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 686-701]

[1] I found him in the evening in Mrs. Williams's room. We talked of religious orders. He said, “It is as unreasonable for a man to go into a Carthusian convent for fear of being immoral, as for a man to cut off his hands for fear he should steal. There is, indeed, great resolution in the immediate act of dismembering himself; but when that is once done, he has no longer any merit: for though it is out of his power to steal, yet he may all his life be a thief in his heart. So when a man has once become a Carthusian, he is obliged to continue so, whether he chooses it or not. Their silence, too, is absurd. We read in the Gospel of the apostles being sent to preach, but not to hold their tongues. All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle. I said to the Lady Abbess of a convent, 'Madam, you are here, not for the love of virtue, but the fear of vice.' She said, 'She would remember this as long as she lived.'” I thought it hard to give her this view of her situation, when she could not help it; and, indeed, I wondered at the whole of what he now said; because, both in his “Rambler” and “Idler,” he treats religious austerities with much solemnity of respect.

[2] Finding him still persevering in his abstinence from wine, I ventured to speak to him of it. — Johnson. “Sir, I have no objection to a man's drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences. One of the fathers tells us, he found fasting made him so peevish that he did not practise it.”

[3] Though he often enlarged upon the evil of intoxication, he was by no means harsh and unforgiving to those who indulged in occasional excess in wine. One of his friends, I well remember, came to sup at a tavern with him and some other gentlemen, and too plainly discovered that he had drunk too much at dinner. When one who loved mischief, thinking to produce a severe censure, asked Johnson, a few days afterwards, “Well, Sir, what did your friend say to you, as an apology for being in such a situation?” Johnson answered, “Sir, he said all that a man should say: he said he was sorry for it.”

[4] I heard him once give a very judicious practical advice upon this subject: “A man who has been drinking wine at all freely, should never go into a new company. With those who have partaken of wine with him, he may be pretty well in unison; but he will probably be offensive, or appear ridiculous, to other people.”

[5] He allowed very great influence to education. “I do not deny, Sir, but there is some original difference in minds; but it is nothing in comparison of what is formed by education. We may instance the science of numbers, which all minds are equally capable of attaining: yet we find a prodigious difference in the powers of different men, in that respect, after they are grown up, because their minds have been more or less exercised in it: and I think the same cause will explain the difference of excellence in other things, gradations admitting always some difference in the first principles.”

[6] This is a difficult subject; but it is best to hope that diligence may do a great deal. We are sure of what it can do, in increasing our mechanical force and dexterity.

[7] I again visited him on Monday. He took occasion to enlarge, as he often did, upon the wretchedness of a sea-life. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger. When men come to like a sea-life, they are not fit to live on land.” — “Then (said I) it would be cruel in a father to breed his son to the sea.” Johnson. “It would be cruel in a father who thinks as I do. Men go to sea, before they know the unhappiness of that way of life; and when they have come to know it, they cannot escape from it, because it is then too late to choose another profession; as indeed is generally the case with men, when they have once engaged in any particular way of life.”

[8] On Tuesday, March 19, which was fixed for our proposed jaunt, we met in the morning at the Somerset coffee-house in the Strand, where we were taken up by the Oxford coach. He was accompanied by Mr. Gwyn, the architect; and a gentleman of Merton College, whom he did not know, had the fourth seat. We soon got into conversation; for it was very remarkable of Johnson, that the presence of a stranger had no restraint upon his talk. I observed that Garrick, who was about to quit the stage, would soon have an easier life. Johnson. “I doubt that, Sir.” Boswell. “Why, Sir, he will be Atlas with the burthen off his back.” Johnson. “But I know not, Sir, if he will be so steady without his load. However, he should never play any more, but be entirely the gentleman, and not partly the player: he should no longer subject himself to be hissed by a mob, or to be insolently treated by performers, whom he used to rule with a high hand, and who would gladly retaliate.” Boswell. “I think he should play once a year for the benefit of decayed actors, as it has been said he means to do.” Johnson. “Alas, Sir! he will soon be a decayed actor himself.”

[9] Johnson expressed his disapprobation of ornamental architecture, such as magnificent columns supporting a portico, or expensive pilasters supporting merely their own capitals, “because it consumes labour disproportionate to its utility.” For the same reason he satyrised statuary. “Painting (said he,) consumes labour not disproportionate to its effect; but a fellow will hack half a year at a block of marble to make something in stone that hardly resembles a man. The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.” Here he seemed to me to be strangely deficient in taste; for surely statuary is a noble art of imitation, and preserves a wonderful expression of the varieties of the human frame; and although it must be allowed that the circumstances of difficulty enhance the value of a marble head, we should consider, that if it requires a long time in the performance, it has a proportionate value in durability.

