Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1747

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In 1747 it is supposed that the Gentleman's Magazine for May was enriched by him with five short poetical pieces, distinguished by three asterisks. The first is a translation, or rather a paraphrase, of a Latin Epitaph on Sir Thomas Hanmer. Whether the Latin was his, or not, I have never heard, though I should think it probably was, if it be certain that he wrote the English; as to which my only cause of doubt is, that his slighting character of Hanmer as an editor, in his “Observations on Macbeth,” is very different from that in the Epitaph. It may be said, that there is the same contrariety between the character in the Observations, and that in his own Preface to Shakspeare; but a considerable time elapsed between the one publication and the other, whereas the Observations and the Epitaph came close together. The others are, “To Miss ----, on her giving the Authour a gold and silk net-work Purse of her own weaving;” “Stella in Mourning;” “The Winter's Walk; “An Ode;” and, “To Lyce, an elderly Lady.” I am not positive that all these were his productions;1 but as “The Winter's Walk,” has never been controverted to be his, and all of them have the same mark, it is reasonable to conclude that they are all written by the same hand. Yet to the Ode, in which we find a passage very characteristick of him, being a learned description of the gout,
 “Unhappy, whom to beds of pain
  Arthritick tyranny consigns;” 
there is the following note, “The authour being ill of the gout:” but Johnson was not attacked with that distemper till a very late period of his life. May not this, however, be a poetical fiction? Why may not a poet suppose himself to have the gout, as well as suppose himself to be in love, of which we have innumerable instances, and which has been admirably ridiculed by Johnson in his “Life of Cowley"? I have also some difficulty to believe that he could produce such a group of conceits as appear in the verses to Lyce, in which he claims for this ancient personage as good a right to be assimilated to heaven, as nymphs whom other poets have flattered; he therefore ironically ascribes to her the attributes of the sky, in such stanzas as this:
 “Her teeth the night with darkness dies,
  She's starr'd with pimples o'er; Her tongue like nimble
  lightning plies, And can with thunder roar.”
But as at a very advanced age he could condescend to trifle in namby-pamby rhymes, to please Mrs. Thrale and her daughter, he may have, in his earlier years, composed such a piece as this.

It is remarkable, that in this first edition of “The Winter's Walk,” the concluding line is much more Johnsonian than it was afterwards printed; for in subsequent editions, after praying Stella to “snatch him to her arms,” he says,
 “And shield me from the ills of life.”
Whereas in the first edition it is
 “And hide me from the sight of life.” 
A horrour at life in general is more consonant with Johnson's habitual gloomy cast of thought.

I have heard him repeat with great energy the following verses, which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for April this year; but I have no authority to say they were his own. Indeed one of the best criticks of our age suggests to me, that “the word indifferently being used in the sense of without concern, and being also very unpoetical, renders it improbable that they should have been his composition.”
       "On Lord LOVAT's Execution

“Pity'd by gentle minds KILMARNOCK died; The
brave, BALMERINO, were on thy side; RADCLIFFE, unhappy in
his crimes of youth, Steady in what he still mistook for truth,
Beheld his death so decently unmov'd, The soft lamented,
and the brave approv'd.  But LOVAT'S fate indifferently
we view, True to no King, to no religion true:  No
fair forgets the ruin he has done; No child
laments the tyrant of his son; No tory
pities, thinking what he was; No whig compassions, for
he left the cause; The brave regret not, for he was
not brave; The honest mourn not, knowing him a knave!”2 
This year his old pupil and friend, David Garrick, having become joint patentee and manager of Drury-lane theatre, Johnson honoured his opening of it with a Prologue,* which for just and manly dramatick criticism on the whole range of the English stage, as well as for poetical excellence,3 is unrivalled. Like the celebrated Epilogue to the “Distressed Mother,” it was, during the season, often called for by the audience. The most striking and brilliant passages of it have been so often repeated, and are so well recollected by all the lovers of the drama, and of poetry, that it would be superfluous to point them out. In the Gentleman's Magazine for December this year, he inserted an “Ode on Winter,” which is, I think, an admirable specimen of his genius for lyrick poetry.

But the year 1747 is distinguished as the epoch, when Johnson's arduous and important work, his DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, was announced to the world, by the publication of its Plan or PROSPECTUS.

How long this immense undertaking had been the object of his contemplation, I do not know. I once asked him by what means he had attained to that astonishing knowledge of our language, by which he was enabled to realise a design of such extent and accumulated difficulty. He told me, that “it was not the effect of particular study; but that it had grown up in his mind insensibly.” I have been informed by Mr. James Dodsley, that several years before this period, when Johnson was one day sitting in his brother Robert's shop, he heard his brother suggest to him, that a Dictionary of the English Language would be a work that would be well received by the publick; that Johnson seemed at first to catch at the proposition, but, after a pause, said, in his abrupt decisive manner, “I believe I shall not undertake it.” That he, however, had bestowed much thought upon the subject, before be published his “Plan,” is evident from the enlarged, clear, and accurate views which it exhibits; and we find him mentioning in that tract, that many of the writers whose testimonies were to be produced as authorities, were selected by Pope; which proves that he had been furnished, probably by Mr. Robert Dodsley, with whatever hints that eminent poet had contributed towards a great literary project, that had been the subject of important consideration in a former reign.

