In 1783, he was more severely afflicted than ever, as will appear in the course of his correspondence; but still the same ardour for literature, the same constant piety, the same kindness for his friends, and the same vivacity both in conversation and writing, distinguished him.
On Friday, March 21, having arrived in London the night before, I was glad to find him at Mrs. Thrale’s house, in Argyll-street, appearances of friendship between them being still kept up. I was shewn into his room, and after the first salutation he said, ‘I am glad you are come. I am very ill.’ He looked pale, and was distressed with a difficulty of breathing; but after the common inquiries he assumed his usual strong animated style of conversation. Seeing me now for the first time as a Laird, or proprietor of land, he began thus: ‘Sir, the superiority of a country-gentleman over the people upon his estate is very agreeable; and he who says he does not feel it to be agreeable, lies; for it must be agreeable to have a casual superiority over those who are by nature equal with us.’ BOSWELL. ‘Yet, Sir, we see great proprietors of land who prefer living in London.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, the pleasure of living in London, the intellectual superiority that is enjoyed there, may counterbalance the other. Besides, Sir, a man may prefer the state of the country-gentleman upon the whole, and yet there may never be a moment when he is willing to make the change to quit London for it.’
He talked with regret and indignation of the factious opposition to Government at this time, and imputed it in a great measure to the Revolution. ‘Sir, (said he, in a low voice, having come nearer to me, while his old prejudices seemed to be fermenting in his mind,) this Hanoverian family is isolee here. They have no friends. Now the Stuarts had friends who stuck by them so late as 1745. When the right of the King is not reverenced, there will not be reverence for those appointed by the King.’
He repeated to me his verses on Mr. Levett, with an emotion which gave them full effect; and then he was pleased to say, ‘You must be as much with me as you can. You have done me good. You cannot think how much better I am since you came in.
He sent a message to acquaint Mrs. Thrale that I was arrived. I had not seen her since her husband’s death. She soon appeared, and favoured me with an invitation to stay to dinner, which I accepted. There was no other company but herself and three of her daughters, Dr. Johnson, and I. She too said, she was very glad I was come, for she was going to Bath, and should have been sorry to leave Dr. Johnson before I came. This seemed to be attentive and kind; and I who had not been informed of any change, imagined all to be as well as formerly. He was little inclined to talk at dinner, and went to sleep after it; but when he joined us in the drawing-room, he seemed revived, and was again himself.
Talking of conversation, he said, ‘There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials; in the second place, there must be a command of words; in the third place, there must be imagination, to place things in such views as they are not commonly seen in; and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and a resolution that is not to be overcome by failures: this last is an essential requisite; for want of it many people do not excel in conversation. Now I want it: I throw up the game upon losing a trick.’ I wondered to hear him talk thus of himself, and said, ‘I don’t know, Sir, how this may be; but I am sure you beat other people’s cards out of their hands.’ I doubt whether he heard this remark. While he went on talking triumphantly, I was fixed in admiration, and said to Mrs. Thrale, ‘O, for short-hand to take this down!’ ‘You’ll carry it all in your head, (said she;) a long head is as good as short-hand.’
It has been observed and wondered at, that Mr. Charles Fox never talked with any freedom in the presence of Dr. Johnson, though it is well known, and I myself can witness, that his conversation is various, fluent, and exceedingly agreeable. Johnson’s own experience, however, of that gentleman’s reserve was a sufficient reason for his going on thus: ‘Fox never talks in private company; not from any determination not to talk, but because he has not the first motion. A man who is used to the applause of the House of Commons, has no wish for that of a private company. A man accustomed to throw for a thousand pounds, if set down to throw for sixpence, would not be at the pains to count his dice. Burke’s talk is the ebullition of his mind; he does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full.’
After musing for some time, he said, ‘I wonder how I should have any enemies; for I do harm to nobody.’ BOSWELL. ‘In the first place, Sir, you will be pleased to recollect, that you set out with attacking the Scotch; so you got a whole nation for your enemies.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, I own, that by my definition of OATS I meant to vex them.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, can you trace the cause of your antipathy to the Scotch?’ JOHNSON. ‘I cannot, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘Old Mr. Sheridan says, it was because they sold Charles the First.’ JOHNSON. ‘Then, Sir, old Mr. Sheridan has found out a very good reason.’
I had paid a visit to General Oglethorpe in the morning,54 and was told by him that Dr. Johnson saw company on Saturday evenings, and he would meet me at Johnson’s that night. When I mentioned this to Johnson, not doubting that it would please him, as he had a great value for Oglethorpe, the fretfulness of his disease unexpectedly shewed itself; his anger suddenly kindled, and he said, with vehemence, ‘Did not you tell him not to come? Am I to be HUNTED in this manner?’ I satisfied him that I could not divine that the visit would not be convenient, and that I certainly could not take it upon me of my own accord to forbid the General.
54 March 22. — Ed.
I found Dr. Johnson in the evening in Mrs. Williams’s room, at tea and coffee with her and Mrs. Desmoulins, who were also both ill; it was a sad scene, and he was not in very good humour. He said of a performance that had lately come out, ‘Sir, if you should search all the madhouses in England, you would not find ten men who would write so, and think it sense.’
I was glad when General Oglethorpe’s arrival was announced, and we left the ladies. Dr. Johnson attended him in the parlour, and was as courteous as ever.
On Sunday, March 23, I breakfasted with Dr. Johnson, who seemed much relieved, having taken opium the night before. He however protested against it, as a remedy that should be given with the utmost reluctance, and only in extreme necessity. I mentioned how commonly it was used in Turkey, and that therefore it could not be so pernicious as he apprehended. He grew warm and said, ‘Turks take opium, and Christians take opium; but Russel, in his Account of Aleppo, tells us, that it is as disgraceful in Turkey to take too much opium, as it is with us to get drunk. Sir, it is amazing how things are exaggerated. A gentleman was lately telling in a company where I was present, that in France as soon as a man of fashion marries, he takes an opera girl into keeping; and this he mentioned as a general custom. “Pray, Sir, (said I,) how many opera girls may there be?” He answered, “About fourscore.” “Well then, Sir, (said I,) you see there can be no more than fourscore men of fashion who can do this.”’
Mrs. Desmoulins made tea; and she and I talked before him upon a topick which he had once borne patiently from me when we were by ourselves — his not complaining of the world, because he was not called to some great office, nor had attained to great wealth. He flew into a violent passion, I confess with some justice, and commanded us to have done. ‘Nobody, (said he,) has a right to talk in this manner, to bring before a man his own character, and the events of his life, when he does not choose it should be done. I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me. It is rather wonderful that so much has been done for me. All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust. I never knew a man of merit neglected: it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success. A man may hide his head in a hole: he may go into the country, and publish a book now and then, which nobody reads, and then complain he is neglected. There is no reason why any person should exert himself for a man who has written a good book: he has not written it for any individual. I may as well make a present to the postman who brings me a letter. When patronage was limited, an authour expected to find a Maecenas, and complained if he did not find one. Why should he complain? This Maecenas has others as good as he, or others who have got the start of him.’
