Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1749

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In January, 1749, he published “THE VANITY OF HUMAN WISHES, being the Tenth Satire of Juvenal imitated.”* He, I believe, composed it the preceding year.1 Mrs. Johnson, for the sake of country air, had lodgings at Hampstead, to which he resorted occasionally, and there the greatest part, if not the whole, of this Imitation was written. The fervid rapidity with which it was produced, is scarcely credible. I have heard him say, that he composed seventy lines of it in one day, without putting one of them upon paper till they were finished. I remember when I once regretted to him that he had not given us more of Juvenal's Satires, he said, he probably should give more, for he had them all in his head; by which I understood, that he had the originals and correspondent allusions floating in his mind, which he could, when he pleased, embody and render permanent without much labour. Some of them, however, he observed were too gross for imitation.

The profits of a single poem, however excellent, appear to have been very small in the last reign, compared with what a publication of the same size has since been known to yield. I have mentioned upon Johnson's own authority, that for his LONDON he had only ten guineas; and now, after his fame was established, he got for his “Vanity of Human Wishes” but five guineas more, as is proved by an authentick document in my possession.2

It will be observed, that he reserves to himself the right of printing one edition of this satire, which was his practice upon occasion of the sale of all his writings; it being his fixed intention to publish at some period, for his own profit, a complete collection of his works.

His “Vanity of Human Wishes” has less of common life, but more of a philosophick dignity than his “London.” More readers, therefore, will be delighted with the pointed spirit of “London,” than with the profound reflection of “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Garrick, for instance, observed in his sprightly manner, with more vivacity than regard to just discrimination, as is usual with wits, “When Johnson lived much with the Herveys, and saw a good deal of what was passing in life, he wrote his 'London,' which is lively and easy: when he became more retired, he gave us his 'Vanity of Human Wishes,' which is as hard as Greek. Had he gone on to imitate another satire, it would have been as hard as Hebrew.”3

But “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is, in the opinion of the best judges, as high an effort of ethick poetry as any language can shew. The instances of variety of disappointment are chosen so judiciously, and painted so strongly, that, the moment they are read, they bring conviction to every thinking mind. That of the scholar must have depressed the too sanguine expectations of many an ambitious student.4 That of the warrior, Charles of Sweden, is, I think, as highly finished a picture as can possibly be conceived.

Were all the other excellencies of this poem annihilated, it must ever have our grateful reverence from its noble conclusion; in which we are consoled with the assurance that happiness may be attained, if we “apply our hearts” to piety:
 “Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?  Shall
dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?  Must helpless man, in
ignorance sedate, Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Shall no dislike alarm, no wishes rise, No cries attempt the
mercy of the skies?  Inquirer, cease; petitious yet remain,
Which Heav'n may hear, nor deem Religion vain.  Still raise for
good the supplicating voice, But leave to Heaven the measure and
the choice.  Safe in His hand, whose eye discerns afar The
secret ambush of a specious pray'r; Implore His aid, in His
decisions rest, Secure, whate'er He gives, He gives the best:
Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires, And strong devotion
to the skies aspires, Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful
mind, Obedient passions, and a will resign'd; For love, which
scarce collective man can fill; For patience, sovereign o'er
transmuted ill; For faith, which panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind Nature's signal for retreat.  These goods for
man the laws of Heaven ordain, These goods He grants, who grants
the power to gain; With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.”5
Garrick being now vested with theatrical power by being manager of Drury-lane theatre, he kindly and generously made use of it to bring out Johnson's tragedy, which had been long kept back for want of encouragement. But in this benevolent purpose he met with no small difficulty from the temper of Johnson, which could not brook that a drama which he had formed with much study, and had been obliged to keep more than the nine years of Horace, should be revised and altered at the pleasure of an actor. Yet Garrick knew well, that without some alterations it would not be fit for the stage. A violent dispute having ensued between them, Garrick applied to the Reverend Dr. Taylor to interpose. Johnson was at first very obstinate. “Sir, (said he) the fellow wants me to make Mahomet run mad, that he may have an opportunity of tossing his hands and kicking his heels.”6 He was, however, at last, with difficulty, prevailed on to comply with Garrick's wishes, so as to allow of some changes; but still there were not enough.

Dr. Adams was present the first night of the representation of IRENE, and gave me the following account: “Before the curtain drew up, there were catcalls whistling, which alarmed Johnson's friends. The Prologue, which was written by himself in a manly strain, soothed the audience,7 and the play went off tolerably, till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the Heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bow-string round her neck. The audience cried out 'Murder! Murder!'8 She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive.” This passage was afterwards struck out, and she was carried off to be put to death behind the scenes, as the play now has it. The Epilogue, as Johnson informed me, was written by Sir William Yonge. I know not how his play came to be thus graced by the pen of a person then so eminent in the political world.

