Sunday, July 3, 2016

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 127

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Cisgender English Literature Studies, Assistant Women’s Karate Team Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Missing Case of Claret, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq (computer-generated imagery by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas) for penmarqaroq™ productions.

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Next morning we visited Dr. Wetherell, Master of University College, with whom Dr. Johnson conferred on the most advantageous mode of disposing of the books printed at the Clarendon press. I often had occasion to remark, Johnson loved business, loved to have his wisdom actually operate on real life. Dr. Wetherell and I talked of him without reserve in his own presence.

WETHERELL. 'I would have given him a hundred guineas if he would have written a preface to his Political Tracts, by way of a Discourse on the British Constitution.'

BOSWELL. 'Dr. Johnson, though in his writings, and upon all occasions a great friend to the constitution both in church and state, has never written expressly in support of either. There is really a claim upon him for both. I am sure he could give a volume of no great bulk upon each, which would comprise all the substance, and with his spirit would effectually maintain them. He should erect a fort on the confines of each.'

I could perceive that he was displeased with this dialogue.

He burst out, 'Why should I be always writing?'

I hoped he was conscious that the debt was just, and meant to discharge it, though he disliked being dunned.

We then went to Pembroke College, and waited on his old friend Dr. Adams, the master of it, whom I found to be a most polite, pleasing, communicative man. I had intended to go and visit him in order to get from him what particulars he could recollect of Johnson's academical life. He now obligingly gave me part of that authentick information, which, with what I afterwards owed to his kindness, will be found incorporated in its proper place in this work.

Dr. Adams had distinguished himself by an able answer to David Hume's Essay on Miracles. He told me he had once dined in company with Hume in London; that Hume shook hands with him, and said, 'You have treated me much better than I deserve;' and that they exchanged visits.

I took the liberty to object to treating an infidel writer with smooth civility.

Johnson coincided with me and said, 'When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.'

ADAMS. 'You would not jostle a chimney-sweeper.'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.'

Dr. Adams told us, that in some of the Colleges at Oxford, the fellows had excluded the students from social intercourse with them in the common room.

JOHNSON. 'They are in the right, Sir: there can be no real conversation, no fair exertion of mind amongst them, if the young men are by; for a man who has a character does not choose to stake it in their presence.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, may there not be very good conversation without a contest for superiority?'

JOHNSON. 'No animated conversation, Sir, for it cannot be but one or other will come off superiour. I do not mean that the victor must have the better of the argument, for he may take the weak side; but his superiority of parts and knowledge will necessarily appear: and he to whom he thus shews himself superiour is lessened in the eyes of the young men.’

We walked with Dr. Adams into the master's garden, and into the common room.

JOHNSON, (after a reverie of meditation,) 'Ay! Here I used to play at draughts with Phil. Jones and Fludyer. Jones loved beer, and did not get very forward in the church. Fludyer turned out a scoundrel, a Whig, and said he was ashamed of having been bred at Oxford. He had a living at Putney, and got under the eye of some retainers to the court at that time, and so became a violent Whig: but he had been a scoundrel all along to be sure.'

BOSWELL. 'Was he a scoundrel, Sir, in any other way than that of being a political scoundrel? Did he cheat at draughts ?'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, we never played for money.'

We then went to Trinity College, where he introduced me to Mr. Thomas Warton, with whom we passed a part of the evening. We talked of biography.

JOHNSON. 'It is rarely well executed. They only who live with a man can write his life with any genuine exactness and discrimination; and few people who have lived with a man know what to remark about him.’

Biography led us to speak of Dr. John Campbell, who had written a considerable part of the Biographia Britannica. Johnson, though he valued him highly, was of opinion that there was not so much in his great work, A Political Survey of Great Britain, as the world had been taught to expect; and had said to me, that he believed Campbell's disappointment, on account of the bad success of that work, had killed him. He this evening observed of it, 'That work was his death.'

Mr. Warton, not adverting to his meaning, answered, 'I believe so; from the great attention he bestowed on it.'

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, he died of want of attention, if he died at all by that book.'

I mentioned Sir Richard Steele having published his Christian Hero, with the avowed purpose of obliging himself to lead a religious life, yet, that his conduct was by no means strictly suitable.

JOHNSON. 'Steele, I believe, practised the lighter vices.'

Mr. Warton, being engaged, could not sup with us at our inn; we had therefore another evening by ourselves.

I asked Johnson, whether a man's being forward to make himself known to eminent people, and seeing as much of life, and getting as much information as he could in every way, was not yet lessening himself by his forwardness.

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir; a man always makes himself greater as he increases his knowledge.'

I expressed a desire to be acquainted with a lady who had been much talked of, and universally celebrated for extraordinary address and insinuation.

JOHNSON. 'Never believe extraordinary characters which you hear of people. Depend upon it, Sir, they are exaggerated. You do not see one man shoot a great deal higher than another.'

I mentioned Mr. Burke.

JOHNSON. 'Yes; Burke is an extraordinary man. His stream of mind is perpetual.'

It is very pleasing to me to record, that Johnson's high estimation of the talents of this gentleman was uniform from their early acquaintance. Once, when Johnson was ill, and unable to exert himself as much as usual without fatigue, Mr. Burke having been mentioned, he said, 'That fellow calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now it would kill me.'

So much was he accustomed to consider conversation as a contest, and such was his notion of Burke as an opponent.

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part 128

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