Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson
Hesther Lynch Piozzi

Part 3 out of 3

ill-will. He always kept those quarrels which belonged to him as a writer
separate from those which he had to do with as a man; but I never did hear
him say in private one malicious word of a public enemy; and of Mr.
Macpherson I once heard him speak respectfully, though his reply to the
friend who asked him if ANY MAN LIVING could have written such a book, is
well known, and has been often repeated--"Yes, sir, many men, many women,
and many children."

I inquired of him myself if this story was authentic, and he said it was.
I made the same inquiry concerning his account of the state of literature
in Scotland, which was repeated up and down at one time by everybody--"How
knowledge was divided among the Scots, like bread in a besieged town, to
every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful." This story he likewise
acknowledged, and said, besides, "that some officious friend had carried it
to Lord Bute, who only answered, 'Well, well! never mind what he says, he
will have the pension all one.'"

Another famous reply to a Scotsman who commended the beauty and dignity of
Glasgow, till Mr. Johnson stopped him by observing, "that he probably had
never yet seen Brentford," was one of the jokes he owned; and said himself
"that when a gentleman of that country once mentioned the lovely prospects
common in his nation, he could not help telling him that the view of the
London road was the prospect in which every Scotsman most naturally and
most rationally delighted."

Mrs. Brooke received an answer not unlike this, when expatiating on the
accumulation of sublime and beautiful objects, which form the fine prospect
UP the River St. Lawrence, in North America. "Come, madam," says Dr.
Johnson, "confess that nothing ever equalled your pleasure in seeing that
sight reversed; and finding yourself looking at the happy prospect DOWN the
River St. Lawrence." The truth is, he hated to hear about prospects and
views, and laying out ground and taste in gardening. "That was the best
garden," he said, "which produced most roots and fruits; and that water was
most to be prized which contained most fish." He used to laugh at
Shenstone most unmercifully for not caring whether there was anything good
to EAT in the streams he was so fond of, "as if," says Johnson, "one could
fill one's belly with hearing soft murmurs, or looking at rough cascades!"

He loved the sight of fine forest trees, however, and detested
Brighthelmstone Downs, "because it was a country so truly desolate," he
said, "that if one had a mind to hang one's self for desperation at being
obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to
fasten the rope." Walking in a wood when it rained was, I think, the only
rural image he pleased his fancy with; "for," says he, "after one has
gathered the apples in an orchard, one wishes them well baked, and removed
to a London eating-house for enjoyment."

With such notions, who can wonder he passed his time uncomfortably enough
with us, who he often complained of for living so much in the country,
"feeding the chickens," as he said I did, "till I starved my own
understanding. Get, however," said he, "a book about gardening, and study
it hard, since you will pass your life with birds and flowers, and learn to
raise the LARGEST turnips, and to breed the BIGGEST fowls." It was vain to
assure him that the goodness of such dishes did not depend upon their size.
He laughed at the people who covered their canals with foreign fowls,
"when," says he, "our own geese and ganders are twice as large. If we
fetched better animals from distant nations, there might be some sense in
the preference; but to get cows from Alderney, or water-fowl from China,
only to see nature degenerating round one, is a poor ambition indeed."

Nor was Mr. Johnson more merciful with regard to the amusements people are
contented to call such. "You hunt in the morning," says he, "and crowd to
the public rooms at night, and call it DIVERSION, when your heart knows it
is perishing with poverty of pleasures, and your wits get blunted for want
of some other mind to sharpen them upon. There is in this world no real
delight (excepting those of sensuality), but exchange of ideas in
conversation; and whoever has once experienced the full flow of London
talk, when he retires to country friendships, and rural sports, must either
be contented to turn baby again and play with the rattle, or he will pine
away like a great fish in a little pond, and die for want of his usual
food." "Books without the knowledge of life are useless," I have heard him
say; "for what should books teach but the art of LIVING? To study manners,
however, only in coffee-houses, is more than equally imperfect; the minds
of men who acquire no solid learning, and only exist on the daily forage
that they pick up by running about, and snatching what drops from their
neighbours as ignorant as themselves, will never ferment into any knowledge
valuable or durable; but like the light wines we drink in hot countries,
please for the moment, though incapable of keeping. In the study of
mankind much will be found to swim as froth, and much must sink as
feculence, before the wine can have its effect, and become that noblest
liquor which rejoices the heart, and gives vigour to the imagination."

