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Life of Johnson by [James] Boswell

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'Write to me often, and write like a man. I consider your fidelity
and tenderness as a great part of the comforts which are yet left
me, and sincerely wish we could be nearer to each other. . . . My
dear friend, life is very short and very uncertain; let us spend it
as well as we can. My worthy neighbour, Allen, is dead. Love me
as well as you can. Pay my respects to dear Mrs. Boswell. Nothing
ailed me at that time; let your superstition at last have an end.'

Feeling very soon, that the manner in which he had written might
hurt me, he two days afterwards, July 28, wrote to me again, giving
me an account of his sufferings; after which, he thus proceeds:--

'Before this letter, you will have had one which I hope you will
not take amiss; for it contains only truth, and that truth kindly
intended. . . . Spartam quam nactus es orna; make the most and
best of your lot, and compare yourself not with the few that are
above you, but with the multitudes which are below you.'

Yet it was not a little painful to me to find, that . . . he still
persevered in arraigning me as before, which was strange in him who
had so much experience of what I suffered. I, however, wrote to
him two as kind letters as I could; the last of which came too late
to be read by him, for his illness encreased more rapidly upon him
than I had apprehended; but I had the consolation of being informed
that he spoke of me on his death-bed, with affection, and I look
forward with humble hope of renewing our friendship in a better

Soon after Johnson's return to the metropolis, both the asthma and
dropsy became more violent and distressful.

During his sleepless nights he amused himself by translating into
Latin verse, from the Greek, many of the epigrams in the
Anthologia. These translations, with some other poems by him in
Latin, he gave to his friend Mr. Langton, who, having added a few
notes, sold them to the booksellers for a small sum, to be given to
some of Johnson's relations, which was accordingly done; and they
are printed in the collection of his works.

A very erroneous notion has circulated as to Johnson's deficiency
in the knowledge of the Greek language, partly owing to the modesty
with which, from knowing how much there was to be learnt, he used
to mention his own comparative acquisitions. When Mr. Cumberland
talked to him of the Greek fragments which are so well illustrated
in The Observer, and of the Greek dramatists in general, he
candidly acknowledged his insufficiency in that particular branch
of Greek literature. Yet it may be said, that though not a great,
he was a good Greek scholar. Dr. Charles Burney, the younger, who
is universally acknowledged by the best judges to be one of the few
men of this age who are very eminent for their skill in that noble
language, has assured me, that Johnson could give a Greek word for
almost every English one; and that although not sufficiently
conversant in the niceties of the language, he upon some occasions
discovered, even in these, a considerable degree of critical
acumen. Mr. Dalzel, Professor of Greek at Edinburgh, whose skill
in it is unquestionable, mentioned to me, in very liberal terms,
the impression which was made upon him by Johnson, in a
conversation which they had in London concerning that language. As
Johnson, therefore, was undoubtedly one of the first Latin scholars
in modern times, let us not deny to his fame some additional
splendour from Greek.

The ludicrous imitators of Johnson's style are innumerable. Their
general method is to accumulate hard words, without considering,
that, although he was fond of introducing them occasionally, there
is not a single sentence in all his writings where they are crowded
together, as in the first verse of the following imaginary Ode by
him to Mrs. Thrale, which appeared in the newspapers:--

'Cervisial coctor's viduate dame,
Opin'st thou this gigantick frame,
Procumbing at thy shrine:
Shall, catenated by thy charms,
A captive in thy ambient arms,
Perennially be thine?'

This, and a thousand other such attempts, are totally unlike the
original, which the writers imagined they were turning into
ridicule. There is not similarity enough for burlesque, or even
for caricature.


'DEAR SIR,--I have enclosed the Epitaph for my Father, Mother, and
Brother, to be all engraved on the large size, and laid in the
middle aisle in St. Michael's church, which I request the clergyman
and churchwardens to permit.

'The first care must be to find the exact place of interment, that
the stone may protect the bodies. Then let the stone be deep,
massy, and hard; and do not let the difference of ten pounds, or
more, defeat our purpose.

'I have enclosed ten pounds, and Mrs. Porter will pay you ten more,
which I gave her for the same purpose. What more is wanted shall
be sent; and I beg that all possible haste may be made, for I wish
to have it done while I am yet alive. Let me know, dear Sir, that
you receive this. I am, Sir, your most humble servant,

'Dec. 2, 1784.'


Death had always been to him an object of terrour; so that, though
by no means happy, he still clung to life with an eagerness at
which many have wondered. At any time when he was ill, he was very
much pleased to be told that he looked better. An ingenious member
of the Eumelian Club, informs me, that upon one occasion when he
said to him that he saw health returning to his cheek, Johnson
seized him by the hand and exclaimed, 'Sir, you are one of the
kindest friends I ever had.'

