Sunday, September 3, 2017

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 184

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

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On Sunday, April 19, being Easter-day, after the solemnities of the festival in St. Paul's Church, I visited him, but could not stay to dinner. I expressed a wish to have the arguments for Christianity always in readiness, that my religious faith might be as firm and clear as any proposition whatever, so that I need not be under the least uneasiness, when it should be attacked. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, you cannot answer all objections. You have demonstration for a First Cause: you see he must be good as well as powerful, because there is nothing to make him otherwise, and goodness of itself is preferable.

Yet you have against this, what is very certain, the unhappiness of human life. This, however, gives us reason to hope for a future state of compensation, that there may be a perfect system. But of that we were not sure, till we had a positive revelation.' 

I told him, that his Rasselas had often made me unhappy; for it represented the misery of human life so well, and so convincingly to a thinking mind, that if at any time the impression wore off, and I felt myself easy, I began to suspect some delusion.

On Monday, April 20, I found him at home in the morning. We talked of a gentleman who we apprehended was gradually involving his circumstances by bad management. 

JOHNSON. 'Wasting a fortune is evaporation by a thousand imperceptible means. If it were a stream, they'd stop it. You must speak to him. It is really miserable. Were he a gamester, it could be said he had hopes of winning. Were he a bankrupt in trade, he might have grown rich; but he has neither spirit to spend nor resolution to spare. He does not spend fast enough to have pleasure from it. He has the crime of prodigality, and the wretchedness of parsimony.

If a man is killed in a duel, he is killed as many a one has been killed; but it is a sad thing for a man to lie down and die; to bleed to death, because he has not fortitude enough to sear the wound, or even to stitch it up.' 

I cannot but pause a moment to admire the fecundity of fancy, and choice of language, which in this instance, and, indeed, on almost all occasions, he displayed. It was well observed by Dr. Percy, now Bishop of Dromore, 'The conversation of Johnson is strong and clear, and may be compared to an antique statue, where every vein and muscle is distinct and bold. Ordinary conversation resembles an inferiour cast.'

On Saturday, April 25, I dined with him at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, with the learned Dr. Musgrave, Counsellor Leland of Ireland, son to the historian, Mrs. Cholmondeley, and some more ladies. The Project, a new poem, was read to the company by Dr. Musgrave. 

JOHNSON. 'Sir, it has no power. Were it not for the well-known names with which it is filled, it would be nothing: the names carry the poet, not the poet the names.' 

MUSGRAVE. 'A temporary poem always entertains us.' 

JOHNSON. 'So does an account of the criminals hanged yesterday entertain us.'

He proceeded: —'Demosthenes Taylor, as he was called, (that is, the Editor of Demosthenes) was the most silent man, the merest statue of a man that I have ever seen. I once dined in company with him, and all he said during the whole time was no more than Richard. How a man should say only Richard, it is not easy to imagine. But it was thus: Dr. Douglas was talking of Dr. Zachary Grey, and ascribing to him something that was written by Dr. Richard Grey. So, to correct him, Taylor said, (imitating his affected sententious emphasis and nod,) "Richard."'

Mrs. Cholmondeley, in a high flow of spirits, exhibited some lively sallies of hyperbolical compliment to Johnson, with whom she had been long acquainted, and was very easy. He was quick in catching the manner of the moment, and answered her somewhat in the style of the hero of a romance, 'Madam, you crown me with unfading laurels.'

I happened, I know not how, to say that a pamphlet meant a prose piece. 

JOHNSON. 'No, Sir. A few sheets of poetry unbound are a pamphlet, as much as a few sheets of prose.' 

MUSGRAVE. 'A pamphlet may be understood to mean a poetical piece in Westminster-Hall, that is, in formal language; but in common language it is understood to mean prose.' 

JOHNSON. (and here was one of the many instances of his knowing clearly and telling exactly how a thing is) 'A pamphlet is understood in common language to mean prose, only from this, that there is so much more prose written than poetry; as when we say a book, prose is understood for the same reason, though a book may as well be in poetry as in prose. We understand what is most general, and we name what is less frequent.'