I am well aware that I do not and cannot give each expression of Dr.
Johnson with all its force or all its neatness; but I have done my best to
record such of his maxims, and repeat such of his sentiments, as may give
to those who know him not a just idea of his character and manner of
thinking. To endeavour at adorning, or adding, or softening, or
meliorating such anecdotes, by any tricks my inexperienced pen could play,
would be weakness indeed; worse than the Frenchman who presides over the
porcelain manufactory at Seve, to whom, when some Greek vases were given
him as models, he lamented la tristesse de telles formes; and endeavoured
to assist them by clusters of flowers, while flying Cupids served for the
handles of urns originally intended to contain the ashes of the dead. The
misery is, that I can recollect so few anecdotes, and that I have recorded
no more axioms of a man whose every word merited attention, and whose every
sentiment did honour to human nature. Remote from affectation as from
error or falsehood, the comfort a reader has in looking over these papers
is the certainty that these were really the opinions of Johnson, which are
related as such.

Fear of what others may think is the great cause of affectation; and he was
not likely to disguise his notions out of cowardice. He hated disguise,
and nobody penetrated it so readily. I showed him a letter written to a
common friend, who was at some loss for the explanation of it. "Whoever
wrote it," says our doctor, "could, if he chose it, make himself
understood; but 'tis the letter of an EMBARRASSED MAN sir;" and so the
event proved it to be.

Mysteriousness in trifles offended him on every side. "It commonly ended
in guilt," he said; "for those who begin by concealment of innocent things
will soon have something to hide which they dare not bring to light." He
therefore encouraged an openness of conduct, in women particularly, "who,"
he observed, "were often led away when children, by their delight and power
of surprising." He recommended, on something like the same principle, that
when one person meant to serve another, he should not go about it slily, or
as we say, underhand, out of a false idea of delicacy, to surprise one's
friend with an unexpected favour, "which, ten to one," says he, "fails to
oblige your acquaintance, who had some reasons against such a mode of
obligation, which you might have known but for that superfluous cunning
which you think an elegance. Oh! never be seduced by such silly
pretences," continued he; "if a wench wants a good gown, do not give her a
fine smelling-bottle, because that is more delicate: as I once knew a lady
lend the key of her library to a poor scribbling dependant, as if she took
the woman for an ostrich that could digest iron." He said, indeed, "that
women were very difficult to be taught the proper manner of conferring
pecuniary favours; that they always gave too much money or too little; for
that they had an idea of delicacy accompanying their gifts, so that they
generally rendered them either useless or ridiculous."

He did, indeed, say very contemptuous things of our sex, but was
exceedingly angry when I told Miss Reynolds that he said "It was well
managed of some one to leave his affairs in the hands of his wife, because,
in matters of business," said he, "no woman stops at integrity." This was,
I think, the only sentence I ever observed him solicitous to explain away
after he had uttered it. He was not at all displeased at the recollection
of a sarcasm thrown on a whole profession at once; when a gentleman leaving
the company, somebody who sat next Dr. Johnson asked him, who he was? "I
cannot exactly tell you, sir," replied he, "and I would be loth to speak
ill of any person who I do not know deserves it, but I am afraid he is an
ATTORNEY." He did not, however, encourage general satire, and for the most
part professed himself to feel directly contrary to Dr. Swift; "who," says
he, "hates the world, though he loves John and Robert, and certain

Johnson said always, "that the world was well constructed, but that the
particular people disgraced the elegance and beauty of the general fabric."
In the same manner I was relating once to him how Dr. Collier observed that
the love one bore to children was from the anticipation one's mind made
while one contemplated them. "We hope," says he, "that they will sometime
make wise men or amiable women; and we suffer 'em to take up our affection
beforehand. One cannot love LUMPS OF FLESH, and little infants are nothing
more." "On the contrary," says Johnson, "one can scarcely help wishing,
while one fondles a baby, that it may never live to become a man; for it is
so probable that when he becomes a man, he should be sure to end in a
scoundrel." Girls were less displeasing to him; "for as their temptations
were fewer," he said, "their virtue in this life, and happiness in the
next, were less improbable; and he loved," he said, "to see a knot of
little misses dearly."

