On Wednesday, March 18,42 I arrived in London, and was informed by good Mr. Francis that his master was better, and was gone to Mr. Thrale’s at Streatham, to which place I wrote to him, begging to know when he would be in town. He was not expected for some time; but next day having called on Dr. Taylor, in Dean’s-yard, Westminster, I found him there, and was told he had come to town for a few hours. He met me with his usual kindness, but instantly returned to the writing of something on which he was employed when I came in, and on which he seemed much intent. Finding him thus engaged, I made my visit very short.
On Friday, March 20, I found him at his own house, sitting with Mrs. Williams, and was informed that the room formerly allotted to me was now appropriated to a charitable purpose; Mrs. Desmoulins, and I think her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael, being all lodged in it. Such was his humanity, and such his generosity, that Mrs. Desmoulins herself told me, he allowed her half-a-guinea a week. Let it be remembered, that this was above a twelfth part of his pension.
His liberality, indeed, was at all periods of his life very remarkable. Mr. Howard, of Lichfield, at whose father’s house Johnson had in his early years been kindly received, told me, that when he was a boy at the Charter-House, his father wrote to him to go and pay a visit to Mr. Samuel Johnson, which he accordingly did, and found him in an upper room, of poor appearance. Johnson received him with much courteousness, and talked a great deal to him, as to a school-boy, of the course of his education, and other particulars. When he afterwards came to know and understand the high character of this great man, he recollected his condescension with wonder. He added, that when he was going away, Mr. Johnson presented him with half-a-guinea; and this, said Mr. Howard, was at a time when he probably had not another.
We retired from Mrs. Williams to another room. Tom Davies soon after joined us. He had now unfortunately failed in his circumstances, and was much indebted to Dr. Johnson’s kindness for obtaining for him many alleviations of his distress. After he went away, Johnson blamed his folly in quitting the stage, by which he and his wife got five hundred pounds a year. I said, I believed it was owing to Churchill’s attack upon him,
‘He mouths a sentence, as curs mouth a bone.’
JOHNSON. ‘I believe so too, Sir. But what a man is he, who is to be driven from the stage by a line? Another line would have driven him from his shop.’
He returned next day to Streatham, to Mr. Thrale’s; where, as Mr. Strahan once complained to me, ‘he was in a great measure absorbed from the society of his old friends.’ I was kept in London by business, and wrote to him on the 27th, that a separation from him for a week, when we were so near, was equal to a separation for a year, when we were at four hundred miles distance. I went to Streatham on Monday, March 30. Before he appeared, Mrs. Thrale made a very characteristical remark:—‘I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise any thing, even what he likes, extravagantly.’
At dinner he laughed at querulous declamations against the age, on account of luxury — increase of London — scarcity of provisions — and other such topicks. ‘Houses (said he,) will be built till rents fall: and corn is more plentiful now than ever it was.’
I had before dinner repeated a ridiculous story told me by an old man who had been a passenger with me in the stage-coach to-day. Mrs. Thrale, having taken occasion to allude to it in talking to me, called it ‘The story told you by the old WOMAN.’—‘Now, Madam, (said I,) give me leave to catch you in the fact; it was not an old WOMAN, but an old MAN, whom I mentioned as having told me this.’ I presumed to take an opportunity, in presence of Johnson, of shewing this lively lady how ready she was, unintentionally, to deviate from exact authenticity of narration.
Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. ‘Accustom your children (said he,) constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.’ BOSWELL. ‘It may come to the door: and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened.’ Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, ‘Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching.’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, Madam, and you OUGHT to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.’
He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of falsehood, voluntary or unintentional, that I never knew any person who upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the incredulus odi. He would say, with a significant look and decisive tone, ‘It is not so. Do not tell this again.’ He inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degrees of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me, has been, that all who were of his SCHOOL are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which they would not have possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.
Talking of ghosts, he said, ‘It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.’
He said, ‘John Wesley’s conversation is good, but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do.’
On Friday, April 3, I dined with him in London, in a company43 where were present several eminent men, whom I shall not name, but distinguish their parts in the conversation by different letters.
43 The Club. Hill identifies E. as Burke and J. as Sir Joshua Reynolds. — ED.
E. ‘We hear prodigious complaints at present of emigration. I am convinced that emigration makes a country more populous.’ J. ‘That sounds very much like a paradox.’ E. ‘Exportation of men, like exportation of all other commodities, makes more be produced.’ JOHNSON. ‘But there would be more people were there not emigration, provided there were food for more.’ E. ‘No; leave a few breeders, and you’ll have more people than if there were no emigration.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, it is plain there will be more people, if there are more breeders. Thirty cows in good pasture will produce more calves than ten cows, provided they have good bulls.’ E. ‘There are bulls enough in Ireland.’ JOHNSON. (smiling,) ‘So, Sir, I should think from your argument.’
E. ‘I believe, in any body of men in England, I should have been in the Minority; I have always been in the Minority.’ P. ‘The House of Commons resembles a private company. How seldom is any man convinced by another’s argument; passion and pride rise against it.’ R. ‘What would be the consequence, if a Minister, sure of a majority in the House of Commons, should resolve that there should be no speaking at all upon his side.’ E. ‘He must soon go out. That has been tried; but it was found it would not do.’. . . .
JOHNSON. ‘I have been reading Thicknesse’s Travels, which I think are entertaining.’ BOSWELL. ‘What, Sir, a good book?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, to read once; I do not say you are to make a study of it, and digest it; and I believe it to be a true book in his intention.’
E. ‘From the experience which I have had — and I have had a great deal — I have learnt to think BETTER of mankind.’ JOHNSON. ‘From my experience I have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived.’ J. ‘Less just and more beneficent.’ JOHNSON. ‘And really it is wonderful, considering how much attention is necessary for men to take care of themselves, and ward off immediate evils which press upon them, it is wonderful how much they do for others. As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.’ BOSWELL. ‘Perhaps from experience men may be found HAPPIER than we suppose.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; the more we enquire, we shall find men the less happy.’
E. ‘I understand the hogshead of claret, which this society was favoured with by our friend the Dean, is nearly out; I think he should be written to, to send another of the same kind. Let the request be made with a happy ambiguity of expression, so that we may have the chance of his sending IT also as a present.’ JOHNSON. ‘I am willing to offer my services as secretary on this occasion.’ P. ‘As many as are for Dr. Johnson being secretary hold up your hands. — Carried unanimously.’ BOSWELL. ‘He will be our Dictator.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, the company is to dictate to me. I am only to write for wine; and I am quite disinterested, as I drink none; I shall not be suspected of having forged the application. I am no more than humble SCRIBE.’ E. ‘Then you shall PREscribe.’ BOSWELL. ‘Very well. The first play of words to-day.’ J. ‘No, no; the BULLS in Ireland.’ JOHNSON. ‘Were I your Dictator you should have no wine. It would be my business cavere ne quid detrimenti Respublica caperet, and wine is dangerous. Rome was ruined by luxury,’ (smiling.) E. ‘If you allow no wine as Dictator, you shall not have me for your master of horse.’
On Saturday, April 4, I drank tea with Johnson at Dr. Taylor’s, where he had dined.
He was very silent this evening; and read in a variety of books: suddenly throwing down one, and taking up another.
He talked of going to Streatham that night. TAYLOR. ‘You’ll be robbed if you do: or you must shoot a highwayman. Now I would rather be robbed than do that; I would not shoot a highwayman.’ JOHNSON. ‘But I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey, to take away his life, after he has robbed me. I am surer I am right in the one case than in the other. I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man’s life, when we are heated by the injury, than to do it at a distance of time by an oath, after we have cooled.’ BOSWELL. ‘So, Sir, you would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.’ BOSWELL. ‘Very well, very well — There is no catching him.’ JOHNSON. ‘At the same time one does not know what to say. For perhaps one may, a year after, hang himself from uneasiness for having shot a man. Few minds are fit to be trusted with so great a thing.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then, Sir, you would not shoot him?’ JOHNSON. ‘But I might be vexed afterwards for that too.’
Thrale’s carriage not having come for him, as he expected, I accompanied him some part of the way home to his own house. I told him, that I had talked of him to Mr. Dunning a few days before, and had said, that in his company we did not so much interchange conversation, as listen to him; and that Dunning observed, upon this, ‘One is always willing to listen to Dr. Johnson:’ to which I answered, ‘That is a great deal from you, Sir.’—‘Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) a great deal indeed. Here is a man willing to listen, to whom the world is listening all the rest of the year.’ BOSWELL. ‘I think, Sir, it is right to tell one man of such a handsome thing, which has been said of him by another. It tends to increase benevolence.’ JOHNSON. ‘Undoubtedly it is right, Sir.’
On Tuesday, April 7, I breakfasted with him at his house. He said, ‘nobody was content.’ I mentioned to him a respectable person in Scotland whom he knew; and I asserted, that I really believed he was always content. JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, he is not content with the present; he has always some new scheme, some new plantation, something which is future. You know he was not content as a widower; for he married again.’ BOSWELL. ‘But he is not restless.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he is only locally at rest. A chymist is locally at rest; but his mind is hard at work. This gentleman has done with external exertions. It is too late for him to engage in distant projects.’ BOSWELL. ‘He seems to amuse himself quite well; to have his attention fixed, and his tranquillity preserved by very small matters. I have tried this; but it would not do with me.’ JOHNSON. (laughing,) ‘No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.’ BOSWELL. ‘A flagelet, Sir! — so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. THAT should have been YOUR instrument.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. I once tried knotting. Dempster’s sister undertook to teach me; but I could not learn it.’ BOSWELL. ‘So, Sir; it will be related in pompous narrative, “Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did this Hercules disdain the distaff.”’ JOHNSON. ‘Knitting of stockings is a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of stockings.’ He asked me to go down with him and dine at Mr. Thrale’s at Streatham, to which I agreed. I had lent him An Account of Scotland, in 1702, written by a man of various enquiry, an English chaplain to a regiment stationed there. JOHNSON. ‘It is sad stuff, Sir, miserably written, as books in general then were. There is now an elegance of style universally diffused. No man now writes so ill as Martin’s Account of the Hebrides is written. A man could not write so ill, if he should try. Set a merchant’s clerk now to write, and he’ll do better.’
He talked to me with serious concern of a certain female friend’s ‘laxity of narration, and inattention to truth.’—‘I am as much vexed (said he,) at the ease with which she hears it mentioned to her, as at the thing itself. I told her, “Madam, you are contented to hear every day said to you, what the highest of mankind have died for, rather than bear.”— You know, Sir, the highest of mankind have died rather than bear to be told they had uttered a falsehood. Do talk to her of it: I am weary.’
BOSWELL. ‘Was not Dr. John Campbell a very inaccurate man in his narrative, Sir? He once told me, that he drank thirteen bottles of port at a sitting.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I do not know that Campbell ever lied with pen and ink; but you could not entirely depend on any thing he told you in conversation: if there was fact mixed with it. However, I loved Campbell: he was a solid orthodox man: he had a reverence for religion. Though defective in practice, he was religious in principle; and he did nothing grossly wrong that I have heard.’
Talking of drinking wine, he said, ‘I did not leave off wine, because I could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this.’ BOSWELL. ‘Why, then, Sir, did you leave it off?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, because it is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never to be intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself. I shall not begin to drink wine again, till I grow old, and want it.’ BOSWELL. ‘I think, Sir, you once said to me, that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life.’ JOHNSON. ‘It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.’ BOSWELL. ‘But if we could have pleasure always, should not we be happy? The greatest part of men would compound for pleasure.’ JOHNSON. ‘Supposing we could have pleasure always, an intellectual man would not compound for it. The greatest part of men would compound, because the greatest part of men are gross.’
I mentioned to him that I had become very weary in a company where I heard not a single intellectual sentence, except that ‘a man who had been settled ten years in Minorca was become a much inferiour man to what he was in London, because a man’s mind grows narrow in a narrow place.’ JOHNSON. ‘A man’s mind grows narrow in a narrow place, whose mind is enlarged only because he has lived in a large place: but what is got by books and thinking is preserved in a narrow place as well as in a large place. A man cannot know modes of life as well in Minorca as in London; but he may study mathematicks as well in Minorca.’ BOSWELL. ‘I don’t know, Sir: if you had remained ten years in the Isle of Col, you would not have been the man that you now are.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if I had been there from fifteen to twenty-five; but not if from twenty-five to thirty-five.’ BOSWELL. ‘I own, Sir, the spirits which I have in London make me do every thing with more readiness and vigour. I can talk twice as much in London as any where else.’
