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Mr. Johnson did indeed possess an almost Tuscan power of improvisation : when he called to my daughter, who was consulting with a friend about a new gown and dressed hat she thought of wearing to an assembly, thus suddenly, while she hoped he was not listening to their conversation,
“ Wear the gown, and wear the hat,
Snatch thy pleasures while they last ;
Soon those nine lives would be past.” It is impossible to deny to such little sallies the power of the Florentines, who do not permit their verses to be ever written down though they often deserve it, because, as they express it, cosi se perderebbe la poca gloria.
As for translations, we used to make him sometimes run off with one or two in a good humour. He was praising this song
“ Deh, se piacermi vuoi,
Alletta ad ingannar.”
“Would you hope to gain my heart,
Only teaches how to cheat." Mr. Baretti coaxed him likewise one day at Streatham out of a translation of Emirena's speech to the false courtier Aqueleius, and it is probably printed before now, as I think two or three people took copies ; but perhaps it has slipt their memories.
“ Ah! tu in corte invecchiasti, e giurerei
Piangerne la caduta. Offrirti a tutti
Ne fabbricar che sulle altrui rovine."
These characters Dr. Johnson however did not delight in reading, or in hearing of: he always maintained that the world was not half as wicked as it was represented ; and he might very well continue in that opinion, as he resolutely drove from him every story that could make him change it; and when Mr. Bickerstaff's flight' confirmed the report of his guilt, and my husband said in answer to Johnson's astonishment, that he had long been a suspected man: “ By those who look close to the ground, dirt will be seen, Sir, (was the lofty reply): I hope I see things from a greater distance.”
His desire to go abroad, particularly to see Italy, was very great; and he had a longing wish to leave some Latin verses at the Grand Chartreux. He loved indeed the very act of travelling, and I cannot tell how far one might have taken him in a carriage before he would have wished for refreshment. He was therefore in some respects an admirable companion on the road, as he piqued himself upon feeling no inconvenience, and on despising no accommodations. On the other hand however, he expected no one else to feel any, and felt exceedingly inflamed with anger if any one complained of the rain, the sun, or the dust.
1 See Life, vol. ii., p. 89.
(said he) do other people bear them ?” As for general uneasiness, or complaints of long confinement in a carriage, he considered all lamentations on their account as proofs of an empty head, and a tongue desirous to talk without materials of conversation. A mill that goes without grist (said he), is as good a companion as such creatures."
I pitied a friend before him, who had a whining wife that found every thing painful to her, and nothing pleasing—“ He does not know that she whimpers (says Johnson); when a door has creaked for a fortnight together, you may observe—the master will scarcely give sixpence to get it oiled."
Of another lady, more insipid than offensive, I once heard him say, “She has some softness indeed, but so has a pillow.” And when one observed in reply, that her husband's fidelity and attachment were exemplary, notwithstanding this low account at which her perfections were rated—“Why Sir (cries the Doctor), being married to those sleepy-souled women, is just like playing at cards for nothing: no passion is excited, and the time is filled up. I do not however envy a fellow one of those honey-suckle wives for my part, as they are but creepers at best, and commonly destroy the tree they so tenderly cling about.”
For a lady of quality, since dead, who received us at her husband's seat in Wales with less attention than he had long been accustomed to, he had a rougher denunciation :
“ That woman (cries Johnson) is like sour small-beer, the beverage of her table, and produce of the wretched country she lives in : like that, she could never have been a good thing, and even that bad thing is spoiled.” This was in the same vein of asperity, and I believe with something like the same provocation, that he observed of a Scotch lady,“ that she resembled a dead nettle; were she alive (said he) she would sting."
Mr. Johnson's hatred of the Scotch is so well known, and so many of his bons mots expressive of that hatred have been already repeated in so many books and pamphlets, that 'tis perhaps scarcely worth while to write down the conversation between him and a friend of that nation who always resides in London, and who at his return from the Hebrides asked him with a firm tone of voice, What he thought of his country ? “ That it is a very vile country to be sure, Sir; ” (returned for answer Dr. Johnson.) “Well, Sir!" replies the other somewhat mortified, “God made it.'' “ Certainly he did (answers Mr. Johnson again); but we must
always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S ; but God made hell.”
