Life Of Johnson, Vol. 3
Boswell, Edited by Birkbeck Hill
Part 4 out of 12
'I went to Auchinleck about the middle of October, and passed some time
with my father very comfortably.
* * * * *
'I am engaged in a criminal prosecution against a country schoolmaster,
for indecent behaviour to his female scholars. There is no statute
against such abominable conduct; but it is punishable at common law. I
shall be obliged to you for your assistance in this extraordinary trial.
I ever am, my dear Sir,
'Your faithful humble servant,
About this time I wrote to Johnson, giving him an account of the
decision of the _Negro cause_, by the court of Session, which by those
who hold even the mildest and best regulated slavery in abomination, (of
which number I do not hesitate to declare that I am none,) should be
remembered with high respect, and to the credit of Scotland; for it went
upon a much broader ground than the case of _Somerset_, which was
decided in England; being truly the general question, whether a
perpetual obligation of service to one master in any mode should be
sanctified by the law of a free country. A negro, then called _Joseph
Knight_, a native of Africa, who having been brought to Jamaica in the
usual course of the slave trade, and purchased by a Scotch gentleman in
that island, had attended his master to Scotland, where it was
officiously suggested to him that he would be found entitled to his
liberty without any limitation. He accordingly brought his action, in
the course of which the advocates on both sides did themselves great
honour. Mr. Maclaurin has had the praise of Johnson, for his argument
in favour of the negro, and Mr. Macconochie distinguished himself on the
same side, by his ingenuity and extraordinary research. Mr. Cullen, on
the part of the master, discovered good information and sound reasoning;
in which he was well supported by Mr. James Ferguson, remarkable for a
manly understanding, and a knowledge both of books and of the world. But
I cannot too highly praise the speech which Mr. Henry Dundas generously
contributed to the cause of the sooty stranger. Mr. Dundas's Scottish
accent, which has been so often in vain obtruded as an objection to
his powerful abilities in parliament, was no disadvantage to him in his
own country. And I do declare, that upon this memorable question he
impressed me, and I believe all his audience, with such feelings as were
produced by some of the most eminent orations of antiquity. This
testimony I liberally give to the excellence of an old friend, with whom
it has been my lot to differ very widely upon many political topicks;
yet I persuade myself without malice. A great majority of the Lords of
Session decided for the negro. But four of their number, the Lord
President, Lord Elliock, Lord Monboddo, and Lord Covington, resolutely
maintained the lawfulness of a status, which has been acknowledged in
all ages and countries, and that when freedom flourished, as in old
Greece and Rome.
'To JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
'This is the time of the year in which all express their good wishes to
their friends, and I send mine to you and your family. May your lives be
long, happy, and good. I have been much out of order, but, I hope, do
not grow worse.
'The crime of the schoolmaster whom you are engaged to prosecute is very
great, and may be suspected to be too common. In our law it would be a
breach of the peace, and a misdemeanour: that is, a kind of indefinite
crime, not capital, but punishable at the discretion of the Court. You
cannot want matter: all that needs to be said will easily occur.
'Mr. Shaw, the author of the _Gaelick Grammar_, desires me to make a
request for him to Lord Eglintoune, that he may be appointed Chaplain to
one of the new-raised regiments.
'All our friends are as they were; little has happened to them of either
good or bad. Mrs. Thrale ran a great black hair-dressing pin into her
eye; but by great evacuation she kept it from inflaming, and it is
almost well. Miss Reynolds has been out of order, but is better. Mrs.
Williams is in a very poor state of health.
'If I should write on, I should, perhaps, write only complaints, and
therefore I will content myself with telling you, that I love to think
on you, and to hear from you; and that I am, dear Sir,
'December 27, 1777.'
'To DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
'Edinburgh, Jan. 8, 1778.
'Your congratulations upon a new year are mixed with complaint: mine
must be so too. My wife has for some time been very ill, having been
confined to the house these three months by a severe cold, attended with
[Here I gave a particular account of the distress which the person, upon
every account most dear to me, suffered; and of the dismal state of
apprehension in which I now was: adding that I never stood more in need
of his consoling philosophy.]
'Did you ever look at a book written by Wilson, a Scotchman, under the
Latin name of _Volusenus_, according to the custom of literary men at a
certain period. It is entitled _De Animi Tranquillitate_. I earnestly
desire tranquillity. _Bona res quies_: but I fear I shall never attain
it: for, when unoccupied, I grow gloomy, and occupation agitates me to
* * * * *
'I am, dear Sir,
'Your most affectionate humble servant,
'To JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
'To a letter so interesting as your last, it is proper to return some
answer, however little I may be disposed to write.
'Your alarm at your lady's illness was reasonable, and not
disproportionate to the appearance of the disorder. I hope your physical
friend's conjecture is now verified, and all fear of a consumption at an
end: a little care and exercise will then restore her. London is a good
air for ladies; and if you bring her hither, I will do for her what she
did for me--I will retire from my apartments, for her accommodation.
Behave kindly to her, and keep her cheerful.
'You always seem to call for tenderness. Know then, that in the first
month of the present year I very highly esteem and very cordially love
you. I hope to tell you this at the beginning of every year as long as
we live; and why should we trouble ourselves to tell or hear it oftener?
'Tell Veronica, Euphemia, and Alexander, that I wish them, as well as
their parents, many happy years.
'You have ended the negro's cause much to my mind. Lord Auchinleck and
dear Lord Hailes were on the side of liberty. Lord Hailes's name
reproaches me; but if he saw my languid neglect of my own affairs, he
would rather pity than resent my neglect of his. I hope to mend, _ut et
mihi vivam et amicis_.
'I am, dear Sir,
'January 24, 1778.'
'My service to my fellow-traveller, Joseph.'
Johnson maintained a long and intimate friendship with Mr. Welch, who
succeeded the celebrated Henry Fielding as one of his Majesty's Justices
of the Peace for Westminster; kept a regular office for the police of
that great district; and discharged his important trust, for many years,
faithfully and ably. Johnson, who had an eager and unceasing curiosity
to know human life in all its variety, told me, that he attended Mr.
Welch in his office for a whole winter, to hear the examinations of the
culprits; but that he found an almost uniform tenor of misfortune,
wretchedness and profligacy. Mr. Welch's health being impaired, he was
advised to try the effect of a warm climate; and Johnson, by his
interest with Mr. Chamier, procured him leave of absence to go to
Italy, and a promise that the pension or salary of two hundred pounds a
year, which Government allowed him, should not be discontinued. Mr.
Welch accordingly went abroad, accompanied by his daughter Anne, a young
lady of uncommon talents and literature.
'TO SAUNDERS WELCH, ESQ., AT THE ENGLISH COFFEE-HOUSE, ROME.
'To have suffered one of my best and dearest friends to pass almost two
years in foreign countries without a letter, has a very shameful
appearance of inattention. But the truth is, that there was no
particular time in which I had any thing particular to say; and general
expressions of good will, I hope, our long friendship is grown too solid
'Of publick affairs you have information from the news-papers wherever
you go, for the English keep no secret; and of other things, Mrs.
Nollekens informs you. My intelligence could therefore be of no use; and
Miss Nancy's letters made it unnecessary to write to you for
information: I was likewise for some time out of humour, to find that
motion, and nearer approaches to the sun, did not restore your health so
fast as I expected. Of your health, the accounts have lately been more
pleasing; and I have the gratification of imaging to myself a length of
years which I hope you have gained, and of which the enjoyment will be
improved by a vast accession of images and observations which your
journeys and various residence have enabled you to make and accumulate.
You have travelled with this felicity, almost peculiar to yourself, that
your companion is not to part from you at your journey's end; but you
are to live on together, to help each other's recollection, and to
supply each other's omissions. The world has few greater pleasures than
that which two friends enjoy, in tracing back, at some distant time,
those transactions and events through which they have passed together.
One of the old man's miseries is, that he cannot easily find a companion
able to partake with him of the past. You and your fellow-traveller have
this comfort in store, that your conversation will be not easily
exhausted; one will always be glad to say what the other will always be
willing to hear.
'That you may enjoy this pleasure long, your health must have your
constant attention. I suppose you purpose to return this year. There is
no need of haste: do not come hither before the height of summer, that
you may fall gradually into the inconveniences of your native clime.
July seems to be the proper month. August and September will prepare you
for the winter. After having travelled so far to find health, you must
take care not to lose it at home; and I hope a little care will
effectually preserve it.
'Miss Nancy has doubtless kept a constant and copious journal. She must
not expect to be welcome when she returns, without a great mass of
information. Let her review her journal often, and set down what she
finds herself to have omitted, that she may trust to memory as little as
possible, for memory is soon confused by a quick succession of things;
and she will grow every day less confident of the truth of her own
narratives, unless she can recur to some written memorials. If she has
satisfied herself with hints, instead of full representations, let her
supply the deficiencies now while her memory is yet fresh, and while her
father's memory may help her. If she observes this direction, she will
not have travelled in vain; for she will bring home a book with which
she may entertain herself to the end of life. If it were not now too
late, I would advise her to note the impression which the first sight of
any thing new and wonderful made upon her mind. Let her now set her
thoughts down as she can recollect them; for faint as they may already
be, they will grow every day fainter.
'Perhaps I do not flatter myself unreasonably when I imagine that you
may wish to know something of me. I can gratify your benevolence with no
account of health. The hand of time, or of disease, is very heavy upon
me. I pass restless and uneasy nights, harassed with convulsions of my
breast, and flatulencies at my stomach; and restless nights make heavy
days. But nothing will be mended by complaints, and therefore I will
make an end. When we meet, we will try to forget our cares and our
maladies, and contribute, as we can, to the chearfulness of each other.
If I had gone with you, I believe I should have been better; but I do
not know that it was in my power.
'I am, dear Sir,
'Your most humble servant,
'Feb. 3, 1778.'
This letter, while it gives admirable advice how to travel to the best
advantage, and will therefore be of very general use, is another eminent
proof of Johnson's warm and affectionate heart.
'TO DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
'Edinburgh, Feb. 26, 1778.
'MY DEAR SIR,
'Why I have delayed, for near a month, to thank you for your last
affectionate letter, I cannot say; for my mind has been in better health
these three weeks than for some years past. I believe I have evaded till
I could send you a copy of Lord Hailes's opinion on the negro's cause,
which he wishes you to read, and correct any errours that there may be
in the language; for, says he, "we live in a critical, though not a
learned age; and I seek to screen myself under the shield of Ajax." I
communicated to him your apology for keeping the sheets of his _Annals_
so long. He says, "I am sorry to see that Dr. Johnson is in a state of
languor. Why should a sober Christian, neither an enthusiast nor a
fanatick, be very merry or very sad?" I envy his Lordship's comfortable
constitution: but well do I know that languor and dejection will afflict
the best, however excellent their principles. I am in possession of Lord
Hailes's opinion in his own hand-writing, and have had it for some time.
My excuse then for procrastination must be, that I wanted to have it
copied; and I have now put that off so long, that it will be better to
bring it with me than send it, as I shall probably get you to look at it
sooner, when I solicit you in person.
'My wife, who is, I thank GOD, a good deal better, is much obliged to
you for your very polite and courteous offer of your apartment: but, if
she goes to London, it will be best for her to have lodgings in the more
airy vicinity of Hyde-Park. I, however, doubt much if I shall be able to
prevail with her to accompany me to the metropolis; for she is so
different from you and me, that she dislikes travelling; and she is so
anxious about her children, that she thinks she should be unhappy if at
a distance from them. She therefore wishes rather to go to some country
place in Scotland, where she can have them with her.
'I purpose being in London about the 20th of next month, as I think it
creditable to appear in the House of Lords as one of Douglas's Counsel,
in the great and last competition between Duke Hamilton and him.
* * * * *
'I am sorry poor Mrs. Williams is so ill: though her temper is
unpleasant, she has always been polite and obliging to me. I wish many
happy years to good Mr. Levett, who I suppose holds his usual place at
your breakfast table.
