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 403-11]

[1] After his return to town, we met frequently, and I continued the practice of making notes of his conversation, though not with so much assiduity as I wish I had done. At this time, indeed, I had a sufficient excuse for not being able to appropriate so much time to my journal; for General Paoli, after Corsica had been overpowered by the monarchy of France, was now no longer at the head of his brave countrymen, but having with difficulty escaped from his native island, had sought an asylum in Great-Britain; and it was my duty, as well as my pleasure, to attend much upon him. Such particulars of Johnson's conversation at this period as I have committed to writing, I shall here introduce, without any strict attention to methodical arrangement. Sometimes short notes of different days shall be blended together, and sometimes a day may seem important enough to be separately distinguished.

[2] He said, he would not have Sunday kept with rigid severity and gloom, but with a gravity and simplicity of behaviour.

[3] I told him that David Hume had made a short collection of Scotticisms. “I wonder, (said Johnson,) that he should find them.”

[4] He would not admit the importance of the question concerning the legality of general warrants. “Such a power (he observed) must be vested in every government, to answer particular cases of necessity; and there can be no just complaint but when it is abused, for which those who administer government must be answerable. It is a matter of such indifference, a matter about which the people care so very little, that were a man to be sent over Britain to offer them an exemption from it at a half-penny a piece, very few would purchase it.” This was a specimen of that laxity of talking, which I had heard him fairly acknowledge; for, surely, while the power of granting general warrants was supposed to be legal, and the apprehension of them hung over our heads, we did not possess that security of freedom, congenial to our happy constitution, and which, by the intrepid exertions of Mr. Wilkes, has been happily established.

[5] He said, “The duration of Parliament, whether for seven years or the life of the King, appears to me so immaterial, that I would not give half a crown to turn the scale one way or the other. The habeas corpus is the single advantage which our government has over that of other countries.”

[6] On the 30th of September we dined together at the Mitre. I attempted to argue for the superiour happiness of the savage life, upon the usual fanciful topicks. Johnson. “Sir, there can be nothing more false. The savages have no bodily advantages beyond those of civilised men. They have not better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears. No, Sir; you are not to talk such paradox: let me have no more on't. It cannot entertain, far less can it instruct. Lord Monboddo, one of your Scotch Judges, talked a great deal of such nonsense. I suffered him; but I will not suffer you.” Boswell. “But, Sir, does not Rousseau talk such nonsense?” Johnson. “True, Sir, but Rousseau knows he is talking nonsense, and laughs at the world for staring at him.” Boswell. “How so, Sir?” Johnson. “Why, Sir, a man who talks nonsense so well, must know that he is talking nonsense. But I am afraid, (chuckling and laughing,) Monboddo does not know that he is talking nonsense.” Boswell. “Is it wrong then, Sir, to affect singularity, in order to make people stare?” Johnson. “Yes, if you do it by propagating errour; and, indeed, it is wrong in any way. There is in human nature a general inclination to make people stare; and every wise man has himself to cure of it, and does cure himself. If you wish to make people stare by doing better than others, why make them stare till they stare their eyes out. But consider how easy it is to make people stare, by being absurd. I may do it by going into a drawing-room without my shoes. You remember the gentleman in 'The Spectator,' who had a commission of lunacy taken out against him for his extreme singularity, such as never wearing a wig, but a night-cap. Now, Sir, abstractedly, the night-cap was best: but, relatively, the advantage was overbalanced by his making the boys run after him.”

[7] Talking of a London life, he said, “The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom.” Boswell. “The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir; but that is occasioned by the largeness of it, which is the cause of all the other advantages.” Boswell. “Sometimes I have been in the humour of wishing to retire to a desart.” Johnson. “Sir, you have desart enough in Scotland.”

