« PreviousContinue »
the publication of Dr. Delany's Kemarks on his book, he was so much alarmed that he was afraid to read them. Dr. Johnson comforted him, by telling him they were both in the right; that Delany had seen most of the good side of Swift,—Lord Orrery most of the bad. Macleod asked, if it was not wrong in Orrery to expose the defects of a man with whom he lived in intimacy. Johnson. "Why no, Sir, after the man is dead; for then it is done historically." He added, "If Lord Orrery had been rich, he would have been a very liberal patron. His conversation was like his writings, neat and elegant, but without strength. He grasped at more than his abilities could reach; tried to pass for a better talker, a better writer, and a better thinker than he was. There was a quarrel between him and his father, in which his father was to blame; because it arose from his son's not allowing his wife to keep company with his father's mistress. The old lord showed his resentment in his will,1 leaving his library from his son, and assigning, as his reason, that he could not make use of it."
I mentioned the affectation of Orrery, in ending all his letters on the Life of Swift in studied varieties of phrase, and never in the common mode of " I am," &c.—an observation which 1 remember to have been made several years ago by old Mr. Sheridan. This species of affectation in writing, as a foreign lady of distinguished talents once remarked to me, is almost peculiar to the English. I took up a volume of Dryden, containing the Conquest of. Granada, and several other plays, of which all the dedications had such studied conclusions. Dr. Johnson said, such conclusions were more elegant, and, in addressing persons of high rank (as when Dryden dedicated to the Duke of York), they were likewise more respectful. I agreed that there it was much better: it was making his escape from the royal presence with a genteel sudden timidity, in place of having the resolution to stand still, and make a formal bow.
1 The young lord was married on the 8th of May, 1728, and the father's will is dated the 6th of Nov. following. "Having," says the testator, "never observed that my son hath showed much taste or inclination, either for the entertainment or knowledge which study and learning afford. I give and bequeath all my books and mathematical instruments (except my Journals of the House of Lords, and except those books and instruments which, at the time of my death, shall be in and belonging to my houses at Marston and Britwell) to Christchurch College, in Oxford, &c.: my said son, within two years next after my decease, taking thereout, and which I do hereby give him for his sole use and benefit, such books relating to the English constitution and parliamentary affairs, as he shall think fit to make choice of." The quarrel, however, was probably made up, as Earl John is represented as being excessively grieved by the death of his father, and he himself, in an affectionate copy of verses on that loss, says,
"I weep & father, but I've lost a friend."
And Theobald published a poetical epistle of condolence to the young lord on that same occasion, in terms which would have been too glaringly ridiculous if he had been on notorious bad terms with his father.—Croker.
Lord Orrery's unkind treatment of his son in his will led us to talk of the dispositions a man should have when dying. I said, I did not see why a man should act differently with respect to those of whom he thought ill when in health, merely because he was dying. Johnson. "I should not scruple to speak against a party, when dying; but should not do it against an individual. It is told of Sixtus Quintus, that on his death-bed, in the intervals of his last pangs, he signed death-warrants." Mr. M'Queen said, he should not do so; he would have more tenderness of heart. Johnson. "I believe I should not either; bul Mr. M'Queen and I are cowards. It would not be from tenderness of heart; for the heart is as tender when a man is in health as when he is sick, though his resolution may be stronger. Sixtus Quintus was a sovereign as well as a priest; and, if the criminals deserved death, he was doing his duty to the last. You would not think a judge died ill, who should be carried off by an apoplectic fit while pronouncing sentence of death. Consider a class of men whose business it is to distribute death: — soldiers, who die scattering bullets. Nobody thinks they die ill on that account."
Talking of biography, he said, he did not think that the life of any literary man in England had been well written. Beside the common incidents of life, it should tell us his studies, his mode of living, the means by which he attained to excellence, and his opinion of his own works. He told us he had sent Derrick to Dryden's relations, to gather materials for his life; and he believed Derrick had got all that he himself should have got; but it was nothing. Hs added, he Lad a kindness for Derrick, and was sorry he was dead.
His notion as to the poems published by Mr. M'Pherson, as the works of Ossian, was not shaken here. Mr. M'Queen always evaded the point of authenticity, saying only that Mr. M'Pherson's pieces fell far short of those he knew in Erse, which were said to be Ossian's. Johnson. "I hope they do. I am not disputing that you may have poetry of great merit; but that M'Pherson's is not a translation from ancient poetry. You do not believe it. I say before yon, you do not believe it, though you are very willing that the world should believe it." Mr. M'Queen made no answer to this. Dr. Johnson proceeded: "I look upon M'Pherson's Fingal to be as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with. Had it been really an ancient work, a true specimen of how men thought at that time, it would have been a curiosity of the first rate. As a modern production it is nothing." He said he could never get the meaning of an Erse song explained to him. They told him the chorus was generally unmeaning. "I take it," said he, "Erse songs are like a song which I remember: it was composed in Queen Elizabeth's time on the Earl of Essex; and the burthen was—
'Radaratoo, radarate, radara, tadara tandorc.'"
