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 411-24]

[1] “He honoured me with his company at dinner on the 16th of October, at my lodgings in Old Bond-street, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Garrick, Dr. Goldsmith, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Bickerstaff, and Mr. Thomas Davies. Garrick played round him with a fond vivacity, taking hold of the breasts of his coat, and, looking up in his face with a lively archness, complimented him on the good health which he seemed then to enjoy; while the sage, shaking his head, beheld him with a gentle complacency. One of the company not being come at the appointed hour, I proposed, as usual upon such occasions, to order dinner to be served; adding, “Ought six people to be kept waiting for one?” “Why, yes, (answered Johnson, with a delicate humanity,) if the one will suffer more by your sitting down, than the six will do by waiting.” Goldsmith, to divert the tedious minutes, strutted about, bragging of his dress, and I believe was seriously vain of it, for his mind was wonderfully prone to such impressions. “Come, come, (said Garrick,) talk no more of that. You are perhaps, the worst — eh, eh!” — Goldsmith was eagerly attempting to interrupt him, when Garrick went on, laughing ironically, “Nay, you will always look like a gentleman; but I am talking of being well or ill drest.” “Well, let me tell you, (said Goldsmith,) when my taylor brought home my bloom-coloured coat, he said, 'Sir, I have a favour to beg of you. When any body asks you who made your clothes, be pleased to mention John Filby, at the Harrow, in Water-lane.'” Johnson. “Why, Sir, that was because he knew the strange colour would attract crowds to gaze at it, and thus they might hear of him, and see how well he could make a coat even of so absurd a colour.”

[2] After dinner our conversation first turned upon Pope. Johnson said, his characters of men were admirably drawn, those of women not so well. He repeated to us, in his forcible melodious manner, the concluding lines of the Dunciad. While he was talking loudly in praise of those lines one of the company ventured to say, “Too fine for such a poem: — a poem on what?” Johnson, (with a disdainful look,) “Why, on dunces. It was worth while being a dunce then. Ah, Sir, hadst thou lived in those days! It is not worth while being a dunce now, when there are no wits.” Bickerstaff observed as a peculiar circumstance, that Pope's fame was higher when he was alive than it was then. Johnson said, his Pastorals were poor things, though the versification was fine. He told us, with high satisfaction, the anecdote of Pope's enquiring who was the authour of his “London,” and saying, he will be soon déterré. He observed, that in Dryden's poetry there were passages drawn from a profundity which Pope could never reach. He repeated some fine lines on love, by the former, (which I have now forgotten,) and gave great applause to the character of Zimri. Goldsmith said, that Pope's character of Addison shewed a deep knowledge of the human heart. Johnson said, that the description of the temple, in “The Mourning Bride,” was the finest poetical passage he had ever read; he recollected none in Shakspeare equal to it. — “But, (said Garrick, all alarmed for 'the God of his idolatry,') we know not the extent and variety of his powers. We are to suppose there are such passages in his works. Shakspeare must not suffer from the badness of our memories.” Johnson, diverted by this enthusiastick jealousy, went on with great ardour. “No, Sir; Congreve has nature”; (smiling on the tragick eagerness of Garrick;) but composing himself, he added, “Sir, this is not comparing Congreve on the whole with Shakspeare on the whole; but only maintaining that Congreve has one finer passage than any that can be found in Shakspeare. Sir, a man may have no more than ten guineas in the world, but he may have those ten guineas in one piece; and so may have a finer piece than a man who has ten thousand pounds: but then he has only one ten-guinea piece. — What I mean is, that you can shew me no passage where there is simply a description of material objects, without any intermixture of moral notions, which produces such an effect.” Mr. Murphy mentioned Shakspeare's description of the night before the battle of Agincourt; but it was observed it had men in it. Mr. Davies suggested the speech of Juliet, in which she figures herself awakening in the tomb of her ancestors. Some one mentioned the description of Dover Cliff. Johnson. “No, Sir; it should be all precipice, — all vacuum. The crows impede your fall. The diminished appearance of the boats, and other circumstances, are all very good description; but do not impress the mind at once with the horrible idea of immense height. The impression is divided; you pass on by computation, from one stage of the tremendous space to another. Had the girl in 'The Mourning Bride' said, she could not cast her shoe to the top of one of the pillars in the temple, it would not have aided the idea, but weakened it.”

