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forage that they pick up by running about, and snatching what drops from their neighbours as ignorant as themselves, will never ferment into any knowledge valuable or durable ; but like the light wines we drink in hot countries, please for the moment though incapable of keeping. In the study of mankind much will be found to swim as froth, and much must sink as feculence, before the wine can have its effect, and become that noblest liquor which rejoices the heart, and gives vigour to the imagination.”
I am well aware that I do not, and cannot give each expression of Dr. Johnson with all its force or all its neatness; but I have done my best to record such of his maxims, and repeat such of his sentiments, as may give to those who knew him not, a just idea of his character and manner of thinking. To endeavour at adorning, or adding, or softening, or meliorating such anecdotes, by any tricks my inexperienced pen could play, would be weakness indeed ; worse than the Frenchman who presides over the porcelain manufactory at Seve, to whom when some Greek vases were given him as models, he lamented la tristesse de telles formes; and endeavoured to assist them by clusters of flowers, while flying Cupids served for the handles of urns originally intended to contain the ashes of the dead. The misery is, that I can recollect so few anecdotes, and that I have recorded no more axioms of a man whose every word merited attention, and whose every sentiment did honour to human nature. Remote from affectation as from error or falsehood, the comfort a reader has in looking over these papers, is the certainty that those were really the opinions of Johnson, which are related as such.
Fear of what others may think, is the great cause of affectation ; and he was not likely to disguise his notions out of cowardice. He hated disguise, and nobody penetrated it so readily. I showed him a letter written to a common friend, who was at some loss for the explanation of it: “Whoever wrote it (says our Doctor) could, if he chose it, make himself understood ; but 'tis the letter of an embarrassed man, Sir; ” and so the event proved it to be.
Mysteriousness in trifles offended him on every side: “it commonly ended in guilt (he said); for those who begin by concealment of innocent things, will soon have something to hide which they dare not bring to light.” He therefore encouraged an openness of conduct, in women particularly, observed) were often led away when children, by their delight and
“ who (he power of surprising.” He recommended, on something like the same principle, that when one person meant to serve another, he should not go about it slily, or as we say underhand, out of a false idea of delicacy, to surprise one's friend with an unexpected favour; “which, ten to one (says he), fails to oblige your acquaintance, who had some reasons against such a mode of obligation, which you might have known but for that superfluous cunning which you think an elegance. Oh! never be seduced by such silly pretences (continued he); if a wench wants a good gown, do not give her a fine smelling-bottle, because it is more delicate: as I once knew a lady lend the key of her library to a poor scribbling dependant, as if she took the woman for an ostrich that could digest iron.” He said indeed, “ that women were very difficult to be taught the proper manner of conferring pecuniary favours ; that they always gave too much money or too little ; for that they had an idea of delicacy accompanying their gifts, so that they generally rendered them either useless or ridiculous.”
He did indeed say very contemptuous things of our sex ; but was exceedingly angry when I told Miss Reynolds that he said, “It was well managed of some one to leave his affairs in the hands of his wife, because, in matters of business (said he), no woman stops at integrity.” This was, I think the only sentence I ever observed him solicitous to explain away after he had uttered it. He was not at all displeased at the recollection of a sarcasm thrown on a whole profession at once ; when a gentleman leaving the company, somebody who sate next Dr. Johnson asked him, who he was? “I cannot exactly tell you Sir (replied he), and I would be loth to speak ill of any person who I do not know deserves it, but I am afraid he is an attorney.” He did not however encourage general satire, and for the most part professed himself to feel directly contrary to Dr. Swift; “who (says he) hates the world, though he loves John and Robert, and certain individuals.”
Johnson said always, “ that the world was well constructed, but that the particular people disgraced the elegance and beauty of the general fabric.” In the same manner I was relating once to him, how Dr. Collier observed, that the love one bore to children was from the anticipation one's mind made while one contemplated them : “We hope (says he) that they will some time make wise men, or amiable women; and we suffer 'em to take up our
66 A man
affection beforehand. One cannot love lumps of flesh, and little infants are nothing more. On the contrary (says Johnson), one can scarcely help wishing, while one fondles a baby, that it may never live to become a man; for it is so probable that when he becomes a man, he should be sure to end in a scoundrel.” Girls were less displeasing to him ; for as their temptations were fewer (he said), their virtue in this life, and happiness in the next, were less improbable; and he loved (he said) to see a knot of little misses dearly.
Needle-work had a strenuous approver in Dr. Johnson, who said, “that one of the great felicities of female life, was the general consent of the world, that they might amuse themselves with petty occupations, which contributed to the lengthening their lives, and preserving their minds in a state of sanity.” cannot hem a pocket-handkerchief (said a lady of quality to him one day), and so he runs mad, and torments his family and friends.” The expression struck him exceedingly, and when one acquaintance grew troublesome, and another unhealthy, he used to quote Lady Frances's observation, “ That a man cannot hem a pockethandkerchief.” The nice people found no mercy from Mr. Johnson ; such I
as can dine only at four o'clock, who cannot bear to be waked at an unusual hour, or miss a stated meal without inconvenience. He had no such prejudices himself, and with difficulty forgave them in another. Delicacy does not surely consist (says he) in impossibility to be pleased, and that is false dignity indeed which is content to depend upon others.”