[8] Although I had promised myself a great deal of instructive conversation with him on the conduct of the married state, of which I had then a near prospect, he did not say much upon that topick. Mr. Seward heard him once say, that “a man has a very bad chance for happiness in that state, unless he marries a woman of very strong and fixed principles of religion.” He maintained to me contrary to the common notion, that a woman would not be the worse wife for being learned; in which, from all that I have observed of Artemisias, I humbly differed from him. That a woman should be sensible and well informed, I allow to be a great advantage; and think that Sir Thomas Overbury, in his rude versification, has very judiciously pointed out that degree of intelligence which is to be desired in a female companion:

“Give me, next good, an understanding wife,
   By Nature wise, not learned by much art;
Some knowledge on her side will all my life
   More scope of conversation impart;
Besides, her inborne virtue fortifie;
They are most firmly good, who best know why.”

[9] When I censured a gentleman of my acquaintance for marrying a second time, as it shewed a disregard of his first wife, he said “Not at all Sir. On the contrary, were he not to marry again, it might be concluded that his first wife had given him a disgust to marriage; but by taking a second wife he pays the highest compliment to the first, by shewing that she made him so happy as a married man, that he wishes to be so a second time.” So ingenious a turn did he give to this delicate question. And yet, on another occasion, he owned that he once had almost asked a promise of Mrs. Johnson that she would not marry again, but had checked himself. Indeed I cannot help thinking, that in his case the request would have been unreasonable; for if Mrs. Johnson forgot, or thought it no injury to the memory of her first love, — the husband of her youth and the father of her children, — to make a second marriage, why should she be precluded from a third, should she be so inclined? In Johnson's persevering fond appropriation of his Tetty, even after her decease, he seems totally to have overlooked the prior claim of the honest Birmingham trader. I presume that her having been married before had, at times, given him some uneasiness; for I remember his observing upon the marriage of one of our common friends, “He has done a very foolish thing, Sir; he has married a widow, when he might have had a maid.”

[10] We drank tea with Mrs. Williams. I had last year the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Thrale at Dr. Johnson's one morning, and had conversation enough with her to admire her talents; and to shew her that I was as Johnsonian as herself. Dr. Johnson had probably been kind enough to speak well of me, for this evening he delivered me a very polite card from Mr. Thrale and her, inviting me to Streatham.

[11] On the 6th of October I complied with this obliging invitation, and found, at an elegant villa, six miles from town, every circumstance that can make society pleasing. Johnson, though quite at home, was yet looked up to with an awe, tempered by affection, and seemed to be equally the care of his host and hostess. I rejoiced at seeing him so happy.

[12] He played off his wit against Scotland with a good humoured pleasantry, which gave me, though no bigot to national prejudices, an opportunity for a little contest with him. I having said that England was obliged to us for gardeners, almost all their good gardeners being Scotchmen; — Johnson. “Why, Sir, that is because gardening is much more necessary amongst you than with us, which makes so many of your people learn it. It is all gardening with you. Things which grow wild here, must be cultivated with great care in Scotland. Pray now (throwing himself back in his chair, and laughing,) are you ever able to bring the sloe to perfection?”

[13] I boasted that we had the honour of being the first to abolish the unhospitable, troublesome, and ungracious custom of giving vails to servants. Johnson. “Sir, you abolished vails, because you were too poor to be able to give them.”

[14] Mrs. Thrale disputed with him on the merit of Prior. He attacked him powerfully; said he wrote of love like a man who had never felt it: his love verses were college verses; and he repeated the song “Alexis shunn'd his fellow swains,” &c. in so ludicrous a manner, as to make us all wonder how any one could have been pleased with such fantastical stuff. Mrs. Thrale stood to her gun with great courage, in defence of amorous ditties, which Johnson despised, till he at last silenced her by saying, “My dear Lady, talk no more of this. Nonsense can be defended but by nonsense.”

[15] Mrs. Thrale then praised Garrick's talents for light gay poetry; and, as a specimen, repeated his song in “Florizel and Perdita,” and dwelt with peculiar pleasure on this line:

“I'd smile with the simple, and feed with the poor.”
Johnson. “Nay, my dear Lady, this will never do. Poor David! Smile with the simple; — What folly is that? And who would feed with the poor that can help it? No, no; let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich.” I repeated this sally to Garrick, and wondered to find his sensibility as a writer not a little irritated by it. To sooth him I observed, that Johnson spared none of us; and I quoted the passage in Horace, in which he compares one who attacks his friends for the sake of a laugh, to a pushing ox, that is marked by a bunch of hay put upon his horns: "fænum habet in cornu.” “Ay, (said Garrick, vehemently,) he has a whole mow of it.”

