Sunday, March 29, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 74

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Instructor of Graphic Novel and Comic Book Studies, Associate Life Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Zombies of Grub Street, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrated by rhoda penmarq, with the assistance by roy dismas (layout, pencils, inks, colors) and eddie el greco (lettering); a rhoda penmarq™/horace p. sternwall™ co-production in association with Bob’s Bowery Bar, Ltd.™.

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Talking of a London life, he said, 'The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it. I will venture to say, there is more learning and science within the circumference of ten miles from where we now sit, than in all the rest of the kingdom.'

BOSWELL. 'The only disadvantage is the great distance at which people live from one another.'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; but that is occasioned by the largeness of it, which is the cause of all the other advantages.'

BOSWELL. 'Sometimes I have been in the humour of wishing to retire to a desert.'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you have desert enough in Scotland.'

Although I had promised myself a great deal of instructive conversation with him on the conduct of the married state, of which I had then a near prospect, he did not say much upon that topick. Mr. Seward heard him once say, that 'a man has a very bad chance for happiness in that state, unless he marries a woman of very strong and fixed principles of religion.'

He maintained to me, contrary to the common notion, that a woman would not be the worse wife for being learned; in which I humbly differed from him. That a woman should be sensible and well informed, I allow to be a great advantage; and think that Sir Thomas Overbury, in his rude versification, has very judiciously pointed out that degree of intelligence which is to be desired in a female companion:

'Give me, next good, an understanding wife,
By Nature wise, not learned by much art…”

When I censured a gentleman of my acquaintance for marrying a second time, as it shewed a disregard of his first wife, he said, 

'Not at all, Sir. On the contrary, were he not to marry again, it might be concluded that his first wife had given him a disgust to marriage; but by taking a second wife he pays the highest compliment to the first, by shewing that she made him so happy as a married man, that he wishes to be so a second time.'

So ingenious a turn did he give to this delicate question. And yet, on another occasion, he owned that he once had almost asked a promise of Mrs. Johnson that she would not marry again, but had checked himself. Indeed, I cannot help thinking, that in his case the request would have been unreasonable; for if Mrs. Johnson forgot, or thought it no injury to the memory of her first love,— the husband of her youth and the father of her children ,— to make a second marriage, why should she be precluded from a third, should she be so inclined? 

In Johnson's persevering fond appropriation of his Tetty, even after her decease, he seems totally to have overlooked the prior claim of the honest Birmingham trader.

I presume that her having been married before had, at times, given him some uneasiness; for I remember his observing upon the marriage of one of our common friends, 

'He has done a very foolish thing, Sir; he has married a widow, when he might have had a maid.'

We drank tea with Mrs. Williams. I had last year the pleasure of seeing Mrs. Thrale at Dr. Johnson's one morning, and had conversation enough with her to admire her talents, and to shew her that I was as Johnsonian as herself. Dr. Johnson had probably been kind enough to speak well of me, for this evening he delivered me a very polite card from Mr. Thrale and her, inviting me to Streatham.

On the 6th of October I complied with this obliging invitation, and found, at an elegant villa, six miles from town, every circumstance that can make society pleasing. Johnson, though quite at home, was yet looked up to with an awe, tempered by affection, and seemed to be equally the care of his host and hostess. I rejoiced at seeing him so happy.

He played off his wit against Scotland with a good humoured pleasantry, which gave me, though no bigot to national prejudices, an opportunity for a little contest with him. I having said that England was obliged to us for gardeners, almost all their good gardeners being Scotchmen.

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, that is because gardening is much more necessary amongst you than with us, which makes so many of your people learn it. It is all gardening with you. Things which grow wild here, must be cultivated with great care in Scotland. Pray now (throwing himself back in his chair, and laughing,) are you ever able to bring the sloe to perfection?'

I boasted that we had the honour of being the first to abolish the unhospitable, troublesome, and ungracious custom of giving vails to servants. {“Vails” were the tips expected to be given by guests to the servants of a household. – Editor}

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you abolished vails, because you were too poor to be able to give them.'

Mrs. Thrale disputed with him on the merit of Prior. He attacked him powerfully; said he wrote of love like a man who had never felt it: his love verses were college verses; and he repeated the song 'Alexis shunn'd his fellow swains,' &c., in so ludicrous a manner, as to make us all wonder how any one could have been pleased with such fantastical stuff.