Needlework had a strenuous approver in Dr. Johnson, who said "that one of
the great felicities of female life was the general consent of the world
that they might amuse themselves with petty occupations, which contributed
to the lengthening their lives, and preserving their minds in a state of
sanity." "A man cannot hem a pocket-handkerchief," said a lady of quality
to him one day, "and so he runs mad, and torments his family and friends."
The expression struck him exceedingly, and when one acquaintance grew
troublesome, and another unhealthy, he used to quote Lady Frances's
observation, "That a man cannot hem a pocket-handkerchief."

The nice people found no mercy from Mr. Johnson; such, I mean, as can only
dine at four o'clock, who cannot bear to be waked at an unusual hour, or
miss a stated meal without inconvenience. HE had no such prejudices
himself, and with difficulty forgave them in another. "Delicacy does not
surely consist," says he, "in impossibility to be pleased, and that is
false dignity indeed which is content to depend upon others."

The saying of the old philosopher who observes, "That he who wants least is
most like the gods, who want nothing," was a favourite sentence with Dr.
Johnson, who on his own part required less attendance, sick or well, than
ever I saw any human creature. Conversation was all he required to make
him happy; and when he would have tea made at two o'clock in the morning,
it was only that there might be a certainty of detaining his companions
round him. On that principle it was that he preferred winter to summer,
when the heat of the weather gave people an excuse to stroll about and walk
for pleasure in the shade, while he wished to sit still on a chair and chat
day after day, till somebody proposed a drive in the coach, and that was
the most delicious moment of his life. "But the carriage must stop some
time," he said, "and the people would come home at last," so his pleasure
was of short duration.

I asked him why he doated on a coach so? and received for answer, "That in
the first place the company were shut in with him THERE, and could not
escape, as out of a room. In the next place, he heard all that was said in
a carriage, where it was my turn to be deaf," and very impatient was he at
my occasional difficulty of hearing. On this account he wished to travel
all over the world, for the very act of going forward was delightful to
him, and he gave himself no concern about accidents, which he said never
happened. Nor did the running away of the horses on the edge of a
precipice between Vernon and St. Denis, in France, convince him to the
contrary, "for nothing came of it," he said, "except that Mr. Thrale leaped
out of the carriage into a chalk-pit, and then came up again looking AS
WHITE!" When the truth was, all their lives were saved by the greatest
Providence ever exerted in favour of three human creatures; and the part
Mr. Thrale took from desperation was the likeliest thing in the world to
produce broken limbs and death.

Fear was indeed a sensation to which Mr. Johnson was an utter stranger,
excepting when some sudden apprehensions seized him that he was going to
die, and even then he kept all his wits about him to express the most
humble and pathetic petitions to the Almighty. And when the first
paralytic stroke took his speech from him, he instantly set about composing
a prayer in Latin, at once to deprecate God's mercy, to satisfy himself
that his mental powers remained unimpaired, and to keep them in exercise,
that they might not perish by permitted stagnation. This was after we
parted; but he wrote me an account of it, and I intend to publish that
letter, with many more.

When one day he had at my house taken tincture of antimony instead of
emetic wine, for a vomit, he was himself the person to direct us what to do
for him, and managed with as much coolness and deliberation as if he had
been prescribing for an indifferent person. Though on another occasion,
when he had lamented in the most piercing terms his approaching
dissolution, and conjured me solemnly to tell him what I thought, while Sir
Richard Jebb was perpetually on the road to Streatham, and Mr. Johnson
seemed to think himself neglected if the physician left him for an hour
only, I made him a steady, but as I thought a very gentle harangue, in
which I confirmed all that the doctor had been saying; how no present
danger could be expected, but that his age and continued ill-health must
naturally accelerate the arrival of that hour which can be escaped by none.
"And this," says Johnson, rising in great anger, "is the voice of female
friendship, I suppose, when the hand of the hangman would be softer."