[3] Talking of a Barrister who had a bad utterance, some one, (to rouse Johnson,) wickedly said, that he was unfortunate in not having been taught oratory by Sheridan. Johnson. “Nay, Sir, if he had been taught by Sheridan, he would have cleared the room.” GARRICK. “Sheridan has too much vanity to be a good man.” — We shall now see Johnson's mode of defending a man; taking him into his own hands, and discriminating. Johnson. “No, Sir. There is, to be sure, in Sheridan, something to reprehend, and everything to laugh at; but, Sir, he is not a bad man. No, Sir, were mankind to be divided into good and bad, he would stand considerably within the ranks of good. And, Sir, it must be allowed that Sheridan excels in plain declamation, though he can exhibit no character.”

[4] I should, perhaps, have suppressed this disquisition concerning a person of whose merit and worth I think with respect, had he not attacked Johnson so outrageously in his Life of Swift, and, at the same time, treated us his admirers as a set of pigmies. He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it.

[5] Mrs. Montague, a lady distinguished for having written an Essay on Shakspeare, being mentioned; — REYNOLDS. “I think that essay does her honour.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir, it does her honour, but it would do nobody else honour. I have, indeed, not read it all. But when I take up the end of a web, and find it packthread, I do not expect, by looking further, to find embroidery. Sir, I will venture to say, there is not one sentence of true criticism in her book.” GARRICK. “But, Sir, surely it shews how much Voltaire has mistaken Shakspeare, which nobody else has done.” Johnson. “Sir, nobody else has thought it worth while. And what merit is there in that? You may as well praise a schoolmaster for whipping a boy who has construed ill. No, Sir, there is no real criticism in it: none shewing the beauty of thought, as formed on the workings of the human heart.”

[6] The admirers of this Essay may be offended at the slighting manner in which Johnson spoke of it: but let it be remembered, that he gave his honest opinion unbiassed by any prejudice, or any proud jealousy of a woman intruding herself into the chair of criticism; for Sir Joshua Reynolds has told me, that when the Essay first came out, and it was not known who had written it, Johnson wondered how Sir Joshua could like it. At this time Sir Joshua himself had received no information concerning the authour, except being assured by one of our most eminent literati, that it was clear its authour did not know the Greek tragedies in the original. One day at Sir Joshua's table, when it was related that Mrs. Montague, in an excess of compliment to the authour of a modern tragedy, had exclaimed, “I tremble for Shakspeare”; Johnson said, “When Shakspeare has got —— for his rival, and Mrs. Montague for his defender, he is in a poor state indeed.”

[7] Johnson proceeded: “The Scotchman has taken the right method in his 'Elements of Criticism.' I do not mean that he has taught us any thing; but he has told us old things in a new way.” MURPHY. “He seems to have read a great deal of French criticism, and wants to make it his own; as if he had been for years anatomising the heart of man, and peeping into every cranny of it.” GOLDSMITH. “It is easier to write that book, than to read it.” Johnson. “We have an example of true criticism in Burke's 'Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful;' and, if I recollect, there is also Du Bos; and Bouhours, who shews all beauty to depend on truth. There is no great merit in telling how many plays have ghosts in them, and how this Ghost is better than that. You must shew how terrour is impressed on the human heart. — In the description of night in Macbeth, the beetle and the bat detract from the general idea of darkness, — inspissated gloom.”

[8] Politicks being mentioned, he said, “This petitioning is a new mode of distressing government, and a mighty easy one. I will undertake to get petitions either against quarter guineas or half guineas, with the help of a little hot wine. There must be no yielding to encourage this. The object is not important enough. We are not to blow up half a dozen palaces, because one cottage is burning.”

[9] The conversation then took another turn. Johnson. “It is amazing what ignorance of certain points one sometimes finds in men of eminence. A wit about town, who wrote Latin bawdy verses, asked me, how it happened that England and Scotland, which were once two kingdoms, were now one: — and Sir Fletcher Norton did not seem to know that there were such publications as the Reviews.”

[10] “The ballad of Hardyknute has no great merit, if it be really ancient. People talk of nature. But mere obvious nature may be exhibited with very little power of mind.”

[11] On Thursday, October 19, I passed the evening with him at his house. He advised me to complete a Dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland, of which I shewed him a specimen. “Sir, (said he,) Ray has made a collection of north-country words. By collecting those of your country, you will do a useful thing towards the history of the language.” He bade me also go on with collections which I was making upon the antiquities of Scotland. “Make a large book; a folio.” Boswell. “But of what use will it be, Sir?” Johnson. “Never mind the use; do it.”

