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 764-76]

[1] I am now to record a very curious incident in Dr. Johnson's life, which fell under my own observation; of which pars magna fui, and which I am persuaded will, with the liberal-minded, be much to his credit.

[2] My desire of being acquainted with celebrated men of every description, had made me, much about the same time, obtain an introduction to Dr. Samuel Johnson and to John Wilkes, Esq. Two men more different could perhaps not be selected out of all mankind. They had even attacked one another with some asperity in their writings; yet I lived in habits of friendship with both. I could fully relish the excellence of each; for I have ever delighted in that intellectual chymistry, which can separate good qualities from evil in the same person.

[3] Sir John Pringle, “mine own friend and my Father's friend,” between whom and Dr. Johnson I in vain wished to establish an acquaintance, as I respected and lived in intimacy with both of them, observed to me once, very ingeniously, “It is not in friendship as in mathematicks, where two things, each equal to a third, are equal between themselves. You agree with Johnson as a middle quality, and you agree with me as a middle quality; but Johnson and I should not agree.” Sir John was not sufficiently flexible; so I desisted; knowing, indeed, that the repulsion was equally strong on the part of Johnson; who, I know not from what cause, unless his being a Scotchman, had formed a very erroneous opinion of Sir John. But I conceived an irresistible wish, if possible, to bring Dr. Johnson and Mr. Wilkes together. How to manage it, was a nice and difficult matter.

[4] My worthy booksellers and friends, Messieurs Dilly in the Poultry, at whose hospitable and well-covered table I have seen a greater number of literary men, than at any other, except that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, had invited me to meet Mr. Wilkes and some more gentlemen, on Wednesday, May 15. “Pray (said I,) let us have Dr. Johnson.” — “What with Mr. Wilkes? not for the world, (said Mr. Edward Dilly;) Dr. Johnson would never forgive me.” — “Come, (said I,) if you'll let me negociate for you, I will be answerable that all shall go well.” DILLY. “Nay, if you will take it upon you, I am sure I shall be very happy to see them both here.”

[5] Notwithstanding the high veneration which I entertained for Dr. Johnson, I was sensible that he was sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction, and by means of that I hoped I should gain my point. I was persuaded that if I had come upon him with a direct proposal, “Sir, will you dine in company with Jack Wilkes?” he would have flown into a passion, and would probably have answered, “Dine with Jack Wilkes, Sir! I'd as soon dine with Jack Ketch.” I therefore, while we were sitting quietly by ourselves at his house in an evening, took occasion to open my plan thus: — “Mr. Dilly, Sir, sends his respectful compliments to you, and would be happy if you would do him the honour to dine with him on Wednesday next along with me, as I must soon go to Scotland.” Johnson. “Sir, I am obliged to Mr. Dilly. I will wait upon him —” Boswell. “Provided, Sir, I suppose, that the company which he is to have, is agreeable to you.” Johnson. “What do you mean, Sir? What do you take me for? Do you think I am so ignorant of the world, as to imagine that I am to prescribe to a gentleman what company he is to have at his table?” Boswell. “I beg your pardon, Sir, for wishing to prevent you from meeting people whom you might not like. Perhaps he may have some of what he calls his patriotick friends with him.” Johnson. “Well, Sir, and what then? What care I for his patriotick friends? Poh!” Boswell. “I should not be surprized to find Jack Wilkes there.” Johnson. “And if Jack Wilkes should be there, what is that to me, Sir? My dear friend, let us have no more of this. I am sorry to be angry with you; but really it is treating me strangely to talk to me as if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally.” Boswell. “Pray, forgive me, Sir: I meant well. But you shall meet whoever comes, for me.” Thus I secured him, and told Dilly that he would find him very well pleased to be one of his guests on the day appointed.

[6] Upon the much expected Wednesday, I called on him about half an hour before dinner, as I often did when we were to dine out together, to see that he was ready in time, and to accompany him. I found him buffeting his books, as upon a former occasion, covered with dust, and making no preparation for going abroad. “How is this, Sir? (said I). Don't you recollect that you are to dine at Mr. Dilly's?” Johnson. “Sir, I did not think of going to Dilly's: it went out of my head. I have ordered dinner at home with Mrs. Williams.” Boswell. “But, my dear Sir, you know you were engaged to Mr. Dilly, and I told him so. He will expect you, and will be much disappointed if you don't come.” Johnson. “You must talk to Mrs. Williams about this.”