'I ever am, my dear Sir,
'Your affectionate humble servant,
TO THE SAME.
'Edinburgh, Feb. 28, 1778.
'MY DEAR SIR,
'You are at present busy amongst the English poets, preparing, for the
publick instruction and entertainment, Prefaces, biographical and
critical. It will not, therefore, be out of season to appeal to you for
the decision of a controversy which has arisen between a lady and me
concerning a passage in Parnell. That poet tells us, that his Hermit
quitted his cell
"... to know the world by sight,
To find if _books_ or _swains_ report it right;
(For yet by _swains alone_ the world he knew,
Whose feet came wand'ring o'er the nightly dew.)"
I maintain, that there is an inconsistency here; for as the Hermit's
notions of the world were formed from the reports both of _books_ and
_swains_, he could not justly be said to know by _swains alone_. Be
pleased to judge between us, and let us have your reasons.
'What do you say to _Taxation no Tyranny_, now, after Lord North's
declaration, or confession, or whatever else his conciliatory speech
should be called? I never differed from you in politicks but upon two
points,--the Middlesex Election, and the Taxation of the Americans by
the _British Houses of Representatives_. There is a _charm _in the
word _Parliament_, so I avoid it. As I am a steady and a warm Tory, I
regret that the King does not see it to be better for him to receive
constitutional supplies from his American subjects by the voice of their
own assemblies, where his Royal Person is represented, than through the
medium of his British subjects. I am persuaded that the power of the
Crown, which I wish to increase, would be greater when in contact with
all its dominions, than if "the rays of regal bounty" were to "shine"
upon America through that dense and troubled body, a modern British
Parliament. But, enough of this subject; for your angry voice at
Ashbourne upon it, still sounds aweful "in my mind's _ears_."
'I ever am, my dear Sir,
'Your most affectionate humble servant,
TO THE SAME.
'Edinburgh, March 12, 1778.
'MY DEAR SIR,
'The alarm of your late illness distressed me but a few hours; for on
the evening of the day that it reached me, I found it contradicted in
_The London Chronicle_, which I could depend upon as authentick
concerning you, Mr. Strahan being the printer of it. I did not see the
paper in which "the approaching extinction of a bright luminary" was
announced. Sir William Forbes told me of it; and he says, he saw me so
uneasy, that he did not give me the report in such strong terms as he
read it. He afterwards sent me a letter from Mr. Langton to him, which
relieved me much. I am, however, not quite easy, as I have not heard
from you; and now I shall not have that comfort before I see you, for I
set out for London to-morrow before the post comes in. I hope to be with
you on Wednesday morning; and I ever am, with the highest veneration, my
dear Sir, your much obliged, faithful, and affectionate,
On Wednesday, March 18, I arrived in London, and was informed by good
Mr. Francis that his master was better, and was gone to Mr. Thrale's at
Streatham, to which place I wrote to him, begging to know when he would
be in town. He was not expected for some time; but next day having
called on Dr. Taylor, in Dean's-yard, Westminster, I found him there,
and was told he had come to town for a few hours. He met me with his
usual kindness, but instantly returned to the writing of something on
which he was employed when I came in, and on which he seemed much
intent. Finding him thus engaged, I made my visit very short, and had no
more of his conversation, except his expressing a serious regret that a
friend of ours was living at too much expence, considering how poor
an appearance he made: 'If (said he) a man has splendour from his
expence, if he spends his money in pride or in pleasure, he has value:
but if he lets others spend it for him, which is most commonly the case,
he has no advantage from it.'
On Friday, March 20, I found him at his own house, sitting with Mrs.
Williams, and was informed that the room formerly allotted to me was
now appropriated to a charitable purpose; Mrs. Desmoulins, and I
think her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael, being all lodged in it. Such
was his humanity, and such his generosity, that Mrs. Desmoulins herself
told me, he allowed her half-a-guinea a week. Let it be remembered, that
this was above a twelfth part of his pension.
His liberality, indeed, was at all periods of his life very remarkable.
Mr. Howard, of Lichfield, at whose father's house Johnson had in his
early years been kindly received, told me, that when he was a boy at the
Charter-House, his father wrote to him to go and pay a visit to Mr.
Samuel Johnson, which he accordingly did, and found him in an upper
room, of poor appearance. Johnson received him with much courteousness,
and talked a great deal to him, as to a school-boy, of the course of his
education, and other particulars. When he afterwards came to know and
understand the high character of this great man, he recollected his
condescension with wonder. He added, that when he was going away, Mr.
Johnson presented him with half-a-guinea; and this, said Mr. Howard, was
at a time when he probably had not another.
We retired from Mrs. Williams to another room. Tom Davies soon after
joined us. He had now unfortunately failed in his circumstances, and was
much indebted to Dr. Johnson's kindness for obtaining for him many
alleviations of his distress. After he went away, Johnson blamed his
folly in quitting the stage, by which he and his wife got five hundred
pounds a year. I said, I believed it was owing to Churchill's attack
'He mouths a sentence, as curs mouth a bone.'
JOHNSON. 'I believe so too, Sir. But what a man is he, who is to be
driven from the stage by a line? Another line would have driven him from
I told him, that I was engaged as Counsel at the bar of the House of
Commons to oppose a road-bill in the county of Stirling, and asked him
what mode he would advise me to follow in addressing such an audience.
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, you must provide yourself with a good deal of
extraneous matter, which you are to produce occasionally, so as to fill
up the time; for you must consider, that they do not listen much. If you
begin with the strength of your cause, it may be lost before they begin
to listen. When you catch a moment of attention, press the merits of the
question upon them.' He said, as to one point of the merits, that he
thought 'it would be a wrong thing to deprive the small landholders of
the privilege of assessing themselves for making and repairing the high
roads; _it was destroying a certain portion of liberty, without a good
reason, which was always a bad thing_! When I mentioned this observation
next day to Mr. Wilkes, he pleasantly said, 'What! does _he_ talk of
liberty? _Liberty_ is as ridiculous in _his_ mouth as _Religion_ in
_mine_!' Mr. Wilkes's advice, as to the best mode of speaking at the bar
of the House of Commons, was not more respectful towards the senate,
than that of Dr. Johnson. 'Be as impudent as you can, as merry as you
can, and say whatever comes uppermost. Jack Lee is the best heard
there of any Counsel; and he is the most impudent dog, and always
In my interview with Dr. Johnson this evening, I was quite easy, quite
as his companion; upon which I find in my Journal the following
reflection: 'So ready is my mind to suggest matter for dissatisfaction,
that I felt a sort of regret that I was so easy. I missed that aweful
reverence with which I used to contemplate MR. SAMUEL JOHNSON, in the
complex magnitude of his literary, moral, and religious character. I
have a wonderful superstitious love of _mystery_; when, perhaps, the
truth is, that it is owing to the cloudy darkness of my own mind. I
should be glad that I am more advanced in my progress of being, so that
I can view Dr. Johnson with a steadier and clearer eye. My
dissatisfaction to-night was foolish. Would it not be foolish to regret
that we shall have less mystery in a future state? That we "now see
in a glass darkly," but shall "then see face to face?"' This
reflection, which I thus freely communicate, will be valued by the
thinking part of my readers, who may have themselves experienced a
similar state of mind.
He returned next day to Streatham, to Mr. Thrale's; where, as Mr.
Strahan once complained to me, 'he was in a great measure absorbed from
the society of his old friends.' I was kept in London by business,
and wrote to him on the 27th, that a separation from him for a week,
when we were so near, was equal to a separation for a year, when we were
at four hundred miles distance. I went to Streatham on Monday, March 30.
Before he appeared, Mrs. Thrale made a very characteristical remark:--'I
do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for
certain that it will displease him to praise any thing, even what he
At dinner he laughed at querulous declamations against the age, on
account of luxury,--increase of London,--scarcity of provisions,--and
other such topicks. 'Houses (said he) will be built till rents fall: and
corn is more plentiful now than ever it was.'
I had before dinner repeated a ridiculous story told me by an old man
who had been a passenger with me in the stage-coach to-day. Mrs. Thrale,
having taken occasion to allude to it in talking to me, called it 'The
story told you by the old _woman_.'--'Now, Madam, (said I,) give me
leave to catch you in the fact; it was not an old _woman_, but an old
_man_, whom I mentioned as having told me this.' I presumed to take an
opportunity, in presence of Johnson, of shewing this lively lady how
ready she was, unintentionally, to deviate from exact authenticity of
_Thomas a Kempis_ (he observed) must be a good book, as the world has
opened its arms to receive it. It is said to have been printed, in one
language or other, as many times as there have been months since it
first came out. I always was struck with this sentence in it: 'Be not
angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you
cannot make yourself as you wish to be.'
He said, 'I was angry with Hurd about Cowley, for having published a
selection of his works: but, upon better consideration, I think there is
no impropriety in a man's publishing as much as he chooses of any
authour, if he does not put the rest out of the way. A man, for
instance, may print the _Odes_ of Horace alone.' He seemed to be in a
more indulgent humour, than when this subject was discussed between him
and Mr. Murphy.
When we were at tea and coffee, there came in Lord Trimlestown, in whose
family was an ancient Irish peerage, but it suffered by taking the
generous side in the troubles of the last century. He was a man of
pleasing conversation, and was accompanied by a young gentleman, his
I mentioned that I had in my possession the _Life of Sir Robert
Sibbald_, the celebrated Scottish antiquary, and founder of the Royal
College of Physicians at Edinburgh, in the original manuscript in his
own handwriting; and that it was I believed the most natural and candid
account of himself that ever was given by any man. As an instance, he
tells that the Duke of Perth, then Chancellor of Scotland, pressed him
very much to come over to the Roman Catholick faith: that he resisted
all his Grace's arguments for a considerable time, till one day he felt
himself, as it were, instantaneously convinced, and with tears in his
eyes ran into the Duke's arms, and embraced the ancient religion; that
he continued very steady in it for some time, and accompanied his Grace
to London one winter, and lived in his household; that there he found
the rigid fasting prescribed by the church very severe upon him; that
this disposed him to reconsider the controversy, and having then seen
that he was in the wrong, he returned to Protestantism. I talked of some
time or other publishing this curious life. MRS. THRALE. 'I think you
had as well let alone that publication. To discover such weakness,
exposes a man when he is gone.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, it is an honest picture
of human nature. How often are the primary motives of our greatest
actions as small as Sibbald's, for his re-conversion.' MRS. THRALE.
'But may they not as well be forgotten?' JOHNSON. 'No, Madam, a man
loves to review his own mind. That is the use of a diary, or
journal.' LORD TRIMLESTOWN. 'True, Sir. As the ladies love to see
themselves in a glass; so a man likes to see himself in his journal.'
BOSWELL. 'A very pretty allusion.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, indeed.' BOSWELL. 'And
as a lady adjusts her dress before a mirror, a man adjusts his character
by looking at his journal.' I next year found the very same thought in
Atterbury's _Funeral Sermon on Lady Cutts_; where, having mentioned her
_Diary_, he says, 'In this glass she every day dressed her mind.' This
is a proof of coincidence, and not of plagiarism; for I had never read
that sermon before.
Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest
recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost
conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most
minute particulars. 'Accustom your children (said he) constantly to
this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say
that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check
them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.' BOSWELL. 'It
may come to the door: and when once an account is at all varied in one
circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different
from what really happened.' Our lively hostess, whose fancy was
impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, 'Nay, this
is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would
comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little
variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is
not perpetually watching.' JOHNSON. 'Well, Madam, and you _ought_ to be
perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from
intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.'
