James Boswell.

Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784 online

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Lost_ should write such poor Sonnets: - ' Milton, Madam, was a genius
that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon

We talked of the casuistical question, Whether it was allowable at any
time to depart from _Truth_? JOHNSON. 'The general rule is, that Truth
should never be violated, because it is of the utmost importance to the
comfort of life, that we should have a full security by mutual faith;
and occasional inconveniences should be willingly suffered that we may
preserve it. There must, however, be some exceptions. If, for instance,
a murderer should ask you which way a man is gone, you may tell him what
is not true, because you are under a previous obligation not to betray a
man to a murderer[935].' BOSWELL. 'Supposing the person who wrote
_Junius_ were asked whether he was the authour, might he deny it?'
JOHNSON. 'I don't know what to say to this. If you were _sure_ that he
wrote _Junius_, would you, if he denied it, think as well of him
afterwards? Yet it may be urged, that what a man has no right to ask,
you may refuse to communicate[936]; and there is no other effectual mode
of preserving a secret and an important secret, the discovery of which
may be very hurtful to you, but a flat denial; for if you are silent, or
hesitate, or evade, it will be held equivalent to a confession. But
stay, Sir; here is another case. Supposing the authour had told me
confidentially that he had written _Junius_, and I were asked if he had,
I should hold myself at liberty to deny it, as being under a previous
promise, express or implied, to conceal it. Now what I ought to do for
the authour, may I not do for myself? But I deny the lawfulness of
telling a lie to a sick man for fear of alarming him. You have no
business with consequences; you are to tell the truth. Besides, you are
not sure what effect your telling him that he is in danger may have. It
may bring his distemper to a crisis, and that may cure him. Of all
lying, I have the greatest abhorrence of this, because I believe it has
been frequently practised on myself.'

I cannot help thinking that there is much weight in the opinion of those
who have held, that Truth, as an eternal and immutable principle, ought,
upon no account whatever, to be violated, from supposed previous or
superiour obligations, of which every man being to judge for himself,
there is great danger that we too often, from partial motives, persuade
ourselves that they exist; and probably whatever extraordinary instances
may sometimes occur, where some evil may be prevented by violating this
noble principle, it would be found that human happiness would, upon the
whole, be more perfect were Truth universally preserved.

In the notes to the _Dunciad_[937], we find the following verses,
addressed to Pope[938]: -

'While malice, Pope, denies thy page
Its own celestial fire;
While criticks, and while bards in rage
Admiring, won't admire:

While wayward pens thy worth assail,
And envious tongues decry;
These times, though many a friend bewail,
These times bewail not I.

But when the world's loud praise is thine,
And spleen no more shall blame;
When with thy Homer thou shalt shine
In one establish'd fame!

When none shall rail, and every lay
Devote a wreath to thee:
That day (for come it will) that day
Shall I lament to see.'

It is surely not a little remarkable, that they should appear without a
name. Miss Seward[939], knowing Dr. Johnson's almost universal and
minute literary information, signified a desire that I should ask him
who was the authour. He was prompt with his answer: 'Why, Sir, they were
written by one Lewis, who was either under-master or an usher of
Westminster-school, and published a Miscellany, in which _Grongar
Hill_[940] first came out[941].' Johnson praised them highly, and
repeated them with a noble animation. In the twelfth line, instead of
'one establish'd fame,' he repeated 'one unclouded flame,' which he
thought was the reading in former editions: but I believe was a flash of
his own genius. It is much more poetical than the other.

On Monday, June 14, and Tuesday, 15, Dr. Johnson and I dined, on one of
them, I forget which, with Mr. Mickle, translator of the _Lusiad_, at
Wheatley, a very pretty country place a few miles from Oxford; and on
the other with Dr. Wetherell, Master of University-College. From Dr.
Wetherell's he went to visit Mr. Sackville Parker, the bookseller; and
when he returned to us, gave the following account of his visit, saying,
'I have been to see my old friend, Sack. Parker; I find he has married
his maid; he has done right. She had lived with him many years in great
confidence, and they had mingled minds; I do not think he could have
found any wife that would have made him so happy. The woman was very
attentive and civil to me; she pressed me to fix a day for dining with
them, and to say what I liked, and she would be sure to get it for me.
Poor Sack! He is very ill, indeed. We parted as never to meet again. It
has quite broke me down.' This pathetic narrative was strangely
diversified with the grave and earnest defence of a man's having married
his maid. I could not but feel it as in some degree ludicrous.

