Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1756

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
IN 1756 Johnson found that the great fame of his Dictionary had not set him above the necessity of “making provision for the day that was passing over him.”1 No royal or noble patron extended a munificent hand to give independence to the man who had conferred stability on the language of his country. We may feel indignant that there should have been such unworthy neglect; but we must, at the same time, congratulate ourselves, when we consider, that to this very neglect, operating to rouse the natural indolence of his constitution, we owe many valuable productions, which otherwise, perhaps, might never have appeared.

He had spent, during the progress of the work, the money for which he had contracted to write his Dictionary. We have seen that the reward of his labour was only fifteen hundred and seventy-five pounds; and when the expence of amanuenses and paper, and other articles, are deducted, his clear profit was very inconsiderable. I once said to him, “I am sorry, Sir, you did not get more for your Dictionary.” His answer was, “I am sorry too. But it was very well. The booksellers are generous liberal-minded men.” He, upon all occasions, did ample justice to their character in this respect. He considered them as the patrons of literature; and, indeed, although they have eventually been considerable gainers by his Dictionary, it is to them that we owe its having been undertaken and carried through at the risk of great expence, for they were not absolutely sure of being indemnified.

On the first day of this year2 we find from his private devotions, that he had then recovered from sickness,3 and in February, that his eye was restored to its use.4 The pious gratitude with which he acknowledges mercies upon every occasion is very edifying; as is the humble submission which he breathes, when it is the will of his heavenly Father to try him with afflictions. As such dispositions become the state of man here, and are the true effects of religious discipline, we cannot but venerate in Johnson one of the most exercised minds that our holy religion hath ever formed. If there be any thoughtless enough to suppose such exercise the weakness of a great understanding, let them look up to Johnson, and be convinced that what he so earnestly practised must have a rational foundation.

His works this year were, an abstract or epitome, in octavo, of his folio Dictionary, and a few essays in a monthly publication, “THE UNIVERSAL VISITER.” Christopher Smart, with whose unhappy vacillation of mind he sincerely sympathised, was one of the stated undertakers of this miscellany; and it was to assist him that Johnson sometimes employed his pen. All the essays marked with two asterisks have been ascribed to him; but I am confident, from internal evidence, that of these, neither “The Life of Chaucer,” “Reflections on the State of Portugal,” nor an “Essay On Architecture,” were written by him. I am equally confident, upon the same evidence, that he wrote, “Further Thoughts on Agriculture”; + being the sequel of a very inferiour essay on the same subject, and which, though carried on as if by the same hand, is both in thinking and expression so far above it, and so strikingly peculiar, as to leave no doubt of its true parent; and that he also wrote “A Dissertation on the State of Literature and Authours,” + and “A Dissertation on the Epitaphs written by Pope.” * The last of these, indeed, he afterwards added to his “Idler.” Why the essays truly written by him are marked in the same manner with some which he did not write, I cannot explain; but with deference to those who have ascribed to him the three essays which I have rejected they want all the characteristical marks of Johnsonian composition.

He engaged also to superintend and contribute largely to another monthly publication, entitled “THE LITERARY MAGAZINE, OR UNIVERSAL REVIEW”; * the first number of which came out in May this year. What were his emoluments from this undertaking, and what other writers were employed in it, I have not discovered. He continued to write in it, with intermissions, till the fifteenth number; and I think that he never gave better proofs of the force, acuteness, and vivacity of his mind, than in this miscellany, whether we consider his original essays, or his reviews of the works of others. The “Preliminary Address” + to the publick, is a proof how this great man could embellish, with the graces of superiour composition, even so trite a thing as the plan of a magazine.

