Sunday, September 25, 2016

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 139

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of 18th Century English Popular Cultural Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Importunate Poetaster, the Olney Community College Press.

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Johnson mentioned Dr. Barry's System of Physick. 'He was a man (said he,) who had acquired a high reputation in Dublin, came over to England, and brought his reputation with him, but had not great success. His notion was, that pulsation occasions death by attrition; and that, therefore, the way to preserve life is to retard pulsation. But we know that pulsation is strongest in infants, and that we increase in growth while it operates in its regular course; so it cannot be the cause of destruction.' 

Soon after this, he said something very flattering to Mrs. Thrale, which I do not recollect; but it concluded with wishing her long life. 

'Sir, (said I,) if Dr. Barry's system be true, you have now shortened Mrs. Thrale's life, perhaps, some minutes, by accelerating her pulsation.'

On Thursday, April 11, I dined with him at General Paoli's, in whose house I now resided, and where I had ever afterwards the honour of being entertained with the kindest attention as his constant guest, while I was in London, till I had a house of my own there. 

I mentioned my having that morning introduced to Mr. Garrick, Count Neni, a Flemish Nobleman of great rank and fortune, to whom Garrick related, with pleasant vanity, that a Frenchman who had seen him in one of his low characters, exclaimed, 'Comment! je ne le crois pas. Ce n'est pas Monsieur Garrick, ce Grand Homme!

Garrick added, with an appearance of grave recollection, 'If I were to begin life again, I think I should not play those low characters.' 

Upon which I observed, 'Sir, you would be in the wrong; for your great excellence is your variety of playing, your representing so well, characters so very different.' 

JOHNSON. 'Garrick, Sir, was not in earnest in what he said; for, to be sure, his peculiar excellence is his variety: and, perhaps, there is not any one character which has not been as well acted by somebody else, as he could do it.' 

BOSWELL. 'Why then, Sir, did he talk so?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, to make you answer as you did.' 

BOSWELL. 'I don't know, Sir; he seemed to dip deep into his mind for the reflection.' 

JOHNSON. 'He had not far to dip, Sir: he said the same thing, probably, twenty times before.'

Of a nobleman raised at a very early period to high office, he said, 'His parts, Sir, are pretty well for a Lord; but would not be distinguished in a man who had nothing else but his parts'.

A journey to Italy was still in his thoughts. 

He said, 'A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see. The grand object of travelling is to see the shores of the Mediterranean. On those shores were the four great Empires of the world; the Assyrian, the Persian, the Grecian, and the Roman.— All our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that sets us above savages, has come to us from the shores of the Mediterranean.' 

We talked of translation. I said, I could not define it, nor could I think of a similitude to illustrate it; but that it appeared to me the translation of poetry could be only imitation.

JOHNSON. 'You may translate books of science exactly. You may also translate history, in so far as it is not embellished with oratory, which is poetical. Poetry, indeed, cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.'  

A gentleman maintained that the art of printing had hurt real learning, by disseminating idle writings.— 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, if it had not been for the art of printing, we should now have no learning at all; for books would have perished faster than they could have been transcribed.' 

This observation seems not just, considering for how many ages books were preserved by writing alone.

The same gentleman maintained, that a general diffusion of knowledge among a people was a disadvantage; for it made the vulgar rise above their humble sphere. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, while knowledge is a distinction, those who are possessed of it will naturally rise above those who are not. Merely to read and write was a distinction at first; but we see when reading and writing have become general, the common people keep their stations. And so, were higher attainments to become general the effect would be the same.'

'Goldsmith (he said), referred every thing to vanity; his virtues, and his vices too, were from that motive. He was not a social man. He never exchanged mind with you.'

We spent the evening at Mr. Hoole's. Mr. Mickle was there. I have preserved little of the conversation of this evening. 

Dr. Johnson said, 'Thomson had a true poetical genius, the power of viewing every thing in a poetical light. His fault is such a cloud of words sometimes, that the sense can hardly peep through. Shiels, who compiled Cibber's Lives of the Poets, was one day sitting with me. I took down Thomson, and read aloud a large portion of him, and then asked,— Is not this fine? Shiels having expressed the highest admiration. Well, Sir, (said I,) I have omitted every other line.'

I related a dispute between Goldsmith and Mr. Robert Dodsley, one day when they and I were dining at Tom Davies's, in 1762.

Goldsmith asserted, that there was no poetry produced in this age. Dodsley maintained, that though you could not find a palace like Dryden's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, you had villages composed of very pretty houses. 

JOHNSON. 'I think Dodsley gave up the question. He and Goldsmith said the same thing; only he said it in a softer manner than Goldsmith did; for he acknowledged that there was no poetry, nothing that towered above the common mark. You may find wit and humour in verse, and yet no poetry.' 

BOSWELL. 'Does not Gray's poetry, Sir, tower above the common mark?' 

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; but we must attend to the difference between what men in general cannot do if they would, and what every man may do if he would. Sixteen-string Jack towered above the common mark.' 

{“Sixteen-string Jack” Rann was a flamboyant highwayman of the period who danced a jig on the gallows and, according to Boswell, who witnessed the hanging, was cheered by “the whole vagabond population of London”. – Editor}

BOSWELL. 'Then, Sir, what is poetry?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.'

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part 140

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