[10] Gwyn was a fine lively rattling fellow. Dr. Johnson kept him in subjection, but with a kindly authority. The spirit of the artist, however, rose against what he thought a Gothick attack, and he made a brisk defence. “What, Sir, you will allow no value to beauty in architecture or in statuary? Why should we allow it then in writing? Why do you take the trouble to give us so many fine allusions, and bright images, and elegant phrases? You might convey all your instruction without these ornaments.” Johnson smiled with complacency; but said, “Why, Sir, all these ornaments are useful, because they obtain an easier reception for truth; but a building is not at all more convenient for being decorated with superfluous carved work.”

[11] Gwyn at last was lucky enough to make one reply to Dr. Johnson, which he allowed to be excellent. Johnson censured him for taking down a church which might have stood many years, and building a new one at a different place, for no other reason but that there might be a direct road to a new bridge; and his expression was, “You are taking a church out of the way, that the people may go in a straight line to the bridge.” — “No, Sir, (said Gwyn,) I am putting the church in the way, that the people may not go out of the way.” Johnson. (with a hearty loud laugh of approbation,) “Speak no more. Rest your colloquial fame upon this.”

[12] Upon our arrival at Oxford, Dr. Johnson and I went directly to University College, but were disappointed on finding that one of the fellows, his friend, Mr. Scott, who accompanied him from Newcastle to Edinburgh, was gone to the country. We put up at the Angel inn, and passed the evening by ourselves in easy and familiar conversation. Talking of constitutional melancholy, he observed, “A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them.” Boswell. “May not he think them down, Sir?” Johnson. “No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness. He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed, take a book, and read, and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise.” Boswell. “Should not he provide amusements for himself? Would it not, for instance, be right for him to take a course of chymistry?” Johnson. “Let him take a course of chymistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of any thing to which he is inclined at the time. Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself. Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' is a valuable work. It is, perhaps, overloaded with quotation. But there is a great spirit and great power in what Burton says, when he writes from his own mind.”

[13] Next morning we visited Dr. Wetherell, Master of University College, with whom Dr. Johnson conferred on the most advantageous mode of disposing of the books printed at the Clarendon press, on which subject his letter has been inserted in a former page. I often had occasion to remark, Johnson loved business, loved to have his wisdom actually operate on real life. Dr. Wetherell and I talked of him without reserve in his own presence. WETHERELL. “I would have given him a hundred guineas if he would have written a preface to his 'Political Tracts,' by way of a Discourse on the British Constitution.” Boswell. “Dr. Johnson, though in his writings, and upon all occasions, a great friend to the constitution both in church and state, has never written expressly in support of either. There is really a claim upon him for both. I am sure he could give a volume of no great bulk upon each, which would comprise all the substance, and with his spirit would effectually maintain them. He should erect a fort on the confines of each.” I could perceive that he was displeased with this dialogue. He burst out, “Why should I be always writing?” I hoped he was conscious that the debt was just, and meant to discharge it, though he disliked being dunned.

[14] We then went to Pembroke College, and waited on his old friend Dr. ADAMS, the master of it, whom I found to be a most polite, pleasing, communicative man. Before his advancement to the headship of his college, I had intended to go and visit him at Shrewsbury, where he was rector of St. Chad's, in order to get from him what particulars he could recollect of Johnson's academical life. He now obligingly gave me part of that authentick information, which, with what I afterwards owed to his kindness, will be found incorporated in its proper place in this work.