Of Goldsmith he said, ‘He was not an agreeable companion, for he talked always for fame. A man who does so never can be pleasing. The man who talks to unburthen his mind is the man to delight you. An eminent friend of ours is not so agreeable as the variety of his knowledge would otherwise make him, because he talks partly from ostentation.’
Soon after our arrival at Thrale’s, I heard one of the maids calling eagerly on another, to go to Dr. Johnson. I wondered what this could mean. I afterwards learnt, that it was to give her a Bible, which he had brought from London as a present to her.
He was for a considerable time occupied in reading Memoires de Fontenelle, leaning and swinging upon the low gate into the court, without his hat.
At dinner, Mrs. Thrale expressed a wish to go and see Scotland. JOHNSON. ‘Seeing Scotland, Madam, is only seeing a worse England. It is seeing the flower gradually fade away to the naked stalk. Seeing the Hebrides, indeed, is seeing quite a different scene.’
On Thursday, April 9, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, with the Bishop of St. Asaph, (Dr. Shipley,) Mr. Allan Ramsay, Mr. Gibbon, Mr. Cambridge, and Mr. Langton.
Goldsmith being mentioned, Johnson observed, that it was long before his merit came to be acknowledged. That he once complained to him, in ludicrous terms of distress, ‘Whenever I write any thing, the publick MAKE A POINT to know nothing about it:’ but that his Traveller brought him into high reputation. LANGTON. ‘There is not one bad line in that poem; not one of Dryden’s careless verses. SIR JOSHUA. ‘I was glad to hear Charles Fox say, it was one of the finest poems in the English language.’ LANGTON. ‘Why was you glad? You surely had no doubt of this before.’ JOHNSON. ‘No; the merit of The Traveller is so well established, that Mr. Fox’s praise cannot augment it, nor his censure diminish it.’ SIR JOSHUA. ‘But his friends may suspect they had too great a partiality for him.’ JOHNSON. Nay, Sir, the partiality of his friends was always against him. It was with difficulty we could give him a hearing. Goldsmith had no settled notions upon any subject; so he talked always at random. It seemed to be his intention to blurt out whatever was in his mind, and see what would become of it. He was angry too, when catched in an absurdity; but it did not prevent him from falling into another the next minute. I remember Chamier, after talking with him for some time, said, “Well, I do believe he wrote this poem himself: and, let me tell you, that is believing a great deal.” Chamier once asked him, what he meant by slow, the last word in the first line of The Traveller,
“Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow.”
Did he mean tardiness of locomotion? Goldsmith, who would say something without consideration, answered, “Yes.” I was sitting by, and said, “No, Sir; you do not mean tardiness of locomotion; you mean, that sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude.” Chamier believed then that I had written the line as much as if he had seen me write it. Goldsmith, however, was a man, who, whatever he wrote, did it better than any other man could do. He deserved a place in Westminster-Abbey, and every year he lived, would have deserved it better. He had, indeed, been at no pains to fill his mind with knowledge. He transplanted it from one place to another; and it did not settle in his mind; so he could not tell what was in his own books.’
We talked of living in the country. JOHNSON. ‘No wise man will go to live in the country, unless he has something to do which can be better done in the country. For instance: if he is to shut himself up for a year to study a science, it is better to look out to the fields, than to an opposite wall. Then, if a man walks out in the country, there is nobody to keep him from walking in again: but if a man walks out in London, he is not sure when he shall walk in again. A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life; and “The proper study of mankind is man,” as Pope observes.’ BOSWELL. ‘I fancy London is the best place for society; though I have heard that the very first society of Paris is still beyond any thing that we have here.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I question if in Paris such a company as is sitting round this table could be got together in less than half a year. They talk in France of the felicity of men and women living together: the truth is, that there the men are not higher than the women, they know no more than the women do, and they are not held down in their conversation by the presence of women.’
We talked of old age. Johnson (now in his seventieth year,) said, ‘It is a man’s own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.’ The Bishop asked, if an old man does not lose faster than he gets. JOHNSON. ‘I think not, my Lord, if he exerts himself.’ One of the company rashly observed, that he thought it was happy for an old man that insensibility comes upon him. JOHNSON. (with a noble elevation and disdain,) ‘No, Sir, I should never be happy by being less rational.’ BISHOP OF ST. ASAPH. ‘Your wish then, Sir, is [Greek text omitted].’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, my Lord.’
This season there was a whimsical fashion in the newspapers of applying Shakspeare’s words to describe living persons well known in the world; which was done under the title of Modern Characters from Shakspeare; many of which were admirably adapted. The fancy took so much, that they were afterwards collected into a pamphlet. Somebody said to Johnson, across the table, that he had not been in those characters. ‘Yes (said he,) I have. I should have been sorry to be left out.’ He then repeated what had been applied to him,
‘I must borrow GARAGANTUA’S mouth.’
Miss Reynolds not perceiving at once the meaning of this, he was obliged to explain it to her, which had something of an aukward and ludicrous effect. ‘Why, Madam, it has a reference to me, as using big words, which require the mouth of a giant to pronounce them. Garagantua is the name of a giant in Rabelais.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, there is another amongst them for you:
“He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for his power to thunder.”’
JOHNSON. ‘There is nothing marked in that. No, Sir, Garagantua is the best.’ Notwithstanding this ease and good humour, when I, a little while afterwards, repeated his sarcasm on Kenrick, which was received with applause, he asked, ‘WHO said that?’ and on my suddenly answering, Garagantua, he looked serious, which was a sufficient indication that he did not wish it to be kept up.
When we went to the drawing-room there was a rich assemblage. Besides the company who had been at dinner, there were Mr. Garrick, Mr. Harris of Salisbury, Dr. Percy, Dr. Burney, Honourable Mrs. Cholmondeley, Miss Hannah More, &c. &c.
After wandering about in a kind of pleasing distraction for some time, I got into a corner, with Johnson, Garrick, and Harris. GARRICK. (to Harris,) ‘Pray, Sir, have you read Potter’s Aeschylus?’ HARRIS. ‘Yes; and think it pretty.’ GARRICK. (to Johnson,) ‘And what think you, Sir, of it?’ JOHNSON. ‘I thought what I read of it VERBIAGE: but upon Mr. Harris’s recommendation, I will read a play. (To Mr. Harris,) Don’t prescribe two.’ Mr. Harris suggested one, I do not remember which. JOHNSON. ‘We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation. Translations are, in general, for people who cannot read the original.’ I mentioned the vulgar saying, that Pope’s Homer was not a good representation of the original. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is the greatest work of the kind that has ever been produced.’ BOSWELL. ‘The truth is, it is impossible perfectly to translate poetry. In a different language it may be the same tune, but it has not the same tone. Homer plays it on a bassoon; Pope on a flagelet.’ HARRIS. ‘I think Heroick poetry is best in blank verse; yet it appears that rhyme is essential to English poetry, from our deficiency in metrical quantities. In my opinion, the chief excellence of our language is numerous prose.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir William Temple was the first writer who gave cadence to English prose. Before his time they were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of speech it was concluded.’
GARRICK. ‘Of all the translations that ever were attempted, I think Elphinston’s Martial the most extraordinary. He consulted me upon it, who am a little of an epigrammatist myself, you know. I told him freely, “You don’t seem to have that turn.” I asked him if he was serious; and finding he was, I advised him against publishing. Why, his translation is more difficult to understand than the original. I thought him a man of some talents; but he seems crazy in this.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you have done what I had not courage to do. But he did not ask my advice, and I did not force it upon him, to make him angry with me.’ GARRICK. ‘But as a friend, Sir —.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, such a friend as I am with him — no.’ GARRICK. ‘But if you see a friend going to tumble over a precipice?’ JOHNSON. ‘That is an extravagant case, Sir. You are sure a friend will thank you for hindering him from tumbling over a precipice; but, in the other case, I should hurt his vanity, and do him no good. He would not take my advice. His brother-in-law, Strahan, sent him a subscription of fifty pounds, and said he would send him fifty more, if he would not publish.’ GARRICK. ‘What! eh! is Strahan a good judge of an Epigram? Is not he rather an OBTUSE man, eh?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, he may not be a judge of an Epigram: but you see he is a judge of what is not an Epigram.’ BOSWELL. ‘It is easy for you, Mr. Garrick, to talk to an authour as you talked to Elphinston; you, who have been so long the manager of a theatre, rejecting the plays of poor authours. You are an old Judge, who have often pronounced sentence of death. You are a practiced surgeon, who have often amputated limbs; and though this may have been for the good of your patients, they cannot like you. Those who have undergone a dreadful operation, are not very fond of seeing the operator again.’ GARRICK. ‘Yes, I know enough of that. There was a reverend gentleman, (Mr. Hawkins,) who wrote a tragedy, the SIEGE of something, which I refused.’ HARRIS. ‘So, the siege was raised.’ JOHNSON. ‘Ay, he came to me and complained; and told me, that Garrick said his play was wrong in the CONCOCTION. Now, what is the concoction of a play?’ (Here Garrick started, and twisted himself, and seemed sorely vexed; for Johnson told me, he believed the story was true.) GARRICK. ‘I— I— I— said FIRST concoction.’ JOHNSON. (smiling,) ‘Well, he left out FIRST. And Rich, he said, refused him IN FALSE ENGLISH: he could shew it under his hand.’ GARRICK. ‘He wrote to me in violent wrath, for having refused his play: “Sir, this is growing a very serious and terrible affair. I am resolved to publish my play. I will appeal to the world; and how will your judgement appear?” I answered, “Sir, notwithstanding all the seriousness, and all the terrours, I have no objection to your publishing your play; and as you live at a great distance, (Devonshire, I believe,) if you will send it to me, I will convey it to the press.” I never heard more of it, ha! ha! ha!’
On Friday, April 10, I found Johnson at home in the morning. We resumed the conversation of yesterday. He put me in mind of some of it which had escaped my memory, and enabled me to record it more perfectly than I otherwise could have done. He was much pleased with my paying so great attention to his recommendation in 1763, the period when our acquaintance began, that I should keep a journal; and I could perceive he was secretly pleased to find so much of the fruit of his mind preserved; and as he had been used to imagine and say that he always laboured when he said a good thing — it delighted him, on a review, to find that his conversation teemed with point and imagery.
I said to him, ‘You were yesterday, Sir, in remarkably good humour: but there was nothing to offend you, nothing to produce irritation or violence. There was no bold offender. There was not one capital conviction. It was a maiden assize. You had on your white gloves.’
He found fault with our friend Langton for having been too silent. ‘Sir, (said I,) you will recollect, that he very properly took up Sir Joshua for being glad that Charles Fox had praised Goldsmith’s Traveller, and you joined him.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, I knocked Fox on the head, without ceremony. Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is under the Fox star and the Irish constellation. He is always under some planet.’ BOSWELL. ‘There is no Fox star.’ JOHNSON. ‘But there is a dog star.’ BOSWELL. ‘They say, indeed, a fox and a dog are the same animal.’
We dined together with Mr. Scott (now Sir William Scott his Majesty’s Advocate General,) at his chambers in the Temple, nobody else there. The company being small, Johnson was not in such spirits as he had been the preceding day, and for a considerable time little was said.
Talking of fame, for which there is so great a desire, I observed how little there is of it in reality, compared with the other objects of human attention. ‘Let every man recollect, and he will be sensible how small a part of his time is employed in talking or thinking of Shakspeare, Voltaire, or any of the most celebrated men that have ever lived, or are now supposed to occupy the attention and admiration of the world. Let this be extracted and compressed; into what a narrow space will it go!’ I then slily introduced Mr. Garrick’s fame, and his assuming the airs of a great man. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is wonderful how LITTLE Garrick assumes. No, Sir, Garrick fortunam reverenter habet. Consider, Sir: celebrated men, such as you have mentioned, have had their applause at a distance; but Garrick had it dashed in his face, sounded in his ears, and went home every night with the plaudits of a thousand in his CRANIUM. Then, Sir, Garrick did not FIND, but MADE his way to the tables, the levees, and almost the bed-chambers of the great. Then, Sir, Garrick had under him a numerous body of people; who, from fear of his power, and hopes of his favour, and admiration of his talents, were constantly submissive to him. And here is a man who has advanced the dignity of his profession. Garrick has made a player a higher character.’ SCOTT. ‘And he is a very sprightly writer too.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; and all this supported by great wealth of his own acquisition. If all this had happened to me, I should have had a couple of fellows with long poles walking before me, to knock down every body that stood in the way. Consider, if all this had happened to Cibber or Quin, they’d have jumped over the moon — Yet Garrick speaks to US.’ (smiling.) BOSWELL. ‘And Garrick is a very good man, a charitable man.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, a liberal man. He has given away more money than any man in England. There may be a little vanity mixed; but he has shewn, that money is not his first object.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yet Foote used to say of him, that he walked out with an intention to do a generous action; but, turning the corner of a street, he met with the ghost of a half-penny, which frightened him.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that is very true, too; for I never knew a man of whom it could be said with less certainty to-day, what he will do to-morrow, than Garrick; it depends so much on his humour at the time.’ SCOTT. ‘I am glad to hear of his liberality. He has been represented as very saving.’ JOHNSON. ‘With his domestick saving we have nothing to do. I remember drinking tea with him long ago, when Peg Woffington made it, and he grumbled at her for making it too strong.44 He had then begun to feel money in his purse, and did not know when he should have enough of it.’
