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BOSWELL'S ARRIVAL IX London-MRS. DESMOULINS-JOHNSON'S BENEVOLENT LIBERALITY
MR. HOWARD OF LICHFIELD-TOM DAVIES-Johnson's ADVICE ON LAW PLEADING-
ON Wednesday, March 18, I arrived in London, and was informed by
good Mr. Francis, that his master was better, and was gone to Mr. Thrale's at Streatham, to which place I wrote to him, begging to know when he would be in town. He was not expected for some time; but next day having called on Dr. Taylor, in Dean’s-yard, Westminster, I found him there, and was told he had come to town for a few hours. He met me with his usual kindness, but instantly returned to the writing of something on which he was employed when I came in, and on which he seemed much intent. Finding him thus engaged, I made my visit very short, and had no more of his conversation, except his expressing a serious regret that a friend of ours was living
at too much expense, considering how poor an appearance he made : “If,” said he,“ a man has splendour from his expense, if he spends his money in pride or in pleasure, he has value ; but if he lets others spend it for him, which is most commonly the case, he has no advantage from it."
On Friday, March 20, I found him at his own house, sitting with Mrs. Williams, and was informed that the room formerly allotted to me was now appropriated to a charitable purpose ; Mrs. Desmoulins,' and I think her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael, being all lodged in it. Such was his humanity, and such his generosity, that Mrs. Desmoulins herself told me he allowed her half-a-guinea a week. Let it be remembered, that this was above a twelfth part of his pension.
His liberality, indeed, was at all periods of his life very remarkable. Mr. Howard, of Lichfield, at whose father's house Johnson had in his early years been kindly received, told me that when he was a boy at the Charter-house, his father wrote to him to go and pay a visit to Mr. Samuel Johnson, which he accordingly did, and found him in an upper room, of poor appearance. Johnson received him with much courteousness, and talked a great deal to him as to a schoolboy, of the course of his education, and other particulars. When he afterwards came to know and understand the high character of this great man, he recollected his condescension with wonder. He added, that when he was going away, Mr. Johnson presented him with half-a-guinea ; and this, said Mr. Howard, was at a time when he probably had not another.
We retired from Mrs. Williams to another room. Tom Davies soon after joined us. He had now unfortunately failed in his circumstances and was much indebted to Dr. Johnson's kindness in obtaining for him many alleviations of his distress. After he went away, Johnson blamed his folly in quitting the stage, by which he and his wife got 500l. a year I said, I believed it was owing to Churchill's attack upon him,
“He mouths a sentence, as curs mouth a bone." JOHNSON : “I believe so too, Sir. But what a man is he, who is to be driven from the stage by a line ? Another line would have driven him from his shop.”
I told him that I was engaged as counsel at the bar of the House of Commons to oppose a road bill in the county of Stirling, and asked him what mode he would advise me to follow in addressing such an audience. JOHNSON : “Why, Sir, you must provide yourself with a good deal of extraneous matter, which you are to produce occasionally, so as to fill up the time ; for you must consider, that they do not listen much. If you begin with the strength of your cause, it may be lost before they begin to listen. When you catch a moment of attention, press the merits of the question upon them.” He said, as to one point of the merits, that he thought“ it would be a wrong thing to deprive the small landholders of the privilege of assessing themselves for making and repairing the high roads ; it was destroying a certain portion of liberty, without a good reason, which was always a bad thing.” When I mentioned this observation next day to Mr. Wilkes, he pleasantly said, “What ! does he talk of liberty ? Liberty is as ridiculous in his mouth as Religion in mine.” Mr. Wilkes's advice, as to the best mode of speaking at the bar of the House of Commons, was not more respectful towards the senate, than that of Dr. Johnson : “Be as impudent as you can, as merry as you can, and say whatever comes uppermost. Jack Lee' is the best heard there of any counsel; and he is the most impudent dog, and always abusing us.
1 Daughter of Dr. Swinfen, Johnson's godfather, and widow of Mr. Desmoulins a writing master.-BOSWELL.
In my interview with Dr. Johnson this evening, I was quite easy, quite as his companion ; upon which I find in my Journal the following reflection : “So ready is my mind to suggest matter for dissatisfaction, that I felt a sort of regret that I was so easy. I missed that awful reverence with which I used to contemplate Mr. Samuel Johnson, in the complex magnitude of his literary, moral, and religious character. I have a wonderful superstitious love of mystery ; when, perhaps, the truth is, that it is owing to the cloudy darkness of my own mind. I should be glad that I am more advanced in my progress of being, so that I can view Dr. Johnson with a steadier and clearer eye. My dissatisfaction to-night was foolish. Would it not be foolish to regret that we shall have less mystery in a future state? That we now see in a glass darkly,' but shall then see face to face ?'”—This reflection, which I thus freely communicate, will be valued by tho thinking part of my readers, who may have themselves experienced a similar state of mind.