On the subject of the right employment of wealth, Johnson observed, ‘A man cannot make a bad use of his money, so far as regards Society, if he does not hoard it; for if he either spends it or lends it out, Society has the benefit. It is in general better to spend money than to give it away; for industry is more promoted by spending money than by giving it away. A man who spends his money is sure he is doing good with it: he is not so sure when he gives it away. A man who spends ten thousand a year will do more good than a man who spends two thousand and gives away eight.’
In the evening I came to him again. He was somewhat fretful from his illness. A gentleman asked him, whether he had been abroad to-day. ‘Don’t talk so childishly, (said he.) You may as well ask if I hanged myself to-day.’ I mentioned politicks. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I’d as soon have a man to break my bones as talk to me of publick affairs, internal or external. I have lived to see things all as bad as they can be.’
He said, ‘Goldsmith’s blundering speech to Lord Shelburne, which has been so often mentioned, and which he really did make to him, was only a blunder in emphasis: “I wonder they should call your Lordship Malagrida, for Malagrida was a very good man;” meant, I wonder they should use Malagrida as a term of reproach.’
Soon after this time I had an opportunity of seeing, by means of one of his friends, a proof that his talents, as well as his obliging service to authours, were ready as ever. He had revised The Village, an admirable poem, by the Reverend Mr. Crabbe. Its sentiments as to the false notions of rustick happiness and rustick virtue were quite congenial with his own; and he had taken the trouble not only to suggest slight corrections and variations, but to furnish some lines, when he thought he could give the writer’s meaning better than in the words of the manuscript.
On Sunday, March 30, I found him at home in the evening, and had the pleasure to meet with Dr. Brocklesby, whose reading, and knowledge of life, and good spirits, supply him with a never-failing source of conversation.
I shall here insert a few of Johnson’s sayings, without the formality of dates, as they have no reference to any particular time or place.
‘The more a man extends and varies his acquaintance the better.’ This, however, was meant with a just restriction; for, he on another occasion said to me, ‘Sir, a man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.’
‘It is a very good custom to keep a journal for a man’s own use; he may write upon a card a day all that is necessary to be written, after he has had experience of life. At first there is a great deal to be written, because there is a great deal of novelty; but when once a man has settled his opinions, there is seldom much to be set down.’
Talking of an acquaintance of ours, whose narratives, which abounded in curious and interesting topicks, were unhappily found to be very fabulous; I mentioned Lord Mansfield’s having said to me, ‘Suppose we believe one HALF of what he tells.’ JOHNSON. ‘Ay; but we don’t know WHICH half to believe. By his lying we lose not only our reverence for him, but all comfort in his conversation.’ BOSWELL. ‘May we not take it as amusing fiction?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, the misfortune is, that you will insensibly believe as much of it as you incline to believe.’
It is remarkable, that notwithstanding their congeniality in politicks, he never was acquainted with a late eminent noble judge, whom I have heard speak of him as a writer, with great respect. Johnson, I know not upon what degree of investigation, entertained no exalted opinion of his Lordship’s intellectual character. Talking of him to me one day, he said, ‘It is wonderful, Sir, with how little real superiority of mind men can make an eminent figure in publick life.’ He expressed himself to the same purpose concerning another law-Lord, who, it seems, once took a fancy to associate with the wits of London; but with so little success, that Foote said, ‘What can he mean by coming among us? He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.’ Trying him by the test of his colloquial powers, Johnson had found him very defective. He once said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘This man now has been ten years about town, and has made nothing of it;’ meaning as a companion. He said to me, ‘I never heard any thing from him in company that was at all striking; and depend upon it, Sir, it is when you come close to a man in conversation, that you discover what his real abilities are; to make a speech in a publick assembly is a knack. Now I honour Thurlow, Sir; Thurlow is a fine fellow; he fairly puts his mind to yours.’
After repeating to him some of his pointed, lively sayings, I said, ‘It is a pity, Sir, you don’t always remember your own good things, that you may have a laugh when you will.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, it is better that I forget them, that I may be reminded of them, and have a laugh on their being brought to my recollection.’
When I recalled to him his having said as we sailed up Loch-lomond, ‘That if he wore any thing fine, it should be VERY fine;’ I observed that all his thoughts were upon a great scale. JOHNSON. ‘Depend upon it, Sir, every man will have as fine a thing as he can get; as a large diamond for his ring.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pardon me, Sir: a man of a narrow mind will not think of it, a slight trinket will satisfy him:
“Nec sufferre queat majoris pondera gemmae.”’
I told him I should send him some Essays which I had written, which I hoped he would be so good as to read, and pick out the good ones. JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, send me only the good ones; don’t make ME pick them.’
As a small proof of his kindliness and delicacy of feeling, the following circumstance may be mentioned: One evening when we were in the street together, and I told him I was going to sup at Mr. Beauclerk’s, he said, ‘I’ll go with you.’ After having walked part of the way, seeming to recollect something, he suddenly stopped and said, ‘I cannot go — but I do not love Beauclerk the less.’
On the frame of his portrait, Mr. Beauclerk had inscribed —
‘———— Ingenium ingens
Inculto latet hoc sub corpore.’
After Mr. Beauclerk’s death, when it became Mr. Langton’s property, he made the inscription be defaced. Johnson said complacently, ‘It was kind in you to take it off;’ and then after a short pause, added, ‘and not unkind in him to put it on.’
He said, ‘How few of his friends’ houses would a man choose to be at when he is sick.’ He mentioned one or two. I recollect only Thrale’s.
He observed, ‘There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects. If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not recollect where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug up their shoulders, and say, “His memory is going.”’
Sir Joshua Reynolds communicated to me the following particulars:—
Johnson thought the poems published as translations from Ossian had so little merit, that he said, ‘Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would ABANDON his mind to it.’
He said, ‘A man should pass a part of his time with THE LAUGHERS, by which means any thing ridiculous or particular about him might be presented to his view, and corrected.’ I observed, he must have been a bold laugher who would have ventured to tell Dr. Johnson of any of his particularities.55
55 I am happy, however, to mention a pleasing instance of his enduring with great gentleness to hear one of his most striking particularities pointed out:— Miss Hunter, a niece of his friend Christopher Smart, when a very young girl, struck by his extraordinary motions, said to him, Pray, Dr. Johnson, why do you make such strange gestures?’ From bad habit, he replied. ‘Do you, my dear, take care to guard against bad habits.’ This I was told by the young lady’s brother at Margate. — Boswell.
Dr. Goldsmith said once to Dr. Johnson, that he wished for some additional members to THE LITERARY CLUB, to give it an agreeable variety; for (said he,) there can now be nothing new among us: we have travelled over one another’s minds. Johnson seemed a little angry, and said, ‘Sir, you have not travelled over MY mind, I promise you.’ Sir Joshua, however, thought Goldsmith right; observing, that ‘when people have lived a great deal together, they know what each of them will say on every subject. A new understanding, therefore, is desirable; because though it may only furnish the same sense upon a question which would have been furnished by those with whom we are accustomed to live, yet this sense will have a different colouring; and colouring is of much effect in every thing else as well as in painting.’
