Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson by Hester Lynch Thrale - part 2

  • Posted on: 27 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

If, however, Mr. Johnson lamented that the nearer he approached to his own times, the more enemies he should make, by telling biographical truths in his "Lives of the Later Poets," what may I not apprehend, who, if I relate anecdotes of Mr. Johnson, am obliged to repeat expressions of severity, and sentences of contempt? Let me at least soften them a little by saying that he did not hate the persons he treated with roughness, or despise them whom he drove from him by apparent scorn. He really loved and respected many whom he would not suffer to love him. And when he related to me a short dialogue that passed between himself and a writer of the first eminence in the world, when he was in Scotland, I was shocked to think how he must have disgusted him. "Dr. ---- asked me," said he, "why I did not join in their public worship when among them? for," said he, "I went to your churches often when in England." "So," replied Johnson, "I have read that the Siamese sent ambassadors to Louis Quatorze, but I never heard that the King of France thought it worth his while to send ambassadors from his court to that of Siam."

He was no gentler with myself, or those for whom I had the greatest regard. When I one day lamented the loss of a first cousin killed in America, "Prithee, my dear," said he, "have done with canting. How would the world be worse for it, I may ask, if all your relations were at once spitted like larks, and roasted for Presto's supper?" Presto was the dog that lay under the table while we talked.

When we went into Wales together, and spent some time at Sir Robert Cotton's, at Lleweny, one day at dinner I meant to please Mr. Johnson particularly with a dish of very young peas. "Are not they charming?" said I to him, while he was eating them. "Perhaps," said he, "they would be so--to a pig." I only instance these replies, to excuse my mentioning those he made to others.

When a well-known author published his poems in the year 1777: "Such a one's verses are come out," said I. "Yes," replied Johnson, "and this frost has struck them in again. Here are some lines I have written to ridicule them; but remember that I love the fellow dearly now, for all I laugh at him:—

Wheresoe'er I turn my view,
All is strange, yet nothing new;

Endless labour all along,
Endless labour to be wrong;

Phrase that Time has flung away;
Uncouth words in disarray,

Tricked in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode, and elegy, and sonnet.

When he parodied the verses of another eminent writer, it was done with more provocation, I believe, and with some merry malice. A serious translation of the same lines, which I think are from Euripides, may be found in Burney's "History of Music." Here are the burlesque ones:—

Err shall they not, who resolute explore
Time's gloomy backward with judicious eyes;
And scanning right the practices of yore,
Shall deem our hoar progenitors unwise.

They to the dome where smoke with curling play
Announced the dinner to the regions round,
Summoned the singer blithe, and harper gay,
And aided wine with dulcet streaming sound.

The better use of notes, or sweet or shrill,
By quivering string, or modulated wind;

Trumpet or lyre—to their harsh bosoms chill,
Admission ne'er had sought, or could not find.

Oh! send them to the sullen mansions dun,
Her baleful eyes where Sorrow rolls around;
Where gloom-enamoured Mischief loves to dwell,
And Murder, all blood-boltered, schemes the wound.

When cates luxuriant pile the spacious dish,
And purple nectar glads the festive hour;
The guest, without a want, without a wish,
Can yield no room to Music's soothing power.

Some of the old legendary stories put in verse by modern writers provoked him to caricature them thus one day at Streatham; but they are already well known, I am sure.

The tender infant, meek and mild,
Fell down upon the stone;
The nurse took up the squealing child,
But still the child squealed on.

A famous ballad also, beginning 'Rio verde, Rio verde,' when I commended the translation of it, he said he could do it better himself—as thus:

Glassy water, glassy water,
Down whose current clear and strong,
Chiefs confused in mutual slaughter,
Moor and Christian roll along.

"But, sir," said I, "this is not ridiculous at all." "Why, no," replied he, "why should I always write ridiculously? Perhaps because I made these verses to imitate such a one," naming him:

Hermit hoar, in solemn cell
Wearing out life's evening grey;
Strike thy bosom, sage! and tell
What is bliss, and which the way?

Thus I spoke, and speaking sighed,
Scarce repressed the starting tear,
When the hoary sage replied,
'Come, my lad, and drink some beer.

I could give another comical instance of caricatura imitation. Recollecting some day, when praising these verses of Lopez de Vega—

Se acquien los leones vence,
Vence una muger hermosa,
O el de flaco averguence,
O ella di ser mas furiosa,

more than he thought they deserved, Mr. Johnson instantly observed "that they were founded on a trivial conceit, and that conceit ill-explained and ill-expressed besides. The lady, we all know, does not conquer in the same manner as the lion does. 'Tis a mere play of words," added he, "and you might as well say that

If the man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
'Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.

This readiness of finding a parallel, or making one, was shown by him perpetually in the course of conversation.

— Hester Thrale on Samuel Johnson.

And this humour is of the same sort with which he answered the friend who commended the following line:— "Who rules o'er freemen should himself be free." "To be sure," said Dr. Johnson— "'Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat.'" This readiness of finding a parallel, or making one, was shown by him perpetually in the course of conversation.