[7] Here was a sad dilemma. I feared that what I was so confident I had secured, would yet be frustrated. He had accustomed himself to shew Mrs. Williams such a degree of humane attention, as frequently imposed some restraint upon him; and I knew that if she should be obstinate, he would not stir. I hastened down stairs to the blind lady's room, and told her I was in great uneasiness, for Dr. Johnson had engaged to me to dine this day at Mr. Dilly's, but that he had told me he had forgotten his engagement, and had ordered dinner at home. “Yes, Sir, (said she, pretty peevishly,) Dr. Johnson is to dine at home.” — “Madam, (said I,) his respect for you is such, that I know he will not leave you, unless you absolutely desire it. But as you have so much of his company, I hope you will be good enough to forego it for a day: as Mr. Dilly is a very worthy man, has frequently had agreeable parties. at his house for Dr. Johnson, and will be vexed if the Doctor neglects him to-day. And then, Madam, be pleased to consider my situation; I carried the message, and I assured Mr. Dilly that Dr. Johnson was to come; and no doubt he has made a dinner, and invited a company, and boasted of the honour he expected to have. I shall be quite disgraced if the Doctor is not there.” She gradually softened to my solicitations, which were certainly as earnest as most entreaties to ladies upon any occasion, and was graciously pleased to empower me to tell Dr. Johnson, “That all things considered, she thought he should certainly go.” I flew back to him, still in dust, and careless of what should be the event, “indifferent in his choice to go or stay”; but as soon as I had announced to him Mrs. Williams's consent, he roared, “Frank, a clean shirt,” and was very soon drest. When I had him fairly seated in a hackney-coach with me, I exulted as much as a fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to set out for Gretna-Green.

[8] When we entered Mr. Dilly's drawing-room, he found himself in the midst of a company he did not know. I kept myself snug and silent, watching how he would conduct himself. I observed him whispering to Mr. Dilly, “Who is that gentleman, sir?” — “Mr. Arthur Lee.” — Johnson. “Too, too, too,” (under his breath,) which was one of his habitual mutterings. Mr. Arthur Lee could not but be very obnoxious to Johnson, for he was not only a patriot, but an American. He was afterwards minister from the United States at the court of Madrid. “And who is the gentleman in lace?” — “Mr. Wilkes, Sir.” This information confounded him still more; he had some difficulty to restrain himself, and taking up a book, sat down upon a window-seat and read, or at least kept his eye upon it intently for some time, till he composed himself. His feelings, I dare say, were aukward enough. But he no doubt recollected his having rated me for supposing that he could be at all disconcerted by any company, and he, therefore, resolutely set himself to behave quite as an easy man of the world, who could adapt himself at once to the disposition and manners of those whom he might chance to meet.

[9] The cheering sound of “Dinner is upon the table,” dissolved his reverie, and we all sat down without any symptom of ill humour. There were present, beside Mr. Wilkes, and Mr. Arthur Lee, who was an old companion of mine when he studied physick at Edinburgh, Mr. (now Sir John) Miller, Dr. Lettsom, and Mr. Slater, the druggist. Mr. Wilkes placed himself next to Dr. Johnson, and behaved to him with so much attention and politeness, that he gained upon him insensibly. No man eat more heartily than Johnson, or loved better what was nice and delicate. Mr. Wilkes was very assiduous in helping him to some fine veal. “Pray give me leave, Sir; — It is better here — A little of the brown — Some fat, Sir — A little of the stuffing — Some gravy — Let me have the pleasure of giving you some butter — Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange; — or the lemon, perhaps, may have more zest.” — “Sir, Sir, I am obliged to you, Sir,” cried Johnson, bowing, and turning his head to him with a look for some time of “surly virtue,” but, in a short while, of complacency.