[12] I complained that he had not mentioned Garrick in his Preface to Shakspeare; and asked him if he did not admire him. Johnson. “Yes, as 'a poor player, who frets and struts his hour upon the stage;' — as a shadow.” Boswell. “But has he not brought Shakspeare into notice?” Johnson. “Sir, to allow that, would be to lampoon the age. Many of Shakspeare's plays are the worse for being acted: Macbeth, for instance.” Boswell. “What, Sir, is nothing gained by decoration and action? Indeed, I do wish that you had mentioned Garrick.” Johnson. “My dear Sir, had I mentioned him, I must have mentioned many more; Mrs. Pritchard, Mrs. Cibber, — nay, and Mr. Cibber too; he too altered Shakspeare.” Boswell. “You have read his apology, Sir?” Johnson. “Yes, it is very entertaining. But as for Cibber himself, taking from his conversation all that he ought not to have said, he was a poor creature. I remember when he brought me one of his Odes to have my opinion of it, I could not bear such nonsense, and would not let him read it to the end; so little respect had I for that great man! (laughing.) Yet I remember Richardson wondering that I could treat him with familiarity.”

[13] I mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. Johnson. “Most of them, Sir, have never thought at all.” Boswell. “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson. “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: “I know not (said he,) whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.”

[14] Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others; — Johnson, “Why, Sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, Sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good; more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.” Boswell. “But suppose now, Sir, that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.” Johnson. “I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.” Boswell. “Would you eat your dinner that day, Sir?” Johnson. “Yes, Sir; and eat it as if he were eating it with me. Why, there's Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up, for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plum-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetick feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.”

[15] I told him that I had dined lately at Foote's, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern he felt on account of "This sad affair of Baretti,” begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. Johnson. “Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep: nor does he know himself. And as to his not sleeping, Sir; Tom Davies is a very great man; Tom has been upon the stage and knows how to do those things: I have not been upon the stage, and cannot do those things.” Boswell. “I have often blamed myself, Sir, for not feeling for others, as sensibly as many say they do.” Johnson. “Sir, don't be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling.”

[16] Boswell. “Foote has a great deal of humour.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir.” Boswell. “He has a singular talent of exhibiting character.” Johnson. “Sir, it is not a talent; it is a vice; it is what others abstain from. It is not comedy, which exhibits the character of a species, as that of a miser gathered from many misers: it is a farce which exhibits individuals.” Boswell. “Did not he think of exhibiting you, Sir?” Johnson. “Sir, fear restrained him; he knew I would have broken his bones. I would have saved him the trouble of cutting off a leg; I would not have left him a leg to cut off.” Boswell. “Pray, Sir, is not Foote an infidel?” Johnson. “I do not know, Sir, that the fellow is an infidel; but if he be an infidel, he is an infidel as a dog is an infidel; that is to say, he has never thought upon the subject.” Boswell. “I suppose, Sir, he has thought superficially, and seized the first notions which occurred to his mind.” Johnson. “Why, then, Sir, still he is like a dog, that snatches the piece next him. Did you never observe that dogs have not the power of comparing? A dog will take a small bit of meat as readily as a large, when both are before him.”

[17] “Buchanan (he observed,) has fewer centos than any modern Latin poet. He not only had great knowledge of the Latin language. but was a great poetical genius. Both the Scaligers praise him.”

[18] He again talked of the passage in Congreve with high commendation, and said, “Shakspeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven: but this does not refute my general assertion. If I come to an orchard, and say there's no fruit here, and then comes a poring man, who finds two apples and three pears, and tells me, 'Sir, you are mistaken, I have found both apples and pears,' I should laugh at him: what would that be to the purpose?”

[19] Boswell. “What do you think of Dr. Young's 'Night Thoughts,' Sir?” Johnson. “Why, Sir, there are very fine things in them.” Boswell. “Is there not less religion in the nation now, Sir, than there was formerly?” Johnson. “I don't know, Sir, that there is.” Boswell. “For instance, there used to be a chaplain in every great family, which we do not find now.” Johnson. “Neither do you find any of the state servants which great families used formerly to have. There is a change of modes in the whole department of life.”

