Sunday, March 1, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 71

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Basic Remedial English Composition, Assistant Women’s Volleyball Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Importunate Poetaster, the Olney Community College Press

Artwork directed by rhoda penmarq for penmarq/sternwall artistic enterprises, ltd.™ (inks, colors, and layout by roy dismas; lettering by eddie el greco). 

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An essay, written by Mr. Deane, a divine of the Church of England, maintaining the future life of brutes, by an explication of certain parts of the scriptures, was mentioned, and the doctrine insisted on by a gentleman who seemed fond of curious speculation. 

Johnson, who did not like to hear of any thing concerning a future state which was not authorised by the regular canons of orthodoxy, discouraged this talk; and being offended at its continuation, he watched an opportunity to give the gentleman a blow of reprehension. So, when the poor speculatist, with a serious metaphysical pensive face, addressed him,

'But really, Sir, when we see a very sensible dog, we don't know what to think of him;'

Johnson, rolling with joy at the thought which beamed in his eye, turned quickly round, and replied,

'True, Sir: and when we see a very foolish fellow, we don't know what to think of him.'

He then rose up, strided to the fire, and stood for some time laughing and exulting.

He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. 

'That woodcocks, (said he,) fly over to the northern countries is proved, because they have been observed at sea. 

‘Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.’ 

He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glow-worm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.

He talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. 

He said, 'Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God: but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him.

Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife has not been negligent of pleasing.'

Here he discovered that acute discrimination, that solid judgement, and that knowledge of human nature, for which he was upon all occasions remarkable. Taking care to keep in view then moral and religious duty, as understood in our nation, he shewed clearly from reason and good sense, the greater degree of culpability in the one sex deviating from it than the other; and, at the same time, inculcated a very useful lesson as to the way to keep him.

I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. 

JOHNSON. 'Why, no, Sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity.'

  A gentleman talked to him of a lady whom he greatly admired and wished to marry, but was afraid of her superiority of talents. 

'Sir, (said he) you need not be afraid; marry her. Before a year goes about, you'll find that reason much weaker, and that wit not so bright.' 

Yet the gentleman may be justified in his apprehension by one of Dr. Johnson's admirable sentences in his life of Waller: 

'He doubtless praised many whom he would have been afraid to marry; and, perhaps, married one whom he would have been ashamed to praise. Many qualities contribute to domestic happiness, upon which poetry has no colours to bestow; and many airs and sallies may delight imagination, which he who flatters them never can approve.'

He praised Signor Baretti.

'His account of Italy is a very entertaining book; and, Sir, I know no man who carries his head higher in conversation than Baretti. There are strong powers in his mind. He has not, indeed, many hooks; but with what hooks he has, he grapples very forcibly.'

At this time I observed upon the dial-plate of his watch a short Greek inscription, taken from the New Testament, Nux gar erchetai, being the first words of our SAVIOUR'S solemn admonition to the improvement of that time which is allowed us to prepare for eternity: 'the night cometh, when no man can work.'

He sometime afterwards laid aside this dial-plate; and when I asked him the reason, he said, 'It might do very well upon a clock which a man keeps in his closet; but to have it upon his watch which he carries about with him, and which is often looked at by others, might be censured as ostentatious.'

Mr. Steevens is now possessed of the dial-plate inscribed as above.

(To be continued. This week’s chapter was made possible in part through a generous endowment from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Foundation for the Furtherance of Excellence in the Arts. “Allow me to recommend the Bob’s Bowery Bar ‘Nite Owl’ Special: Bob’s Mom’s Organic Chili con Carne (served with Uneeda™ crackers),

only $1.00 a bowl! (Offer good from Midnight to 3am, seven nights a week.) Goes down swell with a schooner of Bob’s justly-renowned ‘basement-brewed’ house bock!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales of the Bowery, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 10pm (EST) Wednesdays.)

part 72

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