[10] Foote being mentioned, Johnson said, “He is not a good mimick.” One of the company added, “A merry Andrew, a buffoon.” Johnson. “But he has wit too, and is not deficient in ideas, or in fertility and variety of imagery, and not empty of reading; he has knowledge enough to fill up his part. One species of wit he has in an eminent degree, that of escape. You drive him into a corner with both hands; but he's gone, Sir, when you think you have got him — like an animal that jumps over your head. Then he has a great range for wit: he never lets truth stand between him and a jest, and he is sometimes mighty coarse. Garrick is under many restraints from which Foote is free.” WILKES. “Garrick's wit is more like Lord Chesterfield's.” Johnson. “The first time I was in company with Foote was at Fitzherbert's. Having no good opinion of the fellow, I was resolved not to be pleased; and it is very difficult to please a man against his will. I went on eating my dinner pretty sullenly, affecting not to mind him. But the dog was so very comical, that I was obliged to lay down my knife and fork, throw myself back upon my chair, and fairly laugh it out. No, Sir, he was irresistible. He upon one occasion experienced, in an extraordinary degree, the efficacy of his powers of entertaining. Amongst the many and various modes which he tried of getting money, he became a partner with a small-beer brewer, and he was to have a share of the profits for procuring customers amongst his numerous acquaintance. Fitzherbert was one who took his small-beer; but it was so bad that the servants resolved not to drink it. They were at some loss how to notify their resolution, being afraid of offending their master, who they knew liked Foote much as a companion. At last they fixed upon a little black boy, who was rather a favourite, to be their deputy, and deliver their remonstrance; and having invested him with the whole authority of the kitchen, he was to inform Mr. Fitzherbert, in all their names, upon a certain day, that they would drink Foote's small-beer no longer. On that day Foote happened to dine at Fitzherbert's, and this boy served at table; he was so delighted with Foote's stories, and merriment, and grimace, that when he went down stairs, he told them, “This is the finest man I have ever seen. I will not deliver your message. I will drink his small-beer.”

[11] Somebody observed that Garrick could not have done this. WILKES. “Garrick would have made the small-beer still smaller. He is now leaving the stage; but he will play Scrub all his life.” I knew that Johnson would let nobody attack Garrick but himself, as Garrick said to me, and I had heard him praise his liberality; so to bring out his commendation of his celebrated pupil, I said, loudly, “I have heard Garrick is liberal.” Johnson. “Yes, Sir, I know that Garrick has given away more money than any man in England that I am acquainted with, and that not from ostentatious views. Garrick was very poor when he began life; so when he came to have money, he probably was very unskilful in giving away, and saved when he should not. But Garrick began to be liberal as soon as he could; and I am of opinion, the reputation of avarice which he has had, has been very lucky for him, and prevented his having many enemies. You despise a man for avarice, but do not hate him. Garrick might have been much better attacked for living with more splendour than is suitable to a player: if they had had the wit to have assaulted him in that quarter, they might have galled him more. But they have kept clamouring about his avarice, which has rescued him from much obloquy and envy.”

[12] Talking of the great difficulty of obtaining authentick information for biography, Johnson told us, “When I was a young fellow I wanted to write the 'Life of Dryden,' and in order to get materials, I applied to the only two persons then alive who had seen him; these were old Swinney, and old Cibber. Swinney's information was no more than this, 'That at Will's coffee-house Dryden had a particular chair for himself, which was set by the fire in winter, and was then called his winter-chair; and that it was carried out for him to the balcony in summer, and was then called his summer-chair.' Cibber could tell no more but 'That he remembered him a decent old man, arbiter of critical disputes at Will's.' You are to consider that Cibber was then at a great distance from Dryden, had perhaps one leg only in the room, and durst not draw in the other.” Boswell. “Yet Cibber was a man of observation?” Johnson. “I think not.” Boswell. “You will allow his 'Apology' to be well done.” Johnson. “Very well done, to be sure, Sir. That book is a striking proof of the justice of Pope's remark:

“'Each might his several province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.'”

[13] Boswell. “And his plays are good.” Johnson. “Yes; but that was his trade; l'esprit du corps; he had been all his life among players and play-writers. I wondered that he had so little to say in conversation, for he had kept the best company, and learnt all that can be got by the ear. He abused Pindar to me, and then shewed me an ode of his own, with an absurd couplet, making a linnet soar on an eagle's wing. I told him that when the ancients made a simile, they always made it like something real.”

[14] Mr. Wilkes remarked, that “among all the bold flights of Shakspeare's imagination, the boldest was making Birnamwood march to Dunsinane; creating a wood where there never was a shrub; a wood in Scotland! ha! ha! ha!” And he also observed, that “the clannish slavery of the Highlands of Scotland was the single exception to Milton's remark of 'The Mountain Nymph, sweet Liberty,' being worshipped in all hilly countries.” — “When I was at Inverary (said he,) on a visit to my old friend Archibald, Duke of Argyle, his dependents congratulated me on being such a favourite of his Grace. I said, 'It is then, gentlemen, truly lucky for me; for if I had displeased the Duke, and he had wished it, there is not a Campbell among you but would have been ready to bring John Wilkes's head to him in a charger. It would have been only

'Off with his head! so much for Aylesbury.'
I was then member for Aylesbury.”

