood in calm conference by ourselves in Dr. Taylor’s garden, at a pretty late hour in a serene autumn night, looking up to the heavens, I directed the discourse to the subject of a future state. My friend was in a placid and most benignant frame. ‘Sir, (said he,) I do not imagine that all things will be made clear to us immediately after death, but that the ways of Providence will be explained to us very gradually.’ He talked to me upon this aweful and delicate question in a gentle tone, and as if afraid to be decisive.
After supper I accompanied him to his apartment, and at my request he dictated to me an argument in favour of the negro who was then claiming his liberty, in an action in the Court of Session in Scotland. He had always been very zealous against slavery in every form, in which I, with all deference, thought that he discovered ‘a zeal without knowledge.’ Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.’ His violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity. Towards the conclusion of his Taxation no Tyranny, he says, ‘how is it that we hear the loudest YELPS for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’
When I said now to Johnson, that I was afraid I kept him too late up. ‘No, Sir, (said he,) I don’t care though I sit all night with you.’ This was an animated speech from a man in his sixty-ninth year.
Had I been as attentive not to displease him as I ought to have been, I know not but this vigil might have been fulfilled; but I unluckily entered upon the controversy concerning the right of Great-Britain to tax America, and attempted to argue in favour of our fellow-subjects on the other side of the Atlantick. I insisted that America might be very well governed, and made to yield sufficient revenue by the means of INFLUENCE, as exemplified in Ireland, while the people might be pleased with the imagination of their participating of the British constitution, by having a body of representatives, without whose consent money could not be exacted from them. Johnson could not bear my thus opposing his avowed opinion, which he had exerted himself with an extreme degree of heat to enforce; and the violent agitation into which he was thrown, while answering, or rather reprimanding me, alarmed me so, that I heartily repented of my having unthinkingly introduced the subject. I myself, however, grew warm, and the change was great, from the calm state of philosophical discussion in which we had a little before been pleasingly employed.
We were fatigued by the contest, which was produced by my want of caution; and he was not then in the humour to slide into easy and cheerful talk. It therefore so happened, that we were after an hour or two very willing to separate and go to bed.
On Wednesday, September 24, I went into Dr. Johnson’s room before he got up, and finding that the storm of the preceding night was quite laid, I sat down upon his bed-side, and he talked with as much readiness and good-humour as ever. He recommended to me to plant a considerable part of a large moorish farm which I had purchased, and he made several calculations of the expence and profit: for he delighted in exercising his mind on the science of numbers. He pressed upon me the importance of planting at the first in a very sufficient manner, quoting the saying ‘In bello non licet bis errare:’ and adding, ‘this is equally true in planting.’
I spoke with gratitude of Dr. Taylor’s hospitality; and, as evidence that it was not on account of his good table alone that Johnson visited him often, I mentioned a little anecdote which had escaped my friend’s recollection, and at hearing which repeated, he smiled. One evening, when I was sitting with him, Frank delivered this message: ‘Sir, Dr. Taylor sends his compliments to you, and begs you will dine with him to-morrow. He has got a hare.’—‘My compliments (said Johnson,) and I’ll dine with him — hare or rabbit.’
After breakfast I departed, and pursued my journey northwards. I took my post-chaise from the Green Man, a very good inn at Ashbourne, the mistress of which, a mighty civil gentlewoman, courtseying very low, presented me with an engraving of the sign of her house; to which she had subjoined, in her own hand-writing, an address in such singular simplicity of style, that I have preserved it pasted upon one of the boards of my original Journal at this time, and shall here insert it for the amusement of my readers:—
‘M. KILLINGLEY’s duty waits upon Mr. Boswell, is exceedingly obliged to him for this favour; whenever he comes this way, hopes for a continuance of the same. Would Mr. Boswell name the house to his extensive acquaintance, it would be a singular favour conferr’d on one who has it not in her power to make any other return but her most grateful thanks, and sincerest prayers for his happiness in time, and in a blessed eternity. — Tuesday morn.’
I cannot omit a curious circumstance which occurred at Edensor-inn, close by Chatsworth, to survey the magnificence of which I had gone a considerable way out of my road to Scotland. The inn was then kept by a very jolly landlord, whose name, I think, was Malton. He happened to mention that ‘the celebrated Dr. Johnson had been in his house.’ I inquired WHO this Dr. Johnson was, that I might hear mine host’s notion of him. ‘Sir, (said he,) Johnson, the great writer; ODDITY, as they call him. He’s the greatest writer in England; he writes for the ministry; he has a correspondence abroad, and lets them know what’s going on.’
My friend, who had a thorough dependance upon the authenticity of my relation without any EMBELLISHMENT, as FALSEHOOD or FICTION is too gently called, laughed a good deal at this representation of himself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52