His original essays are, “An Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain”; + “Remarks on the Militia Bill”; + “Observations on his Britannick Majesty's Treaties with the Empress of Russia and the Landgrave of Hesse Cassel”; + “Observations on the Present State of Affairs”; + and, “Memoirs of Frederick III. King of Prussia.” + In all these he displays extensive political knowledge and sagacity, expressed with uncommon energy and perspicuity, without any of those words which he sometimes took a pleasure in adopting, in imitation of Sir Thomas Browne; of whose “Christian Morals” he this year gave an edition, with his “Life” * prefixed to it, which is one of Johnson's best biographical performances. In one instance only in these essays has he indulged his Brownism. Dr. Robertson, the historian, mentioned it to me, as having at once convinced him that Johnson was the authour of the “Memoirs of the King of Prussia.” Speaking of the pride which the old King, the father of his hero, took in being master of the tallest regiment in Europe, he says, “To review this towering regiment was his daily pleasure; and to perpetuate it was so much his care, that when he met a tall woman he immediately commanded one of his Titanian retinue to marry her, that they might propagate procerity.” For this Anglo-Latin word procerity, Johnson had, however, the authority of Addison.

His reviews are of the following books: “Birch's History of the Royal Society; + “Murphy's Gray's-Inn Journal”; + “Warton's Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, Vol. I.” + “Hampton's Translation of Polybius”; + “Blackwell's Memoirs of the Court of Augustus”; + “Russel's Natural History of Aleppo”; + “Sir Isaac Newton's Arguments in Proof of a Deity”; + “Borlase's History of the Isles of Scilly”; + “Holme's Experiments on Bleaching”; + “Browne's Christian Morals”; + “Hales on distilling Sea-Water, Ventilators in Ships, and curing an ill Taste in Milk”; + “Lucas's Essay on Water”; + “Keith's Catalogue of the Scottish Bishops”; + “Browne's History of Jamaica”; + “Philosophical Transactions, Vol. XLIX.” + “Mrs. Lennox's Translation of Sully's Memoirs”; * “Miscellanies by Elizabeth Harrison”; + “Evans's Map and Account of the Middle Colonies in America”; + “Letter on the Case of Admiral Byng”; * “Appeal to the People concerning Admiral Byng”; * “Hanway's Eight Days Journey, and Essay on Tea”; * “The Cadet, a Military Treatise”; + “Some further Particulars in Relation to the Case of Admiral Byng, by a Gentleman of Oxford”; * “The Conduct of the Ministry relating to the present War impartially examined”; + “A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil.” * All these, from internal evidence, were written by Johnson: some of them I know he avowed, and have marked them with an "at” symbol * accordingly. Mr. Thomas Davis indeed, ascribed to him the Review of Mr. Burke's “Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”; and Sir John Hawkins, with equal discernment, has inserted it in his collection of Johnson's works: whereas it has no resemblance to Johnson's composition, and is well known to have been written by Mr. Murphy, who has acknowledged it to me and many others.

It is worthy of remark, in justice to Johnson's political character, which has been misrepresented as abjectly submissive to power, that his “Observations on the present State of Affairs,” glow with as animated a spirit of constitutional liberty as can be found any where. Thus he begins: “The time is now come, in which every Englishman expects to be informed of the national affairs; and in which he has a right to have that expectation gratified. For, whatever may be urged by Ministers, or those whom vanity or interest make the followers of ministers, concerning the necessity of confidence in our governours, and the presumption of prying with profane eyes into the recesses of policy, it is evident that this reverence can be claimed only by counsels yet unexecuted, and projects suspended in deliberation. But when a design has ended in miscarriage or success, when every eye and every ear is witness to general discontent, or general satisfaction, it is then a proper time to disentangle confusion and illustrate obscurity; to shew by what causes every event was produced, and in what effects it is likely to terminate; to lay down with distinct particularity what rumour always huddles in general exclamation, or perplexes by indigested narratives; to shew whence happiness or calamity is derived, and whence it may be expected; and honestly to lay before the people what inquiry can gather of the past, and conjecture can estimate of the future.”

Here we have it assumed as an incontrovertible principle, that in this country the people are the superintendents of the conduct and measures of those by whom government is administered; of the beneficial effect of which the present reign afforded an illustrious example, when addresses from all parts of the kingdom controuled an audacious attempt to introduce a new power subversive of the crown.

A still stronger proof of his patriotick spirit appears in his review of an “Essay on Waters, by Dr. Lucas,” of whom, after describing him as a man well known to the world for his daring defiance of power, when he thought it exerted on the side of wrong, he thus speaks: “The Irish Ministers drove him from his native country by a proclamation, in which they charge him with crimes of which they never intended to be called to the proof, and oppressed him by methods equally irresistible by guilt and innocence.