Johnson used to say that he made it a constant rule to talk as well as he could both as to sentiment and expression, by which means, what had been originally effort became familiar and easy. The consequence of this, Sir Joshua observed, was, that his common conversation in all companies was such as to secure him universal attention, as something above the usual colloquial style was expected.
Yet, though Johnson had this habit in company, when another mode was necessary, in order to investigate truth, he could descend to a language intelligible to the meanest capacity. An instance of this was witnessed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, when they were present at an examination of a little blackguard boy, by Mr. Saunders Welch, the late Westminster Justice. Welch, who imagined that he was exalting himself in Dr. Johnson’s eyes by using big words, spoke in a manner that was utterly unintelligible to the boy; Dr. Johnson perceiving it, addressed himself to the boy, and changed the pompous phraseology into colloquial language. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was much amused by this procedure, which seemed a kind of reversing of what might have been expected from the two men, took notice of it to Dr. Johnson, as they walked away by themselves. Johnson said, that it was continually the case; and that he was always obliged to TRANSLATE the Justice’s swelling diction, (smiling,) so as that his meaning might be understood by the vulgar, from whom information was to be obtained.
Sir Joshua once observed to him, that he had talked above the capacity of some people with whom they had been in company together. ‘No matter, Sir, (said Johnson;) they consider it as a compliment to be talked to, as if they were wiser than they are. So true is this, Sir, that Baxter made it a rule in every sermon that he preached, to say something that was above the capacity of his audience.’
Johnson’s dexterity in retort, when he seemed to be driven to an extremity by his adversary, was very remarkable. Of his power in this respect, our common friend, Mr. Windham of Norfolk, has been pleased to furnish me with an eminent instance. However unfavourable to Scotland, he uniformly gave liberal praise to George Buchanan, as a writer. In a conversation concerning the literary merits of the two countries, in which Buchanan was introduced, a Scotchman, imagining that on this ground he should have an undoubted triumph over him, exclaimed, ‘Ah, Dr. Johnson, what would you have said of Buchanan, had he been an Englishman?’ ‘Why, Sir, (said Johnson, after a little pause,) I should NOT have said of Buchanan, had he been an ENGLISHMAN, what I will now say of him as a SCOTCHMAN— that he was the only man of genius his country ever produced.’
Though his usual phrase for conversation was TALK, yet he made a distinction; for when he once told me that he dined the day before at a friend’s house, with ‘a very pretty company;’ and I asked him if there was good conversation, he answered, ‘No, Sir; we had TALK enough, but no CONVERSATION; there was nothing DISCUSSED.’
Such was his sensibility, and so much was he affected by pathetick poetry, that, when he was reading Dr. Beattie’s Hermit in my presence, it brought tears into his eyes.
Mr. Hoole told him, he was born in Moorfields, and had received part of his early instruction in Grub-street. ‘Sir, (said Johnson, smiling,) you have been REGULARLY educated.’ Having asked who was his instructor, and Mr. Hoole having answered, ‘My uncle, Sir, who was a taylor;’ Johnson, recollecting himself, said, ‘Sir, I knew him; we called him the metaphysical taylor. He was of a club in Old-street, with me and George Psalmanazar, and some others: but pray, Sir, was he a good taylor?’ Mr. Hoole having answered that he believed he was too mathematical, and used to draw squares and triangles on his shop-board, so that he did not excel in the cut of a coat; —‘I am sorry for it (said Johnson,) for I would have every man to be master of his own business.’
In pleasant reference to himself and Mr. Hoole, as brother authours, he often said, ‘Let you and I, Sir, go together, and eat a beef-steak in Grub-street.’
He said to Sir William Scott, ‘The age is running mad after innovation; all the business of the world is to be done in a new way; men are to be hanged in a new way; Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation.’ It having been argued that this was an improvement — ‘No, Sir, (said he, eagerly,) it is NOT an improvement: they object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the publick was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?’ I perfectly agree with Dr. Johnson upon this head, and am persuaded that executions now, the solemn procession being discontinued, have not nearly the effect which they formerly had. Magistrates both in London, and elsewhere, have, I am afraid, in this had too much regard to their own case.
Johnson’s attention to precision and clearness in expression was very remarkable. He disapproved of parentheses; and I believe in all his voluminous writings, not half a dozen of them will be found. He never used the phrases the former and the latter, having observed, that they often occasioned obscurity; he therefore contrived to construct his sentences so as not to have occasion for them, and would even rather repeat the same words, in order to avoid them. Nothing is more common than to mistake surnames when we hear them carelessly uttered for the first time. To prevent this, he used not only to pronounce them slowly and distinctly, but to take the trouble of spelling them; a practice which I have often followed; and which I wish were general.
Such was the heat and irritability of his blood, that not only did he pare his nails to the quick; but scraped the joints of his fingers with a pen-knife, till they seemed quite red and raw.
The heterogeneous composition of human nature was remarkably exemplified in Johnson. His liberality in giving his money to persons in distress was extraordinary. Yet there lurked about him a propensity to paultry saving. One day I owned to him that ‘I was occasionally troubled with a fit of NARROWNESS.’ ‘Why, Sir, (said he,) so am I. BUT I DO NOT TELL IT.’ He has now and then borrowed a shilling of me; and when I asked for it again, seemed to be rather out of humour. A droll little circumstance once occurred: as if he meant to reprimand my minute exactness as a creditor, he thus addressed me; —‘Boswell, LEND me sixpence — NOT TO BE REPAID.’
This great man’s attention to small things was very remarkable. As an instance of it, he one day said to me, ‘Sir, when you get silver in change for a guinea, look carefully at it; you may find some curious piece of coin.’
Though a stern TRUE-BORN ENGLISHMAN, and fully prejudiced against all other nations, he had discernment enough to see, and candour enough to censure, the cold reserve too common among Englishmen towards strangers: ‘Sir, (said he,) two men of any other nation who are shewn into a room together, at a house where they are both visitors, will immediately find some conversation. But two Englishmen will probably go each to a different window, and remain in obstinate silence. Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the common rights of humanity.’
Johnson, for sport perhaps, or from the spirit of contradiction, eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer. Mr. Morgann56 argued with him directly, in vain. At length he had recourse to this device. ‘Pray, Sir, (said he,) whether do you reckon Derrick or Smart the best poet?’ Johnson at once felt himself roused; and answered, ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.’
56 Author of the Essay on the Character of Falstaff. — ED.
He was pleased to say to me one morning when we were left alone in his study, ‘Boswell, I think I am easier with you than with almost any body.’
He would not allow Mr. David Hume any credit for his political principles, though similar to his own; saying of him, ‘Sir, he was a Tory by chance.’
