Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1741

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In 1741 he wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine “the Preface,”+ “Conclusion of his lives of Drake and Barretier,”* “A free translation of the Jests of Hierocles, with an Introduction;"+ and, I think, the following pieces: “Debate on the Proposal of parliament to Cromwell, to assume the Title of King, abridged, modified, and digested;"+ “Translation of Abbe Guyon's Dissertation on the Amazons;"+ “Translation of Fontenelle's Panegyrick on Dr. Morin.”+ Two notes upon this appear to me undoubtedly his. He this year, and the two following, wrote the Parliamentary Debates. He told me himself, that he was the sole composer of them for those three years only. He was not, however, precisely exact in his statement, which he mentioned from hasty recollection; for it is sufficiently evident, that his composition of them began November 19, 1740, and ended February 23, 1742-3.

It appears from some of Cave's letters to Dr. Birch, that Cave had better assistance for that branch of his Magazine, than has been generally supposed; and that he was indefatigable in getting it made as perfect as he could.

Thus 21st July, 1735, “I trouble you with the inclosed, because you said you could easily correct what is here given for Lord C---ld's speech. I beg you will do so as soon as you can for me, because the month is far advanced.”

And 15th July, 1737, “As you remember the debates so far as to perceive the speeches already printed are not exact, I beg the favour that you will peruse the inclosed, and, in the best manner your memory will serve, correct the mistaken passages, or add any thing that is omitted. I should be very glad to have something of the Duke of N---le's speech, which would be particularly of service.

“A gentleman has Lord Bathurst's speech to add something to.”

And July 3, 1744, “You will see what stupid, low, abominable stuff is put1 upon your noble and learned friend's2 character, such as I should quite reject, and endeavour to do something better towards doing justice to the character. But as I cannot expect to attain my desire in that respect, it would be a great satisfaction, as well as an honour to our work, to have the favour of the genuine speech. It is a method that several have been pleased to take, as I could show, but I think myself under a restraint. I shall say so far, that I have had some by a third hand, which I understood well enough to come from the first; others by penny-post, and others by the speakers themselves, who have been pleased to visit St. John's gate, and show particular marks of their being pleased.”3

There is no reason, I believe, to doubt the veracity of Cave. It is, however, remarkable, that none of these letters are in the years during which Johnson alone furnished the Debates, and one of them is in the very year after he ceased from that labour. Johnson told me, that as soon as he found that the speeches were thought genuine, he determined that he would write no more of them; “for he would not be accessary to the propagation of falsehood.” And such was the tenderness of his conscience, that a short time before his death he expressed his regret for his having been the author of fictions, which had passed for realities.

He nevertheless agreed with me in thinking, that the debates which he had framed were to be valued as orations upon questions of publick importance. They have accordingly been collected in volumes, properly arranged, and recommended to the notice of parliamentary speakers by a preface, written by no inferior hand.4 I must, however, observe, that although there is in those debates a wonderful store of political information, and very powerful eloquence, I cannot agree that they exhibit the manner of each particular speaker, as Sir John Hawkins seems to think. But, indeed, what opinion can we have of his judgment, and taste in publick speaking, who presumes to give, as the characteristicks of two celebrated orators, “the deep mouthed rancour of Pulteney, and the yelping pertinacity of Pitt.”5

This year I find that his tragedy of IRENE had been for some time ready for the stage, and that his necessities made him desirous of getting as much as he could for it, without delay; for there is the following letter from Mr. Cave to Dr. Birch, in the same volume of manuscripts in the British Museum, from which I copied those above quoted. They were most obligingly pointed out to me by Sir William Musgrave, one of the Curators of that noble repository.
“Sept. 9, 1741.

“I HAVE put Mr. Johnson's play into Mr. Gray's6 hands, in order to sell it to him, if he is inclined to buy it; but I doubt whether he will or not. He would dispose of the copy, and whatever advantage may be made by acting it. Would your society,7 or any gentleman, or body of men that you know, take such a bargain? He and I are very unfit to deal with theatrical persons. Fleetwood was to have acted it last season, but Johnson's diffidence or 8 prevented it.”
I have already mentioned that “Irene” was not brought into publick notice till Garrick was manager of Drury-lane theatre.


1. I suppose in another compilation of the same kind.

2. Doubtless, Lord Hardwick.

3. Birch's MSS. in the British Museum, 4302.

4. I am assured that the editor is Mr. George Chalmers, whose commercial works are well known and esteemed.

5. Hawkins's Life of Johnson, p. 100.

6. A bookseller of London.

7. Not the Royal Society: but the Society for the encouragement of learning, of which Dr. Birch was a leading member. Their object was, to assist authors in printing expensive works. It existed from about 1735 to 1746, when, having incurred a considerable debt, it was dissolved.

8. There is no erasure here, but a mere blank: to fill up which may be an exercise for ingenious conjecture.