“Let the man thus driven into exile, for having been the friend of his country, be received in every other place as a confessor of liberty; and let the tools of power be taught in time, that they may rob, but cannot impoverish.”

Some of his reviews in this Magazine are very short accounts of the pieces noticed, and I mention them only that Dr. Johnson's opinion of the works may be known; but many of them are examples of elaborate criticism, in the most masterly style. In his review of the “Memoirs of the Court of Augustus,” he has the resolution to think and speak from his own mind, regardless of the cant transmitted from age to age, in praise of the ancient Romans. Thus: “I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Commonwealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another.” Again, “A people, who while they were poor robbed mankind; and as soon as they became rich, robbed one another.” In his review of the Miscellanies in prose and verse, published by Elizabeth Harrison, but written by many hands, he gives an eminent proof at once of his orthodoxy and candour. “The authours of the essays in prose seem generally to have imitated, or tried to imitate, the copiousness and luxuriance of Mrs. Rowe. This, however, is not all their praise; they have laboured to add to her brightness of imagery, her purity of sentiments. The poets have had Dr. Watts before their eyes; a writer, who, if he stood not in the first class of genius, compensated that defect by a ready application of his powers to the promotion of piety. The attempt to employ the ornaments of romance in the decoration of religion, was, I think, first made by Mr. Boyle's Martyrdom of Theodora; but Boyle's philosophical studies did not allow him time for the cultivation of style: and the completion of the great design was reserved for Mrs. Rowe. Dr. Watts was one of the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by shewing them that elegance might consist with piety. They would have both done honour to a better society, for they had that charity which might well make their failings be forgotten, and with which the whole Christian world wish for communion. They were pure from all the heresies of an age, to which every opinion is become a favourite that the universal church has hitherto detested!

“This praise the general interest of mankind requires to be given to writers who please and do not corrupt, who instruct and do not weary. But to them all human eulogies are vain, whom I believe applauded by angels, and numbered with the just.”

His defence of tea against Mr. Jonas Hanway's violent attack upon that elegant and popular beverage, shews how very well a man of genius can write upon the slightest subject, when he writes, as the Italians say, con amore: I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf than Johnson. The quantities which he drank of it at all hours were so great, that his nerves must have been uncommonly strong, not to have been extremely relaxed by such an intemperate use of it. He assured me, that he never felt the least inconvenience from it; which is a proof that the fault of his constitution was rather a too great tension of fibres, than the contrary. Mr. Hanway wrote an angry answer to Johnson's review of his Essay on Tea, and Johnson, after a full and deliberate pause, made a reply to it; the only instance, I believe, in the whole course of his life when he condescended to oppose any thing that was written against him. I suppose when he thought of any of his little antagonists, he was ever justly aware of the high sentiment of Ajax in Ovid:
 "Iste tulit pretium jam nunc certaminis hujus, Qui, cum
victus erit, mecum certasse feretur.” 
But, indeed, the good Mr. Hanway laid himself so open to ridicule, that Johnson's animadversions upon his attack were chiefly to make sport.

The generosity with which he pleads the cause of Admiral Byng is highly to the honour of his heart and spirit. Though Voltaire affects to be witty upon the fate of that unfortunate officer, observing that he was shot “pour encourager les autres,” the nation has long been satisfied that his life was sacrificed to the political fervour of the times. In the vault belonging to the Torrington family, in the church of Southill, in Bedfordshire, there is the following Epitaph upon his monument, which I have transcribed:
Johnson's most exquisite critical essay in the Literary Magazine, and indeed any where, is his review of Soame Jenyns's “Inquiry into the Origin of Evil.” Jenyns was possessed of lively talents, and a style eminently pure and easy, and could very happily play with a light subject, either in prose or verse; but when he speculated on that most difficult and excruciating question, the Origin of Evil, he “ventured far beyond his depth,” and accordingly, was exposed by Johnson, both with acute argument and brilliant wit. I remember when the late Mr. Bicknell's humourous performance entitled “The Musical Travels of Joel Collyer,” in which a slight attempt is made to ridicule Johnson, was ascribed to Soame Jenyns, “Ha! (said Johnson) I thought I had given him enough of it.”