His acute observation of human life made him remark, ‘Sir, there is nothing by which a man exasperates most people more, than by displaying a superiour ability or brilliancy in conversation. They seem pleased at the time; but their envy makes them curse him in their hearts.’
Johnson’s love of little children, which he discovered upon all occasions, calling them ‘pretty dears,’ and giving them sweetmeats, was an undoubted proof of the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition.
His uncommon kindness to his servants, and serious concern, not only for their comfort in this world, but their happiness in the next, was another unquestionable evidence of what all, who were intimately acquainted with him, knew to be true.
Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he shewed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’
This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’
On Thursday, April 10, I introduced to him, at his house in Bolt-court, the Honourable and Reverend William Stuart, son of the Earl of Bute; a gentleman truly worthy of being known to Johnson; being, with all the advantages of high birth, learning, travel, and elegant manners, an exemplary parish priest in every respect.
After some compliments on both sides, the tour which Johnson and I had made to the Hebrides was mentioned. JOHNSON. ‘I got an acquisition of more ideas by it than by any thing that I remember. I saw quite a different system of life.’ BOSWELL. ‘You would not like to make the same journey again?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir; not the same: it is a tale told. Gravina, an Italian critick, observes, that every man desires to see that of which he has read; but no man desires to read an account of what he has seen: so much does description fall short of reality. Description only excites curiosity: seeing satisfies it. Other people may go and see the Hebrides.’ BOSWELL. ‘I should wish to go and see some country totally different from what I have been used to; such as Turkey, where religion and every thing else are different.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir; there are two objects of curiosity — the Christian world, and the Mahometan world. All the rest may be considered as barbarous.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, is the Turkish Spy a genuine book?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. Mrs. Manley, in her Life, says that her father wrote the first two volumes: and in another book, Dunton’s Life and Errours, we find that the rest was written by one Sault, at two guineas a sheet, under the direction of Dr. Midgeley.’
About this time he wrote to Mrs. Lucy Porter, mentioning his bad health, and that he intended a visit to Lichfield. ‘It is, (says he,) with no great expectation of amendment that I make every year a journey into the country; but it is pleasant to visit those whose kindness has been often experienced.’
On April 18, (being Good-Friday,) I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross-bun to prevent faintness; we went to St. Clement’s church, as formerly. When we came home from church, he placed himself on one of the stone-seats at his garden-door, and I took the other, and thus in the open air and in a placid frame of mind, he talked away very easily. JOHNSON. ‘Were I a country gentleman, I should not be very hospitable, I should not have crowds in my house.’ BOSWELL. ‘Sir Alexander Dick tells me, that he remembers having a thousand people in a year to dine at his house: that is, reckoning each person as one, each time that he dined there.’ JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is about three a day.’ BOSWELL. ‘How your statement lessens the idea.’ JOHNSON. ‘That, Sir, is the good of counting. It brings every thing to a certainty, which before floated in the mind indefinitely.’
BOSWELL. ‘I wish to have a good walled garden.’ JOHNSON. ‘I don’t think it would be worth the expence to you. We compute in England, a park wall at a thousand pounds a mile; now a garden-wall must cost at least as much. You intend your trees should grow higher than a deer will leap. Now let us see; for a hundred pounds you could only have forty-four square yards, which is very little; for two hundred pounds, you may have eighty-four square yards, which is very well. But when will you get the value of two hundred pounds of walls, in fruit, in your climate? No, Sir, such contention with Nature is not worth while. I would plant an orchard, and have plenty of such fruit as ripen well in your country. My friend, Dr. Madden, of Ireland, said, that “in an orchard there should be enough to eat, enough to lay up, enough to be stolen, and enough to rot upon the ground.” Cherries are an early fruit, you may have them; and you may have the early apples and pears.’ BOSWELL. ‘We cannot have nonpareils.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you can no more have nonpareils than you can have grapes.’ BOSWELL. ‘We have them, Sir; but they are very bad.’ JOHNSON. ‘Nay, Sir, never try to have a thing merely to shew that you CANNOT have it. From ground that would let for forty shillings you may have a large orchard; and you see it costs you only forty shillings. Nay, you may graze the ground when the trees are grown up; you cannot while they are young.’ BOSWELL. ‘Is not a good garden a very common thing in England, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Not so common, Sir, as you imagine. In Lincolnshire there is hardly an orchard; in Staffordshire very little fruit.’ BOSWELL. ‘Has Langton no orchard?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘How so, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, from the general negligence of the county. He has it not, because nobody else has it.’ BOSWELL. ‘A hot-house is a certain thing; I may have that.’ JOHNSON. ‘A hot-house is pretty certain; but you must first build it, then you must keep fires in it, and you must have a gardener to take care of it.’ BOSWELL. ‘But if I have a gardener at any rate? —’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes.’ BOSWELL. ‘I’d have it near my house; there is no need to have it in the orchard.’ JOHNSON. ‘Yes, I’d have it near my house. I would plant a great many currants; the fruit is good, and they make a pretty sweetmeat.’
I record this minute detail, which some may think trifling, in order to shew clearly how this great man, whose mind could grasp such large and extensive subjects, as he has shewn in his literary labours, was yet well-informed in the common affairs of life, and loved to illustrate them.
Talking of the origin of language; JOHNSON. ‘It must have come by inspiration. A thousand, nay, a million of children could not invent a language. While the organs are pliable, there is not understanding enough to form a language; by the time that there is understanding enough, the organs are become stiff. We know that after a certain age we cannot learn to pronounce a new language. No foreigner, who comes to England when advanced in life, ever pronounces English tolerably well; at least such instances are very rare. When I maintain that language must have come by inspiration, I do not mean that inspiration is required for rhetorick, and all the beauties of language; for when once man has language, we can conceive that he may gradually form modifications of it. I mean only that inspiration seems to me to be necessary to give man the faculty of speech; to inform him that he may have speech; which I think he could no more find out without inspiration, than cows or hogs would think of such a faculty.’ WALKER. ‘Do you think, Sir, that there are any perfect synonimes in any language?’ JOHNSON. ‘Originally there were not; but by using words negligently, or in poetry, one word comes to be confounded with another.’
He talked of Dr. Dodd. ‘A friend of mine, (said he,) came to me and told me, that a lady wished to have Dr. Dodd’s picture in a bracelet, and asked me for a motto. I said, I could think of no better than Currat Lex. I was very willing to have him pardoned, that is, to have the sentence changed to transportation: but, when he was once hanged, I did not wish he should be made a saint.’
Mrs. Burney, wife of his friend Dr. Burney, came in, and he seemed to be entertained with her conversation.
Garrick’s funeral was talked of as extravagantly expensive. Johnson, from his dislike to exaggeration, would not allow that it was distinguished by any extraordinary pomp. ‘Were there not six horses to each coach?’ said Mrs. Burney. JOHNSON. ‘Madam, there were no more six horses than six phoenixes.’
