Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 39

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Nearly Forgotten English Literature; Bocce Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Reluctant Highwayman, the Olney Community College Press.

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1760: ÆTAT. 51.—

In 1760 he wrote An Address of the Painters to George III on his Accession to the Throne of these Kingdoms. He also wrote for Mr. Baretti, the dedication of his Italian and English Dictionary to the Marquis of Abreu, then Envoy-Extraordinary from Spain at the Court of Great Britain.

Johnson was now neither very idle, nor very busy with his Shakspeare; for I can find no other public composition by him except an introduction to the proceedings of the Committee for cloathing the French Prisoners; one of the many proofs that he was ever awake to the calls of humanity;

and an account which he gave in the Gentlemen's Magazine of Mr. Tytler's acute and able vindication of Mary Queen of Scots. 

The generosity of Johnson's feelings shines forth in the following sentence:— 

"It has now been fashionable, for near half a century, to defame and vilify the house of Stuart and, to exalt and magnify the reign of Elizabeth. The Stuarts have found few apologists, for the dead cannot pay for praise; and who will, without reward, oppose the tide of popularity? Yet there remains still among us, not wholly extinguished, a zeal for truth, a desire of establishing right in opposition to fashion".

It should seem, however, that he had at this period a floating intention of writing a history of the recent and wonderful successes of the British arms in all quarters of the globe; for among his resolutions or memorandums, September 18, 

'send for books for Hist. of War.' 

How much is it to be regretted that this intention was not fulfilled. His majestick expression would have carried down to the latest posterity the glorious achievements of his country with the same fervent glow which they produced on the mind of the time. He would have been under no temptation to deviate in any degree from truth, which he held very sacred, or to take a licence, which a learned divine told me he once seemed, in a conversation, jocularly to allow to historians.

'There are (said he) inexcusable lies, and consecrated lies. For instance, we are told that on the arrival of the news of the unfortunate battle of Fontenoy, every heart beat, and every eye was in tears. Now we know, that no man eat his dinner the worse; to say there was, (smiling) may be reckoned a consecrated lie.'



'You that travel about the world, have more materials for letters, than I who stay at home; and should, therefore, write with frequency equal to your opportunities. I should be glad to have all England surveyed by you, if you would impart your observations in narratives as agreeable as your last. 

‘Knowledge is always to be wished to those who can communicate it well. While you have been riding and running, and seeing the tombs of the learned, and the camps of the valiant, I have only staid at home, and intended to do great things, which I have not done. 

‘Beau went away to Cheshire, and has not yet found his way back.  

'I am very sincerely solicitous for the preservation or curing of Mr. Langton's sight, and am glad that the chirurgeon at Coventry gives him so much hope.

'Of dear Mrs. Langton you give me no account; which is the less friendly, as you know how highly I think of her, and how much I interest myself in her health. I suppose you told her of my opinion.

'Let me hear from you again, wherever you are, or whatever you are doing; whether you wander or sit still, plant trees or make Rusticks, play with your sisters or muse alone; and in return I will tell you the success of Sheridan, who at this instant is playing Cato, and has already played Richard twice.

He had more company the second than the first night, and will make, I believe, a good figure in the whole, though his faults seem to be very many; some of natural deficience, and some of laborious affectation. He has, I think, no power of assuming either that dignity or elegance which some men, who have little of either in common life, can exhibit on the stage. His voice when strained is unpleasing, and when low is not always heard. He seems to think too much on the audience, and turns his face too often to the galleries. 

‘However, I wish him well; and among other reasons, because I like his wife. 

'Make haste to write to, dear Sir,

'Your most affectionate servant,


'Oct. 18, 1760.'

1761: ÆTAT. 52.—

In 1761 Johnson appears to have done little.

He was still, no doubt, proceeding in his edition of Shakespeare; but what advances he made in it cannot be ascertained.

He certainly was at this time not active; for in his scrupulous examination of himself on Easter eve, he laments, in his too rigorous mode of censuring his own conduct, that his life, since the communion of the preceding Easter, had been 'dissipated and useless.'

He, however, contributed this year the Preface to Rolt's Dictionary of Trade and Commerce, in which he displays such a clear and comprehensive knowledge of the subject, as might lead the reader to think that its authour had devoted all his life to it. I asked him whether he knew much of Rolt, and of his work. 

'Sir, (said he) I never saw the man, and never read the book. 

‘The booksellers wanted a Preface to a Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. I knew very well what such a Dictionary should be, and I wrote a Preface accordingly.'

Rolt, who wrote a great deal for the booksellers, was, as Johnson told me, a singular character. Though not in the least acquainted with him, he used to say, 'I am just come from Sam. Johnson.' 

This was a sufficient specimen of his vanity and impudence. But he gave a more eminent proof of it in our sister kingdom, as Dr. Johnson informed me. When Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination first came out, he did not put his name to the poem. Rolt went over to Dublin, published an edition of it, and put his own name to it. Upon the fame of this he lived for several months, being entertained at the best tables as 'the ingenious Mr. Rolt.'

His conversation indeed, did not discover much of the fire of a poet; but it was recollected, that both Addison and Thomson were equally dull till excited by wine. Akenside having been informed of this imposition, vindicated his right by publishing the poem with its real authour's name.

Several instances of such literary fraud have been detected.

The Reverend Dr. Campbell, of St. Andrew's, wrote An Enquiry into the original of Moral Virtue, the manuscript of which he sent to Mr. Innes, a clergyman in England, who was his countryman and acquaintance. Innes published it with his own name to it; and before the imposition was discovered, obtained considerable promotion, as a reward of his merit.

The celebrated Dr. Hugh Blair, and his cousin Mr. George Bannatine, when students in divinity, wrote a poem, entitled, The Resurrection, copies of which were handed about in manuscript. They were, at length, very much surprised to see a pompous edition of it in folio, dedicated to the Princess Dowager of Wales, by a Dr. Douglas, as his own.

Some years ago a little novel, entitled The Man of Feeling, was assumed by Mr. Eccles, a young Irish clergyman, who was afterwards drowned near Bath. He had been at the pains to transcribe the whole book, with blottings, interlineations, and corrections, that it might be shewn to several people as an original.

It was, in truth, the production of Mr. Henry Mackenzie, an Attorney in the Exchequer at Edinburgh, who is the authour of several other ingenious pieces; but the belief with regard to Mr. Eccles became so general, that it was thought necessary for Messieurs Strahan and Cadell to publish an advertisement in the newspapers, contradicting the report, and mentioning that they purchase the copyright of Mr. Mackenzie.

I can conceive this kind of fraud to be very easily practised with successful effrontery. The Filiation of a literary performance is difficult of proof; seldom is there any witness present at its birth. A man, either in confidence or by improper means, obtains possession of a copy of it in manuscript, and boldly publishes it as his own. The true authour, in many cases, may not be able to make his title clear.

Johnson, indeed, from the peculiar features of his literary offspring, might bid defiance to any attempt to appropriate them to others.

'But Shakspeare's magick could not copied be,
Within that circle none durst walk but he!'

(To be continued. This week’s episode brought to you by Bob’s Bowery Bar™ on the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery, open daily from 7am to 4am: “Try Bob’s House-Cured Pig’s Knuckles – The Perfect Match for our ‘Basement-Brewed’ House Bock!”)

part 40

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