Another day, when he was ill, and exceedingly low-spirited, and persuaded
that death was not far distant, I appeared before him in a dark-coloured
gown, which his bad sight, and worse apprehensions, made him mistake for an
iron-grey. "Why do you delight," said he, "thus to thicken the gloom of
misery that surrounds me? Is not here sufficient accumulation of horror
without anticipated mourning?" "This is not mourning, sir," said I,
drawing the curtain, that the light might fall upon the silk, and show it
was a purple mixed with green. "Well, well," replied he, changing his
voice, "you little creatures should never wear those sort of clothes,
however; they are unsuitable in every way. What! have not all insects gay
colours?" I relate these instances chiefly to show that the fears of death
itself could not suppress his wit, his sagacity, or his temptation to
sudden resentment.

Mr. Johnson did not like that his friends should bring their manuscripts
for him to read, and he liked still less to read them when they were
brought. Sometimes, however, when he could not refuse, he would take the
play or poem, or whatever it was, and give the people his opinion from some
one page he had peeped into. A gentleman carried him his tragedy, which,
because he loved the author, Johnson took, and it lay about our rooms some
time. "What answer did you give your friend, sir?" said I, after the book
had been called for. "I told him," replied he, "that there was too much
TIG and TIRRY in it!" Seeing me laugh most violently, "Why, what would'st
have, child?" said he. "I looked at the dramatis, and there was TIGranes
and TIRIdates, or Teribazus, or such stuff. A man can tell but what he
knows, and I never got any farther than the first page. Alas, madam!"
continued he, "how few books are there of which one ever can possibly
arrive at the LAST page. Was there ever yet anything written by mere man
that was wished longer by its readers, excepting 'Don Quixote,' 'Robinson
Crusoe,' and the 'Pilgrim's Progress?'" After Homer's Iliad, Mr. Johnson
confessed that the work of Cervantes was the greatest in the world,
speaking of it I mean as a book of entertainment. And when we consider
that every other author's admirers are confined to his countrymen, and
perhaps to the literary classes among THEM, while "Don Quixote" is a sort
of common property, an universal classic, equally tasted by the court and
the cottage, equally applauded in France and England as in Spain, quoted by
every servant, the amusement of every age from infancy to decrepitude; the
first book you see on every shelf, in every shop, where books are sold,
through all the states of Italy; who can refuse his consent to an avowal of
the superiority of Cervantes to all other modern writers? Shakespeare
himself has, till lately, been worshipped only at home, though his plays
are now the favourite amusements of Vienna; and when I was at Padua some
months ago, Romeo and Juliet was acted there under the name of Tragedia
Veronese; while engravers and translators LIVE by the hero of La Mancha in
every nation, and the sides of miserable inns all over England and France,
and I have heard Germany too, are adorned with the exploits of Don Quixote.
May his celebrity procure my pardon for a digression in praise of a writer
who, through four volumes of the most exquisite pleasantry and genuine
humour, has never been seduced to overstep the limits of propriety, has
never called in the wretched auxiliaries of obscenity or profaneness; who
trusts to nature and sentiment alone, and never misses of that applause
which Voltaire and Sterne labour to produce, while honest merriment bestows
her unfading crown upon Cervantes.

Dr. Johnson was a great reader of French literature, and delighted
exceedingly in Boileau's works. Moliere, I think, he had hardly sufficient
taste of, and he used to condemn me for preferring La Bruyere to the Duc de
Rochefoucault, who, he said, was the only gentleman writer who wrote like a
professed author. The asperity of his harsh sentences, each of them a
sentence of condemnation, used to disgust me, however; though it must be
owned that, among the necessaries of human life, a rasp is reckoned one as
well as a razor.