In the morning of Tuesday, June 15, while we sat at Dr. Adams's, we
talked of a printed letter from the Reverend Herbert Croft[942], to a
young gentleman who had been his pupil, in which he advised him to read
to the end of whatever books he should begin to read. JOHNSON. 'This is
surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you
happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep to them for life. A book
may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth
knowing; are we to read it all through[943]? These Voyages, (pointing to
the three large volumes of _Voyages to the South Sea_[944], which were
just come out) _who_ will read them through? A man had better work his
way before the mast, than read them through; they will be eaten by rats
and mice, before they are read through. There can be little
entertainment in such books; one set of Savages is like another.'
BOSWELL. 'I do not think the people of Otaheité can be reckoned
Savages.' JOHNSON. 'Don't cant in defence of Savages[945].' BOSWELL.
'They have the art of navigation.' JOHNSON. 'A dog or a cat can swim.'
BOSWELL. 'They carve very ingeniously.' JOHNSON. 'A cat can scratch, and
a child with a nail can scratch.' I perceived this was none of the
_mollia tempora fandi_[946]; so desisted.

Upon his mentioning that when he came to College he wrote his first
exercise twice over; but never did so afterwards[947]; MISS ADAMS. 'I
suppose, Sir, you could not make them better?' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Madam, to
be sure, I could make them better. Thought is better than no thought.'
MISS ADAMS. 'Do you think, Sir, you could make your _Ramblers_ better?'
JOHNSON. 'Certainly I could.' BOSWELL. 'I'll lay a bet, Sir, you
cannot.' JOHNSON. 'But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best
of them you shall pick out, better.' BOSWELL. 'But you may add to them.
I will not allow of that.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, there are three ways of
making them better; - putting out, - adding, - or correcting[948].'

During our visit at Oxford, the following conversation passed between
him and me on the subject of my trying my fortune at the English
bar[949]: Having asked whether a very extensive acquaintance in London,
which was very valuable, and of great advantage to a man at large, might
not be prejudicial to a lawyer, by preventing him from giving sufficient
attention to his business; - JOHNSON. 'Sir, you will attend to business,
as business lays hold of you. When not actually employed, you may see
your friends as much as you do now. You may dine at a Club every day,
and sup with one of the members every night; and you may be as much at
publick places as one who has seen them all would wish to be. But you
must take care to attend constantly in Westminster-Hall; both to mind
your business, as it is almost all learnt there, (for nobody reads now;)
and to shew that you want to have business[950]. And you must not be
too often seen at publick places, that competitors may not have it to
say, 'He is always at the Playhouse or at Ranelagh, and never to be
found at his chambers.' And, Sir, there must be a kind of solemnity in
the manner of a professional man. I have nothing particular to say to
you on the subject. All this I should say to any one; I should have said
it to Lord Thurlow twenty years ago.'

The PROFESSION may probably think this representation of what is
required in a Barrister who would hope for success, to be by much too
indulgent; but certain it is, that as

'The wits of Charles found easier ways to fame[951],'

some of the lawyers of this age who have risen high, have by no means
thought it absolutely necessary to submit to that long and painful
course of study which a Plowden, a Coke, and a Hale considered as
requisite. My respected friend, Mr. Langton, has shewn me in the
hand-writing of his grandfather[952], a curious account of a
conversation which he had with Lord Chief Justice Hale, in which that
great man tells him, 'That for two years after he came to the inn of
court, he studied sixteen hours a day; however (his Lordship added) that
by this intense application he almost brought himself to his grave,
though he were of a very strong constitution, and after reduced himself
to eight hours; but that he would not advise any body to so much; that
he thought six hours a day, with attention and constancy, was
sufficient; that a man must use his body as he would his horse, and his
stomach; not tire him at once, but rise with an appetite.[953]'

On Wednesday, June 19[954], Dr. Johnson and I returned to London; he
was not well to-day, and said very little, employing himself chiefly in
reading Euripides. He expressed some displeasure at me, for not
observing sufficiently the various objects upon the road. 'If I had your
eyes, Sir, (said he) I should count the passengers.' It was wonderful
how accurate his observation of visual objects was, notwithstanding his
imperfect eyesight, owing to a habit of attention[955]. That he was much
satisfied with the respect paid to him at Dr. Adams's is thus attested
by himself: 'I returned last night from Oxford, after a fortnight's
abode with Dr. Adams, who treated me as well as I could expect or wish;
and he that contents a sick man, a man whom it is impossible to please,
has surely done his part well[956].'

