Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 33

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Epistemological Studies; Assistant Fencing Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Impertinent Poetaster, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrated by rhoda penmarq for “the penmarq™ ateliers" (lettering begun by roy dismas, completed by eddie el greco). 

to begin at the beginning, click here

for previous chapter, click here

Johnson this year gave at once a proof of his benevolence, quickness of apprehension, and admirable art of composition, in the assistance which he gave to Mr. Zachariah Williams, father of the blind lady whom he had humanely received under his roof.

Mr. Williams had followed the profession of physick in Wales; but having a very strong propensity to the study of natural philosophy, had made many ingenious advances towards a discovery of the longitude, and repaired to London in hopes of obtaining the great parliamentary reward. He failed of success; but Johnson having made himself master of his principles and experiments, wrote for him a pamphlet, published in quarto, with the following title:

An Account of an Attempt to ascertain the Longitude at Sea, by an exact Theory of the Variation of the Magnetical Needle; with a Table of the Variations at the most remarkable Cities in Europe, from the year 1660 to 1680. 

This pamphlet Johnson presented to the Bodleian Library. On a blank leaf of it is pasted a paragraph cut out of a news-paper, containing an account of the death and character of Williams, plainly written by Johnson.

In July this year he had formed some scheme of mental improvement, the particular purpose of which does not appear. But we find in his Prayers and Meditations, p. 25, a prayer entitled 'On the Study of Philosophy, as an Instrument of living;' and after it follows a note, 'This study was not pursued.'

On the 13th of the same month he wrote in his Journal the following scheme of life, for Sunday: 

'Having lived' (as he with tenderness of conscience expresses himself) 'not without an habitual reverence for the Sabbath, yet without that attention to its religious duties which Christianity requires; 

'1. To rise early, and in order to it, to go to sleep early on Saturday.

'2. To use some extraordinary devotion in the morning. 

'3. To examine the tenour of my life, and particularly the last week; and to mark my advances in religion, or recession from it. 

'4. To read the Scripture methodically with such helps as are at hand. 

'5. To go to church twice.

'6. To read books of Divinity, either speculative or practical.

'7. To instruct my family.

'8. To wear off by meditation any worldly soil contracted in the week.'

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.'

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 year we find from his private devotions, that he had then recovered from sickness; and in February that his eye was restored to its use.

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.

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.

Some of his reviews in this Magazine are very short accounts of the pieces noticed, 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 Common-wealth 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.'


'A people, who, while they were poor, robbed mankind; and as soon as they became rich, robbed one another.'

(To be continued. This week’s episode brought to you by Bob’s Bowery Bar: “Where a man can sit quietly drinking by himself and not be bothered.”)

part 34

No comments:

Post a Comment