Sunday, January 29, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 154

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Comic Strip Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Bawd from Battersea’s Bequest, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq (pencils, inks, environmentally-friendly oils and watercolors by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas) for penremarqable™ productions.

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Dr. Johnson was much pleased with a remark which I told him was made to me by General Paoli:

—'That it is impossible not to be afraid of death; and that those who at the time of dying are not afraid, are not thinking of death, but of applause, or something else, which keeps death out of their sight: so that all men are equally afraid of death when they see it; only some have a power of turning their sight away from it better than others.'

On Wednesday, September 17, Dr. Butter, physician at Derby, drank tea with us; and it was settled that Dr. Johnson and I should go on Friday and dine with him. Johnson said, 'I'm glad of this.' He seemed weary of the uniformity of life at Dr. Taylor's.

Talking of biography, I said, in writing a life, a man's peculiarities should be mentioned, because they mark his character. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities: the question is, whether a man's vices should be mentioned; for instance, whether it should be mentioned that Addison and Parnell drank too freely: for people will probably more easily indulge in drinking from knowing this; so that more ill may be done by the example, than good by telling the whole truth.' 

Here was an instance of his varying from himself in talk; for when Lord Hailes and he sat one morning calmly conversing in my house at Edinburgh, I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that

'If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it really as it was:' and when I objected to the danger of telling that Parnell drank to excess, he said, that 'it would produce an instructive caution to avoid drinking, when it was seen, that even the learning and genius of Parnell could be debased by it.'

And in the Hebrides he maintained, as appears from my Journal, that a man's intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life. 

He had this evening, partly, I suppose, from the spirit of contradiction to his Whig friend, a violent argument with Dr. Taylor, as to the inclinations of the people of England at this time towards the Royal Family of Stuart. He grew so outrageous as to say, 'that, if England were fairly polled, the present King would be sent away to-night, and his adherents hanged to-morrow.' 

Taylor, who was as violent a Whig as Johnson was a Tory, was roused by this to a pitch of bellowing. He denied, loudly, what Johnson said; and maintained, that there was an abhorrence against the Stuart family, though he admitted that the people were not much attached to the present King. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, the state of the country is this: the people knowing it to be agreed on all hands that this King has not the hereditary right to the crown, and there being no hope that he who has it can be restored, have grown cold and indifferent upon the subject of loyalty, and have no warm attachment to any King. They would not, therefore, risk any thing to restore the exiled family.

They would not give twenty shillings a piece to bring it about. But, if a mere vote could do it, there would be twenty to one; at least, there would be a very great majority of voices for it. For, Sir, you are to consider, that all those who think a King has a right to his crown, as a man has to his estate, which is the just opinion, would be for restoring the King who certainly has the hereditary right, could he be trusted with it; in which there would be no danger now, when laws and every thing else are so much advanced: and every King will govern by the laws.'

Dr. Taylor said something of the slight foundation of the hereditary right, of the house of Stuart.

'Sir, (said Johnson,) the house of Stuart succeeded to the full right of both the houses of York and Lancaster, whose common source had the undisputed right. A right to a throne is like a right to any thing else. Possession is sufficient, where no better right can be shown. This was the case with the Royal Family of England, as it is now with the King of France: for as to the first beginning of the right, we are in the dark.'

Thursday, September 18. Last night Dr. Johnson had proposed that the crystal lustre, or chandelier, in Dr. Taylor's large room, should be lighted up some time or other. Taylor said, it should be lighted up next night. 

'That will do very well, (said I,) for it is Dr. Johnson's birth-day.' 

When we were in the Isle of Sky, Johnson had desired me not to mention his birth-day. He did not seem pleased at this time that I mentioned it, and said (somewhat sternly) 'he would not have the lustre lighted the next day.'

Some ladies, who had been present yesterday when I mentioned his birth-day, came to dinner to-day, and plagued him unintentionally, by wishing him joy.

I know not why he disliked having his birth-day mentioned, unless it were that it reminded him of his approaching nearer to death, of which he had a constant dread.   

 I mentioned to him a friend of mine who was formerly gloomy from low spirits, and much distressed by the fear of death, but was now uniformly placid, and contemplated his dissolution without any perturbation. 

'Sir, (said Johnson,) this is only a disordered imagination taking a different turn.'

He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. 

'He puts (said he) a very common thing in a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it.'

BOSWELL. 'That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry.'

JOHNSON. 'What is the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, —— has taken to an odd mode. For example; he'd write thus:

"Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life's evening gray."

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he'd think fine.— Stay;— we'll make out the stanza:

"Hermit hoar, in solemn cell, 
Wearing out life's evening gray; 
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell, 
What is bliss? and which the way?"' 

BOSWELL. 'But why smite his bosom, Sir?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why to shew he was in earnest,' (smiling).

— He at an after period added the following stanza: 

'Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh'd; 
—Scarce repress'd the starting tear;
— When the smiling sage reply'd— 
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.'

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being:

—' Don't trouble your head with sickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry.'


(classix comix™ is made possible in part through the Bob’s Bowery Bar Foundation for the Unpopular Arts : “Ever wake up groaning in mid-afternoon after a celebratory late night, feeling as if your soul has been run over by a steam roller, as if your whole body has been pummeled by a gang of vicious roughnecks from one of the more deprived sections of the city, and as if your brain has been been run through a hamburger grinder?

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– Horace P. Sternwall, your host of Bob’s Bowery Bar Presents Philip Morris Commander’s Midnight Theatre, broadcast live Saturdays at 12am (EST) exclusively on the Dumont Television Network. This week’s play: A Tale of a Milkman by Horace P. Sternwall, starring Oscar Levant, Hyacinth Wilde, Burl Ives, and special guest star Miss Kitty Carlisle as “Mrs. Mumbles”.)

part 155

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