Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson by Hester Lynch Thrale - part 3
The copy of verses in Latin hexameters, as well as I remember, which he wrote to Dr. Lawrence, I forgot to keep a copy of; and he obliged me to resign his translation of the song beginning, "Busy, curious, thirsty fly," for him to give Mr. Langton, with a promise not to retain a copy. I concluded he knew why, so never inquired the reason. He had the greatest possible value for Mr. Langton, of Langton Hall, Lincoln, of whose virtue and learning he delighted to talk in very exalted terms; and poor Dr. Lawrence had long been his friend and confident. The conversation I saw them hold together in Essex Street one day, in the year 1781 or 1782, was a melancholy one, and made a singular impression on my mind. He was himself exceedingly ill, and I accompanied him thither for advice. The physician was, however, in some respects more to be pitied than the patient. Johnson was panting under an asthma and dropsy, but Lawrence had been brought home that very morning struck with the palsy, from which he had, two hours before we came, strove to awaken himself by blisters. They were both deaf, and scarce able to speak besides: one from difficulty of breathing, the other from paralytic debility. To give and receive medical counsel, therefore, they fairly sat down on each side a table in the doctor's gloomy apartment, adorned with skeletons, preserved monsters, etc., and agreed to write Latin billets to each other. Such a scene did I never see. "You," said Johnson, "are timide and gelide," finding that his friend had prescribed palliative, not drastic, remedies. "It is not me," replies poor Lawrence, in an interrupted voice, "'tis nature that is gelide and timide."
In fact, he lived but few months after, I believe, and retained his faculties still a shorter time. He was a man of strict piety and profound learning, but little skilled in the knowledge of life or manners, and died without having ever enjoyed the reputation he so justly deserved. Mr. Johnson's health had been always extremely bad since I first knew him, and his over-anxious care to retain without blemish the perfect sanity of his mind contributed much to disturb it. He had studied medicine diligently in all its branches, but had given particular attention to the diseases of the imagination, which he watched in himself with a solicitude destructive of his own peace, and intolerable to those he trusted. Dr. Lawrence told him one day that if he would come and beat him once a week he would bear it, but to hear his complaints was more than man could support. 'Twas therefore that he tried, I suppose, and in eighteen years contrived to weary the patience of a woman.
When Mr. Johnson felt his fancy, or fancied he felt it, disordered, his constant recurrence was to the study of arithmetic, and one day that he was totally confined to his chamber, and I inquired what he had been doing to divert himself, he showed me a calculation which I could scarce be made to understand, so vast was the plan of it, and so very intricate were the figures: no other, indeed, than that the national debt, computing it at one hundred and eighty millions sterling, would, if converted into silver, serve to make a meridian of that metal, I forgot how broad, for the globe of the whole earth, the real globe.
On a similar occasion I asked him, knowing what subject he would like best to talk upon, how his opinion stood towards the question between Paschal and Soame Jennings about number and numeration? as the French philosopher observes that infinity, though on all sides astonishing, appears most so when the idea is connected with the idea of number; for the notion of infinite number--and infinite number we know there is--stretches one's capacity still more than the idea of infinite space. "Such a notion, indeed," adds he, "can scarcely find room in the human mind." Our English author, on the other hand, exclaims, let no man give himself leave to talk about infinite number, for infinite number is a contradiction in terms; whatever is once numbered, we all see, cannot be infinite. "I think," said Mr. Johnson, after a pause, "we must settle the matter thus: numeration is certainly infinite, for eternity might be employed in adding unit to unit; but every number is in itself finite, as the possibility of doubling it easily proves; besides, stop at what point you will, you find yourself as far from infinitude as ever." These passages I wrote down as soon as I had heard them, and repent that I did not take the same method with a dissertation he made one other day that he was very ill, concerning the peculiar properties of the number sixteen, which I afterwards tried, but in vain, to make him repeat.
As ethics or figures, or metaphysical reasoning, was the sort of talk he most delighted in, so no kind of conversation pleased him less, I think, than when the subject was historical fact or general polity. "What shall we learn from that stuff?" said he. "Let us not fancy, like Swift, that we are exalting a woman's character by telling how she "'Could name the ancient heroes round, Explain for what they were renowned,' etc." I must not, however, lead my readers to suppose that he meant to reserve such talk for men's company as a proof of pre-eminence. "He never," as he expressed it, "desired to hear of the Punic War while he lived; such conversation was lost time," he said, "and carried one away from common life, leaving no ideas behind which could serve living wight as warning or direction." "How I should act is not the case, But how would Brutus in my place." "And now," cries Mr. Johnson, laughing with obstreperous violence, "if these two foolish lines can be equalled in folly, except by the two succeeding ones--show them me."