Time passed on in conversation till it was too late for the service of the church at three o’clock. I took a walk, and left him alone for some time; then returned, and we had coffee and conversation again by ourselves.
We went to evening prayers at St. Clement’s, at seven, and then parted.
On Sunday, April 20, being Easter-day, after attending solemn service at St. Paul’s, I came to Dr. Johnson, and found Mr. Lowe, the painter, sitting with him. Mr. Lowe mentioned the great number of new buildings of late in London, yet that Dr. Johnson had observed, that the number of inhabitants was not increased. JOHNSON. Why, Sir, the bills of mortality prove that no more people die now than formerly; so it is plain no more live. The register of births proves nothing, for not one tenth of the people of London are born there.’ BOSWELL. ‘I believe, Sir, a great many of the children born in London die early.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘But those who do live, are as stout and strong people as any: Dr. Price says, they must be naturally stronger to get through.’ JOHNSON. ‘That is system, Sir. A great traveller observes, that it is said there are no weak or deformed people among the Indians; but he with much sagacity assigns the reason of this, which is, that the hardship of their life as hunters and fishers does not allow weak or diseased children to grow up. Now had I been an Indian, I must have died early; my eyes would not have served me to get food. I indeed now could fish, give me English tackle; but had I been an Indian I must have starved, or they would have knocked me on the head, when they saw I could do nothing.’ BOSWELL. ‘Perhaps they would have taken care of you: we are told they are fond of oratory, you would have talked to them.’ JOHNSON. Nay, Sir, I should not have lived long enough to be fit to talk; I should have been dead before I was ten years old. Depend upon it, Sir, a savage, when he is hungry, will not carry about with him a looby of nine years old, who cannot help himself. They have no affection, Sir.’ BOSWELL. ‘I believe natural affection, of which we hear so much, is very small.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, natural affection is nothing: but affection from principle and established duty is sometimes wonderfully strong.’ LOWE. ‘A hen, Sir, will feed her chickens in preference to herself.’ JOHNSON. ‘But we don’t know that the hen is hungry; let the hen be fairly hungry, and I’ll warrant she’ll peck the corn herself. A cock, I believe, will feed hens instead of himself; but we don’t know that the cock is hungry.’ BOSWELL. ‘And that, Sir, is not from affection but gallantry. But some of the Indians have affection.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, that they help some of their children is plain; for some of them live, which they could not do without being helped.’
I dined with him; the company were, Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Desmoulins, and Mr. Lowe. He seemed not to be well, talked little, grew drowsy soon after dinner, and retired, upon which I went away.
Having next day gone to Mr. Burke’s seat in the country, from whence I was recalled by an express, that a near relation of mine had killed his antagonist in a duel, and was himself dangerously wounded, I saw little of Dr. Johnson till Monday, April 28, when I spent a considerable part of the day with him, and introduced the subject, which then chiefly occupied my mind. JOHNSON. ‘I do not see, Sir, that fighting is absolutely forbidden in Scripture; I see revenge forbidden, but not self-defence.’ BOSWELL. ‘The Quakers say it is; “Unto him that smiteth thee on one cheek, offer him also the other.”’ JOHNSON. ‘But stay, Sir; the text is meant only to have the effect of moderating passion; it is plain that we are not to take it in a literal sense. We see this from the context, where there are other recommendations, which I warrant you the Quaker will not take literally; as, for instance, “From him that would borrow of thee, turn thou not away.” Let a man whose credit is bad, come to a Quaker, and say, “Well, Sir, lend me a hundred pounds;” he’ll find him as unwilling as any other man. No, Sir, a man may shoot the man who invades his character, as he may shoot him who attempts to break into his house.57 So in 1745, my friend, Tom Gumming, the Quaker, said, he would not fight, but he would drive an ammunition cart; and we know that the Quakers have sent flannel waistcoats to our soldiers, to enable them to fight better.’ BOSWELL. ‘When a man is the aggressor, and by ill-usage forces on a duel in which he is killed, have we not little ground to hope that he is gone into a state of happiness?’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, we are not to judge determinately of the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted by GOD.’
57 I think it necessary to caution my readers against concluding that in this or any other conversation of Dr. Johnson, they have his serious and deliberate opinion on the subject of duelling. In my Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd edit. p. 386 [p. 366, Oct. 24], it appears that he made this frank confession:—‘Nobody at times, talks more laxly than I do;’ and, ib., p. 231 [Sept. 19, 1773], ‘He fairly owned he could not explain the rationality of duelling.’ We may, therefore, infer, that he could not think that justifiable, which seems so inconsistent with the spirit of the Gospel. — BOSWELL.
Upon being told that old Mr. Sheridan, indignant at the neglect of his oratorical plans, had threatened to go to America; JOHNSON. ‘I hope he will go to America.’ BOSWELL. ‘The Americans don’t want oratory.’ JOHNSON. ‘But we can want Sheridan.’
On Monday, April 29, I found him at home in the forenoon, and Mr. Seward with him. Horace having been mentioned; BOSWELL. ‘There is a great deal of thinking in his works. One finds there almost every thing but religion.’ SEWARD. ‘He speaks of his returning to it, in his Ode Parcus Deorum cultor et infrequens.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, he was not in earnest: this was merely poetical.’ BOSWELL. ‘There are, I am afraid, many people who have no religion at all.’ SEWARD. ‘And sensible people too.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, not sensible in that respect. There must be either a natural or a moral stupidity, if one lives in a total neglect of so very important a concern. SEWARD. ‘I wonder that there should be people without religion.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, you need not wonder at this, when you consider how large a proportion of almost every man’s life is passed without thinking of it. I myself was for some years totally regardless of religion. It had dropped out of my mind. It was at an early part of my life. Sickness brought it back, and I hope I have never lost it since.’ BOSWELL. ‘My dear Sir, what a man must you have been without religion! Why you must have gone on drinking, and swearing, and —’ JOHNSON (with a smile,) ‘I drank enough and swore enough, to be sure.’ SEWARD. ‘One should think that sickness and the view of death would make more men religious.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, they do not know how to go about it: they have not the first notion. A man who has never had religion before, no more grows religious when he is sick, than a man who has never learnt figures can count when he has need of calculation.’
I mentioned Dr. Johnson’s excellent distinction between liberty of conscience and liberty of teaching. JOHNSON. ‘Consider, Sir; if you have children whom you wish to educate in the principles of the Church of England, and there comes a Quaker who tries to pervert them to his principles, you would drive away the Quaker. You would not trust to the predomination of right, which you believe is in your opinions; you would keep wrong out of their heads. Now the vulgar are the children of the State. If any one attempts to teach them doctrines contrary to what the State approves, the magistrate may and ought to restrain him.’ SEWARD. ‘Would you restrain private conversation, Sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is difficult to say where private conversation begins, and where it ends. If we three should discuss even the great question concerning the existence of a Supreme Being by ourselves, we should not be restrained; for that would be to put an end to all improvement. But if we should discuss it in the presence of ten boarding-school girls, and as many boys, I think the magistrate would do well to put us in the stocks, to finish the debate there.’
