Sunday, November 22, 2015

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 101

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D, Assistant Professor of Alchemical Studies; Assistant Women’s Rackets Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Missing Jar of Invisible Ink, the Olney Community College Press.

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

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'I return you my sincere thanks for your additions to my Dictionary; but the new edition has been published some time, and therefore I cannot now make use of them. Whether I shall ever revise it more, I know not. If many readers had been as judicious, as diligent, and as communicative as yourself, my work had been better. The world must at present take it as it is. I am, Sir, 

'Your most obliged 

'And most humble servant, 


'May 8, 1773.'

On Sunday, May 8, I dined with Johnson at Mr. Langton's with Dr. Beattie and some other company. He descanted on the subject of Literary Property. 

'There seems (said he,) to be in authours a stronger right of property than that by occupancy; a metaphysical right, a right, as it were, of creation, which should from its nature be perpetual; but the consent of nations is against it, and indeed reason and the interests of learning are against it; for were it to be perpetual, no book, however useful, could be universally diffused amongst mankind, should the proprietor take it into his head to restrain its circulation. No book could have the advantage of being edited with notes, however necessary to its elucidation, should the proprietor perversely oppose it. For the general good of the world, therefore, whatever valuable work has once been created by an authour, and issued out by him, should be understood as no longer in his power, but as belonging to the publick; at the same time the authour is entitled to an adequate reward. This he should have by an exclusive right to his work for a considerable number of years.’

He attacked Lord Monboddo's strange speculation on the primitive state of human nature; observing, 

'Sir, it is all conjecture about a thing useless, even were it known to be true. Knowledge of all kinds is good. Conjecture, as to things useful, is good; but conjecture as to what it would be useless to know, such as whether men went upon all four, is very idle.'

On Monday, May 9, as I was to set out on my return to Scotland next morning, I was desirous to see as much of Dr. Johnson as I could. But I first called on Goldsmith to take leave of him. The jealousy and envy which, though possessed of many most amiable qualities, he frankly avowed, broke out violently at this interview.

Upon another occasion, when Goldsmith confessed himself to be of an envious disposition, I contended with Johnson that we ought not to be angry with him, he was so candid in owning it. 

'Nay, Sir, (said Johnson,) we must be angry that a man has such a superabundance of an odious quality, that he cannot keep it within his own breast, but it boils over.' 

In my opinion, however, Goldsmith had not more of it than other people have, but only talked of it freely. 

He now seemed very angry that Johnson was going to be a traveller; said 'he would be a dead weight for me to carry, and that I should never be able to lug him along through the Highlands and Hebrides.' 

Nor would he patiently allow me to enlarge upon Johnson's wonderful abilities; but exclaimed, 'Is he like Burke, who winds into a subject like a serpent?' 

'But, (said I,) Johnson is the Hercules who strangled serpents in his cradle.'

I dined with Dr. Johnson at General Paoli's. He was obliged, by indisposition, to leave the company early; he appointed me, however, to meet him in the evening at Mr. (now Sir Robert) Chambers's in the Temple, where he accordingly came, though he continued to be very ill. Chambers, as is common on such occasions, prescribed various remedies to him. 

JOHNSON. (fretted by pain,) 'Pr'ythee don't tease me. Stay till I am well, and then you shall tell me how to cure myself.' 

He grew better, and talked with a noble enthusiasm of keeping up the representation of respectable families. His zeal on this subject was a circumstance in his character exceedingly remarkable, when it is considered that he himself had no pretensions to blood. 

I heard him once say, 'I have great merit in being zealous for subordination and the honours of birth; for I can hardly tell who was my grandfather.' 

He maintained the dignity and propriety of male succession, in opposition to the opinion of one of our friends, who had that day employed Mr. Chambers to draw his will, devising his estate to his three sisters, in preference to a remote heir male. Johnson called them 'three dowdies,' and said, with as high a spirit as the boldest Baron in the most perfect days of the feudal system, 

'An ancient estate should always go to males. It is mighty foolish to let a stranger have it because he marries your daughter, and takes your name. As for an estate newly acquired by trade, you may give it, if you will, to the dog Towser, and let him keep his own name.'

I have known him at times exceedingly diverted at what seemed to others a very small sport. He now laughed immoderately, without any reason that we could perceive, at our friend's making his will; called him the testator, and added, 

'I dare say, he thinks he has done a mighty thing. He won't stay till he gets home to his seat in the country, to produce this wonderful deed: he'll call up the landlord of the first inn on the road; and, after a suitable preface upon mortality and the uncertainty of life, will tell him that he should not delay making his will; and here, Sir, will he say, is my will, which I have just made, with the assistance of one of the ablest lawyers in the kingdom; and he will read it to him (laughing all the time).

He believes he has made this will; but he did not make it: you, Chambers, made it for him. I trust you have had more conscience than to make him say, "being of sound understanding ;" ha, ha, ha! I hope he has left me a legacy. I'd have his will turned into verse, like a ballad.'

In this playful manner did he run on, exulting in his own pleasantry, which certainly was not such as might be expected from the authour of The Rambler, but which is here preserved, that my readers may be acquainted even with the slightest occasional characteristicks of so eminent a man.

Mr. Chambers did not by any means relish this jocularity upon a matter of which pars magna fuit, and seemed impatient till he got rid of us. 

Johnson could not stop his merriment, but continued it all the way till we got without the Temple-gate. He then burst into such a fit of laughter, that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and, in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet-ditch.

This most ludicrous exhibition of the aweful, melancholy, and venerable Johnson, happened well to counteract the feelings of sadness which I used to experience when parting with him for a considerable time. 

I accompanied him to his door, where he gave me his blessing. 

(This series is made possible through a generous grant from the Bob’s Bowery Bar™ Fellowship for the Ignored Arts: “Take a tip from me and get in with the ‘in crowd’ of merry raconteurs, poetasters, littérateurs and just plain Joes and Janes at Bob’s Bowery Bar at Bleecker and the Bowery!

Get ‘hep’ and try Bob’s Happy Hour Special: a tall schooner of Bob’s own basement-brewed house bock and a shot of Gilbey’s gin, only a buck a go! (Offer good between the hours of four and six PM, Mondays through Fridays – sorry, only four ‘Specials’ per customer!)” – Horace P. Sternwall, host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Horace P. Sternwall’s Bonfire Tales, Wednesdays at 8pm (EST), exclusively on the Dumont Television Network.)

part 102

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