His triumph over Jenyns is thus described by my friend Mr. Courtenay in his “Poetical Review of the literary and moral Character of Dr. Johnson”; a performance of such merit, that had I not been honoured with a very kind and partial notice in it, I should echo the sentiments of men of the first taste loudly in its praise:
 “When specious sophists with presumption scan The source
of evil hidden still from man; Revive Arabian tales, and vainly
hope To rival St. John, and his scholar Pope:  Though
metaphysicks spread the gloom of night, By reason's star he
guides our aching sight; The bounds of knowledge marks, and
points the way To pathless wastes, where wilder'd sages stray;
Where, like a farthing link-boy, Jenyns stands, And the dim
torch drops from his feeble hands.”5 
This year Mr. William Payne, brother of the respectable bookseller of that name, published “An Introduction to the Game of Draughts,” to which Johnson contributed a Dedication to the Earl of Rochford, * and a Preface, * both of which are admirably adapted to the treatise to which they are prefixed. Johnson, I believe, did not play at draughts after leaving College, by which he suffered; for it would have afforded him an innocent soothing relief from the melancholy which distressed him so often. I have heard him regret that he had not learnt to play at cards; and the game of draughts we know is peculiarly calculated to fix the attention without straining it. There is a composure and gravity in draughts which insensibly tranquillises the mind; and, accordingly the Dutch are fond of it, as they are of smoaking, of the sedative influence of which, though he himself never smoaked, he had a high opinion.6 Besides, there is in draughts some exercise of the faculties; and, accordingly, Johnson wishing to dignify the subject in his Dedication with what is most estimable in it, observes, “Triflers may find or make any thing a trifle: but since it is the great characteristick of a wise man to see events in their causes, to obviate consequences, and ascertain contingencies, your Lordship will think nothing a trifle by which the mind is inured to caution, foresight, and circumspection.”

As one of the little occasional advantages which he did not disdain to take by his pen, as a man whose profession was literature, he this year accepted of a guinea from Mr. Robert Dodsley, for writing the introduction to “The London Chronicle,” an evening news-paper; and even so slight a performance exhibited peculiar talents. This Chronicle still subsists, and from what I observed, when I was abroad, has a more extensive circulation upon the Continent than any of the English news-papers. It was constantly read by Johnson himself; and it is but just to observe, that it has all along been distinguished for good sense, accuracy, moderation, and delicacy.

Another instance of the same nature has been communicated to me by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Campbell, who has done himself considerable credit by his own writings. “Sitting with Dr. Johnson one morning alone, he asked me if I had known Dr. Madden, who was authour of the premium-scheme7 in Ireland. On my answering in the affirmative, and also that I had for some years lived in his neighbourhood, &c. he begged of me that when I returned to Ireland, I would endeavour to procure for him a poem of Dr. Madden's called “Boulter's Monument.”8 The reason (said he) why I wish for it is this: when Dr. Madden came to London he submitted that work to my castigation; and I remember I blotted a great many lines, and might have blotted many more without making the poem worse.9 However, the Doctor was very thankful, and very generous, for he gave me ten guineas, which was to me at that time a great sum.”

He this year resumed his scheme of giving an edition of Shakspeare with notes. He issued proposals of considerable length,10 in which he shewed that he perfectly well knew what variety of research such an undertaking required; but his indolence prevented him from pursuing it with that diligence which alone can collect those scattered facts, that genius, however acute, penetrating, and luminous, cannot discover by its own force. It is remarkable, that at this time his fancied activity was for the moment so vigourous, that he promised his work should be published before Christmas, 1757. Yet nine years elapsed before it saw the light. His throes in bringing it forth had been severe and remittent; and at last we may almost conclude that the Caesarian operation was performed by the knife of Churchill, whose upbraiding satire, I dare say, made Johnson's friends urge him to dispatch.
 “He for subscribers baits his hook, And takes your cash;
but where's the book?  No matter where; wise fear, you know,
Forbids the robbing of a foe; But what, to serve our private
ends, Forbids the cheating of our friends?” 
About this period he was offered a living of considerable value in Lincolnshire, if he were inclined to enter into holy orders. It was a rectory in the gift of Mr. Langton, the father of his much-valued friend. But he did not accept of it; partly I believe from a conscientious motive, being persuaded that his temper and habits rendered him unfit for that assiduous and familiar instruction of the vulgar and ignorant, which he held to be an essential duty in a clergyman; and partly because his love of a London life was so strong, that he would have thought himself an exile in any other place, particularly if residing in the country. Whoever would wish to see his thoughts upon that subject displayed in their full force, may peruse the Adventurer, Number 126.


