Part 9 out of 12
The conversation having turned on Bon-Mots, be quoted, from one of
the Ana, an exquisite instance of flattery in a maid of honour in
France, who being asked by the Queen what o'clock it was, answered,
'What your Majesty pleases.' He admitted that Mr. Burke's
classical pun upon Mr. Wilkes's being carried on the shoulders of
was admirable; and though he was strangely unwilling to allow to
that extraordinary man the talent of wit, he also laughed with
approbation at another of his playful conceits; which was, that
'Horace has in one line given a description of a good desirable
"Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines;"
that is to say, a modus as to the tithes and certain fines.'
He observed, 'A man cannot with propriety speak of himself, except
he relates simple facts; as, "I was at Richmond:" or what depends
on mensuration; as, "I am six feet high." He is sure he has been
at Richmond; he is sure he is six feet high: but he cannot be sure
he is wise, or that he has any other excellence. Then, all censure
of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much
he can spare. It has all the invidiousness of self-praise, and all
the reproach of falsehood.'
On Tuesday, April 28, he was engaged to dine at General Paoli's,
where, as I have already observed, I was still entertained in
elegant hospitality, and with all the ease and comfort of a home.
I called on him, and accompanied him in a hackney-coach. We
stopped first at the bottom of Hedgelane, into which he went to
leave a letter, 'with good news for a poor man in distress,' as he
told me. I did not question him particularly as to this. He
himself often resembled Lady Bolingbroke's Lively description of
Pope; that 'he was un politique aux choux et aux raves.' He would
say, 'I dine to-day in Grosvenor-square;' this might be with a
Duke: or, perhaps, 'I dine to-day at the other end of the town:'
or, 'A gentleman of great eminence called on me yesterday.' He
loved thus to keep things floating in conjecture: Omne ignotum pro
magnifico est. I believe I ventured to dissipate the cloud, to
unveil the mystery, more freely and frequently than any of his
friends. We stopped again at Wirgman's, the well-known toy-shop,
in St. James's-street, at the corner of St. James's-place, to which
he had been directed, but not clearly, for he searched about some
time, and could not find it at first; and said, 'To direct one only
to a corner shop is TOYING with one.' I suppose he meant this as a
play upon the word toy: it was the first time that I knew him stoop
to such sport. After he had been some time in the shop, he sent
for me to come out of the coach, and help him to choose a pair of
silver buckles, as those he had were too small. Probably this
alteration in dress had been suggested by Mrs. Thrale, by
associating with whom, his external appearance was much improved.
He got better cloaths; and the dark colour, from which he never
deviated, was enlivened by metal buttons. His wigs, too, were much
better; and during their travels in France, he was furnished with a
Paris-made wig, of handsome construction. This choosing of silver
buckles was a negociation: 'Sir, (said he,) I will not have the
ridiculous large ones now in fashion; and I will give no more than
a guinea for a pair.' Such were the PRINCIPLES of the business;
and, after some examination, he was fitted. As we drove along, I
found him in a talking humour, of which I availed myself. BOSWELL.
'I was this morning in Ridley's shop, Sir; and was told, that the
collection called Johnsoniana has sold very much.' JOHNSON. 'Yet
the Journey to the Hebrides has not had a great sale.' BOSWELL.
'That is strange.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; for in that book I have
told the world a great deal that they did not know before.'
BOSWELL. 'I drank chocolate, Sir, this morning with Mr. Eld; and,
to my no small surprize, found him to be a Staffordshire Whig, a
being which I did not believe had existed.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, there
are rascals in all countries.' BOSWELL. 'Eld said, a Tory was a
creature generated between a non-juring parson and one's
grandmother.' JOHNSON. 'And I have always said, the first Whig
was the Devil.' BOSWELL. 'He certainly was, Sir. The Devil was
impatient of subordination; he was the first who resisted power:--
"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven."'
At General Paoli's were Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Langton, Marchese
Gherardi of Lombardy, and Mr. John Spottiswoode the younger, of
Spottiswoode, the solicitor.
We talked of drinking wine. JOHNSON. 'I require wine only when I
am alone. I have then often wished for it, and often taken it.'
SPOTTISWOODE. 'What, by way of a companion, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'To
get rid of myself, to send myself away. Wine gives great pleasure;
and every pleasure is of itself a good. It is a good, unless
counterbalanced by evil. A man may have a strong reason not to
drink wine; and that may be greater than the pleasure. Wine makes
a man better pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him
more pleasing to others. Sometimes it does. But the danger is,
that while a man grows better pleased with himself, he may be
growing less pleasing to others. Wine gives a man nothing. It
neither gives him knowledge nor wit; it only animates a man, and
enables him to bring out what a dread of the company had repressed.
It only puts in motion what has been locked up in frost. But this
may be good, or it may be bad.' SPOTTISWOODE. 'So, Sir, wine is a
key which opens a box; but this box may be either full or empty.'
JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, conversation is the key: wine is a pick-lock,
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. 'The great difficulty of resisting
wine is from benevolence. For instance, a good worthy man asks you
to taste his wine, which he has had twenty years in his cellar.'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, all this notion about benevolence arises from a
man's imagining himself to be of more importance to others, than he
really is. They don't care a farthing whether he drinks wine or
not.' SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. 'Yes, they do for the time.' JOHNSON.
'For the time!--If they care this minute, they forget it the next.
And as for the good worthy man; how do you know he is good and
worthy? No good and worthy man will insist upon another man's
drinking wine. As to the wine twenty years in the cellar,--of ten
men, three say this, merely because they must say something;--three
are telling a lie, when they say they have had the wine twenty
years;--three would rather save the wine;--one, perhaps, cares. I
allow it is something to please one's company: and people are
always pleased with those who partake pleasure with them. But
after a man has brought himself to relinquish the great personal
pleasure which arises from drinking wine, any other consideration
is a trifle. To please others by drinking wine, is something only,
if there be nothing against it. I should, however, be sorry to
offend worthy men:--
"Curst be the verse, how well so e'er it flow,
That tends to make one worthy man my foe."'
BOSWELL. 'Curst be the SPRING, the WATER.' JOHNSON. 'But let us
consider what a sad thing it would be, if we were obliged to drink
or do any thing else that may happen to be agreeable to the company
where we are.' LANGTON. 'By the same rule you must join with a
gang of cut-purses.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir: but yet we must do
justice to wine; we must allow it the power it possesses. To make
a man pleased with himself, let me tell you, is doing a very great
"Si patriae volumus, si Nobis vivere cari."'
I was at this time myself a water-drinker, upon trial, by Johnson's
recommendation. JOHNSON. 'Boswell is a bolder combatant than Sir
Joshua: he argues for wine without the help of wine; but Sir Joshua
with it.' SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. 'But to please one's company is a
strong motive.' JOHNSON. (who, from drinking only water, supposed
every body who drank wine to be elevated,) 'I won't argue any more
with you, Sir. You are too far gone.' SIR JOSHUA. 'I should have
thought so indeed, Sir, had I made such a speech as you have now
done.' JOHNSON. (drawing himself in, and, I really thought
blushing,) 'Nay, don't be angry. I did not mean to offend you.'
SIR JOSHUA. 'At first the taste of wine was disagreeable to me;
but I brought myself to drink it, that I might be like other
people. The pleasure of drinking wine is so connected with
pleasing your company, that altogether there is something of social
goodness in it.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, this is only saying the same
thing over again.' SIR JOSHUA. 'No, this is new.' JOHNSON. 'You
put it in new words, but it is an old thought. This is one of the
disadvantages of wine. It makes a man mistake words for thoughts.'
BOSWELL. 'I think it is a new thought; at least, it is in a new
ATTITUDE.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, it is only in a new coat; or an
old coat with a new facing. (Then laughing heartily,) It is the
old dog in a new doublet.--An extraordinary instance however may
occur where a man's patron will do nothing for him, unless he will
drink: THERE may be a good reason for drinking.'
I mentioned a nobleman, who I believed was really uneasy if his
company would not drink hard. JOHNSON. 'That is from having had
people about him whom he has been accustomed to command.' BOSWELL.
'Supposing I should be tete-a-tete with him at table.' JOHNSON.
'Sir, there is no more reason for your drinking with HIM, than his
being sober with YOU.' BOSWELL. 'Why, that is true; for it would
do him less hurt to be sober, than it would do me to get drunk.'
JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; and from what I have heard of him, one would
not wish to sacrifice himself to such a man. If he must always
have somebody to drink with him, he should buy a slave, and then he
would be sure to have it. They who submit to drink as another
pleases, make themselves his slaves.' Boswell. 'But, Sir, you
will surely make allowance for the duty of hospitality. A
gentleman who loves drinking, comes to visit me.' JOHNSON. 'Sir,
a man knows whom he visits; he comes to the table of a sober man.'
BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, you and I should not have been so well
received in the Highlands and Hebrides, if I had not drunk with our
worthy friends. Had I drunk water only as you did, they would not
have been so cordial.' JOHNSON. 'Sir William Temple mentions that
in his travels through the Netherlands he had two or three
gentlemen with him; and when a bumper was necessary, he put it on
THEM. Were I to travel again through the islands, I would have Sir
Joshua with me to take the bumpers.' BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, let me
put a case. Suppose Sir Joshua should take a jaunt into Scotland;
he does me the honour to pay me a visit at my house in the country;
I am overjoyed at seeing him; we are quite by ourselves, shall I
unsociably and churlishly let him sit drinking by himself? No, no,
my dear Sir Joshua, you shall not be treated so, I WILL take a
bottle with you.'
On Wednesday, April 29, I dined with him at Mr. Allan Ramsay's,
where were Lord Binning, Dr. Robertson the historian, Sir Joshua
Reynolds, and the Honourable Mrs. Boscawen, widow of the Admiral,
and mother of the present Viscount Falmouth; of whom, if it be not
presumptuous in me to praise her, I would say, that her manners are
the most agreeable, and her conversation the best, of any lady with
whom I ever had the happiness to be acquainted. Before Johnson
came we talked a good deal of him; Ramsay said he had always found
him a very polite man, and that he treated him with great respect,
which he did very sincerely. I said I worshipped him. ROBERTSON.
'But some of you spoil him; you should not worship him; you should
worship no man.' BOSWELL. 'I cannot help worshipping him, he is
so much superiour to other men.' ROBERTSON. In criticism, and in
wit in conversation, he is no doubt very excellent; but in other
respects he is not above other men; he will believe any thing, and
will strenuously defend the most minute circumstance connected with
the Church of England.' BOSWELL. 'Believe me, Doctor, you are
much mistaken as to this; for when you talk with him calmly in
private, he is very liberal in his way of thinking.' ROBERTSON.
'He and I have been always very gracious; the first time I met him
was one evening at Strahan's, when he had just had an unlucky
altercation with Adam Smith, to whom he had been so rough, that
Strahan, after Smith was gone, had remonstrated with him, and told
him that I was coming soon, and that he was uneasy to think that he
might behave in the same manner to me. "No, no, Sir, (said
Johnson,) I warrant you Robertson and I shall do very well."
Accordingly he was gentle and good-humoured, and courteous with me
the whole evening; and he has been so upon every occasion that we
have met since. I have often said (laughing,) that I have been in
a great measure indebted to Smith for my good reception.' BOSWELL.
