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THE LIFE OF
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
O write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in
writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
Had Dr. Johnson written his own life, in conformity with the opinion which he has given', that every man's life may be best written by himself; had he employed in the preservation of his own history, that clearness of narration and elegance of language in which he has embalmed so many eminent persons, the world would probably have had the most perfect example of biography that was ever exhibited. But although he at different times, in a desultory manner, committed to writing many particulars of the progress of his mind and fortunes, he never had persevering diligence enough to form them into a regular composition'. Of these
' Idler, No. 84. Boswell.-In this paper he says: “Those relations are commonly of most value in which the writer tells his own story. He that recounts the life of another ... lessens the familiarity of his tale to increase its dignity ... and endeavours to hide the man that he may produce a hero.'
• It very seldom happens to man that his business is his pleasure. What is done from necessity is so often to be done when against the present inclination, and so often fills the mind with anxiety, that an habitual dislike steals upon us, and we shrink involuntarily from the remembrance of our task. ... From this unwillingness to perform more than is required of that which is commonly performed with reluctance it proceeds that few authors write their own lives.' Idler, No. 102. See also post, May 1, 1783.
The author's qualifications.
memorials a few have been preserved; but the greater part was consigned by him to the flames, a few days before his death.
As I had the honor and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of twenty years; as I had the scheme of writing his life constantly in view; as he was well apprised of this circumstance, and from time to time obligingly satisfied my inquiries, by communicating to me the incidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording, his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the
1 Mrs. Piozzi records the following conversation with Johnson, which, she says, took place on July 18, 1773. · And who will be my biographer,' said he, do you think?'Goldsmith, no doubt,' replied I; 'and he will do it the best among us.' •The dog would write it best to be sure,' replied he; ‘but his particular malice towards me, and general disregard for truth, would make the book useless to all, and injurious to my character.' 'Oh! as to that,' said I,'we should all fasten upon him, and force him to do you justice; but the worst is, the Doctor does not know your life; nor can I tell indeed who does, except Dr. Taylor of Ashbourne.' 'Why Taylor,' said he, 'is better acquainted with my heart than any man or woman now alive; and the history of my Oxford exploits lies all between him and Adams; but Dr. James knows my very early days better than he. After my coming to London to drive the world about a little, you must all go to Jack Hawkesworth for anecdotes : I lived in great familiarity with him (though I think there was not much affection) from the year 1753 till the time Mr. Thrale and you took me up. I intend, however, to disappoint the rogues, and either make you write the life, with Taylor's intelligence; or, which is better, do it myself after outliving you all. I am now,' added he, ‘ keeping a diary, in hopes of using it for that purpose some time.' Piozzi's Anec. p. 31. How much of this is true cannot be known. Boswell some time before this conversation had told Johnson that he intended to write his Life, and Johnson had given him many particulars (see post, March 31, 1772, and April 11, 1773). He read moreover in manuscript most of Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, and from it learnt of his intention. • It is no small satisfaction to me to reflect,' Boswell wrote, “that Dr. Johnson, after being apprised of my intentions, communicated to me, at subsequent periods, many particulars of his life.' Boswell's Hebrides, Oct. 14, 1773.
The Life by Sir 7. Hawkins.
first features of his character; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends; I flatter myself that few biographers have entered upon such a work as this, with more advantages; independent of literary abilities, in which I am not vain enough to compare myself with some great names who have gone before me in this kind of writing.
Since my work was announced, several Lives and Memoirs of Dr. Johnson have been published', the most voluminous of which is one compiled for the booksellers of London, by Sir John Hawkins, Knight', a man, whom, during my long intimacy with Dr. Johnson, I never saw in his company, I think but once, and I am sure not above twice. Johnson might have esteemed him for his decent, religious demeanour, and his knowledge of books and literary history; but from the rigid formality of his manners, it is evident that they never could have lived together with companionable ease and familiarity'; nor had Sir John Hawkins that nice
"It may be said the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention. Murphy's Johnson, p. 3.
• The greatest part of this book was written while Sir John Hawkins was alive; and I avow, that one object of my strictures was to make him feel some compunction for his illiberal treatment of Dr. Johnson. Since his decease, I have suppressed several of my remarks upon his work. But though I would not ‘war with the dead' offensively, I think it necessary to be strenuous in defence of my illustrious friend, which I cannot be without strong animadversions upon a writer who has greatly injured him. Let me add, that though I doubt I should not have been very prompt to gratify Sir John Hawkins with any compliment in his lifetime, I do now frankly acknowledge, that, in my opinion, his volume, however inadequate and improper as a life of Dr. Johnson, and however discredited by unpardonable inaccuracies in other respects, contains a collection of curious anecdotes and observations, which few men but its author could have brought together. BOSWELL.
