Page images

DEAR SIR,-I have been expecting every day to hear from you of Dr. Johnson's arrival. Pray what do you know about his motions? I long to take him by the hand. I write this from the college, where I have only this scrap of paper. Ever W. R.



It pleased me to find Dr. Robertson thus eager to meet Dr. JohnI was glad I could answer that he was come; and begged Dr. Robertson might be with us as soon as he could,



Sir William Forbes, Mr. Scott, Mr. Arbuthnot, and another gentle. man dined with us. Come, Dr. Johnson," said I, "it is commonly thought that our veal in Scotland is not good. But here is some which I believe you will like." There was no catching him.—JOHNSON: "Why, sir, what is commonly thought I should take to be true, Your veal may be good; but that will only be an exception to the general opinion, not a proof against it."

Dr. Robertson, according to the custom of Edinburgh at that time, dined in the interval between the forenoon and afternoon service, which was then later than now; so we had not the pleasure of his company till dinner was over, when he came and drank wine with us. And then began some animated dialogue, of which here follows a pretty full note.

We talked of Mr. Burke Dr. Johnson said he had great variety of knowledge, store of imagery, copiousness of language.-ROBERTSON: "He has wit too."-JOHNSON: "No, sir; he never succeeds there. 'Tis low; 'tis conceit. I used to say Burke never once made a good joke.* What I most envy Burke for is his being constantly Nations." Why should such a writer be so forgetful of human comfort as to give any countenance to that dreary infidelity which would "make us poor indeed?"-Boswell. [This is the boldest sally of Boswell against any eminent living individual-that individual, too, a Scotsman in high society, and a member of the Literary Club. He must have been mortified, however, to find that the very next year after the publication of his third edition, namely in 1787, Adam Sinith was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. He died July 17th, 1790, aged sixty-seven. The appearance and habits of the retired philosopher, his grave look and somewhat formal, precise manner, ludicrously varied at times by his habitual absence of mind, are well known, and have been vividly depicted by Scott. Mr. Rogers the poet remembers having met Adam Smith, and still retains one of his visiting cards, from which it appears that the great political economist, like Johnson, continued to use the plain prefix of "Mr." after he had received the honorary degree of Doctor.-ED.]

This was one of the points upon which Dr. Johnson was strangely heterodox. For surely Mr. Burke, with his other remarkable qualities, is also distinguished for his wit, and for wit of all kinds too; not merely that power of language which Pope chooses to denominate wit

"True wit is Nature to advantage dressed;

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed"—

but surprising allusions, brilliant sallies of vivacity, and pleasant conceits. His speeches in Parliament are strewed with them. Take, for instance, the variety which he has given in his wide range yet exact detail when exhibiting his Reform Bill. And his con

the same. He is never what we call humdrum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off."-BoSWELL: "Yet he can isten."-JOHNSON: " 'No, I cannot say he is good at that. So desirous is he to talk, that if one is speaking at this end of the table, he'll speak to somebody at the other end. Burke, sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner that when you parted you would say, This is an extraordinary man. Now, you may be long enough with me without finding anything extraordinary." He said he believed Burke was intended for the law; but either had not money enough to follow it, or had not diligence enough. He said he could not understand how a man could apply to one thing and not to another. Robertson said one man had more judgment, another more imagination.-JOHNSON: "No, sir; it is only one man has more mind than another. He may direct it differently; he may, by accident, see the success of one kind of study, and take a desire to excel in it. I am persuaded that had Sir Isaac Newton applied to


versation abounds in wit. Let me put down a specimen. I told him I had seen at a blue-stocking assembly a number of ladies sitting round a worthy and tall friend of ours, listening to his literature. "Ay," said he, "like maids round a may-pole." I told him I had found out a perfect definition of human nature, as distinguished from the animal. An ancient philosopher said man was "a two-legged animal without feathers;" upon which his rival sage had a cock plucked bare, and set him down in the school before all the disciples as a "philosophic man." Dr. Franklin said man was "a tool-making animal," which is very well, for no animal but man makes a thing by means of which he can make another thing. But this applies to very few of the species. My definition of man is "a cooking animal." The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. The trick of the monkey using the cat's paw to roast a chesnut is only a piece of shrewd malice in that turpissima bestia which humbles us so sadly by its similarity to us. dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats. "Your definition is good," said Mr. Burke ; " and I now see the full force of the common proverb, 'There is reason in roasting of eggs."" When Mr. Wilkes, in his days of tumultuous opposition, was borne upon the shoulders of the mob, Mr. Burke (as Mr. Wilkes told me himself with classical admiration) applied to him what Horace says of Pindar

66 -numerisque fertur
Lege solutis."

Man alone can

Sir Joshua Reynolds, who agrees with me entirely as to Mr. Burke's fertility of wit, said that this was "dignifying a pun." He also observed that he has often heard Burke say, in the course of an evening, ten good things, each of which would have served a noted wit (whom he named) to live upon for a twelvemonth.

