Monday, February 2, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 68

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D.,Professor of Pre-Post-Modern English Language Studies, Assistant Darts Team Coach; Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Return of the Bawd from Battersea, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrations by rhoda penmarq for penmarq international enterprises™ (inks and lettering by roy dismas; coloring by eddie el greco). 

to begin at the beginning, click here

for previous chapter, click here

In February, 1767, there happened one of the most remarkable incidents of Johnson's life, which gratified his monarchical enthusiasm, and which he loved to relate with all its circumstances, when requested by his friends. This was his being honoured by a private conversation with his Majesty, in the library at the Queen's house. He had frequently visited those splendid rooms and noble collection of books, which he used to say was more numerous and curious than he supposed any person could have made in the time which the King had employed. Mr. Barnard, the librarian, took care that he should have every accommodation that could contribute to his ease and convenience, while indulging his literary taste in that place; so that he had here a very agreeable resource at leisure hours.

His Majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent, Mr. Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King was, and, in obedience to his Majesty's commands, mentioned that Dr. Johnson was then in the library. His Majesty said he was at leisure, and would go to him; upon which Mr. Barnard took one of the candles that stood on the King's table, and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his Majesty had the key.

Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered him, 'Sir, here is the King.' Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.

His Majesty began by observing, that he understood he came sometimes to the library; and then mentioning his having heard that the Doctor had been lately at Oxford, asked him if he was not fond of going thither. 

To which Johnson answered, that he was indeed fond of going to Oxford sometimes, but was likewise glad to come back again. 

He was then asked whether there were better libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. 

He answered, he believed the Bodleian was larger than any they had at Cambridge; at the same time adding, 'I hope, whether we have more books or not than they have at Cambridge, we shall make as good use of them as they do.'

His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing.

He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge.

The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said 'I do not think you borrow much from any body.'

Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer.

'I should have thought so too, (said the King,) if you had not written so well.'

— Johnson observed to me, upon this, that 'No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay.'

When asked by another friend, at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, whether he made any reply to this high compliment, he answered,

'No, Sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign.'

Perhaps no man who had spent his whole life in courts could have shewn a more nice and dignified sense of true politeness, than Johnson did in this instance.

His Majesty having observed to him that he supposed he must have read a great deal; Johnson answered, that he thought more than he read; that he had read a great deal in the early part of his life, but having fallen into ill health, he had not been able to read much, compared with others: for instance, he said he had not read much, compared with Dr. Warburton. 

Upon which the King said, that he heard Dr. Warburton was a man of such general knowledge, that you could scarce talk with him on any subject on which he was not qualified to speak; and that his learning resembled Garrick's acting, in its universality. 

His Majesty then talked of the controversy between Warburton and Lowth, which he seemed to have read, and asked Johnson what he thought of it. Johnson answered, 'Warburton has most general, most scholastick learning; Lowth is the more correct scholar. I do not know which of them calls names best.' 

'Why truly, (said the King,) when once it comes to calling names, argument is pretty well at an end.'

His Majesty then asked him what he thought of Lord Lyttelton's History, which was then just published. Johnson said, he thought his style pretty good, but that he had blamed Henry the Second rather too much.

'Why, (said the King), they seldom do these things by halves.'

'No, Sir, (answered Johnson), not to Kings.'

But fearing to be misunderstood, he proceeded to explain himself; and immediately subjoined,

'That for those who spoke worse of Kings than they deserved, he could find no excuse; but that he could more easily conceive how some might speak better of them than they deserved, without any ill intention; for, as Kings had much in their power to give, those who were favoured by them would frequently, from gratitude, exaggerate their praises; and as this proceeded from a good motive, it was certainly excusable, as far as errour could be excusable.'

The King then asked him what he thought of Dr. Hill. Johnson answered, that he was an ingenious man, but had no veracity; and immediately mentioned, as an instance of it, an assertion of that writer, that he had seen objects magnified to a much greater degree by using three or four microscopes at a time, than by using one. 'Now, (added Johnson,) every one acquainted with microscopes knows, that the more of them he looks through, the less the object will appear.'

'Why, (replied the King,) this is not only telling an untruth, but telling it clumsily; for, if that be the case, every one who can look through a microscope will be able to detect him.’

'I now, (said Johnson to his friends, when relating what had passed) began to consider that I was depreciating this man in the estimation of his Sovereign, and thought it was time for me to say something that might be more favourable.'

He added, therefore, that Dr. Hill was, notwithstanding, a very curious observer; and if he would have been contented to tell the world no more than he knew, he might have been a very considerable man, and needed not to have recourse to such mean expedients to raise his reputation.    

During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. After the King withdrew, Johnson shewed himself highly pleased with his Majesty's conversation, and gracious behaviour. He said to Mr. Barnard,

'Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.'

And he afterwards observed to Mr. Langton,

'Sir, his manners are those of as fine a gentleman as we may suppose Lewis the Fourteenth or Charles the Second.'

At Sir Joshua Reynolds's, where a circle of Johnson's friends was collected round him to hear his account of this memorable conversation, Dr. Joseph Warton, in his frank and lively manner, was very active in pressing him to mention the particulars. 'Come now, Sir, this is an interesting matter; do favour us with it.' Johnson, with great good humour, complied.

He told them, 'I found his Majesty wished I should talk, and I made it my business to talk. I find it does a man good to be talked to by his Sovereign. In the first place, a man cannot be in a passion—.'

Here some question interrupted him, which is to be regretted, as he certainly would have pointed out and illustrated many circumstances of advantage, from being in a situation, where the powers of the mind are at once excited to vigorous exertion, and tempered by reverential awe.

During all the time in which Dr. Johnson was employed in relating to the circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds's the particulars of what passed between the King and him, Dr. Goldsmith remained unmoved upon a sopha at some distance, affecting not to join in the least in the eager curiosity of the company. He assigned as a reason for his gloom and seeming inattention, that he apprehended Johnson had relinquished his purpose of furnishing him with a Prologue to his play, with the hopes of which he had been flattered; but it was strongly suspected that he was fretting with chagrin and envy at the singular honour Dr. Johnson had lately enjoyed.

At length, the frankness and simplicity of his natural character prevailed. He sprung from the sopha, advanced to Johnson, and in a kind of flutter, from imagining himself in the situation which he had just been hearing described, exclaimed, 

'Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than I should have done; for I should have bowed and stammered through the whole of it.'

(To be continued. This week’s chapter was made possible through a generous endowment from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Foundation for the Furtherance of Excellence in the Arts: “I know where I’ll be every weekday between 4 and 6pm this month – at Bob’s Bowery Bar on the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery,

taking advantage of Bob’s February Doldrums Happy Hour Special of a schooner of Bob’s ‘basement-brewed’ house bock paired with a shot of ‘Bob’s Mom’s homemade applejack’ – a splendid collation, and such a bargain at only $1.25!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales of the Uncanny, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 10pm (EST) Tuesdays.)

part 69

No comments:

Post a Comment