Sunday, May 21, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 170

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of 18th Century Cisgender Male Platonic Friendship Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Mrs. Thrale Solves a Case, the Olney Community College Press.

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On Saturday, April 4, I drank tea with Johnson at Dr. Taylor's, where he had dined. He entertained us with an account of a tragedy written by a Dr. Kennedy, (not the Lisbon physician.)

'The catastrophe of it (said he) was, that a King, who was jealous of his Queen with his prime-minister, castrated himself.'

It is hardly to be believed what absurd and indecent images men will introduce into their writings, without being sensible of the absurdity and indecency. 

He was very silent this evening; and read in a variety of books: suddenly throwing down one, and taking up another.

He talked of going to Streatham that night.

TAYLOR. 'You'll be robbed if you do: or you must shoot a highwayman. Now I would rather be robbed than do that; I would not shoot a highwayman.'

JOHNSON. 'But I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey, to take away his life, after he has robbed me. I am surer I am right in the one case than in the other.

I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man's life, when we are heated by the injury, than to do it at a distance of time by an oath, after we have cooled.' 

BOSWELL. 'So, Sir, you would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage.' 

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.' 

BOSWELL. 'Very well, very well.—There is no catching him.' 

JOHNSON. 'At the same time one does not know what to say. For perhaps one may, a year after, hang himself from uneasiness for having shot a man. Few minds are fit to be trusted with so great a thing.' 

BOSWELL. 'Then, Sir, you would not shoot him?' 

JOHNSON. 'But I might be vexed afterwards for that too.' 

Thrale's carriage not having come for him, as he expected, I accompanied him some part of the way home to his own house. I told him, that I had talked of him to Mr. Dunning {John Dunning, Member of Parliament, later the first Baron Ashburton – Editor} a few days before, and had said, that in his company we did not so much interchange conversation, as listen to him; and that Dunning observed, upon this, 'One is always willing to listen to Dr. Johnson:' to which I answered, 'That is a great deal from you, Sir.'

—'Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) a great deal indeed. Here is a man willing to listen, to whom the world is listening all the rest of the year.'

BOSWELL. 'I think, Sir, it is right to tell one man of such a handsome thing, which has been said of him by another. It tends to increase benevolence.'

JOHNSON. 'Undoubtedly it is right, Sir.'

On Tuesday, April 7, I breakfasted with him at his house.

He said, 'nobody was content.' 

I mentioned to him a respectable person in Scotland whom he knew; and I asserted, that I really believed he was always content.

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, he is not content with the present; he has always some new scheme, some new plantation, something which is future. You know he was not content as a widower; for he married again.' 

BOSWELL. 'But he is not restless.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, he is only locally at rest. A chymist is locally at rest; but his mind is hard at work. This gentleman has done with external exertions. It is too late for him to engage in distant projects.'

BOSWELL. 'He seems to amuse himself quite well; to have his attention fixed, and his tranquillity preserved by very small matters. I have tried this; but it would not do with me.' 

JOHNSON, (laughing) 'No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.' 

BOSWELL. 'Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?' 

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.' 

BOSWELL. 'A flagelet, Sir!— so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. That should have been your instrument.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. I once tried knotting. Dempster's sister undertook to teach me; but I could not learn it.' 

BOSWELL. 'So, Sir; it will be related in pompous narrative, "Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did this Hercules disdain the distaff."' 

JOHNSON. 'Knitting of stockings is a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of stockings.' 

He asked me to go down with him and dine at Mr. Thrale's at Streatham, to which I agreed. I had lent him An Account of Scotland, in 1702, written by a man of various enquiry, an English chaplain to a regiment stationed there. 

JOHNSON. 'It is sad stuff, Sir, miserably written, as books in general then were. There is now an elegance of style universally diffused. No man now writes so ill as Martin's Account of the Hebrides is written. A man could not write so ill, if he should try. Set a merchant's clerk now to write, and he'll do better.'

He talked to me with serious concern of a certain female friend's 'laxity of narration, and inattention to truth.'

—'I am as much vexed (said he) at the ease with which she hears it mentioned to her, as at the thing itself. I told her, "Madam, you are contented to hear every day said to you, what the highest of mankind have died for, rather than bear."

— You know, Sir, the highest of mankind have died rather than bear to be told they had uttered a falsehood. Do talk to her of it: I am weary.'