44 When Johnson told this little anecdote to Sir Joshua Reynolds, he mentioned a circumstance which he omitted to-day:—‘Why, (said Garrick,) it is as red as blood.’— BOSWELL.
We talked of war. JOHNSON. ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.’ BOSWELL. ‘Lord Mansfield does not.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.’ BOSWELL. ‘No; he’d think he could TRY them all.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, if he could catch them: but they’d try him much sooner. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.’
He talked of Mr. Charles Fox, of whose abilities he thought highly, but observed, that he did not talk much at our CLUB. I have heard Mr. Gibbon remark, ‘that Mr. Fox could not be afraid of Dr. Johnson; yet he certainly was very shy of saying any thing in Dr. Johnson’s presence.’
He expressed great indignation at the imposture of the Cock-lane Ghost, and related, with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the news-papers. Upon this subject I incautiously offended him, by pressing him with too many questions, and he shewed his displeasure. I apologised, saying that ‘I asked questions in order to be instructed and entertained; I repaired eagerly to the fountain; but that the moment he gave me a hint, the moment he put a lock upon the well, I desisted.’—‘But, Sir, (said he), that is forcing one to do a disagreeable thing:’ and he continued to rate me. ‘Nay, Sir, (said I,) when you have put a lock upon the well, so that I can no longer drink, do not make the fountain of your wit play upon me and wet me.’
He sometimes could not bear being teazed with questions. I was once present when a gentleman asked so many as, ‘What did you do, Sir?’ ‘What did you say, Sir?’ that he at last grew enraged, and said, ‘I will not be put to the QUESTION. Don’t you consider, Sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with WHAT, and WHY; what is this? what is that? why is a cow’s tail long? why is a fox’s tail bushy?’ The gentleman, who was a good deal out of countenance, said, ‘Why, Sir, you are so good, that I venture to trouble you.’ Johnson. ‘Sir, my being so GOOD is no reason why you should be so ILL.’
He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of dignity of character was derived from it. He expressed a particular enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China. I catched it for the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care. ‘Sir, (said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence. There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity. They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China. I am serious, Sir.’
When we had left Mr. Scott’s, he said ‘Will you go home with me?’ ‘Sir, (said I,) it is late; but I’ll go with you for three minutes.’ JOHNSON. ‘Or four.’ We went to Mrs. Williams’s room, where we found Mr. Allen the printer, who was the landlord of his house in Bolt-court, a worthy, obliging man, and his very old acquaintance; and what was exceedingly amusing, though he was of a very diminutive size, he used, even in Johnson’s presence, to imitate the stately periods and slow and solemn utterance of the great man. — I this evening boasted, that although I did not write what is called stenography, or short-hand, in appropriated characters devised for the purpose, I had a method of my own of writing half words, and leaving out some altogether so as yet to keep the substance and language of any discourse which I had heard so much in view, that I could give it very completely soon after I had taken it down.
On Sunday, April 12, I found him at home before dinner. He and I, and Mrs. Williams, went to dine with the Reverend Dr. Percy.
And here I shall record a scene of too much heat between Dr. Johnson and Dr. Percy, which I should have suppressed, were it not that it gave occasion to display the truely tender and benevolent heart of Johnson, who, as soon as he found a friend was at all hurt by any thing which he had ‘said in his wrath,’ was not only prompt and desirous to be reconciled, but exerted himself to make ample reparation.
Books of Travels having been mentioned, Johnson praised Pennant very highly, as he did at Dunvegan, in the Isle of Sky. Dr. Percy, knowing himself to be the heir male of the ancient Percies, and having the warmest and most dutiful attachment to the noble House of Northumberland, could not sit quietly and hear a man praised, who had spoken disrespectfully of Alnwick-Castle and the Duke’s pleasure grounds, especially as he thought meanly of his travels. He therefore opposed Johnson eagerly. JOHNSON. ‘Pennant in what he has said of Alnwick, has done what he intended; he has made you very angry.’ PERCY. ‘He has said the garden is TRIM, which is representing it like a citizen’s parterre, when the truth is, there is a very large extent of fine turf and gravel walks.’ JOHNSON. ‘According to your own account, Sir, Pennant is right. It IS trim. Here is grass cut close, and gravel rolled smooth. Is not that trim? The extent is nothing against that; a mile may be as trim as a square yard. Your extent puts me in mind of the citizen’s enlarged dinner, two pieces of roast-beef, and two puddings. There is no variety, no mind exerted in laying out the ground, no trees.’ PERCY. ‘He pretends to give the natural history of Northumberland, and yet takes no notice of the immense number of trees planted there of late.’ JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, has nothing to do with the NATURAL history; that is CIVIL history. A man who gives the natural history of the oak, is not to tell how many oaks have been planted in this place or that. A man who gives the natural history of the cow, is not to tell how many cows are milked at Islington. The animal is the same, whether milked in the Park or at Islington.’ PERCY. ‘Pennant does not describe well; a carrier who goes along the side of Loch-lomond would describe it better.’ JOHNSON. ‘I think he describes very well.’ PERCY. ‘I travelled after him.’ JOHNSON. ‘And I travelled after him.’ PERCY. ‘But, my good friend, you are short-sighted, and do not see so well as I do.’ I wondered at Dr. Percy’s venturing thus. Dr. Johnson said nothing at the time; but inflammable particles were collecting for a cloud to burst. In a little while Dr. Percy said something more in disparagement of Pennant. JOHNSON. (pointedly,) ‘This is the resentment of a narrow mind, because he did not find every thing in Northumberland.’ PERCY. (feeling the stroke,) ‘Sir, you may be as rude as you please.’ JOHNSON. ‘Hold, Sir! Don’t talk of rudeness; remember, Sir, you told me (puffing hard with passion struggling for a vent,) I was shortsighted. We have done with civility. We are to be as rude as we please.’ PERCY. ‘Upon my honour, Sir, I did not mean to be uncivil.’ JOHNSON. ‘I cannot say so, Sir; for I DID mean to be uncivil, thinking YOU had been uncivil.’ Dr. Percy rose, ran up to him, and taking him by the hand, assured him affectionately that his meaning had been misunderstood; upon which a reconciliation instantly took place. JOHNSON. ‘My dear Sir, I am willing you shall HANG Pennant.’ PERCY. (resuming the former subject,) ‘Pennant complains that the helmet is not hung out to invite to the hall of hospitality. Now I never heard that it was a custom to hang out a HELMET.’ JOHNSON. ‘Hang him up, hang him up.’ BOSWELL. (humouring the joke,) ‘Hang out his skull instead of a helmet, and you may drink ale out of it in your hall of Odin, as he is your enemy; that will be truly ancient. THERE will be Northern Antiquities.’ JOHNSON. ‘He’s a WHIG, Sir; a SAD DOG. (smiling at his own violent expressions, merely for political difference of opinion.) But he’s the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than any one else does.’
On Monday, April 13, I dined with Johnson at Mr. Langton’s, where were Dr. Porteus, then Bishop of Chester, now of London, and Dr. Stinton. He was at first in a very silent mood. Before dinner he said nothing but ‘Pretty baby,’ to one of the children. Langton said very well to me afterwards, that he could repeat Johnson’s conversation before dinner, as Johnson had said that he could repeat a complete chapter of The Natural History of Iceland, from the Danish of Horrebow, the whole of which was exactly thus:—
‘CHAP. LXXII. Concerning snakes.
‘There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.’
Mr. Topham Beauclerk came in the evening, and he and Dr. Johnson and I staid to supper. It was mentioned that Dr. Dodd had once wished to be a member of THE LITERARY CLUB. JOHNSON. ‘I should be sorry if any of our Club were hanged. I will not say but some of them deserve it.’ BEAUCLERK. (supposing this to be aimed at persons for whom he had at that time a wonderful fancy, which, however, did not last long,) was irritated, and eagerly said, ‘You, Sir, have a friend, (naming him) who deserves to be hanged; for he speaks behind their backs against those with whom he lives on the best terms, and attacks them in the newspapers. HE certainly ought to be KICKED.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, we all do this in some degree, “Veniam petimus damusque vicissim.” To be sure it may be done so much, that a man may deserve to be kicked.’ BEAUCLERK. ‘He is very malignant.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; he is not malignant. He is mischievous, if you will. He would do no man an essential injury; he may, indeed, love to make sport of people by vexing their vanity. I, however, once knew an old gentleman who was absolutely malignant. He really wished evil to others, and rejoiced at it.’ BOSWELL. ‘The gentleman, Mr. Beauclerk, against whom you are so violent, is, I know, a man of good principles.’ BEAUCLERK. ‘Then he does not wear them out in practice.’
Dr. Johnson, who, as I have observed before, delighted in discrimination of character, and having a masterly knowledge of human nature, was willing to take men as they are, imperfect and with a mixture of good and bad qualities, I suppose though he had said enough in defence of his friend, of whose merits, notwithstanding his exceptional points, he had a just value; and added no more on the subject.
On Wednesday, April 15, I dined with Dr. Johnson at Mr. Dilly’s, and was in high spirits, for I had been a good part of the morning with Mr. Orme, the able and eloquent historian of Hindostan, who expressed a great admiration of Johnson. ‘I do not care (said he,) on what subject Johnson talks; but I love better to hear him talk than any body. He either gives you new thoughts, or a new colouring. It is a shame to the nation that he has not been more liberally rewarded. Had I been George the Third, and thought as he did about America, I would have given Johnson three hundred a year for his Taxation no Tyranny alone.’ I repeated this, and Johnson was much pleased with such praise from such a man as Orme.
At Mr. Dilly’s to-day were Mrs. Knowles, the ingenious Quaker lady, Miss Seward, the poetess of Lichfield, the Reverend Dr. Mayo, and the Rev. Mr. Beresford, Tutor to the Duke of Bedford. Before dinner Dr. Johnson seized upon Mr. Charles Sheridan’s Account of the late Revolution in Sweden, and seemed to read it ravenously, as if he devoured it, which was to all appearance his method of studying. ‘He knows how to read better than any one (said Mrs. Knowles;) he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears out the heart of it.’ He kept it wrapt up in the tablecloth in his lap during the time of dinner, from an avidity to have one entertainment in readiness when he should have finished another; resembling (if I may use so coarse a simile) a dog who holds a bone in his paws in reserve, while he eats something else which has been thrown to him.
The subject of cookery having been very naturally introduced at a table where Johnson, who boasted of the niceness of his palate, owned that ‘he always found a good dinner,’ he said, ‘I could write a better book of cookery than has ever yet been written; it should be a book upon philosophical principles. Pharmacy is now made much more simple. Cookery may be made so too. A prescription which is now compounded of five ingredients, had formerly fifty in it. So in cookery, if the nature of the ingredients be well known, much fewer will do. Then as you cannot make bad meat good, I would tell what is the best butcher’s meat, the best beef, the best pieces; how to choose young fowls; the proper seasons of different vegetables; and then how to roast and boil, and compound.’ DILLY. ‘Mrs. Glasse’s Cookery, which is the best, was written by Dr. Hill. Half the TRADE know this.’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, Sir. This shews how much better the subject of cookery may be treated by a philosopher. I doubt if the book be written by Dr. Hill; for, in Mrs. Glasse’s Cookery, which I have looked into, salt-petre and sal-prunella are spoken of as different substances whereas sal-prunella is only salt-petre burnt on charcoal; and Hill could not be ignorant of this. However, as the greatest part of such a book is made by transcription, this mistake may have been carelessly adopted. But you shall see what a Book of Cookery I shall make! I shall agree with Mr. Dilly for the copy-right.’ Miss SEWARD. ‘That would be Hercules with the distaff indeed.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Madam. Women can spin very well; but they cannot make a good book of Cookery.’