‘How false (said he,) is all this, to say that in ancient times learning was not a disgrace to a Peer as it is now. In ancient times a Peer was as ignorant as any one else. He would have been angry to have it thought he could write his name. Men in ancient times dared to stand forth with a degree of ignorance with which nobody would dare now to stand forth. I am always angry when I hear ancient times praised at the expence of modern times. There is now a great deal more learning in the world than there was formerly; for it is universally diffused. You have, perhaps, no man who knows as much Greek and Latin as Bentley; no man who knows as much mathematicks as Newton: but you have many more men who know Greek and Latin, and who know mathematicks.’
On Thursday, May 1, I visited him in the evening along with young Mr. Burke. He said, ‘It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them. There must be an external impulse; emulation, or vanity, or avarice. The progress which the understanding makes through a book, has more pain than pleasure in it. Language is scanty, and inadequate to express the nice gradations and mixtures of our feelings. No man reads a book of science from pure inclination. The books that we do read with pleasure are light compositions, which contain a quick succession of events. However, I have this year read all Virgil through. I read a book of the Aeneid every night, so it was done in twelve nights, and I had great delight in it. The Georgicks did not give me so much pleasure, except the fourth book. The Eclogues I have almost all by heart. I do not think the story of the Aeneid interesting. I like the story of the Odyssey much better; and this not on account of the wonderful things which it contains; for there are wonderful things enough in the Aeneid; — the ships of the Trojans turned to sea-nymphs — the tree at Polydorus’s tomb dropping blood. The story of the Odyssey is interesting, as a great part of it is domestick. It has been said, there is pleasure in writing, particularly in writing verses. I allow you may have pleasure from writing, after it is over, if you have written well; but you don’t go willingly to it again. I know when I have been writing verses, I have run my finger down the margin, to see how many I had made, and how few I had to make.’
He seemed to be in a very placid humour, and although I have no note of the particulars of young Mr. Burke’s conversation, it is but justice to mention in general, that it was such that Dr. Johnson said to me afterwards, ‘He did very well indeed; I have a mind to tell his father.’
I have no minute of any interview with Johnson till Thursday, May 15, when I find what follows:— BOSWELL. ‘I wish much to be in Parliament, Sir.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, unless you come resolved to support any administration, you would be the worse for being in Parliament, because you would be obliged to live more expensively.’ BOSWELL. ‘Perhaps, Sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.’ JOHNSON. ‘That’s cant, Sir. It would not vex you more in the house, than in the gallery: publick affairs vex no man.’ BOSWELL. ‘Have not they vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the house of Commons, “That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished?”’ Johnson. ‘Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not VEXED.’ BOSWELL. ‘I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it WAS, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.’ JOHNSON. ‘My dear friend, clear your MIND of cant. You may TALK as other people do: you may say to a man, “Sir, I am your most humble servant.” You are not his most humble servant. You may say, “These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.” You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, “I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.” You don’t care six-pence whether he is wet or dry. You may TALK in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t THINK foolishly.’
Here he discovered a notion common enough in persons not much accustomed to entertain company, that there must be a degree of elaborate attention, otherwise company will think themselves neglected; and such attention is no doubt very fatiguing. He proceeded: ‘I would not, however, be a stranger in my own county; I would visit my neighbours, and receive their visits; but I would not be in haste to return visits. If a gentleman comes to see me, I tell him he does me a great deal of honour. I do not go to see him perhaps for ten weeks; then we are very complaisant to each other. No, Sir, you will have much more influence by giving or lending money where it is wanted, than by hospitality.’
On Saturday, May 17, I saw him for a short time. Having mentioned that I had that morning been with old Mr. Sheridan, he remembered their former intimacy with a cordial warmth, and said to me, ‘Tell Mr. Sheridan, I shall be glad to see him, and shake hands with him.’ BOSWELL. ‘It is to me very wonderful that resentment should be kept up so long.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is not altogether resentment that he does not visit me; it is partly falling out of the habit — partly disgust, as one has at a drug that has made him sick. Besides, he knows that I laugh at his oratory.’
Another day I spoke of one of our friends, of whom he, as well as I, had a very high opinion. He expatiated in his praise; but added, ‘Sir, he is a cursed Whig, a BOTTOMLESS Whig, as they all are now.’
On Monday, May 26, I found him at tea, and the celebrated Miss Burney, the authour of Evelina and Cecilia, with him. I asked if there would be any speakers in Parliament, if there were no places to be obtained. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir. Why do you speak here? Either to instruct and entertain, which is a benevolent motive; or for distinction, which is a selfish motive.’ I mentioned Cecilia. JOHNSON. (with an air of animated satisfaction,) ‘Sir, if you talk of Cecilia, talk on.’
We talked of Mr. Barry’s exhibition of his pictures. JOHNSON. ‘Whatever the hand may have done, the mind has done its part. There is a grasp of mind there which you find nowhere else.’
I asked whether a man naturally virtuous, or one who has overcome wicked inclinations, is the best. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, to YOU, the man who has overcome wicked inclinations is not the best. He has more merit to HIMSELF: I would rather trust my money to a man who has no hands, and so a physical impossibility to steal, than to a man of the most honest principles. There is a witty satirical story of Foote. He had a small bust of Garrick placed upon his bureau. “You may be surprized (said he,) that I allow him to be so near my gold; — but you will observe he has no hands.”’
On Friday, May 29, being to set out for Scotland next morning, I passed a part of the day with him in more than usual earnestness; as his health was in a more precarious state than at any time when I had parted from him. He, however, was quick and lively, and critical as usual. I mentioned one who was a very learned man. JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, he has a great deal of learning; but it never lies straight. There is never one idea by the side of another; ’tis all entangled: and their he drives it so aukwardly upon conversation.’
He said, ‘Get as much force of mind as you can. Live within your income. Always have something saved at the end of the year. Let your imports be more than your exports, and you’ll never go far wrong.
I assured him, that in the extensive and various range of his acquaintance there never had been any one who had a more sincere respect and affection for him than I had. He said, ‘I believe it, Sir. Were I in distress, there is no man to whom I should sooner come than to you. I should like to come and have a cottage in your park, toddle about, live mostly on milk, and be taken care of by Mrs. Boswell. She and I are good friends now; are we not?’
He embraced me, and gave me his blessing, as usual when I was leaving him for any length of time. I walked from his door to-day, with a fearful apprehension of what might happen before I returned.
My anxious apprehensions at parting with him this year, proved to be but too well founded; for not long afterwards he had a dreadful stroke of the palsy, of which there are very full and accurate accounts in letters written by himself, to shew with what composure of mind, and resignation to the Divine Will, his steady piety enabled him to behave.
‘TO MR. EDMUND ALLEN.
‘DEAR SIR— It has pleased GOD, this morning, to deprive me of the powers of speech; and as I do not know but that it may be his further good pleasure to deprive me soon of my senses, I request you will on the receipt of this note, come to me, and act for me, as the exigencies of my case may require. I am, sincerely yours,
‘June 17, 1783.’
