« PreviousContinue »
son?” BOSWELL. “ Yes, sir." Johnson. “ Does the dog talk of me?" BosweLL. “ Indeed, sir, he does, and loves you.” Thinking that I now had him in a corner, and being solicitous for the literary fame of my country, I pressed him for his opinion on the merit of Dr. Robertson's History of Scotland. But, to my surprise, he escaped.—“Sir, I love Robertson, and I won't talk of his book.”
It is but justice both to him and Dr. Robertson to add, that though he indulged himself in this sally of wit, he had too good taste not to be fully sensible of the merits of that admirable work.
An essay, written by Mr. Deane, a divine of the church of England, maintaining the future life of brutes, by an explication of certain parts of the scriptures, was mentioned, and the doctrine insisted on by a gentleman who seemed fond of curious speculation. Johnson, who did not like to hear of any thing concerning a future state which was not authorized by the regular canons of orthodoxy, discouraged this talk; and being offended at its continuation, he watched an opportunity to give the gentleman a blow of reprehension. So when the poor speculatist, with a serious, metaphysical, pensive face, addressed him, “But really, sir, when we see a very sensible dog, we don't know what to think of him.” Johnson, rolling with joy at the thought which beamed in his eye, turned quickly round, and replied, " True, sir : and when we see a very foolish fellow, we don't know what to think of him.” He then rose up, strided to the fire, and stood for some time laughing and exulting.
I told him that I had several times, when in Italy, seen the experiment of placing a scorpion within a circle of burning coals; that it ran round and round in extreme pain; and finding no way to escape, retired to the centre, and, like a true stoick philosopher, darted its sting into its head, and thus at once freed itself from its woes: - This must end 'em.” I said, this was a curious fact, as it showed deliberate suicide in a reptile. Johnson would not admit the fact. He said, Maupertuis & was of opinion that it does not kill itself, but dies of the heat; that it gets to the centre of the circle, as the coolest place; that its turning its tail in upon its head is merely a convulsion, and that it does not sting itself. He said he would be satisfied if the great anatomist Morgagni, after dissecting a scorpion on which the experiment had been tried, should certify that its sting had penetrated into its head.
He seemed pleased to talk of natural philosophy. " That woodcocks,” said he, “fly over to the northern countries is proved, because they have been observed at sea. Swallows certainly sleep all the winter. A number of them conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap throw themselves under water, and lie in the bed of a river.” He told us, one of his first essays was a Latin poem upon the glowworm. I am sorry I did not ask where it was to be found.
Talking of the Russians and the Chinese, he advised me to read Bell's Travels. I asked him whether I should read Du Halde's account of China. “ Why yes,” said he, “as one reads such a book ; that is to say, consult it.”
He talked of the heinousness of the crime of adultery, by which the peace of families was destroyed. He said, “ Confusion of progeny constitutes the essence of the crime; and therefore a woman who breaks her marriage
8 I should think it impossible not to wonder at the variety of Johnson's reading, however desultory it might have been. Who could have imagined that the high church-of-England-man would be so prompt in quoting Maupertuis, who, I am sorry to think, stands in the list of those unfortunate mistaken men who call themselves esprits forts. I have, however, a high respect for that philosopher whom the great Frederick of Prussia loved and honoured, and addressed pathetically in one of his poems,
Maupertuis, cher Maupertuis,
Que notre vie est peu de chose. There was in Maupertuis a vigour and yet a tenderness of sentiment, united with strong intellectual powers and uncommon ardour of soul. Would he had been a christian! I cannot help earnestly venturing to hope that he is one now. -Boswell.
[Maupertuis died in 1759, at the age of sixty-two, in the arms of the Bernoullis, “ très chrétiennement.”--BURNEY.]
vows is much more criminal than a man who does it. A man, to be sure, is criminal in the sight of God; but he does not do his wife a very material injury, if he does not insult her; if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid. Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this. I would not receive home a daughter who had run away from her husband on that account. A wife should study to reclaim her husband by more attention to please him. Sir, a man will not, once in a hundred instances, leave his wife and go to a harlot, if his wife bas not been negligent of pleasing.”
