Sunday, August 30, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 91

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D, Assistant Professor of Hard Boiled Fiction, Assistant Craps Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Drunken Judge and the Sober Lord, the Olney Community College Press.

Artwork and layout personally supervised by rhoda penmarq (drawings and coloring by eddie el greco , lettering by roy dismas) for rhoda penmarq supranormal™ productions in association with Desilu™.

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At this time it appears from his Prayers and Meditations, that he had been more than commonly diligent in religious duties, particularly in reading the Holy Scriptures. It was Passion Week, that solemn season which the Christian world has appropriated to the commemoration of the mysteries of our redemption, and during which, whatever embers of religion are in our breasts, will be kindled into pious warmth.

I paid him short visits both on Friday and Saturday, and seeing his large folio Greek Testament before him, beheld him with a reverential awe, and would not intrude upon his time. 

While he was thus employed to such good purpose, and while his friends in their intercourse with him constantly found a vigorous intellect and a lively imagination, it is melancholy to read in his private register,

'My mind is unsettled and my memory confused. I have of late turned my thoughts with a very useless earnestness upon past incidents. I have yet got no command over my thoughts; an unpleasing incident is almost certain to hinder my rest.'

What philosophick heroism was it in him to appear with such manly fortitude to the world, while he was inwardly so distressed! We may surely believe that the mysterious principle of being 'made perfect through suffering' was to be strongly exemplified in him.

On Sunday, April 19, being Easter-day, General Paoli and I paid him a visit before dinner. We talked of the notion that blind persons can distinguish colours by the touch.

Johnson said, that Professor Sanderson mentions his having attempted to do it, but that he found he was aiming at an impossibility; that to be sure a difference in the surface makes the difference of colours; but that difference is so fine, that it is not sensible to the touch.

The General mentioned jugglers and fraudulent gamesters, who could know cards by the touch. Dr. Johnson said, 'the cards used by such persons must be less polished than ours commonly are.'

We talked of sounds. The General said, there was no beauty in a simple sound, but only in an harmonious composition of sounds. I presumed to differ from this opinion, and mentioned the soft and sweet sound of a fine woman's voice. 

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, if a serpent or a toad uttered it, you would think it ugly.'

BOSWELL. 'So you would think, Sir, were a beautiful tune to be uttered by one of those animals.'

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, it would be admired. We have seen fine fiddlers whom we liked as little as toads.' (laughing.)


Talking on the subject of taste in the arts, he said, that difference of taste was, in truth, difference of skill.

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, is there not a quality called taste, which consists merely in perception or in liking? For instance, we find people differ much as to what is the best style of English composition. Some think Swift's the best; others prefer a fuller and grander way of writing.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you must first define what you mean by style, before you can judge who has a good taste in style, and who has a bad. The two classes of persons whom you have mentioned don't differ as to good and bad. They both agree that Swift has a good neat style; but one loves a neat style, another loves a style of more splendour.

In like manner, one loves a plain coat, another loves a laced coat; but neither will deny that each is good in its kind.'

While I remained in London this spring, I was with him at several other times, both by himself and in company. Without specifying each particular day, I have preserved the following memorable things.

I regretted the reflection in his Preface to Shakspeare against Garrick, to whom we cannot but apply the following passage: 'I collated such copies as I could procure, and wished for more, but have not found the collectors of these rarities very communicative.'

I told him, that Garrick had complained to me of it, and had vindicated himself by assuring me, that Johnson was made welcome to the full use of his collection, and that he left the key of it with a servant, with orders to have a fire and every convenience for him.

I found Johnson's notion was, that Garrick wanted to be courted for them, and that, on the contrary, Garrick should have courted him, and sent him the plays of his own accord. But, indeed, considering the slovenly and careless manner in which books were treated by Johnson, it could not be expected that scarce and valuable editions should have been lent to him.

A gentleman having to some of the usual arguments for drinking added this: 'You know, Sir, drinking drives away care, and makes us forget whatever is disagreeable. Would not you allow a man to drink for that reason?'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, if he sat next you.'

I expressed a liking for Mr. Francis Osborne's works, and asked him what he thought of that writer. He answered, 'A conceited fellow. Were a man to write so now, the boys would throw stones at him.'

When one of his friends endeavoured to maintain that a country gentleman might contrive to pass his life very agreeably,

'Sir (said he,) you cannot give me an instance of any man who is permitted to lay out his own time, contriving not to have tedious hours.'

He said, 'there is no permanent national character; it varies according to circumstances. Alexander the Great swept India: now the Turks sweep Greece.'

A learned gentleman who in the course of conversation wished to inform us of this simple fact, that the Counsel upon the circuit at Shrewsbury were much bitten by fleas, took, I suppose, seven or eight minutes in relating it circumstantially. He in a plenitude of phrase told us, that large bales of woollen cloth were lodged in the town-hall;

— that by reason of this, fleas nestled there in prodigious numbers; that the lodgings of the counsel were near to the town-hall;— and that those little animals moved from place to place with wonderful agility.

Johnson sat in great impatience till the gentleman had finished his tedious narrative, and then burst out (playfully however,)

'It is a pity, Sir, that you have not seen a lion; for a flea has taken you such a time, that a lion must have served you a twelve-month.'

He would not allow Scotland to derive any credit from Lord Mansfield; for he was educated in England.

'Much (said he,) may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.'

He said, 'I am very unwilling to read the manuscripts of authours, and give them my opinion. If the authours who apply to me have money, I bid them boldly print without a name; if they have written in order to get money, I tell them to go to the booksellers, and make the best bargain they can.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, if a bookseller should bring you a manuscript to look at?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, I would desire the bookseller to take it away.'

I mentioned a friend of mine who had resided long in Spain, and was unwilling to return to Britain.

JOHNSON. 'Sir, he is attached to some woman.'

BOSWELL. 'I rather believe, Sir, it is the fine climate which keeps him there.'

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, how can you talk so? What is climate to happiness?


(To be continued. This series is made possible through the sponsorship of Bob’s Bowery Bar™, conveniently located at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery: “Feeling the pinch of the recent ‘correction’ in the stock markets? Why not get your load on at Bob’s Bowery Bar where a ‘Bob’s Special’ –

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part 92

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