In his review of Dr. Warton's _Essay on the Writings and Genius of
Pope_, Johnson has given the following salutary caution upon this
'Nothing but experience could evince the frequency of false information,
or enable any man to conceive that so many groundless reports should be
propagated, as every man of eminence may hear of himself. Some men
relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories
and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and
some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to
broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by
Had he lived to read what Sir John Hawkins and Mrs. Piozzi have related
concerning himself, how much would he have found his observation
illustrated. He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of
falsehood, voluntary or unintentional, that I never knew any person who
upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the
_incredulus odi_. He would say, with a significant look and decisive
tone, 'It is not so. Do not tell this again.' He inculcated upon all
his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest
degrees of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua Reynolds
observed to me, has been, that all who were of his _school_ are
distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which they would not
have possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with
Talking of ghosts, he said, 'It is wonderful that five thousand years
have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is
undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit
of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all
belief is for it.'
He said, 'John Wesley's conversation is good, but he is never at
leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very
disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk,
as I do.'
On Friday, April 3, I dined with him in London, in a company where
were present several eminent men, whom I shall not name, but distinguish
their parts in the conversation by different letters.
F. 'I have been looking at this famous antique marble dog of Mr.
Jennings, valued at a thousand guineas, said to be Alcibiades's dog.'
JOHNSON. 'His tail then must be docked. That was the mark of
Alcibiades's dog.' E. 'A thousand guineas! The representation of no
animal whatever is worth so much, at this rate a dead dog would indeed
be better than a living lion.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is not the worth of the
thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated.
Every thing that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shews man he
can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable. The first man who
balanced a straw upon his nose; Johnson, who rode upon three horses
at a time; in short, all such men deserved the applause of mankind,
not on account of the use of what they did, but of the dexterity which
they exhibited.' BOSWELL. 'Yet a misapplication of time and assiduity is
not to be encouraged. Addison, in one of his _Spectators_, commends the
judgement of a King, who, as a suitable reward to a man that by long
perseverance had attained to the art of throwing a barleycorn through
the eye of a needle, gave him a bushel of barley.' JOHNSON. 'He must
have been a King of Scotland, where barley is scarce.' F. 'One of the
most remarkable antique figures of an animal is the boar at Florence.'
JOHNSON. 'The first boar that is well made in marble, should be
preserved as a wonder. When men arrive at a facility of making boars
well, then the workmanship is not of such value, but they should however
be preserved as examples, and as a greater security for the restoration
of the art, should it be lost.'
E. 'We hear prodigious complaints at present of emigration. I am
convinced that emigration makes a country more populous.' J. 'That
sounds very much like a paradox.' E. 'Exportation of men, like
exportation of all other commodities, makes more be produced.' JOHNSON.
'But there would be more people were there not emigration, provided
there were food for more.' E. 'No; leave a few breeders, and you'll have
more people than if there were no emigration.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, it is
plain there will be more people, if there are more breeders. Thirty cows
in good pasture will produce more calves than ten cows, provided they
have good bulls.' E. 'There are bulls enough in Ireland.' JOHNSON.
(smiling,) 'So, Sir, I should think from your argument.' BOSWELL. 'You
said, exportation of men, like exportation of other commodities, makes
more be produced. But a bounty is given to encourage the exportation of
corn, and no bounty is given for the exportation of men; though,
indeed, those who go, gain by it.' R. 'But the bounty on the exportation
of corn is paid at home.' E. 'That's the same thing.' JOHNSON. 'No,
Sir.' R. 'A man who stays at home, gains nothing by his neighbours
emigrating.' BOSWELL. 'I can understand that emigration may be the cause
that more people may be produced in a country; but the country will not
therefore be the more populous; for the people issue from it. It can
only be said that there is a flow of people. It is an encouragement to
have children, to know that they can get a living by emigration.' R.
'Yes, if there were an emigration of children under six years of age.
But they don't emigrate till they could earn their livelihood in some
way at home.' C. 'It is remarkable that the most unhealthy countries,
where there are the most destructive diseases, such as Egypt and Bengal,
are the most populous.' JOHNSON. 'Countries which are the most populous
have the most destructive diseases. _That_ is the true state of the
proposition.' C. 'Holland is very unhealthy, yet it is exceedingly
populous.' JOHNSON. 'I know not that Holland is unhealthy. But its
populousness is owing to an influx of people from all other countries.
Disease cannot be the cause of populousness, for it not only carries off
a great proportion of the people, but those who are left are weakened
and unfit for the purposes of increase.'
R. 'Mr. E., I don't mean to flatter, but when posterity reads one of
your speeches in Parliament, it will be difficult to believe that you
took so much pains, knowing with certainty that it could produce no
effect, that not one vote would be gained by it.' E. 'Waiving your
compliment to me, I shall say in general, that it is very well worth
while for a man to take pains to speak well in Parliament. A man, who
has vanity, speaks to display his talents; and if a man speaks well, he
gradually establishes a certain reputation and consequence in the
general opinion, which sooner or later will have its political reward.
Besides, though not one vote is gained, a good speech has its effect.
Though an act which has been ably opposed passes into a law, yet in its
progress it is modelled, it is softened in such a manner, that we see
plainly the Minister has been told, that the Members attached to him are
so sensible of its injustice or absurdity from what they have heard,
that it must be altered.' JOHNSON. 'And, Sir, there is a
gratification of pride. Though we cannot out-vote them we will out-argue
them. They shall not do wrong without its being shown both to themselves
and to the world.' E. 'The House of Commons is a mixed body. (I except
the Minority, which I hold to be pure, [smiling] but I take the whole
House.) It is a mass by no means pure; but neither is it wholly corrupt,
though there is a large proportion of corruption in it. There are many
members who generally go with the Minister, who will not go all lengths.
There are many honest well-meaning country gentleman who are in
parliament only to keep up the consequence of their families. Upon most
of these a good speech will have influence.' JOHNSON. 'We are all more
or less governed by interest. But interest will not make us do every
thing. In a case which admits of doubt, we try to think on the side
which is for our interest, and generally bring ourselves to act
accordingly. But the subject must admit of diversity of colouring; it
must receive a colour on that side. In the House of Commons there are
members enough who will not vote what is grossly unjust or absurd. No,
Sir, there must always be right enough, or appearance of right, to keep
wrong in countenance.' BOSWELL. 'There is surely always a majority in
parliament who have places, or who want to have them, and who therefore
will be generally ready to support government without requiring any
pretext.' E. 'True, Sir; that majority will always follow
"_Quo clamor vocat et turba, faventium_."'
BOSWELL. 'Well now, let us take the common phrase, Place-hunters. I
thought they had hunted without regard to any thing, just as their
huntsmen, the Minister, leads, looking only to the prey.' J. 'But
taking your metaphor, you know that in hunting there are few so
desperately keen as to follow without reserve. Some do not choose to
leap ditches and hedges and risk their necks, or gallop over steeps, or
even to dirty themselves in bogs and mire.' BOSWELL. 'I am glad there
are some good, quiet, moderate political hunters.' E. 'I believe, in any
body of men in England, I should have been in the Minority; I have
always been in the Minority.' P. 'The House of Commons resembles a
private company. How seldom is any man convinced by another's argument;
passion and pride rise against it.' R. 'What would be the consequence,
if a Minister, sure of a majority in the House of Commons, should
resolve that there should be no speaking at all upon his side.' E. 'He
must soon go out. That has been tried; but it was found it would not
E. 'The Irish language is not primitive; it is Teutonick, a mixture of
the northern tongues: it has much English in it.' JOHNSON. 'It may have
been radically Teutonick; but English and High Dutch have no similarity
to the eye, though radically the same. Once, when looking into Low
Dutch, I found, in a whole page, only one word similar to English;
_stroem_, like _stream_, and it signified _tide_'. E. 'I remember having
seen a Dutch Sonnet, in which I found this word, _roesnopies_. Nobody
would at first think that this could be English; but, when we enquire,
we find _roes_, rose, and _nopie_, knob; so we have _rosebuds_'.
JOHNSON. 'I have been reading Thicknesse's _Travels_, which I think are
entertaining.' BOSWELL. 'What, Sir, a good book?' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, to
read once; I do not say you are to make a study of it, and digest it;
and I believe it to be a true book in his intention. All travellers
generally mean to tell truth; though Thicknesse observes, upon Smollet's
account of his alarming a whole town in France by firing a
blunderbuss, and frightening a French nobleman till he made him tie
on his portmanteau, that he would be loth to say Smollet had told two
lies in one page; but he had found the only town in France where these
things could have happened. Travellers must often be mistaken. In
every thing, except where mensuration can be applied, they may honestly
differ. There has been, of late, a strange turn in travellers to be
E. 'From the experience which I have had,--and I have had a great
deal,--I have learnt to think _better_ of mankind.' JOHNSON. 'From my
experience I have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed
to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another
good than I had conceived.' J. 'Less just and more beneficent.'
JOHNSON. 'And really it is wonderful, considering how much attention is
necessary for men to take care of themselves, and ward off immediate
evils which press upon them, it is wonderful how much they do for
others. As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth
than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more
good than evil.' BOSWELL. 'Perhaps from experience men may be found
happier than we suppose.' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; the more we enquire, we
shall find men the less happy.' P. 'As to thinking better or worse of
mankind from experience, some cunning people will not be satisfied
unless they have put men to the test, as they think. There is a very
good story told of Sir Godfrey Kneller, in his character of a Justice of
the peace. A gentleman brought his servant before him, upon an
accusation of having stolen some money from him; but it having come out
that he had laid it purposely in the servant's way, in order to try his
honesty, Sir Godfrey sent the master to prison.' JOHNSON. 'To resist
temptation once, is not a sufficient proof of honesty. If a servant,
indeed, were to resist the continued temptation of silver lying in a
window, as some people let it lye, when he is sure his master does not
know how much there is of it, he would give a strong proof of honesty.
But this is a proof to which you have no right to put a man. You know,
humanly speaking, there is a certain degree of temptation, which will
overcome any virtue. Now, in so far as you approach temptation to a man,
you do him an injury; and, if he is overcome, you share his guilt.' P.
'And, when once overcome, it is easier for him to be got the better of
again.' BOSWELL. 'Yes, you are his seducer; you have debauched him. I
have known a man resolved to put friendship to the test, by asking a
friend to lend him money merely with that view, when he did not want
it.' JOHNSON. 'That is very wrong, Sir. Your friend may be a narrow man,
and yet have many good qualities: narrowness may be his only fault. Now
you are trying his general character as a friend, by one particular
singly, in which he happens to be defective, when, in truth, his
character is composed of many particulars.'
E. 'I understand the hogshead of claret, which this society was favoured
with by our friend the Dean, is nearly out; I think he should be
written to, to send another of the same kind. Let the request be made
with a happy ambiguity of expression, so that we may have the chance of
his sending _it_ also as a present.' JOHNSON. 'I am willing to offer my
services as secretary on this occasion.' P. 'As many as are for Dr.
Johnson being secretary hold up your hands.--Carried unanimously.'
BOSWELL. 'He will be our Dictator.' JOHNSON. 'No, the company is to
dictate to me. I am only to write for wine; and I am quite
disinterested, as I drink none; I shall not be suspected of having
forged the application. I am no more than humble _scribe_.' E. 'Then you
shall _pre_scribe.' BOSWELL. 'Very well. The first play of words
to-day.' J. 'No, no; the _bulls_ in Ireland.' JOHNSON. 'Were I your
Dictator you should have no wine. It would be my business _cavere ne
quid detrimenti Respublica caperet_, and wine is dangerous. Rome was
ruined by luxury,' (smiling.) E. 'If you allow no wine as Dictator, you
shall not have me for your master of horse.'
On Saturday, April 4, I drank tea with Johnson at Dr. Taylor's, where he
had dined. He entertained us with an account of a tragedy written by a
Dr. Kennedy, (not the Lisbon physician.) 'The catastrophe of it (said
he) was, that a King, who was jealous of his Queen with his
prime-minister, castrated himself. This tragedy was actually shewn
about in manuscript to several people, and, amongst others, to Mr.
Fitzherbert, who repeated to me two lines of the Prologue:
"Our hero's fate we have but gently touch'd;
The fair might blame us, if it were less couch'd."
