Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1748
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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
That he was fully aware of the arduous nature of the
undertaking, he acknowledges; and shews himself perfectly
sensible of it in the conclusion of his “Plan;” but he had a
noble consciousness of his own abilities, which enabled him to
go on with undaunted spirit.
Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the
following dialogue ensued. -- “ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir,
How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here
is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a
Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch
proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS. But, Sir, how
can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt
that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy,
which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile
their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the
proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As
three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman
to a Frenchman.” With so much ease and pleasantry could he talk
of that prodigious labour which he had undertaken to execute.
The publick has had, from another pen,1 a long
detail of what had been done in this country by prior
Lexicographers; and no doubt Johnson was wise, to avail himself
of them, so far as they went: but the learned, yet judicious
research of etymology, the various, yet accurate display of
definition, and the rich collection of authorities, were
reserved for the superiour mind of our great philologist. For
the mechanical part he employed, as he told me, six amanuenses;
and let it be remembered by the natives of North-Britain, to
whom he is supposed to have been so hostile, that five of them
were of that country. There were two Messieurs Macbean; Mr.
Shiels, who, we shall hereafter see, partly wrote the Lives of
the Poets to which the name of Cibber is affixed:2 Mr. Stewart, son of Mr. George Stewart,
bookseller at Edinburgh; and a Mr. Maitland. The sixth of these
humble assistants was Mr. Peyton, who, I believe, taught
French, and published some elementary tracts.
To all these painful labourers Johnson shewed a never-ceasing
kindness, so far as they stood in need of it. The elder Mr.
Macbean had afterwards the honour of being Librarian to
Archibald, Duke of Argyle, for many years, but was left without
a shilling. Johnson wrote for him a Preface to “A System of
Ancient Geography;” and, by the favour of Lord Thurlow, got him
admitted a poor brother of the Charterhouse. For Shiels, who
died of a consumption, he had much tenderness; and it has been
thought that some choice sentences in the Lives of the Poets
were supplied by him. Peyton, when reduced to penury, had
frequent aid from the bounty of Johnson, who at last was at the
expense of burying him and his wife.
While the Dictionary was going forward, Johnson lived part of
the time in Holborn, part in Gough-square, Fleet-street; and he
had an upper room fitted up like a counting-house for the
purpose, in which he gave to the copyists their several tasks:
The words, partly taken from other dictionaries, and partly
supplied by himself, having been first written down with spaces
left between them, he delivered in writing their etymologies,
definitions, and various significations. The authorities were
copied from the books themselves, in which he had marked the
passages with a black-lead pencil, the traces of which could
easily be effaced. I have seen several of them, in which that
trouble had not been taken; so that they were just as when used
by the copyists. It is remarkable, that he was so attentive in
the choice of the passages in which words were authorised, that
one may read page after page of his Dictionary with improvement
and pleasure; and it should not pass unobserved, that he has
quoted no authour whose writings had a tendency to hurt sound
religion and morality.
The necessary expence of preparing a work of such magnitude for
the press, must have been a considerable deduction from the
price stipulated to be paid for the copyright, I understand that
nothing was allowed by the booksellers on that account; and I
remember his telling me, that a large portion of it having, by
mistake, been written upon both sides of the paper, so as to be
inconvenient for the compositor, it cost him twenty pounds to
have it transcribed upon one side only.
He is now to be considered as “tugging at his oar,” as engaged
in a steady, continued course of occupation, sufficient to
employ all his time for some years; and which was the best
preventive of that constitutional melancholy which was ever
lurking about him, ready to trouble his quiet. But his enlarged
and lively mind could not be satisfied without more diversity of
employment, and the pleasure of animated relaxation.3 He therefore not only exerted his talents in
occasional composition, very different from Lexicography, but
formed a club in Ivy lane, Paternoster Row, with a view to enjoy
literary discussion, and amuse his evening hours. The members
associated with him in this little society were, his beloved
friend Dr. Richard Bathurst, Mr. Hawkesworth, afterwards well
worth his writings, Mr. John Hawkins, an attorney,4 and a few others of different professions.
In the Gentleman's Magazine for May of this year he wrote a
“Life of Roscommon,”* with Notes; which he afterwards much
improved, (indenting the notes into text,) and inserted amongst
his Lives of the English Poets.
Mr. Dodsley this year brought out his PRECEPTOR, one of the most
valuable books for the improvement of young minds that has
appeared in any language; and to this meritorious work Johnson
furnished “The Preface,”* containing a general sketch of the
book, with a short and perspicuous recommendation of each
article; as also, “The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit, found in
his Cell,”* a most beautiful allegory of human life, under the
figure of ascending the mountain of Existence. The Bishop of
Dromore heard Dr. Johnson say, that he thought this was the best
thing he ever wrote.
1. See Sir John Hawkins's Life of Johnson.
[Sir John Hawkins's list of former English Dictionaries is,
however, by no means complete. -- M.]
2. See post, under April 10, 1776.
3. [For the sake of relaxation from his
literary labours, and probably also for Mrs. Johnson's health,
he this summer visited Tunbridge Well, then a place of much
greater resort than it is at present. Here he met Mr. Cibber,
Mr. Garrick, Mr. Samuel Richardson, Mr. Whiston, Mr. Onslow,
(the Speaker,) Mr. Pitt, Mr. Lyttelton, and several other
distinguished persons. In a print, representing some of “the
remarkable characters” who were at Tunbridge Wells in 1748, and
copied from a drawing of the sane size, (See RICHARDSON'S
CORRESPONDENCE,) Dr. Johnson stands the first figure. -- M.]
4. He was afterwards for several years Chairman
of the Middlesex Justices, and upon occasion of presenting an
address to the King, accepted the usual offer of Knighthood. He
is authour of “A History of Musick,” in five volumes in quarto.
By assiduous attendance upon Johnson in his last illness, he
obtained the office of one of his executors; in consequence of
which, the booksellers of London employed him to publish an
edition of Dr. Johnson's works, and to write his Life.