Sunday, April 5, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 75

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Remedial Reading Comprehension, Assistant Advisor of Faculty Advisors, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Mr. Bickerstaff’s Dilemma, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrated by rhoda penmarq, with the assistance by roy dismas (lettering) and eddie el greco (proofreading); a rhoda penmarq intercosmic™/aaronspelling™ co-production. 

to begin at the beginning, click here

for previous chapter, click here

Dr. Johnson went home with me, and drank tea till late in the night. 

He said, 'General Paoli had the loftiest port of any man he had ever seen.' 

He denied that military men were always the best bred men. 

'Perfect good breeding, he observed, consists in having no particular mark of any profession, but a general elegance of manners; whereas, in a military man, you can commonly distinguish the brand of a soldier, l'homme d'épée.'

Dr. Johnson shunned to-night any discussion of the perplexed question of fate and free will, which I attempted to agitate. 'Sir, (said he,) we know our will is free, and there's an end on't.'

He honoured me with his company at dinner on the 16th of October, at my lodgings in Old Bond-street, with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Garrick, Dr. Goldsmith, Mr. Murphy, Mr. Bickerstaff, and Mr. Thomas Davies.

Garrick played round him with a fond vivacity, taking hold of the breasts of his coat, and, looking up in his face with a lively archness, complimented him on the good health which he seemed then to enjoy; while the sage, shaking his head, beheld him with a gentle complacency.

One of the company not being come at the appointed hour, I proposed, as usual upon such occasions, to order dinner to be served; adding, 'Ought six people to be kept waiting for one?'

'Why, yes, (answered Johnson, with a delicate humanity,) if the one will suffer more by your sitting down, than the six will do by waiting.' 

Goldsmith, to divert the tedious minutes, strutted about, bragging of his dress, and I believe was seriously vain of it, for his mind was wonderfully prone to such impressions. 

'Come, come, (said Garrick,) talk no more of that. You are, perhaps, the worst — eh, eh!'— Goldsmith was eagerly attempting to interrupt him, when Garrick went on, laughing ironically, 'Nay, you will always look like a gentleman; but I am talking of being well or ill drest.'

'Well, let me tell you, (said Goldsmith,) when my tailor brought home my bloom-coloured coat, he said, 'Sir, I have a favour to beg of you. When any body asks you who made your clothes, be pleased to mention John Filby, at the Harrow, in Water-lane.'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, that was because he knew the strange colour would attract crowds to gaze at it, and thus they might hear of him, and see how well he could make a coat even of so absurd a colour.'

After dinner our conversation first turned upon Pope. Johnson said, his characters of men were admirably drawn, those of women not so well. He repeated to us, in his forcible melodious manner, the concluding lines of the Dunciad.

While he was talking loudly in praise of those lines, one of the company ventured to say, 'Too fine for such a poem:— a poem on what?'  

JOHNSON, (with a disdainful look,) 'Why, on dunces. It was worth while being a dunce then. Ah, Sir, hadst thou lived in those days! It is not worth while being a dunce now, when there are no wits.'

Bickerstaff observed, as a peculiar circumstance, that Pope's fame was higher when he was alive than it was then. Johnson said, his Pastorals were poor things, though the versification was fine. He told us, with high satisfaction, the anecdote of Pope's inquiring who was the authour of his London, and saying, he will be soon déterré

Johnson said, that the description of the temple, in the Mourning Bride {a tragedy by William Congreve – Editor}, was the finest poetical passage he had ever read; he recollected none in Shakspeare equal to it.

'But, (said Garrick, all alarmed for the "God of his idolatry,") we know not the extent and variety of his powers. We are to suppose there are such passages in his works. Shakspeare must not suffer from the badness of our memories.'

Johnson, diverted by this enthusiastick jealousy, went on with greater ardour: 'No, Sir; Congreve has nature;' (smiling on the tragick eagerness of Garrick;) but composing himself, he added, 'Sir, this is not comparing Congreve on the whole, with Shakspeare on the whole; but only maintaining that Congreve has one finer passage than any that can be found in Shakspeare. Sir, a man may have no more than ten guineas in the world, but he may have those ten guineas in one piece; and so may have a finer piece than a man who has ten thousand pounds: but then he has only one ten-guinea piece. What I mean is, that you can shew me no passage where there is simply a description of material objects, without any intermixture of moral notions, which produces such an effect.'

Talking of a Barrister who had a bad utterance, some one, (to rouse Johnson,) wickedly said, that he was unfortunate in not having been taught oratory by Sheridan.

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, if he had been taught by Sheridan, he would have cleared the room.'

GARRICK. 'Sheridan has too much vanity to be a good man.'

We shall now see Johnson's mode of defending a man; taking him into his own hands, and discriminating.

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir. There is, to be sure, in Sheridan, something to reprehend, and every thing to laugh at; but, Sir, he is not a bad man. No, Sir; were mankind to be divided into good and bad, he would stand considerably within the ranks of good. And, Sir, it must be allowed that Sheridan excels in plain declamation, though he can exhibit no character.'

I should, perhaps, have suppressed this disquisition concerning a person of whose merit and worth I think with respect, had he not attacked Johnson so outrageously in his Life of Swift, and, at the same time, treated us, his admirers, as a set of pigmies. He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it.

Mrs. Montagu, a lady distinguished for having written an Essay on Shakspeare, being mentioned. REYNOLDS. 'I think that essay does her honour.'

JOHNSON, 'Yes, Sir; it does her honour, but it would do nobody else honour. I have, indeed, not read it all. But when I take up the end of a web, and find it packthread, I do not expect, by looking further, to find embroidery. Sir, I will venture to say, there is not one sentence of true criticism in her book.'

GARRICK. 'But, Sir, surely it shews how much Voltaire has mistaken Shakspeare, which nobody else has done.'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, nobody else has thought it worth while. And what merit is there in that? You may as well praise a schoolmaster for whipping a boy who has construed ill. No, Sir, there is no real criticism in it: none shewing the beauty of thought, as formed on the workings of the human heart.'

The admirers of this Essay may be offended at the slighting manner in which Johnson spoke of it; but let it be remembered, that he gave his honest opinion unbiased by any prejudice, or any proud jealousy of a woman intruding herself into the chair of criticism; for Sir Joshua Reynolds has told me, that when the Essay first came out, and it was not known who had written it, Johnson wondered how Sir Joshua could like it. One day at Sir Joshua's table, when it was related that Mrs. Montagu, in an excess of compliment to the authour of a modern tragedy, had exclaimed, 'I tremble for Shakspeare;' Johnson said , 'When Shakspeare has got **** for his rival, and Mrs. Montagu for his defender, he is in a poor state indeed.'

JOHNSON. ‘There is no great merit in telling how many plays have ghosts in them, and how this Ghost is better than that. You must shew how terrour is impressed on the human heart. In the description of night in Macbeth, the beetle and the bat detract from the general idea of darkness,— inspissated gloom.'

(To be continued. This series is made possible in part through a generous endowment from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Foundation for the Furtherance of Excellence in the Cybernetic Arts: “Whether you are a member of ‘the tribe’ or not, allow me to recommend this week’s special Passover menu at Bob’s Bowery Bar, conveniently located at the conjunction of Bleecker and the Bowery:

my personal favorite is ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ Slow-Cooked Brisket ‘n’ Kraut, served with your choice of organic matzohs or Mom’s Homemade Tater Tots! Goes swell with Bob’s own special gluten-free Kosher Buckwheat Bock!” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales of the Slums, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network, 9pm (EST) Tuesdays.)

part 76

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