It is hardly to be believed what absurd and indecent images men will
introduce into their writings, without being sensible of the absurdity
and indecency. I remember Lord Orrery told me, that there was a pamphlet
written against Sir Robert Walpole, the whole of which was an allegory
on the PHALLICK OBSCENITY. The Duchess of Buckingham asked Lord Orrery
_who_ this person was? He answered he did not know. She said, she would
send to Mr. Pulteney, who, she supposed, could inform her. So then, to
prevent her from making herself ridiculous, Lord Orrery sent her Grace a
note, in which he gave her to understand what was meant.'
He was very silent this evening; and read in a variety of books:
suddenly throwing down one, and taking up another.
He talked of going to Streatham that night. TAYLOR. 'You'll be robbed if
you do: or you must shoot a highwayman. Now I would rather be robbed
than do that; I would not shoot a highwayman.' JOHNSON. 'But I would
rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than
afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey, to take away his life,
after he has robbed me. I am surer I am right in the one case than in
the other. I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be
mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance
reluctance to take away a man's life, when we are heated by the injury,
than to do it at a distance of time by an oath, after we have cooled.'
BOSWELL. 'So, Sir, you would rather act from the motive of private
passion, than that of publick advantage.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, when I
shoot the highwayman I act from both.' BOSWELL. 'Very well, very
well.--There is no catching him.' JOHNSON. 'At the same time one does
not know what to say. For perhaps one may, a year after, hang himself
from uneasiness for having shot a man. Few minds are fit to be
trusted with so great a thing.' BOSWELL. 'Then, Sir, you would not shoot
him?' JOHNSON. 'But I might be vexed afterwards for that too.'
Thrale's carriage not having come for him, as he expected, I accompanied
him some part of the way home to his own house. I told him, that I had
talked of him to Mr. Dunning a few days before, and had said, that in
his company we did not so much interchange conversation, as listen to
him; and that Dunning observed, upon this, 'One is always willing to
listen to Dr. Johnson:' to which I answered, 'That is a great deal from
you, Sir.'--'Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) a great deal indeed. Here is a
man willing to listen, to whom the world is listening all the rest of
the year.' BOSWELL. 'I think, Sir, it is right to tell one man of such a
handsome thing, which has been said of him by another. It tends to
increase benevolence.' JOHNSON. 'Undoubtedly it is right, Sir.'
On Tuesday, April 7, I breakfasted with him at his house. He said,
'nobody was content.' I mentioned to him a respectable person in
Scotland whom he knew; and I asserted, that I really believed he was
always content. JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, he is not content with the present;
he has always some new scheme, some new plantation, something which is
future. You know he was not content as a widower; for he married again.'
BOSWELL. 'But he is not restless.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, he is only locally at
rest. A chymist is locally at rest; but his mind is hard at work. This
gentleman has done with external exertions. It is too late for him to
engage in distant projects.' BOSWELL. 'He seems to amuse himself quite
well; to have his attention fixed, and his tranquillity preserved by
very small matters. I have tried this; but it would not do with me.'
JOHNSON, (laughing) 'No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented
to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they
may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man
cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done
nothing else.' BOSWELL. 'Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical
instrument?' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never
made out a tune.' BOSWELL. 'A flagelet, Sir!--so small an instrument?
I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. _That_ should
have been _your_ instrument.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I might as well have played
on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No,
Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with
small. I once tried knotting. Dempster's sister undertook to teach me;
but I could not learn it.' BOSWELL. 'So, Sir; it will be related in
pompous narrative, "Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did
this Hercules disdain the distaff."' JOHNSON. 'Knitting of stockings is
a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of
stockings.' He asked me to go down with him and dine at Mr. Thrale's at
Streatham, to which I agreed. I had lent him _An Account of Scotland, in
1702_, written by a man of various enquiry, an English chaplain to a
regiment stationed there. JOHNSON. 'It is sad stuff, Sir, miserably
written, as books in general then were. There is now an elegance of
style universally diffused. No man now writes so ill as Martin's
_Account of the Hebrides_ is written. A man could not write so ill, if
he should try. Set a merchant's clerk now to write, and he'll do
He talked to me with serious concern of a certain female friend's
'laxity of narration, and inattention to truth.'--'I am as much vexed
(said he) at the ease with which she hears it mentioned to her, as at
the thing itself. I told her, "Madam, you are contented to hear every
day said to you, what the highest of mankind have died for, rather than
bear."--You know, Sir, the highest of mankind have died rather than bear
to be told they had uttered a falsehood. Do talk to her of it: I am
BOSWELL. 'Was not Dr. John Campbell a very inaccurate man in his
narrative, Sir? He once told me, that he drank thirteen bottles of port
at a sitting.' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I do not know that Campbell ever
lied with pen and ink; but you could not entirely depend on any thing he
told you in conversation: if there was fact mixed with it. However, I
loved Campbell: he was a solid orthodox man: he had a reverence for
religion. Though defective in practice, he was religious in principle;
and he did nothing grossly wrong that I have heard.'
I told him, that I had been present the day before, when Mrs. Montagu,
the literary lady, sat to Miss Reynolds for her picture; and that she
said, 'she had bound up Mr. Gibbon's _History_ without the last two
offensive chapters; for that she thought the book so far good, as it
gave, in an elegant manner, the substance of the bad writers _medii
aevi_, which the late Lord Lyttelton advised her to read.' JOHNSON.
'Sir, she has not read them: she shews none of this impetuosity to me:
she does not know Greek, and, I fancy, knows little Latin. She is
willing you should think she knows them; but she does not say she
does.' BOSWELL. 'Mr. Harris, who was present, agreed with her.'
JOHNSON. 'Harris was laughing at her, Sir. Harris is a sound sullen
scholar; he does not like interlopers. Harris, however, is a prig, and a
bad prig. I looked into his book, and thought he did not
understand his own system.' BOSWELL. 'He says plain things in a formal
and abstract way, to be sure: but his method is good: for to have clear
notions upon any subject, we must have recourse to analytick
arrangement.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is what every body does, whether they
will or no. But sometimes things may be made darker by definition. I see
a _cow_, I define her, _Animal quadrupes ruminans cornutum_. But a goat
ruminates, and a cow may have no horns. _Cow_ is plainer.' BOSWELL. 'I
think Dr. Franklin's definition of _Man_ a good one--"A tool-making
animal."' JOHNSON. 'But many a man never made a tool; and suppose a man
without arms, he could not make a tool.'
Talking of drinking wine, he said, 'I did not leave off wine, because I
could not bear it; I have drunk three bottles of port without being the
worse for it. University College has witnessed this.' BOSWELL. 'Why
then, Sir, did you leave it off?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, because it is so
much better for a man to be sure that he is never to be intoxicated,
never to lose the power over himself. I shall not begin to drink wine
again, till I grow old, and want it.' BOSWELL. 'I think, Sir, you once
said to me, that not to drink wine was a great deduction from life.'
JOHNSON. 'It is a diminution of pleasure, to be sure; but I do not say a
diminution of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.'
BOSWELL. 'But if we could have pleasure always, should not we be happy?
The greatest part of men would compound for pleasure.' JOHNSON.
'Supposing we could have pleasure always, an intellectual man would not
compound for it. The greatest part of men would compound, because the
greatest part of men are gross.' BOSWELL. 'I allow there may be greater
pleasure than from wine. I have had more pleasure from your
conversation, I have indeed; I assure you I have.' JOHNSON. 'When we
talk of pleasure, we mean sensual pleasure. When a man says, he had
pleasure with a woman, he does not mean conversation, but something of a
very different nature. Philosophers tell you, that pleasure is
_contrary_ to happiness. Gross men prefer animal pleasure. So there are
men who have preferred living among savages. Now what a wretch must he
be, who is content with such conversation as can be had among savages!
You may remember an officer at Fort Augustus, who had served in
America, told us of a woman whom they were obliged to _bind_, in order
to get her back from savage life.' BOSWELL. 'She must have been an
animal, a beast.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, she was a speaking cat.'
I mentioned to him that I had become very weary in a company where I
heard not a single intellectual sentence, except that 'a man who had
been settled ten years in Minorca was become a much inferiour man to
what he was in London, because a man's mind grows narrow in a narrow
place.' JOHNSON. 'A man's mind grows narrow in a narrow place, whose
mind is enlarged only because he has lived in a large place: but what is
got by books and thinking is preserved in a narrow place as well as in a
large place. A man cannot know modes of life as well in Minorca as in
London; but he may study mathematicks as well in Minorca.' BOSWELL. 'I
don't know, Sir: if you had remained ten years in the Isle of Col, you
would not have been the man that you now are.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, if I
had been there from fifteen to twenty-five; but not if from twenty-five
to thirty-five.' BOSWELL. 'I own, Sir, the spirits which I have in
London make me do every thing with more readiness and vigour. I can talk
twice as much in London as any where else.'
Of Goldsmith he said, 'He was not an agreeable companion, for he talked
always for fame. A man who does so never can be pleasing. The man who
talks to unburthen his mind is the man to delight you. An eminent
friend of ours is not so agreeable as the variety of his knowledge
would otherwise make him, because he talks partly from ostentation.'
Soon after our arrival at Thrale's, I heard one of the maids calling
eagerly on another, to go to Dr. Johnson. I wondered what this could
mean. I afterwards learnt, that it was to give her a Bible, which he had
brought from London as a present to her.
He was for a considerable time occupied in reading _Memoires de
Fontenelle_, leaning and swinging upon the low gate into the court,
without his hat.
I looked into Lord Kames's _Sketches of the History of Man_; and
mentioned to Dr. Johnson his censure of Charles the Fifth, for
celebrating his funeral obsequies in his life-time, which, I told him, I
had been used to think a solemn and affecting act. JOHNSON. 'Why,
Sir, a man may dispose his mind to think so of that act of Charles; but
it is so liable to ridicule, that if one man out of ten thousand laughs
at it, he'll make the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine
laugh too.' I could not agree with him in this.
Sir John Pringle had expressed a wish that I would ask Dr. Johnson's
opinion what were the best English sermons for style. I took an
opportunity to-day of mentioning several to him.--_Atterbury_? JOHNSON.
'Yes, Sir, one of the best.' BOSWELL. _Tillotson_? JOHNSON. 'Why, not
now. I should not advise a preacher at this day to imitate Tillotson's
style: though I don't know; I should be cautious of objecting to what
has been applauded by so many suffrages.--_South_ is one of the best, if
you except his peculiarities, and his violence, and sometimes coarseness
of language.--_Seed_ has a very fine style; but he is not very
theological.--_Jortin's_ sermons are very elegant.--_Sherlock's_ style
too is very elegant, though he has not made it his principal study.--And
you may add _Smallridge_. All the latter preachers have a good style.
Indeed, nobody now talks much of style: every body composes pretty
well. There are no such unharmonious periods as there were a hundred
years ago. I should recommend Dr. _Clarke's_ sermons, were he
orthodox. However, it is very well known _where_ he was not orthodox,
which was upon the doctrine of the Trinity, as to which he is a
condemned heretick; so one is aware of it.' BOSWELL. 'I like Ogden's
_Sermons on Prayer_ very much, both for neatness of style and subtilty
of reasoning.' JOHNSON. 'I should like to read all that Ogden has
written.' BOSWELL. 'What I wish to know is, what sermons afford the
best specimen of English pulpit eloquence.' JOHNSON. 'We have no sermons
addressed to the passions that are good for any thing; if you mean that
kind of eloquence.' A CLERGYMAN: (whose name I do not recollect.) 'Were
not Dodd's sermons addressed to the passions?' JOHNSON. 'They were
nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.'
At dinner, Mrs. Thrale expressed a wish to go and see Scotland. JOHNSON.
'Seeing Scotland, Madam, is only seeing a worse England. It is seeing
the flower gradually fade away to the naked stalk. Seeing the Hebrides,
indeed, is seeing quite a different scene.'