Dr. Heberden, Dr. Brocklesby, Dr. Warren, and Dr. Butter,
physicians, generously attended him, without accepting any fees, as
did Mr. Cruikshank, surgeon; and all that could be done from
professional skill and ability, was tried, to prolong a life so
truly valuable. He himself, indeed, having, on account of his very
bad constitution, been perpetually applying himself to medical
inquiries, united his own efforts with those of the gentlemen who
attended him; and imagining that the dropsical collection of water
which oppressed him might be drawn off by making incisions in his
body, he, with his usual resolute defiance of pain, cut deep, when
he thought that his surgeon had done it too tenderly.*

* This bold experiment, Sir John Hawkins has related in such a
manner as to suggest a charge against Johnson of intentionally
hastening his end; a charge so very inconsistent with his character
in every respect, that it is injurious even to refute it, as Sir
John has thought it necessary to do. It is evident, that what
Johnson did in hopes of relief, indicated an extraordinary
eagerness to retard his dissolution.--BOSWELL.

About eight or ten days before his death, when Dr. Brocklesby paid
him his morning visit, he seemed very low and desponding, and said,
'I have been as a dying man all night.' He then emphatically broke
out in the words of Shakspeare:--

'Can'st thou not minister to a mind diseas'd;
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow;
Raze out the written troubles of the brain;
And, with some sweet oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff,
Which weighs upon the heart?'

To which Dr. Brocklesby readily answered, from the same great

'--therein the patient
Must minister to himself.'

Johnson expressed himself much satisfied with the application.

On another day after this, when talking on the subject of prayer,
Dr. Brocklesby repeated from Juvenal,--

'Orandum est, ut sit mens sana in corpore sano,'

and so on to the end of the tenth satire; but in running it quickly
over, he happened, in the line,

'Qui spatium vitae extremum inter munera ponat,'

to pronounce supremum for extremum; at which Johnson's critical ear
instantly took offence, and discoursing vehemently on the
unmetrical effect of such a lapse, he shewed himself as full as
ever of the spirit of the grammarian.

Having no near relations, it had been for some time Johnson's
intention to make a liberal provision for his faithful servant, Mr.
Francis Barber, whom he looked upon as particularly under his
protection, and whom he had all along treated truly as an humble
friend. Having asked Dr. Brocklesby what would be a proper annuity
to a favourite servant, and being answered that it must depend on
the circumstances of the master; and, that in the case of a
nobleman, fifty pounds a year was considered as an adequate reward
for many years' faithful service; 'Then, (said Johnson,) shall I be
nobilissimus, for I mean to leave Frank seventy pounds a year, and
I desire you to tell him so.' It is strange, however, to think,
that Johnson was not free from that general weakness of being
averse to execute a will, so that he delayed it from time to time;
and had it not been for Sir John Hawkins's repeatedly urging it, I
think it is probable that his kind resolution would not have been
fulfilled. After making one, which, as Sir John Hawkins informs
us, extended no further than the promised annuity, Johnson's final
disposition of his property was established by a Will and Codicil.

The consideration of numerous papers of which he was possessed,
seems to have struck Johnson's mind, with a sudden anxiety, and as
they were in great confusion, it is much to be lamented that he had
not entrusted some faithful and discreet person with the care and
selection of them; instead of which, he in a precipitate manner,
burnt large masses of them, with little regard, as I apprehend, to
discrimination. Not that I suppose we have thus been deprived of
any compositions which he had ever intended for the publick eye;
but, from what escaped the flames, I judge that many curious
circumstances relating both to himself and other literary
characters have perished.

Two very valuable articles, I am sure, we have lost, which were two
quarto volumes, containing a full, fair, and most particular
account of his own life, from his earliest recollection. I owned
to him, that having accidentally seen them, I had read a great deal
in them; and apologizing for the liberty I had taken, asked him if
I could help it. He placidly answered, 'Why, Sir, I do not think
you could have helped it.' I said that I had, for once in my life,
felt half an inclination to commit theft. It had come into my mind
to carry off those two volumes, and never see him more. Upon my
inquiring how this would have affected him, 'Sir, (said he,) I
believe I should have gone mad.'

During his last illness, Johnson experienced the steady and kind
attachment of his numerous friends. Mr. Hoole has drawn up a
narrative of what passed in the visits which he paid him during
that time, from the 10th of November to the 13th of December, the
day of his death, inclusive, and has favoured me with a perusal of
it, with permission to make extracts, which I have done. Nobody
was more attentive to him than Mr. Langton, to whom he tenderly
said, Te teneam moriens deficiente manu. And I think it highly to
the honour of Mr. Windham, that his important occupations as an
active statesman did not prevent him from paying assiduous respect
to the dying Sage whom he revered, Mr. Langton informs me, that,
'one day he found Mr. Burke and four or five more friends sitting
with Johnson. Mr. Burke said to him, "I am afraid, Sir, such a
number of us may be oppressive to you." "No, Sir, (said Johnson,)
it is not so; and I must be in a wretched state, indeed, when your
company would not be a delight to me." Mr. Burke, in a tremulous
voice, expressive of being very tenderly affected, replied, "My
dear Sir, you have always been too good to me." Immediately
afterwards he went away. This was the last circumstance in the
acquaintance of these two eminent men.'