Mr. Johnson did not like any one who said they were happy, or who said any
one else was so. "It is all cant," he would cry; "the dog knows he is
miserable all the time." A friend whom he loved exceedingly, told him on
some occasion, notwithstanding, that his wife's sister was REALLY happy,
and called upon the lady to confirm his assertion, which she did somewhat
roundly, as we say, and with an accent and manner capable of offending Mr.
Johnson, if her position had not been sufficient, without anything more, to
put him in very ill-humour. "If your sister-in-law is really the contented
being she professes herself, sir," said he, "her life gives the lie to
every research of humanity; for she is happy without health, without
beauty, without money, and without understanding." This story he told me
himself, and when I expressed something of the horror I felt, "The same
stupidity," said he, "which prompted her to extol felicity she never felt,
hindered her from feeling what shocks you on repetition. I tell you, the
woman is ugly and sickly and foolish and poor; and would it not make a man
hang himself to hear such a creature say it was happy?

"The life of a sailor was also a continual scene of danger and exertion,"
he said; "and the manner in which time was spent shipboard would make all
who saw a cabin envy a gaol." The roughness of the language used on board
a man-of-war, where he passed a week on a visit to Captain Knight,
disgusted him terribly. He asked an officer what some place was called,
and received for answer, that it was where the loplolly man kept his
loplolly, a reply he considered, not unjustly, as disrespectful, gross, and
ignorant; for though in the course of these memoirs I have been led to
mention Dr. Johnson's tenderness towards POOR people, I do not wish to
mislead my readers, and make them think he had any delight in MEAN manners
or coarse expressions. Even dress itself, when it resembled that of the
vulgar, offended him exceedingly; and when he had condemned me many times
for not adorning my children with more show than I thought useful or
elegant, I presented a little girl to him who came o'visiting one evening
covered with shining ornaments, to see if he would approve of the
appearance she made. When they were gone home, "Well, sir," said I, "how
did you like little miss? I hope she was FINE enough." "It was the finery
of a beggar," said he, "and you know it was; she looked like a native of
Cow Lane dressed up to be carried to Bartholomew Fair."

His reprimand to another lady for crossing her little child's handkerchief
before, and by that operation dragging down its head oddly and
unintentionally, was on the same principle. "It is the beggar's fear of
cold," said he, "that prevails over such parents, and so they pull the poor
thing's head down, and give it the look of a baby that plays about
Westminster Bridge, while the mother sits shivering in a niche."

I commended a young lady for her beauty and pretty behaviour one day,
however, to whom I thought no objection could have been made. "I saw her,"
says Dr. Johnson, "take a pair of scissors in her left hand, though; and
for all her father is now become a nobleman, and as you say, excessively
rich, I should, were I a youth of quality ten years hence, hesitate between
a girl so neglected, and a NEGRO."

It was indeed astonishing how he COULD remark such minutenesses with a
sight so miserably imperfect; but no accidental position of a ribband
escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of
propriety. When I went with him to Lichfield and came downstairs to
breakfast at the inn, my dress did not please him, and he made me alter it
entirely before he would stir a step with us about the town, saying most
satirical things concerning the appearance I made in a riding-habit, and
adding, "'Tis very strange that such eyes as yours cannot discern propriety
of dress. If I had a sight only half as good, I think I should see to the

My compliances, however, were of little worth. What really surprised me
was the victory he gained over a lady little accustomed to contradiction,
who had dressed herself for church at Streatham one Sunday morning in a
manner he did not approve, and to whom he said such sharp and pungent
things concerning her hat, her gown, etc., that she hastened to change
them, and returning quite another figure received his applause, and thanked
him for his reproofs, much to the amazement of her husband, who could
scarcely believe his own ears.

Another lady, whose accomplishments he never denied, came to our house one
day covered with diamonds, feathers, etc., and he did not seem inclined to
chat with her as usual. I asked him why, when the company was gone. "Why,
her head looked so like that of a woman who shows puppets," said he, "and
her voice so confirmed the fancy, that I could not bear her today. When
she wears a large cap I can talk to her."

When the ladies wore lace trimmings to their clothes he expressed his
contempt of the reigning fashion in these terms: "A Brussels trimming is
like bread sauce," said he, "it takes away the glow of colour from the
gown, and gives you nothing instead of it. But sauce was invented to
heighten the flavour of our food, and trimming is an ornament to the
manteau or it is nothing. Learn," said he, "that there is propriety or
impropriety in everything how slight soever, and get at the general
principles of dress and of behaviour; if you then transgress them you will
at least know that they are not observed."