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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 169

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of 18th Century Psychological Disorder Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Missing Hogshead of Claret, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq (pencils, inks, lithography, sustainable water-based paints by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas) for penmarq transplanetary productions™

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E. 'From the experience which I have had,— and I have had a great deal,— I have learnt to think better of mankind.'

JOHNSON. 'From my experience I have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived.' 

J. 'Less just and more beneficent.' 

JOHNSON. 'And really it is wonderful, considering how much attention is necessary for men to take care of themselves, and ward off immediate evils which press upon them, it is wonderful how much they do for others. As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.' 

BOSWELL. 'Perhaps from experience men may be found happier than we suppose.' 

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; the more we enquire, we shall find men the less happy.' 

P. 'As to thinking better or worse of mankind from experience, some cunning people will not be satisfied unless they have put men to the test, as they think. There is a very good story told of Sir Godfrey Kneller, in his character of a Justice of the peace. A gentleman brought his servant before him, upon an accusation of having stolen some money from him; but it having come out that he had laid it purposely in the servant's way, in order to try his honesty, Sir Godfrey sent the master to prison.' 

JOHNSON. 'To resist temptation once, is not a sufficient proof of honesty. If a servant, indeed, were to resist the continued temptation of silver lying in a window, as some people let it lye, when he is sure his master does not know how much there is of it, he would give a strong proof of honesty. But this is a proof to which you have no right to put a man. You know, humanly speaking, there is a certain degree of temptation, which will overcome any virtue. Now, in so far as you approach temptation to a man, you do him an injury; and, if he is overcome, you share his guilt.' 

P. 'And, when once overcome, it is easier for him to be got the better of again.' 

BOSWELL. 'Yes, you are his seducer; you have debauched him. I have known a man resolved to put friendship to the test, by asking a friend to lend him money merely with that view, when he did not want it.' 

JOHNSON. 'That is very wrong, Sir. Your friend may be a narrow man, and yet have many good qualities: narrowness may be his only fault. Now you are trying his general character as a friend, by one particular singly, in which he happens to be defective, when, in truth, his character is composed of many particulars.'

E. 'I understand the hogshead of claret, which this society was favoured with by our friend the Dean, is nearly out; I think he should be written to, to send another of the same kind. Let the request be made with a happy ambiguity of expression, so that we may have the chance of his sending it also as a present.' 

JOHNSON. 'I am willing to offer my services as secretary on this occasion.' 

P. 'As many as are for Dr. Johnson being secretary hold up your hands.— Carried unanimously.' 

BOSWELL. 'He will be our Dictator.' 

JOHNSON. 'No, the company is to dictate to me. I am only to write for wine; and I am quite disinterested, as I drink none; I shall not be suspected of having forged the application. I am no more than humble scribe.'

E. 'Then you shall pre-scribe.'

JOHNSON. 'Were I your Dictator you should have no wine. Rome was ruined by luxury,' (smiling.)

E. 'If you allow no wine as Dictator, you shall not have me for your master of horse.'

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part 170

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 168

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of 18th Century Illustrated Literature; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Brave Little Urchin, the Olney Community College Press.

Art and layout personally supervised by rhoda penmarq (pencils, inks, lead-based paints by eddie el greco; lettering by "roy dismas) for the penmarq/sternwall™ ateliers et cie.

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On Friday, April 3, I dined with him in London, in a company where were present several eminent men, whom I shall not name, but distinguish their parts in the conversation by different letters.

F. 'I have been looking at this famous antique marble dog of Mr. Jennings, valued at a thousand guineas, said to be Alcibiades's dog.' 

JOHNSON. 'His tail then must be docked. That was the mark of Alcibiades's dog.' 

E. 'A thousand guineas! The representation of no animal whatever is worth so much, at this rate a dead dog would indeed be better than a living lion.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated. Every thing that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that shews man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable. The first man who balanced a straw upon his nose; who rode upon three horses at a time; in short, all such men deserved the applause of mankind, not on account of the use of what they did, but of the dexterity which they exhibited.' 

BOSWELL. 'Yet a misapplication of time and assiduity is not to be encouraged. Addison, in one of his Spectators, commends the judgement of a King, who, as a suitable reward to a man that by long perseverance had attained to the art of throwing a barleycorn through the eye of a needle, gave him a bushel of barley.' 

JOHNSON. 'He must have been a King of Scotland, where barley is scarce.' 

