Sunday, March 20, 2016

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 114

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Comic Strip Studies; Assistant Women’s Fencing Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Sage’s Thrashing Cane, the Olney Community College Press.

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

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'I have enquired more minutely about the medicine for the rheumatism, which I am sorry to hear that you still want. The receipt is this: “Take equal quantities of flour of sulphur, and flour of mustard-seed, make them an electuary with honey or treacle; and take a bolus as big as a nutmeg several times a day, as you can bear it: drinking after it a quarter of a pint of the infusion of the root of Lovage.”

'Lovage, in Ray's Nomenclature, is Levisticum: perhaps the Botanists may know the Latin name.

'Of this medicine I pretend not to judge. There is all the appearance of its efficacy, which a single instance can afford: the patient was very old, the pain very violent, and the relief, I think, speedy and lasting.

'My opinion of alterative medicine is not high, but quid tentasse nocebit? {“what harm to have tried it?” – Editor} if it does harm, or does no good, it may be omitted; but that it may do good, you have, I hope, reason to think is desired by,

'Sir, your most affectionate,
Humble servant,

'April 17, 1775.'

On Tuesday, April 18, he and I were engaged to go with Sir Joshua Reynolds to dine with Mr. Cambridge, at his beautiful villa on the banks of the Thames, near Twickenham. Dr. Johnson's tardiness was such, that Sir Joshua, who had an appointment at Richmond, early in the day, was obliged to go by himself on horseback, leaving his coach to Johnson and me. Johnson was in such good spirits, that every thing seemed to please him as we drove along.

Our conversation turned on a variety of subjects. 

He thought portrait-painting an improper employment for a woman.

'Publick practice of any art, (he observed,) and staring in men's faces, is very indelicate in a female.'

I happened to start a question, whether, when a man knows that some of his intimate friends are invited to the house of another friend, with whom they are all equally intimate, he may join them without an invitation.

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; he is not to go when he is not invited. They may be invited on purpose to abuse him' (smiling).

As a curious instance how little a man knows, or wishes to know, his own character in the world, or, rather, as a convincing proof that Johnson's roughness was only external, and did not proceed from his heart, I insert the following dialogue.

JOHNSON. 'It is wonderful, Sir, how rare a quality good humour is in life. We meet with very few good humoured men.'

I mentioned four of our friends, none of whom he would allow to be good humoured. One was acid, another was muddy, and to the others he had objections which have escaped me.

Then, shaking his head and stretching himself at ease in the coach, and smiling with much complacency, he turned to me and said,

'I look upon myself as a good humoured fellow.'

The epithet fellow, applied to the great Lexicographer, the stately Moralist, the masterly Critick, as if he had been Sam Johnson, a mere pleasant companion, was highly diverting; and this light notion of himself struck me with wonder.

I answered, also smiling,

'No, no, Sir; that will not do. You are good natured, but not good humoured: you are irascible. You have not patience with folly and absurdity. I believe you would pardon them, if there were time to deprecate your vengeance; but punishment follows so quick after sentence, that they cannot escape.'

I had brought with me a great bundle of Scotch magazines and news-papers, in which his Journey to the Western Islands was attacked in every mode; and I read a great part of them to him, knowing they would afford him entertainment. I wish the writers of them had been present: they would have been sufficiently vexed.

One ludicrous imitation of his style, by Mr. Maclaurin, now one of the Scotch Judges, with the title of Lord Dreghorn, was distinguished by him from the rude mass.

'This (said he,) is the best. But I could caricature my own style much better myself.'

He defended his remark upon the general insufficiency of education in Scotland; and confirmed to me the authenticity of his witty saying on the learning of the Scotch;—

'Their learning is like bread in a besieged town: every man gets a little, but no man gets a full meal.'

'There is (said he,) in Scotland, a diffusion of learning, a certain portion of it widely and thinly spread. A merchant there has as much learning as one of their clergy.'

He talked of Isaac Walton's Lives, which was one of his most favourite books. Dr. Donne's Life, he said, was the most perfect of them.

He observed, that 'it was wonderful that Walton, who was in a very low situation in life, should have been familiarly received by so many great men, and that at a time when the ranks of society were kept more separate than they are now.' 

He supposed that Walton had then given up his business as a linen draper and sempster, and was only an authour; and added, 'that he was a great panegyrist.'

BOSWELL. 'No quality will get a man more friends than a disposition to admire the qualities of others. I do not mean flattery, but a sincere admiration.'

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, flattery pleases very generally. In the first place, the flatterer may think what he says to be true: but, in the second place, whether he thinks so or not, he certainly thinks those whom he flatters of consequence enough to be flattered.'

No sooner had we made our bow to Mr. Cambridge, in his library, than Johnson ran eagerly to one side of the room, intent on poring over the backs of the books.

Sir Joshua observed, (aside,) 'He runs to the books, as I do to the pictures: but I have the advantage. I can see much more of the pictures than he can of the books.'

Mr. Cambridge, upon this, politely said, 'Dr. Johnson, I am going, with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.'

Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about, and answered,

'Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and the backs of books in libraries.'

Sir Joshua observed to me the extraordinary promptitude with which Johnson flew upon an argument.

'Yes, (said I,) he has no formal preparation, no flourishing with his sword; he is through your body in an instant.'

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part 115

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