'His power of reasoning is very strong, and he has a peculiar art
of drawing characters, which is as rare as good portrait painting.'
SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. 'He is undoubtedly admirable in this; but, in
order to mark the characters which he draws, he overcharges them,
and gives people more than they really have, whether of good or
No sooner did he, of whom we had been thus talking so easily,
arrive, than we were all as quiet as a school upon the entrance of
the head-master; and were very soon set down to a table covered
with such variety of good things, as contributed not a little to
dispose him to be pleased.
RAMSAY. 'I am old enough to have been a contemporary of Pope. His
poetry was highly admired in his life-time, more a great deal than
after his death.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, it has not been less admired
since his death; no authours ever had so much fame in their own
life-time as Pope and Voltaire; and Pope's poetry has been as much
admired since his death as during his life; it has only not been as
much talked of, but that is owing to its being now more distant,
and people having other writings to talk of. Virgil is less talked
of than Pope, and Homer is less talked of than Virgil; but they are
not less admired. We must read what the world reads at the moment.
It has been maintained that this superfoetation, this teeming of
the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature,
because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour
value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are
neglected for want of time, because a man will have more
gratification of his vanity in conversation, from having read
modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity.
But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge
generally diffused; all our ladies read now, which is a great
extension. Modern writers are the moons of literature; they shine
with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients.
Greece appears to me to be the fountain of knowledge; Rome of
elegance.' RAMSAY. 'I suppose Homer's Iliad to be a collection of
pieces which had been written before his time. I should like to
see a translation of it in poetical prose like the book of Ruth or
Job.' ROBERTSON. 'Would you, Dr. Johnson, who are master of the
English language, but try your hand upon a part of it.' JOHNSON.
'Sir, you could not read it without the pleasure of verse.
Dr. Robertson expatiated on the character of a certain nobleman;
that he was one of the strongest-minded men that ever lived; that
he would sit in company quite sluggish, while there was nothing to
call forth his intellectual vigour; but the moment that any
important subject was started, for instance, how this country is to
be defended against a French invasion, he would rouse himself, and
shew his extraordinary talents with the most powerful ability and
animation. JOHNSON. 'Yet this man cut his own throat. The true
strong and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great
things and small. Now I am told the King of Prussia will say to a
servant, "Bring me a bottle of such a wine, which came in such a
year; it lies in such a corner of the cellars." I would have a man
great in great things, and elegant in little things.' He said to
me afterwards, when we were by ourselves, 'Robertson was in a
mighty romantick humour, he talked of one whom he did not know; but
I DOWNED him with the King of Prussia.' 'Yes, Sir, (said I,) you
threw a BOTTLE at his head.'
An ingenious gentleman was mentioned, concerning whom both
Robertson and Ramsay agreed that he had a constant firmness of
mind; for after a laborious day, and amidst a multiplicity of cares
and anxieties, he would sit down with his sisters and he quite
cheerful and good-humoured. Such a disposition, it was observed,
was a happy gift of nature. JOHNSON. 'I do not think so; a man
has from nature a certain portion of mind; the use he makes of it
depends upon his own free will. That a man has always the same
firmness of mind I do not say; because every man feels his mind
less firm at one time than another; but I think a man's being in a
good or bad humour depends upon his will.' I, however, could not
help thinking that a man's humour is often uncontroulable by his
Next day, Thursday, April 30, I found him at home by himself.
JOHNSON. 'Well, Sir, Ramsay gave us a splendid dinner. I love
Ramsay. You will not find a man in whose conversation there is
more instruction, more information, and more elegance, than in
Ramsay's.' BOSWELL. 'What I admire in Ramsay, is his continuing
to be so young.' JOHNSON. 'Why, yes, Sir, it is to be admired. I
value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my
conversation. I am now sixty-eight, and I have no more of it than
at twenty-eight.' BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, would not you wish to know
old age? He who is never an old man, does not know the whole of
human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.' JOHNSON.
'Nay, Sir, what talk is this?' BOSWELL. 'I mean, Sir, the
Sphinx's description of it;--morning, noon, and night. I would
know night, as well as morning and noon.' JOHNSON. 'What, Sir,
would you know what it is to feel the evils of old age? Would you
have the gout? Would you have decrepitude?'--Seeing him heated, I
would not argue any farther; but I was confident that I was in the
right. I would, in due time, be a Nestor, an elder of the people;
and there SHOULD be some difference between the conversation of
twenty-eight and sixty-eight. A grave picture should not be gay.
There is a serene, solemn, placid old age. JOHNSON. 'Mrs.
Thrale's mother said of me what flattered me much. A clergyman was
complaining of want of society in the country where he lived; and
said, "They talk of RUNTS;" (that is, young cows). "Sir, (said
Mrs. Salusbury,) Mr. Johnson would learn to talk of runts:" meaning
that I was a man who would make the most of my situation, whatever
it was.' He added, 'I think myself a very polite man.'
On Saturday, May 2, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds's,
where there was a very large company, and a great deal of
conversation; but owing to some circumstance which I cannot now
recollect, I have no record of any part of it, except that there
were several people there by no means of the Johnsonian school; so
that less attention was paid to him than usual, which put him out
of humour; and upon some imaginary offence from me, he attacked me
with such rudeness, that I was vexed and angry, because it gave
those persons an opportunity of enlarging upon his supposed
ferocity, and ill treatment of his best friends. I was so much
hurt, and had my pride so much roused, that I kept away from him
for a week; and, perhaps, might have kept away much longer, nay,
gone to Scotland without seeing him again, had not we fortunately
met and been reconciled. To such unhappy chances are human
On Friday, May 8, I dined with him at Mr. Langton's. I was
reserved and silent, which I suppose he perceived, and might
recollect the cause. After dinner when Mr. Langton was called out
of the room, and we were by ourselves, he drew his chair near to
mine, and said, in a tone of conciliating courtesy, 'Well, how have
you done?' Boswell. 'Sir, you have made me very uneasy by your
behaviour to me when we were last at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. You
know, my dear Sir, no man has a greater respect and affection for
you, or would sooner go to the end of the world to serve you. Now
to treat me so--.' He insisted that I had interrupted him, which I
assured him was not the case; and proceeded--'But why treat me so
before people who neither love you nor me?' JOHNSON. 'Well, I am
sorry for it. I'll make it up to you twenty different ways, as you
please.' BOSWELL. 'I said to-day to Sir Joshua, when he observed
that you TOSSED me sometimes--I don't care how often, or how high
he 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.--I think this a pretty good image, Sir.'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is one of the happiest I have ever heard.'
The truth is, there was no venom in the wounds which he inflicted
at any time, unless they were irritated by some malignant infusion
by other hands. We were instantly as cordial again as ever, and
joined in hearty laugh at some ludicrous but innocent peculiarities
of one of our friends. BOSWELL. 'Do you think, Sir, it is always
culpable to laugh at a man to his face?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, that
depends upon the man and the thing. If it is a slight man, and a
slight thing, you may; for you take nothing valuable from him.'
When Mr. Langton returned to us, the 'flow of talk' went on. An
eminent authour being mentioned;--JOHNSON. 'He is not a pleasant
man. His conversation is neither instructive nor brilliant. He
does not talk as if impelled by any fulness of knowledge or
vivacity of imagination. His conversation is like that of any
other sensible man. He talks with no wish either to inform or to
hear, but only because he thinks it does not become ------ ------
to sit in a company and say nothing.'
Mr. Langton having repeated the anecdote of Addison having
distinguished between his powers in conversation and in writing, by
saying 'I have only nine-pence in my pocket; but I can draw for a
thousand pounds;'--JOHNSON. 'He had not that retort ready, Sir; he
had prepared it before-hand.' LANGTON. (turning to me,) 'A fine
surmise. Set a thief to catch a thief.'
JOHNSON. 'I shall be at home to-morrow.' BOSWELL. 'Then let us
dine by ourselves at the Mitre, to keep up the old custom, "the
custom of the manor," the custom of the mitre.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, so
it shall be.'
On Saturday, May 9, we fulfilled our purpose of dining by ourselves
at the Mitre, according to old custom. There was, on these
occasions, a little circumstance of kind attention to Mrs.
Williams, which must not be omitted. Before coming out, and
leaving her to dine alone, he gave her her choice of a chicken, a
sweetbread, or any other little nice thing, which was carefully
sent to her from the tavern, ready-drest.
On Tuesday, May 12, I waited on the Earl of Marchmont, to know if
his Lordship would favour Dr. Johnson with information concerning
Pope, whose Life he was about to write. Johnson had not flattered
himself with the hopes of receiving any civility from this
nobleman; for he said to me, when I mentioned Lord Marchmont as one
who could tell him a great deal about Pope,--'Sir, he will tell ME
nothing.' I had the honour of being known to his Lordship, and
applied to him of myself, without being commissioned by Johnson.
His Lordship behaved in the most polite and obliging manner,
promised to tell all he recollected about Pope, and was so very
courteous as to say, 'Tell Dr. Johnson I have a great respect for
him, and am ready to shew it in any way I can. I am to be in the
city to-morrow, and will call at his house as I return.' His
Lordship however asked, 'Will he write the Lives of the Poets
impartially? He was the first that brought Whig and Tory into a
Dictionary. And what do you think of his definition of Excise? Do
you know the history of his aversion to the word transpire?' Then
taking down the folio Dictionary, he shewed it with this censure on
its secondary sense: '"To escape from secrecy to notice; a sense
lately innovated from France, without necessity." The truth was
Lord Bolingbroke, who left the Jacobites, first used it; therefore,
it was to be condemned. He should have shewn what word would do
for it, if it was unnecessary.' I afterwards put the question to
Johnson: 'Why, Sir, (said he,) GET ABROAD.' BOSWELL. 'That, Sir,
is using two words.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, there is no end of this. You
may as well insist to have a word for old age.' BOSWELL. 'Well,
Sir, Senectus.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, to insist always that there
should be one word to express a thing in English, because there is
one in another language, is to change the language.'
I proposed to Lord Marchmont that he should revise Johnson's Life
of Pope: 'So (said his Lordship,) you would put me in a dangerous
situation. You know he knocked down Osborne the bookseller.'
Elated with the success of my spontaneous exertion to procure
material and respectable aid to Johnson for his very favourite
work, The Lives of the Poets, I hastened down to Mr. Thrale's at
Streatham, where he now was, that I might insure his being at home
next day; and after dinner, when I thought he would receive the
good news in the best humour, I announced it eagerly: 'I have been
at work for you to-day, Sir. I have been with Lord Marchmont. He
bade me tell you he has a great respect for you, and will call on
you to-morrow at one o'clock, and communicate all he knows about
Pope.'--Here I paused, in full expectation that he would be pleased
with this intelligence, would praise my active merit, and would be
alert to embrace such an offer from a nobleman. But whether I had
shewn an over-exultation, which provoked his spleen; or whether he
was seized with a suspicion that I had obtruded him on Lord
Marchmont, and humbled him too much; or whether there was any thing
more than an unlucky fit of ill-humour, I know not; but, to my
surprize, the result was,--JOHNSON. 'I shall not be in town to-
morrow. I don't care to know about Pope.' MRS. THRALE.
(surprized as I was, and a little angry,) 'I suppose, Sir, Mr.