The saying of the old philosopher, who observes, That he who wants least is most like the gods, who want nothing; was a favourite sentence with Dr. Johnson, who on his own part required less attendance, sick or well, than ever I saw any human creature. Conversation was all he required to make him happy; and when he would have tea made at two o'clock in the morning, it was only that there might be a certainty of detaining his companions round him. On that principle it was that he preferred winter to summer, when the heat of the weather gave people an excuse to stroll about, and walk for pleasure in the shade, while he wished to sit still on a chair, and chat day after day, till somebody proposed a
See under April 15, 1778, for reference to Mrs. Knowles' “ sutile pictures."
drive in the coach ; and that was the most delicious moment of his life. “ But the carriage must stop sometime (as he said), and the people would come home at last; so his pleasure was of short duration,
I asked him why he doated on a coach so ? and received for answer, “ That in the first place, the company was shut in with him there ; and could not escape, as out of a room; in the next place, he heard all that was said in a carriage, where it was my turn to be deaf : and very impatient was he at my occasional difficulty of hearing. On this account he wished to travel all over the world; for the very act of going forward was delightful to him, and he gave himself no concern about accidents, which he said never happened : nor did the running-away of the horses on the edge of a precipice between Vernon and St. Denys in France convince him to the contrary; “for nothing came of it (he said), except that Mr. Thrale leaped out of the carriage into a chalkpit, and then came up again, looking as white !" When the truth was, all their lives were saved by the greatest providence ever exerted in favour of three human creatures; and the part Mr. Thrale took from desperation was the likeliest thing in the world to produce broken limbs and death.
Fear was indeed a sensation to which Mr. Johnson was an utter stranger, excepting when some sudden apprehensions seized him that he was going to die; and even then he kept all his wits about him, to express the most humble and pathetic petitions to the Almighty : and when the first paralytic stroke took his speech from him, he instantly set about composing a prayer in Latin, at once to deprecate God's mercy, to satisfy himself that his mental powers remained unimpaired, and to keep them in exercise, that they might not perish by permitted stagnation. This was after we parted; but he wrote me an account of it, and I intend to publish that letter, with many more.
When one day he had at my house taken tincture of antimony instead of emetic wine, for a vomit, he was himself the person to direct us what to do for him, and managed with as much coolness and deliberation as if he had been prescribing for an indifferent person. Though on another occasion, when he had lamented in the most piercing terms his approaching dissolution, and conjured me solemnly to tell him what I thought, while Sir Richard Jebb
1 See vol. iii., pp. 36, 190.
was perpetually on the road to Streatham, and Mr. Johnson seemed to think himself neglected if the physician left him for an hour only, I made him a steady, but as I thought a very gentle harangue, in which I confirmed all that the Doctor had been saying, how no present danger could be expected ; but that his age and continued ill health must naturally accelerate the arrival of that hour which can be escaped by none.
And this (says Johnson, rising in great anger) is the voice of female friendship I suppose, when the hand of the hangman would be softer.”
Another day, when he was ill, and exceedingly low-spirited, and persuaded that death was not far distant, I appeared before him in a dark-coloured gown, which his bad sight, and worse apprehensions, made him mistake for an iron-grey. “Why do you delight (said he) thus to thicken the gloom of misery that surrounds me? is not here sufficient accumulation of horror without anticipated mourning?" "This is not mourning, Sir" (said I), drawing the curtain, that the light might fall upon the silk, and shew it was a purple mixed with green. Well, well (replied he, changing his voice), you little creatures should never wear those sort of clothes however; they are unsuitable in every way. What! have not all insects gay colours ?” I relate these instances chiefly to shew that the fears of death itself could not suppress his wit, his sagacity, or his temptation to sudden resentment.
Mr. Johnson did not like that his friends should bring their manuscripts for him to read, and he liked still less to read them when they were brought: sometimes however when he could not refuse he would take the play or poem, or whatever it was, and give the people his opinion from some one page that he had peeped into. A gentleman carried him his tragedy, which, because he loved the author, Johnson took, and it lay about our rooms some time. “What answer did you give your friend Sir?” said I, after the book had been called for. “ I told him (replied he), that there was too much Tig and Tirry in it.” Seeing me laugh most violently, “Why what would'st have, child ?” (said he.) “I looked at nothing but the dramatis, and there was Tigranes and Tiridates, or Teribazus, or such stuff. A man can tell but what he knows, and I never got any further than the first page. Alas, Madam! (continued he) how few books are there of which one ever can possibly arrive at the last page! Was there ever yet any thing written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting ‘Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe,' and