I asked him once concerning the conversation powers of a gentleman with whom I was myself unacquainted. "He talked to me at club one day," replies our Doctor, "concerning Catiline's conspiracy, so I withdrew my attention, and thought about Tom Thumb."
Modern politics fared no better. I was one time extolling the character of a statesman, and expatiating on the skill required to direct the different currents, reconcile the jarring interests, etc. "Thus," replies he, "a mill is a complicated piece of mechanism enough, but the water is no part of the workmanship." On another occasion, when some one lamented the weakness of a then present Minister, and complained that he was dull and tardy, and knew little of affairs: "You may as well complain, sir," says Johnson, "that the accounts of time are kept by the clock; for he certainly does stand still upon the stair-head--and we all know that he is no great chronologer."
In the year 1777, or thereabouts, when all the talk was of an invasion, he said most pathetically one afternoon, "Alas! alas! how this unmeaning stuff spoils all my comfort in my friends' conversation! Will the people have done with it; and shall I never hear a sentence again without the French in it? Here is no invasion coming, and you know there is none. Let the vexatious and frivolous talk alone, or suffer it at least to teach you one truth; and learn by this perpetual echo of even unapprehended distress how historians magnify events expected or calamities endured; when you know they are at this very moment collecting all the big words they can find, in which to describe a consternation never felt, for a misfortune which never happened. Among all your lamentations, who eats the less--who sleeps the worse, for one general's ill-success, or another's capitulation? Oh, pray let us hear no more of it!"
No man, however, was more zealously attached to his party; he not only loved a Tory himself, but he loved a man the better if he heard he hated a Whig. "Dear Bathurst," said he to me one day, "was a man to my very heart's content: he hated a fool, and he hated a rogue, and he hated a whig; he was a very good hater." Some one mentioned a gentleman of that party for having behaved oddly on an occasion where faction was not concerned: "Is he not a citizen of London, a native of North America, and a Whig?" says Johnson. "Let him be absurd, I beg you of you; when a monkey is too like a man, it shocks one."
Severity towards the poor was, in Dr. Johnson's opinion (as is visible in his "Life of Addison" particularly), an undoubted and constant attendant or consequence upon Whiggism; and he was not contented with giving them relief, he wished to add also indulgence. He loved the poor as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy. "What signifies," says some one, "giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco." "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?" says Johnson; "it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to show even visible displeasure if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths."
In consequence of these principles he nursed whole nests of people in his house, where the lame, the blind, the sick, and the sorrowful found a sure retreat from all the evils whence his little income could secure them: and commonly spending the middle of the week at our house, he kept his numerous family in Fleet Street upon a settled allowance; but returned to them every Saturday, to give them three good dinners, and his company, before he came back to us on the Monday night--treating them with the same, or perhaps more ceremonious civility than he would have done by as many people of fashion--making the Holy Scriptures thus the rule of his conduct, and only expecting salvation as he was able to obey its precepts.
Dr. Johnson possessed, however, the strongest compassion for poverty or illness.
While Dr. Johnson possessed, however, the strongest compassion for poverty or illness, he did not even pretend to feel for those who lamented the loss of a child, a parent, or a friend. "These are the distresses of sentiment," he would reply, "which a man who is really to be pitied has no leisure to feel. The sight of people who want food and raiment is so common in great cities, that a surly fellow like me has no compassion to spare for wounds given only to vanity or softness." No man, therefore, who smarted from the ingratitude of his friends, found any sympathy from our philosopher. "Let him do good on higher motives next time," would be the answer; "he will then be sure of his reward." It is easy to observe that the justice of such sentences made them offensive; but we must be careful how we condemn a man for saying what we know to be true, only because it is so. I hope that the reason our hearts rebelled a little against his severity was chiefly because it came from a living mouth.
Books were invented to take off the odium of immediate superiority, and soften the rigour of duties prescribed by the teachers and censors of human kind-- setting at least those who are acknowledged wiser than ourselves at a distance. When we recollect, however, that for this very reason they are seldom consulted and little obeyed, how much cause shall his contemporaries have to rejoice that their living Johnson forced them to feel there proofs due to vice and folly, while Seneca and Tillotson were no longer able to make impression--except on our shelves!