Dr. Johnson did not I think much delight in that kind of conversation which consists in telling stories : every body (said he) tells stories of me, and I tell stories of nobody. I do not recollect (added he), I have ever told you, that have been always favourites, above three stories ; but I hope I do not play the Old Fool, and force people to hear uninteresting narratives, only because I once was diverted with them myself.” He was however no enemy to that sort of talk from the famous Mr. Foote, “whose happiness of manner in relating was such (he said) as subdued arrogance and roused stupidity: His stories were truly like those of Biron in Love's Labour Lost, so very attractive
“ That aged ears play'd truant with his tales,
Of all conversers however (added he), the late Hawkins Browne was the most delightful with whom I ever was in company: his talk was at once so elegant, so apparently artless, so pure, and so pleasing, it seemed a perpetual stream of sentiment, enlivened by gaiety, and sparkling with images." When I asked Dr. Johnson, who was the best man he had ever known ? “Psalmanazar," was the unexpected reply: he said, likewise, “ that though a native of France, as his friend imagined, he possessed more of the English language, than any one of the other foreigners who had separately fallen in his way.” Though there was much esteem however, there was I believe but little confidence between them; they conversed merely about general topics, religion and learning, of which both were undoubtedly stupendous examples ; and, with regard to true Christian perfection, I have heard Johnson say,
“ That George Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful even in the lives of saints.”
I forget in what year it was that this extraordinary person lived and died at a house in Old-street, where Mr. Johnson was witness to his talents and virtues, and to his final preference of the church of England, after having studied, disgraced, and adorned so many modes of worship. The name he went by, was not supposed by his friend to be that of his family, but all enquiries were vain ; his reasons for concealing his original were
penitentiary; he deserved no other name than that of the imposter, he said.
That portion of the Universal History which was written by him, does not seem to me to be composed with peculiar spirit, but all traces of the wit and the wanderer were probably worn out before he undertook the work.-His pious and patient endurance of a tedious illness, ending in an exemplary death, confirmed the strong impression his merit had made upon the mind of Mr. Johnson. “It is so very difficult (said he, always) for a sick man not to be a scoundrel. Oh! set the pillows soft, here is Mr. Grumbler o'coming: Ah! let no air in for the world, Mr. Grumbler will be here presently."
This perpetual preference is so offensive, where the privileges of sickness are besides supported by wealth, and nourished by dependence, that one cannot much wonder that a rough mind is revolted by them. It was however at once comical and touchant (as the French call it), to observe Mr. Johnson so habitually watchful against this sort of behaviour, that he was often ready to suspect himself of it; and when one asked him gently, how he did ?—“Ready to become a scoundrel, Madam (would commonly be the answer): with a little more spoiling you will, I think, make me a complete rascal.”
His desire of doing good was not however lessened by his aversion to a sick chamber: he would have made an ill man well by any expence or fatigue of his own, sooner than any of the canters. Canter indeed was he none: he would forget to ask people after the health of their nearest relations, and say in excuse, he knew they did not care : why should they (says he) ? every one in this world has as much as they can do in caring for themselves, and few have leisure really to think of their neighbours' distresses, however they may delight their tongues with talking of them.”
The natural depravity of mankind and remains of original sin were so fixed in Mr. Johnson's opinion, that he was indeed a most acute observer of their effects; and used to say sometimes, half in jest, half in earnest, that they were the remains of his old tutor Mandeville's instructions. As a book however, he took care always loudly to condemn the Fable of the Bees, but not without adding, “ that it was the work of a thinking man.”
I have in former days heard Dr. Collier of the Commons loudly condemned for uttering sentiments, which twenty years after I have heard as loudly applauded from the lips of Dr. Johnson,