Boswell thought, that as you are to write Pope's Life, you would
wish to know about him.' JOHNSON. 'Wish! why yes. If it rained
knowledge I'd hold out my hand; but I would not give myself the
trouble to go in quest of it.' There was no arguing with him at
the moment. Some time afterwards he said, 'Lord Marchmont will
call on me, and then I shall call on Lord Marchmont.' Mr. Thrale
was uneasy at his unaccountable caprice; and told me, that if I did
not take care to bring about a meeting between Lord Marchmont and
him, it would never take place, which would be a great pity. I
sent a card to his Lordship, to be left at Johnson's house,
acquainting him, that Dr. Johnson could not be in town next day,
but would do himself the honour of waiting on him at another time.
I give this account fairly, as a specimen of that unhappy temper
with which this great and good man had occasionally to struggle,
from something morbid in his constitution. Let the most censorious
of my readers suppose himself to have a violent fit of the tooth-
ach, or to have received a severe stroke on the shin-bone, and when
in such a state to be asked a question; and if he has any candour,
he will not be surprized at the answers which Johnson sometimes
gave in moments of irritation, which, let me assure them, is
exquisitely painful. But it must not be erroneously supposed that
he was, in the smallest degree, careless concerning any work which
he undertook, or that he was generally thus peevish. It will be
seen, that in the following year he had a very agreeable interview
with Lord Marchmont, at his Lordship's house; and this very
afternoon he soon forgot any fretfulness, and fell into
conversation as usual.
JOHNSON. 'How foolish was it in Pope to give all his friendship to
Lords, who thought they honoured him by being with him; and to
choose such Lords as Burlington, and Cobham, and Bolingbroke!
Bathurst was negative, a pleasing man; and I have heard no ill of
Marchmont; and then always saying, "I do not value you for being a
Lord;" which was a sure proof that he did. I never say, I do not
value Boswell more for being born to an estate, because I do not
care.' BOSWELL. 'Nor for being a Scotchman?' JOHNSON. 'Nay,
Sir, I do value you more for being a Scotchman. You are a
Scotchman without the faults of a Scotchman. You would not have
been so valuable as you are, had you not been a Scotchman.'
Amongst the numerous prints pasted on the walls of the dining-room
at Streatham, was Hogarth's 'Modern Midnight Conversation.' I
asked him what he knew of Parson Ford, who makes a conspicuous
figure in the riotous group. JOHNSON. 'Sir, he was my
acquaintance and relation, my mother's nephew. He had purchased a
living in the country, but not simoniacally. I never saw him but
in the country. I have been told he was a man of great parts; very
profligate, but I never heard he was impious.' BOSWELL. 'Was
there not a story of his ghost having appeared?' JOHNSON. 'Sir,
it was believed. A waiter at the Hummums, in which house Ford
died, had been absent for some time, and returned, not knowing that
Ford was dead. Going down to the cellar, according to the story,
he met him; going down again he met him a second time. When he
came up, he asked some of the people of the house what Ford could
be doing there. They told him Ford was dead. The waiter took a
fever, in which he lay for some time. When he recovered, he said
he had a message to deliver to some women from Ford; but he was not
to tell what, or to whom. He walked out; he was followed; but
somewhere about St. Paul's they lost him. He came back, and said
he had delivered the message, and the women exclaimed, "Then we are
all undone!" Dr. Pellet, who was not a credulous man, inquired
into the truth of this story, and he said, the evidence was
irresistible. My wife went to the Hummums; (it is a place where
people get themselves cupped.) I believe she went with intention
to hear about this story of Ford. At first they were unwilling to
tell her; but, after they had talked to her, she came away
satisfied that it was true. To be sure the man had a fever; and
this vision may have been the beginning of it. But if the message
to the women, and their behaviour upon it, were true as related,
there was something supernatural. That rests upon his word; and
there it remains.'
I staid all this day* with him at Streatham. He talked a great
deal, in very good humour.
* Wednesday, May 13.--ED.
Looking at Messrs. Dilly's splendid edition of Lord Chesterfield's
miscellaneous works, he laughed, and said, 'Here now are two
speeches ascribed to him, both of which were written by me: and the
best of it is, they have found out that one is like Demosthenes,
and the other like Cicero.'
BOSWELL. 'Is not modesty natural?' JOHNSON. 'I cannot say, Sir,
as we find no people quite in a state of nature; but I think the
more they are taught, the more modest they are. The French are a
gross, ill-bred, untaught people; a lady there will spit on the
floor and rub it with her foot. What I gained by being in France
was, learning to be better satisfied with my own country. Time may
be employed to more advantage from nineteen to twenty-four almost
in any way than in travelling; when you set travelling against mere
negation, against doing nothing, it is better to be sure; but how
much more would a young man improve were he to study during those
years. Indeed, if a young man is wild, and must run after women
and bad company, it is better this should be done abroad, as, on
his return, he can break off such connections, and begin at home a
new man, with a character to form, and acquaintances to make. How
little does travelling supply to the conversation of any man who
has travelled; how little to Beauclerk!' BOSWELL. 'What say you
to Lord ------?' JOHNSON. 'I never but once heard him talk of
what he had seen, and that was of a large serpent in one of the
Pyramids of Egypt.' BOSWELL. 'Well, I happened to hear him tell
the same thing, which made me mention him.'
I talked of a country life. JOHNSON. 'Were I to live in the
country, I would not devote myself to the acquisition of
popularity; I would live in a much better way, much more happily; I
would have my time at my own command.' BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, is it
not a sad thing to be at a distance from all our literary friends?'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, you will by and by have enough of this
conversation, which now delights you so much.'
As he was a zealous friend of subordination, he was at all times
watchful to repress the vulgar cant against the manners of the
great; 'High people, Sir, (said he,) are the best; take a hundred
ladies of quality, you'll find them better wives, better mothers,
more willing to sacrifice their own pleasure to their children than
a hundred other women. Tradeswomen (I mean the wives of tradesmen)
in the city, who are worth from ten to fifteen thousand pounds, are
the worst creatures upon the earth, grossly ignorant, and thinking
viciousness fashionable. Farmers, I think, are often worthless
fellows. Few lords will cheat; and, if they do, they'll be ashamed
of it: farmers cheat and are not ashamed of it: they have all the
sensual vices too of the nobility, with cheating into the bargain.
There is as much fornication and adultery among farmers as amongst
noblemen.' BOSWELL. 'The notion of the world, Sir, however is,
that the morals of women of quality are worse than those in lower
stations.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, the licentiousness of one woman of
quality makes more noise than that of a number of women in lower
stations; then, Sir, you are to consider the malignity of women in
the city against women of quality, which will make them believe any
thing of them, such as that they call their coachmen to bed. No,
Sir, so far as I have observed, the higher in rank, the richer
ladies are, they are the better instructed and the more virtuous.'
On Tuesday, May 19, I was to set out for Scotland in the evening.
He was engaged to dine with me at Mr. Dilly's, I waited upon him to
remind him of his appointment and attend him thither; he gave me
some salutary counsel, and recommended vigorous resolution against
any deviation from moral duty. BOSWELL. 'But you would not have
me to bind myself by a solemn obligation?' JOHNSON. (much
agitated,) 'What! a vow--O, no, Sir, a vow is a horrible thing, it
is a snare for sin. The man who cannot go to Heaven without a vow--
may go--' Here, standing erect, in the middle of his library, and
rolling grand, his pause was truly a curious compound of the solemn
and the ludicrous; he half-whistled in his usual way, when
pleasant, and he paused, as if checked by religious awe. Methought
he would have added--to Hell--but was restrained. I humoured the
dilemma. 'What! Sir, (said I,) In caelum jusseris ibit?' alluding
to his imitation of it,--
'And bid him go to Hell, to Hell he goes.'
We had a quiet comfortable meeting at Mr. Dilly's; nobody there but
ourselves. My illustrious friend and I parted with assurances of
Mr. Langton has been pleased, at my request, to favour me with some
particulars of Dr. Johnson's visit to Warley-camp, where this
gentleman was at the time stationed as a Captain in the
Lincolnshire militia. I shall give them in his own words in a
letter to me.
'It was in the summer of the year 1778, that he complied with my
invitation to come down to the Camp at Warley, and he staid with me
about a week; the scene appeared, notwithstanding a great degree of
ill health that he seemed to labour under, to interest and amuse
him, as agreeing with the disposition that I believe you know he
constantly manifested towards enquiring into subjects of the
military kind. He sate, with a patient degree of attention, to
observe the proceedings of a regimental court-martial, that
happened to be called, in the time of his stay with us; and one
night, as late as at eleven o'clock, he accompanied the Major of
the regiment in going what are styled the Rounds, where he might
observe the forms of visiting the guards, for the seeing that they
and their sentries are ready in their duty on their several posts.
He took occasion to converse at times on military topicks, one in
particular, that I see the mention of, in your Journal of a Tour to
the Hebrides, which lies open before me, as to gun-powder; which he
spoke of to the same effect, in part, that you relate.
'On one occasion, when the regiment were going through their
exercise, he went quite close to the men at one of the extremities
of it, and watched all their practices attentively; and, when he
came away, his remark was, "The men indeed do load their muskets
and fire with wonderful celerity." He was likewise particular in
requiring to know what was the weight of the musquet balls in use,
and within what distance they might be expected to take effect when
'In walking among the tents, and observing the difference between
those of the officers and private men, he said that the superiority
of accommodation of the better conditions of life, to that of the
inferiour ones, was never exhibited to him in so distinct a view.
The civilities paid to him in the camp were, from the gentlemen of
the Lincolnshire regiment, one of the officers of which
accommodated him with a tent in which he slept; and from General
Hall, who very courteously invited him to dine with him, where he
appeared to be very well pleased with his entertainment, and the
civilities he received on the part of the General; the attention
likewise, of the General's aide-de-camp, Captain Smith, seemed to
be very welcome to him, as appeared by their engaging in a great
deal of discourse together.'
We surely cannot but admire the benevolent exertions of this great
and good man, especially when we consider how grievously he was
afflicted with bad health, and how uncomfortable his home was made
by the perpetual jarring of those whom he charitably accommodated
under his roof. He has sometimes suffered me to talk jocularly of
his group of females, and call them his Seraglio. He thus mentions
them, together with honest Levett, in one of his letters to Mrs.
Thrale: 'Williams hates every body; Levett hates Desmoulins, and
does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll* loves
none of them.'**
* Miss Carmichael.
** A year later he wrote: At Bolt-court there is much malignity,
but of late little hostility.'--ED.
In 1779, Johnson gave the world a luminous proof that the vigour of
his mind in all its faculties, whether memory, judgement, or
imagination, was not in the least abated; for this year came out
the first four volumes of his Prefaces, biographical and critical,
to the most eminent of the English Poets, published by the
booksellers of London. The remaining volumes came out in the year
1780. The Poets were selected by the several booksellers who had
the honorary copy right, which is still preserved among them by
mutual compact, notwithstanding the decision of the House of Lords
against the perpetuity of Literary Property. We have his own
authority, that by his recommendation the poems of Blackmore,
Watts, Pomfret, and Yalden, were added to the collection.
On the 22nd of January, I wrote to him on several topicks, and
mentioned that as he had been so good as to permit me to have the
proof sheets of his Lives of the Poets, I had written to his
servant, Francis, to take care of them for me.
