On the 14th we had another evening by ourselves at the Mitre.
It happening to be a very rainy night, I made some common-place observations on the relaxation of nerves and depression of spirits which such weather occasioned; adding, however, that it was good for the vegetable creation. Johnson, who, as we have already seen, denied that the temperature of the air had any influence on the human frame, answered, with a smile of ridicule,
'Why yes, Sir, it is good for vegetables, and for the animals who eat those vegetables, and for the animals who eat those animals.'
This observation of his aptly enough introduced a good supper; and I soon forgot, in Johnson's company, the influence of a moist atmosphere.
Feeling myself now quite at ease as his companion, though I had all possible reverence for him, I expressed a regret that I could not be so easy with my father, though he was not much older than Johnson. I asked him the reason of this.
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I am a man of the world. I live in the world, and I take, in some degree, the colour of the world as it moves along. Your father is a Judge in a remote part of the island, and all his notions are taken from the old world. Besides, Sir, there must always be a struggle between a father and son, while one aims at power and the other at independence.'
I said, I was afraid my father would force me to be a lawyer.
JOHNSON. 'Sir, you need not be afraid of his forcing you to be a laborious practising lawyer; that is not in his power. For as the proverb says, "One man may lead a horse to the water, but twenty cannot make him drink." He may be displeased that you are not what he wishes you to be; but that displeasure will not go far. If he insists only on your having as much law as is necessary for a man of property, and then endeavours to get you into Parliament, he is quite in the right.'
He enlarged very convincingly upon the excellence of rhyme over blank verse in English poetry. I mentioned to him that Dr. Adam Smith, in his lectures upon composition, when I studied under him in the College of Glasgow, had maintained the same opinion strenuously, and I repeated some of his arguments.
JOHNSON. 'Sir, I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other; but had I known that he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have HUGGED him.'
Talking of those who denied the truth of Christianity, he said,
'It is always easy to be on the negative side. If a man were now to deny that there is salt upon the table, you could not reduce him to an absurdity. Come, let us try this a little further.
‘I deny that Canada is taken, and I can support my denial by pretty good arguments. The French are a much more numerous people than we; and it is not likely that they would allow us to take it.
‘"But the ministry have assured us, in all the formality of The Gazette, that it is taken."
‘— Very true. But the ministry have put us to an enormous expence by the war in America, and it is their interest to persuade us that we have got something for our money.
‘"But the fact is confirmed by thousands of men who were at the taking of it."
‘— Ay, but these men have still more interest in deceiving us. They don't want that you should think the French have beat them, but that they have beat the French.
‘Now suppose you should go over and find that it is really taken, that would only satisfy yourself; for when you come home we will not believe you. We will say, you have been bribed.
‘— Yet, Sir, notwithstanding all these plausible objections, we have no doubt that Canada is really ours.
‘Such is the weight of common testimony. How much stronger are the evidences of the Christian religion!'
'Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good. A young man should read five hours in a day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge.’
To such a degree of unrestrained frankness had he now accustomed me, that in the course of this evening I talked of the numerous reflections which had been thrown out against him on account of his having accepted a pension from his present Majesty.
'Why, Sir, (said he, with a hearty laugh,) it is a mighty foolish noise that they make. I have accepted of a pension as a reward which has been thought due to my literary merit; and now that I have this pension, I am the same man in every respect that I have ever been; I retain the same principles. It is true, that I cannot now curse (smiling) the House of Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James's health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for. But, Sir, I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover, and drinking King James's health, are amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year.'
(To be continued. This project is made possible in part by a generous grant from Bob’s Bowery Bar™ at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Allow me to recommend ‘Bob’s Happy Hour Special’– a cold beaded pint of Bob’s justifiably famous ‘basement-brewed’ house bock and a shot of Heaven Sent bonded bourbon:
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Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of 18th Century Epistemological Studies, Assistant Volleyball Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Who Filched Mrs. Piozzi’s Cask of Sack? (the Olney Community College Press).
Illustrated by rhoda penmarq (colors by eddie el greco; inking by roy dismas) for “sacred cow productions, ltd”.
to begin selections from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, click here
for previous selection from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, click here
to begin at the beginning of Boswell's Life of Johnson, click here
for previous chapter of Boswell's Life of Johnson, click here
Gabbler A prater; a chattering fellow.
Gadfly. A fly that when he stings the cattle make them gad or run madly about.
Gaggle. To make noise like a goose.
Gallows. A beam laid over two posts, on which malefactors are hanged.
Gang. A number herding together; a troop; a company; a tribe; a herd. It is seldom used but in contempt or abhorrence.