When the French verses of a certain pantomime were quoted thus:

Je suis Cassandre descendue des cieux,
Pour vous faire entendre, mesdames et messieurs,
Que je suis Cassandre descendue des cieux,

he cried out gaily and suddenly, almost in a moment—

I am Cassandra come down from the sky,
To tell each bystander what none can deny,
That I am Cassandra come down from the sky.

The pretty Italian verses, too, at the end of Baretti's book called "Easy Phraseology," he did all' improviso, in the same manner:

Viva! viva la padrona!
Tutta bella, e tutta buona,
La padrona e un angiolella
Tutta buona e tutta bella;
Tutta bella e tutta buona;
Viva! viva la padrona!

Long may live my lovely Hetty!
Always young and always pretty,
Always pretty, always young,
Live my lovely Hetty long!
Always young and always pretty!
Long may live my lovely Hetty!

The famous distich, too, of an Italian improvisatore, when the Duke of Modena ran away from the comet in the year 1742 or 1743:

Se al venir vestro i principi sen' vanno,
Deh venga ogni di — durate un anno;

"which," said he, "would do just as well in our language thus:

If at your coming princes disappear,
Comets! come every day—and stay a year.

When some one in company commended the verses of M. de Benserade a son Lit:

Theatre des ris et des pleurs,
Lit! on je nais, et ou je meurs,
Tu nous fais voir comment voisins
Sont nos plaisirs et nos chagrins.

To which he replied without hesitating--

In bed we laugh, in bed we cry,
And born in bed, in bed we die;
The near approach a bed may show
Of human bliss to human woe.

The inscription on the collar of Sir Joseph Banks's goat, which had been on two of his adventurous expeditions with him, and was then, by the humanity of her amiable master, turned out to graze in Kent as a recompense for her utility and faithful service, was given me by Johnson in the year 1777, I think, and I have never yet seen it printed: "Perpetui, ambita, bis terra, premia lactis, Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis." The epigram written at Lord Anson's house many years ago, "where," says Mr. Johnson, "I was well received and kindly treated, and with the true gratitude of a wit ridiculed the master of the house before I had left it an hour," has been falsely printed in many papers since his death. I wrote it down from his own lips one evening in August, 1772, not neglecting the little preface accusing himself of making so graceless a return for the civilities shown him.

He had, among other elegancies about the park and gardens, been made to observe a temple to the winds, when this thought naturally presented itself to a wit:

Gratum animum laudo;
Qui debuit omnia ventis,
Quam bene ventorum,
surgere templa jubet!

A translation of Dryden's epigram, too, I used to fancy I had to myself: "Quos laudet vates, Graius, Romanus, et Anglus, Tres tria temporibus secla dedere suis: Sublime ingenium, Graius,--Romanus habebat Carmen grande sonans, Anglus utrumque tulit. Nil majus natura capit: clarare priores Quae potuere duos, tertius unus habet:" from the famous lines written under Milton's picture:

Three poets in three distant ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn;
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed,
The next in majesty; in both the last.
The force of Nature could no further go,
To make a third she joined the former two.

One evening in the oratorio season of the year 1771 Mr. Johnson went with me to Covent Garden Theatre, and though he was for the most part an exceedingly bad playhouse companion, as his person drew people's eyes upon the box, and the loudness of his voice made it difficult for me to hear anybody but himself, he sat surprisingly quiet, and I flattered myself that he was listening to the music. When we were got home, however, he repeated these verses, which he said he had made at the oratorio, and he bade me translate them: in theatro

Tertii verso quater orbe lustri
Quid theatrales tibi crispe pompae!
Quam decet canos male literatos Sera voluptas!

Tene mulceri fidibus canoris?
Tene cantorum modulis stupere?
Tene per pictas oculo elegante Currere formas?

Inter equales sine felle liber,
Codices veri studiosus inter Rectius vives,
sua quisque carpat Gaudia gratus.

Lusibus gaudet puer otiosis
Luxus oblectat juvenem theatri,
At seni fluxo sapienter uti Tempore restat.

I gave him the following lines in imitation, which he liked well enough, I think:

When threescore years have chilled thee quite,
Still can theatric scenes delight?
Ill suits this place with learned wight,
May Bates or Coulson cry.>

The scholar's pride can Brent disarm?
His heart can soft Guadagni warm?
Or scenes with sweet delusion charm
The climacteric eye?

The social club, the lonely tower,
Far better suit thy midnight hour;

Let each according to his power
In worth or wisdom shine!

And while play pleases idle boys,
And wanton mirth fond youth employs,
To fix the soul, and free from toys,
That useful task be thine.

Written by Hester Lynch Thrale in September 1785 and first published March 1786, by Cadell of London. Transcribed from the Project Gutenberg Etext [#2423] by Les Bowler, Dorset from the 1901 Cassell and Co. edition. Reformatted and hyper-linked by

Hester Thrale's spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalisation, some of which may not conform to today's standards, are reproduced faithfully throughout. More writings by Hester Thrale