On the 23rd of February I wrote to him again, complaining of his
silence, as I had heard he was ill, and had written to Mr. Thrale,
for information concerning him; and I announced my intention of
soon being again in London.
'TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
'DEAR SIR,--Why should you take such delight to make a bustle, to
write to Mr. Thrale that I am negligent, and to Francis to do what
is so very unnecessary. Thrale, you may be sure, cared not about
it; and I shall spare Francis the trouble, by ordering a set both
of the Lives and Poets to dear Mrs. Boswell,* in acknowledgement of
her marmalade. Persuade her to accept them, and accept them
kindly. If I thought she would receive them scornfully, I would
send them to Miss Boswell, who, I hope, has yet none of her mamma's
ill-will to me. . . .
'Mrs. Thrale waits in the coach. I am, dear Sir, &c.,
'March 13, 1779.'
* He sent a set elegantly bound and gilt, which was received as a
very handsome present.--BOSWELL
This letter crossed me on the road to London, where I arrived on
Monday, March 15, and next morning at a late hour, found Dr.
Johnson sitting over his tea, attended by Mrs. Desmoulins, Mr.
Levett, and a clergyman, who had come to submit some poetical
pieces to his revision. It is wonderful what a number and variety
of writers, some of them even unknown to him, prevailed on his
good-nature to look over their works, and suggest corrections and
improvements. My arrival interrupted for a little while the
important business of this true representative of Bayes; upon its
being resumed, I found that the subject under immediate
consideration was a tanslation, yet in manuscript, of the Carmen
Seculare of Horace, which had this year been set to musick, and
performed as a publick entertainment in London, for the joint
benefit of monsieur Philidor and Signor Baretti. When Johnson had
done reading, the authour asked him bluntly, 'If upon the whole it
was a good translation?' Johnson, whose regard for truth was
uncommonly strict, seemed to be puzzled for a moment, what answer
to make; as he certainly could not honestly commend the
performance: with exquisite address he evaded the question thus,
'Sir, I do not say that it may not be made a very good
translation.' Here nothing whatever in favour of the performance
was affirmed, and yet the writer was not shocked. A printed Ode to
the Warlike Genius of Britain, came next in review; the bard was a
lank bony figure, with short black hair; he was writhing himself in
agitation, while Johnson read, and shewing his teeth in a grin of
earnestness, exclaimed in broken sentences, and in a keen sharp
tone, 'Is that poetry, Sir?--Is it Pindar?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir,
there is here a great deal of what is called poetry.' Then,
turning to me, the poet cried, 'My muse has not been long upon the
town, and (pointing to the Ode) it trembles under the hand of the
great critick.' Johnson, in a tone of displeasure, asked him, 'Why
do you praise Anson?' I did not trouble him by asking his reason
for this question. He proceeded, 'Here is an errour, Sir; you have
made Genius feminine.' 'Palpable, Sir; (cried the enthusiast,) I
know it. But (in a lower tone,) it was to pay a compliment to the
Duchess of Devonshire, with which her Grace was pleased. She is
walking across Coxheath, in the military uniform, and I suppose her
to be the Genius of Britain.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, you are giving a
reason for it; but that will not make it right. You may have a
reason why two and two should make five; but they will still make
Although I was several times with him in the course of the
following days, such it seems were my occupations, or such my
negligence, that I have preserved no memorial of his conversation
till Friday, March 26, when I visited him. He said he expected to
be attacked on account of his Lives of the Poets. 'However (said
he,) I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst
thing you can do to an authour is to be silent as to his works. An
assault upon a town is a bad thing; but starving it is still worse;
an assault may be unsuccessful; you may have more men killed than
you kill; but if you starve the town, you are sure of victory.'
Talking of a friend of ours associating with persons of very
discordant principles and characters; I said he was a very
universal man, quite a man of the world. JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; but
one may be so much a man of the world as to be nothing in the
world. I remember a passage in Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield,
which he was afterwards fool enough to expunge: "I do not love a
man who is zealous for nothing."' BOSWELL. 'That was a fine
passage.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir: there was another fine passage too,
which be struck out: "When I was a young man, being anxious to
distinguish myself, I was perpetually starting new propositions.
But I soon gave this over; for, I found that generally what was new
was false."' I said I did not like to sit with people of whom I
had not a good opinion. JOHNSON. 'But you must not indulge your
delicacy too much; or you will be a tete-a-tete man all your life.'
During my stay in London this spring, I find I was unaccountably
negligent in preserving Johnson's sayings, more so than at any time
when I was happy enough to have an opportunity of hearing his
wisdom and wit. There is no help for it now. I must content
myself with presenting such scraps as I have. But I am
nevertheless ashamed and vexed to think how much has been lost. It
is not that there was a bad crop this year; but that I was not
sufficiently careful in gathering it in. I, therefore, in some
instances can only exhibit a few detached fragments.
Talking of the wonderful concealment of the authour of the
celebrated letters signed Junius; he said, 'I should have believed
Burke to be Junius, because I know no man but Burke who is capable
of writing these letters; but Burke spontaneously denied it to me.
The case would have been different had I asked him if he was the
authour; a man so questioned, as to an anonymous publication, may
think he has a right to deny it.'
On Wednesday, March 31, when I visited him, and confessed an excess
of which I had very seldom been guilty; that I had spent a whole
night in playing at cards, and that I could not look back on it
with satisfaction; instead of a harsh animadversion, he mildly
said, 'Alas, Sir, on how few things can we look back with
On Friday, April 2, being Good-Friday, I visited him in the morning
as usual; and finding that we insensibly fell into a train of
ridicule upon the foibles of one of our friends, a very worthy man,
I, by way of a check, quoted some good admonition from The
Government of the Tongue, that very pious book. It happened also
remarkably enough, that the subject of the sermon preached to us
to-day by Dr. Burrows, the rector of St. Clement Danes, was the
certainty that at the last day we must give an account of 'the
deeds done in the body;' and, amongst various acts of culpability
he mentioned evil-speaking. As we were moving slowly along in the
crowd from church, Johnson jogged my elbow, and said, 'Did you
attend to the sermon?' 'Yes, Sir, (said I,) it was very applicable
to US.' He, however, stood upon the defensive. 'Why, Sir, the
sense of ridicule is given us, and may be lawfully used. The
authour of The Government of the Tongue would have us treat all men
In the interval between morning and evening service, he endeavoured
to employ himself earnestly in devotional exercises; and as he has
mentioned in his Prayers and Meditations, gave me Les Pensees de
Paschal, that I might not interrupt him. I preserve the book with
reverence. His presenting it to me is marked upon it with his own
hand, and I have found in it a truly divine unction. We went to
church again in the afternoon.
On Wednesday, April 7, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds's.
I have not marked what company was there. Johnson harangued upon
the qualities of different liquors; and spoke with great contempt
of claret, as so weak, that a man would be drowned by it before it
made him drunk.' He was persuaded to drink one glass of it, that
he might judge, not from recollection, which might be dim, but from
immediate sensation. He shook his head, and said, 'Poor stuff!
No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who
aspires to be a hero (smiling), must drink brandy. In the first
place, the flavour of brandy is most grateful to the palate; and
then brandy will do soonest for a man what drinking CAN do for him.
There are, indeed, few who are able to drink brandy. That is a
power rather to be wished for than attained. And yet, (proceeded
he,) as in all pleasure hope is a considerable part, I know not but
fruition comes too quick by brandy. Florence wine I think the
worst; it is wine only to the eye; it is wine neither while you are
drinking it, nor after you have drunk it; it neither pleases the
taste, nor exhilarates the spirits.' I reminded him how heartily
he and I used to drink wine together, when we were first
acquainted; and how I used to have a head-ache after sitting up
with him. He did not like to have this recalled, or, perhaps,
thinking that I boasted improperly, resolved to have a witty stroke
at me: 'Nay, Sir, it was not the WINE that made your head ache, but
the SENSE that I put into it.' BOSWELL. 'What, Sir! will sense
make the head ache?' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, (with a smile,) when it
is not used to it.'--No man who has a true relish of pleasantry
could be offended at this; especially if Johnson in a long intimacy
had given him repeated proofs of his regard and good estimation. I
used to say, that as he had given me a thousand pounds in praise,
he had a good right now and then to take a guinea from me.
On Thursday, April 8, I dined with him at Mr. Allan Ramsay's, with
Lord Graham and some other company. We talked of Shakspeare's
witches. JOHNSON. 'They are beings of his own creation; they are
a compound of malignity and meanness, without any abilities; and
are quite different from the Italian magician. King James says in
his Daemonology, 'Magicians command the devils: witches are their
servants. The Italian magicians are elegant beings.' RAMSAY.
'Opera witches, not Drury-lane witches.' Johnson observed, that
abilities might be employed in a narrow sphere, as in getting
money, which he said he believed no man could do, without vigorous
parts, though concentrated to a point. RAMSAY. 'Yes, like a
strong horse in a mill; he pulls better.'
Lord Graham, while he praised the beauty of Lochlomond, on the
banks of which is his family seat, complained of the climate, and
said he could not bear it. JOHNSON. 'Nay, my Lord, don't talk so:
you may bear it well enough. Your ancestors have borne it more
years than I can tell.' This was a handsome compliment to the
antiquity of the House of Montrose. His Lordship told me
afterwards, that he had only affected to complain of the climate;
lest, if he had spoken as favourably of his country as he really
thought, Dr. Johnson might have attacked it. Johnson was very
courteous to Lady Margaret Macdonald. 'Madam, (said he,) when I
was in the Isle of Sky, I heard of the people running to take the
stones off the road, lest Lady Margaret's horse should stumble.'
Lord Graham commended Dr. Drummond at Naples, as a man of
extraordinary talents; and added, that he had a great love of
liberty. JOHNSON. 'He is YOUNG, my Lord; (looking to his Lordship
with an arch smile,) all BOYS love liberty, till experience
convinces them they are not so fit to govern themselves as they
imagined. We are all agreed as to our own liberty; we would have
as much of it as we can get; but we are not agreed as to the
liberty of others: for in proportion as we take, others must lose.
I believe we hardly wish that the mob should have liberty to govern
us. When that was the case some time ago, no man was at liberty
not to have candles in his windows.' RAMSAY. 'The result is, that
order is better than confusion.' JOHNSON. 'The result is, that
order cannot be had but by subordination.'
On Friday, April 16, I had been present at the trial of the
unfortunate Mr. Hackman, who, in a fit of frantick jealous love,
had shot Miss Ray, the favourite of a nobleman. Johnson, in whose
company I dined to-day with some other friends, was much interested
by my account of what passed, and particularly with his prayer for
the mercy of heaven. He said, in a solemn fervid tone, 'I hope he
SHALL find mercy.'
This day a violent altercation arose between Johnson and Beauclerk,
which having made much noise at the time, I think it proper, in
order to prevent any future misrepresentation, to give a minute
account of it.