"The next name that was started was that of Sir John Hawkins; and Mrs. Thrale said, “Why now, Dr. Johnson, he is another of those
The Life by Sir 7. Hawkins.
perception which was necessary to mark the finer and less obvious part of Johnson's character. His being appointed one of his executors, gave him an opportunity of taking possession of such fragments of a diary and other papers as were left; of which, before delivering them up to the residuary legatee, whose property they were, he endeavoured to extract the substance. In this he has not been very successful, as I have found upon a perusal of those papers, which have been since transferred to me. Sir John Hawkins's ponderous labours, I must acknowledge, exhibit a farrago, of which a considerable portion is not devoid of entertainment to the lovers of literary gossiping; but besides its being swelled out with long unnecessary extracts from various works (even one of several leaves from Osborne's Harleian Catalogue, and those not compiled by Johnson, but by Oldys), a very small part of it relates to the person who is the subject of the book; and, in that, there is such an inaccuracy in the statement of facts, as in so solemn an authour is hardly excusable, and certainly makes his narrative very unsatisfactory. But what is still worse, there is throughout the whole of it a dark, uncharitable cast, by which the most unfavourable construction is put upon almost every circumstance in the character and conduct of my illustrious Warburton's view of biography.
whom you suffer nobody to abuse but yourself: Garrick is one too; for, if any other person speaks against him, you brow-beat him in a minute.” “Why madam," answered he, “they don't know when to abuse him, and when to praise him; I will allow no man to speak ill of David that he does not deserve; and as to Sir John, why really I believe him to be an honest man at the bottom; but to be sure he is penurious, and he is mean, and it must be owned he has a degree of brutality, and a tendency to savageness, that cannot easily be defended." ... He said that Sir John and he once belonged to the same club, but that as he eat no supper, after the first night of his admission he desired to be excused paying his share. “And was he excused ?" "O yes; for no man is angry at another for being inferior to himself. We all scorned him, and admitted his plea. For my part, I was such a fool as to pay my share for wine, though I never tasted any. But Sir John was a most unclubable man."Madame D'Arblay's Diary,
friend'; who, I trust, will, by a true and fair delineation, be vindicated both from the injurious misrepresentations of this authour, and from the slighter aspersions of a lady who once lived in great intimacy with him”.
There is, in the British Museum, a letter from Bishop Warburton to Dr. Birch, on the subject of biography; which, though I am aware it may expose me to a charge of artfully raising the value of my own work, by contrasting it with that of which I have spoken, is so well conceived and expressed, that I cannot refrain from here inserting it :
'I shall endeavour, (says Dr. Warburton,) to give you what satisfaction I can in any thing you want to be satisfied in any subject of Milton, and am extremely glad you intend to write his life. Almost all the life-writers we have had before Toland and Desmaiseaux', are indeed strange insipid creatures; and yet I had rather read the worst of them, than be obliged to go through with
'In censuring Mr. [sic] J. Hawkins's book I say: “There is throughout the whole of it a dark, uncharitable cast, which puts the most un. favourable construction on my illustrious friend's conduct.” Malone maintains cast will not do; he will have “ malignancy." Is that not too strong? How would“ disposition " do?... Hawkins is no doubt very malevolent. Observe how he talks of me as quite unknown.' Letters of Boswell, p. 281. Malone wrote of Hawkins as follows: 'The bishop [Bishop Percy of Dromore) concurred with every other person I have heard speak of Hawkins, in saying that he was a most detestable fellow. He was the son of a carpenter, and set out in life in the very lowest line of the law. Dyer knew him well at one time, and the bishop heard him give a character of Hawkins once that painted him in the blackest colours; though Dyer was by no means apt to deal in such portraits. Dyer said he was a man of the most mischievous, uncharitable, and malignant disposition. Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me that Hawkins, though he assumed great outward sanctity, was not only mean and grovelling in disposition, but absolutely dishonest. He never lived in any real intimacy with Dr. Johnson, who never opened his heart to him, or had in fact any accurate knowledge of his character. Prior's Malone, pp. 425-7. See post, Feb. 1764, note.
? Mrs. Piozzi. See post, under June 30, 1784.
• Voltaire in his account of Bayle says : Des Maizeaux a écrit sa vie en un gros volume; elle ne devait pas contenir six pages.' Voltaire's Works, edition of 1819, xvii. 47.