[16] Talking of history, Johnson said “We may know historical facts to be true, as we may know facts in common life to be true. Motives are generally unknown. We cannot trust to the characters we find in history, unless when they are drawn by those who knew the persons; as those, for instance, by Sallust and by Lord Clarendon.”

[17] He would not allow much merit to Whitfield's oratory. “His popularity, Sir, (said he,) is chiefly owing to the peculiarity of his manner. He would be followed by crowds were he to wear a night-cap in the pulpit, or were he to preach from a tree.”

[18] I know not from what spirit of contradiction he burst out into a violent declamation against the Corsicans, of whose heroism I talked in high terms. “Sir, (said he,) what is all this rout about the Corsicans? They have been at war with the Genoese for upwards of twenty years, and have never yet taken their fortified towns. They might have battered down their walls, and reduced them to powder in twenty years. They might have pulled the walls in pieces, and cracked the stones with their teeth in twenty years.” It was in vain to argue with him upon the want of artillery: he was not to be resisted for the moment.

[19] On the evening of October 10, I presented Dr. Johnson to General Paoli. I had greatly wished that two men, for whom I had the highest esteem, should meet. They met with a manly ease, mutually conscious of their own abilities, and of the abilities of each other. The General spoke Italian, and Dr. Johnson English, and understood one another very well, with a little aid of interpretation from me, in which I compared myself to an isthmus which joins two great continents. Upon Johnson's approach, the General said, “From what I have read of your works, Sir, and from what Mr. Boswell has told me of you, I have long held you in great veneration.” The General talked of languages being formed on the particular notions and manners of a people, without knowing which, we cannot know the language. We may know the direct signification of single words; but by these no beauty of expression, no sally of genius, no wit is conveyed to the mind. All this must be by allusion to other ideas “Sir, (said Johnson,) you talk of language, as if you had never done any thing else but study it, instead of governing a nation.” The General said, "Questo e un troppo gran complimento”; this is too great a compliment. Johnson answered, “I should have thought so, Sir, if I had not heard you talk.” The General asked him what he thought of the spirit of infidelity which was so prevalent. Johnson. “Sir, this gloom of infidelity, I hope, is only a transient cloud passing through the hemisphere, which will soon be dissipated and the sun will break forth with his usual splendour.” “You think then, (said the General,) that they will change their principles like their clothes.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, if they bestow no more thought on principles than on dress, it must be so.” The General said, that “a great part of the fashionable infidelity was owing to a desire of showing courage. Men who have no opportunities of shewing it as to things in this life, take death and futurity as objects on which to display it.” Johnson. “That is mighty foolish affectation. Fear is one of the passions of human nature, of which it is impossible to divest it. You remember that the Emperour Charles V. when he read upon the tomb-stone of a Spanish nobleman, 'Here lies one who never knew fear,' wittily said, 'Then he never snuffed a candle with his fingers.'”

[20] He talked a few words of French to the General; but finding he did not do it with facility, he asked for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote the following note:

"J'ai lu dans la geographie de Lucas de Linda un Pater-noster écrit dans une langue toute à-fait differente de l'Italienne, et de toutes outres lesquelles se derivent du Latin. L'auteur l'appelle linguam Corsicæ rusticam: elle a peut-etre passe, peu à peu; mais elle a certainement prevalue autrefois dans les montagnes et dans la campagne. Le même auteur dit la même chose en parlant de Sardaigne; qu'il y a deux langues dan l'Isle, une des villes, l'autre de la campagne.”

[21] The General immediately informed him that the lingua rustica was only in Sardinia.

[22] Dr. Johnson went home with me, and drank tea till late in the night. He said, “General Paoli had the loftiest port of any man he had ever seen.” He denied that military men were always the best bred men. “Perfect good breeding (he observed) consists in having no particular mark of any profession, but a general elegance of manners; whereas, in a military man, you can commonly distinguish the brand of a soldier, l'homme d'épée.”

[23] Dr. Johnson shunned to-night any discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate: “Sir, (said he,) we know our will is free, and there's an end on't.”