Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 38

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Boswelliana; Chess Club Moderator, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Dagenham Dandies, the Olney Community College Press.

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It will be recollected, that during all this year he carried on his Idler, and, no doubt, was proceeding, though slowly, in his edition of Shakspeare. He, however, from that liberality which never failed, when called upon to assist other labourers in literature, found time to translate for Mrs. Lennox's English version of Brumoy, 'A Dissertation on the Greek Comedy,' and 'The General Conclusion’ of the book.

An inquiry into the state of foreign countries was an object that seems at all times to have interested Johnson. Hence Mr. Newbery found no great difficulty in persuading him to write the Introduction to a collection of voyages and travels published by him under the title of The World Displayed; the first volume of which appeared this year, and the remaining volumes in subsequent years. 

I would ascribe to this year the following letter to a son of one of his early friends at Lichfield, Mr. Joseph Simpson, Barrister, and authour of a tract entitled Reflections on the Study of the Law

'If you married imprudently, you miscarried at your own hazard, at an age when you had a right of choice. It would be hard if the man might not choose his own wife, who has a right to plead before the Judges of his country.

'If your imprudence has ended in difficulties and inconveniences, you are yourself to support them; and, with the help of a little better health, you would support them and conquer them. 

‘Small debts are like small shot; they are rattling on every side, and can scarcely be escaped without a wound: great debts are like cannon; of loud noise, but little danger. You must, therefore, be enabled to discharge petty debts, that you may have leisure, with security, to struggle with the rest. Neither the great nor little debts disgrace you. I am sure you have my esteem for the courage with which you contracted them, and the spirit with which you endure them. I wish my esteem could be of more use. 

‘I have been invited, or have invited myself, to several parts of the kingdom; and will not incommode my dear Lucy by coming to Lichfield, while her present lodging is of any use to her. I hope, in a few days, to be at leisure, and to make visits.

‘Whither I shall fly is matter of no importance. A man unconnected is at home every where; unless he may be said to be at home no where.

I am, my dear Sir,

'Affectionately yours,



He now refreshed himself by an excursion to Oxford, of which the following short characteristical notice, in his own words, is preserved:—

'—— is now making tea for me. I have been in my gown ever since I came here. It was, at my first coming, quite new and handsome. 

‘I have swum thrice, which I had disused for many years. 

‘I have proposed to Vansittart, climbing over the wall, but he has refused me. 

‘And I have clapped my hands till they are sore, at Dr. King's speech.'

His negro servant, Francis Barber, having left him, and been some time at sea, not pressed as has been supposed, but with his own consent, it appears from a letter to John Wilkes, Esq., from Dr. Smollet, that his master kindly interested himself in procuring his release from a state of life of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence. 

He said, 'No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.' 

And at another time, 'A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.' 

The letter was as follows:—


'I am again your petitioner, in behalf of that great CHAM of literature, Samuel Johnson. 

‘His black servant, whose name is Francis Barber, has been pressed on board the Stag Frigate, Captain Angel, and our lexicographer is in great distress. He says the boy is a sickly lad, of a delicate frame, and particularly subject to a malady in his throat, which renders him very unfit for his Majesty's service. 

‘You know what manner of animosity the said Johnson has against you; and I dare say you desire no other opportunity of resenting it than that of laying him under an obligation. He was humble enough to desire my assistance on this occasion, though he and I were never cater-cousins;

and I gave him to understand that I would make application to my friend Mr. Wilkes, who, perhaps, by his interest with Dr. Hay and Mr. Elliot, might be able to procure the discharge of his lacquey. 

It would be superfluous to say more on the subject, which I leave to your own consideration; but I cannot let slip this opportunity of declaring that I am, with the most inviolable esteem and attachment, dear Sir, 

'Your affectionate, obliged, humble servant, 


Mr. Wilkes, who upon all occasions has acted, as a private gentleman, with most polite liberality, applied to his friend Sir George Hay, then one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; and Francis Barber was discharged, as he has told me, without any wish of his own. He found his old master in Chambers in the Inner Temple, and returned to his service.

What particular new scheme of life Johnson had in view this year, I have not discovered; but that he meditated one of some sort, is clear from his private devotions, in which we find, 'the change of outward things which I am now to make;' and, 'Grant me the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that the course which I am now beginning may proceed according to thy laws, and end in the enjoyment of thy favour.' 

But he did not, in fact, make any external or visible change.

At this time, there being a competition among the architects of London to be employed in the building of Blackfriars-bridge, a question was very warmly agitated whether semicircular or elliptical arches were preferable. In the design offered by Mr. Mylne the elliptical form was adopted, and therefore it was the great object of his rivals to attack it. Johnson's regard for his friend Mr. Gwyn induced him to engage in this controversy against Mr. Mylne; and after being at considerable pains to study the subject, he wrote three several letters in the Gazetteer, in opposition to his plan. 

If it should be remarked that this was a controversy which lay quite out of Johnson's way, let it be remembered, that after all, his employing his powers of reasoning and eloquence upon a subject which he had studied on the moment, is not more strange than what we often observe in lawyers,

who are sometimes obliged to pick up a temporary knowledge of an art or science, of which they understood nothing till their brief was delivered, and appear to be much masters of it. In like manner, members of the legislature frequently introduce and expatiate upon subjects of which they have informed themselves for the occasion.


(To be continued. This week’s episode made sponsored in part by Bob’s Bowery Bar™: “Enjoy Bob’s Spring Special: a pint of our ‘Cellar-Brewed’ House Bock with a shot of Heaven Hill Bourbon @$2.50 from 4pm-to-7pm weekdays; limit four per customer.”)

part 39

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