Samuel Johnson
Leslie Stephen

Part 2 out of 3

heart," which he regarded as another name for a quality properly called
extravagance or vice. Johnson's tenacity of old acquaintance introduced
him into the Club, where he made himself so disagreeable, especially, as
it seems, by rudeness to Burke, that he found it expedient to invent a
pretext for resignation. Johnson called him a "very unclubable man,"
and may perhaps have intended him in the quaint description: "I really
believe him to be an honest man at the bottom; though, to be sure, he is
rather penurious, and he is somewhat mean; and it must be owned he has
some degree of brutality, and is not without a tendency to savageness
that cannot well be defended."

In a list of Johnson's friends it is proper to mention Richardson and
Hawkesworth. Richardson seems to have given him substantial help, and
was repaid by favourable comparisons with Fielding, scarcely borne out
by the verdict of posterity. "Fielding," said Johnson, "could tell the
hour by looking at the clock; whilst Richardson knew how the clock was
made." "There is more knowledge of the heart," he said at another time,
"in one letter of Richardson's than in all _Tom Jones_." Johnson's
preference of the sentimentalist to the man whose humour and strong
sense were so like his own, shows how much his criticism was biassed by
his prejudices; though, of course, Richardson's external decency was a
recommendation to the moralist. Hawkesworth's intimacy with Johnson
seems to have been chiefly in the period between the _Dictionary_ and
the pension. He was considered to be Johnson's best imitator; and has
vanished like other imitators. His fate, very doubtful if the story
believed at the time be true, was a curious one for a friend of
Johnson's. He had made some sceptical remarks as to the efficacy of
prayer in his preface to the South Sea Voyages; and was so bitterly
attacked by a "Christian" in the papers, that he destroyed himself by a
dose of opium.

Two younger friends, who became disciples of the sage soon after the
appearance of the _Rambler_, are prominent figures in the later circle.
One of these was Bennet Langton, a man of good family, fine scholarship,
and very amiable character. His exceedingly tall and slender figure was
compared by Best to the stork in Raphael's cartoon of the Miraculous
Draught of Fishes. Miss Hawkins describes him sitting with one leg
twisted round the other as though to occupy the smallest possible space,
and playing with his gold snuff-box with a mild countenance and sweet
smile. The gentle, modest creature was loved by Johnson, who could warm
into unusual eloquence in singing his praises. The doctor, however, was
rather fond of discussing with Boswell the faults of his friend. They
seem to have chiefly consisted in a certain languor or sluggishness of
temperament which allowed his affairs to get into perplexity. Once, when
arguing the delicate question as to the propriety of telling a friend of
his wife's unfaithfulness, Boswell, after his peculiar fashion, chose to
enliven the abstract statement by the purely imaginary hypothesis of Mr.
and Mrs. Langton being in this position. Johnson said that it would be
useless to tell Langton, because he would be too sluggish to get a
divorce. Once Langton was the unconscious cause of one of Johnson's
oddest performances. Langton had employed Chambers, a common friend of
his and Johnson's, to draw his will. Johnson, talking to Chambers and
Boswell, was suddenly struck by the absurdity of his friend's appearing
in the character of testator. His companions, however, were utterly
unable to see in what the joke consisted; but Johnson laughed
obstreperously and irrepressibly: he laughed till he reached the Temple
Gate; and when in Fleet Street went almost into convulsions of hilarity.
Holding on by one of the posts in the street, he sent forth such peals
of laughter that they seemed in the silence of the night to resound from
Temple Bar to Fleet Ditch.

Not long before his death, Johnson applied to Langton for spiritual
advice. "I desired him to tell me sincerely in what he thought my life
was faulty." Langton wrote upon a sheet of paper certain texts
recommending Christian charity; and explained, upon inquiry, that he was
pointing at Johnson's habit of contradiction. The old doctor began by
thanking him earnestly for his kindness; but gradually waxed savage and
asked Langton, "in a loud and angry tone, What is your drift, sir?" He
complained of the well-meant advice to Boswell, with a sense that he had
been unjustly treated. It was a scene for a comedy, as Reynolds
observed, to see a penitent get into a passion and belabour his

Through Langton, Johnson became acquainted with the friend whose manner
was in the strongest contrast to his own. Topham Beauclerk was a man of
fashion. He was commended to Johnson by a likeness to Charles II., from
whom he was descended, being the grandson of the first Duke of St.
Alban's. Beauclerk was a man of literary and scientific tastes. He
inherited some of the moral laxity which Johnson chose to pardon in his
ancestor. Some years after his acquaintance with Boswell he married Lady
Diana Spencer, a lady who had been divorced upon his account from her
husband, Lord Bolingbroke. But he took care not to obtrude his faults of
life, whatever they may have been, upon the old moralist, who
entertained for him a peculiar affection. He specially admired
Beauclerk's skill in the use of a more polished, if less vigorous, style
of conversation than his own. He envied the ease with which Beauclerk
brought out his sly incisive retorts. "No man," he said, "ever was so
free when he was going to say a good thing, from a look that expressed
that it was coming; or, when he had said it, from a look that expressed
that it had come." When Beauclerk was dying (in 1780), Johnson said,
with a faltering voice, that he would walk to the extremity of the
diameter of the earth to save him. Two little anecdotes are expressive
of his tender feeling for this incongruous friend. Boswell had asked him
to sup at Beauclerk's. He started, but, on the way, recollecting
himself, said, "I cannot go; but _I do not love Beauclerk the less_."
Beauclerk had put upon a portrait of Johnson the inscription,--

Ingenium ingens
Inculto latet hoc sub corpore.

Langton, who bought the portrait, had the inscription removed. "It was
kind in you to take it off," said Johnson; and, after a short pause,
"not unkind in him to put it on."

Early in their acquaintance, the two young men, Beau and Lanky, as
Johnson called them, had sat up one night at a tavern till three in the
morning. The courageous thought struck them that they would knock up the
old philosopher. He came to the door of his chambers, poker in hand,
with an old wig for a nightcap. On hearing their errand, the sage
exclaimed, "What! is it you, you dogs? I'll have a frisk with you." And
so Johnson with the two youths, his juniors by about thirty years,
proceeded to make a night of it. They amazed the fruiterers in Covent
Garden; they brewed a bowl of bishop in a tavern, while Johnson quoted
the poet's address to Sleep,--

"Short, O short, be then thy reign,
And give us to the world again!"

They took a boat to Billingsgate, and Johnson, with Beauclerk, kept up
their amusement for the following day, when Langton deserted them to go
to breakfast with some young ladies, and Johnson scolded him for
leaving his friends "to go and sit with a parcel of wretched _unidea'd_
girls." "I shall have my old friend to bail out of the round-house,"
said Garrick when he heard of this queer alliance; and he told Johnson
that he would be in the _Chronicle_ for his frolic. "He _durst_ not do
such a thing. His wife would not let him," was the moralist's retort.

Some friends, known to fame by other titles than their connexion with
Johnson, had by this time gathered round them. Among them was one, whose
art he was unable to appreciate, but whose fine social qualities and
dignified equability of temper made him a valued and respected
companion. Reynolds had settled in London at the end of 1752. Johnson
met him at the house of Miss Cotterell. Reynolds had specially admired
Johnson's _Life of Savage_, and, on their first meeting, happened to
make a remark which delighted Johnson. The ladies were regretting the
loss of a friend to whom they were under obligations. "You have,
however," said Reynolds, "the comfort of being relieved from a burden of
gratitude." The saying is a little too much like Rochefoucauld, and too
true to be pleasant; but it was one of those keen remarks which Johnson
appreciated because they prick a bubble of commonplace moralizing
without demanding too literal an acceptation. He went home to sup with
Reynolds and became his intimate friend. On another occasion, Johnson
was offended by two ladies of rank at the same house, and by way of
taking down their pride, asked Reynolds in a loud voice, "How much do
you think you and I could get in a week, if we both worked as hard as we
could?" "His appearance," says Sir Joshua's sister, Miss Reynolds,
"might suggest the poor author: as he was not likely in that place to be
a blacksmith or a porter." Poor Miss Reynolds, who tells this story,
was another attraction to Reynolds' house. She was a shy, retiring
maiden lady, who vexed her famous brother by following in his steps
without his talents, and was deeply hurt by his annoyance at the
unintentional mockery. Johnson was through life a kind and judicious
friend to her; and had attracted her on their first meeting by a
significant indication of his character. He said that when going home to
his lodgings at one or two in the morning, he often saw poor children
asleep on thresholds and stalls--the wretched "street Arabs" of the
day--and that he used to put pennies into their hands that they might
buy a breakfast.

Two friends, who deserve to be placed beside Reynolds, came from Ireland
to seek their fortunes in London. Edmund Burke, incomparably the
greatest writer upon political philosophy in English literature, the
master of a style unrivalled for richness, flexibility, and vigour, was
radically opposed to Johnson on party questions, though his language
upon the French Revolution, after Johnson's death, would have satisfied
even the strongest prejudices of his old friend. But he had qualities
which commended him even to the man who called him a "bottomless Whig,"
and who generally spoke of Whigs as rascals, and maintained that the
first Whig was the devil. If his intellect was wider, his heart was as
warm as Johnson's, and in conversation he merited the generous applause
and warm emulation of his friends. Johnson was never tired of praising
the extraordinary readiness and spontaneity of Burke's conversation. "If
a man," he said, "went under a shed at the same time with Burke to avoid
a shower, he would say, 'This is an extraordinary man.' Or if Burke went
into a stable to see his horse dressed, the ostler would say, 'We have
had an extraordinary man here.'" When Burke was first going into
Parliament, Johnson said in answer to Hawkins, who wondered that such a
man should get a seat, "We who know Mr. Burke, know that he will be one
of the first men in the country." Speaking of certain other members of
Parliament, more after the heart of Sir John Hawkins, he said that he
grudged success to a man who made a figure by a knowledge of a few
forms, though his mind was "as narrow as the neck of a vinegar cruet;"
but then he did not grudge Burke's being the first man in the House of
Commons, for he would be the first man everywhere. And Burke equally
admitted Johnson's supremacy in conversation. "It is enough for me," he
said to some one who regretted Johnson's monopoly of the talk on a
particular occasion, "to have rung the bell for him."

The other Irish adventurer, whose career was more nearly moulded upon
that of Johnson, came to London in 1756, and made Johnson's
acquaintance. Some time afterwards (in or before 1761) Goldsmith, like
Johnson, had tasted the bitterness of an usher's life, and escaped into
the scarcely more tolerable regions of Grub Street. After some years of
trial, he was becoming known to the booksellers as a serviceable hand,
and had two works in his desk destined to lasting celebrity. His
landlady (apparently 1764) one day arrested him for debt. Johnson,
summoned to his assistance, sent him a guinea and speedily followed. The
guinea had already been changed, and Goldsmith was consoling himself
with a bottle of Madeira. Johnson corked the bottle, and a discussion of
ways and means brought out the manuscript of the _Vicar of Wakefield_.
Johnson looked into it, took it to a bookseller, got sixty pounds for
it, and returned to Goldsmith, who paid his rent and administered a
sound rating to his landlady.

The relation thus indicated is characteristic; Johnson was as a rough
but helpful elder brother to poor Goldsmith, gave him advice, sympathy,
and applause, and at times criticised him pretty sharply, or brought
down his conversational bludgeon upon his sensitive friend. "He has
nothing of the bear but his skin," was Goldsmith's comment upon his
clumsy friend, and the two men appreciated each other at bottom. Some of
their readers may be inclined to resent Johnson's attitude of
superiority. The admirably pure and tender heart, and the exquisite
intellectual refinement implied in the _Vicar_ and the _Traveller_,
force us to love Goldsmith in spite of superficial foibles, and when
Johnson prunes or interpolates lines in the _Traveller_, we feel as
though a woodman's axe was hacking at a most delicate piece of carving.
The evidence of contemporary observers, however, must force impartial
readers to admit that poor Goldsmith's foibles were real, however amply
compensated by rare and admirable qualities. Garrick's assertion, that
he "wrote like an angel but talked like poor Poll," expresses the
unanimous opinion of all who had actually seen him. Undoubtedly some of
the stories of his childlike vanity, his frankly expressed envy, and his
general capacity for blundering, owe something to Boswell's feeling that
he was a rival near the throne, and sometimes poor Goldsmith's humorous
self-assertion may have been taken too seriously by blunt English wits.
One may doubt, for example, whether he was really jealous of a puppet
tossing a pike, and unconscious of his absurdity in saying "Pshaw! I
could do it better myself!" Boswell, however, was too good an observer
to misrepresent at random, and he has, in fact, explained very well the
true meaning of his remarks. Goldsmith was an excitable Irishman of
genius, who tumbled out whatever came uppermost, and revealed the
feelings of the moment with utter want of reserve. His self-controlled
companions wondered, ridiculed, misinterpreted, and made fewer hits as
well as fewer misses. His anxiety to "get in and share," made him,
according to Johnson, an "unsocial" companion. "Goldsmith," he said,
"had not temper enough for the game he played. He staked too much. A man
might always get a fall from his inferior in the chances of talk, and
Goldsmith felt his falls too keenly." He had certainly some trials of
temper in Johnson's company. "Stay, stay," said a German, stopping him
in the full flow of his eloquence, "Toctor Johnson is going to say
something." An Eton Master called Graham, who was supping with the two
doctors, and had got to the pitch of looking at one person, and talking
to another, said, "Doctor, I shall be glad to see _you_ at Eton." "I
shall be glad to wait on you," said Goldsmith. "No," replied Graham,
"'tis not you I mean, Doctor Minor; 'tis Doctor Major there." Poor
Goldsmith said afterwards, "Graham is a fellow to make one commit

Boswell who attributes some of Goldsmith's sayings about Johnson to
envy, said with probable truth that Goldsmith had not more envy than
others, but only spoke of it more freely. Johnson argued that we must be
angry with a man who had so much of an odious quality that he could not
keep it to himself, but let it "boil over." The feeling, at any rate,
was momentary and totally free from malice; and Goldsmith's criticisms
upon Johnson and his idolators seem to have been fair enough. His
objection to Boswell's substituting a monarchy for a republic has
already been mentioned. At another time he checked Boswell's flow of
panegyric by asking, "Is he like Burke, who winds into a subject like a
serpent?" To which Boswell replied with charming irrelevance, "Johnson
is the Hercules who strangled serpents in his cradle." The last of
Goldsmith's hits was suggested by Johnson's shaking his sides with
laughter because Goldsmith admired the skill with which the little
fishes in the fable were made to talk in character. "Why, Dr. Johnson,
this is not so easy as you seem to think," was the retort, "for if you
were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales."

