« PreviousContinue »
indeed which pass well enough with others would do with him : he had been a great reader of Mandeville, and was ever on the watch to spy out those stains of original corruption, so easily discovered by a penetrating observer even in the purest minds. I mentioned an event, which if it had happened would greatly have injured Mr. Thrale and his family—" and then, dear Sir," said I, “how sorry you would have been !” “I hope (replied he after a long pause)—I should have been very sorry ;—but remember Rochefoucault's maxim.”l—“I would rather (answered I) remember Prior's verses, and ask,
Will any body's mind bear this eternal microscope that you place upon your own so ?” “I never (replied he) saw one that would, except that of my dear Miss Reynolds—and her's is very near to purity itself.”—Of slighter evils, and friends less distant than our own household, he spoke less cautiously. An acquaintance lost the almost certain hope of a good estate that had been long expected. Such a one will grieve (said I) at her friend's disappointment. “She will suffer as much perhaps (said he) as your horse did when your cow miscarried:”—I professed myself sincerely grieved when accumulated distresses crushed Sir George Colebrook's family; and I was so. “ Your own prosperity (said he) may possibly have so far increased the natural tenderness of your heart, that for aught I know you may be a little sorry ; but it is sufficient for a plain man if he does not laugh when he sees a fine new house tumble down all on a sudden, and a snug cottage stand by ready to receive the owner, whose birth entitled him to nothing better, and whose limbs are left him to go to work again with.”
I used to tell him in jest that his morality was easily contented; and when I have said something as if the wickedness of the world gave me concern, he would cry out aloud against canting, and protest that he thought there was very little gross wickedness in the world, and still less of extraordinary virtue. Nothing indeed
I “ Dans l'adversitié de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous deplait pas.”—— Reflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales, 1st ed., 1665, No. 99. This maxim was one of the fifteen suppressed by the author after the second edition.--Ed.
more surely disgusted Dr. Johnsom than hyperbole; he loved not to be told of sallies of excellence, which he said were seldom valuable, and seldom true. “Heroic virtues (said he) are the bons mots of life; they do not appear often, and when they do appear are too much prized I think; like the aloe-tree, which shoots and flowers once in a hundred years. But life is made up of little things; and that character is the best which does little but repeated acts of beneficence; as that conversation is the best which consists in elegant and pleasing thoughts expressed in natural and pleasing terms. With regard to my own notions of moral virtue (continued he), I hope I have not lost my sensibility of wrong; but I hope likewise that I have lived long enough in the world to prevent me from expecting to find any action of which both the original motive and all the parts were good."
The piety of Dr. Johnson was exemplary and edifying: he was punctiliously exact to perform every public duty enjoined by the church, and his spirit of devotion had an energy that affected all who ever saw him pray in private. The coldest and most languid hearer of the word must have felt themselves animated by his manner of reading the holy scriptures; and to pray by his sick bed, required strength of body as well as of mind, so vehement were his manners, and his tones of voice so pathetic. I have many times made it my request to heaven that I might be spared the sight of his death, and I was spared it!
Mr. Johnson, though in general a gross feeder, kept fast in Lent, particularly the holy week, with a rigour very dangerous to his general health ; but though he had left off wine (for religious motives as I always believed, though he did not own it), yet he did not hold the commutation of offences by voluntary penance, or encourage others to practise severity upon themselves. He even once said, “that he thought it an error to endeavour at pleasing God by taking the rod of reproof out of his hands.” And when we talked of convents, and the hardships suffered in them—“ Remember always (said he) that a convent is an idle place, and where there is nothing to be done something must be endured: mustard has a bad taste per se you may observe, but very insipid food cannot be eaten without it.”
His respect however for places of religious retirement was carried to the greatest degree of earthly veneration : the Benedictine convent at Paris paid him all possible honours in return, and the Prior and he parted with tears of tenderness. Two of that college being sent to England on the mission some years after, spent much of their time with him at Bolt Court I know, and he was ever earnest to retain their friendship ; but though beloved by all his Roman Catholic acquaintance, particularly Dr. Nugent, for whose esteem he had a singular value, yet was Mr. Johnson a most unshaken church of England man; and I think, or at least I once did think, that a letter written by him to Mr. Barnard the King's librarian, when he was in Italy collecting books, contained some very particular advice to his friend to be on his guard against the seductions of the church of Rome.
The settled aversion Dr. Johnson felt towards an infidel he expressed to all ranks, and at all times, without the smallest reserve; for though on common occasions he paid great deference to birth or title, yet his regard for truth and virtue never gave way to meaner considerations. We talked of a dead wit one evening, and somebody praised him—“Let us never praise talents so ill employed, Sir; we foul our mouths by commending such infidels (said he).” “Allow him the lumieres at least," intreated one of the company—“I do allow him, Sir (replied Johnson), just enough to light him to hell.”—Of a Jamaica gentleman, then lately dead—“ He will not, whither he is now gone (said Johnson), find much difference, I believe, either in the climate or the company.”—The Abbé Reynal probably remembers that, being at the house of a common friend in London, the master of it approached Johnson with that gentleman so much celebrated in his hand, and this speech in his niouth : “Will you permit me, Sir, to present to you the Abbé Reynal ? “No, Sir," (replied the Doctor very loud) and suddenly turned away from them both.