Mrs. Knowles affected to complain that men had much more liberty allowed them than women. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Madam, women have all the liberty they should wish to have. We have all the labour and the danger, and the women all the advantage. We go to sea, we build houses, we do everything, in short, to pay our court to the women.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘The Doctor reasons very wittily, but not convincingly. Now, take the instance of building; the mason’s wife, if she is ever seen in liquor, is ruined; the mason may get himself drunk as often as he pleases, with little loss of character; nay, may let his wife and children starve.’ JOHNSON. ‘Madam, you must consider, if the mason does get himself drunk, and let his wife and children starve, the parish will oblige him to find security for their maintenance. We have different modes of restraining evil. Stocks for the men, a ducking-stool for women, and a pound for beasts. If we require more perfection from women than from ourselves, it is doing them honour. And women have not the same temptations that we have: they may always live in virtuous company; men must mix in the world indiscriminately. If a woman has no inclination to do what is wrong being secured from it is no restraint to her. I am at liberty to walk into the Thames; but if I were to try it, my friends would restrain me in Bedlam, and I should be obliged to them.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘Still, Doctor, I cannot help thinking it a hardship that more indulgence is allowed to men than to women. It gives a superiority to men, to which I do not see how they are entitled.’ JOHNSON. ‘It is plain, Madam, one or other must have the superiority. As Shakspeare says, “If two men ride on a horse, one must ride behind.”’ DILLY. ‘I suppose, Sir, Mrs. Knowles would have them to ride in panniers, one on each side.’ JOHNSON. ‘Then, Sir, the horse would throw them both.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘Well, I hope that in another world the sexes will be equal.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is being too ambitious, Madam. WE might as well desire to be equal with the angels. We shall all, I hope, be happy in a future state, but we must not expect to be all happy in the same degree. It is enough if we be happy according to our several capacities. A worthy carman will get to heaven as well as Sir Isaac Newton. Yet, though equally good, they will not have the same degrees of happiness.’ JOHNSON. ‘Probably not.’
Dr. Mayo having asked Johnson’s opinion of Soame Jenyns’s View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion; — JOHNSON. ‘I think it a pretty book; not very theological indeed; and there seems to be an affectation of ease and carelessness, as if it were not suitable to his character to be very serious about the matter.’ BOSWELL. ‘He may have intended this to introduce his book the better among genteel people, who might be unwilling to read too grave a treatise. There is a general levity in the age. We have physicians now with bag-wigs; may we not have airy divines, at least somewhat less solemn in their appearance than they used to be?’ JOHNSON. ‘Jenyns might mean as you say.’ BOSWELL. ‘YOU should like his book, Mrs. Knowles, as it maintains, as you FRIENDS do, that courage is not a Christian virtue.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘Yes, indeed, I like him there; but I cannot agree with him, that friendship is not a Christian virtue.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Madam, strictly speaking, he is right. All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others; so that an old Greek said, “He that has FRIENDS has NO FRIEND.” Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren, which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers. Surely, Madam, your sect must approve of this; for, you call all men FRIENDS.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘We are commanded to do good to all men, “but especially to them who are of the household of Faith.”’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, Madam. The household of Faith is wide enough.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘But, Doctor, our Saviour had twelve Apostles, yet there was ONE whom he LOVED. John was called “the disciple whom JESUS loved.”’ JOHNSON. (with eyes sparkling benignantly,) ‘Very well, indeed, Madam. You have said very well.’ BOSWELL. ‘A fine application. Pray, Sir, had you ever thought of it?’ JOHNSON. ‘I had not, Sir.’
From this pleasing subject, he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, ‘I am willing to love all mankind, EXCEPT AN AMERICAN:’ and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he ‘breathed out threatenings and slaughter;’ calling them, Rascals — Robbers — Pirates;’ and exclaiming, he’d ‘burn and destroy them.’ Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, ‘Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.’ He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick. During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topicks.
Talking of Miss ——— a literary lady, he said, ‘I was obliged to speak to Miss Reynolds, to let her know that I desired she would not flatter me so much.’ Somebody now observed, ‘She flatters Garrick.’ JOHNSON. ‘She is in the right to flatter Garrick. She is in the right for two reasons; first, because she has the world with her, who have been praising Garrick these thirty years; and secondly, because she is rewarded for it by Garrick. Why should she flatter ME? I can do nothing for her. Let her carry her praise to a better market. (Then turning to Mrs. Knowles.) You, Madam, have been flattering me all the evening; I wish you would give Boswell a little now. If you knew his merit as well as I do, you would say a great deal; he is the best travelling companion in the world.’
Somebody mentioned the Reverend Mr. Mason’s prosecution of Mr. Murray, the bookseller, for having inserted in a collection of Gray’s Poems, only fifty lines, of which Mr. Mason had still the exclusive property, under the statute of Queen Anne; and that Mr. Mason had persevered, notwithstanding his being requested to name his own terms of compensation. Johnson signified his displeasure at Mr. Mason’s conduct very strongly; but added, by way of shewing that he was not surprized at it, ‘Mason’s a Whig.’ MRS. KNOWLES. (not hearing distinctly,) ‘What! a Prig, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.’
Of John Wesley, he said, ‘He can talk well on any subject.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, what has he made of his story of a ghost?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, he believes it; but not on sufficient authority. He did not take time enough to examine the girl. It was at Newcastle, where the ghost was said to have appeared to a young woman several times, mentioning something about the right to an old house, advising application to be made to an attorney, which was done; and, at the same time, saying the attorneys would do nothing, which proved to be the fact. “This (says John,) is a proof that a ghost knows our thoughts.” Now (laughing,) it is not necessary to know our thoughts, to tell that an attorney will sometimes do nothing. Charles Wesley, who is a more stationary man, does not believe the story. I am sorry that John did not take more pains to inquire into the evidence for it.’ MISS SEWARD, (with an incredulous smile,) ‘What, Sir! about a ghost?’ JOHNSON. (with solemn vehemence,) ‘Yes, Madam: this is a question which, after five thousand years, is yet undecided; a question, whether in theology or philosophy, one of the most important that can come before the human understanding.’
Mrs. Knowles mentioned, as a proselyte to Quakerism, Miss ——— a young lady well known to Dr. Johnson, for whom he had shewn much affection; while she ever had, and still retained, a great respect for him. Mrs. Knowles at the same time took an opportunity of letting him know ‘that the amiable young creature was sorry at finding that he was offended at her leaving the Church of England and embracing a simpler faith;’ and, in the gentlest and most persuasive manner, solicited his kind indulgence for what was sincerely a matter of conscience. JOHNSON. (frowning very angrily,) ‘Madam, she is an odious wench. She could not have any proper conviction that it was her duty to change her religion, which is the most important of all subjects, and should be studied with all care, and with all the helps we can get. She knew no more of the Church which she left, and that which she embraced, than she did of the difference between the Copernican and Ptolemaick systems.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘She had the New Testament before her.’ JOHNSON. ‘Madam, she could not understand the New Testament, the most difficult book in the world, for which the study of a life is required.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘It is clear as to essentials.’ JOHNSON. ‘But not as to controversial points. The heathens were easily converted, because they had nothing to give up; but we ought not, without very strong conviction indeed, to desert the religion in which we have been educated. That is the religion given you, the religion in which it may be said Providence has placed you. If you live conscientiously in that religion, you may be safe. But errour is dangerous indeed, if you err when you choose a religion for yourself.’ MRS. KNOWLES. ‘Must we then go by implicit faith?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Madam, the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself?’ He then rose again into passion, and attacked the young proselyte in the severest terms of reproach, so that both the ladies seemed to be much shocked.
We remained together till it was pretty late. Notwithstanding occasional explosions of violence, we were all delighted upon the whole with Johnson. I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree.
April 17, being Good Friday, I waited on Johnson, as usual. I observed at breakfast that although it was a part of his abstemious discipline on this most solemn fast, to take no milk in his tea, yet when Mrs. Desmoulins inadvertently poured it in, he did not reject it. I talked of the strange indecision of mind, and imbecility in the common occurrences of life, which we may observe in some people. JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, I am in the habit of getting others to do things for me.’ BOSWELL. ‘What, Sir! have you that weakness?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir. But I always think afterwards I should have done better for myself.’
I expressed some inclination to publish an account of my Travels upon the continent of Europe, for which I had a variety of materials collected. JOHNSON. ‘I do not say, Sir, you may not publish your travels; but I give you my opinion, that you would lessen yourself by it. What can you tell of countries so well known as those upon the continent of Europe, which you have visited?’ BOSWELL. ‘But I can give an entertaining narrative, with many incidents, anecdotes, jeux d’esprit, and remarks, so as to make very pleasant reading.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, most modern travellers in Europe who have published their travels, have been laughed at: I would not have you added to the number. The world is now not contented to be merely entertained by a traveller’s narrative; they want to learn something. Now some of my friends asked me, why I did not give some account of my travels in France. The reason is plain; intelligent readers had seen more of France than I had. YOU might have liked my travels in France, and THE CLUB might have liked them; but, upon the whole, there would have been more ridicule than good produced by them.’ BOSWELL. ‘I cannot agree with you, Sir. People would like to read what you say of any thing. Suppose a face has been painted by fifty painters before; still we love to see it done by Sir Joshua.’ JOHNSON. ‘True, Sir, but Sir Joshua cannot paint a face when he has not time to look on it.’ BOSWELL. ‘Sir, a sketch of any sort by him is valuable. And, Sir, to talk to you in your own style (raising my voice, and shaking my head,) you SHOULD have given us your travels in France. I am SURE I am right, and THERE’S AN END ON’T.’
I said to him that it was certainly true, as my friend Dempster had observed in his letter to me upon the subject, that a great part of what was in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland had been in his mind before he left London. JOHNSON. ‘Why yes, Sir, the topicks were; and books of travels will be good in proportion to what a man has previously in his mind; his knowing what to observe; his power of contrasting one mode of life with another. As the Spanish proverb says, “He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.’ BOSWELL. ‘The proverb, I suppose, Sir, means, he must carry a large stock with him to trade with.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir.’
It was a delightful day: as we walked to St. Clement’s church, I again remarked that Fleet-street was the most cheerful scene in the world. ‘Fleet-street (said I,) is in my mind more delightful than Tempe.’ JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir; but let it be compared with Mull.’
There was a very numerous congregation to-day at St. Clement’s church, which Dr. Johnson said he observed with pleasure.
And now I am to give a pretty full account of one of the most curious incidents in Johnson’s life, of which he himself has made the following minute on this day: ‘In my return from church, I was accosted by Edwards, an old fellow-collegian, who had not seen me since 1729. He knew me, and asked if I remembered one Edwards; I did not at first recollect the name, but gradually as we walked along, recovered it, and told him a conversation that had passed at an ale-house between us. My purpose is to continue our acquaintance.’
It was in Butcher-row that this meeting happened. Mr. Edwards, who was a decent-looking elderly man in grey clothes, and a wig of many curls, accosted Johnson with familiar confidence, knowing who he was, while Johnson returned his salutation with a courteous formality, as to a stranger. But as soon as Edwards had brought to his recollection their having been at Pembroke-College together nine-and-forty years ago, he seemed much pleased, asked where he lived, and said he should be glad to see him in Bolt-court. EDWARDS. ‘Ah, Sir! we are old men now.’ JOHNSON. (who never liked to think of being old,) ‘Don’t let us discourage one another.’ EDWARDS. ‘Why, Doctor, you look stout and hearty, I am happy to see you so; for the news-papers told us you were very ill.’ JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, they are always telling lies of US OLD FELLOWS.’
Wishing to be present at more of so singular a conversation as that between two fellow-collegians, who had lived forty years in London without ever having chanced to meet, I whispered to Mr. Edwards that Dr. Johnson was going home, and that he had better accompany him now. So Edwards walked along with us, I eagerly assisting to keep up the conversation. Mr. Edwards informed Dr. Johnson that he had practised long as a solicitor in Chancery, but that he now lived in the country upon a little farm, about sixty acres, just by Stevenage in Hertfordshire, and that he came to London (to Barnard’s Inn, No. 6), generally twice a week. Johnson appearing to me in a reverie, Mr. Edwards addressed himself to me, and expatiated on the pleasure of living in the country. BOSWELL. ‘I have no notion of this, Sir. What you have to entertain you, is, I think, exhausted in half an hour.’ EDWARDS. ‘What? don’t you love to have hope realized? I see my grass, and my corn, and my trees growing. Now, for instance, I am curious to see if this frost has not nipped my fruit-trees.’ JOHNSON. (who we did not imagine was attending,) ‘You find, Sir, you have fears as well as hopes.’— So well did he see the whole, when another saw but the half of a subject.