In spite of sundry little sparrings, Johnson fully appreciated
Goldsmith's genius. Possibly his authority hastened the spread of public
appreciation, as he seemed to claim, whilst repudiating Boswell's too
flattering theory that it had materially raised Goldsmith's position.
When Reynolds quoted the authority of Fox in favour of the _Traveller_,
saying that his friends might suspect that they had been too partial,
Johnson replied very truly that the _Traveller_ was beyond the need of
Fox's praise, and that the partiality of Goldsmith's friends had always
been against him. They would hardly give him a hearing. "Goldsmith," he
added, "was a man who, whatever he wrote, always did it better than any
other man could do." Johnson's settled opinion in fact was that embodied
in the famous epitaph with its "nihil tetigit quod non ornavit," and,
though dedications are perhaps the only literary product more generally
insincere than epitaphs, we may believe that Goldsmith too meant what he
said in the dedication of _She Stoops to Conquer_. "It may do me some
honour to inform the public that I have lived many years in intimacy
with you. It may serve the interests of mankind also to inform them that
the greatest wit may be found in a character, without impairing the most
unaffected piety."

Though Johnson was thus rich in friendship, two connexions have still
to be noticed which had an exceptional bearing upon his fame and
happiness. In January, 1765, he made the acquaintance of the Thrales.
Mr. Thrale was the proprietor of the brewery which afterwards became
that of Barclay and Perkins. He was married in 1763 to a Miss Hester
Lynch Salisbury, who has become celebrated from her friendship with
Johnson.[1] She was a woman of great vivacity and independence of
character. She had a sensitive and passionate, if not a very tender
nature, and enough literary culture to appreciate Johnson's intellectual
power, and on occasion to play a very respectable part in conversation.
She had far more Latin and English scholarship than fell to the lot of
most ladies of her day, and wit enough to preserve her from degenerating
like some of the "blues," into that most offensive of beings--a feminine
prig. Her marriage had been one of convenience, and her husband's want
of sympathy, and jealousy of any interference in business matters,
forced her, she says, to take to literature as her sole resource. "No
wonder," she adds, "if I loved my books and children." It is, perhaps,
more to be wondered at that her children seem to have had a rather
subordinate place in her affections. The marriage, however, though not
of the happiest, was perfectly decorous. Mrs. Thrale discharged her
domestic duties irreproachably, even when she seems to have had some
real cause of complaint. To the world she eclipsed her husband, a solid
respectable man, whose mind, according to Johnson, struck the hours very
regularly, though it did not mark the minutes.

[Footnote 1: Mrs. Thrale was born in 1740 or 1741, probably the latter.
Thrale was born in 1724.]

The Thrales were introduced to Johnson by their common friend, Arthur
Murphy, an actor and dramatist, who afterwards became the editor of
Johnson's works. One day, when calling upon Johnson, they found him in
such a fit of despair that Thrale tried to stop his mouth by placing his
hand before it. The pair then joined in begging Johnson to leave his
solitary abode, and come to them at their country-house at Streatham. He
complied, and for the next sixteen years a room was set apart for him,
both at Streatham and in their house in Southwark. He passed a large
part of his time with them, and derived from the intimacy most of the
comfort of his later years. He treated Mrs. Thrale with a kind of
paternal gallantry, her age at the time of their acquaintance being
about twenty-four, and his fifty-five. He generally called her by the
playful name of "my mistress," addressed little poems to her, gave her
solid advice, and gradually came to confide to her his miseries and
ailments with rather surprising frankness. She flattered and amused him,
and soothed his sufferings and did something towards humanizing his
rugged exterior. There was one little grievance between them which
requires notice. Johnson's pet virtue in private life was a rigid regard
for truth. He spoke, it was said of him, as if he was always on oath. He
would not, for example, allow his servant to use the phrase "not at
home," and even in the heat of conversation resisted the temptation to
give point to an anecdote. The lively Mrs. Thrale rather fretted against
the restraint, and Johnson admonished her in vain. He complained to
Boswell that she was willing to have that said of her, which the best of
mankind had died rather than have said of them. Boswell, the faithful
imitator of his master in this respect, delighted in taking up the
parable. "Now, madam, give me leave to catch you in the fact," he said
on one occasion; "it was not an old woman, but an old man whom I
mentioned, as having told me this," and he recounts his check to the
"lively lady" with intense complacency. As may be imagined, Boswell and
Mrs. Thrale did not love each other, in spite of the well-meant efforts
of the sage to bring about a friendly feeling between his disciples.

It is time to close this list of friends with the inimitable Boswell.
James Boswell, born in 1740, was the eldest son of a Whig laird and lord
of sessions. He had acquired some English friends at the Scotch
universities, among whom must be mentioned Mr. Temple, an English
clergyman. Boswell's correspondence with Temple, discovered years after
his death by a singular chance, and published in 1857, is, after the
Life of Johnson, one of the most curious exhibitions of character in the
language. Boswell was intended for the Scotch bar, and studied civil law
at Utrecht in the winter of 1762. It was in the following summer that he
made Johnson's acquaintance.

Perhaps the fundamental quality in Boswell's character was his intense
capacity for enjoyment. He was, as Mr. Carlyle puts it, "gluttonously
fond of whatever would yield him a little solacement, were it only of a
stomachic character." His love of good living and good drink would have
made him a hearty admirer of his countryman, Burns, had Burns been
famous in Boswell's youth. Nobody could have joined with more thorough
abandonment in the chorus to the poet's liveliest songs in praise of
love and wine. He would have made an excellent fourth when "Willie
brewed a peck of malt, and Rab and Allan came to see," and the drinking
contest for the Whistle commemorated in another lyric would have excited
his keenest interest. He was always delighted when he could get Johnson
to discuss the ethics and statistics of drinking. "I am myself," he
says, "a lover of wine, and therefore curious to hear whatever is
remarkable concerning drinking." The remark is _a propos_ to a story of
Dr. Campbell drinking thirteen bottles of port at a sitting. Lest this
should seem incredible, he quotes Johnson's dictum. "Sir, if a man
drinks very slowly and lets one glass evaporate before he takes another,
I know not how long he may drink." Boswell's faculty for making love was
as great as his power of drinking. His letters to Temple record with
amusing frankness the vicissitudes of some of his courtships and the
versatility of his passions.

Boswell's tastes, however, were by no means limited to sensual or
frivolous enjoyments. His appreciation of the bottle was combined with
an equally hearty sensibility to more intellectual pleasures. He had not
a spark of philosophic or poetic power, but within the ordinary range of
such topics as can be discussed at a dinner-party, he had an abundant
share of liveliness and intelligence. His palate was as keen for good
talk as for good wine. He was an admirable recipient, if not an
originator, of shrewd or humorous remarks upon life and manners. What in
regard to sensual enjoyment was mere gluttony, appeared in higher
matters as an insatiable curiosity. At times this faculty became
intolerable to his neighbours. "I will not be baited with what and why,"
said poor Johnson, one day in desperation. "Why is a cow's tail long?
Why is a fox's tail bushy?" "Sir," said Johnson on another occasion,
when Boswell was cross-examining a third person about him in his
presence. "You have but two subjects, yourself and me. I am sick of
both." Boswell, however, was not to be repelled by such a retort as
this, or even by ruder rebuffs. Once when discussing the means of
getting a friend to leave London, Johnson said in revenge for a previous
offence, "Nay, sir, we'll send you to him. If your presence doesn't
drive a man out of his house, nothing will." Boswell was "horribly
shocked," but he still stuck to his victim like a leech, and pried into
the minutest details of his life and manners. He observed with
conscientious accuracy that though Johnson abstained from milk one
fast-day, he did not reject it when put in his cup. He notes the
whistlings and puffings, the trick of saying "too-too-too" of his idol:
and it was a proud day when he won a bet by venturing to ask Johnson
what he did with certain scraped bits of orange-peel. His curiosity was
not satisfied on this occasion; but it would have made him the prince of
interviewers in these days. Nothing delighted him so much as rubbing
shoulders with any famous or notorious person. He scraped acquaintance
with Voltaire, Wesley, Rousseau, and Paoli, as well as with Mrs. Rudd, a
forgotten heroine of the _Newgate Calendar_. He was as eager to talk to
Hume the sceptic, or Wilkes the demagogue, as to the orthodox Tory,
Johnson; and, if repelled, it was from no deficiency in daring. In 1767,
he took advantage of his travels in Corsica to introduce himself to Lord
Chatham, then Prime Minister. The letter moderately ends by asking,
"_Could your lordship find time to honour me now and then with a
letter?_ I have been told how favourably your lordship has spoken of me.
To correspond with a Paoli and with a Chatham is enough to keep a young
man ever ardent in the pursuit of virtuous fame." No other young man of
the day, we may be sure, would have dared to make such a proposal to the
majestic orator.

His absurd vanity, and the greedy craving for notoriety at any cost,
would have made Boswell the most offensive of mortals, had not his
unfeigned good-humour disarmed enmity. Nobody could help laughing, or be
inclined to take offence at his harmless absurdities. Burke said of him
that he had so much good-humour naturally, that it was scarcely a
virtue. His vanity, in fact, did not generate affectation. Most vain men
are vain of qualities which they do not really possess, or possess in a
lower degree than they fancy. They are always acting a part, and become
touchy from a half-conscious sense of the imposture. But Boswell seems
to have had few such illusions. He thoroughly and unfeignedly enjoyed
his own peculiarities, and thought his real self much too charming an
object to be in need of any disguise. No man, therefore, was ever less
embarrassed by any regard for his own dignity. He was as ready to join
in a laugh at himself as in a laugh at his neighbours. He reveals his
own absurdities to the world at large as frankly as Pepys confided them
to a journal in cypher. He tells us how drunk he got one night in Skye,
and how he cured his headache with brandy next morning; and what an
intolerable fool he made of himself at an evening party in London after
a dinner with the Duke of Montrose, and how Johnson in vain did his best
to keep him quiet. His motive for the concession is partly the wish to
illustrate Johnson's indulgence, and, in the last case, to introduce a
copy of apologetic verses to the lady whose guest he had been. He
reveals other weaknesses with equal frankness. One day, he says, "I
owned to Johnson that I was occasionally troubled with a fit of
narrowness." "Why, sir," said he, "so am I. _But I do not tell it_."
Boswell enjoys the joke far too heartily to act upon the advice.

There is nothing, however, which Boswell seems to have enjoyed more
heartily than his own good impulses. He looks upon his virtuous
resolution with a sort of aesthetic satisfaction, and with the glow of a
virtuous man contemplating a promising penitent. Whilst suffering
severely from the consequences of imprudent conduct, he gets a letter of
virtuous advice from his friend Temple. He instantly sees himself
reformed for the rest of his days. "My warm imagination," he says,
"looks forward with great complacency on the sobriety, the
healthfulness, and worth of my future life." "Every instance of our
doing those things which we ought not to have done, and leaving undone
those things which we ought to have done, is attended," as he elsewhere
sagely observes, "with more or less of what is truly remorse;" but he
seems rather to have enjoyed even the remorse. It is needless to say
that the complacency was its own reward, and that the resolution
vanished like other more eccentric impulses. Music, he once told
Johnson, affected him intensely, producing in his mind "alternate
sensations of pathetic dejection, so that I was ready to shed tears, and
of daring resolution so that I was inclined to rush into the thickest of
the [purely hypothetical] battle." "Sir," replied Johnson, "I should
never hear it, if it made me such a fool." Elsewhere he expresses a wish
to "fly to the woods," or retire into a desert, a disposition which
Johnson checked by one of his habitual gibes at the quantity of easily
accessible desert in Scotland. Boswell is equally frank in describing
himself in situations more provocative of contempt than even drunkenness
in a drawing-room. He tells us how dreadfully frightened he was by a
storm at sea in the Hebrides, and how one of his companions, "with a
happy readiness," made him lay hold of a rope fastened to the masthead,
and told him to pull it when he was ordered. Boswell was thus kept
quiet in mind and harmless in body.