Two days after he wrote thus to Mrs. Thrale:—
‘On Monday, the 16th, I sat for my picture, and walked a considerable way with little inconvenience. In the afternoon and evening I felt myself light and easy, and began to plan schemes of life. Thus I went to bed, and in a short time waked and sat up, as has been long my custom, when I felt a confusion and indistinctness in my head, which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute. I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties.
‘Soon after I perceived that I had suffered a paralytick stroke, and that my speech was taken from me. I had no pain, and so little dejection in this dreadful state, that I wondered at my own apathy, and considered that perhaps death itself, when it should come, would excite less horrour than seems now to attend it.
‘In order to rouse the vocal organs, I took two drams. Wine has been celebrated for the production of eloquence. I put myself into violent motion, and I think repeated it; but all was vain. I then went to bed, and strange as it may seem, I think slept. When I saw light, it was time to contrive what I should do. Though God stopped my speech, he left me my hand; I enjoyed a mercy which was not granted to my dear friend Lawrence, who now perhaps overlooks me as I am writing, and rejoices that I have what he wanted. My first note was necessarily to my servant, who came in talking, and could not immediately comprehend why he should read what I put into his hands.
‘I then wrote a card to Mr. Allen, that I might have a discreet friend at hand, to act as occasion should require. In penning this note, I had some difficulty; my hand, I knew not how nor why, made wrong letters. I then wrote to Dr. Taylor to come to me, and bring Dr. Heberden; and I sent to Dr. Brocklesby, who is my neighbour. My physicians are very friendly, and give me great hopes; but you may imagine my situation. I have so far recovered my vocal powers, as to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with no very imperfect articulation. My memory, I hope, yet remains as it was; but such an attack produces solicitude for the safety of every faculty.’
‘TO MR. THOMAS DAVIES.
‘DEAR SIR— I have had, indeed, a very heavy blow; but GOD, who yet spares my life, I humbly hope will spare my understanding, and restore my speech. As I am not at all helpless, I want no particular assistance, but am strongly affected by Mrs. Davies’s tenderness; and when I think she can do me good, shall be very glad to call upon her. I had ordered friends to be shut out; but one or two have found the way in; and if you come you shall be admitted: for I know not whom I can see, that will bring more amusement on his tongue, or more kindness in his heart. I am, &c.
‘June 18, 1783.’
It gives me great pleasure to preserve such a memorial of Johnson’s regard for Mr. Davies, to whom I was indebted for my introduction to him. He indeed loved Davies cordially, of which I shall give the following little evidence. One day when he had treated him with too much asperity, Tom, who was not without pride and spirit, went off in a passion; but he had hardly reached home when Frank, who had been sent after him, delivered this note:—‘Come, come, dear Davies, I am always sorry when we quarrel; send me word that we are friends.’
Such was the general vigour of his constitution, that he recovered from this alarming and severe attack with wonderful quickness; so that in July he was able to make a visit to Mr. Langton at Rochester, where he passed about a fortnight, and made little excursions as easily as at any time of his life. In August he went as far as the neighbourhood of Salisbury, to Heale, the seat of William Bowles, Esq., a gentleman whom I have heard him praise for exemplary religious order in his family. In his diary I find a short but honourable mention of this visit:—‘August 28, I came to Heale without fatigue. 30, I am entertained quite to my mind.’
While he was here he had a letter from Dr. Brocklesby, acquainting him of the death of Mrs. Williams, which affected him a good deal. Though for several years her temper had not been complacent, she had valuable qualities, and her departure left a blank in his house. Upon this occasion he, according to his habitual course of piety, composed a prayer.
I shall here insert a few particulars concerning him, with which I have been favoured by one of his friends.
‘He spoke often in praise of French literature. “The French are excellent in this, (he would say,) they have a book on every subject.” From what he had seen of them he denied them the praise of superiour politeness, and mentioned, with very visible disgust, the custom they have of spitting on the floors of their apartments. “This, (said the Doctor), is as gross a thing as can well be done; and one wonders how any man, or set of men, can persist in so offensive a practice for a whole day together; one should expect that the first effort towards civilization would remove it even among savages.”
‘Chymistry was always an interesting pursuit with Dr. Johnson. Whilst he was in Wiltshire, he attended some experiments that were made by a physician at Salisbury, on the new kinds of air. In the course of the experiments frequent mention being made of Dr. Priestley, Dr. Johnson knit his brows, and in a stern manner inquired, “Why do we hear so much of Dr. Priestley?” He was very properly answered, “Sir, because we are indebted to him for these important discoveries.” On this Dr. Johnson appeared well content; and replied, “Well, well, I believe we are; and let every man have the honour he has merited.”’
‘A friend was one day, about two years before his death, struck with some instance of Dr. Johnson’s great candour. “Well, Sir, (said he,) I will always say that you are a very candid man.” “Will you, (replied the Doctor,) I doubt then you will be very singular. But, indeed, Sir, (continued he,) I look upon myself to be a man very much misunderstood. I am not an uncandid, nor am I a severe man. I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest; and people are apt to believe me serious: however, I am more candid than I was when I was younger. As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man A GOOD MAN, upon easier terms than I was formerly.”’
On his return from Heale he wrote to Dr. Burney:—
‘I came home on the 18th at noon to a very disconsolate house. You and I have lost our friends; but you have more friends at home. My domestick companion is taken from me. She is much missed, for her acquisitions were many, and her curiosity universal; so that she partook of every conversation. I am not well enough to go much out; and to sit, and eat, or fast alone, is very wearisome. I always mean to send my compliments to all the ladies.’
His fortitude and patience met with severe trials during this year. The stroke of the palsy has been related circumstantially; but he was also afflicted with the gout, and was besides troubled with a complaint which not only was attended with immediate inconvenience, but threatened him with a chirurgical operation, from which most men would shrink. The complaint was a sarcocele, which Johnson bore with uncommon firmness, and was not at all frightened while he looked forward to amputation. He was attended by Mr. Pott and Mr. Cruikshank.
Happily the complaint abated without his being put to the torture of amputation. But we must surely admire the manly resolution which he discovered while it hung over him.
He this autumn received a visit from the celebrated Mrs. Siddons. He gives this account of it in one of his letters to Mrs. Thrale:—
‘Mrs. Siddons, in her visit to me, behaved with great modesty and propriety, and left nothing behind her to be censured or despised. Neither praise nor money, the two powerful corrupters of mankind, seem to have depraved her. I shall be glad to see her again. Her brother Kemble calls on me, and pleases me very well. Mrs. Siddons and I talked of plays; and she told me her intention of exhibiting this winter the characters of Constance, Catharine, and Isabella, in Shakspeare.’
Mr. Kemble has favoured me with the following minute of what passed at this visit:—
‘When Mrs. Siddons came into the room, there happened to be no chair ready for her, which he observing, said with a smile, “Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself.”