When we got to Dr. Johnson’s house, and were seated in his library, the dialogue went on admirably. EDWARDS. ‘Sir, I remember you would not let us say PRODIGIOUS at College. For even then, Sir, (turning to me,) he was delicate in language, and we all feared him.’45 JOHNSON. (to Edwards,) ‘From your having practised the law long, Sir, I presume you must be rich.’ EDWARDS. ‘No, Sir; I got a good deal of money; but I had a number of poor relations to whom I gave a great part of it.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you have been rich in the most valuable sense of the word.’ EDWARDS. ‘But I shall not die rich.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, sure, Sir, it is better to LIVE rich than to DIE rich.’ EDWARDS. ‘I wish I had continued at College.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why do you wish that, Sir?’ EDWARDS. ‘Because I think I should have had a much easier life than mine has been. I should have been a parson, and had a good living, like Bloxam and several others, and lived comfortably.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, the life of a parson, of a conscientious clergyman, is not easy. I have always considered a clergyman as the father of a larger family than he is able to maintain. I would rather have Chancery suits upon my hands than the cure of souls. No, Sir, I do not envy a clergyman’s life as an easy life, nor do I envy the clergyman who makes it an easy life.’ Here taking himself up all of a sudden, he exclaimed, ‘O! Mr. Edwards! I’ll convince you that I recollect you. Do you remember our drinking together at an alehouse near Pembroke gate? At that time, you told me of the Eton boy, who, when verses on our SAVIOUR’S turning water into wine were prescribed as an exercise, brought up a single line, which was highly admired —
“Vidit et erubuit lympha pudica DEUM,”
and I told you of another fine line in Camden’s Remains, an eulogy upon one of our Kings, who was succeeded by his son, a prince of equal merit:—
“Mira cano, Sol occubuit, nox nulla secuta est.”’
45 Johnson said to me afterwards, ‘Sir, they respected me for my literature: and yet it was not great but by comparison. Sir, it is amazing how little literature there is in the world.’— BOSWELL
EDWARDS. ‘You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.’— Mr. Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Courtenay, Mr. Malone, and, indeed, all the eminent men to whom I have mentioned this, have thought it an exquisite trait of character. The truth is, that philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave as to exclude all gaiety.
EDWARDS. ‘I have been twice married, Doctor. You, I suppose, have never known what it was to have a wife.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I have known what it was to have a wife, and (in a solemn, tender, faultering tone) I have known what it was to LOSE A WIFE. — It had almost broke my heart.’
EDWARDS. ‘How do you live, Sir? For my part, I must have my regular meals, and a glass of good wine. I find I require it.’ JOHNSON. ‘I now drink no wine, Sir. Early in life I drank wine: for many years I drank none. I then for some years drank a great deal.’ EDWARDS. ‘Some hogs-heads, I warrant you.’ JOHNSON. ‘I then had a severe illness, and left it off, and I have never begun it again. I never felt any difference upon myself from eating one thing rather than another, nor from one kind of weather rather than another. There are people, I believe, who feel a difference; but I am not one of them. And as to regular meals, I have fasted from the Sunday’s dinner to the Tuesday’s dinner, without any inconvenience. I believe it is best to eat just as one is hungry: but a man who is in business, or a man who has a family, must have stated meals. I am a straggler. I may leave this town and go to Grand Cairo, without being missed here or observed there.’ EDWARDS. ‘Don’t you eat supper, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir.’ EDWARDS. ‘For my part, now, I consider supper as a turnpike through which one must pass, in order to get to bed.’
JOHNSON. ‘You are a lawyer, Mr. Edwards. Lawyers know life practically. A bookish man should always have them to converse with. They have what he wants.’ EDWARDS. ‘I am grown old: I am sixty-five.’ JOHNSON. ‘I shall be sixty-eight next birth-day. Come, Sir, drink water, and put in for a hundred.’
This interview confirmed my opinion of Johnson’s most humane and benevolent heart. His cordial and placid behaviour to an old fellow-collegian, a man so different from himself; and his telling him that he would go down to his farm and visit him, showed a kindness of disposition very rare at an advanced age. He observed, ‘how wonderful it was that they had both been in London forty years, without having ever once met, and both walkers in the street too!’ Mr. Edwards, when going away, again recurred to his consciousness of senility, and looking full in Johnson’s face, said to him, ‘You’ll find in Dr. Young,
“O my coevals! remnants of yourselves.”’
Johnson did not relish this at all; but shook his head with impatience. Edwards walked off, seemingly highly pleased with the honour of having been thus noticed by Dr. Johnson. When he was gone, I said to Johnson, I thought him but a weak man. JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir. Here is a man who has passed through life without experience: yet I would rather have him with me than a more sensible man who will not talk readily. This man is always willing to say what he has to say.’ Yet Dr. Johnson had himself by no means that willingness which he praised so much, and I think so justly; for who has not felt the painful effect of the dreary void, when there is a total silence in a company, for any length of time; or, which is as bad, or perhaps worse, when the conversation is with difficulty kept up by a perpetual effort?
Johnson once observed to me, ‘Tom Tyers described me the best: “Sir, (said he,) you are like a ghost: you never speak till you are spoken to.”’
The gentleman whom he thus familiarly mentioned was Mr. Thomas Tyers, son of Mr. Jonathan Tyers, the founder of that excellent place of publick amusement, Vauxhall Gardens, which must ever be an estate to its proprietor, as it is peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation; there being a mixture of curious show — gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; — for all which only a shilling is paid; and, though last, not least, good eating and drinking for those who choose to purchase that regale. Mr. Thomas Tyers was bred to the law; but having a handsome fortune, vivacity of temper, and eccentricity of mind, he could not confine himself to the regularity of practice. He therefore ran about the world with a pleasant carelessness, amusing everybody by his desultory conversation. He abounded in anecdote, but was not sufficiently attentive to accuracy. I therefore cannot venture to avail myself much of a biographical sketch of Johnson which he published, being one among the various persons ambitious of appending their names to that of my illustrious friend. That sketch is, however, an entertaining little collection of fragments. Those which he published of Pope and Addison are of higher merit; but his fame must chiefly rest upon his Political Conferences, in which he introduces several eminent persons delivering their sentiments in the way of dialogue, and discovers a considerable share of learning, various knowledge, and discernment of character. This much may I be allowed to say of a man who was exceedingly obliging to me, and who lived with Dr. Johnson in as easy a manner as almost any of his very numerous acquaintance.
Mr. Edwards had said to me aside, that Dr. Johnson should have been of a profession. I repeated the remark to Johnson that I might have his own thoughts on the subject. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it WOULD have been better that I had been of a profession. I ought to have been a lawyer.’ BOSWELL. ‘I do not think, Sir, it would have been better, for we should not have had the English Dictionary.’ JOHNSON. ‘But you would have had Reports.’ BOSWELL. ‘Ay; but there would not have been another, who could have written the Dictionary. There have been many very good Judges. Suppose you had been Lord Chancellor; you would have delivered opinions with more extent of mind, and in a more ornamented manner, than perhaps any Chancellor ever did, or ever will do. But, I believe, causes have been as judiciously decided as you could have done.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir. Property has been as well settled.’
Johnson, however, had a noble ambition floating in his mind, and had, undoubtedly, often speculated on the possibility of his supereminent powers being rewarded in this great and liberal country by the highest honours of the state. Sir William Scott informs me, that upon the death of the late Lord Lichfield, who was Chancellor of the University of Oxford, he said to Johnson, ‘What a pity it is, Sir, that you did not follow the profession of the law. You might have been Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, and attained to the dignity of the peerage; and now that the title of Lichfleld, your native city, is extinct, you might have had it.’ Johnson, upon this, seemed much agitated; and, in an angry tone, exclaimed, ‘Why will you vex me by suggesting this, when it is too late?’
But he did not repine at the prosperity of others. The late Dr. Thomas Leland, told Mr. Courtenay, that when Mr. Edmund Burke shewed Johnson his fine house and lands near Beaconsfield, Johnson coolly said, ‘Non equidem invideo; miror magis.’46
46 I am not entirely without suspicion that Johnson may have felt a little momentary envy; for no man loved the good things of this life better than he did and he could not but be conscious that he deserved a much larger share of them, than he ever had. — BOSWELL.
Yet no man had a higher notion of the dignity of literature than Johnson, or was more determined in maintaining the respect which he justly considered as due to it. Of this, besides the general tenor of his conduct in society, some characteristical instances may be mentioned.
He told Sir Joshua Reynolds, that once when he dined in a numerous company of booksellers, where the room being small, the head of the table, at which he sat, was almost close to the fire, he persevered in suffering a great deal of inconvenience from the heat, rather than quit his place, and let one of them sit above him.
Goldsmith, in his diverting simplicity, complained one day, in a mixed company, of Lord Camden. ‘I met him (said he,) at Lord Clare’s house in the country, and he took no more notice of me than if I had been an ordinary man. The company having laughed heartily, Johnson stood forth in defence of his friend. ‘Nay, Gentlemen, (said he,) Dr. Goldsmith is in the right. A nobleman ought to have made up to such a man as Goldsmith; and I think it is much against Lord Camden that he neglected him.’
Nor could he patiently endure to hear that such respect as he thought due only to higher intellectual qualities, should be bestowed on men of slighter, though perhaps more amusing talents. I told him, that one morning, when I went to breakfast with Garrick, who was very vain of his intimacy with Lord Camden, he accosted me thus:—‘Pray now, did you — did you meet a little lawyer turning the corner, eh?’—‘No, Sir, (said I). Pray what do you mean by the question?’—‘Why, (replied Garrick, with an affected indifference, yet as if standing on tip-toe,) Lord Camden has this moment left me. We have had a long walk together.’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, Sir, Garrick talked very properly. Lord Camden WAS A LITTLE LAWYER to be associating so familiarly with a player.’
Sir Joshua Reynolds observed, with great truth, that Johnson considered Garrick to be as it were his PROPERTY. He would allow no man either to blame or to praise Garrick in his presence, without contradicting him.
Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’ BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why yes, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours (naming him) tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’ JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in —— A man need not be uneasy on these grounds; for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto.’ BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakspeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet in the other world, will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works presented to you.”’ Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.
We went to St. Clement’s church again in the afternoon, and then returned and drank tea and coffee in Mrs. Williams’s room; Mrs. Desmoulins doing the honours of the tea-table. I observed that he would not even look at a proof-sheet of his Life of Waller on Good-Friday.
On Saturday, April 14, I drank tea with him. He praised the late Mr. Duncombe, of Canterbury, as a pleasing man. ‘He used to come to me: I did not seek much after HIM. Indeed I never sought much after any body.’ BOSWELL. ‘Lord Orrery, I suppose.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir; I never went to him but when he sent for me.’ BOSWELL. ‘Richardson?’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir. But I sought after George Psalmanazar the most. I used to go and sit with him at an alehouse in the city.’
I am happy to mention another instance which I discovered of his SEEKING AFTER a man of merit. Soon after the Honourable Daines Barrington had published his excellent Observations on the Statutes, Johnson waited on that worthy and learned gentleman; and, having told him his name, courteously said, ‘I have read your book, Sir, with great pleasure, and wish to be better known to you.’ Thus began an acquaintance, which was continued with mutual regard as long as Johnson lived.
Talking of a recent seditious delinquent, he said, ‘They should set him in the pillory, that he may be punished in a way that would disgrace him.’ I observed, that the pillory does not always disgrace. And I mentioned an instance of a gentleman who I thought was not dishonoured by it. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, but he was, Sir. He could not mouth and strut as he used to do, after having been there. People are not willing to ask a man to their tables who has stood in the pillory.’
Johnson attacked the Americans with intemperate vehemence of abuse. I said something in their favour; and added, that I was always sorry when he talked on that subject. This, it seems, exasperated him; though he said nothing at the time. The cloud was charged with sulphureous vapour, which was afterwards to burst in thunder. — We talked of a gentleman who was running out his fortune in London; and I said, ‘We must get him out of it. All his friends must quarrel with him, and that will soon drive him away.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir; we’ll send YOU to him. If your company does not drive a man out of his house, nothing will.’ This was a horrible shock, for which there was no visible cause. I afterwards asked him why he had said so harsh a thing. JOHNSON. Because, Sir, you made me angry about the Americans.’ BOSWELL. ‘But why did you not take your revenge directly?’ JOHNSON. (smiling,) ‘Because, Sir, I had nothing ready. A man cannot strike till he has his weapons.’ This was a candid and pleasant confession.
He shewed me to-night his drawing-room, very genteelly fitted up; and said, ‘Mrs. Thrale sneered when I talked of my having asked you and your lady to live at my house. I was obliged to tell her, that you would be in as respectable a situation in my house as in hers. Sir, the insolence of wealth will creep out.’ BOSWELL. ‘She has a little both of the insolence of wealth, and the conceit of parts.’ JOHNSON. ‘The insolence of wealth is a wretched thing; but the conceit of parts has some foundation. To be sure it should not be. But who is without it?’ BOSWELL. ‘Yourself, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, I play no tricks: I lay no traps.’ BOSWELL. ‘No, Sir. You are six feet high, and you only do not stoop.’