Mrs. Thrale stood to her gun with great courage, in defence of amorous ditties, which Johnson despised, till he at last silenced her by saying,

'My dear Lady, talk no more of this. Nonsense can be defended but by nonsense.'

Mrs. Thrale then praised Garrick's talent for light gay poetry; and, as a specimen, repeated his song in Florizel and Perdita, and dwelt with peculiar pleasure on this line:

'I'd smile with the simple, and feed with the poor.’

JOHNSON. 'Nay, my dear Lady, this will never do. Poor David! Smile with the simple;— What folly is that? And who would feed with the poor that can help it? No, no; let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich.'

I repeated this sally to Garrick, and wondered to find his sensibility as a writer not a little irritated by it.

Talking of history, Johnson said,

'We may know historical facts to be true, as we may know facts in common life to be true. Motives are generally unknown. We cannot trust to the characters we find in history, unless when they are drawn by those who knew the persons.'

He would not allow much merit to Whitefield's oratory.

'His popularity, Sir (said he,) is chiefly owing to the peculiarity of his manner. He would be followed by crowds were he to wear a night-cap in the pulpit, or were he to preach from a tree.'

I know not from what spirit of contradiction he burst out into a violent declamation against the Corsicans, of whose heroism I talked in high terms.

'Sir (said he,) what is all this rout about the Corsicans? They have been at war with the Genoese for upwards of twenty years, and have never yet taken their fortified towns. They might have battered down their walls, and reduced them to powder in twenty years. They might have pulled the walls in pieces, and cracked the stones with their teeth in twenty years.'

It was in vain to argue with him upon the want of artillery: he was not to be resisted for the moment.

On the evening of October 10, I presented Dr. Johnson to General Paoli. I had greatly wished that two men, for whom I had the highest esteem, should meet. They met with a manly ease, mutually conscious of their own abilities, and of the abilities of each other. The General spoke Italian, and Dr. Johnson English, and understood one another very well, with a little aid of interpretation from me, in which I compared myself to an isthmus which joins two great continents.

Upon Johnson's approach, the General said, 'From what I have read of your works, Sir, and from what Mr. Boswell has told me of you, I have long held you in great veneration.'

The General talked of languages being formed on the particular notions and manners of a people, without knowing which, we cannot know the language. We may know the direct signification of single words; but by these no beauty of expression, no sally of genius, no wit is conveyed to the mind. All this must be by allusion to other ideas.

'Sir, (said Johnson,) you talk of language, as if you had never done any thing else but study it, instead of governing a nation.'

The General said, 'Questo e un troppo gran complimento;' this is too great a compliment.

Johnson answered. 'I should have thought so, Sir, if I had not heard you talk.'

The General asked him, what he thought of the spirit of infidelity which was so prevalent.

JOHNSON. 'Sir, this gloom of infidelity, I hope, is only a transient cloud passing through the hemisphere, which will soon be dissipated, and the sun break forth with his usual splendour.' 

'You think then, (said the General,) that they will change their principles like their clothes.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, if they bestow no more thought on principles than on dress, it must be so.'

The General said, that 'a great part of the fashionable infidelity was owing to a desire of shewing courage. Men who have no opportunities of shewing it as to things in this life, take death and futurity as objects on which to display it.'

JOHNSON. 'That is mighty foolish affectation. Fear is one of the passions of human nature, of which it is impossible to divest it. You remember that the Emperour Charles V, when he read upon the tomb-stone of a Spanish nobleman, "Here lies one who never knew fear," wittily said, "Then he never snuffed a candle with his fingers."'

(To be continued. Sponsored by Bob’s Bowery Bar™, conveniently located at the corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “Don’t be alone and lonely on Easter Sunday! Come join me and the usual merry crew of reprobates for Bob’s Bowery Bar’s special prix-fixe Easter dinner: Bob’s Mom’s Home-Cured Fried Slab o’ Ham with Red-Eye Gravy, served with Slow-Baked Beans, Stewed Pearl Onions, ‘Bob’s Thrice-Fried ‘Taters’, and Groat-Cakes ‘au poivre’

– a bargain at $2.50 a plate! Served all day Easter Sunday from noon ‘til 2am or until supplies last.” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales from the New Testament, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 2pm (EST) Sundays.)

part 75

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