We talked of a lady's verses on Ireland. 

MISS REYNOLDS. 'Have you seen them, Sir?' 

JOHNSON. 'No, Madam. I have seen a translation from Horace, by one of her daughters. She shewed it me.' 

MISS REYNOLDS. 'And how was it, Sir?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, very well for a young Miss's verses;— that is to say, compared with excellence, nothing; but, very well, for the person who wrote them. I am vexed at being shewn verses in that manner.' 

MISS REYNOLDS. 'But if they should be good, why not give them hearty praise?' 

JOHNSON. 'Why, Madam, because I have not then got the better of my bad humour from having been shewn them. You must consider, Madam; beforehand they may be bad, as well as good. Nobody has a right to put another under such a difficulty, that he must either hurt the person by telling the truth, or hurt himself by telling what is not true.'

BOSWELL. 'A man often shews his writings to people of eminence, to obtain from them, either from their good-nature, or from their not being able to tell the truth firmly, a commendation, of which he may afterwards avail himself.' 

JOHNSON. 'Very true, Sir. Therefore the man, who is asked by an authour, what he thinks of his work, is put to the torture, and is not obliged to speak the truth; so that what he says is not considered as his opinion; yet he has said it, and cannot retract it; and this authour, when mankind are hunting him with a cannister at his tail, can say, "I would not have published, had not Johnson, or Reynolds, or Musgrave, or some other good judge commended the work." Yet I consider it as a very difficult question in conscience, whether one should advise a man not to publish a work, if profit be his object; for the man may say, "Had it not been for you, I should have had the money." Now you cannot be sure; for you have only your own opinion, and the publick may think very differently.' 

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. 'You must upon such an occasion have two judgments; one as to the real value of the work, the other as to what may please the general taste at the time.' 

JOHNSON. 'But you can be sure of neither; and therefore I should scruple much to give a suppressive vote. Both Goldsmith's comedies were once refused; his first by Garrick, his second by Colman, who was prevailed on at last by much solicitation, nay, a kind of force, to bring it on. His Vicar of Wakefield I myself did not think would have had much success.

It was written and sold to a bookseller before his Traveller; but published after; so little expectation had the bookseller from it. Had it been sold after the Traveller, he might have had twice as much money for it, though sixty guineas was no mean price. The bookseller had the advantage of Goldsmith's reputation from The Traveller in the sale, though Goldsmith had it not in selling the copy.' 

SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. 'The Beggar's Opera affords a proof how strangely people will differ in opinion about a literary performance. Burke thinks it has no merit.' 

JOHNSON. 'It was refused by one of the houses; but I should have thought it would succeed, not from any great excellence in the writing, but from the novelty, and the general spirit and gaiety of the piece, which keeps the audience always attentive, and dismisses them in good humour.'

(classix comix™ is underwritten in part by a continuing grant from the Bob’s Bowery Bar Fund for Indigent Artists: “Can’t afford to head to the beach for Labor Day? Why not join me at Bob’s Bowery Bar – conveniently located at the northwest corner of Bleecker and the Bowery – and take advantage of Bob’s traditional Labor Day Barbecue Special: a ‘mixed grill’ of baby back beef ribs, chicken parts, and Kosher wieners, slow-cooked over mesquite coals in the great big oil drum in the alley out back! Sides (two per platter) include your choice of corn on the cob, ‘Mom’s old-fashioned potato salad’, buttery hot cross buns, crunchy groat cakes, kimchee, Jersey tomatoes ‘n’ onions vinaigrette, or three-bean salad.”

– Horace P. Sternwall, host of the Bob’s Bowery Bar Labor Day Telethon, airing all day Labor Day live on the Dumont Television Network direct from the Prince Hal Room of the historic Hotel St Crispian, and featuring a cavalcade of stars of stage, screen, and television, with musical accompaniment by Tony Winston & his Winstonians. All donations are tax-deductible and in aid of the Bob’s Bowery Fund for Indigent Artists. Horace’s co-hostess this year: television’s beloved “Blanche Weinberg, Lady Psychiatrist” – Miss Kitty Carlisle!)


part 185

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