[15] Dr. ADAMS had distinguished himself by an able answer to David Hume's “Essay on Miracles.” He told me he had once dined in company with Hume in London: that Hume shook hands with him, and said, “You have treated me much better than I deserve”; and that they exchanged visits. I took the liberty to object to treating an infidel writer with smooth civility. Where there is a controversy concerning a passage in a classick authour, or concerning a question in antiquities, or any other subject in which human happiness is not deeply interested, a man may treat his antagonist with politeness and even respect. But where the controversy is concerning the truth of religion, it is of such vast importance to him who maintains it, to obtain the victory, that the person of an opponent ought not to be spared. If a man firmly believes that religion is an invaluable treasure, he will consider a writer who endeavours to deprive mankind of it as a robber; he will look upon him as odious, though the infidel might think himself in the right. A robber who reasons as the gang do in the “Beggar's Opera,” who call themselves practical philosophers, and may have as much sincerity as pernicious speculative philosophers, is not the less an object of just indignation. An abandoned profligate may think that it is not wrong to debauch my wife; but shall I, therefore, not detest him? And if I catch him in making an attempt, shall I treat him with politeness? No, I will kick him down stairs, or run him through the body; that is, if I really love my wife, or have a true rational notion of honour. An Infidel then shall not be treated handsomely by a Christian, merely because he endeavours to rob with ingenuity. I do declare, however, that I am exceedingly unwilling to be provoked to anger, and could I be persuaded that truth would not suffer from a cool moderation in its defenders, I should wish to preserve good humour, at least, in every controversy; nor, indeed, do I see why a man should lose his temper while he does all he can to refute an opponent. I think ridicule may be fairly used against an infidel; for instance, if he be an ugly fellow, and yet absurdly vain of his person, we may contrast his appearance with Cicero's beautiful image of Virtue, could she be seen. Johnson coincided with me and said, “when a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.” ADAMS. “You will not jostle a chimney-sweeper.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.”

[16] Dr. ADAMS told us, that in some of the Colleges at Oxford, the fellows had excluded the students from social intercourse with them in the common room. Johnson. “They are in the right, Sir: there can be no real conversation, no fair exertion of mind amongst them, if the young men are by; for a man who has a character does not choose to stake it in their presence.” Boswell. “But, Sir, may there not be very good conversation without a contest for superiority?” Johnson. “No animated conversation, Sir, for it cannot be but one or other will come off superiour. I do not mean that the victor must have the better of the argument, for he may take the weak side; but his superiority of parts and knowledge will necessarily appear; and he to whom he thus shews himself superiour is lessened in the eyes of the young men. You know it was said, 'Mallem cum Scaligero errare quam cum Clavio recte sapere.' In the same manner take Bentley's and Jason de Nores' Comments upon Horace, you will admire Bentley more when wrong, than Jason when right.”

[17] We walked with Dr. ADAMS into the master's garden, and into the common room. Johnson. (after a reverie of meditation,) “Ay! Here I used to play at draughts with Phil. Jones and Fludyer. Jones loved beer, and did not get very forward in the church. Fludyer turned out a scoundrel, a Whig, and said he was ashamed of having been bred at Oxford. He had a living at Putney, and got under the eye of some retainers to the court at that time, and so became a violent Whig: but he had been a scoundrel all along to be sure.” Boswell. “Was he a scoundrel, Sir, in any other way than that of being a political scoundrel? Did he cheat at draughts?” Johnson. “Sir, we never played for money.”

[18] He then carried me to visit Dr. Bentham, Canon of Christ-Church, and Divinity professor, with whose learned and lively conversation we were much pleased. He gave us an invitation to dinner, which Dr. Johnson told me was a high honour. “Sir, it is a great thing to dine with the Canons of Christ-Church.” We could not accept his invitation, as we were engaged to dine at University College. We had an excellent dinner there, with the Masters and Fellows, it being St. Cuthbert's day, which is kept by them as a festival, as he was a saint of Durham, with which this college is much connected.

[19] We drank tea with Dr. Horne, late President of Magdalen College, and Bishop of Norwich, of whose abilities, in different respects, the publick has had eminent proofs, and the esteem annexed to whose character was increased by knowing him personally. He had talked of publishing an edition of Walton's Lives, but had laid aside that design, upon Dr. Johnson's telling him, from mistake, that Lord Hailes intended to do it. I had wished to negociate between Lord Hailes and him, that one or other should perform so good a work. Johnson. “In order to do it well, it will be necessary to collect all the editions of Walton's Lives. By way of adapting the book to the taste of the present age, they have, in a late edition, left out a vision which he relates Dr. Donne had, but it should be restored; and there should be a critical catalogue given of the works of the different persons whose lives were written by Walton, and therefore their works must be carefully read by the editour.”

[20] We then went to Trinity College, where he introduced me to Mr. Thomas Warton, with whom we passed a part of the evening. We talked of biography. — Johnson. “It is rarely well executed. They only who live with a man can write his life with any genuine exactness and discrimination; and few people who have lived with a man know what to remark about him. The chaplain of a late Bishop, whom I was to assist in writing some memoirs of his Lordship, could tell me scarcely any thing.”

