Boswell's Life of Johnson

Edited by Jack Lynch

These selections from James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. are for use in my classes. The text comes from R. W. Chapman's 1904 Oxford edition; the page numbers correspond to those in the Oxford World's Classic edition. I have removed all footnotes, both those by Boswell and by other editors. Please send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch.
[Pages 1234-37]

[1] I have no minute of any interview with Johnson till Thursday, May 15th, when I find what follows: Boswell. “I wish much to be in Parliament, Sir.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, unless you come resolved to support any administration, you would be the worse for being in Parliament, because you would be obliged to live more expensively.” — Boswell. “Perhaps, Sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.” Johnson. “That's cant, Sir. It would not vex you more in the house than in the gallery: publick affairs vex no man.” Boswell. “Have not they vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished?’” Johnson. “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.” Boswell. “I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither eat less, nor slept less.” Johnson. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved at such times.’ You don't mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don't care six-pence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don't think foolishly.”

[2] I talked of living in the country. Johnson. “Don't set up for what is called hospitality: it is a waste of time, and a waste of money; you are eaten up, and not the more respected for your liberality. If your house be like an inn, nobody cares for you. A man who stays a week with another, makes him a slave for a week.” Boswell. “But there are people, Sir, who make their houses a home to their guests, and are themselves quite easy.” Johnson. “Then, Sir, home must be the same to the guests, and they need not come.”

[3] Here he discovered a notion common enough in persons not much accustomed to entertain company, that there must be a degree of elaborate attention, otherwise company will think themselves neglected; and such attention is no doubt very fatiguing. He proceeded: “I would not, however, be a stranger in my own country; I would visit my neighbours, and receive their visits; but I would not be in haste to return visits. If a gentleman comes to see me, I tell him he does me a great deal of honour. I do not go to see him perhaps for ten weeks; then we are very complaisant to each other. No, Sir, you will have much more influence by giving or lending money where it is wanted, than by hospitality.”

[4] On Saturday, May 17, I saw him for a short time. Having mentioned that I had that morning been with old Mr. Sheridan, he remembered their former intimacy with a cordial warmth, and said to me, “Tell Mr. Sheridan, I shall be glad to see him, and shake hands with him.” Boswell. “It is to me very wonderful that resentment should be kept up so long.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, it is not altogether resentment that he does not visit me; it is partly falling out of the habit, — partly disgust, such as one has at a drug that has made him sick. Besides, he knows that I laugh at his oratory.”

[5] Another day I spoke of one of our friends, of whom he, as well as I, had a very high opinion. He expatiated in his praise; but added, “Sir, he is a cursed Whig, a bottomless Whig, as they all are now.”

[6] I mentioned my expectations from the interest of an eminent person then in power; adding, “but I have no claim but the claim of friendship; however, some people will go a great way from that motive.” Johnson. “Sir, they will go all the way from that motive.” A gentleman talked of retiring. “Never think of that,” said Johnson. The gentleman urged, “I should then do no ill.” Johnson. “Nor no good either. Sir, it would be a civil suicide.”

[7] On Monday, May 26, I found him at tea, and the celebrated Miss Burney, the authour of “Evelina” and “Cecilia,” with him. I asked, if there would be any speakers in Parliament, if there were no places to be obtained. Johnson. “Yes, Sir. Why do you speak here? Either to instruct and entertain, which is a benevolent motive; or for distinction, which is a selfish motive.” I mentioned “Cecilia.” Johnson. (With an air of animated satisfaction) “Sir, if you talk of ‘Cecilia,’ talk on.”

[8] We talked of Mr. Barry's exhibition of his pictures. Johnson. “Whatever the hand may have done, the mind has done its part. There is a grasp of mind there, which you find no where else.”

[9] I asked, whether a man naturally virtuous, or one who has overcome wicked inclinations, is not the best. Johnson. “Sir, to you, the man who has overcome wicked inclinations, is not the best. He has more merit to himself: I would rather trust my money to a man who has no hands, and so a physical impossibility to steal, than to a man of the most honest principles. There is a witty satirical story of Foote. He had a small bust of Garrick placed upon his bureau. ‘You may be surprised (said he) that I allow him to be so near my gold; — but you will observe, he has no hands.’”