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 596-603]

[1] On Monday, March 27, I breakfasted with him at Mr. Strahan's. He told us, that he was engaged to go that evening to Mrs. Abington's benefit. “She was visiting some ladies whom I was visiting, and begged that I would come to her benefit. I told her I could not hear: but she insisted so much on my coming, that it would have been brutal to have refused her.” This was a speech quite characteristical. He loved to bring forward his having been in the gay circles of life; and he was, perhaps, a little vain of the solicitations of this elegant and fashionable actress. He told us, the play was to be “The Hypocrite,” altered from Cibber's “Nonjuror,” so as to satirize the Methodists. “I do not think (said he,) the character of the Hypocrite justly applicable to the Methodists, but it was very applicable to the Nonjurors. I once said to Dr. Madan, a clergyman of Ireland, who was a great Whig, that perhaps a Nonjuror would have been less criminal in taking the oaths imposed by the ruling power, than refusing them; because refusing them, necessarily laid him under almost an irresistible temptation to be more criminal; for, a man must live, and if he precludes himself from the support furnished by the establishment, will probably be reduced to very wicked shifts to maintain himself.” Boswell. “I should think, Sir, that a man who took the oaths contrary to his principles, was a determined wicked man, because he was sure he was committing perjury, whereas a Nonjuror might be insensibly led to do what was wrong, without being so directly conscious of it.” Johnson. “Why, Sir, a man who goes to bed to his patron's wife is pretty sure that he is committing wickedness.” Boswell. “Did the nonjuring clergyman do so, Sir?” Johnson. “I am afraid many of them did.”

[2] I was startled at this argument, and could by no means think it convincing. Had not his own father complied with the requisition of government, (as to which he once observed to me, when I pressed him upon it, “That, Sir, he was to settle with himself,”) he would probably have thought more unfavourably of a Jacobite who took the oaths:

“—— had he not resembled
My father as he swore. —

[3] Mr. Strahan talked of launching into the great ocean of London, in order to have a chance for rising into eminence; and, observing that many men were kept back from trying their fortunes there, because they were born to a competency, said, “Small certainties are the bane of men of talents”; which Johnson confirmed. Mr. Strahan put Johnson in mind of a remark which he had made to him; “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” “The more one thinks of this, (said Strahan,) the juster it will appear.”

[4] Mr. Strahan had taken a poor boy from the country as an apprentice, upon Johnson's recommendation. Johnson having enquired after him, said, “Mr. Strahan, let me have five guineas on account, and I'll give this boy one. Nay, if a man recommends a boy, and does nothing for him, it is sad work. Call him down.”

[5] I followed him into the court-yard, behind Mr. Strahan's house; and there I had a proof of what I had heard him profess, that he talked alike to all. “Some people tell you that they let themselves down to the capacity of their hearers. I never do that. I speak uniformly, in as intelligible a manner as I can.”

[6] “Well, my boy, how do you go on?” — “Pretty well, Sir; but they are afraid I an't strong enough for some parts of the business.” Johnson. “Why, I shall be sorry for it; for when you consider with how little mental power and corporeal labour a printer can get a guinea a week, it is a very desirable occupation for you. Do you hear, — take all the pains you can; and if this does not do, we must think of some other way of life for you. There's a guinea.”

[7] Here was one of the many, many instances of his active benevolence. At the same time, the slow and sonorous solemnity with which, while he bent himself down, he addressed a little thick short-legged boy, contrasted with the boy's aukwardness and awe, could not but excite some ludicrous emotions.

[8] I met him at Drury-lane play-house in the evening. Sir Joshua Reynolds, at Mrs. Abington's request, had promised to bring a body of wits to her benefit; and having secured forty places in the front boxes, had done me the honour to put me in the group. Johnson sat on the seat directly behind me; and as he could neither see nor hear at such a distance from the stage, he was wrapped up in grave abstraction, and seemed quite a cloud, amidst all the sunshine of glitter and gaiety. I wondered at his patience in sitting out a play of five acts, and a farce of two. He said very little; but after the prologue to “Bon Ton” had been spoken, which he could hear pretty well from the more slow and distinct utterance, he talked on prologue-writing, and observed, “Dryden has written prologues superiour to any that David Garrick has written; but David Garrick has written more good prologues than Dryden has done. It is wonderful that he has been able to write such variety of them.”

[9] At Mr. Beauclerk's, where I supped, was Mr. Garrick, whom I made happy with Johnson's praise of his prologues; and I suppose, in gratitude to him, he took up one of his favourite topicks, the nationality of the Scotch, which he maintained in a pleasant manner, with the aid of a little poetical fiction. “Come, come, don't deny it: they are really national. Why, now, the ADAMS are as liberal-minded men as any in the world: but, I don't know how it is, all their workmen are Scotch. You are, to be sure, wonderfully free from that nationality: but so it happens, that you employ the only Scotch shoeblack in London.” He imitated the manner of his old master with ludicrous exaggeration; repeating, with pauses and half-whistlings interjected,

"Os homini sublime dedit, — cælumque tueri
Jussit, — et erectos ad sidera — tollere vultus”;
looking downwards all the time, and, while pronouncing the four last words, absolutely touching the ground with a kind of contorted gesticulation.