"But surely," said Mr. M'Queen, "there were words to it which had meaning." Johnson. "Why, yes, Sir: I recollect a stanza, and you shall have it:—
"Oh! then bespoke the prentices all.
Radaratoo, radarate, radara, tadara, tandore.'"
1 Thls droll quotation, I have since found, was from a song in honour of the Earl of Essex, called Queen Elizabeth's Champion, which is preserved in a collection of Old Ballads, in three volumes, published in London in different years, between 1720 and 1730. The full verse ig aa follows:—
"Oh! then bespoke the prentices all,
When Mr. M'Queen began again to expatiate on the beauty of Ossiau's poetry, Dr. Johnson entered into no further controversy, but with a pleasant smile, only cried, "Ay, ay; Radaratoo, radarate."
Thursday, Sept. 23.—I took Fingal down to the parlour in the morning, and tried a test proposed by Mr. Roderick Macleod, son to Vlinish. Mr. M'Queen had said he had some of the poem in the original. I desired him to mention any passage in the printed book, of which he could repeat the original. He pointed out one in page 50 of the quarto edition, and read the Erse, while Mr. Roderick Macleod and I looked on the English; and Mr. Macleod said that it was pretty like what Mr. M'Queen had recited. But when Mr. M'Queen read a description of Cuchullin's sword in Erse, together with a translation of it in English verse, by Sir James Foulis, Mr. Macleod said, that was much more like than Mr. M'Pherson's translation of the former passage. Mr. M'Queen then repeated in Erse a description of one of the horses in Cuchullin's car. Mr. Macleod said, Mr. M'Phersou's English was nothing like it.
When Dr. Johnson came down, I told him that I had now obtained some evidence concerning Fingal; for that Mr. M'Queen had repeated a passage in the original Erse, which Mr. M'Phersou's translation was pretty like; and reminded him that he himself had once said, he did not require Mr. M'Pherson's "Ossian" to be more like the original than Pope's "Homer." Johnson. "Well, Sir, this is just what I always maintained. He has found names, and stories, and phrases, nay passages in old songs, and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem." l If this was the case, I observed, it was
Raderer too. tandaro te,
The old ballad here mentioned also occurs in Mr. Evans's collection of historical ballads, published as a Supplement to Percy's Reliques, under the inspection, I believe, of William Julius Mickle, who inserted many modern imitations of the heroic ballads of his own composing.— Walter Scott.
1 This account of Ossian's Poems, as published by M'Pherson, is that at which most sensible people have arrived, though there may be some wrong to publish it as a poem in six books. Johnson. "Yes, Sir; and to ascribe it to a time too when the Highlanders knew nothing of books, and nothing of six; or perhaps were got the length of counting six. We have been told, by Condamine, of a nation that could count no more than four. This should be told to Monboddo; it would help him. There is as much charity in helping a man down-hill, as in helping him up-hill." Boswell. "I don't think there is as much charity." Johnson. "Yes, Sir, if his tendency be downwards. Till he is at the bottom, he flounders; get him once there, and he is quiet. Swift tells, that Stella had a trick, which she learned from Addison, of encouraging a man in absurdity, instead of endeavouring to extricate him." 1
Mr. M'Queen's answers to the inquiries concerning "Ossian" were so unsatisfactory, that I could not help observing, that, were he examined in a court of justice, he would find himself under a necessity of being more explicit. Johnson. "Sir, he has told Blair a little too much, which is published; and he sticks to it. He is so much at the head of things here, that he has never been accustomed to be closely examined; and so he goes on quite smoothly." Boswell. "He has never had any body to work him." Johnson. "No, Sir; and a man is seldom disposed to work himself, though he ought to work himself, to be sure." Mr. M'Queen made no reply.2
Having talked of the strictness with which witnesses
difference between the plus and minus of the ancient ingredients employed by the translator.— Walter Scott.
I think we may now venture to pronounce them to he altogether fabrications. So much keen and intelligent inquiry as has been made, could not have failed to discover some disjecti membra porta, had such existed —the fragments of Erse poetry that have been found are contemptible as compared with Ossian.— Crokcr.
1 "When she saw any of the company very warm in a wrong opinion, she was more inclined to confirm them in it than oppose them. The excuse she gave was, ' that it prevented noise, and saved time.' Yet I have known her very angry with some, whom she much esteemed, for sometimes falling into that infirmity."—Swift's Character of Stella.— Wright.
1 I think it but justice to say, that I believe Dr. Johnson meant to ascribe Mr. M'Queen's conduct to inaccuracy and enthusiasm, and did not mean any severe imputation against him.