Notwithstanding all the support of such performers as Garrick, Barry, Mrs. Cibber, Mrs. Pritchard, and every advantage of dress and decorations, the tragedy of Irene did not please the publick.9 Mr. Garrick's zeal carried it through for nine nights, so that the authour had his three nights' profits; and from a receipt signed by him, now in the hands of Mr. James Dodsley, it appears that his friend, Mr. Robert Dodsley, gave him one hundred pounds for the copy, with his usual reservation of the right of one edition.

IRENE, considered as a poem, is entitled to the praise of superiour excellence. Analysed into parts, it will furnish a rich store of noble sentiments, fine imagery, and beautiful language; but it is deficient in pathos, in that delicate power of touching the human feelings, which is the principal end of the drama.10 Indeed Garrick has complained to me, that Johnson not only had not the faculty of producing the impressions of tragedy, but that he had not the sensibility to perceive them. His great friend Mr. Walmsley's prediction, that he would “turn out a fine tragedy writer,” was, therefore, ill-founded. Johnson was wise enough to be convinced that he had not the talents necessary to write successfully for the stage, and never made another attempt in that species of composition.

When asked how he felt upon the ill success of his tragedy, he replied, “Like the Monument!” meaning that he continued firm and unmoved as that column. And let it be remembered, as an admonition to the genus irritabile of dramatick writers, that this great man, instead of peevishly complaining of the bad taste of the town, submitted to its decision without a murmur. He had, indeed, upon all occasions a great deference for the general opinion: “A man (said he) who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind; he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the publick to whom he appeals, must, after all, be the judges of his pretensions.”

On occasion of this play being brought upon the stage, Johnson had a fancy that as a dramatick authour his dress should be more gay than what he ordinarily wore; he therefore appeared behind the scenes, and even in one of the side boxes, in a scarlet waistcoat, with rich gold lace, and a gold-laced hat. He humourously observed to Mr. Langton, “that when in that dress he could not treat people with the same ease as when in his usual plain clothes.” Dress indeed, we must allow, has more effect even upon strong minds than one should suppose, without having had the experience of it. His necessary attendance while his play was in rehearsal, and during its performance, brought him acquainted with many of the performers of both sexes, which produced a more favourable opinion of their profession than he had harshly expressed in his Life of Savage. With some of them he kept up an acquaintance as long as he and they lived, and was ever ready to shew them acts of kindness. He for a considerable time used to frequent the Green-Room, and seemed to take delight in dissipating his gloom, by mixing in the sprightly chit-chat of the motley circle then to be found there. Mr. David Hume related to me from Mr. Garrick, that Johnson at last denied himself this amusement, from considerations of rigid virtue; saying, “I'll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.”


1. Sir John Hawkins, with solemn inaccuracy, represents this poem as a consequence of the indifferent reception of his tragedy. But the fact is, that the poem was published on the 9th of January, and the tragedy was not acted till the 6th of the February following.

2. “Nov. 25, 1748, I received of Mr. Dodsley fifteen guineas, for which I assign to him the right of copy of an Imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, written by me; reserving to myself the right of printing one edition.


“London, 29 June, 1786. A true copy, from the original in Dr. Johnson's handwriting.


3. From Mr. Langton.

4. In this poem one of the instances mentioned of unfortunate learned men is Lydiat:
 “Hear Lydiat's life, and Galileo's end.” 
The History of Lydiat being little known, the following account of him may be acceptable to many of my readers. It appeared as a note in the Supplement to the Gentleman's Magazine for 1748, in which some passages extracted from Johnson's poem were inserted, and it should have been added in the subsequent editions. -- “A very learned divine and mathematician, fellow of New College, Oxon, and Rector of Okerton, near Banbury. He wrote, among many others, a Latin treatise 'De natura caeli, &c.' in which he attacked the sentiments of Scaliger and Aristotle, not bearing to hear it urged, that some things are true in philosophy, and false in divinity. He made above 600 Sermons on the harmony of the Evangelists. Being unsuccessful in publishing his works, he lay in the prison of Bocardo at Oxford, and in the King's Beach, till Bishop Usher, Dr. Laud, Sir William Boswell, and Dr. Pink, released him by paying his debts. He petitioned King Charles I. to be sent into Ethiopia, &c. to procure MSS. Having spoken in favour of Monarchy and bishops, he was plundered by the parliament forces, and twice carried away prisoner from his rectory; and afterwards had not a shirt to shift him in three months, without he borrowed it, and died very poor in 1646.”