Few things, indeed, which pass well enough with others would do with him: he had been a great reader of Mandeville, and was ever on the watch to spy out those stains of original corruption so easily discovered by a penetrating observer even in the purest minds. I mentioned an event, which if it had happened would greatly have injured Mr. Thrale and his family--"and then, dear sir," said I, "how sorry you would have been!" "I hope" replied he, after a long pause, "I should have been very sorry; but remember Rochefoucault's maxim." "I would rather," answered I, "remember Prior's verses, and ask-- 'What need of books these truths to tell, Which folks perceive that cannot spell? And must we spectacles apply, To see what hurts our naked eye?' Will anybody's mind bear this eternal microscope that you place upon your own so?" "I never," replied he, "saw one that would, except that of my dear Miss Reynolds--and hers is very near to purity itself."
Of slighter evils, and friends more distant than our own household, he spoke less cautiously. An acquaintance lost the almost certain hope of a good estate that had been long expected. "Such a one will grieve," said I, "at her friend's disappointment." "She will suffer as much, perhaps," said he, "as your horse did when your cow miscarried." I professed myself sincerely grieved when accumulated distresses crushed Sir George Colebrook's family; and I was so. "Your own prosperity," said he, "may possibly have so far increased the natural tenderness of your heart, that for aught I know you may be a little sorry; but it is sufficient for a plain man if he does not laugh when he sees a fine new house tumble down all on a sudden, and a snug cottage stand by ready to receive the owner, whose birth entitled him to nothing better, and whose limbs are left him to go to work again with." I tried to tell him in jest that his morality was easily contented, and when I have said something as if the wickedness of the world gave me concern, he would cry out aloud against canting, and protest that he thought there was very little gross wickedness in the world, and still less of extraordinary virtue.
Nothing, indeed, more surely disgusted Dr. Johnson than hyperbole; he loved not to be told of sallies of excellence, which he said were seldom valuable, and seldom true. "Heroic virtues," said he, "are the bons mots of life; they do not appear often, and when they do appear are too much prized, I think, like the aloe-tree, which shoots and flowers once in a hundred years. But life is made up of little things; and that character is the best which does little but repeated acts of beneficence; as that conversation is the best which consists in elegant and pleasing thoughts expressed in natural and pleasing terms. With regard to my own notions of moral virtue," continued he, "I hope I have not lost my sensibility of wrong; but I hope, likewise, that I have lived long enough in the world to prevent me from expecting to find any action of which both the original motive and all the parts were good."
His respect, however, for places of religious retirement was carried to the greatest degree of earthly veneration; the Benedictine convent at Paris paid him all possible honours in return, and the Prior and he parted with tears of tenderness. Two of that college being sent to England on the mission some years after, spent much of their time with him at Bolt Court, I know, and he was ever earnest to retain their friendship; but though beloved by all his Roman Catholic acquaintance, particularly Dr. Nugent, for whose esteem he had a singular value, yet was Mr. Johnson a most unshaken Church of England man; and I think, or at least I once did think, that a letter written by him to Mr. Barnard, the King's Librarian, when he was in Italy collecting books, contained some very particular advice to his friend to be on his guard against the seductions of the Church of Rome.
The settled aversion Dr. Johnson felt towards an infidel he expressed to all ranks, and at all times, without the smallest reserve; for though on common occasions he paid great deference to birth or title, yet his regard for truth and virtue never gave way to meaner considerations. We talked of a dead wit one evening, and somebody praised him. "Let us never praise talents so ill employed, sir; we foul our mouths by commending such infidels," said he. "Allow him the lumieres at least," entreated one of the company. "I do allow him, sir," replied Johnson, "just enough to light him to hell." Of a Jamaica gentleman, then lately dead: "He will not, whither he is now gone," said Johnson, "find much difference, I believe, either in the climate or the company."