I find, since the former edition, that some persons have objected to the instances which I have given of Mr. Burke's wit, as not doing justice to my very ingenious friend; the specimens produced having, it is alleged, more of conceit than real wit, and being merely sportive sallies of the moment, not justifying the encomium which they think with me he undoubtedly merits. I was well aware how hazardous it was to exhibit particular instances of wit, which is of so airy and spiritual a nature as often to elude the hand that attempts to grasp it. The excellence and efficacy of a bon mot depend frequently

poetry, he would have made a very fine epic poem I could as easily apply to law as to tragic poetry."-BoswELL: "Yet, sir, you did apply

[ocr errors]

He said he was at

to tragic poetry, not to law."-JOHNSON: Because, sir, I had not money to study law. Sir, the man who has vigour may walk to the east just as well as to the west, if he happens to turn his head that way."-BoSWELL: "But, sir, 'tis like walking up and down a hill; one man will naturally do the one better than the other. A hare will run up a hill best, from her fore legs being short; a dog down."-JOHNSON: " Nay, sir, that is from mechanical powers. If you make mind mechanical, you may argue in that manner. One mind is a vice, and holds fast; there's a good memory. Another is a file, and he is a disputant, a controversialist. Another is a razor, and he is sarcastical." We talked of Whitefield. the same college with him, and knew him before he began to be better than other people [smiling]; that he believed he sincerely meant well, but had a mixture of politics and ostentation; whereas Wesley thought so much on the occasion on which it is spoken, on the particular manner of the speaker, on the person to whom it is applied, the previous introduction, and a thousand minute particulars which cannot be easily enumerated, that it is always dangerous to detach a witty saying from the group to which it belongs, and to set it before the eye of the spectator, divested of those concomitant circumstances which gave it animation, mellowness and relief. I ventured, however, at all hazards, to put down the first instances that occurred to me, as proofs of Mr. Burke's lively and brilliant fancy; but am very sensible that his numerous friends could have suggested many of a superior quality. Indeed, the being in company with him for a single day is sufficient to show that what I have asserted is well-founded; and it was only necessary to have appealed to all who know him intimately for a complete refutation of the heterodox opinion entertained by Dr. Johnson on this subject. He allowed Mr. Burke, as the reader will find hereafter, to be a man of consummate and unrivalled abilities in every light except that now under consideration; and the variety of his allusions and splendour of his imagery have made such an impression on all the rest of the world, that superficial observers are apt to overlook his other merits, and to suppose that wit is his chief and most prominent excellence, when in fact it is only one of the many talents that he possesses, which are so various and extraordinary that it is very difficult to ascertain precisely the rank and value of each.-Boswell.

The additional note on Burke, beginning with "I find since the former edition," was contributed by Malone to the second edition of Boswell's Journal. Malone superintended the work through the press while the author was in Scotland, and took that occasion to buttress up his friend's argument. See "Life of Johnson," under date April 25th, 1778. It is surprising that Malone did not, in justification of his opinion of Burke, cite the orator's celebrated description of Lord Chatham's Administration-that memorable piece of cabinet joinery, "so crossly indented and whimsically dove-tailed." Still more witty, perhaps, was Burke's allusion to Pitt and the commercial treaty with France, in which he said that Pitt contemplated the treaty as an affair of two little counting-houses, and not of two great nations-as "a contention between the sign of the Fleur-de-lis and the sign of the Old Red Lion for which should obtain the best custom." This speech, however, was not delivered till 1787. The letter to a noble lord in defence of his pension is a still later production, but abounds in witty and brilliant passages. Burke was too copious, eloquent, and discursive-too rich in imagination, and too ardent and impetuous in feeling, to study pointed or witty sentences. In repartee he was, like all his other contemporaries, greatly inferior to Johnson.-ED.]



[ocr errors]

of religion only.* Robertson said Whitefield had strong natural eloquence, which, if cultivated, would have done great things.-JOHNSON: 'Why, sir, I take it he was at the height of what his abilities could do, and was sensible of it. He had the ordinary advantages of education; but he chose to pursue that oratory which is for the mob." -BOSWELL: "He had great effect on the passions."-JOHNSON : 'Why, sir, I don't think so. He could not represent a succession of pathetic images. He vociferated and made an impression. There, again, was a mind like a hammer." Dr. Johnson now said a certain eminent political friend of ours was wrong in his maxim of sticking to a certain set of men on all occasions. "I can see that a man may do right to stick to a party," said he, "that is to say, he is a Whig or he is a Tory, and he thinks one of those parties upon the whole the best, and that to make it prevail it must be generally supported, though in particulars it may be wrong. He takes its faggot of principles, in which there are fewer rotten sticks than in the other, though some rotten sticks to be sure; and they cannot well be separated But to bind one's self to one man, or one set of men (who may be right to-day and wrong to-morrow), without any general preference of system, I must disapprove."+

* That cannot be said now, after the flagrant part which Mr. John Wesley took against our American brethren, when, in his own name, he threw among his enthusiastic flock the very individual combustibles of Dr. Johnson's "Taxation no Tyranny ;" and after the intolerant spirit which he manifested against our fellow-Christians of the Roman Catholic communion, for which that able champion, Father O'Leary, has given him so hearty a drubbing. But I should think myself very unworthy if I did not at the same time acknowledge Mr. John Wesley's merit, as a veteran "soldier of Jesus Christ," who has, I do believe, turned many from darkness into light, and from the power of Satan to the living God.-Boswell.