This extreme simplicity of character makes poor Boswell loveable in his
way. If he sought notoriety, he did not so far mistake his powers as to
set up for independent notoriety.[1] He was content to shine in
reflected light: and the affectations with which he is charged seem to
have been unconscious imitations of his great idol. Miss Burney traced
some likeness even in his dress. In the later part of the _Life_ we meet
phrases in which Boswell is evidently aping the true Johnsonian style.
So, for example, when somebody distinguishes between "moral" and
"physical necessity;" Boswell exclaims, "Alas, sir, they come both to
the same thing. You may be as hard bound by chains when covered by
leather, as when the iron appears." But he specially emulates the
profound melancholy of his hero. He seems to have taken pride in his
sufferings from hypochondria; though, in truth, his melancholy diverges
from Johnson's by as great a difference as that which divides any two
varieties in Jaques's classification. Boswell's was the melancholy of a
man who spends too much, drinks too much, falls in love too often, and
is forced to live in the country in dependence upon a stern old parent,
when he is longing for a jovial life in London taverns. Still he was
excusably vexed when Johnson refused to believe in the reality of his
complaints, and showed scant sympathy to his noisy would-be
fellow-sufferer. Some of Boswell's freaks were, in fact, very trying.
Once he gave up writing letters for a long time, to see whether Johnson
would be induced to write first. Johnson became anxious, though he
half-guessed the truth, and in reference to Boswell's confession gave
his disciple a piece of his mind. "Remember that all tricks are either
knavish or childish, and that it is as foolish to make experiments upon
the constancy of a friend as upon the chastity of a wife."

[Footnote 1: The story is often told how Boswell appeared at the
Stratford Jubilee with "Corsica Boswell" in large letters on his hat.
The account given apparently by himself is sufficiently amusing, but the
statement is not quite fair. Boswell not unnaturally appeared at a
masquerade in the dress of a Corsican chief, and the inscription on his
hat seems to have been "Viva la Liberta."]

In other ways Boswell was more successful in aping his friend's
peculiarities. When in company with Johnson, he became delightfully
pious. "My dear sir," he exclaimed once with unrestrained fervour, "I
would fain be a good man, and I am very good now. I fear God and honour
the king; I wish to do no ill and to be benevolent to all mankind."
Boswell hopes, "for the felicity of human nature," that many experience
this mood; though Johnson judiciously suggested that he should not trust
too much to impressions. In some matters Boswell showed a touch of
independence by outvying the Johnsonian prejudices. He was a warm
admirer of feudal principles, and especially held to the propriety of
entailing property upon heirs male. Johnson had great difficulty in
persuading him to yield to his father's wishes, in a settlement of the
estate which contravened this theory. But Boswell takes care to declare
that his opinion was not shaken. "Yet let me not be thought," he adds,
"harsh or unkind to daughters; for my notion is that they should be
treated with great affection and tenderness, and always participate of
the prosperity of the family." His estimate of female rights is
indicated in another phrase. When Mrs. Knowles, the Quaker, expressed a
hope that the sexes would be equal in another world, Boswell replied,
"That is too ambitious, madam. _We_ might as well desire to be equal
with the angels." Boswell, again, differed from Johnson--who, in spite
of his love of authority, had a righteous hatred for all recognized
tyranny--by advocating the slave-trade. To abolish that trade would, he
says, be robbery of the masters and cruelty to the African savages. Nay,
he declares, to abolish it would be

To shut the gates of mercy on mankind!

Boswell was, according to Johnson, "the best travelling companion in the
world." In fact, for such purposes, unfailing good-humour and readiness
to make talk at all hazards are high recommendations. "If, sir, you were
shut up in a castle and a new-born baby with you, what would you do?" is
one of his questions to Johnson,--_a propos_ of nothing. That is
exquisitely ludicrous, no doubt; but a man capable of preferring such a
remark to silence helps at any rate to keep the ball rolling. A more
objectionable trick was his habit not only of asking preposterous or
indiscreet questions, but of setting people by the ears out of sheer
curiosity. The appearance of so queer a satellite excited astonishment
among Johnson's friends. "Who is this Scotch cur at Johnson's heels?"
asked some one. "He is not a cur," replied Goldsmith; "he is only a bur.
Tom Davies flung him at Johnson in sport, and he has the faculty of
sticking." The bur stuck till the end of Johnson's life. Boswell visited
London whenever he could, and soon began taking careful notes of
Johnson's talk. His appearance, when engaged in this task long
afterwards, is described by Miss Burney. Boswell, she says, concentrated
his whole attention upon his idol, not even answering questions from
others. When Johnson spoke, his eyes goggled with eagerness; he leant
his ear almost on the Doctor's shoulder; his mouth dropped open to
catch every syllable; and he seemed to listen even to Johnson's
breathings as though they had some mystical significance. He took every
opportunity of edging himself close to Johnson's side even at
meal-times, and was sometimes ordered imperiously back to his place like
a faithful but over-obtrusive spaniel.

It is hardly surprising that Johnson should have been touched by the
fidelity of this queer follower. Boswell, modestly enough, attributes
Johnson's easy welcome to his interest in all manifestations of the
human mind, and his pleasure in an undisguised display of its workings.
The last pleasure was certainly to be obtained in Boswell's society. But
in fact Boswell, though his qualities were too much those of the
ordinary "good fellow," was not without virtues, and still less without
remarkable talents. He was, to all appearance, a man of really generous
sympathies, and capable of appreciating proofs of a warm heart and a
vigorous understanding. Foolish, vain, and absurd in every way, he was
yet a far kindlier and more genuine man than many who laughed at him.
His singular gifts as an observer could only escape notice from a
careless or inexperienced reader. Boswell has a little of the true
Shaksperian secret. He lets his characters show themselves without
obtruding unnecessary comment. He never misses the point of a story,
though he does not ostentatiously call our attention to it. He gives
just what is wanted to indicate character, or to explain the full
meaning of a repartee. It is not till we compare his reports with those
of less skilful hearers, that we can appreciate the skill with which the
essence of a conversation is extracted, and the whole scene indicated by
a few telling touches. We are tempted to fancy that we have heard the
very thing, and rashly infer that Boswell was simply the mechanical
transmitter of the good things uttered. Any one who will try to put
down the pith of a brilliant conversation within the same space, may
soon satisfy himself of the absurdity of such an hypothesis, and will
learn to appreciate Boswell's powers not only of memory but artistic
representation. Such a feat implies not only admirable quickness of
appreciation, but a rare literary faculty. Boswell's accuracy is
remarkable; but it is the least part of his merit.

The book which so faithfully reflects the peculiarities of its hero and
its author became the first specimen of a new literary type. Johnson
himself was a master in one kind of biography; that which sets forth a
condensed and vigorous statement of the essentials of a man's life and
character. Other biographers had given excellent memoirs of men
considered in relation to the chief historical currents of the time. But
a full-length portrait of a man's domestic life with enough picturesque
detail to enable us to see him through the eyes of private friendship
did not exist in the language. Boswell's originality and merit may be
tested by comparing his book to the ponderous performance of Sir John
Hawkins, or to the dreary dissertations, falsely called lives, of which
Dugald Stewart's _Life of Robertson_ may be taken for a type. The writer
is so anxious to be dignified and philosophical that the despairing
reader seeks in vain for a single vivid touch, and discovers even the
main facts of the hero's life by some indirect allusion. Boswell's
example has been more or less followed by innumerable successors; and we
owe it in some degree to his example that we have such delightful books
as Lockhart's _Life of Scott_ or Mr. Trevelyan's _Life of Macaulay_. Yet
no later biographer has been quite as fortunate in a subject; and
Boswell remains as not only the first, but the best of his class.

One special merit implies something like genius. Macaulay has given to
the usual complaint which distorts the vision of most biographers the
name of _lues Boswelliana_. It is true that Boswell's adoration of his
hero is a typical example of the feeling. But that which distinguishes
Boswell, and renders the phrase unjust, is that in him adoration never
hindered accuracy of portraiture. "I will not make my tiger a cat to
please anybody," was his answer to well-meaning entreaties of Hannah
More to soften his accounts of Johnson's asperities. He saw
instinctively that a man who is worth anything loses far more than he
gains by such posthumous flattery. The whole picture is toned down, and
the lights are depressed as well as the shadows. The truth is that it is
unscientific to consider a man as a bundle of separate good and bad
qualities, of which one half may be concealed without injury to the
rest. Johnson's fits of bad temper, like Goldsmith's blundering, must be
unsparingly revealed by a biographer, because they are in fact
expressions of the whole character. It is necessary to take them into
account in order really to understand either the merits or the
shortcomings. When they are softened or omitted, the whole story becomes
an enigma, and we are often tempted to substitute some less creditable
explanation of errors for the true one. We should not do justice to
Johnson's intense tenderness, if we did not see how often it was masked
by an irritability pardonable in itself, and not affecting the deeper
springs of action. To bring out the beauty of a character by means of
its external oddities is the triumph of a kindly humourist; and Boswell
would have acted as absurdly in suppressing Johnson's weaknesses, as
Sterne would have done had he made Uncle Toby a perfectly sound and
rational person. But to see this required an insight so rare that it is
wanting in nearly all the biographers who have followed Boswell's
steps, and is the most conclusive proof that Boswell was a man of a
higher intellectual capacity than has been generally admitted.



We have now reached the point at which Johnson's life becomes distinctly
visible through the eyes of a competent observer. The last twenty years
are those which are really familiar to us; and little remains but to
give some brief selection of Boswell's anecdotes. The task, however, is
a difficult one. It is easy enough to make a selection of the gems of
Boswell's narrative; but it is also inevitable that, taken from their
setting, they should lose the greatest part of their brilliance. We lose
all the quaint semiconscious touches of character which make the
original so fascinating; and Boswell's absurdities become less amusing
when we are able to forget for an instant that the perpetrator is also
the narrator. The effort, however, must be made; and it will be best to
premise a brief statement of the external conditions of the life.

From the time of the pension until his death, Johnson was elevated above
the fear of poverty. He had a pleasant refuge at the Thrales', where
much of his time was spent; and many friends gathered round him and
regarded his utterances with even excessive admiration. He had still
frequent periods of profound depression. His diaries reveal an inner
life tormented by gloomy forebodings, by remorse for past indolence and
futile resolutions of amendment; but he could always escape from himself
to a society of friends and admirers. His abandonment of wine seems to
have improved his health and diminished the intensity of his melancholy
fits. His literary activity, however, nearly ceased. He wrote a few
political pamphlets in defence of Government, and after a long period of
indolence managed to complete his last conspicuous work--the _Lives of
the Poets_, which was published in 1779 and 1781. One other book of some
interest appeared in 1775. It was an account of the journey made with
Boswell to the Hebrides in 1773. This journey was in fact the chief
interruption to the even tenour of his life. He made a tour to Wales
with the Thrales in 1774; and spent a month with them in Paris in 1775.
For the rest of the period he lived chiefly in London or at Streatham,
making occasional trips to Lichfield and Oxford, or paying visits to
Taylor, Langton, and one or two other friends. It was, however, in the
London which he loved so ardently ("a man," he said once, "who is tired
of London is tired of life"), that he was chiefly conspicuous. There he
talked and drank tea illimitably at his friends' houses, or argued and
laid down the law to his disciples collected in a tavern instead of
Academic groves. Especially he was in all his glory at the Club, which
began its meetings in February, 1764, and was afterwards known as the
Literary Club. This Club was founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds, "our
Romulus," as Johnson called him. The original members were Reynolds,
Johnson, Burke, Nugent, Beauclerk, Langton, Goldsmith, Chamier, and
Hawkins. They met weekly at the Turk's Head, in Gerard Street, Soho, at
seven o'clock, and the talk generally continued till a late hour. The
Club was afterwards increased in numbers, and the weekly supper changed
to a fortnightly dinner. It continued to thrive, and election to it came
to be as great an honour in certain circles as election to a membership
of Parliament. Among the members elected in Johnson's lifetime were
Percy of the _Reliques_, Garrick, Sir W. Jones, Boswell, Fox, Steevens,
Gibbon, Adam Smith, the Wartons, Sheridan, Dunning, Sir Joseph Banks,
Windham, Lord Stowell, Malone, and Dr. Burney. What was best in the
conversation at the time was doubtless to be found at its meetings.