After his return to London from this excursion, I saw him frequently,
but have few memorandums: I shall therefore here insert some particulars
which I collected at various times.

The Reverend Mr. Astle, of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, brother to the
learned and ingenious Thomas Astle[957], Esq., was from his early years
known to Dr. Johnson, who obligingly advised him as to his studies, and
recommended to him the following books, of which a list which he has
been pleased to communicate, lies before me in Johnson's own
hand-writing: -

_Universal History (ancient.) - Rollin's Ancient History. - Puffendorf's
Introduction to History. - Vertot's History of Knights of Malta. -
Vertot's Revolution of Portugal. - Vertot's Revolutions of Sweden. -
Carte's History of England. - Present State of England. - Geographical
Grammar. - Prideaux's Connection. - Nelson's Feasts and Fasts. - Duty of
Man. - Gentleman's Religion. - Clarendon's History. - Watts's Improvement
of the Mind. - Watts's Logick. - Nature Displayed. - Lowth's English
Grammar. - Blackwall on the Classicks. - Sherlock's Sermons. - Burnet's
Life of Hale. - Dupin's History of the Church. - Shuckford's
Connection. - Law's Serious Call. - Walton's Complete Angler. - Sandys's
Travels. - Sprat's History of the Royal Society. - England's
Gazetteer. - Goldsmith's Roman History. - Some Commentaries on the.

It having been mentioned to Dr. Johnson that a gentleman who had a son
whom he imagined to have an extreme degree of timidity, resolved to send
him to a publick school, that he might acquire confidence; - ' Sir, (said
Johnson,) this is a preposterous expedient for removing his infirmity;
such a disposition should be cultivated in the shade. Placing him at a
publick school is forcing an owl upon day[959].'

Speaking of a gentleman whose house was much frequented by low company;
'Rags, Sir, (said he,) will always make their appearance where they have
a right to do it.'

Of the same gentleman's mode of living, he said, 'Sir, the servants,
instead of doing what they are bid, stand round the table in idle
clusters, gaping upon the guests; and seem as unfit to attend a company,
as to steer a man of war[960].'

A dull country magistrate[961] gave Johnson a long tedious account of
his exercising his criminal jurisdiction, the result of which was his
having sentenced four convicts to transportation. Johnson, in an agony
of impatience to get rid of such a companion, exclaimed, 'I heartily
wish, Sir, that I were a fifth.'

Johnson was present when a tragedy was read, in which there occurred
this line: -

'Who rules o'er freemen should himself be free[962].'

The company having admired it much, 'I cannot agree with you (said
Johnson:) It might as well be said, -

'Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.'

He was pleased with the kindness of Mr. Cator, who was joined with him
in Mr. Thrale's important trust, and thus describes him[963]: - 'There is
much good in his character, and much usefulness in his knowledge.' He
found a cordial solace at that gentleman's seat at Beckenham, in Kent,
which is indeed one of the finest places at which I ever was a guest;
and where I find more and more a hospitable welcome.

Johnson seldom encouraged general censure of any profession[964]; but he
was willing to allow a due share of merit to the various departments
necessary in civilised life. In a splenetick, sarcastical, or jocular
frame, however, he would sometimes utter a pointed saying of that
nature. One instance has been mentioned[965], where he gave a sudden
satirical stroke to the character of an _attorney_. The too
indiscriminate admission to that employment, which requires both
abilities and integrity, has given rise to injurious reflections, which
are totally inapplicable to many very respectable men who exercise it
with reputation and honour.