The following particulars of his conversation within a few days of
his death, I give on the authority of Mr. John Nichols:--

'He said, that the Parliamentary Debates were the only part of his
writings which then gave him any compunction: but that at the time
he wrote them, he had no conception he was imposing upon the world,
though they were frequently written from very slender materials,
and often from none at all,--the mere coinage of his own
imagination. He never wrote any part of his works with equal
velocity. Three columns of the Magazine, in an hour, was no
uncommon effort, which was faster than most persons could have
transcribed that quantity.

'Of his friend Cave, he always spoke with great affection. "Yet
(said he,) Cave, (who never looked out of his window, but with a
view to the Gentleman's Magazine,) was a penurious pay-master; he
would contract for lines by the hundred, and expect the long
hundred; but he was a good man, and always delighted to have his
friends at his table."

'He said at another time, three or four days only before his death,
speaking of the little fear he had of undergoing a chirurgical
operation, "I would give one of these legs for a year more of life,
I mean of comfortable life, not such as that which I now suffer;"--
and lamented much his inability to read during his hours of
restlessness; "I used formerly, (he added,) when sleepless in bed,
to read like a Turk."

'Whilst confined by his last illness, it was his regular practice
to have the church-service read to him, by some attentive and
friendly Divine. The Rev. Mr. Hoole performed this kind office in
my presence for the last time, when, by his own desire, no more
than the Litany was read; in which his responses were in the deep
and sonorous voice which Mr. Boswell has occasionally noticed, and
with the most profound devotion that can be imagined. His hearing
not being quite perfect, he more than once interrupted Mr. Hoole,
with "Louder, my dear Sir, louder, I entreat you, or you pray in
vain!"--and, when the service was ended, he, with great
earnestness, turned round to an excellent lady who was present,
saying," I thank you, Madam, very heartily, for your kindness in
joining me in this solemn exercise. Live well, I conjure you; and
you will not feel the compunction at the last, which I now feel."
So truly humble were the thoughts which this great and good man
entertained of his own approaches to religious perfection.'

Amidst the melancholy clouds which hung over the dying Johnson, his
characteristical manner shewed itself on different occasions.

When Dr. Warren, in the usual style, hoped that he was better; his
answer was, 'No, Sir; you cannot conceive with what acceleration I
advance towards death.'

A man whom he had never seen before was employed one night to sit
up with him. Being asked next morning how he liked his attendant,
his answer was, 'Not at all, Sir: the fellow's an ideot; he is as
aukward as a turn-spit when first put into the wheel, and as sleepy
as a dormouse.'

Mr. Windham having placed a pillow conveniently to support him, he
thanked him for his kindness, and said, 'That will do,--all that a
pillow can do.'

He requested three things of Sir Joshua Reynolds:--To forgive him
thirty pounds which he had borrowed of him; to read the Bible; and
never to use his pencil on a Sunday. Sir Joshua readily

Johnson, with that native fortitude, which, amidst all his bodily
distress and mental sufferings, never forsook him, asked Dr.
Brocklesby, as a man in whom he had confidence, to tell him plainly
whether he could recover. 'Give me (said he,) a direct answer.'
The Doctor having first asked him if he could hear the whole truth,
which way soever it might lead, and being answered that he could,
declared that, in his opinion, he could not recover without a
miracle. 'Then, (said Johnson,) I will take no more physick, not
even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to
GOD unclouded.' In this resolution he persevered, and, at the same
time, used only the weakest kinds of sustenance. Being pressed by
Mr. Windham to take somewhat more generous nourishment, lest too
low a diet should have the very effect which he dreaded, by
debilitating his mind, he said, 'I will take any thing but
inebriating sustenance.'

The Reverend Mr. Strahan, who was the son of his friend, and had
been always one of his great favourites, had, during his last
illness, the satisfaction of contributing to soothe and comfort
him. That gentleman's house, at Islington, of which he is Vicar,
afforded Johnson, occasionally and easily, an agreeable change of
place and fresh air; and he attended also upon him in town in the
discharge of the sacred offices of his profession.

Mr. Strahan has given me the agreeable assurance, that, after being
in much agitation, Johnson became quite composed, and continued so
till his death.

Dr. Brocklesby, who will not be suspected of fanaticism, obliged me
with the following account:--

'For some time before his death, all his fears were calmed and
absorbed by the prevalence of his faith, and his trust in the
merits and propitiation of JESUS CHRIST.'