[21] I said, Mr. Robert Dodsley's life should be written, as he had been so much connected with the wits of his time, and by his literary merit had raised himself from the station of a footman. Mr. Warton said, he had published a little volume under the title of “The Muse in Livery.” Johnson. “I doubt whether Dodsley's brother would thank a man who should write his life; yet Dodsley himself was not unwilling that his original low condition should be recollected. When Lord Lyttelton's 'Dialogues of the Dead' came out, one of which is between Apicius, an ancient epicure, and Dartineuf, a modern epicure, Dodsley said to me, 'I knew Dartineuf well, for I was once his footman.'”

[22] Biography led us to speak of Dr. John Campbell, who had written a considerable part of the "Biographia Britannica.” Johnson, though he valued him highly, was of opinion that there was not so much in his great work, “A Political Survey of Great Britain,” as the world had been taught to expect, and had said to me, that he believed Campbell's disappointment on account of the bad success of that work, had killed him. He this evening observed of it, “That work was his death.” Mr. Warton, not adverting to his meaning, answered, “I believe so; from the great attention he bestowed on it.” Johnson. “Nay, Sir, he died of want of attention, if he died at all by that book.”

[23] We talked of a work much in vogue at that time, written in a very mellifluous style, but which, under pretext of another subject, contained much artful infidelity. I said it was not fair to attack us unexpectedly; he should have warned us of our danger, before we entered his garden of flowery eloquence, by advertising, “Spring-guns and men-traps set here.” The authour had been an Oxonian, and, was remembered there for having “turned Papist.” I observed, that as he had changed several times — from the Church of England to the Church of Rome, — from the Church of Rome to infidelity, — I did not despair yet of seeing him a methodist preacher. Johnson. (laughing,) “It is said, that his range has been more extensive, and that he has once been Mahometan. However, now that he has published his infidelity, he will probably persist in it.” Boswell. “I am not quite sure of that, Sir.”

[24] I mentioned Sir Richard Steele having published his “Christian Hero,” with the avowed purpose of obliging himself to lead a religious life; yet that his conduct was by no means strictly suitable. Johnson. “Steele, I believe, practised the lighter vices.”

[25] Mr. Warton, being engaged, could not sup with us at our inn; we had therefore another evening by ourselves. I asked Johnson, whether a man's being forward to make himself known to eminent people, and seeing as much of life, and getting as much information as he could in every way, was not lessening himself by his forwardness. Johnson. “No, Sir; a man always makes himself greater as he increases his knowledge.”

[26] I censured some ludicrous fantastick dialogues between two coach horses and other such stuff, which Baretti had lately published. He joined with me, and said, “Nothing odd will do long. 'Tristram Shandy' did not last.” I expressed a desire to be acquainted with a lady who had been much talked of, and universally celebrated for extraordinary address and insinuation. Johnson. “Never believe extraordinary characters which you hear of people. Depend upon it, Sir, they are exaggerated. You do not see one man shoot a great deal higher than another.” I mentioned Mr. Burke. Johnson. “Yes; Burke is an extraordinary man. His stream of mind is perpetual.” It is very pleasing to me to record, that Johnson's high estimation of the talents of this gentleman was uniform from their early acquaintance. Sir Joshua Reynolds informs me, that when Mr. Burke was first elected a member of Parliament, and Sir John Hawkins expressed a wonder at his attaining a seat Johnson said, “Now we who know Mr. Burke, know, that he will be one of the first men in the country.” And once, when Johnson was ill, and unable to exert himself as much as usual without fatigue, Mr. Burke having been mentioned, he said, “That fellow calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now it would kill me.” So much was he accustomed to consider conversation as a contest, and such was his notion of Burke as an opponent.

[27] Next morning, Thursday, March 21, we set out in a post-chaise to pursue our ramble. It was a delightful day, and we rode through Blenheim park. When I looked at the magnificent bridge built by John Duke of Marlborough, over a small rivulet, and recollected the Epigram made upon it —

“The lofty arch his high ambition shows,
The stream, an emblem of his bounty flows”:
and saw that now, by the genius of Brown, a magnificent body of water was collected, I, said, “They have drowned the Epigram.” I observed to him, while in the midst of the noble scene around us, “You and I, Sir, have, I think, seen together the extremes of what can be seen in Britain — the wild rough island of Mull, and Blenheim park.”