Oh, you panderly rascals! there's a knot, a gang, a pack, a conspiracy against me. Shakes. Merry Wives of Windsor.
Gewgaw. A showy trifle; a toy; a bauble; a splendid plaything.
1. The soul of man.
2. A spirit appearing after death.
3. To give up the Ghost. To die; to yield up the spirit into the hands of God.
4. The third person in the adorable Trinity, called the Holy Ghost.
Gibcat. An old worn-out cat.
I am as melancholy as a gibcat, or a lugg’d bear. Shaksp.
Gibe. Sneer; hint of contempt by word or look; scoff; act or expression of scorn; taunt.
Mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns
That dwell in ev'ry region of his face. Shakesp. Othello.
Gipsy. A vagabond who pretends to foretell futurity, commonly by palmestry or physiognomy.
Glory. The felicity of heaven prepared for those that please God.
Gonorrhoea. A morbid running of venereal hurts.
Goose. A large waterfowl proverbially noted, I know not why, for foolishness.
Gormandizer. A voracious eater.
Grammaticaster. A mean verbal pedant; a low grammarian.
Gynecocrasay. Petticoat government; female power.
(Our illustrated adaptation of Boswell’s Life of Johnson will continue next week. This project was made possible in part by a generous grant from Bob’s Bowery Bar™, at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “Bob’s Bowery Bar – perhaps the last unpretentious and reasonably-priced haven for a drinking man or woman in lower Manhattan.
Be sure to try Bob’s justifiably famous ‘basement-brewed’ house bock, which I find goes particularly well with ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ excellent Beef Mulligan!” – Horace P. Sternwall, bestselling author of Hack: Memoirs of the Literary Life.)
On Tuesday the 5th of July, I again visited Johnson. He told me he had looked into the poems of a pretty voluminous writer, Mr. (now Dr.) John Ogilvie, one of the Presbyterian ministers of Scotland, which had lately come out, but could find no thinking in them.
BOSWELL. 'Is there not imagination in them, Sir?'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, there is in them what was imagination, but it is no more imagination in him, than sound is sound in the echo. And his diction too is not his own. We have long ago seen white-robed innocence, and flower-bespangled meads.'
Talking of London, he observed,
'Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists.'
— I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people. They, whose narrow minds are contracted to the consideration of some one particular pursuit, view it only through that medium.
A politician thinks of it merely as the seat of government in its different departments;
a grazier, as a vast market for cattle;
a mercantile man, as a place where a prodigious deal of business is done upon 'Change;
a dramatick enthusiast, as the grand scene of theatrical entertainments;
a man of pleasure, as an assemblage of taverns, and the great emporium for ladies of easy virtue.
But the intellectual man is struck with it, as comprehending the whole of human life in all its variety, the contemplation of which is inexhaustible.
On Wednesday, July 6, he was engaged to sup with me at my lodgings in Downing-street, Westminster. But on the preceding night my landlord having behaved very rudely to me and some company who were with me, I had resolved not to remain another night in his house.
I was exceedingly uneasy at the awkward appearance I supposed I should make to Johnson and the other gentlemen whom I had invited, not being able to receive them at home, and being obliged to order supper at the Mitre.
I went to Johnson in the morning, and talked of it as a serious distress. He laughed, and said,
'Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence.'
— Were this consideration to be applied to most of the little vexatious incidents of life, by which our quiet is too often disturbed, it would prevent many painful sensations. I have tried it frequently, with good effect.
'There is nothing (continued he) in this mighty misfortune; nay, we shall be better at the Mitre.'
I told him that I had been at Sir John Fielding's office, complaining of my landlord, and had been informed, that though I had taken my lodgings for a year, I might, upon proof of his bad behaviour, quit them when I pleased, without being under an obligation to pay rent for any longer time than while I possessed them.
The fertility of Johnson's mind could shew itself even upon so small a matter as this.
'Why, Sir, (said he,) I suppose this must be the law, since you have been told so in Bow-street. But, if your landlord could hold you to your bargain, and the lodgings should be yours for a year, you may certainly use them as you think fit.
‘So, Sir, you may quarter two life-guardsmen upon him;
‘or you may send the greatest scoundrel you can find into your apartments;
‘or you may say that you want to make some experiments in natural philosophy, and may burn a large quantity of assafoetida in his house.'
I had as my guests this evening at the Mitre tavern, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Goldsmith, Mr. Thomas Davies, Mr. Eccles, an Irish gentleman, for whose agreeable company I was obliged to Mr. Davies, and the Reverend Mr. John Ogilvie, who was desirous of being in company with my illustrious friend, while I, in my turn, was proud to have the honour of shewing one of my countrymen upon what easy terms Johnson permitted me to live with him.