We talked of the numbers of people that sometimes have composed the household of great families. I mentioned that there were a hundred in the family of the present Earl of Eglintoune’s father. Dr. Johnson seeming to doubt it, I began to enumerate. ‘Let us see: my Lord and my Lady two.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, if you are to count by twos, you may be long enough.’ BOSWELL. ‘Well, but now I add two sons and seven daughters, and a servant for each, that will make twenty; so we have the fifth part already.’ JOHNSON. ‘Very true. You get at twenty pretty readily; but you will not so easily get further on. We grow to five feet pretty readily; but it is not so easy to grow to seven.’
On Monday, April 20, I found him at home in the morning. We talked of a gentleman who we apprehended was gradually involving his circumstances by bad management. JOHNSON. ‘Wasting a fortune is evaporation by a thousand imperceptible means. If it were a stream, they’d stop it. You must speak to him. It is really miserable. Were he a gamester, it could be said he had hopes of winning. Were he a bankrupt in trade, he might have grown rich; but he has neither spirit to spend nor resolution to spare. He does not spend fast enough to have pleasure from it. He has the crime of prodigality, and the wretchedness of parsimony. If a man is killed in a duel, he is killed as many a one has been killed; but it is a sad thing for a man to lie down and die; to bleed to death, because he has not fortitude enough to sear the wound, or even to stitch it up.’ I cannot but pause a moment to admire the fecundity of fancy, and choice of language, which in this instance, and, indeed, on almost all occasions, he displayed. It was well observed by Dr. Percy, now Bishop of Dromore, ‘The conversation of Johnson is strong and clear, and may be compared to an antique statue, where every vein and muscle is distinct and bold. Ordinary conversation resembles an inferiour cast.’
On Saturday, April 25, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, with the learned Dr. Musgrave, Counsellor Leland of Ireland, son to the historian, Mrs. Cholmondeley, and some more ladies.
‘Demosthenes Taylor, as he was called, (that is, the Editor of Demosthenes) was the most silent man, the merest statue of a man that I have ever seen. I once dined in company with him, and all he said during the whole time was no more than Richard. How a man should say only Richard, it is not easy to imagine. But it was thus: Dr. Douglas was talking of Dr. Zachary Grey, and ascribing to him something that was written by Dr. Richard Grey. So, to correct him, Taylor said, (imitating his affected sententious emphasis and nod,) “RICHARD.”’
Mrs. Cholmondeley, in a high flow of spirits, exhibited some lively sallies of hyperbolical compliment to Johnson, with whom she had been long acquainted, and was very easy. He was quick in catching the MANNER of the moment, and answered her somewhat in the style of the hero of a romance, ‘Madam, you crown me with unfading laurels.’
We talked of a lady’s verses on Ireland. MISS REYNOLDS. ‘Have you seen them, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Madam. I have seen a translation from Horace, by one of her daughters. She shewed it me.’ MISS REYNOLDS. ‘And how was it, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, very well for a young Miss’s verses; — that is to say, compared with excellence, nothing; but, very well, for the person who wrote them. I am vexed at being shewn verses in that manner.’ MISS REYNOLDS. ‘But if they should be good, why not give them hearty praise?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Madam, because I have not then got the better of my bad humour from having been shown them. You must consider, Madam; beforehand they may be bad, as well as good. Nobody has a right to put another under such a difficulty, that he must either hurt the person by telling the truth, or hurt himself by telling what is not true.’ BOSWELL. ‘A man often shews his writings to people of eminence, to obtain from them, either from their good-nature, or from their not being able to tell the truth firmly, a commendation, of which he may afterwards avail himself.’ JOHNSON. ‘Very true, Sir. Therefore the man, who is asked by an authour, what he thinks of his work, is put to the torture, and is not obliged to speak the truth; so that what he says is not considered as his opinion; yet he has said it, and cannot retract it; and this authour, when mankind are hunting him with a cannister at his tail, can say, “I would not have published, had not Johnson, or Reynolds, or Musgrave, or some other good judge, commended the work.” Yet I consider it as a very difficult question in conscience, whether one should advise a man not to publish a work, if profit be his object; for the man may say, “Had it not been for you, I should have had the money.” Now you cannot be sure; for you have only your own opinion, and the publick may think very differently.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. ‘You must upon such an occasion have two judgements; one as to the real value of the work, the other as to what may please the general taste at the time.’ JOHNSON. ‘But you can be SURE of neither; and therefore I should scruple much to give a suppressive vote. Both Goldsmith’s comedies were once refused; his first by Garrick, his second by Colman, who was prevailed on at last by much solicitation, nay, a kind of force, to bring it on. His Vicar of Wakefield I myself did not think would have had much success. It was written and sold to a bookseller before his Traveller; but published after; so little expectation had the bookseller from it. Had it been sold after the Traveller he might have had twice as much money for it, though sixty guineas was no mean price. The bookseller had the advantage of Goldsmith’s reputation from The Traveller in the sale, though Goldsmith had it not in selling the copy.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. ‘The Beggar’s Opera affords a proof how strangely people will differ in opinion about a literary performance. Burke thinks it has no merit.’ JOHNSON. ‘It was refused by one of the houses; but I should have thought it would succeed, not from any great excellence in the writing, but from the novelty, and the general spirit and gaiety of the piece, which keeps the audience always attentive, and dismisses them in good humour.’
We went to the drawing-room, where was a considerable increase of company. Several of us got round Dr. Johnson, and complained that he would not give us an exact catalogue of his works, that there might be a complete edition. He smiled, and evaded our entreaties. That he intended to do it, I have no doubt, because I have heard him say so; and I have in my possession an imperfect list, fairly written out, which he entitles Historia Studiorum. I once got from one of his friends a list, which there was pretty good reason to suppose was accurate, for it was written down in his presence by this friend, who enumerated each article aloud, and had some of them mentioned to him by Mr. Levett, in concert with whom it was made out; and Johnson, who heard all this, did not contradict it. But when I shewed a copy of this list to him, and mentioned the evidence for its exactness, he laughed, and said, ‘I was willing to let them go on as they pleased, and never interfered.’ Upon which I read it to him, article by article, and got him positively to own or refuse; and then, having obtained certainty so far, I got some other articles confirmed by him directly; and afterwards, from time to time, made additions under his sanction.
The conversation having turned on Bon-Mots, be quoted, from one of the Ana, an exquisite instance of flattery in a maid of honour in France, who being asked by the Queen what o’clock it was, answered, ‘What your Majesty pleases.’ He admitted that Mr. Burke’s classical pun upon Mr. Wilkes’s being carried on the shoulders of the mob —
was admirable; and though he was strangely unwilling to allow to that extraordinary man the talent of wit, he also laughed with approbation at another of his playful conceits; which was, that ‘Horace has in one line given a description of a good desirable manour:—
“Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines;”
that is to say, a modus as to the tithes and certain fines.’
He observed, ‘A man cannot with propriety speak of himself, except he relates simple facts; as, “I was at Richmond:” or what depends on mensuration; as, “I am six feet high.” He is sure he has been at Richmond; he is sure he is six feet high: but he cannot be sure he is wise, or that he has any other excellence. Then, all censure of a man’s self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare. It has all the invidiousness of self-praise, and all the reproach of falsehood.’
On Tuesday, April 28, he was engaged to dine at General Paoli’s, where, as I have already observed, I was still entertained in elegant hospitality, and with all the ease and comfort of a home. I called on him, and accompanied him in a hackney-coach. We stopped first at the bottom of Hedgelane, into which he went to leave a letter, ‘with good news for a poor man in distress,’ as he told me. I did not question him particularly as to this. He himself often resembled Lady Bolingbroke’s Lively description of Pope; that ‘he was un politique aux choux et aux raves.’ He would say, ‘I dine to-day in Grosvenor-square;’ this might be with a Duke: or, perhaps, ‘I dine to-day at the other end of the town:’ or, ‘A gentleman of great eminence called on me yesterday.’ He loved thus to keep things floating in conjecture: Omne ignotum pro magnifico est. I believe I ventured to dissipate the cloud, to unveil the mystery, more freely and frequently than any of his friends. We stopped again at Wirgman’s, the well-known toy-shop, in St. James’s-street, at the corner of St. James’s-place, to which he had been directed, but not clearly, for he searched about some time, and could not find it at first; and said, ‘To direct one only to a corner shop is TOYING with one.’ I suppose he meant this as a play upon the word toy: it was the first time that I knew him stoop to such sport. After he had been some time in the shop, he sent for me to come out of the coach, and help him to choose a pair of silver buckles, as those he had were too small. Probably this alteration in dress had been suggested by Mrs. Thrale, by associating with whom, his external appearance was much improved. He got better cloaths; and the dark colour, from which he never deviated, was enlivened by metal buttons. His wigs, too, were much better; and during their travels in France, he was furnished with a Paris-made wig, of handsome construction. This choosing of silver buckles was a negociation: ‘Sir, (said he,) I will not have the ridiculous large ones now in fashion; and I will give no more than a guinea for a pair.’ Such were the PRINCIPLES of the business; and, after some examination, he was fitted. As we drove along, I found him in a talking humour, of which I availed myself. BOSWELL. ‘I was this morning in Ridley’s shop, Sir; and was told, that the collection called Johnsoniana has sold very much.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yet the Journey to the Hebrides has not had a great sale.’ BOSWELL. ‘That is strange.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; for in that book I have told the world a great deal that they did not know before.’
BOSWELL. ‘I drank chocolate, Sir, this morning with Mr. Eld; and, to my no small surprize, found him to be a Staffordshire Whig, a being which I did not believe had existed.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there are rascals in all countries.’ BOSWELL. ‘Eld said, a Tory was a creature generated between a non-juring parson and one’s grandmother.’ JOHNSON. ‘And I have always said, the first Whig was the Devil.’ BOSWELL. ‘He certainly was, Sir. The Devil was impatient of subordination; he was the first who resisted power:—
“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”’
At General Paoli’s were Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Langton, Marchese Gherardi of Lombardy, and Mr. John Spottiswoode the younger, of Spottiswoode, the solicitor.
We talked of drinking wine. JOHNSON. ‘I require wine only when I am alone. I have then often wished for it, and often taken it.’ SPOTTISWOODE. ‘What, by way of a companion, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘To get rid of myself, to send myself away. Wine gives great pleasure; and every pleasure is of itself a good. It is a good, unless counterbalanced by evil. A man may have a strong reason not to drink wine; and that may be greater than the pleasure. Wine makes a man better pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others. Sometimes it does. But the danger is, that while a man grows better pleased with himself, he may be growing less pleasing to others. Wine gives a man nothing. It neither gives him knowledge nor wit; it only animates a man, and enables him to bring out what a dread of the company had repressed. It only puts in motion what has been locked up in frost. But this may be good, or it may be bad.’ SPOTTISWOODE. ‘So, Sir, wine is a key which opens a box; but this box may be either full or empty.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, conversation is the key: wine is a pick-lock, which forces open the box and injures it. A man should cultivate his mind so as to have that confidence and readiness without wine, which wine gives.’ BOSWELL. ‘The great difficulty of resisting wine is from benevolence. For instance, a good worthy man asks you to taste his wine, which he has had twenty years in his cellar.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, all this notion about benevolence arises from a man’s imagining himself to be of more importance to others, than he really is. They don’t care a farthing whether he drinks wine or not.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. ‘Yes, they do for the time.’ JOHNSON. ‘For the time! — If they care this minute, they forget it the next. And as for the good worthy man; how do you know he is good and worthy? No good and worthy man will insist upon another man’s drinking wine. As to the wine twenty years in the cellar — of ten men, three say this, merely because they must say something; — three are telling a lie, when they say they have had the wine twenty years; — three would rather save the wine; — one, perhaps, cares. I allow it is something to please one’s company: and people are always pleased with those who partake pleasure with them. But after a man has brought himself to relinquish the great personal pleasure which arises from drinking wine, any other consideration is a trifle. To please others by drinking wine, is something only, if there be nothing against it. I should, however, be sorry to offend worthy men:—
“Curst be the verse, how well so e’er it flow,
That tends to make one worthy man my foe.”’
BOSWELL. ‘Curst be the SPRING, the WATER.’ JOHNSON. ‘But let us consider what a sad thing it would be, if we were obliged to drink or do any thing else that may happen to be agreeable to the company where we are.’ LANGTON. ‘By the same rule you must join with a gang of cut-purses.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir: but yet we must do justice to wine; we must allow it the power it possesses. To make a man pleased with himself, let me tell you, is doing a very great thing;
“Si patriae volumus, si Nobis vivere cari.”’