F. 'One of the most remarkable antique figures of an animal is the boar at Florence.' 

JOHNSON. 'The first boar that is well made in marble, should be preserved as a wonder. When men arrive at a facility of making boars well, then the workmanship is not of such value, but they should however be preserved as examples, and as a greater security for the restoration of the art, should it be lost.'

E. 'We hear prodigious complaints at present of emigration. I am convinced that emigration makes a country more populous.' 

J. 'That sounds very much like a paradox.' 

E. 'Exportation of men, like exportation of all other commodities, makes more be produced.' 

JOHNSON. 'But there would be more people were there not emigration, provided there were food for more.' 

E. 'No; leave a few breeders, and you'll have more people than if there were no emigration.' 

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, it is plain there will be more people, if there are more breeders. Thirty cows in good pasture will produce more calves than ten cows, provided they have good bulls.' 

E. 'There are bulls enough in Ireland.' 

JOHNSON. (smiling,) 'So, Sir, I should think from your argument.' 

C. 'It is remarkable that the most unhealthy countries, where there are the most destructive diseases, such as Egypt and Bengal, are the most populous.' 

JOHNSON. 'Countries which are the most populous have the most destructive diseases. That is the true state of the proposition.' 

C. 'Holland is very unhealthy, yet it is exceedingly populous.' 

JOHNSON. 'I know not that Holland is unhealthy. But its populousness is owing to an influx of people from all other countries. Disease cannot be the cause of populousness, for it not only carries off a great proportion of the people, but those who are left are weakened and unfit for the purposes of increase.'

R. 'Mr. E., I don't mean to flatter, but when posterity reads one of your speeches in Parliament, it will be difficult to believe that you took so much pains, knowing with certainty that it could produce no effect, that not one vote would be gained by it.'

E. 'Waiving your compliment to me, I shall say in general, that it is very well worth while for a man to take pains to speak well in Parliament. A man, who has vanity, speaks to display his talents; and if a man speaks well, he gradually establishes a certain reputation and consequence in the general opinion, which sooner or later will have its political reward.' 

JOHNSON. 'And, Sir, there is a gratification of pride. Though we cannot out-vote them we will out-argue them. They shall not do wrong without its being shown both to themselves and to the world.' 

E. 'The House of Commons is a mixed body. It is a mass by no means pure; but neither is it wholly corrupt, though there is a large proportion of corruption in it. There are many honest well-meaning country gentleman who are in parliament only to keep up the consequence of their families. Upon most of these a good speech will have influence.' 

JOHNSON. 'We are all more or less governed by interest. But interest will not make us do every thing. In a case which admits of doubt, we try to think on the side which is for our interest, and generally bring ourselves to act accordingly. In the House of Commons there are members enough who will not vote what is grossly unjust or absurd. No, Sir, there must always be right enough, or appearance of right, to keep wrong in countenance.' 

JOHNSON. 'I have been reading Thicknesse's Travels, which I think are entertaining.'

BOSWELL. 'What, Sir, a good book?'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, to read once; I do not say you are to make a study of it, and digest it; and I believe it to be a true book in his intention. All travellers generally mean to tell truth; though Thicknesse observes, upon Smollet's account of his alarming a whole town in France by firing a blunderbuss, that he would be loth to say Smollet had told two lies in one page; but he had found the only town in France where these things could have happened.

Travellers must often be mistaken. In every thing, except where mensuration can be applied, they may honestly differ. There has been, of late, a strange turn in travellers to be displeased.' 

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part 169

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 167

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of 18th Century “Bromance” Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Purloined Periwig, the Olney Community College Press.

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He returned next day to Streatham, to Mr. Thrale's; where, as Mr. Strahan once complained to me, 'he was in a great measure absorbed from the society of his old friends.' I was kept in London by business, and wrote to him on the 27th, that a separation from him for a week, when we were so near, was equal to a separation for a year, when we were at four hundred miles distance. 

I went to Streatham on Monday, March 30. Before he appeared, Mrs. Thrale made a very characteristical remark:—

'I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise any thing, even what he likes, extravagantly.'

At dinner he laughed at querulous declamations against the age, on account of luxury,— increase of London,— scarcity of provisions,— and other such topicks.

'Houses (said he) will be built till rents fall: and corn is more plentiful now than ever it was.'