1. [He was so far from being “set above the necessity of making provision for the day that was passing over him,” that he appears to have been in this year in great pecuniary distress, having been arrested for debt; on which occasion his friend, Samuel Richardson, became his surety. See a letter from Johnson to him, on the subject, dated Feb. 19, 1756. Richardson's CORRESPONDENCE, vol. v. p. 283. -- M.]

2. [In April in this year, Johnson wrote a letter to Dr. Joseph Warton, in consequence of having read a few pages of that gentleman's newly published “Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope.” The only paragraph in it that respects Johnson's personal history is this: “For my part I have not lately done much. I have been ill in the winter, and my eye has been inflamed; but I please myself with the hopes of doing many things, with which I have long pleased and deceived myself!” Memoirs of Dr. J. Warton, &c. 4to. 1806. -- M.]

3. Prayers and Meditations.

4. Ibid. 27.

5. Some time after Dr. Johnson's death, there appeared in the news-papers and magazines an illiberal and petulant attack upon him, in the form of an Epitaph, under the name of Mr. Soame Jenyns, very unworthy of that gentleman, who had quietly submitted to the critical lash while Johnson lived. It assumed, as characteristicks of him, all the vulgar circumstances of abuse which had circulated amongst the ignorant. It was an unbecoming indulgence of puny resentment, at a time when he himself was at a very advanced age, and had a near prospect of descending to the grave. I was truly sorry for it; for he was then become an avowed, and (as my Lord Bishop of London, who had a serious conversation with him on the subject, assures me) a sincere Christian. He could not expect that Johnson's numerous friends would patiently bear to have the memory of their master stigmatized by no mean pen, but that, at least, one would be found to retort. Accordingly, this unjust and sarcastick Epitaph was met in the same publick field by an answer, in terms by no means soft, and such as wanton provocation only could justify:
 Prepared for a creature not quite dead yet.

“HERE lies a little ugly nauseous elf, Who judging only from its
wretched self, Feebly attempted, petulant and vain, The 'Origin
of Evil' to explain.  A mighty Genius at this elf displeas'd,
With a strong critick grasp the urchin squeez'd.  For thirty
years its coward spleen it kept, Till in the dust the mighty
Genius slept:  Then stunk and fretted in expiring snuff, And
blink'd at JOHNSON with its last poor puff.” 
6. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd edit., p. 48 (Aug. 19).

7. [In the College of Dublin, four quarterly Examinations of the students are held in each year, in various prescribed branches of literature and science; and premiums, consisting of books impressed with the College Arms, are adjudged by Examiners (composed generally of the Junior Fellows), to those who have most distinguished themselves in the several classes, after a very rigid trial, which lasts two days. This regulation, which has subsisted about seventy years, has been attended with the most beneficial effects.

Dr. Samuel Madden was the first proposer of premiums in that University. They were instituted about the year 1734. He was also one of the founders of the DUBLIN SOCIETY for the encouragement of arts and agriculture. In addition to the premiums which were and are still annually given by that society for this purpose, Dr. Madden gave others from his own fund. Hence he was usually called “Premium Madden.” -- M.]

8. [Dr. Hugh Boulter, Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of Ireland. He died Sept. 27, 1742, at which time he was, for the thirteenth time, one of the Lords Justices of that kingdom. Johnson speaks of him in high terms of commendation, in his Life of Ambrose Philips. -- J. BOSWELL.]

9. [Dr. Madden wrote very bad verses. V. those prefixed to Leland's Life of Philip of Macedon, 4to. 1758. -- KEARNEY.]

10. They have been reprinted by Mr. Malone in the Preface to his edition of Shakspeare.