The Abbe Reynal probably remembers that, being at the house of a common friend in London, the master of it approached Johnson with that gentleman so much celebrated in his hand, and this speech in his mouth: "Will you permit me, sir, to present to you the Abbe Reynal?" "No sir," replied the Doctor very loud, and suddenly turned away from them both. Though Mr. Johnson had but little reverence either for talents or fortune when he found them unsupported by virtue, yet it was sufficient to tell him a man was very pious, or very charitable, and he would at least begin with him on good terms, however the conversation might end. He would sometimes, too, good-naturedly enter into a long chat for the instruction or entertainment of people he despised. I perfectly recollect his condescending to delight my daughter's dancing-master with a long argument about his art, which the man protested, at the close of the discourse, the Doctor knew more of than himself, who remained astonished, enlightened, and amused by the talk of a person little likely to make a good disquisition upon dancing.
I have sometimes, indeed, been rather pleased than vexed when Mr. Johnson has given a rough answer to a man who perhaps deserved one only half as rough, because I knew he would repent of his hasty reproof, and make us all amends by some conversation at once instructive and entertaining, as in the following cases. A young fellow asked him abruptly one day, "Pray, sir, what and where is Palmyra? I heard somebody talk last night of the ruins of Palmyra." "'Tis a hill in Ireland," replies Johnson, "with palms growing on the top, and a bog at the bottom, and so they call it palm-mira." Seeing, however, that the lad thought him serious, and thanked him for the information, he undeceived him very gently indeed: told him the history, geography, and chronology of Tadmor in the wilderness, with every incident that literature could furnish, I think, or eloquence express, from the building of Solomon's palace to the voyage of Dawkins and Wood.
On another occasion, when he was musing over the fire in our drawing-room at Streatham, a young gentleman called to him suddenly, and I suppose he thought disrespectfully, in these words: "Mr. Johnson, would you advise me to marry?" "I would advise no man to marry, sir," returns for answer in a very angry tone Dr. Johnson, "who is not likely to propagate understanding," and so left the room. Our companion looked confounded, and I believe had scarce recovered the consciousness of his own existence, when Johnson came back, and drawing his chair among us, with altered looks and a softened voice, joined in the general chat, insensibly led the conversation to the subject of marriage, where he laid himself out in a dissertation so useful, so elegant, so founded on the true knowledge of human life, and so adorned with beauty of sentiment, that no one ever recollected the offence, except to rejoice in its consequences.
He repented just as certainly, however, if he had been led to praise any person or thing by accident more than he thought it deserved; and was on such occasions comically earnest to destroy the praise or pleasure he had unintentionally given. Sir Joshua Reynolds mentioned some picture as excellent. "It has often grieved me, sir," said Mr. Johnson, "to see so much mind as the science of painting requires laid out upon such perishable materials. Why do not you oftener make use of copper? I could wish your superiority in the art you profess to be preserved in stuff more durable than canvas." Sir Joshua urged the difficulty of procuring a plate large enough for historical subjects, and was going to raise further observations. "What foppish obstacles are these!" exclaims on a sudden Dr. Johnson. "Here is Thrale has a thousand tun of copper; you may paint it all round if you will, I suppose; it will serve him to brew in afterwards. Will it not, sir?" (to my husband, who sat by). Indeed, Dr. Johnson's utter scorn of painting was such that I have heard him say that he should sit very quietly in a room hung round with the works of the greatest masters, and never feel the slightest disposition to turn them if their backs were outermost, unless it might be for the sake of telling Sir Joshua that he had turned them.
Such speeches may appear offensive to many, but those who knew he was too blind to discern the perfections of an art which applies itself immediately to our eyesight must acknowledge he was not in the wrong. He delighted no more in music than in painting; he was almost as deaf as he was blind; travelling with Dr. Johnson was for these reasons tiresome enough. Mr. Thrale loved prospects, and was mortified that his friend could not enjoy the sight of those different dispositions of wood and water, hill and valley, that travelling through England and France affords a man. But when he wished to point them out to his companion: "Never heed such nonsense," would be the reply; "a blade of grass is always a blade of grass, whether in one country or another. Let us, if we do talk, talk about something; men and women are my subjects of inquiry; let us see how these differ from those we have left behind."
When we were at Rouen together, he took a great fancy to the Abbe Roffette, with whom he conversed about the destruction of the order of Jesuits, and condemned it loudly as a blow to the general power of the Church, and likely to be followed with many and dangerous innovations, which might at length become fatal to religion itself, and shake even the foundation of Christianity. The gentleman seemed to wonder and delight in his conversation. The talk was all in Latin, which both spoke fluently, and Mr. Johnson pronounced a long eulogium upon Milton with so much ardour, eloquence, and ingenuity, that the Abbe rose from his seat and embraced him. My husband, seeing them apparently so charmed with the company of each other, politely invited the Abbe to England, intending to oblige his friend, who, instead of thanking, reprimanded him severely before the man for such a sudden burst of tenderness towards a person he could know nothing at all of, and thus put a sudden finish to all his own and Mr. Thrale's entertainment from the company of the Abbe Roffette.