In talking of Hackman, Johnson argued, as Judge Blackstone had
done, that his being furnished with two pistols was a proof that he
meant to shoot two persons. Mr. Beauclerk said, 'No; for that
every wise man who intended to shoot himself, took two pistols,
that he might be sure of doing it at once. Lord ------ ------'
cook shot himself with one pistol, and lived ten days in great
agony. Mr. ------, who loved buttered muffins, but durst not eat
them because they disagreed with his stomach, resolved to shoot
himself; and then he eat three buttered muffins for breakfast,
before shooting himself, knowing that he should not be troubled
with indigestion: HE had two charged pistols; one was found lying
charged upon the table by him, after he had shot himself with the
other.' 'Well, (said Johnson, with an air of triumph,) you see
here one pistol was sufficient.' Beauclerk replied smartly,
'Because it happened to kill him.' And either then or a very
little afterwards, being piqued at Johnson's triumphant remark,
added, 'This is what you don't know, and I do.' There was then a
cessation of the dispute; and some minutes intervened, during
which, dinner and the glass went on cheerfully; when Johnson
suddenly and abruptly exclaimed, 'Mr. Beauclerk, how came you to
talk so petulantly to me, as "This is what you don't know, but what
I know"? One thing I know, which YOU don't seem to know, that you
are very uncivil.' BEAUCLERK. 'Because YOU began by being
uncivil, (which you always are.)' The words in parenthesis were, I
believe, not heard by Dr. Johnson. Here again there was a
cessation of arms. Johnson told me, that the reason why he waited
at first some time without taking any notice of what Mr. Beauclerk
said, was because he was thinking whether he should resent it. But
when he considered that there were present a young Lord and an
eminent traveller, two men of the world with whom he had never
dined before, he was apprehensive that they might think they had a
right to take such liberties with him as Beauclerk did, and
therefore resolved he would not let it pass; adding, that 'he would
not appear a coward.' A little while after this, the conversation
turned on the violence of Hackman's temper. Johnson then said, 'It
was his business to COMMAND his temper, as my friend, Mr.
Beauclerk, should have done some time ago.' BEAUCLERK. 'I should
learn of YOU, Sir.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, you have given ME
opportunities enough of learning, when I have been in YOUR company.
No man loves to be treated with contempt.' BEAUCLERK. (with a
polite inclination towards Johnson,) 'Sir, you have known me twenty
years, and however I may have treated others, you may be sure I
could never treat you with contempt.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, you have
said more than was necessary.' Thus it ended; and Beauclerk's
coach not having come for him till very late, Dr. Johnson and
another gentleman sat with him a long time after the rest of the
company were gone; and he and I dined at Beauclerk's on the
Saturday se'nnight following.
After this tempest had subsided, I recollect the following
particulars of his conversation:--
'I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is
a sure good. I would let him at first read ANY English book which
happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal
when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He'll
get better books afterwards.'
'To be contradicted, in order to force you to talk, is mighty
unpleasing. You SHINE, indeed; but it is by being GROUND.'
On Saturday, April 24, I dined with him at Mr. Beauclerk's, with
Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Jones, (afterwards Sir William,) Mr.
Langton, Mr. Steevens, Mr. Paradise, and Dr. Higgins. I mentioned
that Mr. Wilkes had attacked Garrick to me, as a man who had no
friend. 'I believe he is right, Sir. [Greek text omitted]--He had
friends, but no friend. Garrick was so diffused, he had no man to
whom he wished to unbosom himself. He found people always ready to
applaud him, and that always for the same thing: so he saw life
with great uniformity.' I took upon me, for once, to fight with
Goliath's weapons, and play the sophist.--Garrick did not need a
friend, as he got from every body all he wanted. What is a friend?
One who supports you and comforts you, while others do not.
Friendship, you know, Sir, is the cordial drop, "to make the
nauseous draught of life go down:" but if the draught be not
nauseous, if it be all sweet, there is no occasion for that drop.'
JOHNSON. 'Many men would not be content to live so. I hope I
should not. They would wish to have an intimate friend, with whom
they might compare minds, and cherish private virtues. One of the
company mentioned Lord Chesterfield, as a man who had no friend.
JOHNSON. 'There were more materials to make friendship in Garrick,
had he not been so diffused.' BOSWELL. 'Garrick was pure gold,
but beat out to thin leaf. Lord Chesterfield was tinsel.'
JOHNSON. 'Garrick was a very good man, the cheerfullest man of his
age; a decent liver in a profession which is supposed to give
indulgence to licentiousness; and a man who gave away, freely,
money acquired by himself. He began the world with a great hunger
for money; the son of a half-pay officer, bred in a family, whose
study was to make four-pence do as much as others made four-pence
halfpenny do. But, when he had got money, he was very liberal.' I
presumed to animadvert on his eulogy on Garrick, in his Lives of
the Poets. 'You say, Sir, his death eclipsed the gaiety of
nations.' JOHNSON. 'I could not have said more nor less. It is
the truth; ECLIPSED, not EXTINGUISHED; and his death DID eclipse;
it was like a storm.' BOSWELL. 'But why nations? Did his gaiety
extend farther than his own nation?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, some
exaggeration must be allowed. Besides, nations may be said--if we
allow the Scotch to be a nation, and to have gaiety,--which they
have not. YOU are an exception, though. Come, gentlemen, let us
candidly admit that there is one Scotchman who is cheerful.'
BEAUCLERK. 'But he is a very unnatural Scotchman.' I, however,
continued to think the compliment to Garrick hyperbolically untrue.
His acting had ceased some time before his death; at any rate he
had acted in Ireland but a short time, at an early period of his
life, and never in Scotland. I objected also to what appears an
anticlimax of praise, when contrasted with the preceding
panegyrick,--'and diminished the public stock of harmless
pleasure!'--'Is not HARMLESS PLEASURE very tame?' JOHNSON. 'Nay,
Sir, harmless pleasure is the highest praise. Pleasure is a word
of dubious import; pleasure is in general dangerous, and pernicious
to virtue; to be able therefore to furnish pleasure that is
harmless, pleasure pure and unalloyed, is as great a power as man
can possess.' This was, perhaps, as ingenious a defence as could
be made; still, however, I was not satisfied.
Talking of celebrated and successful irregular practisers in
physick; he said, 'Taylor was the most ignorant man I ever knew;
but sprightly. Ward the dullest. Taylor challenged me once to
talk Latin with him; (laughing). I quoted some of Horace, which he
took to be a part of my own speech. He said a few words well
enough.' BEAUCLERK. 'I remember, Sir, you said that Taylor was an
instance how far impudence could carry ignorance.' Mr. Beauclerk
was very entertaining this day, and told us a number of short
stories in a lively elegant manner, and with that air of THE WORLD
which has I know not what impressive effect, as if there were
something more than is expressed, or than perhaps we could
perfectly understand. As Johnson and I accompanied Sir Joshua
Reynolds in his coach, Johnson said, 'There is in Beauclerk a
predominance over his company, that one does not like. But he is a
man who has lived so much in the world, that he has a short story
on every occasion; he is always ready to talk, and is never
Soon after this time a little incident occurred, which I will not
suppress, because I am desirous that my work should be, as much as
is consistent with the strictest truth, an antidote to the false
and injurious notions of his character, which have been given by
others, and therefore I infuse every drop of genuine sweetness into
my biographical cup.
'TO DR. JOHNSON.
'MY DEAR SIR,--I am in great pain with an inflamed foot, and
obliged to keep my bed, so am prevented from having the pleasure to
dine at Mr. Ramsay's to-day, which is very hard; and my spirits are
sadly sunk. Will you be so friendly as to come and sit an hour
with me in the evening. I am ever your most faithful, and
affectionate humble servant,
Monday, April 26.'
'TO MR. BOSWELL.
'Mr. Johnson laments the absence of Mr. Boswell, and will come to
He came to me in the evening, and brought Sir Joshua Reynolds. I
need scarcely say, that their conversation, while they sate by my
bedside, was the most pleasing opiate to pain that could have been
Johnson being now better disposed to obtain information concerning
Pope than he was last year, sent by me to my Lord Marchmont a
present of those volumes of his Lives of the Poets which were at
this time published, with a request to have permission to wait on
him; and his Lordship, who had called on him twice, obligingly
appointed Saturday, the first of May, for receiving us.
On that morning Johnson came to me from Streatham, and after
drinking chocolate at General Paoli's, in South-Audley-street, we
proceeded to Lord Marchmont's in Curzon-street. His Lordship met
us at the door of his library, and with great politeness said to
Johnson, 'I am not going to make an encomium upon MYSELF, by
telling you the high respect I have for YOU, Sir.' Johnson was
exceedingly courteous; and the interview, which lasted about two
hours, during which the Earl communicated his anecdotes of Pope,
was as agreeable as I could have wished. When we came out, I said
to Johnson, that considering his Lordship's civility, I should have
been vexed if he had again failed to come. 'Sir, (said he,) I
would rather have given twenty pounds than not have come.' I
accompanied him to Streatham, where we dined, and returned to town
in the evening.
He had, before I left London, resumed the conversation concerning
the appearance of a ghost at Newcastle upon Tyne, which Mr. John
Wesley believed, but to which Johnson did not give credit. I was,
however, desirous to examine the question closely, and at the same
time wished to be made acquainted with Mr. John Wesley; for though
I differed from him in some points, I admired his various talents,
and loved his pious zeal. At my request, therefore, Dr. Johnson
gave me a letter of introduction to him.
'TO THE REVEREND MR. JOHN WESLEY.
'SIR,--Mr. Boswell, a gentleman who has been long known to me, is
desirous of being known to you, and has asked this recommendation,
which I give him with great willingness, because I think it very
much to be wished that worthy and religious men should be
acquainted with each other. I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
'May 3, 1779.'
Mr. Wesley being in the course of his ministry at Edinburgh, I
presented this letter to him, and was very politely received. I
begged to have it returned to me, which was accordingly done. His
state of the evidence as to the ghost did not satisfy me.
My readers will not be displeased at being told every slight
circumstance of the manner in which Dr. Johnson contrived to amuse
his solitary hours. He sometimes employed himself in chymistry,
sometimes in watering and pruning a vine, sometimes in small
experiments, at which those who may smile, should recollect that
there are moments which admit of being soothed only by trifles.*
* In one of his manuscript Diaries, there is the following entry,
which marks his curious minute attention: 'July 26, 1768. I shaved
my nail by accident in whetting the knife, about an eighth of an
inch from the bottom, and about a fourth from the top. This I
measure that I may know the growth of nails; the whole is about
five eighths of an inch.'
Another of the same kind appears, 'Aug. 7, 1779, Partem brachii
dextri carpo proximum et cutem pectoris circa mamillam dextram
rasi, ut notum fieret quanto temporis pili renovarentur.'
And, 'Aug. 15, 1773. I cut from the vine 41 leaves, which weighed
five oz. and a half, and eight scruples:--I lay them upon my
bookcase, to see what weight they will lose by drying.'--BOSWELL.
My friend Colonel James Stuart, second son of the Earl of Bute, who
had distinguished himself as a good officer of the Bedfordshire
militia, had taken a publick-spirited resolution to serve his
country in its difficulties, by raising a regular regiment, and
taking the command of it himself. This, in the heir of the immense
property of Wortley, was highly honourable. Having been in
Scotland recruiting, he obligingly asked me to accompany him to
Leeds, then the head-quarters of his corps; from thence to London
for a short time, and afterwards to other places to which the
regiment might be ordered. Such an offer, at a time of the year
when I had full leisure, was very pleasing; especially as I was to
accompany a man of sterling good sense, information, discernment,
and conviviality; and was to have a second crop in one year of
London and Johnson. Of this I informed my illustrious friend, in
characteristical warm terms, in a letter dated the 30th of
September, from Leeds.