Mr. Ogilvie was unlucky enough to choose for the topick of his conversation the praises of his native country. He began with saying, that there was very rich land round Edinburgh. Goldsmith, who had studied physick there, contradicted this, very untruly, with a sneering laugh. Disconcerted a little by this, Mr. Ogilvie then took new ground, where, I suppose, he thought himself perfectly safe; for he observed, that Scotland had a great many noble wild prospects.
JOHNSON. 'I believe, Sir, you have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects.
‘But, Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!'
This unexpected and pointed sally produced a roar of applause.
(To be continued. This week’s chapter was brought to you with the help of a generous grant from Bob’s Bowery Bar™ at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Bob’s Bowery Bar™ remains as it has remained for lo, these many years: a welcoming dark hidey-hole for the man or woman
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My next meeting with Johnson was on Friday the 1st of July, when he and I and Dr. Goldsmith supped together at the Mitre. I was before this time pretty well acquainted with Goldsmith, who was one of the brightest ornaments of the Johnsonian school. Goldsmith's respectful attachment to Johnson was then at its height; for his own literary reputation had not yet distinguished him so much as to excite a vain desire of competition with his great Master.
He had increased my admiration of the goodness of Johnson's heart, by incidental remarks in the course of conversation, such as, when I mentioned Mr. Levet, whom he entertained under his roof, 'He is poor and honest, which is recommendation enough to Johnson;'
and when I wondered that he was very kind to a man of whom I had heard a very bad character, 'He is now become miserable, and that insures the protection of Johnson.'
Goldsmith attempted this evening to maintain, I suppose from an affectation of paradox, 'that knowledge was not desirable on its own account, for it often was a source of unhappiness.'
JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, that knowledge may in some cases produce unhappiness, I allow. But, upon the whole, knowledge, per se, is certainly an object which every man would wish to attain, although, perhaps, he may not take the trouble necessary for attaining it.'
Dr. John Campbell, the celebrated political and biographical writer, being mentioned, Johnson said,
'Campbell is a good man, a pious man. I am afraid he has not been in the inside of a church for many years; but he never passes a church without pulling off his hat. This shews that he has good principles. I used to go pretty often to Campbell's on a Sunday evening till I began to consider that the shoals of Scotchmen who flocked about him might probably say, when any thing of mine was well done, 'Ay, ay, he has learnt this of CAWMELL!'
He talked very contemptuously of Churchill's poetry, observing that 'it had a temporary currency, only from its audacity of abuse, and being filled with living names, and that it would sink into oblivion.'
I ventured to hint that he was not quite a fair judge, as Churchill had attacked him violently.
JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, I am a very fair judge. He did not attack me violently till he found I did not like his poetry; and his attack on me shall not prevent me from continuing to say what I think of him, from an apprehension that it may be ascribed to resentment. No, Sir, I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still. However, I will acknowledge that I have a better opinion of him now, than I once had; for he has shewn more fertility than I expected. To be sure, he is a tree that cannot produce good fruit: he only bears crabs. But, Sir, a tree that produces a great many crabs is better than a tree which produces only a few.'
Let me here apologize for the imperfect manner in which I am obliged to exhibit Johnson's conversation at this period. In the early part of my acquaintance with him, I was so wrapt in admiration of his extraordinary colloquial talents, and so little accustomed to his peculiar mode of expression, that I found it extremely difficult to recollect and record his conversation with its genuine vigour and vivacity.
In progress of time, when my mind was, as it were, strongly impregnated with the Johnsonian æther, I could, with much more facility and exactness, carry in my memory and commit to paper the exuberant variety of his wisdom and wit.
At this time Miss Williams, as she was then called, though she did not reside with him in the Temple under his roof, but had lodgings in Bolt-court, Fleet-street, had so much of his attention, that he every night drank tea with her before he went home, however late it might be, and she always sat up for him. This, it may be fairly conjectured, was not alone a proof of his regard for her, but of his own unwillingness to go into solitude, before that unseasonable hour at which he had habituated himself to expect the oblivion of repose.
Dr. Goldsmith, being a privileged man, went with him this night, strutting away, and calling to me with an air of superiority, like that of an esoterick over an exoterick disciple of a sage of antiquity,
'I go to Miss Williams.'
I confess, I then envied him this mighty privilege, of which he seemed so proud; but it was not long before I obtained the same mark of distinction.
(To be continued. This week’s chapter sponsored by Bob’s Bowery Bar™ at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery. “Try Bob’s ‘legendary’ home-brewed house bock beer with ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ meatloaf sandwich –
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