Johnson's habitual mode of life is described by Dr. Maxwell, one of
Boswell's friends, who made his acquaintance in 1754. Maxwell generally
called upon him about twelve, and found him in bed or declaiming over
his tea. A levee, chiefly of literary men, surrounded him; and he seemed
to be regarded as a kind of oracle to whom every one might resort for
advice or instruction. After talking all the morning, he dined at a
tavern, staying late and then going to some friend's house for tea, over
which he again loitered for a long time. Maxwell is puzzled to know when
he could have read or written. The answer seems to be pretty obvious;
namely, that after the publication of the _Dictionary_ he wrote very
little, and that, when he did write, it was generally in a brief spasm
of feverish energy. One may understand that Johnson should have
frequently reproached himself for his indolence; though he seems to have
occasionally comforted himself by thinking that he could do good by
talking as well as by writing. He said that a man should have a part of
his life to himself; and compared himself to a physician retired to a
small town from practice in a great city. Boswell, in spite of this,
said that he still wondered that Johnson had not more pleasure in
writing than in not writing. "Sir," replied the oracle, "you _may_

I will now endeavour, with Boswell's guidance, to describe a few of the
characteristic scenes which can be fully enjoyed in his pages alone.
The first must be the introduction of Boswell to the sage. Boswell had
come to London eager for the acquaintance of literary magnates. He
already knew Goldsmith, who had inflamed his desire for an introduction
to Johnson. Once when Boswell spoke of Levett, one of Johnson's
dependents, Goldsmith had said, "he is poor and honest, which is
recommendation enough to Johnson." Another time, when Boswell had
wondered at Johnson's kindness to a man of bad character, Goldsmith had
replied, "He is now become miserable, and that insures the protection of
Johnson." Boswell had hoped for an introduction through the elder
Sheridan; but Sheridan never forgot the contemptuous phrase in which
Johnson had referred to his fellow-pensioner. Possibly Sheridan had
heard of one other Johnsonian remark. "Why, sir," he had said, "Sherry
is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of
pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, sir,
is not in Nature." At another time he said, "Sheridan cannot bear me; I
bring his declamation to a point." "What influence can Mr. Sheridan have
upon the language of this great country by his narrow exertions? Sir, it
is burning a farthing candle at Dover to show light at Calais." Boswell,
however, was acquainted with Davies, an actor turned bookseller, now
chiefly remembered by a line in Churchill's _Rosciad_ which is said to
have driven him from the stage--

He mouths a sentence as curs mouth a bone.

Boswell was drinking tea with Davies and his wife in their back parlour
when Johnson came into the shop. Davies, seeing him through the
glass-door, announced his approach to Boswell in the spirit of Horatio
addressing Hamlet: "Look, my Lord, it comes!" Davies introduced the
young Scotchman, who remembered Johnson's proverbial prejudices. "Don't
tell him where I come from!" cried Boswell. "From Scotland," said Davies
roguishly. "Mr. Johnson," said Boswell, "I do indeed come from Scotland;
but I cannot help it!" "That, sir," was the first of Johnson's many
retorts to his worshipper, "is what a great many of your countrymen
cannot help."

Poor Boswell was stunned; but he recovered when Johnson observed to
Davies, "What do you think of Garrick? He has refused me an order for
the play for Miss Williams because he knows the house will be full, and
that an order would be worth three shillings." "O, sir," intruded the
unlucky Boswell, "I cannot think Mr. Garrick would grudge such a trifle
to you." "Sir," replied Johnson sternly, "I have known David Garrick
longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on
the subject." The second blow might have crushed a less intrepid
curiosity. Boswell, though silenced, gradually recovered sufficiently to
listen, and afterwards to note down parts of the conversation. As the
interview went on, he even ventured to make a remark or two, which were
very civilly received; Davies consoled him at his departure by assuring
him that the great man liked him very well. "I cannot conceive a more
humiliating position," said Beauclerk on another occasion, "than to be
clapped on the back by Tom Davies." For the present, however, even Tom
Davies was a welcome encourager to one who, for the rest, was not easily
rebuffed. A few days afterwards Boswell ventured a call, was kindly
received and detained for some time by "the giant in his den." He was
still a little afraid of the said giant, who had shortly before
administered a vigorous retort to his countryman Blair. Blair had asked
Johnson whether he thought that any man of a modern age could have
written _Ossian_. "Yes, sir," replied Johnson, "many men, many women,
and many children." Boswell, however, got on very well, and before long
had the high honour of drinking a bottle of port with Johnson at the
Mitre, and receiving, after a little autobiographical sketch, the
emphatic approval, "Give me your hand, I have taken a liking to you."

In a very short time Boswell was on sufficiently easy terms with
Johnson, not merely to frequent his levees but to ask him to dinner at
the Mitre. He gathered up, though without the skill of his later
performances, some fragments of the conversational feast. The great man
aimed another blow or two at Scotch prejudices. To an unlucky compatriot
of Boswell's, who claimed for his country a great many "noble wild
prospects," Johnson replied, "I believe, sir, you have a great many,
Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is remarkable for
prodigious noble wild prospects. But, sir, let me tell you the noblest
prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to
England." Though Boswell makes a slight remonstrance about the "rude
grandeur of Nature" as seen in "Caledonia," he sympathized in this with
his teacher. Johnson said afterwards, that he never knew any one with
"such a gust for London." Before long he was trying Boswell's tastes by
asking him in Greenwich Park, "Is not this very fine?" "Yes, sir,"
replied the promising disciple, "but not equal to Fleet Street." "You
are right, sir," said the sage; and Boswell illustrates his dictum by
the authority of a "very fashionable baronet," and, moreover, a baronet
from Rydal, who declared that the fragrance of a May evening in the
country might be very well, but that he preferred the smell of a
flambeau at the playhouse. In more serious moods Johnson delighted his
new disciple by discussions upon theological, social, and literary
topics. He argued with an unfortunate friend of Boswell's, whose mind,
it appears, had been poisoned by Hume, and who was, moreover, rash
enough to undertake the defence of principles of political equality.
Johnson's view of all propagators of new opinions was tolerably simple.
"Hume, and other sceptical innovators," he said, "are vain men, and will
gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food
to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth, sir,
is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone
to milk the bull." On another occasion poor Boswell, not yet acquainted
with the master's prejudices, quoted with hearty laughter a "very
strange" story which Hume had told him of Johnson. According to Hume,
Johnson had said that he would stand before a battery of cannon to
restore Convocation to its full powers. "And would I not, sir?"
thundered out the sage with flashing eyes and threatening gestures.
Boswell judiciously bowed to the storm, and diverted Johnson's
attention. Another manifestation of orthodox prejudice was less
terrible. Boswell told Johnson that he had heard a Quaker woman preach.
"A woman's preaching," said Johnson, "is like a dog's walking on his
hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at

So friendly had the pair become, that when Boswell left England to
continue his studies at Utrecht, Johnson accompanied him in the
stage-coach to Harwich, amusing him on the way by his frankness of
address to fellow-passengers, and by the voracity of his appetite. He
gave him some excellent advice, remarking of a moth which fluttered
into a candle, "that creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its
name was Boswell." He refuted Berkeley by striking his foot with mighty
force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it. As the ship put
out to sea Boswell watched him from the deck, whilst he remained
"rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner." And so the friendship
was cemented, though Boswell disappeared for a time from the scene,
travelled on the Continent, and visited Paoli in Corsica. A friendly
letter or two kept up the connexion till Boswell returned in 1766, with
his head full of Corsica and a projected book of travels.

In the next year, 1767, occurred an incident upon which Boswell dwells
with extreme complacency. Johnson was in the habit of sometimes reading
in the King's Library, and it came into the head of his majesty that he
should like to see the uncouth monster upon whom he had bestowed a
pension. In spite of his semi-humorous Jacobitism, there was probably
not a more loyal subject in his majesty's dominions. Loyalty is a word
too often used to designate a sentiment worthy only of valets,
advertising tradesmen, and writers of claptrap articles. But it deserves
all respect when it reposes, as in Johnson's case, upon a profound
conviction of the value of political subordination, and an acceptance of
the king as the authorized representative of a great principle. There
was no touch of servility in Johnson's respect for his sovereign, a
respect fully reconcilable with a sense of his own personal dignity.
Johnson spoke of his interview with an unfeigned satisfaction, which it
would be difficult in these days to preserve from the taint of
snobbishness. He described it frequently to his friends, and Boswell
with pious care ascertained the details from Johnson himself, and from
various secondary sources. He contrived afterwards to get his minute
submitted to the King himself, who graciously authorized its
publication. When he was preparing his biography, he published this
account with the letter to Chesterfield in a small pamphlet sold at a
prohibitory price, in order to secure the copyright.

"I find," said Johnson afterwards, "that it does a man good to be talked
to by his sovereign. In the first place a man cannot be in a passion."
What other advantages he perceived must be unknown, for here the oracle
was interrupted. But whatever the advantages, it could hardly be
reckoned amongst them, that there would be room for the hearty cut and
thrust retorts which enlivened his ordinary talk. To us accordingly the
conversation is chiefly interesting as illustrating what Johnson meant
by his politeness. He found that the King wanted him to talk, and he
talked accordingly. He spoke in a "firm manly manner, with a sonorous
voice," and not in the subdued tone customary at formal receptions. He
dilated upon various literary topics, on the libraries of Oxford and
Cambridge, on some contemporary controversies, on the quack Dr. Hill,
and upon the reviews of the day. All that is worth repeating is a
complimentary passage which shows Johnson's possession of that courtesy
which rests upon sense and self-respect. The King asked whether he was
writing anything, and Johnson excused himself by saying that he had told
the world what he knew for the present, and had "done his part as a
writer." "I should have thought so too," said the King, "if you had not
written so well." "No man," said Johnson, "could have paid a higher
compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay--it was decisive." When
asked if he had replied, he said, "No, sir. When the King had said it,
it was to be. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign."
Johnson was not the less delighted. "Sir," he said to the librarian,
"they may talk of the King as they will, but he is the finest gentleman
I have ever seen." And he afterwards compared his manners to those of
Louis XIV., and his favourite, Charles II. Goldsmith, says Boswell, was
silent during the narrative, because (so his kind friend supposed) he
was jealous of the honour paid to the dictator. But his natural
simplicity prevailed. He ran to Johnson, and exclaimed in 'a kind of
flutter,' "Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than
I should have done, for I should have bowed and stammered through the
whole of it."

The years 1768 and 1769 were a period of great excitement for Boswell.
He was carrying on various love affairs, which ended with his marriage
in the end of 1769. He was publishing his book upon Corsica and paying
homage to Paoli, who arrived in England in the autumn of the same year.
The book appeared in the beginning of 1768, and he begs his friend
Temple to report all that is said about it, but with the restriction
that he is to conceal _all censure_. He particularly wanted Gray's
opinion, as Gray was a friend of Temple's. Gray's opinion, not conveyed
to Boswell, was expressed by his calling it "a dialogue between a green
goose and a hero." Boswell, who was cultivating the society of various
eminent people, exclaims triumphantly in a letter to Temple (April 26,
1768), "I am really the great man now." Johnson and Hume had called upon
him on the same day, and Garrick, Franklin, and Oglethorpe also partook
of his "admirable dinners and good claret." "This," he says, with the
sense that he deserved his honours, "is enjoying the fruit of my
labours, and appearing like the friend of Paoli." Johnson in vain
expressed a wish that he would "empty his head of Corsica, which had
filled it too long." "Empty my head of Corsica! Empty it of honour,
empty it of friendship, empty it of piety!" exclaims the ardent youth.
The next year accordingly saw Boswell's appearance at the Stratford
Jubilee, where he paraded to the admiration of all beholders in a
costume described by himself (apparently) in a glowing article in the
_London Magazine_. "Is it wrong, sir," he took speedy opportunity of
inquiring from the oracle, "to affect singularity in order to make
people stare?" "Yes," replied Johnson, "if you do it by propagating
error, and indeed it is wrong in any way. There is in human nature a
general inclination to make people stare, and every wise man has himself
to cure of it, and does cure himself. If you wish to make people stare
by doing better than others, why make them stare till they stare their
eyes out. But consider how easy it is to make people stare by being
absurd"--a proposition which he proceeds to illustrate by examples
perhaps less telling than Boswell's recent performance.

The sage was less communicative on the question of marriage, though
Boswell had anticipated some "instructive conversation" upon that topic.
His sole remark was one from which Boswell "humbly differed." Johnson
maintained that a wife was not the worse for being learned. Boswell, on
the other hand, defined the proper degree of intelligence to be desired
in a female companion by some verses in which Sir Thomas Overbury says
that a wife should have some knowledge, and be "by nature wise, not
learned much by art." Johnson said afterwards that Mrs. Boswell was in a
proper degree inferior to her husband. So far as we can tell, she seems
to have been a really sensible, and good woman, who kept her husband's
absurdities in check, and was, in her way, a better wife than he
deserved. So, happily, are most wives.