Our poor friend, Mr. Thomas Davies, was soon to have a benefit at
Drury-lane theatre, as some relief to his unfortunate circumstances. We
were all warmly interested for his success, and had contributed to it.
However, we thought there was no harm in having our joke, when he could
not be hurt by it. I proposed that he should be brought on to speak a
Prologue upon the occasion; and I began to mutter fragments of what it
might be: as, that when now grown _old_, he was obliged to cry, 'Poor
Tom's _a-cold_;'--that he owned he had been driven from the stage by
a Churchill, but that this was no disgrace, for a Churchill had beat
the French;--that he had been satyrised as 'mouthing a sentence as curs
mouth a bone,' but he was now glad of a bone to pick.--'Nay, (said
Johnson,) I would have him to say,
"Mad Tom is come to see the world again."'
He and I returned to town in the evening. Upon the road, I endeavoured
to maintain, in argument, that a landed gentleman is not under any
obligation to reside upon his estate; and that by living in London he
does no injury to his country. JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, he does no injury to
his country in general, because the money which he draws from it gets
back again in circulation; but to his particular district, his
particular parish, he does an injury. All that he has to give away is
not given to those who have the first claim to it. And though I have
said that the money circulates back, it is a long time before that
happens. Then, Sir, a man of family and estate ought to consider himself
as having the charge of a district, over which he is to diffuse civility
Next day I found him at home in the morning. He praised Delany's
_Observations on Swift_; said that his book and Lord Orrery's might both
be true, though one viewed Swift more, and the other less favourably;
and that, between both, we might have a complete notion of Swift.
Talking of a man's resolving to deny himself the use of wine, from moral
and religious considerations, he said, 'He must not doubt about it. When
one doubts as to pleasure, we know what will be the conclusion. I now no
more think of drinking wine, than a horse does. The wine upon the table
is no more for me, than for the dog that is under the table.'
On Thursday, April 9, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, with
the Bishop of St. Asaph, (Dr. Shipley,) Mr. Allan Ramsay, Mr.
Gibbon, Mr. Cambridge, and Mr. Langton. Mr. Ramsay had lately returned
from Italy, and entertained us with his observations upon Horace's
villa, which he had examined with great care. I relished this much, as
it brought fresh into my mind what I had viewed with great pleasure
thirteen years before. The Bishop, Dr. Johnson, and Mr. Cambridge,
joined with Mr. Ramsay, in recollecting the various lines in Horace
relating to the subject.
Horace's journey to Brundusium being mentioned, Johnson observed, that
the brook which he describes is to be seen now, exactly as at that
time, and that he had often wondered how it happened, that small
brooks, such as this, kept the same situation for ages, notwithstanding
earthquakes, by which even mountains have been changed, and agriculture,
which produces such a variation upon the surface of the earth.
CAMBRIDGE. 'A Spanish writer has this thought in a poetical conceit.
After observing that most of the solid structures of Rome are totally
perished, while the Tiber remains the same, he adds,
'_Lo que era Firme huio solamente,
Lo Fugitivo permanece y dura_.'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, that is taken from Janus Vitalis:
'... _immota labescunt;
Et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent_.'
The Bishop said, it appeared from Horace's writings that he was a
cheerful contented man. JOHNSON. 'We have no reason to believe that, my
Lord. Are we to think Pope was happy, because he says so in his
writings? We see in his writings what he wished the state of his mind to
appear. Dr. Young, who pined for preferment, talks with contempt of it
in his writings, and affects to despise every thing that he did not
despise.' BISHOP OF ST. ASAPH. 'He was like other chaplains, looking
for vacancies: but that is not peculiar to the clergy. I remember when I
was with the army, after the battle of Lafeldt, the officers
seriously grumbled that no general was killed.' CAMBRIDGE. 'We may
believe Horace more when he says,
"_Romae Tibur amem, ventosus Tibure Romam_;"
than when he boasts of his consistency:
"_Me constare mihi scis, et decedere tristem,
Quandocunque trahunt invisa negotia Romam_."'
BOSWELL. 'How hard is it that man can never be at rest.' RAMSAY. 'It is
not in his nature to be at rest. When he is at rest, he is in the worst
state that he can be in; for he has nothing to agitate him. He is then
like the man in the Irish song,
"There liv'd a young man in Ballinacrazy.
Who wanted a wife for to make him un_ai_sy."'
Goldsmith being mentioned, Johnson observed, that it was long before his
merit came to be acknowledged. That he once complained to him, in
ludicrous terms of distress, 'Whenever I write any thing, the publick
_make a point_ to know nothing about it:' but that his _Traveller_
brought him into high reputation. LANGTON. 'There is not one bad line
in that poem; not one of Dryden's careless verses.' SIR JOSHUA. 'I was
glad to hear Charles Fox say, it was one of the finest poems in the
English language.' LANGTON. 'Why was you glad? You surely had no doubt
of this before.' JOHNSON. 'No; the merit of _The Traveller_ is so well
established, that Mr. Fox's praise cannot augment it, nor his censure
diminish it.' SIR JOSHUA. 'But his friends may suspect they had too
great a partiality for him.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, the partiality of his
friends was always against him. It was with difficulty we could give him
a hearing. Goldsmith had no settled notions upon any subject; so he
talked always at random. It seemed to be his intention to blurt out
whatever was in his mind, and see what would become of it. He was angry
too, when catched in an absurdity; but it did not prevent him from
falling into another the next minute. I remember Chamier, after
talking with him for some time, said, "Well, I do believe he wrote this
poem himself: and, let me tell you, that is believing a great deal."
Chamier once asked him, what he meant by _slow_, the last word in the
first line of _The Traveller_,
'"Remote, unfriended, melancholy, slow."
'Did he mean tardiness of locomotion? Goldsmith, who would say something
without consideration, answered, "Yes." I was sitting by, and said, "No,
Sir; you do not mean tardiness of locomotion; you mean, that
sluggishness of mind which comes upon a man in solitude." Chamier
believed then that I had written the line as much as if he had seen me
write it. Goldsmith, however, was a man, who, whatever he wrote, did
it better than any other man could do. He deserved a place in
Westminster-Abbey, and every year he lived, would have deserved it
better. He had, indeed, been at no pains to fill his mind with
knowledge. He transplanted it from one place to another; and it did not
settle in his mind; so he could not tell what was in his own books.'
We talked of living in the country. JOHNSON. 'No wise man will go to
live in the country, unless he has something to do which can be better
done in the country. For instance: if he is to shut himself up for a
year to study a science, it is better to look out to the fields, than to
an opposite wall. Then, if a man walks out in the country, there is
nobody to keep him from walking in again: but if a man walks out in
London, he is not sure when he shall walk in again. A great city is, to
be sure, the school for studying life; and "The proper study of mankind
is man," as Pope observes.' BOSWELL. 'I fancy London is the best
place for society; though I have heard that the very first society of
Paris is still beyond any thing that we have here.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I
question if in Paris such a company as is sitting round this table could
be got together in less than half a year. They talk in France of the
felicity of men and women living together: the truth is, that there the
men are not higher than the women, they know no more than the women do,
and they are not held down in their conversation by the presence of
women.' RAMSAY. 'Literature is upon the growth, it is in its spring
in France. Here it is rather _passee_.' JOHNSON. 'Literature was in
France long before we had it. Paris was the second city for the revival
of letters: Italy had it first, to be sure. What have we done for
literature, equal to what was done by the Stephani and others in France?
Our literature came to us through France. Caxton printed only two books,
Chaucer and Gower, that were not translations from the French; and
Chaucer, we know, took much from the Italians. No, Sir, if literature be
in its spring in France, it is a second spring; it is after a winter. We
are now before the French in literature; but we had it long after
them. In England, any man who wears a sword and a powdered wig is
ashamed to be illiterate. I believe it is not so in France. Yet there
is, probably, a great deal of learning in France, because they have such
a number of religious establishments; so many men who have nothing else
to do but to study. I do not know this; but I take it upon the common
principles of chance. Where there are many shooters, some will hit.'
We talked of old age. Johnson (now in his seventieth year,) said, 'It
is a man's own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid
in old age.' The Bishop asked, if an old man does not lose faster than
he gets. JOHNSON. 'I think not, my Lord, if he exerts himself.' One of
the company rashly observed, that he thought it was happy for an old man
that insensibility comes upon him. JOHNSON: (with a noble elevation and
disdain,) 'No, Sir, I should never be happy by being less rational.'
BISHOP OF ST. ASAPH. 'Your wish then, Sir, is [Greek: gaeraskein
didaskomenos].' JOHNSON. 'Yes, my Lord.'
His Lordship mentioned a charitable establishment in Wales, where people
were maintained, and supplied with every thing, upon the condition of
their contributing the weekly produce of their labour; and he said, they
grew quite torpid for want of property. JOHNSON. 'They have no object
for hope. Their condition cannot be better. It is rowing without a
One of the company asked him the meaning of the expression in Juvenal,
_unius lacertae_. JOHNSON. 'I think it clear enough; as much ground as
one may have a chance to find a lizard upon.'
Commentators have differed as to the exact meaning of the expression by
which the Poet intended to enforce the sentiment contained in the
passage where these words occur. It is enough that they mean to denote
even a very small possession, provided it be a man's own:
'_Est aliquid quocunque loco quocunque recessu,
Unius sese dominum fecisse lacertae_.'
This season there was a whimsical fashion in the newspapers of applying
Shakspeare's words to describe living persons well known in the world;
which was done under the title of _Modern Characters from Shakspeare_;
many of which were admirably adapted. The fancy took so much, that they
were afterwards collected into a pamphlet. Somebody said to Johnson,
across the table, that he had not been in those characters. 'Yes (said
he) I have. I should have been sorry to be left out.' He then repeated
what had been applied to him,
'I must borrow GARAGANTUA'S mouth.'
Miss Reynolds not perceiving at once the meaning of this, he was obliged
to explain it to her, which had something of an aukward and ludicrous
effect. 'Why, Madam, it has a reference to me, as using big words, which
require the mouth of a giant to pronounce them. Garagantua is the name
of a giant in _Rabelais_.' BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, there is another amongst
them for you:
"He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for his power to thunder."'
JOHNSON. 'There is nothing marked in that. No, Sir, Garagantua is the
best.' Notwithstanding this ease and good humour, when I, a little while
afterwards, repeated his sarcasm on Kenrick, which was received with
applause, he asked, '_Who_ said that?' and on my suddenly answering,
_Garagantua_, he looked serious, which was a sufficient indication that
he did not wish it to be kept up.
When we went to the drawing-room there was a rich assemblage. Besides
the company who had been at dinner, there were Mr. Garrick, Mr. Harris
of Salisbury, Dr. Percy, Dr. Burney, Honourable Mrs. Cholmondeley, Miss
Hannah More, &c. &c.
After wandering about in a kind of pleasing distraction for some time, I
got into a corner, with Johnson, Garrick, and Harris. GARRICK: (to
Harris.) 'Pray, Sir, have you read Potter's _Aeschylus_?' HARRIS. 'Yes;
and think it pretty.' GARRICK. (to Johnson.) 'And what think you, Sir,
of it?' JOHNSON. 'I thought what I read of it _verbiage_: but upon
Mr. Harris's recommendation, I will read a play. (To Mr. Harris.) Don't
prescribe two.' Mr. Harris suggested one, I do not remember which.
JOHNSON. 'We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to
judge of the merit of a translation. Translations are, in general, for
people who cannot read the original.' I mentioned the vulgar saying,
that Pope's _Homer_ was not a good representation of the original.
JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is the greatest work of the kind that has ever been
produced.' BOSWELL. 'The truth is, it is impossible perfectly to
translate poetry. In a different language it may be the same tune,
but it has not the same tone. Homer plays it on a bassoon; Pope on a
flagelet.' HARRIS. 'I think Heroick poetry is best in blank verse; yet
it appears that rhyme is essential to English poetry, from our
deficiency in metrical quantities. In my opinion, the chief excellence
of our language is numerous prose.' JOHNSON. 'Sir William Temple was the
first writer who gave cadence to English prose. Before his time they
were careless of arrangement, and did not mind whether a sentence ended
with an important word or an insignificant word, or with what part of
speech it was concluded.' Mr. Langton, who now had joined us, commended
Clarendon. JOHNSON. 'He is objected to for his parentheses, his involved
clauses, and his want of harmony. But he is supported by his matter. It
is, indeed, owing to a plethory of matter that his style is so
faulty. Every _substance_, (smiling to Mr. Harris,) has so many
_accidents_.--To be distinct, we must talk _analytically_. If we analyse
language, we must speak of it grammatically; if we analyse argument, we
must speak of it logically.' GARRICK. 'Of all the translations that ever
were attempted, I think Elphinston's _Martial_ the most
extraordinary. He consulted me upon it, who am a little of an
epigrammatist myself, you know. I told him freely, "You don't seem to
have that turn." I asked him if he was serious; and finding he was, I
advised him against publishing. Why, his translation is more difficult
to understand than the original. I thought him a man of some talents;
but he seems crazy in this.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, you have done what I had not
courage to do. But he did not ask my advice, and I did not force it upon
him, to make him angry with me.' GARRICK. 'But as a friend, Sir--'
JOHNSON. 'Why, such a friend as I am with him--no.' GARRICK. 'But if you
see a friend going to tumble over a precipice?' JOHNSON. 'That is an
extravagant case, Sir. You are sure a friend will thank you for
hindering him from tumbling over a precipice; but, in the other case, I
should hurt his vanity, and do him no good. He would not take my advice.
His brother-in-law, Strahan, sent him a subscription of fifty pounds,
and said he would send him fifty more, if he would not publish.'
GARRICK. 'What! Is Strahan a good judge of an Epigram? Is not he rather
an _obtuse_ man, eh?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, he may not be a judge of an
Epigram: but you see he is a judge of what is _not_ an Epigram.'
BOSWELL. 'It is easy for you, Mr. Garrick, to talk to an authour as you
talked to Elphinston; you, who have been so long the manager of a
theatre, rejecting the plays of poor authours. You are an old Judge, who
have often pronounced sentence of death. You are a practiced surgeon,
who have often amputated limbs; and though this may have been for the
good of your patients, they cannot like you. Those who have undergone a
dreadful operation, are not very fond of seeing the operator again.'
GARRICK. 'Yes, I know enough of that. There was a reverend gentleman,
(Mr. Hawkins,) who wrote a tragedy, the SIEGE of something, which I
refused.' HARRIS. 'So, the siege was raised.' JOHNSON. 'Ay, he came to
me and complained; and told me, that Garrick said his play was wrong in
the _concoction_. Now, what is the concoction of a play?' (Here Garrick
started, and twisted himself, and seemed sorely vexed; for Johnson told
me, he believed the story was true.) GARRICK. 'I--I--I--said _first_
concoction.' JOHNSON: (smiling.) 'Well, he left out _first_. And
Rich, he said, refused him _in false English_: he could shew it
under his hand.' GARRICK. 'He wrote to me in violent wrath, for having
refused his play: "Sir, this is growing a very serious and terrible
affair. I am resolved to publish my play. I will appeal to the world;
and how will your judgement appear?" I answered, "Sir, notwithstanding
all the seriousness, and all the terrours, I have no objection to your
publishing your play; and as you live at a great distance, (Devonshire,
I believe,) if you will send it to me, I will convey it to the
press." I never heard more of it, ha! ha! ha!'
On Friday, April 10, I found Johnson at home in the morning. We resumed
the conversation of yesterday. He put me in mind of some of it which had
escaped my memory, and enabled me to record it more perfectly than I
otherwise could have done. He was much pleased with my paying so great
attention to his recommendation in 1763, the period when our
acquaintance began, that I should keep a journal; and I could
perceive he was secretly pleased to find so much of the fruit of his
mind preserved; and as he had been used to imagine and say that he
always laboured when he said a good thing--it delighted him, on a
review, to find that his conversation teemed with point and imagery.
I said to him, 'You were yesterday, Sir, in remarkably good humour:
but there was nothing to offend you, nothing to produce irritation or
violence. There was no bold offender. There was not one capital
conviction. It was a maiden assize. You had on your white gloves.'
He found fault with our friend Langton for having been too silent. 'Sir,
(said I,) you will recollect, that he very properly took up Sir Joshua
for being glad that Charles Fox had praised Goldsmith's _Traveller_, and
you joined him.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, I knocked Fox on the head, without
ceremony. Reynolds is too much under Fox and Burke at present. He is
under the _Fox star_ and the _Irish constellation_. He is always under
some planet.' BOSWELL. 'There is no Fox star.' JOHNSON. 'But there is
a dog star.' BOSWELL. 'They say, indeed, a fox and a dog are the same
I reminded him of a gentleman, who, Mrs. Cholmondeley said, was first
talkative from affectation, and then silent from the same cause; that he
first thought, 'I shall be celebrated as the liveliest man in every
company;' and then, all at once, 'O! it is much more respectable to be
grave and look wise.' 'He has reversed the Pythagorean discipline, by
being first talkative, and then silent. He reverses the course of Nature
too: he was first the gay butterfly, and then the creeping worm.'
Johnson laughed loud and long at this expansion and illustration of what
he himself had told me.
We dined together with Mr. Scott (now Sir William Scott, his
Majesty's Advocate General,) at his chambers in the Temple, nobody else
there. The company being small, Johnson was not in such spirits as he
had been the preceding day, and for a considerable time little was said.
At last he burst forth, 'Subordination is sadly broken down in this age.
No man, now, has the same authority which his father had,--except a
gaoler. No master has it over his servants: it is diminished in our
colleges; nay, in our grammar-schools.' BOSWELL. 'What is the cause of
this, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'Why the coming in of the Scotch,' (laughing
sarcastically). BOSWELL. 'That is to say, things have been turned topsy
turvey.--But your serious cause.' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, there are many
causes, the chief of which is, I think, the great increase of money. No
man now depends upon the Lord of a Manour, when he can send to another
country, and fetch provisions. The shoe-black at the entry of my court
does not depend on me. I can deprive him but of a penny a day, which he
hopes somebody else will bring him; and that penny I must carry to
another shoe-black, so the trade suffers nothing. I have explained,
in my _Journey to the Hebrides_, how gold and silver destroy feudal
subordination. But, besides, there is a general relaxation of
reverence. No son now depends upon his father as in former times.
Paternity used to be considered as of itself a great thing, which had a
right to many claims. That is, in general, reduced to very small bounds.
My hope is, that as anarchy produces tyranny, this extreme relaxation
will produce _freni strictio_.'
Talking of fame, for which there is so great a desire, I observed how
little there is of it in reality, compared with the other objects of
human attention. 'Let every man recollect, and he will be sensible how
small a part of his time is employed in talking or thinking of
Shakspeare, Voltaire, or any of the most celebrated men that have ever
lived, or are now supposed to occupy the attention and admiration of the
world. Let this be extracted and compressed; into what a narrow space
will it go!' I then slily introduced Mr. Garrick's fame, and his
assuming the airs of a great man. JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is wonderful how
_little_ Garrick assumes. No, Sir, Garrick _fortunam reverenter
habet_. Consider, Sir: celebrated men, such as you have mentioned,
have had their applause at a distance; but Garrick had it dashed in his
face, sounded in his ears, and went home every night with the plaudits
of a thousand in his _cranium_. Then, Sir, Garrick did not _find_, but
_made_ his way to the tables, the levees, and almost the bed-chambers of
the great. Then, Sir, Garrick had under him a numerous body of people;
who, from fear of his power, and hopes of his favour, and admiration of
his talents, were constantly submissive to him. And here is a man who
has advanced the dignity of his profession. Garrick has made a player a
higher character.' SCOTT. 'And he is a very sprightly writer too.'
JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; and all this supported by great wealth of his own
acquisition. If all this had happened to me, I should have had a couple
of fellows with long poles walking before me, to knock down every body
that stood in the way. Consider, if all this had happened to Cibber or
Quin they'd have jumped over the moon.--Yet Garrick speaks to
_us_.' (smiling.) BOSWELL. 'And Garrick is a very good man, a
charitable man.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, a liberal man. He has given away more
money than any man in England. There may be a little vanity mixed;
but he has shewn, that money is not his first object.' BOSWELL. 'Yet
Foote used to say of him, that he walked out with an intention to do a
generous action; but, turning the corner of a street, he met with the
ghost of a halfpenny, which frightened him.' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, that is
very true, too; for I never knew a man of whom it could be said with
less certainty to-day, what he will do to-morrow, than Garrick; it
depends so much on his humour at the time.' SCOTT. 'I am glad to hear of
his liberality. He has been represented as very saving.' JOHNSON. 'With
his domestick saving we have nothing to do. I remember drinking tea with
him long ago, when Peg Woffington made it, and he grumbled at her for
making it too strong. He had then begun to feel money in his purse,
and did not know when he should have enough of it.'
On the subject of wealth, the proper use of it, and the effects of that
art which is called oeconomy, he observed: 'It is wonderful to think how
men of very large estates not only spend their yearly incomes, but are
often actually in want of money. It is clear, they have not value for
what they spend. Lord Shelburne told me, that a man of high rank, who
looks into his own affairs, may have all that he ought to have, all that
can be of any use, or appear with any advantage, for five thousand
pounds a year. Therefore, a great proportion must go in waste; and,
indeed, this is the case with most people, whatever their fortune is.'
BOSWELL. 'I have no doubt, Sir, of this. But how is it? What is waste?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, breaking bottles, and a thousand other things. Waste
cannot be accurately told, though we are sensible how destructive it is.
OEconomy on the one hand, by which a certain income is made to maintain
a man genteely, and waste on the other, by which, on the same income,
another man lives shabbily, cannot be defined. It is a very nice thing:
as one man wears his coat out much sooner than another, we cannot tell
We talked of war. JOHNSON. 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not
having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.' BOSWELL. 'Lord
Mansfield does not.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company
of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would
shrink; he'd wish to creep under the table.' BOSWELL. 'No; he'd think he
could _try_ them all.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, if he could catch them: but they'd
try him much sooner. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of
Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, "Follow me, and
hear a lecture on philosophy;" and Charles, laying his hand on his
sword, to say, "Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;" a man would be
ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it
is strange. As to the sailor, when you look down from the quarter deck
to the space below, you see the utmost extremity of human misery; such
crouding, such filth, such stench!' BOSWELL. 'Yet sailors are happy.'
JOHNSON. 'They are happy as brutes are happy, with a piece of fresh
meat,--with the grossest sensuality. But, Sir, the profession of
soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those
who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.' SCOTT. 'But
is not courage mechanical, and to be acquired?' JOHNSON. 'Why yes, Sir,
in a collective sense. Soldiers consider themselves only as parts of a
great machine.' SCOTT. 'We find people fond of being sailors.'
JOHNSON. 'I cannot account for that, any more than I can account for
other strange perversions of imagination.'
His abhorrence of the profession of a sailor was uniformly violent;
but in conversation he always exalted the profession of a soldier. And
yet I have, in my large and various collection of his writings, a letter
to an eminent friend, in which he expresses himself thus: 'My god-son
called on me lately. He is weary, and rationally weary, of a military
life. If you can place him in some other state, I think you may increase
his happiness, and secure his virtue. A soldier's time is passed in
distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.' Such was his cool
reflection in his study; but whenever he was warmed and animated by
the presence of company, he, like other philosophers, whose minds are
impregnated with poetical fancy, caught the common enthusiasm for
He talked of Mr. Charles Fox, of whose abilities he thought highly, but
observed, that he did not talk much at our CLUB. I have heard Mr. Gibbon
remark, 'that Mr. Fox could not be afraid of Dr. Johnson; yet he
certainly was very shy of saying any thing in Dr. Johnson's
presence.' Mr. Scott now quoted what was said of Alcibiades by a
Greek poet, to which Johnson assented.