On Monday, October 4, I called at his house before he was up. He
sent for me to his bedside, and expressed his satisfaction at this
incidental meeting, with as much vivacity as if he had been in the
gaiety of youth. He called briskly, 'Frank, go and get coffee, and
let us breakfast IN SPLENDOUR.'
On Sunday, October 10, we dined together at Mr. Strahan's. The
conversation having turned on the prevailing practice of going to
the East-Indies in quest of wealth;--JOHNSON. 'A man had better
have ten thousand pounds at the end of ten years passed in England,
than twenty thousand pounds at the end of ten years passed in
India, because you must compute what you GIVE for money; and a man
who has lived ten years in India, has given up ten years of social
comfort and all those advantages which arise from living in
England. The ingenious Mr. Brown, distinguished by the name of
Capability Brown, told me, that he was once at the seat of Lord
Clive, who had returned from India with great wealth; and that he
shewed him at the door of his bed-chamber a large chest, which he
said he had once had full of gold; upon which Brown observed, "I am
glad you can bear it so near your bed-chamber."'
We talked of the state of the poor in London.--JOHNSON. 'Saunders
Welch, the Justice, who was once High-Constable of Holborn, and had
the best opportunities of knowing the state of the poor, told me,
that I under-rated the number, when I computed that twenty a week,
that is, above a thousand a year, died of hunger; not absolutely of
immediate hunger; but of the wasting and other diseases which are
the consequences of hunger. This happens only in so large a place
as London, where people are not known. What we are told about the
great sums got by begging is not true: the trade is overstocked.
And, you may depend upon it, there are many who cannot get work. A
particular kind of manufacture fails: those who have been used to
work at it, can, for some time, work at nothing else. You meet a
man begging; you charge him with idleness: he says, "I am willing
to labour. Will you give me work?"--"I cannot."--"Why, then you
have no right to charge me with idleness."' We left Mr. Strahan's
at seven, as Johnson had said he intended to go to evening prayers.
As we walked along, he complained of a little gout in his toe, and
said, 'I shan't go to prayers to-night; I shall go to-morrow:
Whenever I miss church on a Sunday, I resolve to go another day.
But I do not always do it.' This was a fair exhibition of that
vibration between pious resolutions and indolence, which many of us
have too often experienced.
I went home with him, and we had a long quiet conversation.
BOSWELL. 'Why, Sir, do people play this trick which I observe now,
when I look at your grate, putting the shovel against it to make
the fire burn?' JOHNSON. 'They play the trick, but it does not
make the fire burn. THERE is a better; (setting the poker
perpendicularly up at right angles with the grate.) In days of
superstition they thought, as it made a cross with the bars, it
would drive away the witch.'
BOSWELL. 'By associating with you, Sir, I am always getting an
accession of wisdom. But perhaps a man, after knowing his own
character--the limited strength of his own mind, should not be
desirous of having too much wisdom, considering, quid valeant
humeri, how little he can carry.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, be as wise as
you can; let a man be aliis laetus, sapiens sibi:
"Though pleas'd to see the dolphins play,
I mind my compass and my way."
You may be wise in your study in the morning, and gay in company at
a tavern in the evening. Every man is to take care of his own
wisdom and his own virtue, without minding too much what others
He said, 'Dodsley first mentioned to me the scheme of an English
Dictionary; but I had long thought of it.' BOSWELL. 'You did not
know what you were undertaking.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, I knew very
well what I was undertaking,--and very well how to do it,--and have
done it very well.' BOSWELL. 'An excellent climax! and it HAS
availed you. In your Preface you say, "What would it avail me in
this gloom of solitude?" You have been agreeably mistaken.'
In his Life of Milton he observes, 'I cannot but remark a kind of
respect, perhaps unconsciously, paid to this great man by his
biographers: every house in which he resided is historically
mentioned, as if it were an injury to neglect naming any place that
he honoured by his presence.' I had, before I read this
observation, been desirous of shewing that respect to Johnson, by
various inquiries. Finding him this evening in a very good humour,
I prevailed on him to give me an exact list of his places of
residence, since he entered the metropolis as an authour, which I
subjoin in a note.*
* 1. Exeter-street, off Catherine-street, Strand. 2. Greenwich.
3. Woodstock-street, near Hanover-square. 4. Castle-street,
Cavendish-square, No. 6. 5. Strand. 6. Boswell-Court. 7.
Strand, again. 8. Bow-street. 9. Holborn. 10. Fetter-lane.
11. Holborn, again. 12. Gough-square. 13. Staple Inn. 14.
Gray's Inn. 15. Inner Temple-lane, No. 1. 16. Johnson's-court,
No. 7. 17. Bolt-court. No. 8.--BOSWELL.
On Tuesday, October 12, I dined with him at Mr. Ramsay's, with Lord
Newhaven, and some other company, none of whom I recollect, but a
beautiful Miss Graham, a relation of his Lordship's, who asked Dr.
Johnson to hob or nob with her. He was flattered by such pleasing
attention, and politely told her, he never drank wine; but if she
would drink a glass of water, he was much at her service. She
accepted. 'Oho, Sir! (said Lord Newhaven,) you are caught.'
JOHNSON. 'Nay, I do not see HOW I am CAUGHT; but if I am caught, I
don't want to get free again. If I am caught, I hope to be kept.'
Then when the two glasses of water were brought, smiling placidly
to the young lady, he said, 'Madam, let us RECIPROCATE.'
Lord Newhaven and Johnson carried on an argument for some time,
concerning the Middlesex election. Johnson said, 'Parliament may
be considered as bound by law as a man is bound where there is
nobody to tie the knot. As it is clear that the House of Commons
may expel and expel again and again, why not allow of the power to
incapacitate for that parliament, rather than have a perpetual
contest kept up between parliament and the people.' Lord Newhaven
took the opposite side; but respectfully said, 'I speak with great
deference to you, Dr. Johnson; I speak to be instructed.' This had
its full effect on my friend. He bowed his head almost as low as
the table, to a complimenting nobleman; and called out, 'My Lord,
my Lord, I do not desire all this ceremony; let us tell our minds
to one another quietly.' After the debate was over, he said, 'I
have got lights on the subject to-day, which I had not before.'
This was a great deal from him, especially as he had written a
pamphlet upon it.
Of his fellow-collegian, the celebrated Mr. George Whitefield, he
said, 'Whitefield never drew as much attention as a mountebank
does; he did not draw attention by doing better than others, but by
doing what was strange. Were Astley to preach a sermon standing
upon his head on a horse's back, he would collect a multitude to
hear him; but no wise man would say he had made a better sermon for
that. I never treated Whitefield's ministry with contempt; I
believe he did good. He had devoted himself to the lower classes
of mankind, and among them he was of use. But when familiarity and
noise claim the praise due to knowledge, art, and elegance, we must
beat down such pretensions.'
What I have preserved of his conversation during the remainder of
my stay in London at this time, is only what follows: I told him
that when I objected to keeping company with a notorious infidel, a
celebrated friend of ours said to me, 'I do not think that men who
live laxly in the world, as you and I do, can with propriety assume
such an authority. Dr. Johnson may, who is uniformly exemplary in
his conduct. But it is not very consistent to shun an infidel to-
day, and get drunk to-morrow.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, this is sad
reasoning. Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to
be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he
therefore to steal? This doctrine would very soon bring a man to
He, I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to
Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour.
JOHNSON. 'It is the last place where I should wish to travel.'
BOSWELL. 'Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'No,
Sir! Dublin is only a worse capital.' BOSWELL. 'Is not the
Giant's-Causeway worth seeing?' JOHNSON. 'Worth seeing? yes; but
not worth going to see.'
Yet he had a kindness for the Irish nation, and thus generously
expressed himself to a gentleman from that country, on the subject
of an UNION which artful Politicians have often had in view--'Do
not make an union with us, Sir. We should unite with you, only to
rob you. We should have robbed the Scotch, if they had had any
thing of which we could have robbed them.'
Of an acquaintance of ours, whose manners and every thing about
him, though expensive, were coarse, he said, 'Sir, you see in him
A foreign minister of no very high talents, who had been in his
company for a considerable time quite overlooked, happened luckily
to mention that he had read some of his Rambler in Italian, and
admired it much. This pleased him greatly; he observed that the
title had been translated, Il Genio errante, though I have been
told it was rendered more ludicrously, Il Vagabondo; and finding
that this minister gave such a proof of his taste, he was all
attention to him, and on the first remark which he made, however
simple, exclaimed, 'The Ambassadour says well--His Excellency
observes--' And then he expanded and enriched the little that had
been said, in so strong a manner, that it appeared something of
consequence. This was exceedingly entertaining to the company who
were present, and many a time afterwards it furnished a pleasant
topick of merriment: 'The Ambassadour says well,' became a
laughable term of applause, when no mighty matter had been
I left London on Monday, October 15, and accompanied Colonel Stuart
to Chester, where his regiment was to lye for some time.
1780: AETAT. 71.]--In 1780, the world was kept in impatience for
the completion of his Lives of the Poets, upon which he was
employed so far as his indolence allowed him to labour.
His friend Dr. Lawrence having now suffered the greatest affliction
to which a man is liable, and which Johnson himself had felt in the
most severe manner; Johnson wrote to him in an admirable strain of
sympathy and pious consolation.
'TO DR. LAWRENCE.
'DEAR SIR,--At a time when all your friends ought to shew their
kindness, and with a character which ought to make all that know
you your friends, you may wonder that you have yet heard nothing
'I have been hindered by a vexatious and incessant cough, for which
within these ten days I have been bled once, fasted four or five
times, taken physick five times, and opiates, I think, six. This
day it seems to remit.
'The loss, dear Sir, which you have lately suffered, I felt many
years ago, and know therefore how much has been taken from you, and
how little help can be had from consolation. He that outlives a
wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only
mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the
only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with
whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or
anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the
settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands
suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into
a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.
'Our first recourse in this distressed solitude, is, perhaps for
want of habitual piety, to a gloomy acquiescence in necessity. Of
two mortal beings, one must lose the other; but surely there is a
higher and better comfort to be drawn from the consideration of
that Providence which watches over all, and a belief that the
living and the dead are equally in the hands of God, who will
reunite those whom he has separated; or who sees that it is best
not to reunite. I am, dear Sir, your most affectionate, and most
'January 20, 1780.'
On the 2nd of May I wrote to him, and requested that we might have
another meeting somewhere in the North of England, in the autumn of
From Mr. Langton I received soon after this time a letter, of which
I extract a passage, relative both to Mr. Beauclerk and Dr.
'The melancholy information you have received concerning Mr.
Beauclerk's death is true. Had his talents been directed in any
sufficient degree as they ought, I have always been strongly of
opinion that they were calculated to make an illustrious figure;
and that opinion, as it had been in part formed upon Dr. Johnson's
judgment, receives more and more confirmation by hearing what,
since his death, Dr. Johnson has said concerning them; a few
evenings ago, he was at Mr. Vesey's, where Lord Althorpe, who was
one of a numerous company there, addressed Dr. Johnson on the
subject of Mr. Beauclerk's death, saying, "Our CLUB has had a great
loss since we met last." He replied, "A loss, that perhaps the
whole nation could not repair!" The Doctor then went on to speak
of his endowments, and particularly extolled the wonderful ease
with which he uttered what was highly excellent. He said, that "no
man 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." At Mr. Thrale's,
some days before when we were talking on the same subject, he said,
referring to the same idea of his wonderful facility, "That
Beauclerk's talents were those which he had felt himself more
disposed to envy, than those of any whom he had known."
