Sunday, June 25, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 175

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Professor of Boswellogical Studies; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: Mrs. Thrale to the Rescue!, the Olney Community College Press.

AArt direction by rhoda penmarq (pencils, inks, vehicular spray paints by eddie el greco; lettering by roy dismas); a penmarq™/desilu™ production.

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We talked of war. 

JOHNSON. 'Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.'

BOSWELL. 'Lord Mansfield does not.'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he'd wish to creep under the table.'

BOSWELL. 'No; he'd think he could try them all.' 

JOHNSON. 'Yes, if he could catch them: but they'd try him much sooner. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, "Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;" and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, "Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;" a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.

As to the sailor, when you look down from the quarter deck to the space below, you see the utmost extremity of human misery; such crouding, such filth, such stench!'

BOSWELL. 'Yet sailors are happy.'

JOHNSON. 'They are happy as brutes are happy, with a piece of fresh meat,— with the grossest sensuality. But, Sir, the profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.'

SCOTT. 'But is not courage mechanical, and to be acquired?'

JOHNSON. 'Why yes, Sir, in a collective sense. Soldiers consider themselves only as parts of a great machine.'

SCOTT. 'We find people fond of being sailors.'

JOHNSON. 'I cannot account for that, any more than I can account for other strange perversions of imagination.'

His abhorrence of the profession of a sailor was uniformly violent; but in conversation he always exalted the profession of a soldier. And yet I have, in my large and various collection of his writings, a letter to an eminent friend, in which he expresses himself thus:

'My god-son called on me lately. He is weary, and rationally weary, of a military life. If you can place him in some other state, I think you may increase his happiness, and secure his virtue. A soldier's time is passed in distress and danger, or in idleness and corruption.'

Such was his cool reflection in his study; but whenever he was warmed and animated by the presence of company, he, like other philosophers, whose minds are impregnated with poetical fancy, caught the common enthusiasm for splendid renown. 

He talked of Mr. Charles Fox, of whose abilities he thought highly, but observed, that he did not talk much at our CLUB. I have heard Mr. Gibbon remark, 'that Mr. Fox could not be afraid of Dr. Johnson; yet he certainly was very shy of saying any thing in Dr. Johnson's presence.'

He expressed great indignation at the imposture of the Cocklane Ghost, and related, with much satisfaction, how he had assisted in detecting the cheat, and had published an account of it in the news-papers.

Upon this subject I incautiously offended him, by pressing him with too many questions, and he shewed his displeasure.

I apologised, saying that 'I asked questions in order to be instructed and entertained; I repaired eagerly to the fountain; but that the moment he gave me a hint, the moment he put a lock upon the well, I desisted.'

'But, Sir, (said he,) that is forcing one to do a disagreeable thing:' and he continued to rate me.

'Nay, Sir, (said I,) when you have put a lock upon the well, so that I can no longer drink, do not make the fountain of your wit play upon me and wet me.'

He sometimes could not bear being teazed with questions. I was once present when a gentleman asked so many as, 'What did you do, Sir?' 'What did you say, Sir?' that he at last grew enraged, and said,

'I will not be put to the question. Don't you consider, Sir, that these are not the manners of a gentleman. I will not be baited with what, and why; what is this? what is that? why is a cow's tail long? why is a fox's tail bushy?'

The gentleman, who was a good deal out of countenance, said, 'Why, Sir, you are so good, that I venture to trouble you .'

JOHNSON. 'Sir, my being so good is no reason why you should be so ill.'

Talking of the Justitia hulk at Woolwich, in which criminals were punished, by being confined to labour, he said, 'I do not see that they are punished by this: they must have worked equally had they never been guilty of stealing. They now only work; so, after all, they have gained; what they stole is clear gain to them; the confinement is nothing. Every man who works is confined: the smith to his shop, the tailor to his garret.'

BOSWELL. 'And Lord Mansfield to his Court.'

JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir, you know the notion of confinement may be extended, as in the song, "Every island is a prison."

He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of dignity of character was derived from it. He expressed a particular enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China. I catched it for the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care. 

'Sir, (said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence. There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity. They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China. I am serious, Sir.'

  When we had left Mr. Scott's, he said, 'Will you go home with me?'

'Sir, (said I,) it is late; but I'll go with you for three minutes.'

JOHNSON. 'Or four.'

We went to Mrs. Williams's room, where we found Mr. Allen the printer, who was the landlord of his house in Bolt-court, a worthy obliging man, and his very old acquaintance; and what was exceedingly amusing, though he was of a very diminutive size, he used, even in Johnson's presence, to imitate the stately periods and slow and solemn utterance of the great man.

— I this evening boasted, that although I did not write what is called stenography, or short-hand, in appropriated characters devised for the purpose, I had a method of my own of writing half words, and leaving out some altogether so as yet to keep the substance and language of any discourse which I had heard so much in view, that I could give it very completely soon after I had taken it down. He defied me, as he had once defied an actual short-hand writer, and he made the experiment by reading slowly and distinctly a part of Robertson's History of America, while I endeavoured to write it in my way of taking notes.

It was found that I had it very imperfectly; the conclusion from which was, that its excellence was principally owing to a studied arrangement of words, which could not be varied or abridged without an essential injury.

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part 176

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