[Wesley lived till after the publication of this note. He died March 2nd, 1791, aged eighty-eight. Johnson's depreciating criticism of Whitefield must be attributed to prejudice or caprice. It required no small oratorical talent and pathetic eloquence to draw tears down the cheeks of thousands of the Bristol colliers, and to move with delight and enthusiasm men like Chesterfield, Bolingbroke, Hume and Franklin. Whitefield said he would rather wear out than rust out; and his extraordinary exertions cut him off, Sept. 29th, 1770, in his fifty-sixth year.-ED.]

+ If due attention were paid to this observation, there would be more virtue, even in politics. What Dr. Johnson justly condemned has, I am sorry to say, greatly increased in the present reign. At the distance of four years from this conversation, 21st February, 1777, my Lord Archbishop of York, in his "Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," thus indignantly describes the then state of parties :


"Parties once had a principle belonging to them, absurd perhaps, and indefensible, but still carrying a notion of duty, by which honest minds might easily be caught. But there are now combinations of individuals, who, instead of being the sons and servants of the community, make a league for advancing their private interests. It is their business to hold high the notion of political honour. I believe and trust it is not injurious to say, that such a bond is no better than that by which the lowest and wickedest combinations are held together; and that it denotes the last stage of political depravity."

He told us of Cocke, who translated Hesiod, and lived twenty years on a translation of Plautus, for which he was always taking subscriptions; and that he presented Foote to a club, in the following singular manner: "This is the nephew of the gentleman who was lately hung in chains for murdering his brother."*

In the evening I introduced to Mr. Johnson+ two good friends of mine, Mr. William Nairne, advocate, and Mr. Hamilton, of Sundrum, my neighbour in the country, both of whom supped with us. I have preserved nothing of what passed, except that Dr. Johnson displayed another of his heterodox opinions, a contempt of tragic acting. He said "the action of all players in tragedy is bad. It should be a man's study to repress those signs of emotion and passion, as they are called." He was of a directly contrary opinion to that of Fielding, in his "Tom Jones," who makes Partridge say of Garrick, "Why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure if I had seen a ghost I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did." For, when I asked him, Would not you, sir, start as Mr. Garrick does if you saw a ghost?" he answered, "I hope not did I should frighten the ghost."

[ocr errors]


If I

Dr. William Robertson came to breakfast. We talked of " Ogden

To find a thought, which just showed itself to us from the mind of Johnson, thus appearing again at such a distance of time, and without any communication between them, enlarged to full growth in the mind of Markham, is a curious object of philosophical contemplation. That two such great and luminous minds should have been so dark in one corner, that they should have held it to be "wicked rebellion in the British subjects established in America, to resist the abject condition of holding all their property at the mercy of British subjects remaining at home, while their allegiance to our common Lord the King was to be preserved inviolate," is a striking proof to me, either that "He who sitteth in heaven" scorns the loftiness of human pride, or that the Evil Spirit, whose personal existence I strongly believe, and even in this age am confirmed in that belief by a Fell, nay, by a Hurd, has more power than some choose to allow.-Boswell.

* Samuel Goodier, Esq., Commander of the "Ruby" man of war. While his vessel lay at anchor off Bristol in January 1741, Captain Goodier, with the assistance of two ruffians, carried off his brother, Sir John Dinely Goodier, Bart., and murdered him on board ship. They put the unfortunate baronet into the purser's cabin in the "Ruby," when the captain stood sentry on the door with a cutlass, while his accomplices strangled him with a cord. The captain remained on board with the dead body till he was apprehended. The whole affair looks like insanity; but Captain Goodier and the two men were tried and hanged at Bristol. Cooke, who translated Hesiod, wrote a Life of Foote. He was a careless, dissipated litterateur, and died in distressed circumstances in 1756. -ED.

+ It may be observed that I sometimes call my great friend Mr. Johnson, sometimes Dr. Johnson; though he had at this time a doctor's degree from Trinity College, Dublin. The University of Oxford afterwards conferred it upon him by a diploma, in very honourable terms. It was some time before I could bring myself to call him Doctor; but as he has been long known by that title, I shall give it to him in the rest of this Journal. -BOSWELL.

« PreviousContinue »