All these exactnesses in a man who was nothing less than exact himself made
him extremely impracticable as an inmate, though most instructive as
companion and useful as a friend. Mr. Thrale, too, could sometimes
overrule his rigidity by saying coldly, "There, there, now we have had
enough for one lecture, Dr. Johnson. We will not be upon education any
more till after dinner, if you please," or some such speech. But when
there was nobody to restrain his dislikes it was extremely difficult to
find anybody with whom he could converse without living always on the verge
of a quarrel, or of something too like a quarrel to be pleasing. I came
into the room, for example, one evening where he and a gentleman, whose
abilities we all respect exceedingly, were sitting. A lady who walked in
two minutes before me had blown 'em both into a flame by whispering
something to Mr. S---d, which he endeavoured to explain away so as not to
affront the Doctor, whose suspicions were all alive. "And have a care,
sir," said he, just as I came in, "the Old Lion will not bear to be
tickled." The other was pale with rage, the lady wept at the confusion she
had caused, and I could only say with Lady Macbeth--

"Soh! you've displac'd the mirth, broke the good meeting
With most admir'd disorder."

Such accidents, however, occurred too often, and I was forced to take
advantage of my lost lawsuit and plead inability of purse to remain longer
in London or its vicinage. I had been crossed in my intentions of going
abroad, and found it convenient, for every reason of health, peace, and
pecuniary circumstances, to retire to Bath, where I knew Mr. Johnson would
not follow me, and where I could for that reason command some little
portion of time for my own use, a thing impossible while I remained at
Streatham or at London, as my hours, carriage, and servants had long been
at his command, who would not rise in the morning till twelve o'clock,
perhaps, and oblige me to make breakfast for him till the bell rung for
dinner, though much displeased if the toilet was neglected, and though much
of the time we passed together was spent in blaming or deriding, very
justly, my neglect of economy and waste of that money which might make many
families happy. The original reason of our connection, his PARTICULARLY
DISORDERED HEALTH AND SPIRITS, had been long at an end, and he had no other
ailments than old age and general infirmity, which every professor of
medicine was ardently zealous and generally attentive to palliate, and to
contribute all in their power for the prolongation of a life so valuable.
Veneration for his virtue, reverence for his talents, delight in his
conversation, and habitual endurance of a yoke my husband first put upon
me, and of which he contentedly bore his share for sixteen or seventeen
years, made me go on so long with Mr. Johnson; but the perpetual
confinement I will own to have been terrifying in the first years of our
friendship and irksome in the last. Nor could I pretend to support it
without help, when my coadjutor was no more. To the assistance we gave
him, the shelter our house afforded to his uneasy fancies, and to the pains
we took to soothe or repress them, the world perhaps is indebted for the
three political pamphlets, the new edition and correction of his
"Dictionary," and for the "Poets' Lives," which he would scarce have lived,
I think, and kept his faculties entire to have written, had not incessant
care been exerted at the time of his first coming to be our constant guest
in the country, and several times after that, when he found himself
particularly oppressed with diseases incident to the most vivid and fervent
imaginations. I shall for ever consider it as the greatest honour which
could be conferred on any one to have been the confidential friend of Dr.
Johnson's health, and to have in some measure, with Mr. Thrale's
assistance, saved from distress at least, if not worse, a mind great beyond
the comprehension of common mortals, and good beyond all hope of imitation
from perishable beings.

Many of our friends were earnest that he should write the lives of our
famous prose authors; but he never made any answer that I can recollect to
the proposal, excepting when Sir Richard Musgrave once was singularly warm
about it, getting up and entreating him to set about the work immediately,
he coldly replied, "SIT DOWN, SIR!"

