Sunday, May 21, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 170

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Associate Professor of 18th Century Cisgender Male Platonic Friendship Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Mrs. Thrale Solves a Case, the Olney Community College Press.

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On Saturday, April 4, I drank tea with Johnson at Dr. Taylor's, where he had dined. He entertained us with an account of a tragedy written by a Dr. Kennedy, (not the Lisbon physician.)

'The catastrophe of it (said he) was, that a King, who was jealous of his Queen with his prime-minister, castrated himself.'

It is hardly to be believed what absurd and indecent images men will introduce into their writings, without being sensible of the absurdity and indecency. 

He was very silent this evening; and read in a variety of books: suddenly throwing down one, and taking up another.

He talked of going to Streatham that night.

TAYLOR. 'You'll be robbed if you do: or you must shoot a highwayman. Now I would rather be robbed than do that; I would not shoot a highwayman.'

JOHNSON. 'But I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey, to take away his life, after he has robbed me. I am surer I am right in the one case than in the other.

I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man's life, when we are heated by the injury, than to do it at a distance of time by an oath, after we have cooled.' 

BOSWELL. 'So, Sir, you would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage.' 

JOHNSON. 'Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.' 

BOSWELL. 'Very well, very well.—There is no catching him.' 

JOHNSON. 'At the same time one does not know what to say. For perhaps one may, a year after, hang himself from uneasiness for having shot a man. Few minds are fit to be trusted with so great a thing.' 

BOSWELL. 'Then, Sir, you would not shoot him?' 

JOHNSON. 'But I might be vexed afterwards for that too.' 

Thrale's carriage not having come for him, as he expected, I accompanied him some part of the way home to his own house. I told him, that I had talked of him to Mr. Dunning {John Dunning, Member of Parliament, later the first Baron Ashburton – Editor} a few days before, and had said, that in his company we did not so much interchange conversation, as listen to him; and that Dunning observed, upon this, 'One is always willing to listen to Dr. Johnson:' to which I answered, 'That is a great deal from you, Sir.'

—'Yes, Sir, (said Johnson,) a great deal indeed. Here is a man willing to listen, to whom the world is listening all the rest of the year.'

BOSWELL. 'I think, Sir, it is right to tell one man of such a handsome thing, which has been said of him by another. It tends to increase benevolence.'

JOHNSON. 'Undoubtedly it is right, Sir.'

On Tuesday, April 7, I breakfasted with him at his house.

He said, 'nobody was content.' 

I mentioned to him a respectable person in Scotland whom he knew; and I asserted, that I really believed he was always content.

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir, he is not content with the present; he has always some new scheme, some new plantation, something which is future. You know he was not content as a widower; for he married again.' 

BOSWELL. 'But he is not restless.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, he is only locally at rest. A chymist is locally at rest; but his mind is hard at work. This gentleman has done with external exertions. It is too late for him to engage in distant projects.'

BOSWELL. 'He seems to amuse himself quite well; to have his attention fixed, and his tranquillity preserved by very small matters. I have tried this; but it would not do with me.' 

JOHNSON, (laughing) 'No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.' 

BOSWELL. 'Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?' 

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.' 

BOSWELL. 'A flagelet, Sir!— so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. That should have been your instrument.' 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. I once tried knotting. Dempster's sister undertook to teach me; but I could not learn it.' 

BOSWELL. 'So, Sir; it will be related in pompous narrative, "Once for his amusement he tried knotting; nor did this Hercules disdain the distaff."' 

JOHNSON. 'Knitting of stockings is a good amusement. As a freeman of Aberdeen I should be a knitter of stockings.' 

He asked me to go down with him and dine at Mr. Thrale's at Streatham, to which I agreed. I had lent him An Account of Scotland, in 1702, written by a man of various enquiry, an English chaplain to a regiment stationed there. 

JOHNSON. 'It is sad stuff, Sir, miserably written, as books in general then were. There is now an elegance of style universally diffused. No man now writes so ill as Martin's Account of the Hebrides is written. A man could not write so ill, if he should try. Set a merchant's clerk now to write, and he'll do better.'

He talked to me with serious concern of a certain female friend's 'laxity of narration, and inattention to truth.'

—'I am as much vexed (said he) at the ease with which she hears it mentioned to her, as at the thing itself. I told her, "Madam, you are contented to hear every day said to you, what the highest of mankind have died for, rather than bear."

— You know, Sir, the highest of mankind have died rather than bear to be told they had uttered a falsehood. Do talk to her of it: I am weary.'

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part 171

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