I was at this time myself a water-drinker, upon trial, by Johnson’s recommendation. JOHNSON. ‘Boswell is a bolder combatant than Sir Joshua: he argues for wine without the help of wine; but Sir Joshua with it.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. ‘But to please one’s company is a strong motive.’ JOHNSON. (who, from drinking only water, supposed every body who drank wine to be elevated,) ‘I won’t argue any more with you, Sir. You are too far gone.’ SIR JOSHUA. ‘I should have thought so indeed, Sir, had I made such a speech as you have now done.’ JOHNSON. (drawing himself in, and, I really thought blushing,) ‘Nay, don’t be angry. I did not mean to offend you.’ SIR JOSHUA. ‘At first the taste of wine was disagreeable to me; but I brought myself to drink it, that I might be like other people. The pleasure of drinking wine is so connected with pleasing your company, that altogether there is something of social goodness in it.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, this is only saying the same thing over again.’ SIR JOSHUA. ‘No, this is new.’ JOHNSON. ‘You put it in new words, but it is an old thought. This is one of the disadvantages of wine. It makes a man mistake words for thoughts.’ BOSWELL. ‘I think it is a new thought; at least, it is in a new ATTITUDE.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, it is only in a new coat; or an old coat with a new facing. (Then laughing heartily,) It is the old dog in a new doublet. — An extraordinary instance however may occur where a man’s patron will do nothing for him, unless he will drink: THERE may be a good reason for drinking.’
I mentioned a nobleman, who I believed was really uneasy if his company would not drink hard. JOHNSON. ‘That is from having had people about him whom he has been accustomed to command.’ BOSWELL. ‘Supposing I should be tete-a-tete with him at table.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there is no more reason for your drinking with HIM, than his being sober with YOU.’ BOSWELL. ‘Why, that is true; for it would do him less hurt to be sober, than it would do me to get drunk.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; and from what I have heard of him, one would not wish to sacrifice himself to such a man. If he must always have somebody to drink with him, he should buy a slave, and then he would be sure to have it. They who submit to drink as another pleases, make themselves his slaves.’ Boswell. ‘But, Sir, you will surely make allowance for the duty of hospitality. A gentleman who loves drinking, comes to visit me.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, a man knows whom he visits; he comes to the table of a sober man.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, you and I should not have been so well received in the Highlands and Hebrides, if I had not drunk with our worthy friends. Had I drunk water only as you did, they would not have been so cordial.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir William Temple mentions that in his travels through the Netherlands he had two or three gentlemen with him; and when a bumper was necessary, he put it on THEM. Were I to travel again through the islands, I would have Sir Joshua with me to take the bumpers.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, let me put a case. Suppose Sir Joshua should take a jaunt into Scotland; he does me the honour to pay me a visit at my house in the country; I am overjoyed at seeing him; we are quite by ourselves, shall I unsociably and churlishly let him sit drinking by himself? No, no, my dear Sir Joshua, you shall not be treated so, I WILL take a bottle with you.’
On Wednesday, April 29, I dined with him at Mr. Allan Ramsay’s, where were Lord Binning, Dr. Robertson the historian, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the Honourable Mrs. Boscawen, widow of the Admiral, and mother of the present Viscount Falmouth; of whom, if it be not presumptuous in me to praise her, I would say, that her manners are the most agreeable, and her conversation the best, of any lady with whom I ever had the happiness to be acquainted. Before Johnson came we talked a good deal of him; Ramsay said he had always found him a very polite man, and that he treated him with great respect, which he did very sincerely. I said I worshipped him. ROBERTSON. ‘But some of you spoil him; you should not worship him; you should worship no man.’ BOSWELL. ‘I cannot help worshipping him, he is so much superiour to other men.’ ROBERTSON. In criticism, and in wit in conversation, he is no doubt very excellent; but in other respects he is not above other men; he will believe any thing, and will strenuously defend the most minute circumstance connected with the Church of England.’ BOSWELL. ‘Believe me, Doctor, you are much mistaken as to this; for when you talk with him calmly in private, he is very liberal in his way of thinking.’ ROBERTSON. ‘He and I have been always very gracious; the first time I met him was one evening at Strahan’s, when he had just had an unlucky altercation with Adam Smith, to whom he had been so rough, that Strahan, after Smith was gone, had remonstrated with him, and told him that I was coming soon, and that he was uneasy to think that he might behave in the same manner to me. “No, no, Sir, (said Johnson,) I warrant you Robertson and I shall do very well.” Accordingly he was gentle and good-humoured, and courteous with me the whole evening; and he has been so upon every occasion that we have met since. I have often said (laughing,) that I have been in a great measure indebted to Smith for my good reception.’ BOSWELL. ‘His power of reasoning is very strong, and he has a peculiar art of drawing characters, which is as rare as good portrait painting.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. ‘He is undoubtedly admirable in this; but, in order to mark the characters which he draws, he overcharges them, and gives people more than they really have, whether of good or bad.’
No sooner did he, of whom we had been thus talking so easily, arrive, than we were all as quiet as a school upon the entrance of the head-master; and were very soon set down to a table covered with such variety of good things, as contributed not a little to dispose him to be pleased.
RAMSAY. ‘I am old enough to have been a contemporary of Pope. His poetry was highly admired in his life-time, more a great deal than after his death.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it has not been less admired since his death; no authours ever had so much fame in their own life-time as Pope and Voltaire; and Pope’s poetry has been as much admired since his death as during his life; it has only not been as much talked of, but that is owing to its being now more distant, and people having other writings to talk of. Virgil is less talked of than Pope, and Homer is less talked of than Virgil; but they are not less admired. We must read what the world reads at the moment. It has been maintained that this superfoetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients. Greece appears to me to be the fountain of knowledge; Rome of elegance.’ RAMSAY. ‘I suppose Homer’s Iliad to be a collection of pieces which had been written before his time. I should like to see a translation of it in poetical prose like the book of Ruth or Job.’ ROBERTSON. ‘Would you, Dr. Johnson, who are master of the English language, but try your hand upon a part of it.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you could not read it without the pleasure of verse.
Dr. Robertson expatiated on the character of a certain nobleman; that he was one of the strongest-minded men that ever lived; that he would sit in company quite sluggish, while there was nothing to call forth his intellectual vigour; but the moment that any important subject was started, for instance, how this country is to be defended against a French invasion, he would rouse himself, and shew his extraordinary talents with the most powerful ability and animation. JOHNSON. ‘Yet this man cut his own throat. The true strong and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great things and small. Now I am told the King of Prussia will say to a servant, “Bring me a bottle of such a wine, which came in such a year; it lies in such a corner of the cellars.” I would have a man great in great things, and elegant in little things.’ He said to me afterwards, when we were by ourselves, ‘Robertson was in a mighty romantick humour, he talked of one whom he did not know; but I DOWNED him with the King of Prussia.’ ‘Yes, Sir, (said I,) you threw a BOTTLE at his head.’
An ingenious gentleman was mentioned, concerning whom both Robertson and Ramsay agreed that he had a constant firmness of mind; for after a laborious day, and amidst a multiplicity of cares and anxieties, he would sit down with his sisters and he quite cheerful and good-humoured. Such a disposition, it was observed, was a happy gift of nature. JOHNSON. ‘I do not think so; a man has from nature a certain portion of mind; the use he makes of it depends upon his own free will. That a man has always the same firmness of mind I do not say; because every man feels his mind less firm at one time than another; but I think a man’s being in a good or bad humour depends upon his will.’ I, however, could not help thinking that a man’s humour is often uncontroulable by his will.
Next day, Thursday, April 30, I found him at home by himself. JOHNSON. ‘Well, Sir, Ramsay gave us a splendid dinner. I love Ramsay. You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance, than in Ramsay’s.’ BOSWELL. ‘What I admire in Ramsay, is his continuing to be so young.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir, it is to be admired. I value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation. I am now sixty-eight, and I have no more of it than at twenty-eight.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, would not you wish to know old age? He who is never an old man, does not know the whole of human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, what talk is this?’ BOSWELL. ‘I mean, Sir, the Sphinx’s description of it; — morning, noon, and night. I would know night, as well as morning and noon.’ JOHNSON. ‘What, Sir, would you know what it is to feel the evils of old age? Would you have the gout? Would you have decrepitude?’— Seeing him heated, I would not argue any farther; but I was confident that I was in the right. I would, in due time, be a Nestor, an elder of the people; and there SHOULD be some difference between the conversation of twenty-eight and sixty-eight. A grave picture should not be gay. There is a serene, solemn, placid old age. JOHNSON. ‘Mrs. Thrale’s mother said of me what flattered me much. A clergyman was complaining of want of society in the country where he lived; and said, “They talk of RUNTS;” (that is, young cows). “Sir, (said Mrs. Salusbury,) Mr. Johnson would learn to talk of runts:” meaning that I was a man who would make the most of my situation, whatever it was.’ He added, ‘I think myself a very polite man.’
On Saturday, May 2, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, where there was a very large company, and a great deal of conversation; but owing to some circumstance which I cannot now recollect, I have no record of any part of it, except that there were several people there by no means of the Johnsonian school; so that less attention was paid to him than usual, which put him out of humour; and upon some imaginary offence from me, he attacked me with such rudeness, that I was vexed and angry, because it gave those persons an opportunity of enlarging upon his supposed ferocity, and ill treatment of his best friends. I was so much hurt, and had my pride so much roused, that I kept away from him for a week; and, perhaps, might have kept away much longer, nay, gone to Scotland without seeing him again, had not we fortunately met and been reconciled. To such unhappy chances are human friendships liable.
On Friday, May 8, I dined with him at Mr. Langton’s. I was reserved and silent, which I suppose he perceived, and might recollect the cause. After dinner when Mr. Langton was called out of the room, and we were by ourselves, he drew his chair near to mine, and said, in a tone of conciliating courtesy, ‘Well, how have you done?’ Boswell. ‘Sir, you have made me very uneasy by your behaviour to me when we were last at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s. You know, my dear Sir, no man has a greater respect and affection for you, or would sooner go to the end of the world to serve you. Now to treat me so —.’ He insisted that I had interrupted him, which I assured him was not the case; and proceeded —‘But why treat me so before people who neither love you nor me?’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, I am sorry for it. I’ll make it up to you twenty different ways, as you please.’ BOSWELL. ‘I said to-day to Sir Joshua, when he observed that you TOSSED me sometimes — I don’t care how often, or how high he tosses me, when only friends are present, for then I fall upon soft ground: but I do not like falling on stones, which is the case when enemies are present. — I think this a pretty good image, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is one of the happiest I have ever heard.’
The truth is, there was no venom in the wounds which he inflicted at any time, unless they were irritated by some malignant infusion by other hands. We were instantly as cordial again as ever, and joined in hearty laugh at some ludicrous but innocent peculiarities of one of our friends. BOSWELL. ‘Do you think, Sir, it is always culpable to laugh at a man to his face?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that depends upon the man and the thing. If it is a slight man, and a slight thing, you may; for you take nothing valuable from him.’
When Mr. Langton returned to us, the ‘flow of talk’ went on. An eminent authour being mentioned; — JOHNSON. ‘He is not a pleasant man. His conversation is neither instructive nor brilliant. He does not talk as if impelled by any fulness of knowledge or vivacity of imagination. His conversation is like that of any other sensible man. He talks with no wish either to inform or to hear, but only because he thinks it does not become —————— to sit in a company and say nothing.’
Mr. Langton having repeated the anecdote of Addison having distinguished between his powers in conversation and in writing, by saying ‘I have only nine-pence in my pocket; but I can draw for a thousand pounds;’— JOHNSON. ‘He had not that retort ready, Sir; he had prepared it before-hand.’ LANGTON. (turning to me,) ‘A fine surmise. Set a thief to catch a thief.’
JOHNSON. ‘I shall be at home to-morrow.’ BOSWELL. ‘Then let us dine by ourselves at the Mitre, to keep up the old custom, “the custom of the manor,” the custom of the mitre.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, so it shall be.’
On Saturday, May 9, we fulfilled our purpose of dining by ourselves at the Mitre, according to old custom. There was, on these occasions, a little circumstance of kind attention to Mrs. Williams, which must not be omitted. Before coming out, and leaving her to dine alone, he gave her her choice of a chicken, a sweetbread, or any other little nice thing, which was carefully sent to her from the tavern, ready-drest.