Johnson and Boswell had several meetings in 1769. Boswell had the honour
of introducing the two objects of his idolatry, Johnson and Paoli, and
on another occasion entertained a party including Goldsmith and Garrick
and Reynolds, at his lodgings in Old Bond Street. We can still see the
meeting more distinctly than many that have been swallowed by a few days
of oblivion. They waited for one of the party, Johnson kindly
maintaining that six ought to be kept waiting for one, if the one would
suffer more by the others sitting down than the six by waiting.
Meanwhile Garrick "played round Johnson with a fond vivacity, taking
hold of the breasts of his coat, looking up in his face with a lively
archness," and complimenting him on his good health. Goldsmith strutted
about bragging of his dress, of which Boswell, in the serene
consciousness of superiority to such weakness, thought him seriously
vain. "Let me tell you," said Goldsmith, "when my tailor brought home my
bloom-coloured coat, he said, 'Sir, I have a favour to beg of you; when
anybody asks you who made your clothes, be pleased to mention John
Filby, at the Harrow, Water Lane.'" "Why, sir," said Johnson, "that was
because he knew that the strange colour would attract crowds to gaze at
it, and thus they might hear of him, and see how well he could make a
coat even of so absurd a colour." Mr. Filby has gone the way of all
tailors and bloom-coloured coats, but some of his bills are preserved.
On the day of this dinner he had delivered to Goldsmith a half-dress
suit of ratteen lined with satin, costing twelve guineas, a pair of silk
stocking-breeches for L2 5_s_. and a pair of bloom-coloured ditto for L1
4_s_. 6_d_. The bill, including other items, was paid, it is
satisfactory to add, in February, 1771.

The conversation was chiefly literary. Johnson repeated the concluding
lines of the _Dunciad_; upon which some one (probably Boswell) ventured
to say that they were "too fine for such a poem--a poem on what?" "Why,"
said Johnson, "on dunces! It was worth while being a dunce then. Ah,
sir, hadst _thou_ lived in those days!" Johnson previously uttered a
criticism which has led some people to think that he had a touch of the
dunce in him. He declared that a description of a temple in Congreve's
_Mourning Bride_ was the finest he knew--finer than anything in
Shakspeare. Garrick vainly protested; but Johnson was inexorable. He
compared Congreve to a man who had only ten guineas in the world, but
all in one coin; whereas Shakspeare might have ten thousand separate
guineas. The principle of the criticism is rather curious. "What I mean
is," said Johnson, "that you can show me no passage where there is
simply a description of material objects, without any admixture of moral
notions, which produces such an effect." The description of the night
before Agincourt was rejected because there were men in it; and the
description of Dover Cliff because the boats and the crows "impede yon
fall." They do "not impress your mind at once with the horrible idea of
immense height. The impression is divided; you pass on by computation
from one stage of the tremendous space to another."

Probably most people will think that the passage in question deserves a
very slight fraction of the praise bestowed upon it; but the criticism,
like most of Johnson's, has a meaning which might be worth examining
abstractedly from the special application which shocks the idolaters of
Shakspeare. Presently the party discussed Mrs. Montagu, whose Essay upon
Shakspeare had made some noise. Johnson had a respect for her, caused in
great measure by a sense of her liberality to his friend Miss Williams,
of whom more must be said hereafter. He paid her some tremendous
compliments, observing that some China plates which had belonged to
Queen Elizabeth and to her, had no reason to be ashamed of a possessor
so little inferior to the first. But he had his usual professional
contempt for her amateur performances in literature. Her defence of
Shakspeare against Voltaire did her honour, he admitted, but it would do
nobody else honour. "No, sir, there is no real criticism in it: none
showing the beauty of thought, as formed on the workings of the human
heart." Mrs. Montagu was reported once to have complimented a modern
tragedian, probably Jephson, by saying, "I tremble for Shakspeare."
"When Shakspeare," said Johnson, "has got Jephson for his rival and Mrs.
Montagu for his defender, he is in a poor state indeed." The
conversation went on to a recently published book, _Kames's Elements of
Criticism_, which Johnson praised, whilst Goldsmith said more truly, "It
is easier to write that book than to read it." Johnson went on to speak
of other critics. "There is no great merit," he said, "in telling how
many plays have ghosts in them, and how this ghost is better than that.
You must show how terror is impressed on the human heart. In the
description of night in _Macbeth_ the beetle and the bat detract from
the general idea of darkness--inspissated gloom."

After Boswell's marriage he disappeared for some time from London, and
his correspondence with Johnson dropped, as he says, without coldness,
from pure procrastination. He did not return to London till 1772. In the
spring of that and the following year he renewed his old habits of
intimacy, and inquired into Johnson's opinion upon various subjects
ranging from ghosts to literary criticism. The height to which he had
risen in the doctor's good opinion was marked by several symptoms. He
was asked to dine at Johnson's house upon Easter day, 1773; and observes
that his curiosity was as much gratified as by a previous dinner with
Rousseau in the "wilds of Neufchatel." He was now able to report, to the
amazement of many inquirers, that Johnson's establishment was quite
orderly. The meal consisted of very good soup, a boiled leg of lamb with
spinach, a veal pie, and a rice pudding. A stronger testimony of
good-will was his election, by Johnson's influence, into the Club. It
ought apparently to be said that Johnson forced him upon the Club by
letting it be understood that, till Boswell was admitted, no other
candidate would have a chance. Boswell, however, was, as his proposer
said, a thoroughly "clubable" man, and once a member, his good humour
secured his popularity. On the important evening Boswell dined at
Beauclerk's with his proposer and some other members. The talk turned
upon Goldsmith's merits; and Johnson not only defended his poetry, but
preferred him as a historian to Robertson. Such a judgment could be
explained in Boswell's opinion by nothing but Johnson's dislike to the
Scotch. Once before, when Boswell had mentioned Robertson in order to
meet Johnson's condemnation of Scotch literature in general, Johnson had
evaded him; "Sir, I love Robertson, and I won't talk of his book." On
the present occasion he said that he would give to Robertson the advice
offered by an old college tutor to a pupil; "read over your
compositions, and whenever you meet with a passage which you think
particularly fine, strike it out." A good anecdote of Goldsmith
followed. Johnson had said to him once in the Poet's Corner at

Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.

When they got to Temple Bar Goldsmith pointed to the heads of the
Jacobites upon it and slily suggested,--

Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur _istis_.

Johnson next pronounced a critical judgment which should be set against
many sins of that kind. He praised the _Pilgrim's Progress_ very warmly,
and suggested that Bunyan had probably read Spenser.

After more talk the gentlemen went to the Club; and poor Boswell
remained trembling with an anxiety which even the claims of Lady Di
Beauclerk's conversation could not dissipate. The welcome news of his
election was brought; and Boswell went to see Burke for the first time,
and to receive a humorous charge from Johnson, pointing out the conduct
expected from him as a good member. Perhaps some hints were given as to
betrayal of confidence. Boswell seems at any rate to have had a certain
reserve in repeating Club talk.

This intimacy with Johnson was about to receive a more public and even
more impressive stamp. The antipathy to Scotland and the Scotch already
noticed was one of Johnson's most notorious crotchets. The origin of the
prejudice was forgotten by Johnson himself, though he was willing to
accept a theory started by old Sheridan that it was resentment for the
betrayal of Charles I. There is, however, nothing surprising in
Johnson's partaking a prejudice common enough from the days of his
youth, when each people supposed itself to have been cheated by the
Union, and Englishmen resented the advent of swarms of needy
adventurers, talking with a strange accent and hanging together with
honourable but vexatious persistence. Johnson was irritated by what was,
after all, a natural defence against English prejudice. He declared that
the Scotch were always ready to lie on each other's behalf. "The Irish,"
he said, "are not in a conspiracy to cheat the world by false
representations of the merits of their countrymen. No, sir, the Irish
are a fair people; they never speak well of one another." There was
another difference. He always expressed a generous resentment against
the tyranny exercised by English rulers over the Irish people. To some
one who defended the restriction of Irish trade for the good of English
merchants, he said, "Sir, you talk the language of a savage. What! sir,
would you prevent any people from feeding themselves, if by any honest
means they can do it?" It was "better to hang or drown people at once,"
than weaken them by unrelenting persecution. He felt some tenderness for
Catholics, especially when oppressed, and a hearty antipathy towards
prosperous Presbyterians. The Lowland Scotch were typified by John Knox,
in regard to whom he expressed a hope, after viewing the ruins of St.
Andrew's, that he was buried "in the highway."

This sturdy British and High Church prejudice did not prevent the worthy
doctor from having many warm friendships with Scotchmen, and helping
many distressed Scotchmen in London. Most of the amanuenses employed for
his _Dictionary_ were Scotch. But he nourished the prejudice the more as
giving an excellent pretext for many keen gibes. "Scotch learning," he
said, for example, "is like bread in a besieged town. Every man gets a
mouthful, but no man a bellyful." Once Strahan said in answer to some
abusive remarks, "Well, sir, God made Scotland." "Certainly," replied
Johnson, "but we must always remember that He made it for Scotchmen; and
comparisons are odious, Mr. Strahan, but God made hell."

Boswell, therefore, had reason to feel both triumph and alarm when he
induced the great man to accompany him in a Scotch tour. Boswell's
journal of the tour appeared soon after Johnson's death. Johnson himself
wrote an account of it, which is not without interest, though it is in
his dignified style, which does not condescend to Boswellian touches of
character. In 1773 the Scotch Highlands were still a little known
region, justifying a book descriptive of manners and customs, and
touching upon antiquities now the commonplaces of innumerable guide
books. Scott was still an infant, and the day of enthusiasm, real or
affected, for mountain scenery had not yet dawned. Neither of the
travellers, as Boswell remarks, cared much for "rural beauties." Johnson
says quaintly on the shores of Loch Ness, "It will very readily occur
that this uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to
the traveller; that it is easy to sit at home and conceive rocks and
heath and waterfalls; and that these journeys are useless labours, which
neither impregnate the imagination nor enlarge the understanding." And
though he shortly afterwards sits down on a bank "such as a writer of
romance might have delighted to feign," and there conceived the thought
of his book, he does not seem to have felt much enthusiasm. He checked
Boswell for describing a hill as "immense," and told him that it was
only a "considerable protuberance." Indeed it is not surprising if he
sometimes grew weary in long rides upon Highland ponies, or if, when
weatherbound in a remote village in Skye, he declared that this was a
"waste of life."

On the whole, however, Johnson bore his fatigues well, preserved his
temper, and made sensible remarks upon men and things. The pair started
from Edinburgh in the middle of August, 1773; they went north along the
eastern coast, through St. Andrew's, Aberdeen, Banff, Fort George, and
Inverness. There they took to horses, rode to Glenelg, and took boat for
Skye, where they landed on the 2nd of September. They visited Rothsay,
Col, Mull, and Iona, and after some dangerous sailing got to the
mainland at Oban on October 2nd. Thence they proceeded by Inverary and
Loch Lomond to Glasgow; and after paying a visit to Boswell's paternal
mansion at Auchinleck in Ayrshire, returned to Edinburgh in November. It
were too long to narrate their adventures at length, or to describe in
detail how Johnson grieved over traces of the iconoclastic zeal of
Knox's disciples, seriously investigated stories of second-sight,
cross-examined and brow-beat credulous believers in the authenticity of
_Ossian_, and felt his piety grow warm among the ruins of Iona. Once or
twice, when the temper of the travellers was tried by the various
worries incident to their position, poor Boswell came in for some severe
blows. But he was happy, feeling, as he remarks, like a dog who has run
away with a large piece of meat, and is devouring it peacefully in a
corner by himself. Boswell's spirits were irrepressible. On hearing a
drum beat for dinner at Fort George, he says, with a Pepys-like touch,
"I for a little while fancied myself a military man, and it pleased me."
He got scandalously drunk on one occasion, and showed reprehensible
levity on others. He bored Johnson by inquiring too curiously into his
reasons for not wearing a nightcap--a subject which seems to have
interested him profoundly; he permitted himself to say in his journal
that he was so much pleased with some pretty ladies' maids at the Duke
of Argyll's, that he felt he could "have been a knight-errant for them,"
and his "venerable fellow-traveller" read the passage without censuring
his levity. The great man himself could be equally volatile. "I _have
often thought_," he observed one day, to Boswell's amusement, "that if I
kept a seraglio, the ladies should all wear linen gowns"--as more
cleanly. The pair agreed in trying to stimulate the feudal zeal of
various Highland chiefs with whom they came in contact, and who were
unreasonable enough to show a hankering after the luxuries of

Though Johnson seems to have been generally on his best behaviour, he
had a rough encounter or two with some of the more civilized natives.
Boswell piloted him safely through a visit to Lord Monboddo, a man of
real ability, though the proprietor of crochets as eccentric as
Johnson's, and consequently divided from him by strong mutual
prejudices. At Auchinleck he was less fortunate. The old laird, who was
the staunchest of Whigs, had not relished his son's hero-worship. "There
is nae hope for Jamie, mon; Jamie is gaen clean gyte. What do you think,
mon? He's done wi' Paoli--he's off wi' the land-louping scoundrel of a
Corsican, and who's tail do you think he's pinned himself to now, mon?"
"Here," says Sir Walter Scott, the authority for the story, "the old
judge summoned up a sneer of most sovereign contempt. 'A dominie,
mon--an auld dominie--he keeped a schule and caauld it an acaademy.'"
The two managed to keep the peace till, one day during Johnson's visit,
they got upon Oliver Cromwell. Boswell suppresses the scene with obvious
reluctance, his openness being checked for once by filial respect. Scott
has fortunately preserved the climax of Old Boswell's argument. "What
had Cromwell done for his country?" asked Johnson. "God, doctor, he gart
Kings ken that they had a _lith_ in their necks" retorted the laird, in
a phrase worthy of Mr. Carlyle himself. Scott reports one other scene,
at which respectable commentators, like Croker, hold up their hands in
horror. Should we regret or rejoice to say that it involves an obvious
inaccuracy? The authority, however, is too good to allow us to suppose
that it was without some foundation. Adam Smith, it is said, met Johnson
at Glasgow and had an altercation with him about the well-known account
of Hume's death. As Hume did not die till three years later, there must
be some error in this. The dispute, however, whatever its date or
subject, ended by Johnson saying to Smith, "_You lie_." "And what did
you reply?" was asked of Smith. "I said, 'you are a son of a -----.'"
"On such terms," says Scott, "did these two great moralists meet and
part, and such was the classical dialogue between these two great
teachers of morality."