[20] Next day, October 20, he appeared, for the only time I suppose in his life, as a witness in a Court of Justice, being called to give evidence to the character of Mr. Baretti, who having stabbed a man in the street, was arraigned at the Old Bailey for murder. Never did such a constellation of genius enlighten the aweful Sessions House, emphatically called Justice Hall; Mr. Burke, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Beauclerk, and Dr. Johnson: and undoubtedly their favourable testimony had due weight with the Court and Jury. Johnson gave his evidence in a slow, deliberate, and distinct manner, which was uncommonly impressive. It is well known that Mr. Baretti was acquitted.

[21] On the 26th of October, we dined together at the Mitre tavern. I found fault with Foote for indulging his talent of ridicule at the expence of his visitors, which I colloquially termed making fools of his company. Johnson. “Why, Sir, when you go to see Foote, you do not go to see a saint: you go to see a man who will be entertained at your house, and then bring you on a publick stage; who will entertain you at his house, for the very purpose of bringing you on a publick stage. Sir, he does not make fools of his company; they whom he exposes are fools already: he only brings them into action.”

[22] Talking of trade, he observed, “It is a mistaken notion that a vast deal of money is brought into a nation by trade. It is not so. Commodities come from commodities; but trade produces no capital accession of wealth. However, though there should be little profit in money, there is a considerable profit in pleasure, as it gives to one nation the productions of another; as we have wines and fruits, and many other foreign articles, brought to us.” Boswell. “Yes, Sir, and there is a profit in pleasure, by its furnishing occupation to such numbers of mankind.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, you cannot call that pleasure to which all are averse, and which none begin but with the hope of leaving off; a thing which men dislike before they have tried it, and when they have tried it.” Boswell. “But, Sir, the mind must be employed, and we grow weary when idle.” Johnson. “That is, Sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we are all idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another. There is indeed, this in trade: — it gives men an opportunity of improving their situation. If there were no trade, many who are poor would always remain poor. But no man loves labour for itself.” Boswell. “Yes, Sir, I know a person who does. He is a very laborious Judge, and he loves the labour.” Johnson. “Sir, that is because he loves respect and distinction. Could he have them without labour, he would like it less.” Boswell. “He tells me he likes it for itself.” — “Why, Sir, he fancies so because he is not accustomed to abstract.”

[23] We went home to his house to tea. Mrs. Williams made it with sufficient dexterity, notwithstanding her blindness, though her manner of satisfying herself that the cups were full enough, appeared to me a little aukward; for I fancied she put her finger down a certain way, till she felt the tea touch it. In my first elation at being allowed the privilege of attending Dr. Johnson at his late visits to this lady, which was like being e secretioribus consiliis, I willingly drank cup after cup, as if it had been the Heliconian spring. But as the charm of novelty went off, I grew more fastidious; and besides, I discovered that she was of a peevish temper.

[24] There was a pretty large circle this evening. Dr. Johnson was in very good humour, lively, and ready to talk upon all subjects. Mr. Fergusson, the self-taught philosopher, told him of a new invented machine which went without horses: a man who sat in it turned a handle, which worked a spring that drove it forward. “Then, Sir, (said Johnson,) what is gained is, the man has his choice whether he will move himself alone, or himself and the machine too.” Dominicetti, being mentioned, he would not allow him any merit. “There is nothing in all this boasted system. No, Sir; medicated baths can be no better than warm water: their only effect can be that of tepid moisture.” One of the company took the other side, maintaining that medicines of various sorts, and some too of most powerful effect, are introduced into the human frame by the medium of the pores; and, therefore, when warm water is impregnated with salutiferous substances, it may produce great effects as a bath. This appeared to me very satisfactory. Johnson did not answer it; but talking for victory, and determined to be master of the field, he had recourse to the device which Goldsmith imputed to him in the witty words of one of Cibber's comedies: “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” He turned to the gentleman, “Well, Sir, go to Dominicetti, and get thyself fumigated; but be sure that the steam be directed to thy head, for that is the peccant part.” This produced a triumphant roar of laughter from the motley assembly of philosophers, printers, and dependents, male and female.

