Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1734-35

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
Johnson returned to Lichfield early in 1734, and in August that year he made an attempt to procure some little subsistence by his pen; for he published proposals for printing by subscription the Latin Poems of Politian:1 "Angeli Politiani Poemata Latina, quibus, Notas cum historia Latinae, poeseos a Petrarchae aevo ad Politiani tempora deducta, et vita Politiani fusius quam antehac enarrata, addidit SAM JOHNSON.”2

It appears that his brother Nathanael had taken up his father's trade; for it is mentioned that “subscriptions are taken in by the Editor, or N. Johnson, bookseller, of Lichfield.” Notwithstanding the merit of Johnson, and the cheap price at which this book was offered, there were not subscribers enough to insure a sufficient sale; so the work never appeared, and probably, never was executed.

We find him again this year at Birmingham, and there is preserved the following letter from him to Mr. Edward Cave,3 the original compiler and editor of the Gentleman's Magazine:

Nov. 25, 1734.


“As you appear no less sensible than your readers of the defects of your poetical article, you will not be displeased, if in order to the improvement of it, I communicate to you the sentiments of a person, who will undertake, on reasonable terms, sometimes to fill a column.

“His opinion is, that the publick would not give you a bad reception, if, beside the current wit of the month, which a critical examination would generally reduce to a narrow compass, you admitted not only poems, inscriptions, &c. never printed before, which he will sometimes supply you with; but likewise short literary dissertations in Latin or English, critical remarks on authours ancient or modern, forgotten poems that deserve revival, or loose pieces, like Floyer's,4 worth preserving. By this method, your literary article, for so it might be called, will, he thinks, be better recommended to the publick than by low jests, awkward buffoonery, or the dull scurrilities of either party.

“If such a correspondence will be agreeable to you, be pleased to inform me in two posts, what the conditions are on which you shall expect it. Your late offer5 gives me no reason to distrust your generosity. If you engage in any literary projects besides this paper, I have other designs to impart, if I could be secure from having others reap the advantage of what I should hint.

“Your letter by being directed to S. Smith, to be left at the Castle in Birmingham, Warwickshire, will reach

“Your humble servant.”
Mr. Cave has put a note on this letter, “Answered Dec. 2.” But whether any thing was done in consequence of it we are not informed.

Johnson had, from his early youth, been sensible to the influence of female charms. When at Stourbridge school, he was much enamoured of Olivia Lloyd, a young quaker, to whom he wrote a copy of verses, which I have not been able to recover;6 but with what facility and elegance he could warble the amorous lay, will appear from the following lines which he wrote for his friend Mr. Edmund Hector.

VERSES to a LADY, on receiving from her a SPRIG of MYRTLE
 “What hopes, what terrours does thy gift create, Ambiguous
emblem of uncertain fate!  The myrtle, ensign of supreme
command, Consign'd by Venus to Melissa's hand; Not less
capricious than a reigning fair, Now grants, and now rejects a
lover's prayer.  In myrtle shades oft sings the happy swain, In
myrtle shades despairing ghosts complain:  The myrtle crowns the
happy lovers' heads, The unhappy lover's grave the myrtle
spreads; O then the meaning of thy gift impart, And ease the
throbbings of an anxious heart!  Soon must this bough, as you
shall fix his doom, Adorn Philander's head, or grace his
In my first edition I was induced to doubt the authenticity of this account, by the following circumstantial statement in a letter to me from Miss Seward, of Lichfield: -- “I know those verses were addressed to Lucy Porter, when he was enamoured of her in his boyish days, two or three years before he had seen her mother, his future wife. He wrote them at my grandfather's, and gave them to Lucy in the presence of my mother, to whom he shewed them on the instant. She used to repeat them to me, when I asked her for the Verses Dr. Johnson gave her on a Sprig of Myrtle, which he had stolen or begged from her bosom. We all know honest Lucy Porter to have been incapable of the mean vanity of applying to herself a compliment not intended for her.” Such was this lady's statement, which I make no doubt she supposed to be correct; but it shews how dangerous it is to trust too implicitly to traditional testimony and ingenious inference; for Mr. Hector has lately assured me that Mrs. Piozzi's account is in this instance accurate, and that he was the person for whom Johnson wrote those verses, which have been erroneously ascribed to Mr. Hammond.

I am obliged in so many instances to notice Mrs. Piozzi's incorrectness of relation, that I gladly seize this opportunity of acknowledging, that however often, she is not always inaccurate.