In the year 1774 Boswell found it expedient to atone for his long
absence in the previous year by staying at home. Johnson managed to
complete his account of the _Scotch Tour_, which was published at the
end of the year. Among other consequences was a violent controversy with
the lovers of _Ossian_. Johnson was a thorough sceptic as to the
authenticity of the book. His scepticism did not repose upon the
philological or antiquarian reasonings, which would be applicable in the
controversy from internal evidence. It was to some extent the expression
of a general incredulity which astonished his friends, especially when
contrasted with his tenderness for many puerile superstitions. He could
scarcely be induced to admit the truth of any narrative which struck
him as odd, and it was long, for example, before he would believe even
in the Lisbon earthquake. Yet he seriously discussed the truth of
second-sight; he carefully investigated the Cock-lane ghost--a goblin
who anticipated some of the modern phenomena of so-called
"spiritualism," and with almost equal absurdity; he told stories to
Boswell about a "shadowy being" which had once been seen by Cave, and
declared that he had once heard his mother call "Sam" when he was at
Oxford and she at Lichfield. The apparent inconsistency was in truth
natural enough. Any man who clings with unreasonable pertinacity to the
prejudices of his childhood, must be alternately credulous and sceptical
in excess. In both cases, he judges by his fancies in defiance of
evidence; and accepts and rejects according to his likes and dislikes,
instead of his estimates of logical proof. _Ossian_ would be naturally
offensive to Johnson, as one of the earliest and most remarkable
manifestations of that growing taste for what was called "Nature," as
opposed to civilization, of which Rousseau was the great mouthpiece.
Nobody more heartily despised this form of "cant" than Johnson. A man
who utterly despised the scenery of the Hebrides as compared with
Greenwich Park or Charing Cross, would hardly take kindly to the
Ossianesque version of the mountain passion. The book struck him as
sheer rubbish. I have already quoted the retort about "many men, many
women, and many children." "A man," he said, on another occasion, "might
write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it."

The precise point, however, upon which he rested his case, was the
tangible one of the inability of Macpherson to produce the manuscripts
of which he had affirmed the existence. MacPherson wrote a furious
letter to Johnson, of which the purport can only be inferred from
Johnson's smashing retort,--

"Mr. James MacPherson, I have received your foolish and impudent letter.
Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot
do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred
from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.

"What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture: I
think it an imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to
the public, which I here dare you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your
abilities, since your _Homer_, are not so formidable; and what I hear of
your morals inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to
what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.


And so laying in a tremendous cudgel, the old gentleman (he was now
sixty-six) awaited the assault, which, however, was not delivered.

In 1775 Boswell again came to London, and renewed some of the Scotch
discussions. He attended a meeting of the Literary Club, and found the
members disposed to laugh at Johnson's tenderness to the stories about
second-sight. Boswell heroically avowed his own belief. "The evidence,"
he said, "is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not
fill a quart bottle, will fill a pint bottle. I am filled with belief."
"Are you?" said Colman; "then cork it up."

It was during this and the next few years that Boswell laboured most
successfully in gathering materials for his book. In 1777 he only met
Johnson in the country. In 1779, for some unexplained reason, he was
lazy in making notes; in 1780 and 1781 he was absent from London; and in
the following year, Johnson was visibly declining. The tenour of
Johnson's life was interrupted during this period by no remarkable
incidents, and his literary activity was not great, although the
composition of the _Lives of the Poets_ falls between 1777 and 1780. His
mind, however, as represented by his talk, was in full vigour. I will
take in order of time a few of the passages recorded by Boswell, which
may serve for various reasons to afford the best illustration of his
character. Yet it may be worth while once more to repeat the warning
that such fragments moved from their context must lose most of their

On March 26th (1775), Boswell met Johnson at the house of the publisher,
Strahan. Strahan reminded Johnson of a characteristic remark which he
had formerly made, that there are "few ways in which a man can be more
innocently employed than in getting money." On another occasion Johnson
observed with equal truth, if less originality, that cultivating
kindness was an important part of life, as well as money-making. Johnson
then asked to see a country lad whom he had recommended to Strahan as an
apprentice. He asked for five guineas on account, that he might give one
to the boy. "Nay, if a man recommends a boy and does nothing for him, it
is sad work." A "little, thick short-legged boy" was accordingly brought
into the courtyard, whither Johnson and Boswell descended, and the
lexicographer bending himself down administered some good advice to the
awestruck lad with "slow and sonorous solemnity," ending by the
presentation of the guinea.

In the evening the pair formed part of a corps of party "wits," led by
Sir Joshua Reynolds, to the benefit of Mrs. Abingdon, who had been a
frequent model of the painter. Johnson praised Garrick's prologues, and
Boswell kindly reported the eulogy to Garrick, with whom he supped at
Beauclerk's. Garrick treated him to a mimicry of Johnson, repeating,
"with pauses and half-whistling," the lines,--

Os homini sublime dedit--coelumque tueri
Jussit--et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus:

looking downwards, and at the end touching the ground with a contorted
gesticulation. Garrick was generally jealous of Johnson's light opinion
of him, and used to take off his old master, saying, "Davy has some
convivial pleasantry about him, but 'tis a futile fellow."

Next day, at Thrales', Johnson fell foul of Gray, one of his pet
aversions. Boswell denied that Gray was dull in poetry. "Sir," replied
Johnson, "he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere.
He was dull in a new way, and that made people think him great. He was a
mechanical poet." He proceeded to say that there were only two good
stanzas in the _Elegy_. Johnson's criticism was perverse; but if we were
to collect a few of the judgments passed by contemporaries upon each
other, it would be scarcely exceptional in its want of appreciation. It
is rather odd to remark that Gray was generally condemned for
obscurity--a charge which seems strangely out of place when he is
measured by more recent standards.

A day or two afterwards some one rallied Johnson on his appearance at
Mrs. Abingdon's benefit. "Why did you go?" he asked. "Did you see?" "No,
sir." "Did you hear?" "No, sir." "Why, then, sir, did you go?"
"Because, sir, she is a favourite of the public; and when the public
cares the thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to
your benefit too."

The day after, Boswell won a bet from Lady Di Beauclerk by venturing to
ask Johnson what he did with the orange-peel which he used to pocket.
Johnson received the question amicably, but did not clear the mystery.
"Then," said Boswell, "the world must be left in the dark. It must be
said, he scraped them, and he let them dry, but what he did with them
next he never could be prevailed upon to tell." "Nay, sir," replied
Johnson, "you should say it more emphatically--he could not be prevailed
upon, even by his dearest friends to tell."

This year Johnson received the degree of LL.D. from Oxford. He had
previously (in 1765) received the same honour from Dublin. It is
remarkable, however, that familiar as the title has become, Johnson
called himself plain Mr. to the end of his days, and was generally so
called by his intimates. On April 2nd, at a dinner at Hoole's, Johnson
made another assault upon Gray and Mason. When Boswell said that there
were good passages in Mason's _Elfrida_, he conceded that there were
"now and then some good imitations of Milton's bad manner." After some
more talk, Boswell spoke of the cheerfulness of Fleet Street. "Why,
sir," said Johnson, "Fleet Street has a very animated appearance, but I
think that the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross." He
added a story of an eminent tallow-chandler who had made a fortune in
London, and was foolish enough to retire to the country. He grew so
tired of his retreat, that he begged to know the melting-days of his
successor, that he might be present at the operation.

On April 7th, they dined at a tavern, where the talk turned upon
_Ossian_. Some one mentioned as an objection to its authenticity that no
mention of wolves occurred in it. Johnson fell into a reverie upon wild
beasts, and, whilst Reynolds and Langton were discussing something, he
broke out, "Pennant tells of bears." What Pennant told is unknown. The
company continued to talk, whilst Johnson continued his monologue, the
word "bear" occurring at intervals, like a word in a catch. At last,
when a pause came, he was going on: "We are told that the black bear is
innocent, but I should not like to trust myself with him." Gibbon
muttered in a low tone, "I should not like to trust myself with
_you_"--a prudent resolution, says honest Boswell who hated Gibbon, if
it referred to a competition of abilities.

The talk went on to patriotism, and Johnson laid down an apophthegm, at
"which many will start," many people, in fact, having little sense of
humour. Such persons may be reminded for their comfort that at this
period patriot had a technical meaning. "Patriotism is the last refuge
of a scoundrel." On the 10th of April, he laid down another dogma,
calculated to offend the weaker brethren. He defended Pope's line--

Man never _is_ but always _to be_ blest.

And being asked if man did not sometimes enjoy a momentary happiness,
replied, "Never, but when he is drunk." It would be useless to defend
these and other such utterances to any one who cannot enjoy them without

On April 11th, the pair went in Reynolds's coach to dine with Cambridge,
at Twickenham. Johnson was in high spirits. He remarked as they drove
down, upon the rarity of good humour in life. One friend mentioned by
Boswell was, he said, _acid_, and another _muddy_. At last, stretching
himself and turning with complacency, he observed, "I look upon myself
as a good-humoured fellow"--a bit of self-esteem against which Boswell
protested. Johnson, he admitted, was good-natured; but was too irascible
and impatient to be good-humoured. On reaching Cambridge's house,
Johnson ran to look at the books. "Mr. Johnson," said Cambridge
politely, "I am going with your pardon to accuse myself, for I have the
same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should
have such a desire to look at the backs of books." "Sir," replied
Johnson, wheeling about at the words, "the reason is very plain.
Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where
we can find information upon it. When we inquire into any subject, the
first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This
leads us to look at catalogues, and the backs of books in libraries."

A pleasant talk followed. Johnson denied the value attributed to
historical reading, on the ground that we know very little except a few
facts and dates. All the colouring, he said, was conjectural. Boswell
chuckles over the reflection that Gibbon, who was present, did not take
up the cudgels for his favourite study, though the first-fruits of his
labours were to appear in the following year. "Probably he did not like
to trust himself with Johnson."

The conversation presently turned upon the _Beggar's Opera_, and Johnson
sensibly refused to believe that any man had been made a rogue by seeing
it. Yet the moralist felt bound to utter some condemnation of such a
performance, and at last, amidst the smothered amusement of the company,
collected himself to give a heavy stroke: "there is in it," he said,
"such a _labefactation_ of all principles as may he dangerous to

A discussion followed as to whether Sheridan was right for refusing to
allow his wife to continue as a public singer. Johnson defended him
"with all the high spirit of a Roman senator." "He resolved wisely and
nobly, to be sure. He is a brave man. Would not a gentleman be disgraced
by having his wife sing publicly for hire? No, sir, there can be no
doubt here. I know not if I should not prepare myself for a public
singer as readily as let my wife be one."

The stout old supporter of social authority went on to denounce the
politics of the day. He asserted that politics had come to mean nothing
but the art of rising in the world. He contrasted the absence of any
principles with the state of the national mind during the stormy days of
the seventeenth century. This gives the pith of Johnston's political
prejudices. He hated Whigs blindly from his cradle; but he justified his
hatred on the ground that they were now all "bottomless Whigs," that is
to say, that pierce where you would, you came upon no definite creed,
but only upon hollow formulae, intended as a cloak for private interest.
If Burke and one or two of his friends be excepted, the remark had but
too much justice.

In 1776, Boswell found Johnson rejoicing in the prospect of a journey to
Italy with the Thrales. Before starting he was to take a trip to the
country, in which Boswell agreed to join. Boswell gathered up various
bits of advice before their departure. One seems to have commended
itself to him as specially available for practice. "A man who had been
drinking freely," said the moralist, "should never go into a new
company. He would probably strike them as ridiculous, though he might
be in unison with those who had been drinking with him." Johnson
propounded another favourite theory. "A ship," he said, "was worse than
a gaol. There is in a gaol better air, better company, better
conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of
being in danger."