He told us, that he had given Mrs. Montagu a catalogue of all Daniel
Defoe's works of imagination; most, if not all of which, as well as of
his other works, he now enumerated, allowing a considerable share of
merit to a man, who, bred a tradesman, had written so variously and so
well. Indeed, his _Robinson Crusoe_ is enough of itself to establish his
He expressed great indignation at the imposture of the Cocklane Ghost,
and related, with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting
the cheat, and had published an account of it in the news-papers.
Upon this subject I incautiously offended him, by pressing him with too
many questions, and he shewed his displeasure. I apologised, saying that
'I asked questions in order to be instructed and entertained; I repaired
eagerly to the fountain; but that the moment he gave me a hint, the
moment he put a lock upon the well, I desisted.'--'But, Sir, (said he,)
that is forcing one to do a disagreeable thing:' and he continued to
rate me. 'Nay, Sir, (said I,) when you have put a lock upon the well, so
that I can no longer drink, do not make the fountain of your wit play
upon me and wet me.'
He sometimes could not bear being teazed with questions. I was once
present when a gentleman asked so many as, 'What did you do, Sir?' 'What
did you say, Sir?' that he at last grew enraged, and said, 'I will not
be put to the _question_. Don't you consider, Sir, that these are not
the manners of a gentleman? I will not be baited with _what_, and _why_;
what is this? what is that? why is a cow's tail long? why is a fox's
tail bushy?' The gentleman, who was a good deal out of countenance,
said, 'Why, Sir, you are so good, that I venture to trouble you.'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, my being so _good_ is no reason why you should be so
Talking of the Justitia hulk at Woolwich, in which criminals were
punished, by being confined to labour, he said, 'I do not see that they
are punished by this: they must have worked equally had they never been
guilty of stealing. They now only work; so, after all, they have
gained; what they stole is clear gain to them; the confinement is
nothing. Every man who works is confined: the smith to his shop, the
tailor to his garret.' BOSWELL. 'And Lord Mansfield to his Court.'
JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, you know the notion of confinement may be extended,
as in the song, "Every island is a prison." There is, in Dodsley's
_Collection_, a copy of verses to the authour of that song.'
Smith's Latin verses on Pococke, the great traveller, were mentioned.
He repeated some of them, and said they were Smith's best verses.
He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant
countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of
dignity of character was derived from it. He expressed a particular
enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China. I catched it for
the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall
of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care. 'Sir,
(said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in
raising your children to eminence. There would be a lustre reflected
upon them from your spirit and curiosity. They would be at all times
regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of
China. I am serious, Sir.'
When we had left Mr. Scott's, he said, 'Will you go home with me?' 'Sir,
(said I,) it is late; but I'll go with you for three minutes.' JOHNSON.
'Or _four_.' We went to Mrs. Williams's room, where we found Mr. Allen
the printer, who was the landlord of his house in Bolt-court, a worthy
obliging man, and his very old acquaintance; and what was exceedingly
amusing, though he was of a very diminutive size, he used, even in
Johnson's presence, to imitate the stately periods and slow and solemn
utterance of the great man.--I this evening boasted, that although I
did not write what is called stenography, or short-hand, in appropriated
characters devised for the purpose, I had a method of my own of writing
half words, and leaving out some altogether so as yet to keep the
substance and language of any discourse which I had heard so much in
view, that I could give it very completely soon after I had taken it
down. He defied me, as he had once defied an actual short-hand
writer, and he made the experiment by reading slowly and distinctly a
part of Robertson's _History of America_, while I endeavoured to write
it in my way of taking notes. It was found that I had it very
imperfectly; the conclusion from which was, that its excellence was
principally owing to a studied arrangement of words, which could not be
varied or abridged without an essential injury.
On Sunday, April 12, I found him at home before dinner; Dr. Dodd's poem
entitled _Thoughts in Prison_ was lying upon his table. This appearing
to me an extraordinary effort by a man who was in Newgate for a capital
crime, I was desirous to hear Johnson's opinion of it: to my surprize,
he told me he had not read a line of it. I took up the book and read a
passage to him. JOHNSON. 'Pretty well, if you are previously disposed to
like them.' I read another passage, with which he was better pleased. He
then took the book into his own hands, and having looked at the prayer
at the end of it, he said, 'What _evidence_ is there that this was
composed the night before he suffered? _I_ do not believe it.' He then
read aloud where he prays for the King, &c. and observed, 'Sir, do you
think that a man the night before he is to be hanged cares for the
succession of a royal family?--Though, he _may_ have composed this
prayer, then. A man who has been canting all his life, may cant to the
last.--And yet a man who has been refused a pardon after so much
petitioning, would hardly be praying thus fervently for the King.'
He and I, and Mrs. Williams, went to dine with the Reverend Dr. Percy.
Talking of Goldsmith, Johnson said, he was very envious. I defended
him, by observing that he owned it frankly upon all occasions. JOHNSON.
'Sir, you are enforcing the charge. He had so much envy, that he could
not conceal it. He was so full of it that he overflowed. He talked of it
to be sure often enough. Now, Sir, what a man avows, he is not ashamed
to think; though many a man thinks, what he is ashamed to avow. We are
all envious naturally; but by checking envy, we get the better of it.
So we are all thieves naturally; a child always tries to get at what it
wants, the nearest way; by good instruction and good habits this is
cured, till a man has not even an inclination to seize what is
another's; has no struggle with himself about it.'
And here I shall record a scene of too much heat between Dr. Johnson and
Dr. Percy, which I should have suppressed, were it not that it gave
occasion to display the truely tender and benevolent heart of Johnson,
who, as soon as he found a friend was at all hurt by any thing which he
had 'said in his wrath,' was not only prompt and desirous to be
reconciled, but exerted himself to make ample reparation.
Books of Travels having been mentioned, Johnson praised Pennant very
highly, as he did at Dunvegan, in the Isle of Sky. Dr. Percy, knowing
himself to be the heir male of the ancient Percies, and having the
warmest and most dutiful attachment to the noble House of
Northumberland, could not sit quietly and hear a man praised, who had
spoken disrespectfully of Alnwick-Castle and the Duke's pleasure
grounds, especially as he thought meanly of his travels. He therefore
opposed Johnson eagerly. JOHNSON. 'Pennant in what he has said of
Alnwick, has done what he intended; he has made you very angry.' PERCY.
'He has said the garden is _trim_, which is representing it like a
citizen's parterre, when the truth is, there is a very large extent of
fine turf and gravel walks.' JOHNSON. 'According to your own account,
Sir, Pennant is right. It _is_ trim. Here is grass cut close, and gravel
rolled smooth. Is not that trim? The extent is nothing against that; a
mile may be as trim as a square yard. Your extent puts me in mind of the
citizen's enlarged dinner, two pieces of roast-beef, and two
puddings. There is no variety, no mind exerted in laying out the
ground, no trees.' PERCY. 'He pretends to give the natural history of
Northumberland, and yet takes no notice of the immense number of trees
planted there of late.' JOHNSON. 'That, Sir, has nothing to do with the
_natural history_; that is _civil_ history. A man who gives the natural
history of the oak, is not to tell how many oaks have been planted in
this place or that. A man who gives the natural history of the cow, is
not to tell how many cows are milked at Islington. The animal is the
same, whether milked in the Park or at Islington.' PERCY. 'Pennant does
not describe well; a carrier who goes along the side of Lochlomond would
describe it better.' JOHNSON. 'I think he describes very well.' PERCY.
'I travelled after him.' JOHNSON. 'And _I_ travelled after him.' PERCY.
'But, my good friend, you are short-sighted, and do not see so well as I
do.' I wondered at Dr. Percy's venturing thus. Dr. Johnson said nothing
at the time; but inflammable particles were collecting for a cloud to
burst. In a little while Dr. Percy said something more in disparagement
of Pennant. JOHNSON. (pointedly) 'This is the resentment of a narrow
mind, because he did not find every thing in Northumberland.' PERCY.
(feeling the stroke) 'Sir, you may be as rude as you please.' JOHNSON.
'Hold, Sir! Don't talk of rudeness; remember, Sir, you told me (puffing
hard with passion struggling for a vent) I was short-sighted. We have
done with civility. We are to be as rude as we please.' PERCY. 'Upon my
honour, Sir, I did not mean to be uncivil.' JOHNSON. 'I cannot say so,
Sir; for I _did_ mean to be uncivil, thinking _you_ had been uncivil.'
Dr. Percy rose, ran up to him, and taking him by the hand, assured him
affectionately that his meaning had been misunderstood; upon which a
reconciliation instantly took place. JOHNSON. 'My dear Sir, I am willing
you shall _hang_ Pennant.' PERCY. (resuming the former subject) 'Pennant
complains that the helmet is not hung out to invite to the hall of
hospitality. Now I never heard that it was a custom to hang out a
_helmet_.' JOHNSON. 'Hang him up, hang him up.' BOSWELL. (humouring
the joke) 'Hang out his skull instead of a helmet, and you may drink ale
out of it in your hall of Odin, as he is your enemy; that will be truly
ancient. _There_ will be _Northern Antiquities_.' JOHNSON. 'He's a
_Whig_, Sir; a _sad dog_. (smiling at his own violent expressions,
merely for _political_ difference of opinion.) But he's the best
traveller I ever read; he observes more things than any one else does.'
I could not help thinking that this was too high praise of a writer who
had traversed a wide extent of country in such haste, that he could put
together only curt frittered fragments of his own, and afterwards
procured supplemental intelligence from parochial ministers, and others
not the best qualified or most impartial narrators, whose ungenerous
prejudice against the house of Stuart glares in misrepresentation; a
writer, who at best treats merely of superficial objects, and shews no
philosophical investigation of character and manners, such as Johnson
has exhibited in his masterly _Journey_, over part of the same ground;
and who it should seem from a desire of ingratiating himself with the
Scotch, has flattered the people of North-Britain so inordinately and
with so little discrimination, that the judicious and candid amongst
them must be disgusted, while they value more the plain, just, yet
kindly report of Johnson.
Having impartially censured Mr. Pennant, as a Traveller in Scotland, let
me allow him, from authorities much better than mine, his deserved
praise as an able Zoologist; and let me also from my own understanding
and feelings, acknowledge the merit of his _London_, which, though said
to be not quite accurate in some particulars, is one of the most
pleasing topographical performances that ever appeared in any language.
Mr. Pennant, like his countrymen in general, has the true spirit of a
_Gentleman_. As a proof of it, I shall quote from his _London_ the
passage, in which he speaks of my illustrious friend. 'I must by no
means omit _Bolt-court_, the long residence of Doctor SAMUEL JOHNSON, a
man of the strongest natural abilities, great learning, a most retentive
memory, of the deepest and most unaffected piety and morality, mingled
with those numerous weaknesses and prejudices which his friends have
kindly taken care to draw from their dread abode. I brought on myself
his transient anger, by observing that in his tour in _Scotland_, he
once had "long and woeful experience of oats being the food of men in
_Scotland_ as they were of horses in _England_."' It was a national
reflection unworthy of him, and I shot my bolt. In return he gave me a
tender hug. _Con amore_ he also said of me '_The dog is a Whig_;'
I admired the virtues of Lord _Russell_, and pitied his fall. I should
have been a Whig at the Revolution. There have been periods since, in
which I should have been, what I now am, a moderate Tory, a supporter,
as far as my little influence extends, of a well-poised balance between
the crown and people: but should the scale preponderate against the
_Salus populi_, that moment may it be said '_The dog's a Whig_!'
We had a calm after the storm, staid the evening and supped, and were
pleasant and gay. But Dr. Percy told me he was very uneasy at what had
passed; for there was a gentleman there who was acquainted with the
Northumberland family, to whom he hoped to have appeared more
respectable, by shewing how intimate he was with Dr. Johnson, and who
might now, on the contrary, go away with an opinion to his disadvantage.