Though Mr. Jolinson had but little reverence either for talents or fortune, when he found them unsupported by virtue; yet it was sufficient to tell him a man was very pious, or very charitable, and he would at least begin with him on good terms, however the conversation might end. He would, sometimes too, good-naturedly enter into a long chat for the instruction or entertainment of people he despised. I perfectly recollect his condescending to delight my daughter's dancing-master with a long argument about his art; which the man protested, at the close of the discourse, the Doctor knew more of than himself; who remained astonished, enlightened, and amused by the talk of a person little likely to make a good disquisition upon dancing. I
have sometimes indeed been rather pleased than vexed when Mr. Johnson has given a rough answer to a man who perhaps deserved one only half as rough, because I knew he would repent of his hasty reproof, and make us all amends by some conversation at once instructive and entertaining, as in the following
A young fellow asked him abruptly one day, “ Pray, Sir, what and where is Palmira ? I heard somebody talk last night of the ruins of Palmira.” “ 'Tis a hill in Ireland (replies Johnson), with palms growing on the top, and a bog at the bottom, and so they call it Palm-mira." Seeing however that the lad thought him serious, and thanked him for the information, he undeceived him very gently indeed ; told him the history, geography, and chronology of Tadmor in the wilderness, with every incident that literature could furnish I think, or eloquence express, from the building of Solomon's palace to the voyage of Dawkins and Wood.
On another occasion, when he was musing over the fire in our drawing-room at Streatham, a young gentleman called to him suddenly, and I suppose he thought disrespectfully, in these words : “Mr. Johnson, Would you advise me to marry ?” “ I would advise no man to marry, Sir (returns for answer in a very angry tone Dr. Johnson), who is not likely to propagate understanding ; and so left the room. Our companion looked confounded, and I believe had scarce recovered the consciousness of his own existence, when Johnson came back, and drawing his chair among us, with altered looks and a softened voice, joined in the general chat, insensibly led the conversation to the subject of marriage, where he laid himself out in a dissertation so useful, so elegant, so founded on the true knowledge of human life, and so adorned with beauty of sentiment, that no one ever recollected the offence, except to rejoice in its consequences. He repented just as certainly however, if he had been led to praise any person or thing by accident more than he thought it deserved ; and was on such occasions comically earnest to destroy the praise or pleasure he had unintentionally given.
Sir Joshua Reynolds mentioned some picture as excellent. “It has often grieved me, Sir•(said Mr. Johnson), to see so much mind as the science of painting requires, laid out upon such perishable materials : why do not you oftener make use of copper? I could wish your superiority in the art you profess, to be preserved in stuff more durable than canvas.” Sir Joshua urged
the difficulty of procuring a plate large enough for historical subjects, and was going to raise further objections : “ What foppish obstacles are these! (exclaims on a sudden Dr. Johnson :) Here is Thrale has a thousand tun of copper; you may paint it all round if you will, I suppose; it will serve him to brew in afterwards : Will.it not, Sir?” (to my husband who sat by.) Indeed Dr. Johnson's utter scorn of painting was such, that I have heard him say, that he should sit very quietly in a room hung round with the works of the greatest masters, and never feel the slightest disposition to turn them if their backs were outermost, unless it might be for the sake of telling Sir Joshua that he had turned them. Such speeches may appear offensive to many, but those who knew he was too blind to discern the perfections of an art which applies itself immediately to our eye-sight, must acknowledge he was not in the wrong.
He delighted no more in music than painting; he was almost as deaf as he was blind : travelling with Dr. Johnson was for these reasons tiresome enough. Mr. Thrale loved prospects, and was mortified that his friend could not enjoy the sight of those different dispositions of wood and water, hill and valley, that travelling through England and France affords a man. But when he wished to point them out to his companion: “Never heed such nonsense,” would be the reply: a blade of
is always a blade of grass, whether in one country or another : let us if we do talk, talk about something ; men and women are my subjects of enquiry ; let us see how these differ from those we have left behind.”
When we were at Rouen together, he took a great fancy to the Abbé Roffette, with whom he conversed about the destruction of the order of Jesuits, and condemned it loudly, as a blow to the general power of the church, and likely to be followed with many and dangerous innovations, which might at length become fatal to religion itself, and shake even the foundation of Christianity. The gentleman seemed to wonder and delight in his conversation: the talk was all in Latin, which both spoke fluently, and Mr. Johnson pronounced a long eulogium upon Milton with so much ardour, eloquence, and ingenuity, that the Abbé rose from his seat and embraced him. My husband seeing them apparently so charmed with the company of each other, politely invited the Abbé to England, intending to oblige his friend; who, instead of thanking, reprimanded him severely before the man, for such a