On March 19th, they went by coach to the Angel at Oxford; and next
morning visited the Master of University College, who chose with Boswell
to act in opposition to a very sound bit of advice given by Johnson soon
afterwards--perhaps with some reference to the proceeding. "Never speak
of a man in his own presence; it is always indelicate and may be
offensive." The two, however, discussed Johnson without reserve. The
Master said that he would have given Johnson a hundred pounds for a
discourse on the British Constitution; and Boswell suggested that
Johnson should write two volumes of no great bulk upon Church and State,
which should comprise the whole substance of the argument. "He should
erect a fort on the confines of each." Johnson was not unnaturally
displeased with the dialogue, and growled out, "Why should I be always

Presently, they went to see Dr. Adams, the doctor's old friend, who had
been answering Hume. Boswell, who had done his best to court the
acquaintance of Voltaire, Rousseau, Wilkes, and Hume himself, felt it
desirable to reprove Adams for having met Hume with civility. He aired
his admirable sentiments in a long speech, observing upon the connexion
between theory and practice, and remarking, by way of practical
application, that, if an infidel were at once vain and ugly, he might be
compared to "Cicero's beautiful image of Virtue"--which would, as he
seems to think, be a crushing retort. Boswell always delighted in
fighting with his gigantic backer close behind him. Johnson, as he had
doubtless expected, chimed in with the argument. "You should do your
best," said Johnson, "to diminish the authority, as well as dispute the
arguments of your adversary, because most people are biased more by
personal respect than by reasoning." "You would not jostle a
chimney-sweeper," said Adams. "Yes," replied Johnson, "if it were
necessary to jostle him down."

The pair proceeded by post-chaise past Blenheim, and dined at a good inn
at Chapelhouse. Johnston boasted of the superiority, long since vanished
if it ever existed, of English to French inns, and quoted with great
emotion Shenstone's lines--

Whoe'er has travell'd life's dull round,
Where'er his stages may have been,
Must sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome at an inn.

As they drove along rapidly in the post-chaise, he exclaimed, "Life has
not many better things than this." On another occasion he said that he
should like to spend his life driving briskly in a post-chaise with a
pretty woman, clever enough to add to the conversation. The pleasure was
partly owing to the fact that his deafness was less troublesome in a
carriage. But he admitted that there were drawbacks even to this
pleasure. Boswell asked him whether he would not add a post-chaise
journey to the other sole cause of happiness--namely, drunkenness. "No,
sir," said Johnson, "you are driving rapidly _from_ something or _to_

They went to Birmingham, where Boswell pumped Hector about Johnson's
early days, and saw the works of Boulton, Watt's partner, who said to
him, "I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have--_power_."
Thence they went to Lichfield, and met more of the rapidly thinning
circle of Johnson's oldest friends. Here Boswell was a little
scandalized by Johnson's warm exclamation on opening a letter--"One of
the most dreadful things that has happened in my time!" This turned out
to be the death of Thrale's only son. Boswell thought the phrase too big
for the event, and was some time before he could feel a proper concern.
He was, however, "curious to observe how Dr. Johnson would be affected,"
and was again a little scandalized by the reply to his consolatory
remark that the Thrales still had daughters. "Sir," said Johnson, "don't
you know how you yourself think? Sir, he wishes to propagate his name."
The great man was actually putting the family sentiment of a brewer in
the same category with the sentiments of the heir of Auchinleck.
Johnson, however, calmed down, but resolved to hurry back to London.
They stayed a night at Taylor's, who remarked that he had fought a good
many battles for a physician, one of their common friends. "But you
should consider, sir," said Johnson, "that by every one of your
victories he is a loser; for every man of whom you get the better will
be very angry, and resolve not to employ him, whereas if people get the
better of you in argument about him, they will think 'We'll send for Dr.
---- nevertheless!'"

It was after their return to London that Boswell won the greatest
triumph of his friendship. He carried through a negotiation, to which,
as Burke pleasantly said, there was nothing equal in the whole history
of the _corps diplomatique_. At some moment of enthusiasm it had
occurred to him to bring Johnson into company with Wilkes. The infidel
demagogue was probably in the mind of the Tory High Churchman, when he
threw out that pleasant little apophthegm about patriotism. To bring
together two such opposites without provoking a collision would be the
crowning triumph of Boswell's curiosity. He was ready to run all hazards
as a chemist might try some new experiment at the risk of a destructive
explosion; but being resolved, he took every precaution with admirable

Boswell had been invited by the Dillys, well-known booksellers of the
day, to meet Wilkes. "Let us have Johnson," suggested the gallant
Boswell. "Not for the world!" exclaimed Dilly. But, on Boswell's
undertaking the negotiation, he consented to the experiment. Boswell
went off to Johnson and politely invited him in Dilly's name. "I will
wait upon him," said Johnson. "Provided, sir, I suppose," said the
diplomatic Boswell, "that the company which he is to have is agreeable
to you." "What do you mean, sir?" exclaimed Johnson. "What do you take
me for? Do you think I am so ignorant of the world as to prescribe to a
gentleman what company he is to have at his table?" Boswell worked the
point a little farther, till, by judicious manipulation, he had got
Johnson to commit himself to meeting anybody--even Jack Wilkes, to make
a wild hypothesis--at the Dillys' table. Boswell retired, hoping to
think that he had fixed the discussion in Johnson's mind.

The great day arrived, and Boswell, like a consummate general who leaves
nothing to chance, went himself to fetch Johnson to the dinner. The
great man had forgotten the engagement, and was "buffeting his books" in
a dirty shirt and amidst clouds of dust. When reminded of his promise,
he said that he had ordered dinner at home with Mrs. Williams.
Entreaties of the warmest kind from Boswell softened the peevish old
lady, to whose pleasure Johnson had referred him. Boswell flew back,
announced Mrs. Williams's consent, and Johnson roared, "Frank, a clean
shirt!" and was soon in a hackney-coach. Boswell rejoiced like a
"fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to
set out for Gretna Green." Yet the joy was with trembling. Arrived at
Dillys', Johnson found himself amongst strangers, and Boswell watched
anxiously from a corner. "Who is that gentleman?" whispered Johnson to
Dilly. "Mr. Arthur Lee." Johnson whistled "too-too-too" doubtfully, for
Lee was a patriot and an American. "And who is the gentleman in lace?"
"Mr. Wilkes, sir." Johnson subsided into a window-seat and fixed his eye
on a book. He was fairly in the toils. His reproof of Boswell was recent
enough to prevent him from exhibiting his displeasure, and he resolved
to restrain himself.

At dinner Wilkes, placed next to Johnson, took up his part in the
performance. He pacified the sturdy moralist by delicate attentions to
his needs. He helped him carefully to some fine veal. "Pray give me
leave, sir; it is better here--a little of the brown--some fat, sir--a
little of the stuffing--some gravy--let me have the pleasure of giving
you some butter. Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange; or the
lemon, perhaps, may have more zest." "Sir, sir," cried Johnson, "I am
obliged to you, sir," bowing and turning to him, with a look for some
time of "surly virtue," and soon of complacency.

Gradually the conversation became cordial. Johnson told of the
fascination exercised by Foote, who, like Wilkes, had succeeded in
pleasing him against his will. Foote once took to selling beer, and it
was so bad that the servants of Fitzherbert, one of his customers,
resolved to protest. They chose a little black boy to carry their
remonstrance; but the boy waited at table one day when Foote was
present, and returning to his companions, said, "This is the finest man
I have ever seen. I will not deliver your message; I will drink his
beer." From Foote the transition was easy to Garrick, whom Johnson, as
usual, defended against the attacks of others. He maintained that
Garrick's reputation for avarice, though unfounded, had been rather
useful than otherwise. "You despise a man for avarice, but you do not
hate him." The clamour would have been more effectual, had it been
directed against his living with splendour too great for a player.
Johnson went on to speak of the difficulty of getting biographical
information. When he had wished to write a life of Dryden, he applied to
two living men who remembered him. One could only tell him that Dryden
had a chair by the fire at Will's Coffee-house in winter, which was
moved to the balcony in summer. The other (Cibber) could only report
that he remembered Dryden as a "decent old man, arbiter of critical
disputes at Will's."

Johnson and Wilkes had one point in common--a vigorous prejudice against
the Scotch, and upon this topic they cracked their jokes in friendly
emulation. When they met upon a later occasion (1781), they still
pursued this inexhaustible subject. Wilkes told how a privateer had
completely plundered seven Scotch islands, and re-embarked with three
and sixpence. Johnson now remarked in answer to somebody who said "Poor
old England is lost!" "Sir, it is not so much to be lamented that old
England is lost, as that the Scotch have found it." "You must know,
sir," he said to Wilkes, "that I lately took my friend Boswell and
showed him genuine civilized life in an English provincial town. I
turned him loose at Lichfield, that he might see for once real civility,
for you know he lives among savages in Scotland and among rakes in
London." "Except," said Wilkes, "when he is with grave, sober, decent
people like you and me." "And we ashamed of him," added Johnson,

Boswell had to bear some jokes against himself and his countrymen from
the pair; but he had triumphed, and rejoiced greatly when he went home
with Johnson, and heard the great man speak of his pleasant dinner to
Mrs. Williams. Johnson seems to have been permanently reconciled to his
foe. "Did we not hear so much said of Jack Wilkes," he remarked next
year, "we should think more highly of his conversation. Jack has a great
variety of talk, Jack is a scholar, and Jack has the manners of a
gentleman. But, after hearing his name sounded from pole to pole as the
phoenix of convivial felicity, we are disappointed in his company. He
has always been at _me_, but I would do Jack a kindness rather than not.
The contest is now over."

In fact, Wilkes had ceased to play any part in public life. When Johnson
met him next (in 1781) they joked about such dangerous topics as some of
Wilkes's political performances. Johnson sent him a copy of the _Lives_,
and they were seen conversing _tete-a-tete_ in confidential whispers
about George II. and the King of Prussia. To Boswell's mind it suggested
the happy days when the lion should lie down with the kid, or, as Dr.
Barnard suggested, the goat.

In the year 1777 Johnson began the _Lives of the Poets_, in compliance
with a request from the booksellers, who wished for prefaces to a large
collection of English poetry. Johnson asked for this work the extremely
modest sum of 200 guineas, when he might easily, according to Malone,
have received 1000 or 1500. He did not meet Boswell till September, when
they spent ten days together at Dr. Taylor's. The subject which
specially interested Boswell at this time was the fate of the unlucky
Dr. Dodd, hanged for forgery in the previous June. Dodd seems to have
been a worthless charlatan of the popular preacher variety. His crime
would not in our days have been thought worthy of so severe a
punishment; but his contemporaries were less shocked by the fact of
death being inflicted for such a fault, than by the fact of its being
inflicted on a clergyman. Johnson exerted himself to procure a remission
of the sentence by writing various letters and petitions on Dodd's
behalf. He seems to have been deeply moved by the man's appeal, and
could "not bear the thought" that any negligence of his should lead to
the death of a fellow-creature; but he said that if he had himself been
in authority he would have signed the death-warrant, and for the man
himself, he had as little respect as might be. He said, indeed, that
Dodd was right in not joining in the "cant" about leaving a wretched
world. "No, no," said the poor rogue, "it has been a very agreeable
world to me." Dodd had allowed to pass for his own one of the papers
composed for him by Johnson, and the Doctor was not quite pleased. When,
however, Seward expressed a doubt as to Dodd's power of writing so
forcibly, Johnson felt bound not to expose him. "Why should you think
so? Depend upon it, sir, when any man knows he is to be hanged in a
fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." On another occasion,
Johnson expressed a doubt himself as to whether Dodd had really
composed a certain prayer on the night before his execution. "Sir, do
you think that a man the night before he is to be hanged cares for the
succession of the 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."

The last day at Taylor's was characteristic. Johnson was very cordial to
his disciple, and Boswell fancied that he could defend his master at
"the point of his sword." "My regard for you," said Johnson, "is greater
almost than I have words to express, but I do not choose to be always
repeating it. Write it down in the first leaf of your pocket-book, and
never doubt of it again." They became sentimental, and talked of the
misery of human life. Boswell spoke of the pleasures of society. "Alas,
sir," replied Johnson, like a true pessimist, "these are only struggles
for happiness!" He felt exhilarated, he said, when he first went to
Ranelagh, but he changed to the mood of Xerxes weeping at the sight of
his army. "It went to my heart to consider that there was not one in all
that brilliant circle that was not afraid to go home and think; but that
the thoughts of each individual would be distressing when alone." Some
years before he had gone with Boswell to the Pantheon and taken a more
cheerful view. When Boswell doubted whether there were many happy people
present, he said, "Yes, sir, there are many happy people here. There are
many people here who are watching hundreds, and who think hundreds are
watching them." The more permanent feeling was that which he expressed
in the "serene autumn night" in Taylor's garden. He was willing,
however, to talk calmly about eternal punishment, and to admit the
possibility of a "mitigated interpretation."

After supper he dictated to Boswell an argument in favour of the negro
who was then claiming his liberty in Scotland. He hated slavery with a
zeal which the excellent Boswell thought to be "without knowledge;" and
on one occasion gave as a toast to some "very grave men" at Oxford,
"Here's to the next insurrection of negroes in the West Indies." The
hatred was combined with as hearty a dislike for American independence.
"How is it," he said, "that we always hear the loudest yelps for liberty
amongst the drivers of negroes?" The harmony of the evening was
unluckily spoilt by an explosion of this prejudice. Boswell undertook
the defence of the colonists, and the discussion became so fierce that
though Johnson had expressed a willingness to sit up all night with him,
they were glad to part after an hour or two, and go to bed.

