Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1737

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
While Johnson kept his academy, there can be no doubt that he was insensibly furnishing his mind with various knowledge; but I have not discovered that he wrote any thing except a great part of his tragedy of IRENE. Mr. Peter Garrick, the elder brother of David, told me that he remembered Johnson's borrowing the Turkish History of him, in order to form his play from it. When he had finished some part of it, he read what he had done to Mr. Walmsley, who objected to his having already brought his heroine into great distress, and asked him, “how can you possibly contrive to plunge her into deeper calamity!” Johnson, in sly allusion to the supposed oppressive proceedings of the court of which Mr. Walmsley was registrar, replied, “Sir, I can put her into the Spiritual Court!”

Mr. Walmsley, however, was well pleased with this proof of Johnson's abilities as a dramatick writer, and advised him to finish the tragedy, and produce it on the stage.

Johnson now thought of trying his fortune in London, the great field of genius and exertion, where talents of every kind have the fullest scope, and the highest encouragement. It is a memorable circumstance that his pupil David Garrick went thither at the same time,1 with intent to complete his education, and follow the profession of the law, from which he was soon diverted by his decided preference for the stage.

This joint expedition of these two eminent men to the metropolis, was many years afterwards noticed in an allegorical poem on Shakespeare's Mulberry-tree, by Mr. Lovibond, the ingenious authour of “The Tears of Old-May-day.”

They were recommended to Mr. Colson,2 an eminent mathematician and master of an academy, by the following letter from Mr. Walmsley:
"To the Reverend Mr. Colson.

Lichfield, March 2, 1737.


“I had the favour of yours, and am extremely obliged to you; but I cannot say I had a greater affection for you upon it than I had before, being long since so much endeared to you, as well by an early friendship, as by your many excellent and valuable qualifications; and, had I a son of my own, it would be my ambition, instead of sending him to the University, to dispose of him as this young gentleman is.

“He, and another neighbour of mine, one Mr. Samuel Johnson, set out this morning for London together. Davy Garrick is to be with you early the next week, and Mr. Johnson to try his fate with a tragedy, and to see to get himself employed in some translation, either from the Latin or the French. Johnson is a very good scholar and poet, and I have great hopes will turn out a fine tragedy-writer. If it should any way lie in your way, doubt not but you would be ready to recommend and assist your countryman.

How he employed himself upon his first coming to London is not particularly known.3 I never heard that he found any protection or encouragement by the means of Mr. Colson, to whose academy David Garrick went. Mrs. Lucy Porter told me, that Mr. Walmsley gave him a letter of introduction to Lintot his bookseller, and that Johnson wrote some things for him; but I imagine this to be a mistake, for I have discovered no trace of it, and I am pretty sure he told me, that Mr. Cave was the first publisher by whom his pen was engaged in London.

He had a little money when he came to town, and he knew how he could live in the cheapest manner. His first lodgings were at the house of Mr. Norris, a staymaker, in Exeter-street, adjoining Catharine-street, in the Strand. “I dined (said he) very well for eight-pence, with very good company, at the Pine-Apple in Newstreet, just by. Several of them had travelled. They expected to meet every day; but did not know one another's names. It used to cost the rest a shilling, for they drank wine; but I had a cut of meat for six-pence, and bread for a penny, and gave the waiter a penny; so that I was quite well served, nay, better than the rest, for they gave the waiter nothing.”

He at this time, I believe, abstained entirely from fermented liquors: a practice to which he rigidly conformed for many years together, at different periods of his life.

His OFELLUS in the Art of Living in London, I have heard him relate, was an Irish painter, whom he knew at Birmingham, and who had practiced his own precepts of economy for several years in the British capital. He assured Johnson, who, I suppose, was then meditating to try his fortune in London, but was apprehensive of the expence, “that thirty pounds a year was enough to enable a man to live there without being contemptible. He allowed ten pounds for cloaths and linen. He said a man might live in a garret at eighteen-pence a week; few people would inquire where he lodged; and if they did, it was easy to say, 'Sir, I am to be found at such a place.' By spending three-pence in a coffee-house, he might be for some hours every day in very good company; he might dine for six-pence, breakfast on bread and milk for a penny, and do without supper. On clean-shirt day he went abroad, and paid visits.” I have heard him more than once talk of his frugal friend, whom he recollected with esteem and kindness, and did not like to have one smile at the recital. “This man (said he, gravely) was a very sensible man, who perfectly understood common affairs: a man of a great deal of knowledge of the world, fresh from life, not strained through books. He borrowed a horse and ten pounds at Birmingham. Finding himself master of so much money, he set off for West Chester, in order to get to Ireland. He returned the horse, and probably the ten pounds too, after he got home.”

