Sunday, September 6, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 92

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D, Associate Professor of Rarely-Read Literature, Assistant Pinochle Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Mrs. Thrale’s Dilemma, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq for “rhoda penmarq artistic™ ateliers”  (pencils, inks, and coloring by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas) in association with Sternwall/HiTone™ Productions.

to begin at the beginning, click here

for previous chapter, click here

On Saturday, May 9, Mr. Dempster and I had agreed to dine by ourselves at the British Coffee-house. Johnson, on whom I happened to call in the morning, said he would join us, which he did, and we spent a very agreeable day, though I recollect but little of what passed.

He said, 'The misfortune of Goldsmith in conversation is this: he goes on without knowing how he is to get off. His genius is great, but his knowledge is small. As they say of a generous man, it is a pity he is not rich, we may say of Goldsmith, it is a pity he is not knowing. He would not keep his knowledge to himself.'

Before leaving London this year, I consulted him upon a question purely of Scotch law.

It was held of old, and continued for a long period, to be an established principle in that law, that whoever intermeddled with the effects of a person deceased, without the interposition of legal authority to guard against embezzlement, should be subjected to pay all the debts of the deceased, as having been guilty of what was technically called vicious intromission. The Court of Session had gradually relaxed the strictness of this principle. In a case which came before that Court the preceding winter, I had laboured to persuade the Judges to return to the ancient law. It was my own sincere opinion, that they ought to adhere to it; but I had exhausted all my powers of reasoning in vain. Johnson thought as I did; and in order to assist me in my application to the Court for a revision and alteration of the judgement, he dictated to me the following argument:—

‘It may be said, in the language of the schools, Lex non recipit majus et minus,— we may have a law, or we may have no law, but we cannot have half a law. We must either have a rule of action, or be permitted to act by discretion and by chance. Deviations from the law must be uniformly punished, or no man can be certain when he shall be safe. But, as it is evident that such deviations, as they make law uncertain, make life unsafe, I hope, that of departing from it there will now be an end; that the wisdom of our ancestors will be treated with due reverence; and that consistent and steady decisions will furnish the people with a rule of action, and leave fraud and fraudulent intromission no future hope of impunity or escape.'

With such comprehension of mind, and such clearness of penetration, did he thus treat a subject altogether new to him, without any other preparation than my having stated to him the arguments which had been used on each side of the question. His intellectual powers appeared with peculiar lustre, when tried against those of a writer of so much fame as Lord Kames, and that too in his Lordship's own department. 

This masterly argument, after being prefaced and concluded with some sentences of my own, and garnished with the usual formularies, was actually printed and laid before the Lords of Session, but without success. 

My respected friend Lord Hailes, however, one of that honourable body, had critical sagacity enough to discover a more than ordinary hand in the Petition. I told him Dr. Johnson had favoured me with his pen. His Lordship, with wonderful acumen, pointed out exactly where his composition began, and where it ended.

But that I may do impartial justice, I must add, that their Lordships in general, though they were pleased to call this 'a well-drawn paper,' preferred the former very inferiour petition which I had written; thus confirming the truth of an observation made to me by one of their number, in a merry mood: 

'My dear Sir, give yourself no trouble in the composition of the papers you present to us; for, indeed, it is casting pearls before swine.'

I renewed my solicitations that Dr. Johnson would this year accomplish his long-intended visit to Scotland.



'The regret has not been little with which I have missed a journey so pregnant with pleasing expectations, as that in which I could promise myself not only the gratification of curiosity, both rational and fanciful, but the delight of seeing those whom I love and esteem. But such has been the course of things, that I could not come; and such has been, I am afraid, the state of my body, that it would not well have seconded my inclination. 

‘My body, I think, grows better, and I refer my hopes to another year; for I am very sincere in my design to pay the visit, and take the ramble. In the mean time, do not omit any opportunity of keeping up a favourable opinion of me in the minds of any of my friends. 

‘Beattie's book is, I believe, every day more liked; at least, I like it more, as I look more upon it.

'I am glad if you got credit by your cause, and am yet of opinion, that our cause was good, and that the determination ought to have been in your favour. 

'You promised to get me a little Pindar, you may add to it a little Anacreon.

'The leisure which I cannot enjoy, it will be a pleasure to hear that you employ upon the antiquities of the feudal establishment. The whole system of ancient tenures is gradually passing away; and I wish to have the knowledge of it preserved adequate and complete. For such an institution makes a very important part of the history of mankind. Do not forget a design so worthy of a scholar who studies the laws of his country, and of a gentleman who may naturally be curious to know the condition of his own ancestors.