When Mr. Thrale built the new library at Streatham, and hung up over the
books the portraits of his favourite friends, that of Dr. Johnson was last
finished, and closed the number. It was almost impossible NOT to make
verses on such an accidental combination of circumstances, so I made the
following ones. But as a character written in verse will for the most part
be found imperfect as a character, I have therefore written a prose one,
with which I mean, not to complete, but to conclude these "Anecdotes" of
the best and wisest man that ever came within the reach of my personal
acquaintance, and I think I might venture to add, that of all or any of my

Gigantic in knowledge, in virtue, in strength,
Our company closes with JOHNSON at length;
So the Greeks from the cavern of Polypheme past,
When wisest, and greatest, Ulysses came last.
To his comrades contemptuous we see him look down,
On their wit and their worth with a general frown.
Since from Science' proud tree the rich fruit he receives,
Who could shake the whole trunk while they turned a few leaves.
His piety pure, his morality nice--
Protector of virtue, and terror of vice;
In these features Religion's firm champion displayed,
Shall make infidels fear for a modern crusade.
While th' inflammable temper, the positive tongue,
Too conscious of right for endurance of wrong:
We suffer from JOHNSON, contented to find,
That some notice we gain from so noble a mind;
And pardon our hurts, since so often we've found
The balm of instruction poured into the wound.
'Tis thus for its virtues the chemists extol
Pure rectified spirit, sublime alcohol;
From noxious putrescence, preservative pure,
A cordial in health, and in sickness a cure;
But exposed to the sun, taking fire at his rays,
Burns bright to the bottom, and ends in a blaze.

It is usual, I know not why, when a character is given, to begin with a
description of the person. That which contained the soul of Mr. Johnson
deserves to be particularly described. His stature was remarkably high,
and his limbs exceedingly large. His strength was more than common, I
believe, and his activity had been greater, I have heard, than such a form
gave one reason to expect. His features were strongly marked, and his
countenance particularly rugged; though the original complexion had
certainly been fair, a circumstance somewhat unusual. His sight was near,
and otherwise imperfect; yet his eyes, though of a light grey colour, were
so wild, so piercing, and at times so fierce, that fear was, I believe, the
first emotion in the hearts of all his beholders. His mind was so
comprehensive, that no language but that he used could have expressed its
contents; and so ponderous was his language, that sentiments less lofty and
less solid than his were would have been encumbered, not adorned by it.

Mr. Johnson was not intentionally, however, a pompous converser; and though
he was accused of using big words, as they are called, it was only when
little ones would not express his meaning as clearly, or when, perhaps, the
elevation of the thought would have been disgraced by a dress less superb.
He used to say, "that the size of a man's understanding might always be
justly measured by his mirth," and his own was never contemptible. He
would laugh at a stroke of genuine humour, or sudden sally of odd
absurdity, as heartily and freely as I ever yet saw any man; and though the
jest was often such as few felt besides himself, yet his laugh was
irresistible, and was observed immediately to produce that of the company,
not merely from the notion that it was proper to laugh when he did, but
purely out of want of power to forbear it. He was no enemy to splendour of
apparel or pomp of equipage. "Life," he would say, "is barren enough
surely with all her trappings; let us therefore be cautious how we strip
her." In matters of still higher moment he once observed, when speaking on
the subject of sudden innovation, "He who plants a forest may doubtless cut
down a hedge; yet I could wish, methinks, that even he would wait till he
sees his young plants grow."

With regard to common occurrences, Mr. Johnson had, when I first knew him,
looked on the still-shifting scenes of life till he was weary; for as a
mind slow in its own nature, or unenlivened by information, will
contentedly read in the same book for twenty times, perhaps, the very act
of reading it being more than half the business, and every period being at
every reading better understood; while a mind more active or more skilful
to comprehend its meaning is made sincerely sick at the second perusal; so
a soul like his, acute to discern the truth, vigorous to embrace, and
powerful to retain it, soon sees enough of the world's dull prospect, which
at first, like that of the sea, pleases by its extent, but soon, like that,
too, fatigues from its uniformity; a calm and a storm being the only
variations that the nature of either will admit.

Of Mr. Johnson's erudition the world has been the judge, and we who produce
each a score of his sayings, as proofs of that wit which in him was
inexhaustible, resemble travellers who, having visited Delhi or Golconda,
bring home each a handful of Oriental pearl to evince the riches of the
Great Mogul. May the public condescend to accept my ILL-STRUNG selection
with patience at least, remembering only that they are relics of him who
was great on all occasions, and, like a cube in architecture, you beheld
him on each side, and his size still appeared undiminished.