The authour having been drawn into a controversy with Miss Anna Seward, in consequence of the preceding statement (which may be found in “the Gentleman's Magazine,” Vol. lxiii and lxiv,) received the following letter from Mr. Edmund Hector, on the subject:

“I am sorry to see you are engaged in altercation with a Lady, who seems unwilling to be convinced of her errors. Surely it would be more ingenuous to acknowledge than to persevere.

“Lately, in looking over some papers I meant to burn, I found the original manuscript of the myrtle, with the date on it, 1731, which I have inclosed.

“The true history (which I could swear to) is as follows: Mr. Morgan Graves, the elder brother of a worthy Clergyman near Bath, with whom I was acquainted, waited upon a Lady in this neighbourhood, who at parting presented him the branch. He shewed it me, and wished much to return the compliment in verse. I applied to Johnson, who was with me, and in about half an hour dictated the verses which I sent to my friend.

“I most solemnly declare, at that time, Johnson was an entire stranger to the Porter family; and it was almost two years after that I introduced him to the acquaintance of Porter, whom I bought my cloaths of.

“If you intend to convince this obstinate woman, and to exhibit to the publick the truth of your narrative, you are at liberty to make what use you please of this statement.

“I hope you will pardon me for taking up so much of your time. Wishing you multos et felices annos, I shall subscribe myself

“Your obliged humble servant,


Jan. 9th, 1794.”


1. May we not trace a fanciful similarity between Politian, and Johnson? Huetius, speaking of Paulus Pelissonius Fontanerius, says “-- in quo Natura, ut olim in Angelo Politiano, deformitatem oris excellentis ingenii praestantia compensavit.” Comment. de reb. ad eum pertin. Edit. Amstel. 1718, p. 200.

2. The book was to contain more than thirty sheets, the price to be two shillings and sixpence at the time of subscribing, and two shillings and sixpence at the delivery of a perfect book in quires.

3. Miss Cave, the grand-niece of Mr. Edw. Cave, has obligingly shewn me the originals of this and the other letters of Dr. Johnson, to him, which were first published in the Gentleman's Magazine, with notes by Mr. John Nichols, the worthy and indefatigable editor of that valuable miscellany, signed N.; some of which I shall occasionally transcribe in the course of this work.

4. (2) Sir John Floyer's Treatise on Cold Baths. Gent. Mag. 734, p. 197.

5. (3) A prize of fifty pounds for the best poem “on Life, Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.” See Gentleman's Magazine, vol. iv. p. 560. -- NICHOLS.

6. [He also wrote some amatory verses, before he left Staffordshire, which our authour appears not to have seen. They were addressed “to Miss Hickman, playing on the Spinet.” At the back of this early poetical effusion, of which the original copy, in Johnson's handwriting, was obligingly communicated to me by Mr. John Taylor, is the following attestation:
“Written by the late Dr. Samuel Johnson, on my mother, then Miss Hickman, playing on the Spinet. J. TURTON.”
Dr. Turton, the physician, the writer of this certificate, who died in April, 1806, in his 71st year, was born in 1735. The verses in question therefore, which have been printed in some late editions of Johnson's poems must have been written before that year. -- Miss Hickman, it is believed, was a lady of Staffordshire.

The concluding lines of this early copy of verses have much of the vigour of Johnson's poetry in his maturer years:
 “When old Timotheus struck the vocal string, Ambitious
fury fir'd the Grecian king:  Unbounded projects lab'ring in his
mind, He pants for room, in one poor world confin'd.  Thus wak'd
to rage by musick's dreadful power, He bids the sword destroy,
the flame devour.  Had Stella's gentle touches mov'd the lyre,
Soon had the monarch felt a nobler fire; No more delighted with
disastrous war, Ambitious only now to please the fair, Resign'd
his thirst of empire to her charms, And found a thousand worlds
in Stella's arms. -- M.]

7.  Mrs. Piozzi gives the following account of
this little composition from Dr. Johnson's own relation to her,
on her inquiring whether it was rightly attributed to him. -- “I
think it is now just forty years ago, that a young fellow had a
sprig of myrtle given him by a girl he courted, and asked me to
write him some verses that he might present her in return. I
promised, but forgot; and when he called for his lines at the
time agreed on -- Sit still a moment, (says I) dear Mund, and
I'll fetch them thee -- So stepped aside for five minutes, and
wrote the nonsense you now keep such a stir about.”
Anecdotes, p. 34.