5. [In this poem, a line in which the danger attending on female beauty is mentioned, has very generally, I believe, been misunderstood:
 “Yet Vane could tell what ills from beauty spring, And
Sedley curs'd the form that pleas'd a king.” 
The lady mentioned in the first of these verses, was not the celebrated Lady Vane, whose memoirs were given to the publick by Dr. Smollett, but Anne Vane, who was mistress to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and died in 1736, not long before Johnson settled in London. Some account of this lady was published, under the title of The Secret History of Vanella, 8vo. 1732. See also Vanella in the Straw, 4to., 1732. In Mr. Boswell's TOUR TO THE HEBRIDES (Aug. 17), we find some observations respecting the lines in question:

“In Dr. Johnson's VANITY OF HUMAN WISHES there is the following passage:
 “The teeming mother anxious for her race, Begs for each
birth the fortune of a face:  Yet Vane,” &c.  
“Lord Hailes told him, [Johnson] he was mistaken in the instances he had given of unfortunate fair ones, for neither Vane nor Sedley had a title to that description.” -- His lordship therefore thought, that the lines should rather have run thus:
 Yet Shore could tell -- And Valiere curs'd
“Our friend (he added in a subsequent note, addressed to Mr. Boswell on this subject) chose Vane, who was far from being well-look'd, and Sedley, who was so ugly that Charles II. said -- his brother had her by way of penance.” -- M.]

6. Mahomet was in fact played by Mr. Barry, and Demetrius by Mr. Garrick: but probably at this time the parts were not yet cast.

7. The expression used by Dr. Adams was “soothed.” I should rather think the audience was awed by the extraordinary spirit and dignity of the following lines:
 “Be this at least his praise, be this his pride, To force
applause no modern arts are tried:  Should partial catcalls all
his hopes confound, He bids no trumpet quell the fatal sound;
Should welcome sleep relieve the weary wit, He rolls no thunders
o'er the drowsy pit; No snares to captivate the judgement
spreads, Nor bribes your eyes, to prejudice your heads.
Unmov'd, though witlings sneer and rivals rail, Studious to
please, yet not asham'd to fail, He scorns the meek address, the
suppliant strain, With merit needless, and without it vain; In
Reason, Nature, Truth, he dares to trust; Ye fops be silent, and
ye wits be just!” 
8. [This shews, how ready modern audiences are to condemn in a new play what they have frequently endured very quietly in an old one. Rowe has made Moneses in TAMERLANE die by the bow-string, without offence. -- M.]

9. [I know not what Sir John Hawkins means by the cold reception of IRENE. [See earlier note beginning, “Sir John Hawkins, with solemn inaccuracy,...”] I was at the first representation, and most of the subsequent. It was much applauded the first night, particularly the speech on to-morrow. It ran nine nights at least. It did not indeed become a stock-play, but there was not the least opposition during the representation, except the first night in the last act, where Irene was to be strangled on the stage, which John could not bear, though a dramatick poet may stab or slay by hundreds. The bow-string was not a Christian nor an ancient Greek or Roman death. But this offence was removed after the first night, and Irene went off the stage to be strangled. -- Many stories were circulated at the time, of the authour's being observed at the representation to be dissatisfied with some of the speeches and conduct of the play, himself; and, like la Fontaine, expressing his disapprobation aloud. -- BURNEY.]

[Mr. Murphy in his Life of Johnson, p. 53, says, “the amount of the three benefit nights for the tragedy of IRENE, it is to be feared, were not very considerable, as the profit, that stimulating motive, never invited the authour to another dramatick attempt.”

On the word “profit,” the late Mr. Isaac Reed in his copy of that Life, which I purchased at the sale of his library, has added a manuscript note, containing the following receipts on Johnson's three benefit nights:
 “3rd night's receipt             L177   1  6
  6th                              106   4  0
  9th                              101  11  6
   --                              ----------
   --                              384  17  0 Charges of the
   House             189   0  0 --
   ---------- Profit                           195  17  0 He
   also received for the Copy    100   0  0
   --                              ---------- In
   all                             295  17  0” 
In a preceding page (52) Mr. Murphy says, “IRENE was acted at Drury-lane on Monday, Feb. 6, and from that time, without interruption, to Monday, February the 20th, being in all thirteen nights.”

On this Mr. Reed somewhat indignantly has written, -- “This is false. It was acted only nine nights, and never repeated afterwards. Mr. Murphy, in making the above calculation, includes both the Sundays and Lent days.”

The blunder, however, is that of the Monthly Reviewer, from whom Murphy took, without acknowledgment, the greater part of his Essay. M. R. vol. lxxvii. p. 135. -- A. CHALMERS.]

10. Aaron Hill (Vol. II. p. 355,) in a letter to Mr. Mallet, gives the following account of Irene after having seen it: “I was at the anomalous Mr. Johnson's benefit, and found the play his proper representative; strong sense ungraced by sweetness or decorum.”