Sunday, July 2, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 176

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Professor of All-but-Forgotten Classics; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: the Bawd from Battersea’s Bequest, the Olney Community College Press.

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On Sunday, April 12, I found him at home before dinner; Dr. Dodd's poem entitled Thoughts in Prison was lying upon his table. This appearing to me an extraordinary effort by a man who was in Newgate for a capital crime, I was desirous to hear Johnson's opinion of it: to my surprize, he told me he had not read a line of it. I took up the book and read a passage to him. 

JOHNSON. 'Pretty well, if you are previously disposed to like them.' 

I read another passage, with which he was better pleased. He then took the book into his own hands, and having looked at the prayer at the end of it, he said, 'What evidence is there that this was composed the night before he suffered? I do not believe it.' 

He then read aloud where he prays for the King, &c. and observed, 'Sir, do you think that a man the night before he is to be hanged cares for the succession of a royal family?— Though, he may have composed this prayer, then. A man who has been canting all his life, may cant to the last.— And yet a man who has been refused a pardon after so much petitioning, would hardly be praying thus fervently for the King.'

He and I, and Mrs. Williams, went to dine with the Reverend Dr. Percy. 

Talking of Goldsmith, Johnson said, he was very envious. I defended him, by observing that he owned it frankly upon all occasions. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you are enforcing the charge. He had so much envy, that he could not conceal it. He was so full of it that he overflowed. He talked of it to be sure often enough. Now, Sir, what a man avows, he is not ashamed to think; though many a man thinks, what he is ashamed to avow. We are all envious naturally; but by checking envy, we get the better of it.

So we are all thieves naturally; a child always tries to get at what it wants, the nearest way; by good instruction and good habits this is cured, till a man has not even an inclination to seize what is another's; has no struggle with himself about it.'

And here I shall record a scene of too much heat between Dr. Johnson and Dr. Percy, which I should have suppressed, were it not that it gave occasion to display the truely tender and benevolent heart of Johnson, who, as soon as he found a friend was at all hurt by any thing which he had 'said in his wrath,' was not only prompt and desirous to be reconciled, but exerted himself to make ample reparation.

Books of Travels having been mentioned, Johnson praised Pennant very highly, as he did at Dunvegan, in the Isle of Sky. Dr. Percy, knowing himself to be the heir male of the ancient Percies, and having the warmest and most dutiful attachment to the noble House of Northumberland, could not sit quietly and hear a man praised, who had spoken disrespectfully of Alnwick-Castle and the Duke's pleasure grounds, especially as he thought meanly of his travels. He therefore opposed Johnson eagerly. 

JOHNSON. 'Pennant in what he has said of Alnwick, has done what he intended; he has made you very angry.' 

PERCY. 'He has said the garden is trim, which is representing it like a citizen's parterre, when the truth is, there is a very large extent of fine turf and gravel walks.' 

JOHNSON. 'According to your own account, Sir, Pennant is right. It is trim. Here is grass cut close, and gravel rolled smooth. Is not that trim? The extent is nothing against that; a mile may be as trim as a square yard. Your extent puts me in mind of the citizen's enlarged dinner, two pieces of roast-beef, and two puddings. There is no variety, no mind exerted in laying out the ground, no trees.' 

PERCY. 'He pretends to give the natural history of Northumberland, and yet takes no notice of the immense number of trees planted there of late.' 

JOHNSON. 'That, Sir, has nothing to do with the natural history; that is civil history. A man who gives the natural history of the oak, is not to tell how many oaks have been planted in this place or that. A man who gives the natural history of the cow, is not to tell how many cows are milked at Islington. The animal is the same, whether milked in the Park or at Islington.' 

PERCY. 'Pennant does not describe well; a carrier who goes along the side of Lochlomond would describe it better.' 

JOHNSON. 'I think he describes very well.' 

PERCY. 'I travelled after him.' 

JOHNSON. 'And I travelled after him .' 

PERCY. 'But, my good friend, you are short-sighted, and do not see so well as I do.' 

I wondered at Dr. Percy's venturing thus. Dr. Johnson said nothing at the time; but inflammable particles were collecting for a cloud to burst. In a little while Dr. Percy said something more in disparagement of Pennant. 

JOHNSON. (pointedly) 'This is the resentment of a narrow mind, because he did not find every thing in Northumberland.' 

PERCY. (feeling the stroke) 'Sir, you may be as rude as you please.' 

JOHNSON. 'Hold, Sir! Don't talk of rudeness; remember, Sir, you told me (puffing hard with passion struggling for a vent) I was short-sighted. We have done with civility. We are to be as rude as we please.' 

PERCY. 'Upon my honour, Sir, I did not mean to be uncivil.' 

JOHNSON. 'I cannot say so, Sir; for I did mean to be uncivil, thinking you had been uncivil.' 

Dr. Percy rose, ran up to him, and taking him by the hand, assured him affectionately that his meaning had been misunderstood; upon which a reconciliation instantly took place. 

JOHNSON. 'My dear Sir, I am willing you shall hang Pennant.' 

PERCY. (resuming the former subject) 'Pennant complains that the helmet is not hung out to invite to the hall of hospitality. Now I never heard that it was a custom to hang out a helmet.' 

JOHNSON. 'Hang him up, hang him up.' 

BOSWELL. (humouring the joke) 'Hang out his skull instead of a helmet, and you may drink ale out of it in your hall of Odin, as he is your enemy; that will be truly ancient.' 