'On the evening I have spoken of above, at Mr. Vesey's, you would
have been much gratified, as it exhibited an instance of the high
importance in which Dr. Johnson's character is held, I think even
beyond any I ever before was witness to. The company consisted
chiefly of ladies, among whom were the Duchess Dowager of Portland,
the Duchess of Beaufort, whom I suppose from her rank I must name
before her mother Mrs. Boscawen, and her elder sister Mrs. Lewson,
who was likewise there; Lady Lucan, Lady Clermont, and others of
note both for their station and understandings. Among the
gentlemen were Lord Althorpe, whom I have before named, Lord
Macartney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lord Lucan, Mr. Wraxal, whose book
you have probably seen, The Tour to the Northern Parts of Europe; a
very agreeable ingenious man; Dr. Warren, Mr. Pepys, the Master in
Chancery, whom I believe you know, and Dr. Barnard, the Provost of
Eton. As soon as Dr. Johnson was come in and had taken a chair,
the company began to collect round him, till they became not less
than four, if not five, deep; those behind standing, and listening
over the heads of those that were sitting near him. The
conversation for some time was chiefly between Dr. Johnson and the
Provost of Eton, while the others contributed occasionally their
On his birth-day, Johnson has this note: 'I am now beginning the
seventy-second year of my life, with more strength of body, and
greater vigour of mind, than I think is common at that age.' But
still he complains of sleepless nights and idle days, and
forgetfulness, or neglect of resolutions. He thus pathetically
expresses himself,--'Surely I shall not spend my whole life with my
own total disapprobation.'
Mr. Macbean, whom I have mentioned more than once, as one of
Johnson's humble friends, a deserving but unfortunate man, being
now oppressed by age and poverty, Johnson solicited the Lord
Chancellor Thurlow, to have him admitted into the Charterhouse. I
take the liberty to insert his Lordship's answer, as I am eager to
embrace every occasion of augmenting the respectable notion which
should ever be entertained of my illustrious friend:--
'TO DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
'London, October 24, 1780.
'I have this moment received your letter, dated the 19th, and
returned from Bath.
'In the beginning of the summer I placed one in the Chartreux,
without the sanction of a recommendation so distinct and so
authoritative as yours of Macbean; and I am afraid, that according
to the establishment of the House, the opportunity of making the
charity so good amends will not soon recur. But whenever a vacancy
shall happen, if you'll favour me with notice of it, I will try to
recommend him to the place, even though it should not be my turn to
nominate. I am, Sir, with great regard, your most faithful and
Being disappointed in my hopes of meeting Johnson this year, so
that I could hear none of his admirable sayings, I shall compensate
for this want by inserting a collection of them, for which I am
indebted to my worthy friend Mr. Langton, whose kind communications
have been separately interwoven in many parts of this work. Very
few articles of this collection were committed to writing by
himself, he not having that habit; which he regrets, and which
those who know the numerous opportunities he had of gathering the
rich fruits of Johnsonian wit and wisdom, must ever regret. I
however found, in conversations with him, that a good store of
Johnsoniana was treasured in his mind; and I compared it to
Herculaneum, or some old Roman field, which when dug, fully rewards
the labour employed. The authenticity of every article is
unquestionable. For the expression, I, who wrote them down in his
presence, am partly answerable.
'There is nothing more likely to betray a man into absurdity than
CONDESCENSION; when he seems to suppose his understanding too
powerful for his company.'
'Having asked Mr. Langton if his father and mother had sat for
their pictures, which he thought it right for each generation of a
family to do, and being told they had opposed it, he said, "Sir,
among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may
not be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a
'John Gilbert Cooper related, that soon after the publication of
his Dictionary, Garrick being asked by Johnson what people said of
it, told him, that among other animadversions, it was objected that
he cited authorities which were beneath the dignity of such a work,
and mentioned Richardson. "Nay, (said Johnson,) I have done worse
than that: I have cited THEE, David."'
'When in good humour he would talk of his own writings with a
wonderful frankness and candour, and would even criticise them with
the closest severity. One day, having read over one of his
Ramblers, Mr. Langton asked him, how he liked that paper; he shook
his head, and answered, "too wordy." At another time, when one was
reading his tragedy of Irene to a company at a house in the
country, he left the room; and somebody having asked him the reason
of this, he replied, "Sir, I thought it had been better."'
'He related, that he had once in a dream a contest of wit with some
other person, and that he was very much mortified by imagining that
his opponent had the better of him. "Now, (said he,) one may mark
here the effect of sleep in weakening the power of reflection; for
had not my judgement failed me, I should have seen, that the wit of
this supposed antagonist, by whose superiority I felt myself
depressed, was as much furnished by me, as that which I thought I
had been uttering in my own character."'
'Of Sir Joshua Reynolds, he said, "Sir, I know no man who has
passed through life with more observation than Reynolds."'
'He repeated to Mr. Langton, with great energy, in the Greek, our
SAVIOUR'S gracious expression concerning the forgiveness of Mary
Magdalen, '[Greek text omitted]. "Thy faith hath saved thee; go in
peace." He said, "the manner of this dismission is exceedingly
'Talking of the Farce of High Life below Stairs, he said, "Here is
a Farce, which is really very diverting when you see it acted; and
yet one may read it, and not know that one has been reading any
thing at all."'
'He used at one time to go occasionally to the green room of Drury-
lane Theatre, where he was much regarded by the players, and was
very easy and facetious with them. He had a very high opinion of
Mrs. Clive's comick powers, and conversed more with her than with
any of them. He said, "Clive, Sir, is a good thing to sit by; she
always understands what you say." And she said of him, "I love to
sit by Dr. Johnson; he always entertains me." One night, when The
Recruiting Officer was acted, he said to Mr. Holland, who had been
expressing an apprehension that Dr. Johnson would disdain the works
of Farquhar; "No, Sir, I think Farquhar a man whose writings have
'His friend Garrick was so busy in conducting the drama, that they
could not have so much intercourse as Mr. Garrick used to profess
an anxious wish that there should be. There might, indeed, be
something in the contemptuous severity as to the merit of acting,
which his old preceptor nourished in himself, that would mortify
Garrick after the great applause which he received from the
audience. For though Johnson said of him, "Sir, a man who has a
nation to admire him every night, may well be expected to be
somewhat elated;" yet he would treat theatrical matters with a
ludicrous slight. He mentioned one evening, "I met David coming
off the stage, drest in a woman's riding-hood, when he acted in The
Wonder; I came full upon him, and I believe he was not pleased."'
'Once he asked Tom Davies, whom he saw drest in a fine suit of
clothes, "And what art thou to-night?" Tom answered, "The Thane of
Ross;" (which it will be recollected is a very inconsiderable
character.) "O brave!" said Johnson.
'Of Mr. Longley, at Rochester, a gentleman of very considerable
learning, whom Dr. Johnson met there, he said, "My heart warms
towards him. I was surprised to find in him such a nice
acquaintance with the metre in the learned languages; though I was
somewhat mortified that I had it not so much to myself, as I should
'Talking of the minuteness with which people will record the
sayings of eminent persons, a story was told, that when Pope was on
a visit to Spence at Oxford, as they looked from the window they
saw a Gentleman Commoner, who was just come in from riding, amusing
himself with whipping at a post. Pope took occasion to say, "That
young gentleman seems to have little to do." Mr. Beauclerk
observed, "Then, to be sure, Spence turned round and wrote that
down;" and went on to say to Dr. Johnson, "Pope, Sir, would have
said the same of you, if he had seen you distilling." JOHNSON.
"Sir, if Pope had told me of my distilling, I would have told him
of his grotto."'
'He would allow no settled indulgence of idleness upon principle,
and always repelled every attempt to urge excuses for it. A friend
one day suggested, that it was not wholesome to study soon after
dinner. JOHNSON. "Ah, Sir, don't give way to such a fancy. At
one time of my life I had taken it into my head that it was not
wholesome to study between breakfast and dinner."'
'Dr. Goldsmith, upon occasion of Mrs. Lennox's bringing out a play,
said to Dr. Johnson at THE CLUB, that a person had advised him to
go and hiss it, because she had attacked Shakspeare in her book
called Shakspeare Illustrated. JOHNSON. "And did not you tell him
he was a rascal?" GOLDSMITH. "No, Sir, I did not. Perhaps he
might not mean what he said." JOHNSON. "Nay, Sir, if he lied, it
is a different thing." Colman slily said, (but it is believed Dr.
Johnson did not hear him,) "Then the proper expression should have
been,--Sir, if you don't lie, you're a rascal."'
'His affection for Topham Beauclerk was so great, that when
Beauclerk was labouring under that severe illness which at last
occasioned his death, Johnson said, (with a voice faultering with
emotion,) "Sir, I would walk to the extent of the diameter of the
earth to save Beauclerk."'
'Johnson was well acquainted with Mr. Dossie, authour of a treatise
on Agriculture; and said of him, "Sir, of the objects which the
Society of Arts have chiefly in view, the chymical effects of
bodies operating upon other bodies, he knows more than almost any
man." Johnson, in order to give Mr. Dossie his vote to be a member
of this Society, paid up an arrear which had run on for two years.
On this occasion he mentioned a circumstance as characteristick of
the Scotch. "One of that nation, (said he,) who had been a
candidate, against whom I had voted, came up to me with a civil
salutation. Now, Sir, this is their way. An Englishman would have
stomached it, and been sulky, and never have taken further notice
of you; but a Scotchman, Sir, though you vote nineteen times
against him, will accost you with equal complaisance after each
time, and the twentieth time, Sir, he will get your vote."'
'Talking on the subject of toleration, one day when some friends
were with him in his study, he made his usual remark, that the
State has a right to regulate the religion of the people, who are
the children of the State. A clergyman having readily acquiesced
in this, Johnson, who loved discussion, observed, "But, Sir, you
must go round to other States than your own. You do not know what
a Bramin has to say for himself. In short, Sir, I have got no
further than this: Every man has a right to utter what he thinks
truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.
Martyrdom is the test."'
'Goldsmith one day brought to THE CLUB a printed Ode, which he,
with others, had been hearing read by its authour in a publick room
at the rate of five shillings each for admission. One of the
company having read it aloud, Dr. Johnson said, "Bolder words and
more timorous meaning, I think never were brought together."
'Talking of Gray's Odes, he said, "They are forced plants raised in
a hot-bed; and they are poor plants; they are but cucumbers after
all." A gentleman present, who had been running down Ode-writing
in general, as a bad species of poetry, unluckily said, "Had they
been literally cucumbers, they had been better things than Odes."--
"Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) for a HOG."'
'It is very remarkable, that he retained in his memory very slight
and trivial, as well as important things. As an instance of this,
it seems that an inferiour domestick of the Duke of Leeds had
attempted to celebrate his Grace's marriage in such homely rhimes
as he could make; and this curious composition having been sung to
Dr. Johnson he got it by heart, and used to repeat it in a very
pleasant manner. Two of the stanzas were these:--
"When the Duke of Leeds shall married be
To a fine young lady of high quality,
How happy will that gentlewoman be
In his Grace of Leeds's good company.