He begged I would mention this to Dr. Johnson, which I afterwards did.
His observation upon it was, 'This comes of _stratagem_; had he told me
that he wished to appear to advantage before that gentleman, he should
have been at the top of the house, all the time.' He spoke of Dr. Percy
in the handsomest terms. 'Then, Sir, (said I,) may I be allowed to
suggest a mode by which you may effectually counteract any unfavourable
report of what passed. I will write a letter to you upon the subject of
the unlucky contest of that day, and you will be kind enough to put in
writing as an answer to that letter, what you have now said, and as Lord
Percy is to dine with us at General Paoli's soon, I will take an
opportunity to read the correspondence in his Lordship's presence.' This
friendly scheme was accordingly carried into execution without Dr.
Percy's knowledge. Johnson's letter placed Dr. Percy's unquestionable
merit in the fairest point of view; and I contrived that Lord Percy
should hear the correspondence, by introducing it at General Paoli's, as
an instance of Dr. Johnson's kind disposition towards one in whom his
Lordship was interested. Thus every unfavourable impression was obviated
that could possibly have been made on those by whom he wished most to be
regarded. I breakfasted the day after with him, and informed him of my
scheme, and its happy completion, for which he thanked me in the warmest
terms, and was highly delighted with Dr. Johnson's letter in his praise,
of which I gave him a copy. He said, 'I would rather have this than
degrees from all the Universities in Europe. It will be for me, and my
children and grand-children.' Dr. Johnson having afterwards asked me if
I had given him a copy of it, and being told I had, was offended, and
insisted that I should get it back, which I did. As, however, he did not
desire me to destroy either the original or the copy, or forbid me to
let it be seen, I think myself at liberty to apply to it his general
declaration to me concerning his other letters, 'That he did not choose
they should be published in his lifetime; but had no objection to their
appearing after his death.' I shall therefore insert this kindly
correspondence, having faithfully narrated the circumstances
'To DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
'MY DEAR SIR,
'I beg leave to address you in behalf of our friend Dr. Percy, who was
much hurt by what you said to him that day we dined at his house;
when, in the course of the dispute as to Pennant's merit as a traveller,
you told Percy that "he had the resentment of a narrow mind against
Pennant, because he did not find every thing in Northumberland." Percy
is sensible that you did not mean to injure him; but he is vexed to
think that your behaviour to him upon that occasion may be interpreted
as a proof that he is despised by you, which I know is not the case. I
have told him, that the charge of being narrow-minded was only as to the
particular point in question; and that he had the merit of being a
martyr to his noble family.
'Earl Percy is to dine with General Paoli next Friday; and I should be
sincerely glad to have it in my power to satisfy his Lordship how well
you think of Dr. Percy, who, I find, apprehends that your good opinion
of him may be of very essential consequence; and who assures me, that he
has the highest respect and the warmest affection for you.
'I have only to add, that my suggesting this occasion for the exercise
of your candour and generosity, is altogether unknown to Dr. Percy, and
proceeds from my good-will towards him, and my persuasion that you will
be happy to do him an essential kindness. I am, more and more, my dear
'Your most faithful
'And affectionate humble servant,
* * * * *
'To JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
'The debate between Dr. Percy and me is one of those foolish
controversies, which begin upon a question of which neither party cares
how it is decided, and which is, nevertheless, continued to acrimony, by
the vanity with which every man resists confutation. Dr. Percy's
warmth proceeded from a cause which, perhaps, does him more honour than
he could have derived from juster criticism. His abhorrence of Pennant
proceeded from his opinion that Pennant had wantonly and indecently
censured his patron. His anger made him resolve, that, for having been
once wrong, he never should be right. Pennant has much in his notions
that I do not like; but still I think him a very intelligent traveller.
If Percy is really offended, I am sorry; for he is a man whom I never
knew to offend any one. He is a man very willing to learn, and very able
to teach; a man, out of whose company I never go without having learned
something. It is sure that he vexes me sometimes, but I am afraid it is
by making me feel my own ignorance. So much extension of mind, and so
much minute accuracy of enquiry, if you survey your whole circle of
acquaintance, you will find so scarce, if you find it at all, that you
will value Percy by comparison. Lord Hailes is somewhat like him: but
Lord Hailes does not, perhaps, go beyond him in research; and I do not
know that he equals him in elegance. Percy's attention to poetry has
given grace and splendour to his studies of antiquity. A mere
antiquarian is a rugged being.
'Upon the whole, you see that what I might say in sport or petulance to
him, is very consistent with full conviction of his merit.
'I am, dear Sir,
'Your most, &c.,
'April 23, 1778.'
'TO THE REVEREND DR. PERCY, NORTHUMBERLAND-HOUSE.
'I wrote to Dr. Johnson on the subject of the _Pennantian_ controversy;
and have received from him an answer which will delight you. I read it
yesterday to Dr. Robertson, at the Exhibition; and at dinner to Lord
Percy, General Oglethorpe, &c. who dined with us at General Paoli's; who
was also a witness to the high _testimony_ to your honour.
'General Paoli desires the favour of your company next Tuesday to
dinner, to meet Dr. Johnson. If I can, I will call on you to-day. I am,
with sincere regard,
'Your most obedient humble servant,
'South Audley-street, April 25.'
On Monday, April 13, I dined with Johnson at Mr. Langton's, where were
Dr. Porteus, then Bishop of Chester, now of London, and Dr. Stinton.
He was at first in a very silent mood. Before dinner he said nothing but
'Pretty baby,' to one of the children. Langton said very well to me
afterwards, that he could repeat Johnson's conversation before dinner,
as Johnson had said that he could repeat a complete chapter of _The
Natural History of Iceland_, from the Danish of _Horrebow_, the whole of
which was exactly thus:--
'CHAP. LXXII. _Concerning snakes_.
'There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.'
At dinner we talked of another mode in the newspapers of giving
modern characters in sentences from the classicks, and of the passage
'Pareus deorum cultor, et infrequens,
Insanientis dum sapientiae
Consultus erro, nunc retrorsum
Vela dare, atque iterare cursus
being well applied to Soame Jenyns; who, after having wandered in the
wilds of infidelity, had returned to the Christian faith. Mr. Langton
asked Johnson as to the propriety of _sapientiae consultus_. JOHNSON.
'Though _consultus_ was primarily an adjective, like _amicus_ it came to
be used as a substantive. So we have _Juris consultus_, a consult in
We talked of the styles of different painters, and how certainly a
connoisseur could distinguish them; I asked, if there was as clear a
difference of styles in language as in painting, or even as in
hand-writing, so that the composition of every individual may be
distinguished? JOHNSON. 'Yes. Those who have a style of eminent
excellence, such as Dryden and Milton, can always be distinguished.' I
had no doubt of this, but what I wanted to know was, whether there was
really a peculiar style to every man whatever, as there is certainly a
peculiar handwriting, a peculiar countenance, not widely different in
many, yet always enough to be distinctive:--
'... _facies non omnibus una,
Nec diversa tamen_.'
The Bishop thought not; and said, he supposed that many pieces in
Dodsley's collection of poems, though all very pretty, had nothing
appropriated in their style, and in that particular could not be at all
distinguished. JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I think every man whatever has a
peculiar style, which may be discovered by nice examination and
comparison with others: but a man must write a great deal to make his
style obviously discernible. As logicians say, this appropriation of
style is infinite in _potestate_, limited _in actu_.'
Mr. Topham Beauclerk came in the evening, and he and Dr. Johnson and I
staid to supper. It was mentioned that Dr. Dodd had once wished to be a
member of THE LITERARY CLUB. JOHNSON. 'I should be sorry if any of
our Club were hanged. I will not say but some of them deserve it.'
BEAUCLERK; (supposing this to be aimed at persons for whom he had at
that time a wonderful fancy, which, however, did not last long,) was
irritated, and eagerly said, 'You, Sir, have a friend, (naming him)
who deserves to be hanged; for he speaks behind their backs against
those with whom he lives on the best terms, and attacks them in the
newspapers. _He_ certainly ought to be _kicked_.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, we all
do this in some degree, "_Veniam petimus damusque vicissim_." To be
sure it may be done so much, that a man may deserve to be kicked.'
BEAUCLERK. 'He is very malignant.' JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; he is not
malignant. He is mischievous, if you will. He would do no man an
essential injury; he may, indeed, love to make sport of people by vexing
their vanity. I, however, once knew an old gentleman who was absolutely
malignant. He really wished evil to others, and rejoiced at it.'
BOSWELL. 'The gentleman, Mr. Beauclerk, against whom you are so violent,
is, I know, a man of good principles.' BEAUCLERK. 'Then he does not wear
them out in practice.'
Dr. Johnson, who, as I have observed before, delighted in discrimination
of character, and having a masterly knowledge of human nature, was
willing to take men as they are, imperfect and with a mixture of good
and bad qualities, I suppose thought he had said enough in defence of
his friend, of whose merits, notwithstanding his exceptional points, he
had a just value; and added no more on the subject.
On Tuesday, April 14, I dined with him at General Oglethorpe's, with
General Paoli and Mr. Langton. General Oglethorpe declaimed against
luxury. JOHNSON. 'Depend upon it, Sir, every state of society is as
luxurious as it can be. Men always take the best they can get.'
OGLETHORPE. 'But the best depends much upon ourselves; and if we can be
as well satisfied with plain things, we are in the wrong to accustom our
palates to what is high-seasoned and expensive. What says Addison in his
_Cato_, speaking of the Numidian?
"Coarse are his meals, the fortune of the chace,
Amid the running stream he slakes his thirst,
Toils all the day, and at the approach of night,
On the first friendly bank he throws him down,
Or rests his head upon a rock till morn;
And if the following day he chance to find
A new repast, or an untasted spring,
Blesses his stars, and thinks it's luxury."
Let us have _that_ kind of luxury, Sir, if you will.' JOHNSON. 'But
hold, Sir; to be merely satisfied is not enough. It is in refinement and
elegance that the civilized man differs from the savage. A great part of
our industry, and all our ingenuity is exercised in procuring pleasure;
and, Sir, a hungry man has not the same pleasure in eating a plain
dinner, that a hungry man has in eating a luxurious dinner. You see I
put the case fairly. A hungry man may have as much, nay, more pleasure
in eating a plain dinner, than a man grown fastidious has in eating a
luxurious dinner. But I suppose the man who decides between the two
dinners, to be equally a hungry man.'
Talking of different governments,--JOHNSON. 'The more contracted that
power is, the more easily it is destroyed. A country governed by a
despot is an inverted cone. Government there cannot be so firm, as when
it rests upon a broad basis gradually contracted, as the government of
Great Britain, which is founded on the parliament, then is in the privy
council, then in the King.' BOSWELL. 'Power, when contracted into the
person of a despot, may be easily destroyed, as the prince may be cut
off. So Caligula wished that the people of Rome had but one neck, that
he might cut them off at a blow.' OGLETHORPE. 'It was of the Senate he
wished that. The Senate by its usurpation controlled both the
Emperour and the people. And don't you think that we see too much of
that in our own Parliament?'
Dr. Johnson endeavoured to trace the etymology of Maccaronick verses,
which he thought were of Italian invention from Maccaroni; but on being
informed that this would infer that they were the most common and easy
verses, maccaroni being the most ordinary and simple food, he was at a
loss; for he said, 'He rather should have supposed it to import in its
primitive signification, a composition of several things; for
Maccaronick verses are verses made out of a mixture of different
languages, that is, of one language with the termination of another.'
I suppose we scarcely know of a language in any country where there is
any learning, in which that motley ludicrous species of composition may
not be found. It is particularly droll in Low Dutch. The
_Polemomiddinia_ of Drummond of Hawthornden, in which there is a
jumble of many languages moulded, as if it were all in Latin, is well
known. Mr. Langton made us laugh heartily at one in the Grecian mould,
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