« PreviousContinue »
to a friend,-“Hurd, sir, is one of a set of men who account for every thing systematically; for instance, it has been a fashion to wear scarlet breeches; these men would tell you, that according to causes and effects, no other wear could at that time have been chosen.” He, however, said of him at another time to the same gentleman, “Hurd, sir, is a man whose acquaintance is a valuable acquisition.”
That learned and ingenious prelate, it is well known, published at one period of his life “Moral and Political Dialogues," with a wofully whiggish cast. Afterwards, his lordship having thought better, came to see his error, and republished the work with a more constitutional spirit. Johnson, however, was unwilling to allow him full credit for his political conversion. I remember when his lordship declined the honour of being archbishop of Canterbury, Johnson said, “I am glad he did not go to Lambeth; for, after all, I fear he is a whig in his heart.”
Johnson's attention to precision and clearness in expression was very remarkable. He disapproved of a parenthesis; and I believe in all his voluminous writings, not half a dozen of them will be found. He never used the phrases the former and the latter, having observed, that they often occasioned obscurity; he therefore contrived to construct his sentences so as not to have occasion for them, and would even rather repeat the same words, in order to avoid them. Nothing is more common than to mistake surnames, when we hear them carelessly uttered for the first time. To prevent this, he used not only to pronounce them slowly and distinctly, but to take the trouble of spelling them; a practice which I have often followed, and which I wish were general.
Such was the heat and irritability of his blood, that not only did he pare his nails to the quick, but scraped
the joints of his fingers with a penknife, till they seemed quite red and raw '.
The heterogeneous composition of human nature was remarkably exemplified in Johnson. His liberality in giving his money to persons in distress was extraordinary. Yet there lurked about him a propensity to paltry saving. One day I owned to him, that “I was occasionally troubled with a fit of narrowness.' Why, sir,” said he, “ so am I. But I do not tell it.” He has now and then borrowed a shilling of me; and when I asked him for it again, seemed to be rather out of humour. A droll little circumstance once occurred; as if he meant to reprimand my minute exactness as a creditor, he thus addressed me ;-“Boswell, lend me sixpence—not to be repaid.”
This great man's attention to small things was very remarkable. As an instance of it, he one day said to me, “Sir, when you get silver in change for a guinea, look carefully at it; you may find some curious piece of coin."
Though a stern true-born Englishman, and fully prejudiced against all other nations, he had discernment enough to see, and candour enough to censure, the cold reserve too common among Englishmen towards strangers: “Sir,” said he, “two men of
any other nation who are shown into a room together, at a house where they are both visitors, will immediately find some conversation. But two Englishmen will probably go each to a different window, and remain in obstinate silence. Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the common rights of humanity.”
Johnson was at a certain period of his life a good
1 [This looks like what Mr. Partridge would call a non sequitur; at least, the Editor does not see how extreme heat and irritability of the blood should cause a man to pare his nails too close. -ED.]
deal with the Earl of Shelburne', now Marquis of Lansdown, as he doubtless could not but have a due value for that nobleman's activity of mind, and uncommon acquisitions of important knowledge, however much he might disapprove of other parts of his lordship’s character, which were widely different from his own.
Maurice Morgann, Esq., author of the very ingenious “Essay on the Character of Falstaff?,” being a particular friend of his lordship, had once an opportunity of entertaining Johnson a day or two at Wycombe, when its lord was absent, and by him I have bcen favoured with two anecdotes.
One is not a little to the credit of Johnson's candour. Mr. Morgann and he had a dispute pretty late at night, in which Johnson would not give up, though he had the wrong side; and, in short, both kept the field. Next morning, when they met in the breakfasting-room, Dr. Johnson accosted Mr. Morgann thus: “Sir, I have been thinking on our dispute last night ;-You were in the right.
The other was as follows: Johnson, for sport perhaps, or from the spirit of contradiction, eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer. Mr. Morgann argued with him directly, in vain. At length he had recourse to this device. “Pray, sir,” said he, “ whether do you reckon Derrick or Smart the best poet?” Johnson at once felt himself roused; and answered, “Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.” [It has been asserted (European Mag. 1796,
· [The accuracy of this asscrtion seems doubtful; at which period of his life could Johnson "have been a good deal with Lord Shelburne ?" words that imply a familiar intercourse : of which neither in Mr. Boswell's detail of his life, nor in his letters, does any trace appear. See ante, vol. iv. p. 120, note.--ED.]
2 Johnson being asked his opinion of this Essay, answered, “Why, sir, we shall have the man come forth again ; and as he has proved Falstaff to be no coward, he may prove Iago to be a very good character.”
p. 16), that the foregoing comparison was made, not between Derrick and Smart, but between Derrick and Boyce, a person] [of whose ingenuity and distress Piozzi Johnson told some curious anecdotes; particularly p. 92. that when he was almost perishing with hunger, and some money was produced to purchase him a dinner, he got a bit 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
Once, when checking my boasting too frequently of myself in company, he said to me, “ Boswell, you often vaunt so much as to provoke ridicule. You put me in mind of a man who was standing in the kitchen of an inn with his back to the fire, and thus accosted the person next him. “Do you know, sir, who I am ? •No, sir,' said the other, I have not that advantage.” “Sir,' said he, “I am the great Twalmley, who invented the New Floodgate Iron'."" The Bishop of Killaloe, on my repeating the story to him, defended Twalmley, by observing that he was entitled to the epithet of great; for Virgil in his group of worthies in the Elysian fields
Hic manus ob patriam pugnando vulnera passi, &c.
Æn. 6. V. 660.
Inventas aut qui vitam excoluere per artes.
He was pleased to say to me one morning when we were left alone in his study, “Boswell, I think I am easier with you than with almost any body.”
He would not allow Mr. David Hume any credit for his political principles, though similar to his own; saying of him, “ Sir, he was a tory by chance.'
What the great Twalmley was so proud of having invented was neither more nor less than a kind of box-iron for smoothing linen.-BOSWELL.
His acute observation of human life made him remark, “Sir, there is nothing by which a man exasperates most people more than by displaying a superior ability of brilliancy in conversation. They seem pleased at the time; but their envy makes them curse him at their hearts !.”
My readers will probably be surprised to hear that the great Dr. Johnson could amuse himself with so slight and playful a species of composition as a charade. I have recovered one which he made on Dr. Barnard, now Lord Bishop of Killaloe; who has been pleased for many years to treat me with so much intimacy and social ease, that I may presume to call him not only my right reverend, but my very dear friend. I therefore with peculiar pleasure give to the world a just and elegant compliment thus paid to his lordship by Johnson.
My second 3 expresses a Syrian perfume.
Johnson asked Richard Owen Cambridge, Esq. if he had read the Spanish translation of Sallust, said to be written by a prince of Spain, with the assistance of his tutor, who is professedly the authour of a treatise annexed, on the Phænician language.
Mr. Cambridge commended the work, particularly as he thought the translator understood his authour better than is commonly the case with translators; but said, he was disappointed in the purpose for which he borrowed the book; to see whether a Spaniard
[This may be doubted. Johnson himself was, as we have seen, sometimes envious of the brilliancy of his friends ; but, in general, surely persons of a bril. liant conversation (if it be not sarcastic) are rather popular. Ev.] 2 Bar. 3 Nard.