The piety of Dr. Johnson was exemplary and edifying; he was punctiliously exact to perform every public duty enjoined by the Church, and his spirit of devotion had an energy that affected all who ever saw him pray in private. The coldest and most languid hearer of the Word must have felt themselves animated by his manner of reading the Holy Scriptures; and to pray by his sick-bed required strength of body as well as of mind, so vehement were his manners, and his tones of voice so pathetic. I have many times made it my request to Heaven that I might be spared the sight of his death; and I was spared it.
Mr. Johnson, though in general a gross feeder, kept fast in Lent, particularly the Holy Week, with a rigour very dangerous to his general health; but though he had left off wine (for religious motives, as I always believed, though he did not own it), yet he did not hold the commutation of offences by voluntary penance, or encourage others to practise severity upon themselves. He even once said "that he thought it an error to endeavour at pleasing God by taking the rod of reproof out of His hands." And when we talked of convents, and the hardships suffered in them: "Remember always," said he, "that a convent is an idle place, and where there is nothing to be done something must be endured: mustard has a bad taste per se, you may observe, but very insipid food cannot be eaten without it."
When at Versailles the people showed us the theatre. As we stood on the stage looking at some machinery for playhouse purposes: "Now we are here, what shall we act, Mr. Johnson--The Englishman at Paris?" "No, no," replied he, "we will try to act Harry the Fifth." His dislike to the French was well known to both nations, I believe; but he applauded the number of their books and the graces of their style. "They have few sentiments," said he, "but they express them neatly; they have little meat, too, but they dress it well."
Johnson's own notions about eating, however, were nothing less than delicate: a leg of pork boiled till it dropped from the bone, a veal pie with plums and sugar, or the outside cut of a salt buttock of beef, were his favourite dainties.
With regard to drink, his liking was for the strongest, as it was not the flavour, but the effect, he sought for, and professed to desire; and when I first knew him, he used to pour capillaire into his port wine. For the last twelve years, however, he left off all fermented liquors. To make himself some amends, indeed, he took his chocolate liberally, pouring in large quantities of cream, or even melted butter; and was so fond of fruit, that though he usually ate seven or eight large peaches of a morning before breakfast began, and treated them with proportionate attention after dinner again, yet I have heard him protest that he never had quite as much as he wished of wall-fruit, except once in his life, and that was when we were all together at Ombersley, the seat of my Lord Sandys.
I was saying to a friend one day, that I did not like goose; "one smells it so while it is roasting," said I. "But you, madam," replies the Doctor, "have been at all times a fortunate woman, having always had your hunger so forestalled by indulgence, that you never experienced the delight of smelling your dinner beforehand." "Which pleasure," answered I pertly, "is to be enjoyed in perfection by such as have the happiness to pass through Porridge Island of a morning." "Come, come," says he, gravely, "let's have no sneering at what is serious to so many. Hundreds of your fellow-creatures, dear lady, turn another way, that they may not be tempted by the luxuries of Porridge Island to wish for gratifications they are not able to obtain. You are certainly not better than all of them; give God thanks that you are happier."
I received on another occasion as just a rebuke from Mr. Johnson, for an offence of the same nature, and hope I took care never to provoke a third; for after a very long summer, particularly hot and dry, I was wishing naturally but thoughtlessly for some rain to lay the dust as we drove along the Surrey roads. "I cannot bear," replied he, with much asperity and an altered look, "when I know how many poor families will perish next winter for want of that bread which the present drought will deny them, to hear ladies sighing for rain, only that their complexions may not suffer from the heat, or their clothes be incommoded by the dust. For shame! leave off such foppish lamentations, and study to relieve those whose distresses are real."