Here he discovered that acute discrimination, that solid judgement, and that knowledge of human nature, for which he was upon all occasions remarkable. Taking care to keep in view the moral and religious duty, as understood in our nation, he showed clearly, from reason and good sense, the greater degree of culpability in the one sex deviating from it than the other ; and, at the same time, inculcated a very useful lesson as to the way to keep him.
I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. Johnson. “Why no, sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity."
A gentleman talked to him of a lady whom he greatly admired and wished to marry, but was afraid of her superiority of talents.
“Sir," said he, “you need not be afraid ; marry her. Before a year goes about, you'll find that reason much weaker, and that wit not so bright.” Yet the gentleman may be justified in his apprehension by one of Dr. Johnson's admirable sentences in his Life of Waller: “He doubtless praised many whom he would have been afraid to marry; and, perhaps, married one whom he would have been ashamed to praise. Many qualities contribute to domestick happiness, upon which poetry has no colours to bestow; and many airs and sallies
may delight imagination, which he who flatters them never can approve."
He praised signor Baretti. “His account of Italy is a very entertaining book; and, sir, I kuow no man who carries his head higher in conversation than Baretti. There are strong powers in his mind. He has not, indeed, many hooks; but with what hooks he has, he grapples very forcibly.”
At this time I observed upon the dial-plate of his watch a short Greek inscription, taken from the New Testament, Nèg yàpěpxetan, being the first words of our Saviour's solemn admonition to the improvement of that time which is allowed us to prepare for eternity; " the night cometh: when no man can work.” He some time afterwards laid aside this dial-plate ; and when I asked him the reason, he said, “ It might do very well upon a clock which a man keeps in his closet; but to have it upon his watch which he carries about with him, and which is often looked at by others, might be censured as ostentatious.” Mr. Steevens is now possessed of the dial-plate inscribed as above.
He remained at Oxford a considerable time; I was obliged to go to London, where I received his letter, which had been returned from Scotland.
TO JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
“ MY DEAR BOSWELL, I have omitted a long time to write to you, without knowing very well why. I could now tell why I should not write; for who would write to men who publish the letters of their friends without their leave? Yet I write to you, in spite of my caution, to tell you that I shall be glad to see you, and that I wish you would empty your head of Corsica, which I think has filled it rather too long. But, at all events, I shall be glad, very glad to see you.
“I am, sir,
“ Yours affectionately, “Oxford, March 23, 1768.
“ SAM. JOHNSON."
I answered thus:
TO MR. SAMUEL JOHNSON.
“ London 26th April, 1768. “MY DEAR SIR, -I have received your last letter, which, though very short, and by no means complimentary, yet gave me real pleasure, because it contains these words, 'I shall be glad, very glad to see you.'—Surely you have no reason to complain of my publishing a single paragraph of one of your letters, the temptation to it was so strong. An irrevocable grant of your friendship, and your dignifying my desire of visiting Corsica with the epithet of a wise and noble curiosity,' are to me more valuable than many of the grants of kings.
But how can you bid me ‘empty my head of Corsica ? My noble-minded friend, do you not feel for an oppressed nation bravely struggling to be free? Consider fairly what is the case. The Corsicans never received any kindness from the Genoese. They never agreed to be subject to them. They owe them nothing; and when reduced to an abject state of slavery by force, shall they not rise in the great cause of liberty, and break the galling yoke ? And shall not every liberal soul be warm for them? Empty my head of Corsica! Empty it of honour, empty it of humanity, empty it of friendship, empty it of piety. No! while I live, Corsica and the cause of the brave islanders shall ever employ much of my attention, shall ever interest me in the sincerest manner.
etc. “ JAMES BOSWELL.".
TO MRS. LUCY PORTER, IN LICHFIELD.
“ Oxford, Apr. 18, 1768. “MY DEAR DEAR LOVE,—You have had a very great loss. To lose an old friend, is to be cut off from a great