Johnson having thus in his mind the true Christian scheme, at once
rational and consolatory, uniting justice and mercy in the
Divinity, with the improvement of human nature, previous to his
receiving the Holy Sacrament in his apartment, composed and
fervently uttered this prayer:--

'Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now as to human eyes, it
seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy
Son JESUS CHRIST, our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O LORD, that my
whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and thy mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration
available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my
hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy
Son JESUS CHRIST effectual to my redemption. Have mercy upon me,
and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have
mercy upon all men. Support me, by thy Holy Spirit, in the days of
weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to
everlasting happiness, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.'

Having, as has been already mentioned, made his will on the 8th and
9th of December, and settled all his worldly affairs, he languished
till Monday, the 13th of that month, when he expired, about seven
o'clock in the evening, with so little apparent pain that his
attendants hardly perceived when his dissolution took place.

Of his last moments, my brother, Thomas David, has furnished me
with the following particulars:--

'The Doctor, from the time that he was certain his death was near,
appeared to be perfectly resigned, was seldom or never fretful or
out of temper, and often said to his faithful servant, who gave me
this account, "Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul,
which is the object of greatest importance:" he also explained to
him passages in the Scripture, and seemed to have pleasure in
talking upon religious subjects.

'On Monday, the 13th of December, the day on which he died, a Miss
Morris, daughter to a particular friend of his, called, and said to
Francis, that she begged to be permitted to see the Doctor, that
she might earnestly request him to give her his blessing. Francis
went into his room, followed by the young lady, and delivered the
message. The Doctor turned himself in the bed, and said, "GOD
bless you, my dear!" These were the last words he spoke. His
difficulty of breathing increased till about seven o'clock in the
evening, when Mr. Barber and Mrs. Desmoulins, who were sitting in
the room, observing that the noise he made in breathing had ceased,
went to the bed, and found he was dead.'

About two days after his death, the following very agreeable
account was communicated to Mr. Malone, in a letter by the
Honourable John Byng, to whom I am much obliged for granting me
permission to introduce it in my work.

'DEAR SIR,--Since I saw you, I have had a long conversation with
Cawston, who sat up with Dr. Johnson, from nine o'clock, on Sunday
evening, till ten o'clock, on Monday morning. And, from what I can
gather from him, it should seem, that Dr. Johnson was perfectly
composed, steady in hope, and resigned to death. At the interval
of each hour, they assisted him to sit up in his bed, and move his
legs, which were in much pain; when he regularly addressed himself
to fervent prayer; and though, sometimes, his voice failed him, his
senses never did, during that time. The only sustenance he
received, was cyder and water. He said his mind was prepared, and
the time to his dissolution seemed long. At six in the morning, he
inquired the hour, and, on being informed, said that all went on
regularly, and he felt he had but a few hours to live.

'At ten o'clock in the morning, he parted from Cawston, saying,
"You should not detain Mr. Windham's servant:--I thank you; bear my
remembrance to your master." Cawston says, that no man could
appear more collected, more devout, or less terrified at the
thoughts of the approaching minute.

'This account, which is so much more agreeable than, and somewhat
different from, yours, has given us the satisfaction of thinking
that that great man died as he lived, full of resignation,
strengthened in faith, and joyful in hope.'

A few days before his death, he had asked Sir John Hawkins, as one
of his executors, where he should be buried; and on being answered,
'Doubtless, in Westminster-Abbey,' seemed to feel a satisfaction,
very natural to a Poet; and indeed in my opinion very natural to
every man of any imagination, who has no family sepulchre in which
he can be laid with his fathers. Accordingly, upon Monday,
December 20, his remains were deposited in that noble and renowned
edifice; and over his grave was placed a large blue flag-stone,
with this inscription:--

Obiit XIII die Decembris,
Anno Domini
Aetatis suae LXXV.'

His funeral was attended by a respectable number of his friends,
particularly such of the members of the LITERARY CLUB as were then
in town; and was also honoured with the presence of several of the
Reverend Chapter of Westminster. Mr. Burke, Sir Joseph Banks, Mr.
Windham, Mr. Langton, Sir Charles Bunbury, and Mr. Colman, bore his
pall. His school-fellow, Dr. Taylor, performed the mournful office
of reading the burial service.

I trust, I shall not be accused of affectation, when I declare,
that I find myself unable to express all that I felt upon the loss
of such a 'Guide, Philosopher, and Friend.' I shall, therefore,
not say one word of my own, but adopt those of an eminent friend,
which he uttered with an abrupt felicity, superior to all studied
compositions:--'He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can
fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is
dead. Let us go to the next best:--there is nobody; no man can be
said to put you in mind of Johnson.'

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