With advising others to be charitable, however, Dr. Johnson did not content himself. He gave away all he had, and all he ever had gotten, except the two thousand pounds he left behind; and the very small portion of his income which he spent on himself, with all our calculation, we never could make more than seventy, or at most four-score pounds a year, and he pretended to allow himself a hundred. He had numberless dependents out of doors as well as in, who, as he expressed it, "did not like to see him latterly unless he brought 'em money." For those people he used frequently to raise contributions on his richer friends; "and this," says he, "is one of the thousand reasons which ought to restrain a man from drony solitude and useless retirement. Solitude," added he one day, "is dangerous to reason, without being favourable to virtue: pleasures of some sort are necessary to the intellectual as to the corporeal health; and those who resist gaiety will be likely for the most part to fall a sacrifice to appetite; for the solicitations of sense are always at hand, and a dram to a vacant and solitary person is a speedy and seducing relief. Remember," concluded he, "that the solitary mortal is certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad: the mind stagnates for want of employment, grows morbid, and is extinguished like a candle in foul air."
It was on this principle that Johnson encouraged parents to carry their daughters early and much into company:
for what harm can be done before so many witnesses? Solitude is the surest nurse of all prurient passions, and a girl in the hurry of preparation, or tumult of gaiety, has neither inclination nor leisure to let tender expressions soften or sink into her heart. The ball, the show, are not the dangerous places: no, it is the private friend, the kind consoler, the companion of the easy, vacant hour, whose compliance with her opinions can flatter her vanity, and whose conversation can just soothe, without ever stretching her mind, that is the lover to be feared. He who buzzes in her ear at court or at the opera must be contented to buzz in vain.
These notions Dr. Johnson carried so very far, that I have heard him say, >
If you shut up any man with any woman, so as to make them derive their whole pleasure from each other, they would inevitably fall in love, as it is called, with each other; but at six months' end, if you would throw them both into public life, where they might change partners at pleasure, each would soon forget that fondness which mutual dependence and the paucity of general amusement alone had caused, and each would separately feel delighted by their release.
In these opinions Rousseau apparently concurs with him exactly; and Mr. Whitehead's poem, called "Variety," is written solely to elucidate this simple proposition. Prior likewise advises the husband to send his wife abroad, and let her see the world as it really stands:-- "Powder, and pocket-glass, and beau." Mr. Johnson was indeed unjustly supposed to be a lover of singularity. Few people had a more settled reverence for the world than he, or was less captivated by new modes of behaviour introduced, or innovations on the long-received customs of common life. He hated the way of leaving a company without taking notice to the lady of the house that he was going, and did not much like any of the contrivances by which ease had lately been introduced into society instead of ceremony, which had more of his approbation. Cards, dress, and dancing, however, all found their advocate in Dr. Johnson, who inculcated, upon principle, the cultivation of those arts which many a moralist thinks himself bound to reject, and many a Christian holds unfit to be practised. "No person," said he one day, "goes under-dressed till he thinks himself of consequence enough to forbear carrying the badge of his rank upon his back."
And in answer to the arguments urged by Puritans, Quakers, etc., against showy decorations of the human figure, I once heard him exclaim, "Oh, let us not be found, when our Master calls us, ripping the lace off our waistcoats, but the spirit of contention from our souls and tongues! Let us all conform in outward customs, which are of no consequence, to the manners of those whom we live among, and despise such paltry distinctions. Alas, sir!" continued he, "a man who cannot get to heaven in a green coat, will not find his way thither sooner in a grey one."
On an occasion of less consequence, when he turned his back on Lord Bolingbroke in the rooms at Brighthelmstone, he made this excuse, "I am not obliged, sir," said he to Mr. Thrale, who stood fretting, "to find reasons for respecting the rank of him who will not condescend to declare it by his dress or some other visible mark. What are stars and other signs of superiority made for?" The next evening, however, he made us comical amends, by sitting by the same nobleman, and haranguing very loudly about the nature and use and abuse of divorces. Many people gathered round them to hear what was said, and when my husband called him away, and told him to whom he had been talking, received an answer which I will not write down. Though no man, perhaps, made such rough replies as Dr. Johnson, yet nobody had a more just aversion to general satire; he always hated and censured Swift for his unprovoked bitterness against the professors of medicine, and used to challenge his friends, when they lamented the exorbitancy of physicians' fees, to produce him one instance of an estate raised by physic in England.
When an acquaintance, too, was one day exclaiming against the tediousness of the law and its partiality: "Let us hear, sir," said Johnson, "no general abuse; the law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public." As the mind of Dr. Johnson was greatly expanded, so his first care was for general, not particular or petty morality; and those teachers had more of his blame than praise, I think, who seek to oppress life with unnecessary scruples. "Scruples would," as he observed, "certainly make men miserable, and seldom make them good. Let us ever," he said, "studiously fly from those instructors against whom our Saviour denounces heavy judgments, for having bound up burdens grievous to be borne, and laid them on the shoulders of mortal men."
