Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Unpopular Culture; Assistant Rackets Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Jolly Highwayman, the Olney Community College Press.
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Your kindness is so great, and my claim to any particular regard from you so little, that I am at a loss how to express my sense of your favours; but I am, indeed, much pleased to be thus distinguished by you.
'I am ashamed to tell you that my Shakspeare will not be out so soon as I promised my subscribers; but I did not promise them more than I promised myself. It will, however, be published before summer.
'I have sent you a bundle of proposals, which, I think, do not profess more than I have hitherto performed. I have printed many of the plays, and have hitherto left very few passages unexplained; where I am quite at a loss, I confess my ignorance, which is seldom done by commentators.
'I am, Sir,
'Your most obliged
'And most humble servant,
'London, March 8, 1758.'
Dr. Burney has kindly favoured me with the following memorandum, which I take the liberty to insert in his own genuine easy style. I love to exhibit sketches of my illustrious friend by various eminent hands.
Soon after this, Mr. Burney, during a visit to the capital, had an interview with him in Gough-square, where he dined and drank tea with him, and was introduced to the acquaintance of Mrs. Williams. After dinner, Mr. Johnson proposed to Mr. Burney to go up with him into his garret, which being accepted, he there found about five or six Greek folios, a deal writing-desk, and a chair and a half.
Johnson giving to his guest the entire seat, tottered himself on one with only three legs and one arm. Here he gave Mr. Burney Mrs. Williams's history, and shewed him some volumes of his Shakspeare already printed, to prove that he was in earnest. Upon Mr. Burney's opening the first volume, at the Merchant of Venice, he observed to him, that he seemed to be more severe on Warburton than Theobald.
‘O poor Tib.! (said Johnson) he was ready knocked down to my hands; Warburton stands between me and him.’
‘But, Sir, (said Mr. Burney,) you'll have Warburton upon your bones, won't you?’
‘No, Sir; he'll not come out: he'll only growl in his den.’
‘But you think, Sir, that Warburton is a superiour critick to Theobald?’
"O, Sir, he'd make two-and-fifty Theobalds, cut into slices! The worst of Warburton is, that he has a rage for saying something, when there's nothing to be said.’
Mr. Burney then asked him whether he had seen the letter which Warburton had written in answer to a pamphlet addressed "To the most impudent Man alive." He answered in the negative.
Mr. Burney asked him then if he had seen Warburton's book against Bolingbroke's Philosophy?
"No, Sir, I have never read Bolingbroke's impiety, and therefore am not interested about its confutation."'
On the fifteenth of April he began a new periodical paper, entitled The Idler, which came out every Saturday in a weekly news-paper, called The Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette, published by Newbery.
The Idler is evidently the work of the same mind which produced The Rambler, but has less body and more spirit. It has more variety of real life, and greater facility of language. He describes the miseries of idleness, with the lively sensations of one who has felt them; and in his private memorandums while engaged in it, we find:
'This year I hope to learn diligence.'
Many of these excellent essays were written as hastily as an ordinary letter. Mr. Langton remembers Johnson, when on a visit at Oxford, asking him one evening how long it was till the post went out; and on being told about half an hour, he exclaimed, 'then we shall do very well.'
He upon this instantly sat down and finished an Idler, which it was necessary should be in London the next day.
Mr. Langton having signified a wish to read it, 'Sir, (said he) you shall not do more than I have done myself.'
He then folded it up and sent it off.
Yet there are in The Idler several papers which shew as much profundity of thought, and labour of language, as any of this great man's writings. In this series of essays he exhibits admirable instances of grave humour, of which he had an uncommon share. Nor on some occasions has he repressed that power of sophistry which he possessed in so eminent a degree.
In No. 11, he treats with the utmost contempt the opinion that our mental faculties depend, in some degree, upon the weather; an opinion, which they who have never experienced its truth are not to be envied; and of which he himself could not but be sensible, as the effects of weather upon him were very visible. Yet thus he declaims:
'Surely, nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason, than to resign its powers to the influence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind for the only blessings which nature has put into our power, tranquillity and benevolence. This distinction of seasons is produced only by imagination operating on luxury. To temperance, every day is bright; and every hour is propitious to diligence.
He that shall resolutely excite his faculties, or exert his virtues, will soon make himself superiour to the seasons; and may set at defiance the morning mist and the evening damp, the blasts of the east, and the clouds of the south.'
'I think the Romans call it Stoicism.'
Alas! it is too certain, that where the frame has delicate fibres, and there is a fine sensibility, such influences of the air are irresistible. He might as well have bid defiance to the ague, the palsy, and all other bodily disorders, Such boasting of the mind is false elevation.
His unqualified ridicule of rhetorical gesture or action is not, surely, a test of truth; yet we cannot help admiring how well it is adapted to produce the effect which he wished.
'Neither the judges of our laws, nor the representatives of our people, would be much affected by laboured gesticulation, or believe any man the more because he rolled his eyes, or puffed his cheeks, or spread abroad his arms, or stamped the ground, or thumped his breast; or turned his eyes sometimes to the ceiling, and sometimes to the floor.'
In 1759, in the month of January, his mother died at the great age of ninety, an event which deeply affected him; not that 'his mind had acquired no firmness by the contemplation of mortality;' but that his reverential affection for her was not abated by years, as indeed he retained all his tender feelings even to the latest period of his life.
I have been told that he regretted much his not having gone to visit his mother for several years, previous to her death. But he was constantly engaged in literary labours which confined him to London; and though he had not the comfort of seeing his aged parent, he contributed liberally to her support.
(To be continued. This week’s episode brought to you by Bob’s Bowery Bar™, at the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “Try Bob’s Passover Special “Cellar-Fermented ‘Vintage Port Wine’, guaranteed ‘kosher’!”)