On Tuesday, May 12, I waited on the Earl of Marchmont, to know if his Lordship would favour Dr. Johnson with information concerning Pope, whose Life he was about to write. Johnson had not flattered himself with the hopes of receiving any civility from this nobleman; for he said to me, when I mentioned Lord Marchmont as one who could tell him a great deal about Pope — ‘Sir, he will tell ME nothing.’ I had the honour of being known to his Lordship, and applied to him of myself, without being commissioned by Johnson. His Lordship behaved in the most polite and obliging manner, promised to tell all he recollected about Pope, and was so very courteous as to say, ‘Tell Dr. Johnson I have a great respect for him, and am ready to shew it in any way I can. I am to be in the city to-morrow, and will call at his house as I return.’ His Lordship however asked, ‘Will he write the Lives of the Poets impartially? He was the first that brought Whig and Tory into a Dictionary. And what do you think of his definition of Excise? Do you know the history of his aversion to the word transpire?’ Then taking down the folio Dictionary, he shewed it with this censure on its secondary sense: ‘“To escape from secrecy to notice; a sense lately innovated from France, without necessity.” The truth was Lord Bolingbroke, who left the Jacobites, first used it; therefore, it was to be condemned. He should have shewn what word would do for it, if it was unnecessary.’ I afterwards put the question to Johnson: ‘Why, Sir, (said he,) GET ABROAD.’ BOSWELL. ‘That, Sir, is using two words.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, there is no end of this. You may as well insist to have a word for old age.’ BOSWELL. ‘Well, Sir, Senectus.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, to insist always that there should be one word to express a thing in English, because there is one in another language, is to change the language.’
I proposed to Lord Marchmont that he should revise Johnson’s Life of Pope: ‘So (said his Lordship,) you would put me in a dangerous situation. You know he knocked down Osborne the bookseller.’
Elated with the success of my spontaneous exertion to procure material and respectable aid to Johnson for his very favourite work, The Lives of the Poets, I hastened down to Mr. Thrale’s at Streatham, where he now was, that I might insure his being at home next day; and after dinner, when I thought he would receive the good news in the best humour, I announced it eagerly: ‘I have been at work for you to-day, Sir. I have been with Lord Marchmont. He bade me tell you he has a great respect for you, and will call on you to-morrow at one o’clock, and communicate all he knows about Pope.’— Here I paused, in full expectation that he would be pleased with this intelligence, would praise my active merit, and would be alert to embrace such an offer from a nobleman. But whether I had shewn an over-exultation, which provoked his spleen; or whether he was seized with a suspicion that I had obtruded him on Lord Marchmont, and humbled him too much; or whether there was any thing more than an unlucky fit of ill-humour, I know not; but, to my surprize, the result was — JOHNSON. ‘I shall not be in town to-morrow. I don’t care to know about Pope.’ MRS. THRALE. (surprized as I was, and a little angry,) ‘I suppose, Sir, Mr. Boswell thought, that as you are to write Pope’s Life, you would wish to know about him.’ JOHNSON. ‘Wish! why yes. If it rained knowledge I’d hold out my hand; but I would not give myself the trouble to go in quest of it.’ There was no arguing with him at the moment. Some time afterwards he said, ‘Lord Marchmont will call on me, and then I shall call on Lord Marchmont.’ Mr. Thrale was uneasy at his unaccountable caprice; and told me, that if I did not take care to bring about a meeting between Lord Marchmont and him, it would never take place, which would be a great pity. I sent a card to his Lordship, to be left at Johnson’s house, acquainting him, that Dr. Johnson could not be in town next day, but would do himself the honour of waiting on him at another time. I give this account fairly, as a specimen of that unhappy temper with which this great and good man had occasionally to struggle, from something morbid in his constitution. Let the most censorious of my readers suppose himself to have a violent fit of the tooth-ach, or to have received a severe stroke on the shin-bone, and when in such a state to be asked a question; and if he has any candour, he will not be surprized at the answers which Johnson sometimes gave in moments of irritation, which, let me assure them, is exquisitely painful. But it must not be erroneously supposed that he was, in the smallest degree, careless concerning any work which he undertook, or that he was generally thus peevish. It will be seen, that in the following year he had a very agreeable interview with Lord Marchmont, at his Lordship’s house; and this very afternoon he soon forgot any fretfulness, and fell into conversation as usual.
JOHNSON. ‘How foolish was it in Pope to give all his friendship to Lords, who thought they honoured him by being with him; and to choose such Lords as Burlington, and Cobham, and Bolingbroke! Bathurst was negative, a pleasing man; and I have heard no ill of Marchmont; and then always saying, “I do not value you for being a Lord;” which was a sure proof that he did. I never say, I do not value Boswell more for being born to an estate, because I do not care.’ BOSWELL. ‘Nor for being a Scotchman?’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, I do value you more for being a Scotchman. You are a Scotchman without the faults of a Scotchman. You would not have been so valuable as you are, had you not been a Scotchman.’
Amongst the numerous prints pasted on the walls of the dining-room at Streatham, was Hogarth’s ‘Modern Midnight Conversation.’ I asked him what he knew of Parson Ford, who makes a conspicuous figure in the riotous group. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he was my acquaintance and relation, my mother’s nephew. He had purchased a living in the country, but not simoniacally. I never saw him but in the country. I have been told he was a man of great parts; very profligate, but I never heard he was impious.’ BOSWELL. ‘Was there not a story of his ghost having appeared?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it was believed. A waiter at the Hummums, in which house Ford died, had been absent for some time, and returned, not knowing that Ford was dead. Going down to the cellar, according to the story, he met him; going down again he met him a second time. When he came up, he asked some of the people of the house what Ford could be doing there. They told him Ford was dead. The waiter took a fever, in which he lay for some time. When he recovered, he said he had a message to deliver to some women from Ford; but he was not to tell what, or to whom. He walked out; he was followed; but somewhere about St. Paul’s they lost him. He came back, and said he had delivered the message, and the women exclaimed, “Then we are all undone!” Dr. Pellet, who was not a credulous man, inquired into the truth of this story, and he said, the evidence was irresistible. My wife went to the Hummums; (it is a place where people get themselves cupped.) I believe she went with intention to hear about this story of Ford. At first they were unwilling to tell her; but, after they had talked to her, she came away satisfied that it was true. To be sure the man had a fever; and this vision may have been the beginning of it. But if the message to the women, and their behaviour upon it, were true as related, there was something supernatural. That rests upon his word; and there it remains.’
I staid all this day47 with him at Streatham. He talked a great deal, in very good humour.
47 Wednesday, May 13. — ED.
Looking at Messrs. Dilly’s splendid edition of Lord Chesterfield’s miscellaneous works, he laughed, and said, ‘Here now are two speeches ascribed to him, both of which were written by me: and the best of it is, they have found out that one is like Demosthenes, and the other like Cicero.’
BOSWELL. ‘Is not modesty natural?’ JOHNSON. ‘I cannot say, Sir, as we find no people quite in a state of nature; but I think the more they are taught, the more modest they are. The French are a gross, ill-bred, untaught people; a lady there will spit on the floor and rub it with her foot. What I gained by being in France was, learning to be better satisfied with my own country. Time may be employed to more advantage from nineteen to twenty-four almost in any way than in travelling; when you set travelling against mere negation, against doing nothing, it is better to be sure; but how much more would a young man improve were he to study during those years. Indeed, if a young man is wild, and must run after women and bad company, it is better this should be done abroad, as, on his return, he can break off such connections, and begin at home a new man, with a character to form, and acquaintances to make. How little does travelling supply to the conversation of any man who has travelled; how little to Beauclerk!’ BOSWELL. ‘What say you to Lord ———?’ JOHNSON. ‘I never but once heard him talk of what he had seen, and that was of a large serpent in one of the Pyramids of Egypt.’ BOSWELL. ‘Well, I happened to hear him tell the same thing, which made me mention him.’
I talked of a country life. JOHNSON. ‘Were I to live in the country, I would not devote myself to the acquisition of popularity; I would live in a much better way, much more happily; I would have my time at my own command.’ BOSWELL. ‘But, Sir, is it not a sad thing to be at a distance from all our literary friends?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you will by and by have enough of this conversation, which now delights you so much.’
As he was a zealous friend of subordination, he was at all times watchful to repress the vulgar cant against the manners of the great; ‘High people, Sir, (said he,) are the best; take a hundred ladies of quality, you’ll find them better wives, better mothers, more willing to sacrifice their own pleasure to their children than a hundred other women. Tradeswomen (I mean the wives of tradesmen) in the city, who are worth from ten to fifteen thousand pounds, are the worst creatures upon the earth, grossly ignorant, and thinking viciousness fashionable. Farmers, I think, are often worthless fellows. Few lords will cheat; and, if they do, they’ll be ashamed of it: farmers cheat and are not ashamed of it: they have all the sensual vices too of the nobility, with cheating into the bargain. There is as much fornication and adultery among farmers as amongst noblemen.’ BOSWELL. ‘The notion of the world, Sir, however is, that the morals of women of quality are worse than those in lower stations.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, the licentiousness of one woman of quality makes more noise than that of a number of women in lower stations; then, Sir, you are to consider the malignity of women in the city against women of quality, which will make them believe any thing of them, such as that they call their coachmen to bed. No, Sir, so far as I have observed, the higher in rank, the richer ladies are, they are the better instructed and the more virtuous.’
On Tuesday, May 19, I was to set out for Scotland in the evening. He was engaged to dine with me at Mr. Dilly’s, I waited upon him to remind him of his appointment and attend him thither; he gave me some salutary counsel, and recommended vigorous resolution against any deviation from moral duty. BOSWELL. ‘But you would not have me to bind myself by a solemn obligation?’ JOHNSON. (much agitated,) ‘What! a vow — O, no, Sir, a vow is a horrible thing, it is a snare for sin. The man who cannot go to Heaven without a vow — may go —’ Here, standing erect, in the middle of his library, and rolling grand, his pause was truly a curious compound of the solemn and the ludicrous; he half-whistled in his usual way, when pleasant, and he paused, as if checked by religious awe. Methought he would have added — to Hell — but was restrained. I humoured the dilemma. ‘What! Sir, (said I,) In caelum jusseris ibit?’ alluding to his imitation of it —
‘And bid him go to Hell, to Hell he goes.’
We had a quiet comfortable meeting at Mr. Dilly’s; nobody there but ourselves. My illustrious friend and I parted with assurances of affectionate regard.
Mr. Langton has been pleased, at my request, to favour me with some particulars of Dr. Johnson’s visit to Warley-camp, where this gentleman was at the time stationed as a Captain in the Lincolnshire militia. I shall give them in his own words in a letter to me.
‘It was in the summer of the year 1778, that he complied with my invitation to come down to the Camp at Warley, and he staid with me about a week; the scene appeared, notwithstanding a great degree of ill health that he seemed to labour under, to interest and amuse him, as agreeing with the disposition that I believe you know he constantly manifested towards enquiring into subjects of the military kind. He sate, with a patient degree of attention, to observe the proceedings of a regimental court-martial, that happened to be called, in the time of his stay with us; and one night, as late as at eleven o’clock, he accompanied the Major of the regiment in going what are styled the Rounds, where he might observe the forms of visiting the guards, for the seeing that they and their sentries are ready in their duty on their several posts. He took occasion to converse at times on military topicks, one in particular, that I see the mention of, in your Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which lies open before me, as to gun-powder; which he spoke of to the same effect, in part, that you relate.
‘On one occasion, when the regiment were going through their exercise, he went quite close to the men at one of the extremities of it, and watched all their practices attentively; and, when he came away, his remark was, “The men indeed do load their muskets and fire with wonderful celerity.” He was likewise particular in requiring to know what was the weight of the musquet balls in use, and within what distance they might be expected to take effect when fired off.
‘In walking among the tents, and observing the difference between those of the officers and private men, he said that the superiority of accommodation of the better conditions of life, to that of the inferiour ones, was never exhibited to him in so distinct a view. The civilities paid to him in the camp were, from the gentlemen of the Lincolnshire regiment, one of the officers of which accommodated him with a tent in which he slept; and from General Hall, who very courteously invited him to dine with him, where he appeared to be very well pleased with his entertainment, and the civilities he received on the part of the General; the attention likewise, of the General’s aide-de-camp, Captain Smith, seemed to be very welcome to him, as appeared by their engaging in a great deal of discourse together.’
We surely cannot but admire the benevolent exertions of this great and good man, especially when we consider how grievously he was afflicted with bad health, and how uncomfortable his home was made by the perpetual jarring of those whom he charitably accommodated under his roof. He has sometimes suffered me to talk jocularly of his group of females, and call them his Seraglio. He thus mentions them, together with honest Levett, in one of his letters to Mrs. Thrale: ‘Williams hates every body; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll48 loves none of them.’49
48 Miss Carmichael.
49 A year later he wrote: At Bolt-court there is much malignity, but of late little hostility.’— ED.
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