The booksellers who contracted with Johnson, single and unaided, for the execution of a work, which in other countries has not been effected but by the co-operating exertions of many, were Mr. Robert Dodsley, Mr. Charles Hitch, Mr. Andrew Millar, the two Messieurs Longman, and the two Messieurs Knapton. The price stipulated was fifteen hundred and seventy-five pounds.

The “Plan” was addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, then one of his Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State; a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction, and who, upon being informed of the design, had expressed himself in terms very favourable to its success. There is, perhaps, in every thing of any consequence, a secret history which it would be amusing to know, could we have it authentically communicated. Johnson told me,4 “Sir, the way in which the plan of my Dictionary came to be inscribed to Lord Chesterfield, was this: I had neglected to write it by the time appointed. Dodsley suggested a desire to have it addressed to Lord Chesterfield. I laid hold of this as a pretext for delay, that it might be better done, and let Dodsley have his desire. I said to my friend, Dr. Bathurst, 'Now if any good comes of my addressing to Lord Chesterfield, it will be ascribed to deep policy,' when, in fact, it was only a casual excuse for laziness.”

It is worthy of observation, that the “Plan” has not only the substantial merit of comprehension, perspicuity, and precision, but that the language of it is unexceptionably excellent; it being altogether free from that inflation of style, and those uncommon but apt and energetick words, which in some of his writings have been censured, with more petulance than justice; and never was there a more dignified strain of compliment than that in which he courts the attention of one, who, he had been persuaded to believe, would be a respectable patron.

“With regard to questions of purity or propriety, (says he) I was once in doubt whether I should not attribute to myself too much in attempting to decide them, and whether my province was to extend beyond the proposition of the question, and the display of the suffrages on each side; but I have been since determined by your Lordship's opinion, to interpose my own judgement, and shall therefore endeavour to support what appears to me most consonant to grammar and reason. Ausonius thought that modesty forbade him to plead inability for a task to which Caesar had judged him equal:
 Cur me posse negem, posse quod ille putat? 
And I may hope, my Lord, that since you, whose authority in our language is so generally acknowledged, have commissioned me to declare my own opinion, I shall be considered as exercising a kind of vicarious jurisdiction; and that the power which might have been denied to my own claim, will be readily allowed me as the delegate of your Lordship.”

This passage proves, that Johnson's addressing his “Plan” to Lord Chesterfield was not merely in consequence of the result of a report by means of Dodsley, that the Earl favoured the design; but that there had been a particular communication with his Lordship concerning it. Dr. Taylor told me, that Johnson sent his “Plan” to him in manuscript, for his perusal; and that when it was lying upon his table, Mr. William Whitehead happened to pay him a visit, and being shewn it, was highly pleased with such parts of it as he had time to read, and begged to take it home with him, which he was allowed to do; that from him it got into the hands of a noble Lord, who carried it to Lord Chesterfield. When Taylor observed this might be an advantage, Johnson replied, “No, Sir, it would have come out with more bloom, if it had not been seen before by any body.”

The opinion conceived of it by another noble authour, appears from the following extract of a letter from the Earl of Orrery to Dr. Birch:
“Caledon, Dec. 30, 1747.

“I have just now seen the specimen of Mr. Johnson's Dictionary, addressed to Lord Chesterfield. I am much pleased with the plan, and I think the specimen is one of the best that I have ever read. Most specimens disgust, rather than prejudice us in favour of the work to follow; but the language of Mr. Johnson's is good, and the arguments are properly and modestly expressed. However, some expressions may be cavilled at, but they are trifles. I'll mention one: the barren laurel. The laurel is not barren, in any sense whatever; it bears fruits and flowers. Sed hae sunt nugae, and I have great expectations from the performance.”5


1. [In the UNIVERSAL VISITER, to which Johnson contributed, the mark which is affixed to some pieces unquestionably his, is also found subjoined to others, of which he certainly was not the authour. The mark therefore will not ascertain the poems in question to have been written by him. Some of them were probably the productions of Hawkesworth, who, it is believed, was afflicted with the gout. The verses on a Purse were inserted afterwards in Mrs. Williams's Miscellanies, and are, unquestionably, Johnson's. -- M.]

2. These verses are somewhat too severe on the extraordinary person who is the chief figure in them; for he was undoubtedly brave. His pleasantry during his solemn trial (in which, by the way, I have heard Mr. David Hume observe, that we have one of the very few speeches of Mr. Murray, now Earl of Mansfield, authentically given) was very remarkable. When asked if he had any questions to put to Sir Everard Fawkener, who was one of the strongest witnesses against him, he answered “I only wish joy of his young wife.” And after sentence of death, in the horrible terms in such cases of treason, was pronounced upon him, and he was retiring from the bar, he said, “Fare you well, my Lords, we shall not all meet again in one place.” He behaved with perfect composure at his execution, and called out "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

3. My friend Mr. Courtenay, whose eulogy on Johnson's Latin Poetry has been inserted in this Work, is no less happy in praising his English Poetry.
 But hark, he sings! the strain even Pope admires;
Indignant virtue her own bard inspires, Sublime as Juvenal he
pours his lays, And with the Roman shares congenial praise; --
In glowing numbers now he fires the age, And Shakspeare's sun
relumes the clouded stage.  
4. September 22, 1777, going from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, to see Islam.

5. Birch MSS. Brit. Mus. 4303.