[28] We dined at an excellent inn at Chapel-house, where he expatiated on the felicity of England in its taverns and inns, and triumphed over the French for not having, in any perfection, the tavern life. “There is no private house, (said he,) in which people can enjoy themselves so well, as at a capital tavern. Let there be ever so great plenty of good things, ever so much grandeur, ever so much elegance, ever so much desire that every body should be easy; in the nature of things it cannot be: there must always be some degree of care and anxiety. The master of the house is anxious to entertain his guests; the guests are anxious to be agreeable to him; and no man, but a very impudent dog indeed, can as freely command what is in another man's house, as if it were his own. Whereas, at a tavern, there is a general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you are welcome: and the more noise you make, the more trouble you give, the more good things you call for, the welcomer you are. No servants will attend you with the alacrity which waiters do, who are incited by the prospect of an immediate reward in proportion as they please. No, Sir; there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.” He then repeated, with great emotion, Shenstone's lines:

“Whoe'er has travell'd life's dull round,
   Where'er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
   The warmest welcome at an inn.”

[29] My illustrious friend, I thought, did not sufficiently admire Shenstone. That ingenious and elegant gentleman's opinion of Johnson appears in one of his letters to Mr. Greaves, dated Feb. 9, 1760. “I have lately been reading one or two volumes of the Rambler; who, excepting against some few hardnesses in his manner, and the want of more examples to enliven, is one of the most nervous, most perspicuous, most concise, most harmonious prose writers, I know. A learned diction improves by time.”

[30] In the afternoon, as we were driven rapidly along in the post-chaise, he said to me “Life has not many things better than this.”

[31] We stopped at Stratford-upon-Avon, and drank tea and coffee; and it pleased me to be with him upon the classick ground of Shakspeare's native place.

[32] He spoke slightingly of Dryer's “Fleece.” — “The subject, Sir, cannot be made poetical. How can a man write poetically of serges and druggets! Yet you will hear many people talk to you gravely of that excellent poem, THE FLEECE.” Having talked of Grainger's “Sugar-Cane,” I mentioned to him Mr. Langton's having told me, that this poem, when read in manuscript at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, had made all the assembled wits burst into a laugh, when, after much blank verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:

“Now, Muse, let's sing of rats.”
And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slyly overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had been originally mice, and had been altered to rats, as more dignified.

[33] This passage does not appear in the printed work, Dr. Grainger, or some of his friends, it should seem, having become sensible that introducing even rats, in a grave poem, might be liable to banter. He, however, could not bring himself to relinquish the idea: for they are thus, in a still more ludicrous manner, periphrastically exhibited in his poem as it now stands:

“Nor with less waste the whisker'd vermin race
A countless clan despoil the lowland cane.”

[34] Johnson said, that Dr. Grainger was an agreeable man; a man who would do any good that was in his power. His translation of Tibullus, he thought, was very well done; but “The Sugar-Cane, a Poem,” did not please him, for, he exclaimed, “What could he make of a sugar-cane? One might as well write the 'Parsley-bed, a Poem;' or 'The Cabbage-garden, a Poem.” Boswell. “You must then pickle your cabbage with the sal atticum.” Johnson. “You know there is already 'The Hop-Garden, a Poem:' and, I think, one could say a great deal about cabbage. The poem might begin with the advantages of civilised society over a rude state, exemplified by the Scotch, who had no cabbages till Oliver Cromwell's soldiers introduced them; and one might thus shew how arts are propagated by conquest, as they were by the Roman arms.” He seemed to be much diverted with the fertility of his own fancy.

[35] I told him, that I heard Dr. Percy was writing the history of the wolf in Great-Britain. Johnson. “The wolf, Sir! why the wolf? Why does he not write of the bear, which we had formerly? Nay, it is said we had the beaver. Or why does he not write of the grey rat, the Hanover rat, as it is called, because it is said to have come into this country about the time that the family of Hanover came? I should like to see 'The History of the Grey Rat, by Thomas Percy, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty,'” (laughing immoderately). Boswell. “I am afraid a court chaplain could not decently write of the grey rat.” Johnson. “Sir, he need not give it the name of the Hanover rat.” Thus could he indulge a luxuriant sportive imagination, when talking of a friend whom he loved and esteemed.

[36] He mentioned to me the singular history of an ingenious acquaintance. “He had practised physick in various situations with no great emolument. A West-India gentleman, whom he delighted by his conversation, gave him a bond for a handsome annuity during his life, on the condition of his accompanying him to the West-Indies, and living with him there for two years. He accordingly embarked with the gentleman; but upon the voyage fell in love with a young woman who happened to be one of the passengers, and married the wench. From the imprudence of his disposition he quarrelled with the gentleman, and declared he would have no connection with him. So he forfeited the annuity. He settled as a physician in one of the Leeward Islands. A man was sent out to him merely to compound his medicines. This fellow set up as a rival to him in his practice of physick, and got so much the better of him in the opinion of the people of the island, that he carried away all the business, upon which he returned to England, and soon after died.”