No one had, however, higher notions of the hard task of true Christianity than Johnson, whose daily terror lest he had not done enough, originated in piety, but ended in little less than disease. Reasonable with regard to others, he had formed vain hopes of performing impossibilities himself; and finding his good works ever below his desires and intent, filled his imagination with fears that he should never obtain forgiveness for omissions of duty and criminal waste of time. These ideas kept him in constant anxiety concerning his salvation; and the vehement petitions he perpetually made for a longer continuance on earth, were doubtless the cause of his so prolonged existence: for when I carried Dr. Pepys to him in the year 1782, it appeared wholly impossible for any skill of the physician or any strength of the patient to save him. He was saved that time, however, by Sir Lucas's prescriptions; and less skill on one side, or less strength on the other, I am morally certain, would not have been enough.
He had, however, possessed an athletic constitution, as he said the man who dipped people in the sea at Brighthelmstone acknowledged; for seeing Mr. Johnson swim, in the year 1766, "Why, sir," says the dipper, "you must have been a stout-hearted gentleman forty years ago." Mr. Thrale and he used to laugh about that story very often: but Garrick told a better, for he said that in their young days, when some strolling players came to Lichfield, our friend had fixed his place upon the stage, and got himself a chair accordingly; which leaving for a few minutes, he found a man in it at his return, who refused to give it back at the first entreaty. Mr. Johnson, however, who did not think it worth his while to make a second, took chair and man and all together, and threw them all at once into the pit. I asked the Doctor if this was a fact. "Garrick has not spoiled it in the telling," said he, "it is very near true, to be sure."
Mr. Beauclerc, too, related one day how on some occasion he ordered two large mastiffs into his parlour, to show a friend who was conversant in canine beauty and excellence how the dogs quarrelled, and fastening on each other, alarmed all the company except Johnson, who seizing one in one hand by the cuff of the neck, the other in the other hand, said gravely, "Come, gentlemen! where's your difficulty? put one dog out at the door, and I will show this fierce gentleman the way out of the window:" which, lifting up the mastiff and the sash, he contrived to do very expeditiously, and much to the satisfaction of the affrighted company. We inquired as to the truth of this curious recital. "The dogs have been somewhat magnified, I believe, sir," was the reply: "they were, as I remember, two stout young pointers; but the story has gained but little."
One reason why Mr. Johnson's memory was so particularly exact, might be derived from his rigid attention to veracity; being always resolved to relate every fact as it stood, he looked even on the smaller parts of life with minute attention, and remembered such passages as escape cursory and common observers. "A story," says he, "is a specimen of human manners, and derives its sole value from its truth. When Foote has told me something, I dismiss it from my mind like a passing shadow: when Reynolds tells me something, I consider myself as possessed of an idea the more." Mr. Johnson liked a frolic or a jest well enough, though he had strange serious rules about it too: and very angry was he if anybody offered to be merry when he was disposed to be grave. "You have an ill-founded notion," said he, "that it is clever to turn matters off with a joke (as the phrase is); whereas nothing produces enmity so certain as one persons showing a disposition to be merry when another is inclined to be either serious or displeased."
One may gather from this how he felt when his Irish friend Grierson, hearing him enumerate the qualities necessary to the formation of a poet, began a comical parody upon his ornamented harangue in praise of a cook, concluding with this observation, that he who dressed a good dinner was a more excellent and a more useful member of society than he who wrote a good poem. "And in this opinion," said Mr. Johnson in reply, "all the dogs in the town will join you." Of this Mr. Grierson I have heard him relate many droll stories, much to his advantage as a wit, together with some facts more difficult to be accounted for; as avarice never was reckoned among the vices of the laughing world. But Johnson's various life, and spirit of vigilance to learn and treasure up every peculiarity of manner, sentiment, or general conduct, made his company, when he chose to relate anecdotes of people he had formerly known, exquisitely amusing and comical. It is indeed inconceivable what strange occurrences he had seen, and what surprising things he could tell when in a communicative humour. It is by no means my business to relate memoirs of his acquaintance; but it will serve to show the character of Johnson himself, when I inform those who never knew him that no man told a story with so good a grace, or knew so well what would make an effect upon his auditors.