'I am, dear Sir,

'Yours with great affection,


'August 31, 1772.'



'Edinburgh, Dec. 25, 1772. 

'I was much disappointed that you did not come to Scotland last autumn. However, I must own that your letter prevents me from complaining; not only because I am sensible that the state of your health was but too good an excuse, but because you write in a strain which shews that you have agreeable views of the scheme which we have so long proposed.

'I communicated to Beattie what you said of his book in your last letter to me. He writes to me thus:—" You judge very rightly in supposing that Dr. Johnson's favourable opinion of any book must give me great delight. Indeed it is impossible for me to say how much I am gratified by it; for there is not a man upon earth whose good opinion I would be more ambitious to cultivate. His talents and his virtues I reverence more than any words can express. The extraordinary civilities (the paternal attentions I should rather say,) and the many instructions I have had the honour to receive from him, will to me be a perpetual source of pleasure in the recollection. If you have occasion to write to him, I beg you will offer him my most respectful compliments, and assure him of the sincerity of my attachment and the warmth of my gratitude."

'I am, &c. 


— In 1773 his only publication was an edition of his folio Dictionary, with additions and corrections; nor did he, so far as is known, furnish any productions of his fertile pen to any of his numerous friends or dependants, except the Preface to his old amanuensis Macbean's Dictionary of Ancient Geography.



'I have read your kind letter much more than the elegant Pindar which it accompanied. I am always glad to find myself not forgotten; and to be forgotten by you would give me great uneasiness. My northern friends have never been unkind to me: I have from you, dear Sir, testimonies of affection, which I have not often been able to excite; and Dr. Beattie rates the testimony which I was desirous of paying to his merit, much higher than I should have thought it reasonable to expect.

'I have heard of your masquerade. What says your synod to such innovations? I am not studiously scrupulous, nor do I think a masquerade either evil in itself, or very likely to be the occasion of evil; yet as the world thinks it a very licentious relaxation of manners, I would not have been one of the first masquers in a country where no masquerade had ever been before.

'A new edition of my great Dictionary is printed, from a copy which I was persuaded to revise; but having made no preparation, I was able to do very little. Some superfluities I have expunged, and some faults I have corrected, and here and there have scattered a remark; but the main fabrick of the work remains as it was. I had looked very little into it since I wrote it, and, I think, I found it full as often better, as worse, than I expected.

'Baretti and Davies have had a furious quarrel; a quarrel, I think, irreconcileable. 

‘Dr. Goldsmith has a new comedy, which is expected in the spring. No name is yet given it. The chief diversion arises from a stratagem by which a lover is made to mistake his future father-in-law's house for an inn. This, you see, borders upon farce. The dialogue is quick and gay, and the incidents are so prepared as not to seem improbable.

'I am sorry that you lost your cause of Intromission, because I yet think the arguments on your side unanswerable. But you seem, I think, to say that you gained reputation even by your defeat; and reputation you will daily gain, if you endeavour to consolidate in your mind a firm and regular system of law, instead of picking up occasional fragments.

'My health seems in general to improve; but I have been troubled for many weeks with a vexatious catarrh, which is sometimes sufficiently distressful. I have not found any great effects from bleeding and physick; and am afraid, that I must expect help from brighter days and softer air.

'Write to me now and then; and whenever any good befalls you, make haste to let me know it, for no one will rejoice at it more than, dear Sir, 

'Your most humble servant, 


'London, Feb. 24, 1773.' 

'You continue to stand very high in the favour of Mrs. Thrale.'

(To be continued. This series has been made possible through a generous grant from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Endowment for the Uncommercial Arts: “May I recommend Bob’s Bowery Bar’s Tuesday Night Special for September: ‘”Captain Bob”’s Bucket o’ Clams’!

A gallon bucket of fresh-from-the-Hudson Bay ‘littlenecks’ steamed in Bob’s own ‘basement-brewed’ house bock, and served with corn on the cob dripping with ‘Bob’s Mom’s’ home-churned butter and your choice of oyster crackers or Uneeda Biscuits! Sorry, one bucket-per-customer only, and a steal at $2.50! Offer good while supplies last.” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Tales of the Doomed and the Damned, Thursdays at 10pm (EST), exclusively on the Dumont Television Network.)

part 93

No comments:

Post a Comment