‘Having placed himself by her, he with great good-humour entered upon a consideration of the English drama; and, among other inquiries, particularly asked her which of Shakspeare’s characters she was most pleased with. Upon her answering that she thought the character of Queen Catharine, in Henry the Eighth, the most natural:—“I think so too, Madam, (said he;) and whenever you perform it, I will once more hobble out to the theatre myself.” Mrs. Siddons promised she would do herself the honour of acting his favourite part for him; but many circumstances happened to prevent the representation of King Henry the Eighth during the Doctor’s life.
‘In the course of the evening he thus gave his opinion upon the merits of some of the principal performers whom he remembered to have seen upon the stage. “Mrs. Porter in the vehemence of rage, and Mrs. Clive in the sprightliness of humour, I have never seen equalled. What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick; but could not do half so many things well; she was a better romp than any I ever saw in nature. Pritchard, in common life, was a vulgar ideot; she would talk of her GOWND: but, when she appeared upon the stage, seemed to be inspired by gentility and understanding. I once talked with Colley Cibber, and thought him ignorant of the principles of his art. Garrick, Madam; was no declaimer; there was not one of his own scene-shifters who could not have spoken To be, or not to be, better than he did; yet he was the only actor I ever saw, whom I could call a master both in tragedy and comedy; though I liked him best in comedy. A true conception of character, and natural expression of it, were his distinguished excellencies.” Having expatiated, with his usual force and eloquence, on Mr. Garrick’s extraordinary eminence as an actor, he concluded with this compliment to his social talents: “And after all, Madam, I thought him less to be envied on the stage than at the head of a table.”’
Johnson, indeed, had thought more upon the subject of acting than might be generally supposed. Talking of it one day to Mr. Kemble, he said, ‘Are you, Sir, one of those enthusiasts who believe yourself transformed into the very character you represent?’ Upon Mr. Kemble’s answering that he had never felt so strong a persuasion himself; ‘To be sure not, Sir, (said Johnson;) the thing is impossible. And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster, Richard the Third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed it.’
I find in this, as in former years, notices of his kind attention to Mrs. Gardiner, who, though in the humble station of a tallow-chandler upon Snow-hill, was a woman of excellent good sense, pious, and charitable. She told me, she had been introduced to him by Mrs. Masters, the poetess, whose volumes he revised, and, it is said, illuminated here and there with a ray of his own genius. Mrs. Gardiner was very zealous for the support of the Ladies’ charity-school, in the parish of St. Sepulchre. It is confined to females; and, I am told, it afforded a hint for the story of Betty Broom in The Idler.
The late ingenious Mr. Mickle, some time before his death, wrote me a letter concerning Dr. Johnson, in which he mentions — ‘I was upwards of twelve years acquainted with him, was frequently in his company, always talked with ease to him, and can truly say, that I never received from him one rough word.’
Mr. Mickle reminds me in this letter of a conversation, at dinner one day at Mr. Hoole’s with Dr. Johnson, when Mr. Nicol the King’s bookseller and I attempted to controvert the maxim, ‘better that ten guilty should escape, than one innocent person suffer;’ and were answered by Dr. Johnson with great power of reasoning and eloquence. I am very sorry that I have no record of that day: but I well recollect my illustrious friend’s having ably shewn, that unless civil institutions insure protection to the innocent, all the confidence which mankind should have in them would be lost.
Notwithstanding the complication of disorders under which Johnson now laboured, he did not resign himself to despondency and discontent, but with wisdom and spirit endeavoured to console and amuse his mind with as many innocent enjoyments as he could procure. Sir John Hawkins has mentioned the cordiality with which he insisted that such of the members of the old club in Ivy-lane as survived, should meet again and dine together, which they did, twice at a tavern and once at his house: and in order to insure himself society in the evening for three days in the week, he instituted a club at the Essex Head, in Essex-street, then kept by Samuel Greaves, an old servant of Mr. Thrale’s.
‘TO SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS.
‘DEAR SIR— It is inconvenient to me to come out, I should else have waited on you with an account of a little evening Club which we are establishing in Essex-street, in the Strand, and of which you are desired to be one. It will be held at the Essex Head, now kept by an old servant of Thrale’s. The company is numerous, and, as you will see by the list, miscellaneous. The terms are lax, and the expences light. Mr. Barry was adopted by Dr. Brocklesby, who joined with me in forming the plan. We meet thrice a week, and he who misses forfeits two-pence.
‘If you are willing to become a member, draw a line under your name. Return the list. We meet for the first time on Monday at eight. I am, &c.
‘Dec. 4, 1783.’
It did not suit Sir Joshua to be one of this Club. But when I mention only Mr. Daines Barrington, Dr. Brocklesby, Mr. Murphy, Mr. John Nichols, Mr. Cooke, Mr. Joddrel, Mr. Paradise, Dr. Horsley, Mr. Windham,58 I shall sufficiently obviate the misrepresentation of it by Sir John Hawkins, as if it had been a low ale-house association, by which Johnson was degraded. Johnson himself, like his namesake Old Ben, composed the Rules of his Club.
58 I was in Scotland when this Club was founded, and during all the winter. Johnson, however, declared I should be a member, and invented a word upon the occasion: Boswell (said he,) is a very CLUBABLE man.’ When I came to town I was proposed by Mr. Barrington, and chosen. I believe there are few societies where there is better conversation or more decorum, several of us resolved to continue it after our great founder was removed by death. Other members were added; and now, above eight years since that loss, we go on happily. — BOSWELL.
In the end of this year he was seized with a spasmodick asthma of such violence, that he was confined to the house in great pain, being sometimes obliged to sit all night in his chair, a recumbent posture being so hurtful to his respiration, that he could not endure lying in bed; and there came upon him at the same time that oppressive and fatal disease, a dropsy. It was a very severe winter, which probably aggravated his complaints; and the solitude in which Mr. Levett and Mrs. Williams had left him, rendered his life very gloomy. Mrs. Desmoulins, who still lived, was herself so very ill, that she could contribute very little to his relief. He, however, had none of that unsocial shyness which we commonly see in people afflicted with sickness. He did not hide his head from the world, in solitary abstraction; he did not deny himself to the visits of his friends and acquaintances; but at all times, when he was not overcome by sleep, was ready for conversation as in his best days.
‘TO MRS. LUCY PORTER, IN LICHFIELD.
‘DEAR MADAM— You may perhaps think me negligent that I have not written to you again upon the loss of your brother; but condolences and consolations are such common and such useless things, that the omission of them is no great crime: and my own diseases occupy my mind, and engage my care. My nights are miserably restless, and my days, therefore, are heavy. I try, however, to hold up my head as high as I can.
‘I am sorry that your health is impaired; perhaps the spring and the summer may, in some degree, restore it: but if not, we must submit to the inconveniences of time, as to the other dispensations of Eternal Goodness. Pray for me, and write to me, or let Mr. Pearson write for you. I am, &c.
‘London, Nov. 29, 1783.’
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