Considering Johnson's narrow circumstances in the early part of his life, and particularly at the interesting aera of his launching into the ocean of London, it is not to be wondered at, that an actual instance, proved by experience, of the possibility of enjoying the intellectual luxury of social life upon a very small income, should deeply engage his attention, and be ever recollected by him as a circumstance of much importance. He amused himself, I remember, by computing how much more expence was absolutely necessary to live upon the same scale with that which his friend described, when the value of money was diminished by the progress of commerce. It may be estimated that double the money might now with difficulty be sufficient.

Amidst this cold obscurity, there was one brilliant circumstance to cheer him; he was well acquainted with Mr. Henry Hervey,4 one of the branches of the noble family of that name, who had been quartered at Lichfield as an officer of the army, and had at this time a house in London, where Johnson was frequently entertained, and had an opportunity of meeting genteel company. Not very long before his death, he mentioned this, among other particulars of his life, which he was kindly communicating to me; and he described this early friend “Harry Hervey,” thus: “He was a vicious man, but very kind to me. If you call a dog HERVEY, I shall love him.”

He told me he had now written only three acts of his IRENE, and that he retired for some time to lodgings at Greenwich, where he proceeded in it somewhat further, and used to compose, walking in the Park; but did not stay long enough at that place to finish it.

At this period we find the following letter from him to Mr. Edward Cave, which, as a link in the chain of his literary history, it is proper to insert:

“Greenwich, next door to the Golden Heart,

“Church-street, July 12, 1737.


“Having observed in your papers very uncommon offers of encouragement to men of letters, I have chosen, being a stranger in London, to communicate to you the following design, which, I hope, if you join in it, will be of advantage to both of us.

“The History of the Council of Trent having been lately translated into French, and published with large Notes by Dr. Le Courayer, the reputation of that book is so much revived in England, that, it is presumed, a new translation of it from the Italian, together with Le Courayer's Notes from the French, could not fail of a favourable reception.

“If it be answered, that the History is already in English, it must be remembered, that there was the same objection against Le Courayer's undertaking, with this advantage, that the French had a version by one of their best translators, whereas you cannot read three pages of the English History without discovering that the style is capable of great improvements; but whether those improvements are to be expected from this attempt, you must judge from the specimen, which, if you approve the proposal, I shall submit to your examination.

“Suppose the merit of the versions equal, we may hope that the addition of the Notes will turn the balance in our favour, considering the reputation of the Annotator.

“Be pleased to favour me with a speedy answer, if you are not willing to engage in this scheme; and appoint me a day to wait upon you, if you are.

“I am, Sir,

“Your humble servant,

It should seem from this letter, though subscribed with his own name, that he had not yet been introduced to Mr. Cave. We shall presently see what was done in consequence of the proposal which it contains.

In the course of the summer he returned to Lichfield, where he had left Mrs. Johnson, and there he at last finished his tragedy, which was not executed with his rapidity of composition upon other occasions, but was slowly and painfully elaborated. A few days before his death, while burning a great mass of papers, he picked out from among them the original unformed sketch of this tragedy, in his own handwriting, and gave it to Mr. Langton, by whose favour a copy of it is now in my possession. It contains fragments of the intended plot, and speeches for the different persons of the drama, partly in the raw materials of prose, partly worked up into verse; as also a variety of hints for illustration, borrowed from the Greek, Roman, and modern writers. The hand-writing is very difficult to be read, even by those who were best acquainted with Johnson's mode of penmanship, which at all times was very particular. The King having graciously accepted of this manuscript as a literary curiosity, Mr. Langton made a fair and distinct copy of it, which he ordered to be bound up with the original and the printed tragedy; and the volume is deposited in the King's library. His Majesty was pleased to permit Mr. Langton to take a copy of it for himself.