As his purse was ever open to almsgiving, so was his heart tender to those
who wanted relief, and his soul susceptible of gratitude, and of every kind
impression: yet though he had refined his sensibility he had not
endangered his quiet, by encouraging in himself a solicitude about trifles,
which he treated with the contempt they deserve.

It was well enough known before these sheets were published, that Mr.
Johnson had a roughness in his manner which subdued the saucy, and
terrified the meek; this was, when I knew him, the prominent part of a
character which few durst venture to approach so nearly; and which was for
that reason in many respects grossly and frequently mistaken, and it was
perhaps peculiar to him, that the lofty consciousness of his own
superiority which animated his looks, and raised his voice in conversation,
cast likewise an impenetrable veil over him when he said nothing. His
talk, therefore, had commonly the complexion of arrogance, his silence of
superciliousness. He was, however, seldom inclined to be silent when any
moral or literary question was started; and it was on such occasions that,
like the sage in "Rasselas," he spoke, and attention watched his lips; he
reasoned, and conviction closed his periods; if poetry was talked of, his
quotations were the readiest; and had he not been eminent for more solid
and brilliant qualities, mankind would have united to extol his
extraordinary memory. His manner of repeating deserves to be described,
though at the same time it defeats all power of description; but whoever
once heard him repeat an ode of Horace would be long before they could
endure to hear it repeated by another.

His equity in giving the character of living acquaintance ought not
undoubtedly to be omitted in his own, whence partiality and prejudice were
totally excluded, and truth alone presided in his tongue, a steadiness of
conduct the more to be commended, as no man had stronger likings or
aversions. His veracity was, indeed, from the most trivial to the most
solemn occasions, strict, even to severity; he scorned to embellish a story
with fictitious circumstances, which, he used to say, took off from its
real value. "A story," says Johnson, "should be a specimen of life and
manners; but if the surrounding circumstances are false, as it is no more a
representation of reality, it is no longer worthy our attention."

For the rest--that beneficence which during his life increased the comforts
of so many may after his death be, perhaps, ungratefully forgotten; but
that piety which dictated the serious papers in the "Rambler" will be for
ever remembered; for ever, I think, revered. That ample repository of
religious truth, moral wisdom, and accurate criticism, breathes, indeed,
the genuine emanations of its great author's mind, expressed, too, in a
style so natural to him, and so much like his common mode of conversing,
that I was myself but little astonished when he told me that he had
scarcely read over one of those inimitable essays before they went to the

I will add one or two peculiarities more before I lay down my pen. Though
at an immeasurable distance from content in the contemplation of his own
uncouth form and figure, he did not like another man much the less for
being a coxcomb. I mentioned two friends who were particularly fond of
looking at themselves in a glass. "They do not surprise me at all by so
doing," said Johnson; "they see, reflected in that glass, men who have
risen from almost the lowest situations in life; one to enormous riches,
the other to everything this world can give--rank, fame, and fortune. They
see, likewise, men who have merited their advancement by the exertion and
improvement of those talents which God had given them; and I see not why
they should avoid the mirror."

The other singularity I promised to record is this: That though a man of
obscure birth himself, his partiality to people of family was visible on
every occasion; his zeal for subordination warm even to bigotry; his hatred
to innovation, and reverence for the old feudal times, apparent, whenever
any possible manner of showing them occurred. I have spoken of his piety,
his charity, and his truth, the enlargement of his heart, and the delicacy
of his sentiments; and when I search for shadow to my portrait, none can I
find but what was formed by pride, differently modified as different
occasions showed it; yet never was pride so purified as Johnson's, at once
from meanness and from vanity. The mind of this man was, indeed, expanded
beyond the common limits of human nature, and stored with such variety of
knowledge, that I used to think it resembled a royal pleasure ground, where
every plant, of every name and nation, flourished in the full perfection of
their powers, and where, though lofty woods and falling cataracts first
caught the eye, and fixed the earliest attention of beholders, yet neither
the trim parterre nor the pleasing shrubbery, nor even the antiquated
evergreens, were denied a place in some fit corner of the happy valley.


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