[10] Garrick, however, when he pleased, could imitate Johnson very exactly; for that great actor, with his distinguished powers of expression which were so universally admired, possessed also an admirable talent of mimicry. He was always jealous that Johnson spoke lightly of him. I recollect his exhibiting him to me one day, as if saying, “Davy has some convivial pleasantry about him, but 'tis a futile fellow”; which he uttered perfectly with the tone and air of Johnson.

[11] I cannot too frequently request of my readers, while they peruse my account of Johnson's conversation, to endeavour to keep in mind his deliberate and strong utterance. His mode of speaking was indeed very impressive; and I wish it could be preserved as musick is written, according to the very ingenious method of Mr. Steele, who has shown how the recitation of Mr. Garrick, and other eminent speakers, might be transmitted to posterity in score.

[12] Next day I dined with Johnson at Mr. Thrale's. He attacked Gray, calling him “a dull fellow.” Boswell. “I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry.” Johnson. “Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.” He then repeated some ludicrous lines, which have escaped my memory, and said, “Is not that GREAT, like his Odes?” Mrs. Thrale maintained that his Odes were melodious; upon which he exclaimed,

“Weave the warp, and weave the woof”; —
I added, in a solemn tone,
“‘The winding sheet of Edward's race.’
There is a good line.” — “Ay, (said he,) and the next line is a good one,” (pronouncing it contemptuously; “Give ample verge and room enough.” — “No, Sir, there are but two good stanzas in Gray's poetry, which are in his 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard.'” He then repeated the stanza,
“For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,” &c.
mistaking one word; for instead of precincts he said confines. He added, “The other stanza I forget.”

[13] A young lady who had married a man much her inferiour in rank being mentioned, a question arose how a woman's relations should behave to her in such a situation; and, while I recapitulate the debate, and recollect what has since happened, I cannot but be struck in a manner that delicacy forbids me to express. While I contended that she ought to be treated with an inflexible steadiness of displeasure, Mrs. Thrale was all for mildness and forgiveness, and, according to the vulgar phrase, “making the best of a bad bargain.” Johnson. “Madam, we must distinguish. Were I a man of rank, I would not let a daughter starve who had made a mean marriage; but having voluntarily degraded herself from the station which she was originally entitled to hold, I would support her only in that which she herself had chosen; and would not put her on a level with my other daughters. You are to consider, Madam, that it is our duty to maintain the subordination of civilized society; and when there is a gross and shameful deviation from rank, it should be punished so as to deter others from the same perversion.”

[14] After frequently considering this subject, I am more and more confirmed in what I then meant to express, and which was sanctioned by the authority, and illustrated by the wisdom of Johnson; and I think it of the utmost consequence to the happiness of Society, to which subordination is absolutely necessary. It is weak, and contemptible, and unworthy, in a parent to relax in such a case. It is sacrificing general advantage to private feelings. And let it be considered, that the claim of a daughter who has acted thus, to be restored to her former situation, is either fantastical or unjust. If there be no value in the distinction of rank, what does she suffer by being kept in the situation to which she has descended? If there be a value in that distinction, it ought to be steadily maintained. If indulgence be shown to such conduct, and the offenders know that in a longer or shorter time they shall be received as well as if they had not contaminated their blood by a base alliance, the great check upon that inordinate caprice which generally occasions low marriages, will be removed, and the fair and comfortable order of improved life will be miserably disturbed.

[15] Lord Chesterfield's letters being mentioned, Johnson said, “It was not to be wondered at that they had so great a sale, considering that they were the letters of a statesman, a wit, one who had been so much in the mouths of mankind, one long accustomed virum volitare per ora.

[16] On Friday, March 31, I supped with him and some friends at a tavern. One of the company attempted, with too much forwardness, to rally him on his late appearance at the theatre; but had reason to repent of his temerity. “Why, Sir, did you go to Mrs. Abington's benefit? Did you see?” Johnson. “No, Sir.” “Did you hear?” Johnson. “No, Sir.” “Why, then, Sir, did you go?” Johnson. “Because, Sir, she is a favourite of the publick; and when the publick cares the thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit too.”

[17] Next morning I won a small bet from Lady Diana Beauclerk, by asking him as to one of his particularities, which her Ladyship laid I durst not do. It seems he had been frequently observed at the club to put into his pocket the Seville oranges, after he had squeezed the juice of them into the drink which he made for himself. Beauclerk and Garrick talked of it to me, and seemed to think that he had a strange unwillingness to be discovered. We could not divine what he did with them; and this was the bold question to be put. I saw on his table the spoils of the preceding night, some fresh peels nicely scraped and cut into pieces. “O, Sir, (said I,) I now partly see what you do with the squeezed oranges which you put into your pocket at the Club.” Johnson. “I have a great love for them.” Boswell. “And pray, Sir, what do you do with them? You scrape them it seems, very neatly, and what next?” Johnson. “Let them dry, Sir.” Boswell. “And what next?” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.” Boswell. “Then the world must be left in the dark. It must be said (assuming a mock solemnity,) he scraped them and let them dry, but what he did with them next, he never could be prevailed upon to tell.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, you should say it more emphatically: — he could not be prevailed upon, even by his dearest friends, to tell.”