The whole of it is rich in thought and imagery, and happy expressions; and of the disjecta membra scattered throughout, and as yet unarranged, a good dramatick poet might avail himself with considerable advantage. I shall give my readers some specimens of different kinds, distinguishing them by the Italick character.
 "Nor think to say here will I stop, Here will I fix the
limits of transgression, Nor farther tempt the avenging rage of
heaven.  When guilt like this once harbours in the breast, Those
holy beings, whose unseen direction Guides through the maze of
life the steps of man, Fly the detested mansions of impiety, And
quit their charge to horrour and to ruin.” 
A small part only of this interesting admonition is preserved in the play, and is varied, I think, not to advantage:
 “The soul once tainted with so foul a crime, No more shall
glow with friendship's hallow'd ardour Those holy beings whose
superior care Guides erring mortals to the paths of virtue,
Affrighted at impiety like thine, Resign their charge to
baseness and to ruin.”

    "I feel the soft infection Flush in my cheek, and wander
    in my veins.  Teach me the Grecian arts of soft
"Sure this is love, which heretofore I conceived the dream of idle maids, and wanton poets.”

"Though no comets or prodigies foretold the ruin of Greece, signs which heaven must by another miracle enable us to understand, yet might it be foreshewn, by tokens no less certain, by the vices which always bring it on.”
This last passage is worked up in the tragedy itself, as follows:
“-- That power that kindly spreads The clouds, a signal of
impending showers, To warn the wand'ring linnet to the shade,
Beheld, without concern, expiring Greece, And not one prodigy
foretold our fate.

“A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it; A feeble government,
eluded laws, A factious populace, luxurious nobles, And all the
maladies of sinking States.  When publick villany, too strong
for justice, Shews his bold front, the harbinger of ruin, Can
brave Leontius call for airy wonders, Which cheats interpret,
and which fools regard?  When some neglected fabrick nods
beneath The weight of years, and totters to the tempest, Must
heaven despatch the messengers of light, Or wake the dead, to
warn us of its fall?” 
MAHOMET (to IRENE). "I have tried thee, and joy to find that thou deservest to be loved by Mahomet, -- with a mind great as his own. Sure, thou art an errour of nature, and an exception to the rest of thy sex, and art immortal; for sentiments like thine were never to sink into nothing. I thought all the thoughts of the fair had been to select the graces of the day, dispose the colours of the flaunting (flowing) robe, tune the voice and roll the eye, place the gem, choose the dress, and add new roses to the faded cheek, but -- sparkling.”
Thus in the tragedy:
 “Illustrious maid, new wonders fix me thine; Thy soul
completes the triumphs of thy face, I thought, forgive my fair,
the noblest aim, The strongest effort of a female soul Was but
to choose the graces of the day, To tune the tongue, to teach
the eyes to roll, Dispose the colours of the flowing robe, And
add new roses to the faded cheek.” 
I shall select one other passage, on account of the doctrine which it illustrates. IRENE observes, "that the Supreme Being will accept of virtue, whatever outward circumstances it may be accompanied with, and may be delighted with varieties of worship: but is answered, That variety cannot affect that Being, who, infinitely happy in his own perfections, wants no external gratifications; nor can infinite truth be delighted with falsehood; that though he may guide or pity those he leaves in darkness, he abandons those who shut their eyes against the beams of day.”

Johnson's residence at Lichfield, on his return to it at this time, was only for three months; and as he had as yet seen but a small part of the wonders of the Metropolis, he had little to tell his townsmen. He related to me the following minute anecdote of this period: “In the last age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London, my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or those who took it. Now it is fixed that every man keeps to the right; or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a dispute.”

He now removed to London with Mrs. Johnson; but her daughter, who had lived with them at Edial, was left with her relations in the country. His lodgings were for some time in Woodstock-street, near Hanover-square, and afterwards in Castle-street, near Cavendish-square. As there is something pleasingly interesting, to many, in tracing so great a man through all his different habitations, I shall, before this work is concluded, present my readers with an exact list of his lodgings and houses, in order of time, which, in placid condescension to my respectful curiosity, he one evening dictated to me, but without specifying how long he lived at each. In the progress of his life I shall have occasion to mention some of them as connected with particular incidents, or with the writing of particular parts of his works. To some, this minute attention may appear trifling; but when we consider the punctilious exactness with which the different houses in which Milton resided have been traced by the writers of his life, a similar enthusiasm may be pardoned in the biographer of Johnson.

His tragedy being by this time, as he thought, completely finished and fit for the stage, he was very desirous that it should be brought forward. Mr. Peter Garrick told me, that Johnson and he went together to the Fountain Tavern, and read it over, and that he afterwards solicited Mr. Fleetwood, the patentee of Drury-lane theatre, to have it acted at his house; but Mr. Fleetwood would not accept it, probably because it was not patronized by some man of high rank; and it was not acted till 1749, when his friend David Garrick was manager of that theatre.

The GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE, begun and carried on by Mr. Edward Cave, under the name of SYLVANUS URBAN, had attracted the notice and esteem of Johnson, in an eminent degree, before he came to London as an adventurer in literature. He told me, that when he first saw St. John's Gate, the place where that deservedly popular miscellany was originally printed, he “beheld it with reverence.” I suppose, indeed, that every young authour has had the same kind of feeling for the magazine or periodical publication which has first entertained him, and in which he has first had an opportunity to see himself in print, without the risk of exposing his name. I myself recollect such impressions from “THE SCOTS MAGAZINE,” which was begun at Edinburgh in the year 1739, and has been ever conducted with judgement, accuracy, and propriety. I yet cannot help thinking of it with an affectionate regard. Johnson has dignified the Gentleman's Magazine, by the importance with which he invests the life of Cave; but he has given it still greater lustre by the various admirable Essays which he wrote for it.

Though Johnson was often solicited by his friends to make a complete list of his writings, and talked of doing it, I believe with a serious intention that they should all be collected on his own account, he put it off from year to year, and at last died without having done it perfectly. I have one in his own hand-writing, which contains a certain number; I indeed doubt if he could have remembered every one of them, as they were so numerous, so various, and scattered in such a multiplicity of unconnected publications; nay, several of them published under the names of other persons to whom he liberally contributed from the abundance of his mind. We must, therefore, be content to discover them, partly from occasional information given by him to his friends, and partly from internal evidence.6


1. Both of them used to talk pleasantly of this their first journey to London. Garrick, evidently meaning to embellish a little, said one day in my hearing, 'we rode and tied.' And the Bishop of Killaloe [Dr. Barnard] informed me, that at another time, when Johnson and Garrick were dining together in a pretty large company, Johnson humorously ascertaining the chronology of something, expressed himself thus: “that was the year when I came to London with two-pence half-penny in my pocket.” Garrick overhearing him, exclaimed, “eh? what do you say? with two-pence half-penny in your pocket?” -- JOHNSON. “Why, yes; when I came with two-pence half-penny in my pocket, and thou, Davy, with three half-pence in thine.”

2. [The Reverend John Colson was bred at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, and in 1728, when George the Second visited that University, was created Master of Arts. About that time he became First Master of the Free School at Rochester, founded by Sir Joseph Williamson. In 1739, he was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, on the death of Professor Sanderson, and held that office till 1759, when he died. He published Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, translated from the French of l'Abbe Nodet, 8vo. 1732, and some other tracts. Our authour, it is believed, was mistaken in stating him to have been Master of an Academy. Garrick, probably, during his short residence at Rochester, lived in his house as a private pupil.

The character of GELIDUS, the philosopher, in the Rambler. (No. 24) was meant to represent this gentleman. See Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes, &c. p. 49. -- M]

3. One curious anecdote was communicated by himself to Mr. John Nichols. Mr. Wilcox, the bookseller, on being informed by him that his intention was to get his livelihood as an authour, eyed his robust frame attentively, and with a significant look, said, “You had better buy a porter's knot.” He however added, “Wilcox was one of my best friends.”

4. The Honourable Henry Hervey, third son of the first Earl of Bristol, quitted the army and took orders. He married a sister of Sir Thomas Aston, by whom he got the Aston Estate, and assumed the name and arms of that family. Vide Collins's Peerage.

[The Honourable Henry Hervey was nearly of the same age with Johnson, having been born about nine months before him, in the year 1709. He married Catharine the sister of Sir Thomas Aston, in 1739; and as that lady had seven sisters, she probably succeeded to the Aston Estate on the death of her brother under his will. Mr. Hervey took the degree of Master of Arts at Cambridge, at the late age of thirty-five, in 1744; about which time, it is believed, he entered into holy orders. -- M.]

5. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd edi., p. 232 [Sep. 20, 1773]. 6. While in the course of my narrative I enumerate his writings, I shall take care that my readers shall not be left to waver in doubt, between certainty and conjecture, with regard to their authenticity; and, for that purpose, shall mark with an asterisk (*) those which he acknowledged to his friends, and with a dagger (+) those which are ascertained to be his by internal evidence. When any other pieces are ascribed to him, I shall give my reasons.