In 1778, Boswell came to London and found Johnson absorbed, to an extent
which apparently excited his jealousy, by his intimacy with the Thrales.
They had, however, several agreeable meetings. One was at the club, and
Boswell's report of the conversation is the fullest that we have of any
of its meetings. A certain reserve is indicated by his using initials
for the interlocutors, of whom, however, one can be easily identified as
Burke. The talk began by a discussion of an antique statue, said to be
the dog of Alcibiades, and valued at 1000_l_. Burke said that the
representation of no animal could be worth so much. Johnson, whose taste
for art was a vanishing quantity, said that the value was proportional
to the difficulty. A statue, as he argued on another occasion, would be
worth nothing if it were cut out of a carrot. Everything, he now said,
was valuable which "enlarged the sphere of human powers." The first man
who balanced a straw upon his nose, or rode upon three horses at once,
deserved the applause of mankind; and so statues of animals should be
preserved as a proof of dexterity, though men should not continue such
fruitless labours.

The conversation became more instructive under the guidance of Burke. He
maintained what seemed to his hearers a paradox, though it would be
interesting to hear his arguments from some profounder economist than
Boswell, that a country would be made more populous by emigration.
"There are bulls enough in Ireland," he remarked incidentally in the
course of the argument. "So, sir, I should think from your argument,"
said Johnson, for once condescending to an irresistible pun. It is
recorded, too, that he once made a bull himself, observing that a horse
was so slow that when it went up hill, it stood still. If he now failed
to appreciate Burke's argument, he made one good remark. Another speaker
said that unhealthy countries were the most populous. "Countries which
are the most populous," replied Johnson, "have the most destructive
diseases. That is the true state of the proposition;" and indeed, the
remark applies to the case of emigration.

A discussion then took place as to whether it would be worth while for
Burke to take so much trouble with speeches which never decided a vote.
Burke replied that a speech, though it did not gain one vote, would have
an influence, and maintained that the House of Commons was not wholly
corrupt. "We are all more or less governed by interest," was Johnson's
comment. "But interest will not do everything. 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 absurd and unjust. No, sir, there must always be right enough,
or appearance of right, to keep wrong in countenance." After some
deviations, the conversation returned to this point. Johnson and Burke
agreed on a characteristic statement. Burke said that from his
experience he had learnt to think better of mankind. "From my
experience," replied Johnson, "I have found them worse on commercial
dealings, more disposed to cheat than I had any notion of; but more
disposed to do one another good than I had conceived." "Less just, and
more beneficent," as another speaker suggested. Johnson proceeded to say
that considering the pressure of want, it was wonderful that men would
do so much for each other. The greatest liar is said to speak more truth
than falsehood, and perhaps the worst man might do more good than not.
But when Boswell suggested that perhaps experience might increase our
estimate of human happiness, Johnson returned to his habitual pessimism.
"No, sir, the more we inquire, the more we shall find men less happy."
The talk soon wandered off into a disquisition upon the folly of
deliberately testing the strength of our friend's affection.

The evening ended by Johnson accepting a commission to write to a friend
who had given to the Club a hogshead of claret, and to request another,
with "a happy ambiguity of expression," in the hopes that it might also
be a present.

Some days afterwards, another conversation took place, which has a
certain celebrity in Boswellian literature. The scene was at Dilly's,
and the guests included Miss Seward and Mrs. Knowles, a well-known
Quaker Lady. Before dinner Johnson seized upon a book which he kept in
his lap during dinner, wrapped up in the table-cloth. His attention was
not distracted from the various business of the hour, but he hit upon a
topic which happily combined the two appropriate veins of thought. He
boasted that he would write a cookery-book upon philosophical
principles; and declared in opposition to Miss Seward that such a task
was beyond the sphere of woman. Perhaps this led to a discussion upon
the privileges of men, in which Johnson put down Mrs. Knowles, who had
some hankering for women's rights, by the Shakspearian maxim that if two
men ride on a horse, one must ride behind. Driven from her position in
this world, poor Mrs. Knowles hoped that sexes might be equal in the
next. Boswell reproved her by the remark already quoted, that men might
as well expect to be equal to angels. He enforces this view by an
illustration suggested by the "Rev. Mr. Brown of Utrecht," who had
observed that a great or small glass might be equally full, though not
holding equal quantities. Mr. Brown intended this for a confutation of
Hume, who has said that a little Miss, dressed for a ball, may be as
happy as an orator who has won some triumphant success.[1]

[Footnote 1: Boswell remarks as a curious coincidence that the same
illustration had been used by a Dr. King, a dissenting minister.
Doubtless it has been used often enough. For one instance see _Donne's
Sermons_ (Alford's Edition), vol. i., p. 5.]

The conversation thus took a theological turn, and Mrs. Knowles was
fortunate enough to win Johnson's high approval. He defended a doctrine
maintained by Soame Jenyns, that friendship is a Christian virtue. Mrs.
Knowles remarked that Jesus had twelve disciples, but there was _one_
whom he _loved_. Johnson, "with eyes sparkling benignantly," exclaimed,
"Very well indeed, madam; you have said very well!"

So far all had gone smoothly; but here, for some inexplicable reason,
Johnson burst into a sudden fury against the American rebels, whom he
described as "rascals, robbers, pirates," and roared out a tremendous
volley, which might almost have been audible across the Atlantic.
Boswell sat and trembled, but gradually diverted the sage to less
exciting topics. The name of Jonathan Edwards suggested a discussion
upon free will and necessity, upon which poor Boswell was much given to
worry himself. Some time afterwards Johnson wrote to him, in answer to
one of his lamentations: "I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy
of misery. What have you to do with liberty and necessity? Or what more
than to hold your tongue about it?" Boswell could never take this
sensible advice; but he got little comfort from his oracle. "We know
that we are all free, and there's an end on't," was his statement on one
occasion, and now he could only say, "All theory is against the freedom
of the will, and all experience for it."

Some familiar topics followed, which play a great part in Boswell's
reports. Among the favourite topics of the sentimentalists of the day
was the denunciation of "luxury," and of civilized life in general.
There was a disposition to find in the South Sea savages or American
Indians an embodiment of the fancied state of nature. Johnson heartily
despised the affectation. He was told of an American woman who had to be
bound in order to keep her from savage life. "She must have been an
animal, a beast," said Boswell. "Sir," said Johnson, "she was a speaking
cat." Somebody quoted to him with admiration the soliloquy of an
officer who had lived in the wilds of America: "Here am I, free and
unrestrained, amidst the rude magnificence of nature, with the Indian
woman by my side, and this gun, with which I can procure food when I
want it! What more can be desired for human happiness?" "Do not allow
yourself, sir," replied Johnson, "to be imposed upon by such gross
absurdity. It is sad stuff; it is brutish. If a bull could speak, he
might as well exclaim, 'Here am I with this cow and this grass; what
being can enjoy greater felicity?'" When Johnson implored Boswell to
"clear his mind of cant," he was attacking his disciple for affecting a
serious depression about public affairs; but the cant which he hated
would certainly have included as its first article an admiration for the
state of nature.

On the present occasion Johnson defended luxury, and said that he had
learnt much from Mandeville--a shrewd cynic, in whom Johnson's hatred
for humbug is exaggerated into a general disbelief in real as well as
sham nobleness of sentiment. As the conversation proceeded, Johnson
expressed his habitual horror of death, and caused Miss Seward's
ridicule by talking seriously of ghosts and the importance of the
question of their reality; and then followed an explosion, which seems
to have closed this characteristic evening. A young woman had become a
Quaker under the influence of Mrs. Knowles, who now proceeded to
deprecate Johnson's wrath at what he regarded as an apostasy. "Madam,"
he said, "she is an odious wench," and he proceeded to denounce her
audacity in presuming to choose a religion for herself. "She knew no
more of the points of difference," he said, "than of the difference
between the Copernican and Ptolemaic systems." When Mrs. Knowles said
that she had the New Testament before her, he said that it was the
"most difficult book in the world," and he proceeded to attack the
unlucky proselyte with a fury which shocked the two ladies. Mrs. Knowles
afterwards published a report of this conversation, and obtained another
report, with which, however, she was not satisfied, from Miss Seward.
Both of them represent the poor doctor as hopelessly confuted by the
mild dignity and calm reason of Mrs. Knowles, though the triumph is
painted in far the brightest colours by Mrs. Knowles herself. Unluckily,
there is not a trace of Johnson's manner, except in one phrase, in
either report, and they are chiefly curious as an indirect testimony to
Boswell's superior powers. The passage, in which both the ladies agree,
is that Johnson, on the expression of Mrs. Knowles's hope that he would
meet the young lady in another world, retorted that he was not fond of
meeting fools anywhere.

Poor Boswell was at this time a water-drinker by Johnson's
recommendation, though unluckily for himself he never broke off his
drinking habits for long. They had a conversation at Paoli's, in which
Boswell argued against his present practice. Johnson remarked "that wine
gave a man nothing, but only put in motion what had been locked up in
frost." It was a key, suggested some one, which opened a box, but the
box might be full or empty. "Nay, sir," said Johnson, "conversation is
the key, wine is a picklock, which forces open the box and injures it. A
man should cultivate his mind, so as to have that confidence and
readiness without wine which wine gives." Boswell characteristically
said that the great difficulty was from "benevolence." It was hard to
refuse "a good, worthy man" who asked you to try his cellar. This,
according to Johnson, was mere conceit, implying an exaggerated
estimate of your importance to your entertainer. Reynolds gallantly took
up the opposite side, and produced the one recorded instance of a
Johnsonian blush. "I won't argue any more with you, sir," said Johnson,
who thought every man to be elevated who drank wine, "you are too far
gone." "I should have thought so indeed, sir, had I made such a speech
as you have now done," said Reynolds; and Johnson apologized with the
aforesaid blush.

The explosion was soon over on this occasion. Not long afterwards,
Johnson attacked Boswell so fiercely at a dinner at Reynolds's, that the
poor disciple kept away for a week. They made it up when they met next,
and Johnson solaced Boswell's wounded vanity by highly commending an
image made by him to express his feelings. "I don't care how often or
how high Johnson tosses me, when only friends are present, for then I
fall upon soft ground; but I do not like falling on stones, which is the
case when enemies are present." The phrase may recall one of Johnson's
happiest illustrations. When some one said in his presence that a _conge
d'elire_ might be considered as only a strong recommendation: "Sir,"
replied Johnson, "it is such a recommendation as if I should throw you
out of a two-pair of stairs window, and recommend you to fall soft."

It is perhaps time to cease these extracts from Boswell's reports. The
next two years were less fruitful. In 1779 Boswell was careless, though
twice in London, and in 1780, he did not pay his annual visit. Boswell
has partly filled up the gap by a collection of sayings made by Langton,
some passages from which have been quoted, and his correspondence gives
various details. Garrick died in January of 1779, and Beauclerk in
March, 1780. Johnson himself seems to have shown few symptoms of
increasing age; but a change was approaching, and the last years of his
life were destined to be clouded, not merely by physical weakness, but
by a change of circumstances which had great influence upon his



In following Boswell's guidance we have necessarily seen only one side
of Johnson's life; and probably that side which had least significance
for the man himself.

Boswell saw in him chiefly the great dictator of conversation; and
though the reports of Johnson's talk represent his character in spite of
some qualifications with unusual fulness, there were many traits very
inadequately revealed at the Mitre or the Club, at Mrs. Thrale's, or in
meetings with Wilkes or Reynolds. We may catch some glimpses from his
letters and diaries of that inward life which consisted generally in a
long succession of struggles against an oppressive and often paralysing
melancholy. Another most noteworthy side to his character is revealed in
his relations to persons too humble for admission to the tables at which
he exerted a despotic sway. Upon this side Johnson was almost entirely
loveable. We often have to regret the imperfection of the records of

That best portion of a good man's life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.

Everywhere in Johnson's letters and in the occasional anecdotes, we come
upon indications of a tenderness and untiring benevolence which would
make us forgive far worse faults than have ever been laid to his
charge. Nay, the very asperity of the man's outside becomes endeared to
us by the association. His irritability never vented itself against the
helpless, and his rough impatience of fanciful troubles implied no want
of sympathy for real sorrow. One of Mrs. Thrale's anecdotes is intended
to show Johnson's harshness:--"When I one day lamented the loss of a
first cousin killed in America, 'Pr'ythee, my dear,' said he, 'have done
with canting; how would the world be the worse for it, I may ask, if all
your relations were at once spitted like larks and roasted for Presto's
supper?' Presto was the dog that lay under the table while we talked."
The counter version, given by Boswell is, that Mrs. Thrale related her
cousin's death in the midst of a hearty supper, and that Johnson,
shocked at her want of feeling, said, "Madam, it would give _you_ very
little concern if all your relations were spitted like those larks, and
roasted for Presto's supper." Taking the most unfavourable version, we
may judge how much real indifference to human sorrow was implied by
seeing how Johnson was affected by a loss of one of his humblest
friends. It is but one case of many. In 1767, he took leave, as he notes
in his diary, of his "dear old friend, Catherine Chambers," who had been
for about forty-three years in the service of his family. "I desired all
to withdraw," he says, "then told her that we were to part for ever,
and, as Christians, we should part with prayer, and that I would, if she
was willing, say a short prayer beside her. She expressed great desire
to hear me, and held up her poor hands as she lay in bed, with great
fervour, while I prayed, kneeling by her, in nearly the following
words"--which shall not be repeated here--"I then kissed her," he adds.


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