Sunday, May 31, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 81

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D, Assistant Professor of English as a First Language, Assistant to the Assistant Dean of Students, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: A Murder in Twickenham, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq (layout, pencils, inks, and colors by roy dismas; lettering by eddie el greco ) for penmarq intertransgalactic™ productions.

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{This chapter continues with the reminiscences of the Rev. Dr. Maxwell, “for many years the social friend of Johnson, who spoke of him with a very kind regard”. – Editor}

  'Upon a visit to me at a country lodging near Twickenham, he asked what sort of society I had there. I told him, but indifferent; as they chiefly consisted of opulent traders, retired from business. He said, he never much liked that class of people; 

"For, Sir (said he ,) they have lost the civility of tradesmen, without acquiring the manners of gentlemen."

'Johnson was much attached to London: he observed, that a man stored his mind better there, than any where else; and that in remote situations a man's body might be feasted, but his mind was starved, and his faculties apt to degenerate, from want of exercise and competition. No place, (he said,) cured a man's vanity or arrogance so well as London; for as no man was either great or good per se, but as compared with others not so good or great, he was sure to find in the metropolis many his equals, and some his superiours. He observed, that a man in London was in less danger of falling in love indiscreetly, than any where else; for there the difficulty of deciding between the conflicting pretensions of a vast variety of objects, kept him safe. He told me, that he had frequently been offered country preferment, if he would consent to take orders;

but he could not leave the improved society of the capital, or consent to exchange the exhilarating joys and splendid decorations of publick life, for the obscurity, insipidity, and uniformity of remote situations.

'Speaking of Mr. Harte, Canon of Windsor, and writer of The History of Gustavus Adolphus, he much commended him as a scholar, and a man of the most companionable talents he had ever known. He said, the defects in his history proceeded not from imbecility, but from foppery.

'He loved, he said, the old black letter books; they were rich in matter, though their style was inelegant; wonderfully so, considering how conversant the writers were with the best models of antiquity.

'Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.

'He frequently exhorted me to set about writing a History of Ireland, and archly remarked, there had been some good Irish writers, and that one Irishman might at least aspire to be equal to another. He had great compassion for the miseries and distresses of the Irish nation, particularly the Papists; and severely reprobated the barbarous debilitating policy of the British government, which, he said, was the most detestable mode of persecution. 

‘To a gentleman, who hinted such policy might be necessary to support the authority of the English government, he replied by saying, 

"Let the authority of the English government perish, rather than be maintained by iniquity. Better would it be to restrain the turbulence of the natives by the authority of the sword, and to make them amenable to law and justice by an effectual and vigorous police, than to grind them to powder by all manner of disabilities and incapacities. Better (said he,) to hang or drown people at once, than by an unrelenting persecution to beggar and starve them." 

‘The moderation and humanity of the present times have, in some measure, justified the wisdom of his observations.

'Dr. Johnson was often accused of prejudices, nay, antipathy, with regard to the natives of Scotland. Surely, so illiberal a prejudice never entered his mind: and it is well known, many natives of that respectable country possessed a large share in his esteem; nor were any of them ever excluded from his good offices, as far as opportunity permitted. True it is, he considered the Scotch, nationally, as a crafty, designing people, eagerly attentive to their own interest, and too apt to overlook the claims and pretentions of other people.

‘"While they confine their benevolence, in a manner, exclusively to those of their own country, they expect to share in the good offices of other people.

Now (said Johnson,) this principle is either right or wrong; if right, we should do well to imitate such conduct; if wrong, we cannot too much detest it." 

'Being solicited to compose a funeral sermon for the daughter of a tradesman, he naturally enquired into the character of the deceased; and being told she was remarkable for her humility and condescension to inferiours, he observed, that those were very laudable qualities, but it might not be so easy to discover who the lady's inferiours were.

'Of a certain player he remarked, that his conversation usually threatened and announced more than it performed; that he fed you with a continual renovation of hope, to end in a constant succession of disappointment.

'When exasperated by contradiction, he was apt to treat his opponents with too much acrimony: as, 

‘"Sir, you talk the language of ignorance."

‘On my observing to him that a certain gentleman had remained silent the whole evening, in the midst of a very brilliant and learned society,

"Sir, (said he,) the conversation overflowed, and drowned him."

'His philosophy, though austere and solemn, was by no means morose and cynical, and never blunted the laudable sensibilities of his character, or exempted him from the influence of the tender passions. Want of tenderness, he always alledged, was want of parts, and was no less a proof of stupidity than depravity.

'He observed, that the established clergy in general did not preach plain enough; and that polished periods and glittering sentences flew over the heads of the common people, without any impression upon their hearts. Something might be necessary, he observed, to excite the affections of the common people, who were sunk in languor and lethargy.

'Of Dr. Priestley's theological works, he remarked, that they tended to unsettle every thing, and yet settled nothing.

'He was much affected by the death of his mother, and wrote to me to come and assist him to compose his mind, which indeed I found extremely agitated.

He lamented that all serious and religious conversation was banished from the society of men, and yet great advantages might be derived from it. All acknowledged, he said, what hardly any body practised, the obligation we were under of making the concerns of eternity the governing principles of our lives. Every man, he observed, at last wishes for retreat: he sees his expectations frustrated in the world, and begins to wean himself from it, and to prepare for everlasting separation.

'He was no admirer of blank-verse, and said it always failed, unless sustained by the dignity of the subject. In blank-verse, he said, the language suffered more distortion, to keep it out of prose, than any inconvenience or limitation to be apprehended from the shackles and circumspection of rhyme.

'He reproved me once for saying grace without mention of the name of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, and hoped in future I would be more mindful of the apostolical injunction.

'He refused to go out of a room before me at Mr. Langton's house, saying, he hoped he knew his rank better than to presume to take place of a Doctor in Divinity. 

‘I mention such little anecdotes, merely to shew the peculiar turn and habit of his mind.

'He used frequently to observe, that there was more to be endured than enjoyed, in the general condition of human life; and frequently quoted those lines of Dryden:

"Strange cozenage! none would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure from what still remain."

‘For his part, he said, he never passed that week in his life which he would wish to repeat, were an angel to make the proposal to him.’

(To be continued. This project is made possible through a generous grant from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Foundation for the Uncommercial Arts: “If like myself you sometimes find yourself possessed of a ‘morning-after’ head, may I recommend Bob’s Bowery Bar’s Hangover Special Brunch: half a dozen thick rashers of house-cured bacon, ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ spicy blood pudding, a tall stack of whole-grain buckwheat flapjacks drowning in farm-fresh butter and Vermont maple syrup,

fresh-baked groat-cakes, and two cage-free eggs ‘any style’! Wash it down with generous lashings of Bob’s ‘bottomless pot o’ java’ and a couple of schooners of ‘basement-brewed’ house bock and you’ll be ‘good to go’!”   Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Literary Kaffeeklatsch, Sundays at 3pm, exclusively on the Dumont Television Network: this week’s guests: Mickey Spillane, W. Somerset Maugham, and Oscar Levant.)

part 82

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