Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 73

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Professor of Rarely-Read Classic English Literature, Associate Women’s Roller Derby Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Vice-Ridden Viscount, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrated by rhoda penmarq; color-coördination by roy dismas; lettering by eddie el greco; a penmarq™/bob’s bowery bar™ production. 

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The late Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune, who loved wit more than wine, and men of genius more than sycophants, had a great admiration of Johnson; but from the remarkable elegance of his own manners, was, perhaps, too delicately sensible of the roughness which sometimes appeared in Johnson's behaviour. One evening about this time, when his Lordship did me the honour to sup at my lodgings with Dr. Robertson and several other men of literary distinction, he regretted that Johnson had not been educated with more refinement, and lived more in polished society. 

'No, no, my Lord, (said Signor Baretti,) do with him what you would, he would always have been a bear.' 

'True, (answered the Earl, with a smile,) but he would have been a dancing bear.'

To obviate all the reflections which have gone round the world to Johnson's prejudice, by applying to him the epithet of a bear, let me impress upon my readers a just and happy saying of my friend Goldsmith, who knew him well:

'Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner; but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin.'

In 1769, so far as I can discover, the publick was favoured with nothing of Johnson's composition, either for himself or any of his friends. His Meditations too strongly prove that he suffered much both in body and mind; yet was he perpetually striving against evil, and nobly endeavouring to advance his intellectual and devotional improvement. Every generous and grateful heart must feel for the distresses of so eminent a benefactor to mankind; and now that his unhappiness is certainly known, must respect that dignity of character which prevented him from complaining.

His Majesty having the preceding year instituted the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Johnson had now the honour of being appointed Professor in Ancient Literature. 

I came to London in the autumn, and having informed him that I was going to be married in a few months, I wished to have as much of his conversation as I could before engaging in a state of life which would probably keep me more in Scotland, and prevent me seeing him so often as when I was a single man; but I found he was at Brighthelmstone with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale. 

From Brighthelmstone Dr. Johnson wrote me the following letter, which they who may think that I ought to have suppressed, must have less ardent feelings than I have always avowed.



'Why do you charge me with unkindness? I have omitted nothing that could do you good, or give you pleasure, unless it be that I have forborne to tell you my opinion of your Account of Corsica. I believe my opinion, if you think well of my judgement, might have given you pleasure; but when it is considered how much vanity is excited by praise, I am not sure that it would have done you good.

Your History is like other histories, but your Journal is in a very high degree curious and delightful. There is between the History and the Journal that difference which there will always be found between notions borrowed from without, and notions generated within. Your History was copied from books; your Journal rose out of your own experience and observation. You express images which operated strongly upon yourself, and you have impressed them with great force upon your readers. I know not whether I could name any narrative by which curiosity is better excited, or better gratified. 

'I am glad that you are going to be married; and as I wish you well in things of less importance, wish you well with proportionate ardour in this crisis of your life. What I can contribute to your happiness, I should be very unwilling to with-hold; for I have always loved and valued you, and shall love you and value you still more, as you become more regular and useful: effects which a happy marriage will hardly fail to produce.

'I do not find that I am likely to come back very soon from this place. I shall, perhaps, stay a fortnight longer; and a fortnight is a long time to a lover absent from his mistress. Would a fortnight ever have an end?

'I am, dear Sir,  'Your most affectionate humble servant,  'SAM. JOHNSON.' 

Sept. 9, 1769.'

After his return to town, we met frequently , and I continued the practice of making notes of his conversation, though not with so much assiduity as I wish I had done. At this time, indeed, I had a sufficient excuse for not being able to appropriate so much time to my Journal; for General Paoli, after Corsica had been overpowered by the monarchy of France, was now no longer at the head of his brave countrymen, but having with difficulty escaped from his native island, had sought an asylum in Great Britain; and it was my duty, as well as my pleasure, to attend much upon him.

Such particulars of Johnson's conversation at this period as I have committed to writing, I shall here introduce, without any strict attention to methodical arrangement. Sometimes short notes of different days shall be blended together, and sometimes a day may seem important enough to be separately distinguished.

On the 30th of September we dined together at the Mitre.

I attempted to argue for the superior happiness of the savage life, upon the usual fanciful topicks.

JOHNSON. 'Sir, there can be nothing more false. The savages have no bodily advantages beyond those of civilised men. They have not better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears. No, Sir; you are not to talk such paradox: let me have no more on't. It cannot entertain, far less can it instruct. Lord Monboddo, one of your Scotch Judges, talked a great deal of such nonsense. I suffered him; but I will not suffer you.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, does not Rousseau talk such nonsense?'

JOHNSON. 'True, Sir, but Rousseau knows he is talking nonsense, and laughs at the world for staring at him.'

BOSWELL. 'How so, Sir?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, a man who talks nonsense so well, must know that he is talking nonsense. But I am afraid, (chuckling and laughing,) Monboddo does not know that he is talking nonsense.'

BOSWELL. 'Is it wrong then, Sir, to affect singularity, in order to make people stare?'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, if you do it by propagating errour: and, indeed, it is wrong in any way. There is in human nature a general inclination to make people stare; and every wise man has himself to cure of it, and does cure himself. If you wish to make people stare by doing better than others, why, make them stare till they stare their eyes out. But consider how easy it is to make people stare by being absurd. I may do it by going into a drawing-room without my shoes. You remember the gentleman in The Spectator, who had a commission of lunacy taken out against him for his extreme singularity, such as never wearing a wig, but a night-cap. Now, Sir, abstractedly, the night-cap was best; but, relatively, the advantage was overbalanced by his making the boys run after him.  

(To be continued. This week’s chapter was made possible in part by a generous endowment from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Foundation for Continuing Education: “Observant Jewish friends, please take note: once again Bob’s Bowery Bar has brewed its proprietary Kosher-for-Passover ‘basement brewed’ draft Buckwheat Bock

- bring in an empty gallon jug and take some home for the family!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales of the Old Testament, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 3pm (EST) Sundays.)

part 74

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