Sunday, March 12, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 160

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of Remedial Basic Reading Comprehension Skills; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Case of the Missing Cow, the Olney Community College Press.

Art direction by rhoda penmarq (pencils, inks, latex-based paints and layout by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas ) for penmarqosmiq™ productions.

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On Monday, September 22, when at breakfast, I unguardedly said to Dr. Johnson, 'I wish I saw you and Mrs. Macaulay together.'

He grew very angry; and, after a pause, while a cloud gathered on his brow, he burst out,
'No, Sir; you would not see us quarrel, to make you sport. Don't you know that it is very uncivil to pit two people against one another?' 

Then, checking himself, and wishing to be more gentle, he added,

'I do not say you should be hanged or drowned for this; but it is very uncivil.'

Dr. Taylor thought him in the wrong, and spoke to him privately of it; but I afterwards acknowledged to Johnson that I was to blame, for I candidly owned, that I meant to express a desire to see a contest between Mrs. Macaulay and him; but then I knew how the contest would end; so that I was to see him triumph. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you cannot be sure how a contest will end; and no man has a right to engage two people in a dispute by which their passions may be inflamed, and they may part with bitter resentment against each other. I would sooner keep company with a man from whom I must guard my pockets, than with a man who contrives to bring me into a dispute with somebody that he may hear it. This is the great fault of ——, (naming one of our friends) endeavouring to introduce a subject upon which he knows two people in the company differ.'

BOSWELL. 'But he told me, Sir, he does it for instruction.'

JOHNSON. 'Whatever the motive be, Sir, the man who does so, does very wrong. He has no more right to instruct himself at such risk, than he has to make two people fight a duel, that he may learn how to defend himself.'

He found great fault with a gentleman of our acquaintance for keeping a bad table. 

'Sir, (said he,) when a man is invited to dinner, he is disappointed if he does not get something good. I advised Mrs. Thrale, who has no card-parties at her house, to give sweet-meats, and such good things, in an evening, as are not commonly given, and she would find company enough come to her; for every body loves to have things which please the palate put in their way, without trouble or preparation.' 

Such was his attention to the minutiae of life and manners.

He thus characterised the Duke of Devonshire, grandfather of the present representative of that very respectable family: 

'He was not a man of superiour abilities, but he was a man strictly faithful to his word. If, for instance, he had promised you an acorn, and none had grown that year in his woods, he would not have contented himself with that excuse; he would have sent to Denmark for it. So unconditional was he in keeping his word; so high as to the point of honour.' 

This was a liberal testimony from the Tory Johnson to the virtue of a great Whig nobleman.

Dr. Johnson obligingly proposed to carry me to see Islam, a romantick scene, now belonging to a family of the name of Port, but formerly the seat of the Congreves. I suppose it is well described in some of the Tours. Johnson described it distinctly and vividly, at which I could not but express to him my wonder; because, though my eyes, as he observed, were better than his, I could not by any means equal him in representing visible objects. I said, the difference between us in this respect was as that between a man who has a bad instrument, but plays well on it, and a man who has a good instrument, on which he can play very imperfectly. 

I recollect a very fine amphitheatre, surrounded with hills covered with woods, and walks neatly formed along the side of a rocky steep, on the quarter next the house, with recesses under projections of rock, overshadowed with trees; in one of which recesses, we were told, Congreve wrote his Old Bachelor. We viewed a remarkable natural curiosity at Islam; two rivers bursting near each other from the rock, not from immediate springs, but after having run for many miles under ground.

Plott, in his History of Staffordshire, gives an account of this curiosity; but Johnson would not believe it, though we had the attestation of the gardener, who said, he had put in corks, where the river Manyfold sinks into the ground, and had catched them in a net, placed before one of the openings where the water bursts out. Indeed, such subterraneous courses of water are found in various parts of our globe.

Talking of Dr. Johnson's unwillingness to believe extraordinary things, I ventured to say, 'Sir, you come near Hume's argument against miracles, "That it is more probable witnesses should lie, or be mistaken, than that they should happen."' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, Hume, taking the proposition simply, is right. But the Christian revelation is not proved by the miracles alone, but as connected with prophecies, and with the doctrines in confirmation of which the miracles were wrought.'

He repeated his observation, that the differences among Christians are really of no consequence. 

'For instance, (said he,) if a Protestant objects to a Papist, "You worship images;" the Papist can answer, "I do not insist on your doing it; you may be a very good Papist without it: I do it only as a help to my devotion."' 

I said, the great article of Christianity is the revelation of immortality. Johnson admitted it was.

In the evening, a gentleman-farmer, who was on a visit at Dr. Taylor's, attempted to dispute with Johnson in favour of Mungo Campbell, who shot Alexander, Earl of Eglintoune. He said, he should have done just as Campbell did. 

JOHNSON. 'Whoever would do as Campbell did, deserves to be hanged; not that I could, as a juryman, have found him legally guilty of murder; but I am glad they found means to convict him.' 

The gentleman-farmer said, 'A poor man has as much honour as a rich man; and Campbell had that to defend.' 

Johnson exclaimed, 'A poor man has no honour.' 

The English yeoman, not dismayed, proceeded: 'Lord Eglintoune was a damned fool to run on upon Campbell, after being warned that Campbell would shoot him if he did.' 

Johnson, who could not bear any thing like swearing, angrily replied, 'He was not a damned fool: he only thought too well of Campbell. He did not believe Campbell would be such a damned scoundrel, as to do so damned a thing.' 

His emphasis on damned, accompanied with frowning looks, reproved his opponent's want of decorum in his presence.

Talking of the danger of being mortified by rejection, when making approaches to the acquaintance of the great, I observed: 'I am, however, generally for trying, "Nothing venture, nothing have."'

JOHNSON. 'Very true, Sir; but I have always been more afraid of failing, than hopeful of success.' 

And, indeed, though he had all just respect for rank, no man ever less courted the favour of the great.

During this interview at Ashbourne, Johnson seemed to be more uniformly social, cheerful, and alert, than I had almost ever seen him. He was prompt on great occasions and on small. Taylor, who praised every thing of his own to excess; in short, 'whose geese were all swans,' as the proverb says, expatiated on the excellence of his bull-dog, which, he told us, was 'perfectly well shaped.' 

Johnson, after examining the animal attentively, thus repressed the vain-glory of our host:

—'No, Sir, he is not well shaped; for there is not the quick transition from the thickness of the fore-part, to the tenuity—the thin part— behind,— which a bull-dog ought to have.' 

This tenuity was the only hard word that I heard him use during this interview, and it will be observed, he instantly put another expression in its place. Taylor sad, a small bull-dog was as good as a large one. 

JOHNSON, 'No, Sir; for, in proportion to his size, he has strength: and your argument would prove, that a good bull-dog may be as small as a mouse.' 

It was amazing how he entered with perspicuity and keenness upon every thing that occurred in conversation. Most men, whom I know, would no more think of discussing a question about a bull-dog, than of attacking a bull.

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part 161

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