JOHNSON. 'He's a Whig, Sir; a sad dog. (smiling at his own violent expressions, merely for political difference of opinion.) But he's the best traveller I ever read; he observes more things than any one else does.'

I could not help thinking that this was too high praise of a writer who had traversed a wide extent of country in such haste, that he could put together only curt frittered fragments of his own, and afterwards procured supplemental intelligence from parochial ministers, and others not the best qualified or most impartial narrators, whose ungenerous prejudice against the house of Stuart glares in misrepresentation; a writer, who at best treats merely of superficial objects, and shews no philosophical investigation of character and manners, such as Johnson has exhibited in his masterly Journey, over part of the same ground;

and who it should seem from a desire of ingratiating himself with the Scotch, has flattered the people of North-Britain so inordinately and with so little discrimination, that the judicious and candid amongst them must be disgusted, while they value more the plain, just, yet kindly report of Johnson.

Having impartially censured Mr. Pennant, as a Traveller in Scotland, let me allow him, from authorities much better than mine, his deserved praise as an able Zoologist; and let me also from my own understanding and feelings, acknowledge the merit of his London, which, is one of the most pleasing topographical performances that ever appeared in any language. Mr. Pennant, like his countrymen in general, has the true spirit of a Gentleman. As a proof of it, I shall quote from his London the passage, in which he speaks of my illustrious friend. 

'I must by no means omit Bolt-court, the long residence of Doctor SAMUEL JOHNSON, a man of the strongest natural abilities, great learning, a most retentive memory, of the deepest and most unaffected piety and morality, mingled with those numerous weaknesses and prejudices which his friends have kindly taken care to draw from their dread abode. I brought on myself his transient anger, by observing that in his tour in Scotland, he once had "long and woeful experience of oats being the food of men in Scotland as they were of horses in England."

'It was a national reflection unworthy of him, and I shot my bolt. In return he gave me a tender hug. Con amore he also said of me “The dog is a Whig!”'

We had a calm after the storm, staid the evening and supped, and were pleasant and gay. But Dr. Percy told me he was very uneasy at what had passed; for there was a gentleman there who was acquainted with the Northumberland family, to whom he hoped to have appeared more respectable, by shewing how intimate he was with Dr. Johnson, and who might now, on the contrary, go away with an opinion to his disadvantage. He begged I would mention this to Dr. Johnson, which I afterwards did. 

His observation upon it was, 'This comes of stratagem; had he told me that he wished to appear to advantage before that gentleman, he should have been at the top of the house, all the time.' 

He spoke of Dr. Percy in the handsomest terms. 

'Then, Sir, (said I,) may I be allowed to suggest a mode by which you may effectually counteract any unfavourable report of what passed. I will write a letter to you upon the subject of the unlucky contest of that day, and you will be kind enough to put in writing as an answer to that letter, what you have now said, and as Lord Percy is to dine with us at General Paoli's soon, I will take an opportunity to read the correspondence in his Lordship's presence.' 

This friendly scheme was accordingly carried into execution without Dr. Percy's knowledge. Johnson's letter placed Dr. Percy's unquestionable merit in the fairest point of view; and I contrived that Lord Percy should hear the correspondence, by introducing it at General Paoli's, as an instance of Dr. Johnson's kind disposition towards one in whom his Lordship was interested. Thus every unfavourable impression was obviated that could possibly have been made on those by whom he wished most to be regarded. 

I breakfasted the day after with him, and informed him of my scheme, and its happy completion, for which he thanked me in the warmest terms, and was highly delighted with Dr. Johnson's letter in his praise, of which I gave him a copy. 

He said, 'I would rather have this than degrees from all the Universities in Europe. It will be for me, and my children and grand-children.' 

Dr. Johnson having afterwards asked me if I had given him a copy of it, and being told I had, was offended, and insisted that I should get it back, which I did.

As, however, he did not desire me to destroy either the original or the copy, or forbid me to let it be seen, I think myself at liberty to apply to it his general declaration to me concerning his other letters, 'That he did not choose they should be published in his lifetime; but had no objection to their appearing after his death.'  I shall therefore insert this kindly correspondence, having faithfully narrated the circumstances accompanying it. 



'The debate between Dr. Percy and me is one of those foolish controversies, which begin upon a question of which neither party cares how it is decided, and which is, nevertheless, continued to acrimony, by the vanity with which every man resists confutation. Dr. Percy's warmth proceeded from a cause which, perhaps, does him more honour than he could have derived from juster criticism. His abhorrence of Pennant proceeded from his opinion that Pennant had wantonly and indecently censured his patron. His anger made him resolve, that, for having been once wrong, he never should be right. Pennant has much in his notions that I do not like; but still I think him a very intelligent traveller.

If Percy is really offended, I am sorry; for he is a man whom I never knew to offend any one. He is a man very willing to learn, and very able to teach; a man, out of whose company I never go without having learned something. It is sure that he vexes me sometimes, but I am afraid it is by making me feel my own ignorance. So much extension of mind, and so much minute accuracy of enquiry, if you survey your whole circle of acquaintance, you will find so scarce, if you find it at all, that you will value Percy by comparison. 

'Upon the whole, you see that what I might say in sport or petulance to him, is very consistent with full conviction of his merit. 

'I am, dear Sir, 

'Your most, &c., 


'April 23, 1778.'

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part 177

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