She shall have all that's fine and fair,
And the best of silk and satin shall wear;
And ride in a coach to take the air,
And have a house in St. James's-square."
To hear a man, of the weight and dignity of Johnson, repeating such
humble attempts at poetry, had a very amusing effect. He, however,
seriously observed of the last stanza repeated by him, that it
nearly comprized all the advantages that wealth can give.
'An eminent foreigner, when he was shewn the British Museum, was
very troublesome with many absurd inquiries. "Now there, Sir,
(said he,) is the difference between an Englishman and a Frenchman.
A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows any thing of
the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he
has nothing to say."
'His unjust contempt for foreigners was, indeed, extreme. One
evening, at old Slaughter's coffee-house, when a number of them
were talking loud about little matters, he said, "Does not this
confirm old Meynell's observation--For any thing I see, foreigners
'He said, that once, when he had a violent tooth-ache, a Frenchman
accosted him thus:--"Ah, Monsieur vous etudiez trop."'
'Colman, in a note on his translation of Terence, talking of
Shakspeare's learning, asks, "What says Farmer to this? What says
Johnson?" Upon this he observed, "Sir, let Farmer answer for
himself: I never engaged in this controversy. I always said,
Shakspeare had Latin enough to grammaticise his English."'
'A clergyman, whom he characterised as one who loved to say little
oddities, was affecting one day, at a Bishop's table, a sort of
slyness and freedom not in character, and repeated, as if part of
The Old Man's Wish, a song by Dr. Walter Pope, a verse bordering on
licentiousness. Johnson rebuked him in the finest manner, by first
shewing him that he did not know the passage he was aiming at, and
thus humbling him:
"Sir, that is not the song: it is thus." And he gave it right.
Then looking stedfastly on him, "Sir, there is a part of that song
which I should wish to exemplify in my own life:--
"May I govern my passions with absolute sway!"'
'He used frequently to observe, that men might be very eminent in a
profession, without our perceiving any particular power of mind in
them in conversation. "It seems strange (said he,) that a man
should see so far to the right, who sees so short a way to the
left. Burke is the only man whose common conversation corresponds
with the general fame which he has in the world. Take up whatever
topick you please, he is ready to meet you."'
'Mr. Langton, when a very young man, read Dodsley's Cleone, a
Tragedy, to him, not aware of his extreme impatience to be read to.
As it went on he turned his face to the back of his chair, and put
himself into various attitudes, which marked his uneasiness. At
the end of an act, however, he said, "Come let's have some more,
let's go into the slaughter-house again, Lanky. But I am afraid
there is more blood than brains."
'Snatches of reading (said he,) will not make a Bentley or a
Clarke. They are, however, in a certain degree advantageous. I
would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let
him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from
reading any thing that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it
is above his reach. If that be the ease, the child will soon find
it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction;
which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with
which he takes up the study.'
'A gentleman who introduced his brother to Dr. Johnson was earnest
to recommend him to the Doctor's notice, which he did by saying,
"When we have sat together some time, you'll find my brother grow
very entertaining."--"Sir, (said Johnson,) I can wait."'
'In the latter part of his life, in order to satisfy himself
whether his mental faculties were impaired, he resolved that he
would try to learn a new language, and fixed upon the Low Dutch,
for that purpose, and this he continued till he had read about one
half of Thomas a Kempis; and finding that there appeared no
abatement of his power of acquisition, he then desisted, as
thinking the experiment had been duly tried.'
'Mr. Langton and he having gone to see a Freemason's funeral
procession, when they were at Rochester, and some solemn musick
being played on French horns, he said, "This is the first time that
I have ever been affected by musical sounds;" adding, "that the
impression made upon him was of a melancholy kind." Mr. Langton
saying, that this effect was a fine one,--JOHNSON. "Yes, if it
softens the mind, so as to prepare it for the reception of salutary
feelings, it may be good: but inasmuch as it is melancholy per se,
it is bad."'
'Goldsmith had long a visionary project, that some time or other
when his circumstances should be easier, he would go to Aleppo, in
order to acquire a knowledge as far as might be of any arts
peculiar to the East, and introduce them into Britain. When this
was talked of in Dr. Johnson's company, he said, "Of all men
Goldsmith is the most unfit to go out upon such an inquiry; for he
is utterly ignorant of such arts as we already possess, and
consequently could not know what would be accessions to our present
stock of mechanical knowledge. Sir, he would bring home a grinding
barrow, which you see in every street in London, and think that he
had furnished a wonderful improvement."'
'Greek, Sir, (said he,) is like lace; every man gets as much of it
as he can.'
'Johnson one day gave high praise to Dr. Bentley's verses in
Dodsley's Collection, which he recited with his usual energy. Dr.
Adam Smith, who was present, observed in his decisive professorial
manner, "Very well--Very well." Johnson however added, "Yes, they
ARE very well, Sir; but you may observe in what manner they are
well. They are the forcible verses of a man of a strong mind, but
not accustomed to write verse; for there is some uncouthness in the
'Drinking tea one day at Garrick's with Mr. Langton, he was
questioned if he was not somewhat of a heretick as to Shakspeare;
said Garrick, "I doubt he is a little of an infidel."--"Sir, (said
Johnson,) I will stand by the lines I have written on Shakspeare in
my Prologue at the opening of your Theatre." Mr. Langton
suggested, that in the line
"And panting Time toil'd after him in vain,"
Johnson might have had in his eye the passage in The Tempest, where
Prospero says of Miranda,
"-----She will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her."
Johnson said nothing. Garrick then ventured to observe, "I do not
think that the happiest line in the praise of Shakspeare." Johnson
exclaimed (smiling,) "Prosaical rogues! next time I write, I'll
make both time and space pant."'
'It is well known that there was formerly a rude custom for those
who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they
passed, in the most abusive language they could invent, generally,
however, with as much satirical humour as they were capable of
producing. Addison gives a specimen of this ribaldry, in Number
383 of The Spectator, when Sir Roger de Coverly and he are going to
Spring-garden. Johnson was once eminently successful in this
species of contest; a fellow having attacked him with some coarse
raillery, Johnson answered him thus, "Sir, your wife, under
pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods."
One evening when he and Mr. Burke and Mr. Langton were in company
together, and the admirable scolding of Timon of Athens was
mentioned, this instance of Johnson's was quoted, and thought to
have at least equal excellence.'
'As Johnson always allowed the extraordinary talents of Mr. Burke,
so Mr. Burke was fully sensible of the wonderful powers of Johnson.
Mr. Langton recollects having passed an evening with both of them,
when Mr. Burke repeatedly entered upon topicks which it was evident
he would have illustrated with extensive knowledge and richness of
expression; but Johnson always seized upon the conversation, in
which, however, he acquitted himself in a most masterly manner. As
Mr. Burke and Mr. Langton were walking home, Mr. Burke observed
that Johnson had been very great that night; Mr. Langton joined in
this, but added, he could have wished to hear more from another
person; (plainly intimating that he meant Mr. Burke.) "O, no (said
Mr. Burke,) it is enough for me to have rung the bell to him."'
'Beauclerk having observed to him of one of their friends, that he
was aukward at counting money, "Why, Sir, (said Johnson,) I am
likewise aukward at counting money. But then, Sir, the reason is
plain; I have had very little money to count."'
'Goldsmith, upon being visited by Johnson one day in the Temple,
said to him with a little jealousy of the appearance of his
accommodation, "I shall soon be in better chambers than these."
Johnson at the same time checked him and paid him a handsome
compliment, implying that a man of his talents should be above
attention to such distinctions,--"Nay, Sir, never mind that. Nil
te quaesiveris extra."'
'When Mr. Vesey was proposed as a member of The LITERARY CLUB, Mr.
Burke began by saying that he was a man of gentle manners. "Sir,
(said Johnson,) you need say no more. When you have said a man of
gentle manners; you have said enough."'
'The late Mr. Fitzherbert told Mr. Langton that Johnson said to
him, "Sir, a man has no more right to SAY an uncivil thing, than to
ACT one; no more right to say a rude thing to another than to knock
'Richardson had little conversation, except about his own works, of
which Sir Joshua Reynolds said he was always willing to talk, and
glad to have them introduced. Johnson when he carried Mr. Langton
to see him, professed that he could bring him out into
conversation, and used this allusive expression, "Sir, I can make
him REAR." But he failed; for in that interview Richardson said
little else than that there lay in the room a translation of his
Clarissa into German.'
'Once when somebody produced a newspaper in which there was a
letter of stupid abuse of Sir Joshua Reynolds, of which Johnson
himself came in for a share,--"Pray," said he, "let us have it read
aloud from beginning to end;" which being done, he with a ludicrous
earnestness, and not directing his look to any particular person,
called out, "Are we alive after all this satire!"'
'Of Dr. Goldsmith he said, "No man was more foolish when he had not
a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had."'
'An observation of Bathurst's may be mentioned, which Johnson
repeated, appearing to acknowledge it to be well founded, namely,
it was somewhat remarkable how seldom, on occasion of coming into
the company of any new person, one felt any wish or inclination to
see him again.'
1781: AETAT. 72.]--In 1781 Johnson at last completed his Lives of
the Poets, of which he gives this account: 'Some time in March I
finished the Lives of the Poets, which I wrote in my usual way,
dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour
and haste.' In a memorandum previous to this, he says of them:
'Written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of
The booksellers, justly sensible of the great additional value of
the copy-right, presented him with another hundred pounds, over and
above two hundred, for which his agreement was to furnish such
prefaces as he thought fit.
As he was so good as to make me a present of the greatest part of
the original and indeed only manuscript of this admirable work, I
have an opportunity of observing with wonder, the correctness with
which he rapidly struck off such glowing composition.
The Life of COWLEY he himself considered as the best of the whole,
on account of the dissertation which it contains on the
While the world in general was filled with admiration of Johnson's
Lives of the Poets, there were narrow circles in which prejudice
and resentment were fostered, and from which attacks of different
sorts issued against him. By some violent Whigs he was arraigned
of injustice to Milton; by some Cambridge men of depreciating Gray;
and his expressing with a dignified freedom what he really thought
of George, Lord Lyttelton, gave offence to some of the friends of
that nobleman, and particularly produced a declaration of war
against him from Mrs. Montagu, the ingenious Essayist on
Shakspeare, between whom and his Lordship a commerce of reciprocal
compliments had long been carried on. In this war the smaller
powers in alliance with him were of course led to engage, at least
on the defensive, and thus I for one was excluded from the
enjoyment of 'A Feast of Reason,' such as Mr. Cumberland has
described, with a keen, yet just and delicate pen, in his Observer.
These minute inconveniences gave not the least disturbance to
Johnson. He nobly said, when I talked to him of the feeble, though
shrill outcry which had been raised, 'Sir, I considered myself as
entrusted with a certain portion of truth. I have given my opinion
sincerely; let them shew where they think me wrong.'
I wrote to him in February, complaining of having been troubled by
a recurrence of the perplexing question of Liberty and Necessity;--
and mentioning that I hoped soon to meet him again in London.
'TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
'DEAR SIR,--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? Do not doubt but I shall
be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part
about you but your affectation of distress.