When he raised contributions for some distressed author, or wit in want, he often made us all more than amends by diverting descriptions of the lives they were then passing in corners unseen by anybody but himself; and that odd old surgeon whom he kept in his house to tend the out-pensioners, and of whom he said most truly and sublimely that--
In misery's darkest caverns known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pours her groan,
And lonely want retires to die.
I have forgotten the year, but it could scarcely I think be later than 1765 or 1766, that he was called abruptly from our house after dinner, and returning in about three hours, said he had been with an enraged author, whose landlady pressed him for payment within doors, while the bailiffs beset him without; that he was drinking himself drunk with Madeira to drown care, and fretting over a novel which, when finished, was to be his whole fortune; but he could not get it done for distraction, nor could he step out of doors to offer it to sale. Mr. Johnson therefore set away the bottle, and went to the bookseller, recommending the performance, and desiring some immediate relief; which when he brought back to the writer, he called the woman of the house directly to partake of punch, and pass their time in merriment. It was not till ten years after, I dare say, that something in Dr. Goldsmith's behaviour struck me with an idea that he was the very man, and then Johnson confessed it was so; the novel was the charming " Vicar of Wakefield."
There was a Mr. Boyce, too, who wrote some very elegant verses printed in the magazines of five-and-twenty years ago, of whose ingenuity and distress I have heard Dr. Johnson tell some curious anecdotes, particularly that when he was almost perishing with hunger, and some money was produced to purchase him a dinner, he got a piece of roast beef, but could not eat it without ketchup, and laid out the last half-guinea he possessed in truffles and mushrooms, eating them in bed, too, for want of clothes, or even a shirt to sit up in.
Another man, for whom he often begged, made as wild use of his friend's beneficence as these, spending in punch the solitary guinea which had been brought him one morning; when resolving to add another claimant to a share of the bowl, besides a woman who always lived with him, and a footman who used to carry out petitions for charity, he borrowed a chairman's watch, and pawning it for half-a-crown, paid a clergyman to marry him to a fellow-lodger in the wretched house they all inhabited, and got so drunk over the guinea bowl of punch the evening of his wedding-day, that having many years lost the use of one leg, he now contrived to fall from the top of the stairs to the bottom, and break his arm, in which condition his companions left him to call Mr. Johnson, who, relating the series of his tragi-comical distresses obtained from the Literary Club a seasonable relief
Of that respectable society I have heard him speak in the highest terms, and with a magnificent panegyric on each member, when it consisted only of a dozen or fourteen friends; but as soon as the necessity of enlarging it brought in new faces, and took off from his confidence in the company, he grew less fond of the meeting, and loudly proclaimed his carelessness Who might be admitted, when it was become a mere dinner club. I think the original names, when I first heard him talk with fervour of every member's peculiar powers of instructing or delighting mankind, were Sir John Hawkins, Mr. Burke, Mr. Langton, Mr. Beauclerc,
Dr. Percy, Dr. Nugent, Dr. Goldsmith, Sir Robert Chambers, Mr. Dyer, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom he called their Romulus, or said somebody else of the company called him so, which was more likely: but this was, I believe, in the year 1775 or 1776. It was a supper meeting then, and I fancy Dr. Nugent ordered an omelet sometimes on a Friday or Saturday night; for I remember Mr. Johnson felt very painful sensations at the sight of that dish soon after his death, and cried, "Ah, my poor dear friend! I shall never eat omelet with thee again!" quite in an agony.
|Hester Lynch Thrale née Salusbury
1741 - 2 May 1821
|Hester Thrale||Family tree and portraits · Homes · Works · Writings . Thraliana · Pets · Travels · 80th party · Criticism · Death · Obituaries|
|Henry Thrale||Courtship · Marriage dowry · Marriage · Children · 13th anniversary|
|Gabriel Piozzi||Marriage · 7th anniversary · Adopted son · Miscarried daughter|
|People||Samuel Johnson · Streatham Worthies · Proposal from Mr. Swale · King Louis XVI & Queen Marie Antoinette|
|Writings about||The Thrales of Streatham Park · Dr Johnsons Women · Intimate letters · Hester Lynch Piozzi · Dr Johnsons Women · Doctor Johnson's Mrs Thrale · By Samuel Johnson: Ode to · 35th verses · By Herbert Lawrence: Song to Hester|