[15] Dr. Johnson and Mr. Wilkes talked of the contested passage in Horace's Art of Poetry, "Difficile est proprie communia dicere.” Mr. Wilkes, according to my note, gave the interpretation thus: It is difficult to speak with propriety of common things; as, if a poet had to speak of Queen Caroline drinking tea, he must endeavour to avoid the vulgarity of cups and saucers.” But upon reading my note, he tells me that he meant to say, that “the word communia, being a Roman law-term, signifies here things communis juris, that is to say, what have never yet been treated by any body; and this appears clearly from what followed,

'— Tuque
Rectius Iliacum carmen deducis in actus
Quam si proferres ignota indictaque primus.

[16] You will easier make a tragedy out of the Iliad than on any subject not handled before.” Johnson. “He means that it is difficult to appropriate to particular persons qualities which are common to all mankind, as Homer has done.”

[17] WILKES. “We have no City-Poet now: that is an office which has gone into disuse. The last was Elkanah Settle. There is something in names which one cannot help feeling. Now Elkanah Settle sounds so queer, who can expect much from that name? We should have no hesitation to give it for John Dryden, in preference to Elkanah Settle, from the names only, without knowing their different merits.” Johnson. “I suppose Sir, Settle did as well for Aldermen in his time, as John Home could do now. Where did Beckford, and Trecothick learn English?”

[18] Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they should choose it. Johnson. “Why, Sit, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.” Boswell. “Come, come, he is flattering the English. You have now been in Scotland, Sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.” Johnson. “Why yes, Sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.” All these quick and lively sallies were said sportively, quite in jest, and with a smile, which showed that he meant only wit. Upon this topick he and Mr. Wilkes could perfectly assimilate; here was a bond of union between them, and I was conscious that as both of them had visited Caledonia, both were fully satisfied of the strange narrow ignorance of those who imagine that it is a land of famine. But they amused themselves with persevering in the old jokes. When I claimed a superiority for Scotland over England in one respect, that no man can be arrested there for a debt merely because another swears it against him; but there must first be the judgement of a court of law ascertaining its justice; and that a seizure of the person, before judgement is obtained, can take place only, if his creditor should swear that he is about to fly from the country, or, as it is technically expressed, is in meditatione fugæ: WILKES. “That, I should think, may be safely sworn of all the Scotch nation.” Johnson. (To Mr. Wilkes) “You must know, Sir, I lately took my friend Boswell, and shewed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.” WILKES. “Except when he is with grave, sober, decent people, like you and me.” Johnson. (smiling) “And we ashamed of him.”

[19] They were quite frank and easy. Johnson told the story of his asking Mrs. Macaulay to allow her footman to sit down with them, to prove the ridiculousness of the arguments for the equality of mankind; and he said to me afterwards, with a nod of satisfaction, “You saw Mr. Wilkes acquiesced.” Wilkes talked with all imaginable freedom of the ludicrous title given to the Attorney-General, Diabolus Regis; adding, “I have reason to know something about that officer; for I was prosecuted for a libel.” Johnson, who many people would have supposed must have been furiously angry at hearing this talked of so lightly, said not a word. He was now, indeed “a good-humoured fellow.”

[20] After dinner we had an accession of Mrs. Knowles, the Quaker lady, well known for her various talents, and of Mr. Alderman Lee. Amidst some patriotick groans, somebody (I think the Alderman) said, “Poor old England is lost.” Johnson. “Sir, it is not so much to be lamented that old England is lost, as that the Scotch have found it.” WILKES. “Had Lord Bute governed Scotland only, I should not have taken the trouble to write his eulogy, and dedicate 'MORTIMER' to him.”

[21] Mr. Wilkes held a candle to shew a fine print of a beautiful female figure which hung in the room, and pointed out the elegant contour of the bosom with the finger of an arch connoisseur. He afterwards in a conversation with me waggishly insisted, that all the time Johnson shewed visible signs of a fervent admiration of the corresponding charms of the fair Quaker.

[22] This record, though by no means so perfect as I could wish, will serve to give a notion of a very curious interview, which was not only pleasing at the time, but had the agreeable and benignant effect of reconciling any animosity, and sweetening any acidity, which, in the various bustle of political contest, had been produced in the minds of two men, who though widely different, had so many things in common — classical learning, modern literature, wit and humour, and ready repartee — that it would have been much to be regretted if they had been for ever at a distance from each other.

[23] Mr. Burke gave me much credit for this successful negotiation; and pleasantly said, “that there was nothing equal to it in the whole history of the Corps Diplomatique.”

[24] I attended Dr. Johnson home, and had the satisfaction to hear him tell Mrs. Williams how much he had been pleased with Mr. Wilkes's company, and what an agreeable day he had passed.