Johnson having argued for some time with a pertinacious gentleman; his
opponent, who had talked in a very puzzling manner, happened to say, 'I
don't understand you, Sir:' upon which Johnson observed, 'Sir, I have
found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an

Talking to me of Horry Walpole, (as Horace late Earl of Orford was
often called[967],) Johnson allowed that he got together a great many
curious little things, and told them in an elegant manner[968]. Mr.
Walpole thought Johnson a more amiable character after reading his
_Letters to Mrs. Thrale_: but never was one of the true admirers of that
great man[969]. We may suppose a prejudice conceived, if he ever heard
Johnson's account to Sir George Staunton[970], that when he made the
speeches in parliament for the _Gentleman's Magazine_, 'he always took
care to put Sir Robert Walpole in the wrong, and to say every thing he
could against the electorate of Hanover[971].' The celebrated _Heroick
Epistle_, in which Johnson is satyrically introduced, has been ascribed
both to Mr. Walpole and Mr. Mason. One day at Mr. Courtenay's, when a
gentleman expressed his opinion that there was more energy in that poem
than could be expected from Mr. Walpole; Mr. Warton, the late Laureat,
observed, 'It may have been written by Walpole, and _buckram'd_ by

He disapproved of Lord Hailes, for having modernised the language of the
ever-memorable John Hales of Eton[973], in an edition which his Lordship
published of that writer's works. 'An authour's language, Sir, (said
he,) is a characteristical part of his composition, and is also
characteristical of the age in which he writes. Besides, Sir, when the
language is changed we are not sure that the sense is the same. No, Sir;
I am sorry Lord Hailes has done this.'

Here it may be observed, that his frequent use of the expression, _No,
Sir_, was not always to intimate contradiction; for he would say so,
when he was about to enforce an affirmative proposition which had not
been denied, as in the instance last mentioned. I used to consider it as
a kind of flag of defiance; as if he had said, 'Any argument you may
offer against this, is not just. No, Sir, it is not.' It was like
Falstaff's 'I deny your Major[974].'

Sir Joshua Reynolds having said that he took the altitude of a man's
taste by his stories and his wit, and of his understanding by the
remarks which he repeated; being always sure that he must be a weak man
who quotes common things with an emphasis as if they were oracles;
Johnson agreed with him; and Sir Joshua having also observed that the
real character of a man was found out by his amusements, - Johnson added,
'Yes, Sir; no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures[975].'

I have mentioned Johnson's general aversion to a pun[976]. He once,
however, endured one of mine. When we were talking of a numerous company
in which he had distinguished himself highly, I said, 'Sir, you were a
COD surrounded by smelts. Is not this enough for you? at a time too when
you were not _fishing_ for a compliment?' He laughed at this with a
complacent approbation. Old Mr. Sheridan observed, upon my mentioning it
to him, 'He liked your compliment so well, he was willing to take it
with _pun sauce_.' For my own part, I think no innocent species of wit
or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted
among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.

Had Johnson treated at large _De Claris Oratoribus_[977], he might have
given us an admirable work. When the Duke of Bedford attacked the
ministry as vehemently as he could, for having taken upon them to extend
the time for the importation of corn[978], Lord Chatham, in his first
speech in the House of Lords, boldly avowed himself to be an adviser of
that measure. 'My colleagues, (said he,) as I was confined by
indisposition, did me the signal honour of coming to the bed-side of a
sick man, to ask his opinion. But, had they not thus condescended, I
should have _taken up my bed and walked_, in order to have delivered
that opinion at the Council-Board.' Mr. Langton, who was present,
mentioned this to Johnson, who observed, 'Now, Sir, we see that he took
these words as he found them; without considering, that though the
expression in Scripture, _take up thy bed and walk_[979], strictly
suited the instance of the sick man restored to health and strength, who
would of course be supposed to carry his bed with him, it could not be
proper in the case of a man who was lying in a state of feebleness, and
who certainly would not add to the difficulty of moving at all, that of
carrying his bed.'

When I pointed out to him in the newspaper one of Mr. Grattan's animated
and glowing speeches, in favour of the freedom of Ireland, in which this
expression occurred (I know not if accurately taken): 'We will
persevere, till there is not one link of the English chain left to clank
upon the rags of the meanest beggar in Ireland;' 'Nay, Sir, (said
Johnson,) don't you perceive that _one_ link cannot clank?'

Mrs. Thrale has published[980], as Johnson's, a kind of parody or
counterpart of a fine poetical passage in one of Mr. Burke's speeches on
American Taxation. It is vigorously but somewhat coarsely executed; and
I am inclined to suppose, is not quite correctly exhibited. I hope he
did not use the words _'vile agents'_ for the Americans in the House of
Parliament; and if he did so, in an extempore effusion, I wish the lady
had not committed it to writing[981].