He returned next day to Streatham, to Mr. Thrale's ; where, as Mr. Strahan once complained to me," he was in a great measure absorbed from the society of his old friends.” I was kept in London by business, and wrote to him on the 27th, that a separation from him for a week, when we were so near, was equal to a separation for a year, when we were at four hundred miles distance.” I went to Streatham on Monday, March 30. Before he appeared, Mrs. Thrale made a very characteristical remark:-“I donot know for certain what will please Dr.Johnson: but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise anything, even, what he likes, extravagantly."
At dinner he laughed at querulous declamations against the age, on account of luxury,-increase of London,-scarcity of provisions,—and
1 Afterwards Solicitor-general under the Rockingham administration.
other such topics. “Houses,” said ke,“ will be built till rents fall; and corn is more plentiful now than ever it was."
I had before dinner repeated a ridiculous story told me by an old man, who had been a passenger with me in the stage-coach to-day. Mrs. Thrale having taken occasion to allude to it, in talking to me, called it “The story told you by the old woman.”—“Now, Madam, said I,“ give me leave to catch you in the fact: it was not an old woman, but an old man, whom I mentioned as having told me this." I presumed to take an opportunity, in presence of Johnson, of showing this lively lady how ready she was, unintentionally, to deviate from exact authenticity of narration.
Thomas à Kempis, he observed, must be a good book,' as the world has opened its arms to receive it. It is said to have been printed, in one language or other, as many times as there have been months since it first came out. I always was struck with this sentence in it: "Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.”3
He said, “I was angry with Hurd about Cowley, for having published a selection of his works : but, upon better consideration, I think there is no impropriety in a man's publishing as much as he chooses of any author, if he does not put the rest out of the way. A man, for instance, may print the Odes of Horace alone.” He seemed to be in a more indulgent humour than when this subject was discussed between him and Mr. Murphy.
When we were at tea and coffee, there came in Lord Trimlestown, in whose family was an ancient Irish peerage ; but it suffered by taking the generous sides in the troubles of the last century. He was a man of pleasing conversation, and was accompanied by a young gentleman,
I mentioned that I had in my possession the Life of Sir Robert Sibbald, the celebrated Scottish antiquary, and founder of the Royal College of Physicians at Edinburgh. in the original manuscript in his own handwriting ; and that it was, I believed, the most natural and candid account of himself that ever was given by any man. As an instance, he tells that the Duke of Perth, then Chancellor of Scotland,
1 His treatise “De Imitatione Christi," which some have attributed to Gerson. He was born at a village of the same name in the diocese of Cologne, in 1380, and died in 1471.-ED.
2 The first edition was in 1492. Between that period and 1792, according to this account, there were three thousand six hundred editions. But this is very improbable.-MALONE.
3 The original passage is :-Si non potes te talem facere, qualem vis, quomodo poteris alium ad tuum habere beneplacitum ? De Imit. Christ. lib. i. cap. xvi.-J. BOSWELL, JUN.
4 Since this was written, the attainder has been reversed; and Nicholas Barnewall is now a peer of Ireland with this title. The person mentioned in the text had studied physic, and prescribed gratis to the poor. Hence arose the subsequent conversation.-MALONE.
5 Sir Robert Sibbald was physician and geographer to Charles II. Among his works are "Scotia Illustrata," and "The Liberty and Independency of the Kingdom and Church of Scotland.” He was born near Leslie, in Fifeshire, in 1643, and died in 1712.-ED.
pressed him very much to come over to the Roman Catholic faith : that he resisted all his Grace's arguments for a considerable time, till one day he felt himself, as it were, instantaneously convinced, and with tears in his eyes ran into the Duke's arms, and embraced the ancient religion ; that he continued very steady in it for some time, and accompanied his Grace to London one winter, and lived in his household ; that there he found the rigid fasting prescribed by the church very severe upon him ; that this disposed him to reconsider the controversy, and having then seen that he was in the wrong, he returned to Protestantism. I talked of some time or other publishing this curious life. MRS. THRALE: “I think
you had as well let alone that publication. To discover such weakness exposes a man when he is gone.” JOHNSON : “Nay, it is an honest picture of human nature. How often are the primary motives of our greatest actions as small as Sibbald's, for his re-conversion ?" MRS. TURALE: “But may they not as well be forgotten?" JOHNSON : “No, Madam, a man loves to review his own mind. That is the use of a diary, or journal.” LORD TRIMLESTOWN : “True, Sir. As the ladies love to see themselves in a glass : so a man likes to see himself in his journal.” BOSWELL: “A very pretty allusion.” JOHNSON: “Yes, indeed.” BOSWELL : And as a lady adjusts her dress before a mirror, a man adjusts his character by looking at his journal.” I next year found the very same thought in Atterbury's “Funeral Sermon on Lady Cutts ;” where, having mentioned her diary, he says, “In this glass she every day dressed her mind." This is a proof of coincidence, and not of plagiarism ; for I had never read that sermon before.
Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness : I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. “Accustom your children,” said he, “constantly to this ; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them ; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.” BOSWELL: “ It may come to the door: and when once an account is at all varied in one circumstance, it may by degrees be varied so as to be totally different from what really happened.” Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, “Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a-day, if one is not perpetually watching." JOHNSON: “Well, Madam, and you ought to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.”
In his review of Dr. Warton's " Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope,” Johnson has given the following salutary caution upon this