[25] I know not how so whimsical a thought came into my mind, but I asked, “If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a new-born child with you, what would you do?” Johnson. “Why, Sir, I should not much like my company.” Boswell. “But would you take the trouble of rearing it?” He seemed, as may well be supposed, unwilling to pursue the subject: but upon my persevering in my question, replied, “Why yes, Sir, I would; but I must have all conveniences. If I had no garden, I would make a shed on the roof, and take it there for fresh air. I should feed it, and wash it much, and with warm water to please it, not with cold water to give it pain.” Boswell. “But, Sir, does not heat relax?” Johnson. “Sir, you are not to imagine the water is to be very hot. I would not coddle the child. No, Sir, the hardy method of treating children does no good. I'll take you five children from London, who shall cuff five Highland children. Sir, a man bred in London will carry a burthen, or run, or wrestle, as well as a man brought up in the hardest manner in the country.” Boswell. “Good living, I suppose, makes the Londoners strong.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, I don't know that it does. Our chairmen from Ireland, who are as strong men as any, have been brought up upon potatoes. Quantity makes up for quality.” Boswell. “Would you teach this child that I have furnished you with, anything?” Johnson. “No, I should not be apt to teach it.” Boswell. “Would not you have a pleasure in teaching it?” Johnson. “No, Sir, I should not have a pleasure in teaching it.” Boswell. “Have you not a pleasure in teaching men! — There I have you. You have the same pleasure in teaching men, that I should have in teaching children.” Johnson. “Why, something about that.”

[26] Boswell. “Do you think, Sir, that what is called natural affection is born with us? It seems to me to be the effect of habit, or of gratitude for kindness. No child has it for a parent whom it has not seen.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, I think there is an instinctive natural affection in parents towards their children.”

[27] Russia being mentioned as likely to become a great empire, by the rapid increase of population: — Johnson. “Why, Sir, I see no prospect of their propagating more. They can have no more children than they can get. I know of no way to make them breed more than they do. It is not from reason and prudence that people marry, but from inclination. A man is poor; he thinks, 'I cannot be worse, and so I'll e'en take Peggy.'” Boswell. “But have not nations been more populous at one period than another?” Johnson. “Yes, Sir; but that has been owing to the people being less thinned at one period than another, whether by emigrations, war, or pestilence, not by their being more or less prolifick. Births at all times bear the same proportion to the same number of people.” Boswell. “But, to consider the state of our own country; — does not throwing a number of farms into one hand hurt population?” Johnson. “Why no, Sir; the same quantity of food being produced, will be consumed by the same number of mouths, though the people may be disposed of in different ways. We see, if corn be dear, and butchers' meat cheap, the farmers all apply themselves to the raising of corn, till it becomes plentiful and cheap, and then butchers' meat becomes dear; so that an equality is always preserved. No, Sir, let fanciful men do as they will, depend upon it, it is difficult to disturb the system of life.” Boswell. “But, Sir, is it not a very bad thing for landlords to oppress their tenants, by raising their rents?” Johnson. “Very bad. But, Sir, it never can have any general influence: it may distress some individuals. For, consider this: landlords cannot do without tenants. Now tenants will not give more for land, than land is worth. If they can make more of their money by keeping a shop, or any other way, they do it, and so oblige landlords to let land come back to a reasonable rent, in order that they may get tenants. Land, in England, is an article of commerce. A tenant who pays his landlord his rent, thinks himself no more obliged to him than you think yourself obliged to a man in whose shop you buy a piece of goods. He knows the landlord does not let him have his land for less than he can get from others, in the same manner as the shopkeeper sells his goods. No shopkeeper sells a yard of ribband for six-pence when seven-pence is the current price.” Boswell. “But, Sir, is it not better that tenants should be dependent on landlords?” Johnson. “Why, Sir, as there are many more tenants than landlords, perhaps strictly speaking, we should wish not. But if you please you may let your lands cheap, and so get the value, part in money and part in homage. I should agree with you in that.” Boswell. “So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things.”

[28] He observed, “Providence has wisely ordered that the more numerous men are, the more difficult it is for them to agree in any thing, and so they are governed. There is no doubt, that if the poor should reason, 'We'll be the poor no longer, we'll make the rich take their turn,' they could easily do it, were it not that they can't agree. So the common soldiers, though so much more numerous than their officers, are governed by them for the same reason.”

[29] He said, “Mankind have a strong attachment to the habitations to which they have been accustomed. You see the inhabitants of Norway do not with one consent quit it, and go to some part of America, where there is a mild climate, and where they may have the same produce from land, with the tenth part of the labour. No, Sir; their affection for their old dwellings, and the terrour of a general change, keep them at home. Thus, we see many of the finest spots in the world thinly inhabited, and many rugged spots well inhabited.”