Mr. Burke uniformly shewed Johnson the greatest respect; and when Mr.
Townshend, now lord Sydney, at a period when he was conspicuous in
opposition, threw out some reflection in parliament upon the grant of a
pension to a man of such political principles as Johnson; Mr. Burke,
though then of the same party with Mr. Townshend, stood warmly forth in
defence of his friend, to whom, he justly observed, the pension was
granted solely on account of his eminent literary merit. I am well
assured, that Mr. Townshend's attack upon Johnson was the occasion of
his 'hitching in a rhyme[982];' for, that in the original copy of
Goldsmith's character of Mr. Burke, in his _Retaliation_, another
person's name stood in the couplet where Mr. Townshend is now
introduced[983]: -

'Though fraught with all learning kept[984] straining his throat,
To persuade _Tommy Townshend_ to lend him a vote.'

It may be worth remarking, among the _minutiae_ of my collection, that
Johnson was once drawn to serve in the militia, the Trained Bands of the
City of London, and that Mr. Rackstrow, of the Museum in Fleet-street,
was his Colonel. It may be believed he did not serve in person; but the
idea, with all its circumstances, is certainly laughable. He upon that
occasion provided himself with a musket, and with a sword and belt,
which I have seen hanging in his closet.

He was very constant to those whom he once employed, if they gave him no
reason to be displeased. When somebody talked of being imposed on in the
purchase of tea and sugar, and such articles: 'That will not be the
case, (said he,) if you go to a _stately shop_, as I always do. In such
a shop it is not worth their while to take a petty advantage.'

An authour of most anxious and restless vanity being mentioned, 'Sir,
(said he,) there is not a young sapling upon Parnassus more severely
blown about by every wind of criticism than that poor fellow.'

The difference, he observed, between a well-bred and an ill-bred man is
this: 'One immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion.
You love the one till you find reason to hate him; you hate the other
till you find reason to love him.'

The wife of one of his acquaintance had fraudulently made a purse for
herself out of her husband's fortune. Feeling a proper compunction in
her last moments, she confessed how much she had secreted; but before
she could tell where it was placed, she was seized with a convulsive fit
and expired. Her husband said, he was more hurt by her want of
confidence in him, than by the loss of his money. 'I told him, (said
Johnson,) that he should console himself: for _perhaps_ the money might
be _found_, and he was _sure_ that his wife was gone.'

A foppish physician once reminded Johnson of his having been in company
with him on a former occasion; 'I do not remember it, Sir.' The
physician still insisted; adding that he that day wore so fine a coat
that it must have attracted his notice. 'Sir, (said Johnson,) had you
been dipt in Pactolus[985] I should not have noticed you.'

He seemed to take a pleasure in speaking in his own style; for when he
had carelessly missed it, he would repeat the thought translated into
it[986]. Talking of the Comedy of _The Rehearsal_[987], he said, 'It has
not wit enough to keep it sweet.' This was easy; he therefore caught
himself, and pronounced a more round sentence; 'It has not vitality
enough to preserve it from putrefaction.'

He censured a writer of entertaining Travels[988] for assuming a feigned
character, saying, (in his sense of the word[989],) 'He carries out one
lye; we know not how many he brings back.'[990] At another time, talking
of the same person, he observed, 'Sir, your assent to a man whom you
have never known to falsify, is a debt: but after you have known a man
to falsify, your assent to him then is a favour.'

Though he had no taste for painting, he admired much the manner in which
Sir Joshua Reynolds treated of his art, in his _Discourses to the Royal
Academy_[991]. He observed one day of a passage in them, 'I think I
might as well have said this myself: 'and once when Mr. Langton was
sitting by him, he read one of them very eagerly, and expressed himself
thus: - 'Very well, Master Reynolds; very well, indeed. But it will not
be understood.'

When I observed to him that Painting was so far inferiour to Poetry,
that the story or even emblem which it communicates must be previously
known, and mentioned as a natural and laughable instance of this, that a
little Miss on seeing a picture of Justice with the scales, had
exclaimed to me, 'See, there's a woman selling sweetmeats;' he said,

Online LibraryJames BoswellLife of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784 → online text (page 19 of 48)