I had before dinner repeated a ridiculous story told me by an old man who had been a passenger with me in the stage-coach to-day. Mrs. Thrale, having taken occasion to allude to it in talking to me, called it 'The story told you by the old woman.'

—'Now, Madam, (said I,) give me leave to catch you in the fact; it was not an old woman, but an old man, whom I mentioned as having told me this.' 

I presumed to take an opportunity, in presence of Johnson, of shewing this lively lady how ready she was, unintentionally, to deviate from exact authenticity of narration. 

'Thomas à Kempis (he observed) must be a good book, as the world has opened its arms to receive it. It is said to have been printed, in one language or other, as many times as there have been months since it first came out. I always was struck with this sentence in it: “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”'

When we were at tea and coffee, there came in Lord Trimlestown, in whose family was an ancient Irish peerage, but it suffered by taking the generous side in the troubles of the last century. He was a man of pleasing conversation, and was accompanied by a young gentleman, his son.

I mentioned that I had in my possession the Life of Sir Robert Sibbald, the celebrated Scottish antiquary, and founder of the Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh, in the original manuscript in his own handwriting; and that it was I believed the most natural and candid account of himself that ever was given by any man. 

As an instance, he tells that the Duke of Perth, then Chancellor of Scotland, pressed him very much to come over to the Roman Catholick faith: that he resisted all his Grace's arguments for a considerable time, till one day he felt himself, as it were, instantaneously convinced, and with tears in his eyes ran into the Duke's arms, and embraced the ancient religion; that he continued very steady in it for some time, and accompanied his Grace to London one winter, and lived in his household; that there he found the rigid fasting prescribed by the church very severe upon him; that this disposed him to reconsider the controversy, and having then seen that he was in the wrong, he returned to Protestantism. I talked of some time or other publishing this curious life. 

MRS. THRALE. 'I think you had as well let alone that publication. To discover such weakness, exposes a man when he is gone.' 

JOHNSON. 'Nay, it is an honest picture of human nature. How often are the primary motives of our greatest actions as small as Sibbald's, for his re-conversion.' 

MRS. THRALE. 'But may they not as well be forgotten?' 

JOHNSON. 'No, Madam, a man loves to review his own mind. That is the use of a diary, or journal.' 

LORD TRIMLESTOWN. 'True, Sir. As the ladies love to see themselves in a glass; so a man likes to see himself in his journal.' 

BOSWELL. 'A very pretty allusion.' 

JOHNSON. 'Yes, indeed.' 

BOSWELL. 'And as a lady adjusts her dress before a mirror, a man adjusts his character by looking at his journal.' 

I next year found the very same thought in Atterbury's Funeral Sermon on Lady Cutts; where, having mentioned her Diary, he says, 'In this glass she every day dressed her mind.' This is a proof of coincidence, and not of plagiarism; for I had never read that sermon before.

Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. 

'Accustom your children (said he) constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.'

BOSWELL. 'It may come to the door: and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened.' 

Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, 'Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching.' 

JOHNSON. 'Well, Madam, and you ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.'

In his review of Dr. Warton's Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope, Johnson has given the following salutary caution upon this subject:—

'Some men relate what they think, as what they know; some men of confused memories and habitual inaccuracy, ascribe to one man what belongs to another; and some talk on, without thought or care. A few men are sufficient to broach falsehoods, which are afterwards innocently diffused by successive relaters.'

Had he lived to read what Sir John Hawkins and Mrs. Piozzi have related concerning himself, how much would he have found his observation illustrated. He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of falsehood, voluntary or unintentional, that I never knew any person who upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the incredulus odi {Horace: “Being sceptical, I detest it.” – Editor}. He would say, with a significant look and decisive tone, 

'It is not so. Do not tell this again.' 

He inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degrees of falsehood; the effect of which, as Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me, has been, that all who were of his school are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy, which they would not have possessed in the same degree, if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.

Talking of ghosts, he said, 'It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.'

He said, 'John Wesley's conversation is good, but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do.'

(classix comix™ is brought to you by Bob’s Bowery Bar, conveniently located at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “I should like to remind the older members of our audience of the Senior Citizens’ Early-Bird Special at my favorite urban caravanserai, Bob’s Bowery Bar: all drinks and food half-price between the hours of three and five o’clock in the afternoon, seven days a week! Applicants must be at least fifty-six years of age, and with reasonably acceptable means of identification.”

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part 168