Page images

any man.

it with more dignity to himself, and better effect upon the company, than

I can recollect but few instances indeed, though perhaps that may be more my fault than his. When Sir Joshua Reynolds left the room one day, he said, “ There goes a man not to be spoiled by prosperity.” And when Mrs. Montague shewed him some China plates which had once belonged to Queen Elizabeth, he told her, " that they had no reason to be ashamed of their present possessor, who was so little inferior to the first." I likewise remember that he pronounced one day at my house a most lofty panegyric upon Jones the Orientalist, who seemed little pleased with the praise, for what cause I know not. He was not at all offended, when comparing all our acquaintance to some animal or other, we pitched upon the elephant for his resemblance, adding that the proboscis of that creature was like his mind most exactly, strong to buffet even the tyger, and pliable to pick up even the pin. The truth is, Mr. Johnson was often goodhumouredly willing to join in childish amusements, and hated to be left out of any innocent merriment that was going forward. Mr. Murphy always said, he was incomparable at buffoonery ; and I verily think, if he had had good eyes, and a form less inflexible, he would have made an admirable mimic.

He certainly rode on Mr. Thrale's old hunter with a good firmness, and though he would follow the hounds fifty miles an end sometimes, would never own himself either tired or amused. “I have now learned (said he), by hunting, to perceive, that it is no diversion at all, nor ever takes a man out of himself for a moment: the dogs have less sagacity than I could have prevailed on myself to suppose; and the gentlemen often call to me not to ride over them. It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.”—He was however proud to be amongst the sportsmen ; and I think no praise ever went so close to his heart, as when Mr. Hamilton called out one day upon Brighthelmstone Downs, "Why Johnson rides as well, for ought I see, as the most illiterate fellow in England.”

Though Dr. Johnson owed his very life to air and exercise, given him when his organs of respiration could scarcely play, in the year 1766, yet he ever persisted in the notion, that neither of them had any thing to do with health. People live as long (said he) in Pepper-alley as on Salisbury-plain ; and they live so much happier, that an inhabitant of the first would, if he turned cottager, starve his understanding for want of conversation, and perish in a state of mental inferiority.”

Mr. Johnson indeed, as he was a very talking man himself, had an idea that nothing promoted happiness so much as conversation. A friend's erudition was commended one day as equally deep and strong—“ He will not talk, Sir (was the reply), so his learning does no good, and his wit, if he has it, gives us no pleasure: out of all his boasted stores I never heard him force but one word, and that word was Richard.—With a contempt not inferior he received the praises of a pretty lady's face and behaviour: “She says nothing, Sir (answers Johnson); a talking blackamoor were better than a white creature who adds nothing to life, and by sitting down before one thus desperately silent, takes away the confidence one should have in the company of her chair if she were once out of it.”—No one was however less willing to begin any discourse than himself: his friend Mr. Thomas Tyers said, he was like the ghosts,' who never speak till they are spoken to: and he liked the expression so well, that he often repeated it. He had indeed no necessity to lead the stream of chat to a favourite channel, that his fulness on the subject might be shewn more clearly, whatever was the topic; and he usually left the choice to others. His information best enlightened, his argument strengthened, and his wit made it ever remembered. Of him it might have been said, as he often delighted to say of Edmund Burke, “ that you could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.”

As we had been saying one day that no subject failed of receiving dignity from the manner in which Mr. Johnson treated it, a lady at my house said, she would make him talk about love; and took her measures accordingly, deriding the novels of the day because they treated about love. “It is not (replied our philosopher) because they treat, as you call it, about love, but because they treat of nothing, that they are despicable: we must not ridicule a passion which he who never felt never was happy, and he who laughs at never deserves to feel—a passion which has caused the change of empires, and the loss of worlds—a passion which has inspired heroism and subdued avarice.” He thought he had already said too much. “A passion, in short (added he, with an

[ocr errors]

1 See vol. v. (Tour to the Hebrides, Aug. 20, 1773).


altered tone), that consumes me away for my pretty Fanny here, and she is very cruel (speaking of another lady in the rooin)." He told us however in the course of the same chat, how his negro Francis had been eminent for his success among the girls. Seeing us all laugh, “I must have you know, ladies (said he), that Frank has carried

empire of Cupid further han most men. W I was in Lincolnshire so many years ago, he attended me thither; and when we returned home together, I found that a female haymaker had followed him to London for love." Francis was indeed no small favourite with his master, who retained however a prodigious influence over his most violent passions.

On the birthday of our eldest daughter, and that of our friend Dr. Johnson, the 17th and 18th of September, we every year made up a little dance and supper, to divert our servants and their friends, putting the summer-house into their hands for the two evenings, to fill with acquaintance and merriment. Francis and his white wife were invited of course. She was eminently pretty, and he was jealous, as my maids told me. On the first of these days' amusements (I know not what year) Frank took offence at some attentions paid his Desdemona, and walked away next morning to London in wrath. His master and I driving the same road an hour after, overtook him. 66 What is the matter, child (says Dr. Johnson), that you leave Streatham ? Art sick ? " He is jealous (whispered I). “Are you jealous of your wife, you stupid blockhead (cries out his master in another tone) ? ” The fellow hesitated; and, To be sure Sir, I don't quite approve Sir, was the stammering reply. “Why, what do they do to her, man? do the footmen kiss her ? No Sir, no !--Kiss my wife Sir !I hope not Sir.

Why, what do they do to her, my lad ? ” “Why nothing Sir, I'm sure Sir.” Why then go back directly and dance you dog, do; and let's hear no more of such empty lamentations.” I believe however that Francis was scarcely as much the object of Mr. Johnson's personal kindness, as the representative of Dr. Bathurst, for whose sake he would have loved any body, or any thing.

When he spoke of negroes, he always appeared to think them of a race naturally inferior, and made few exceptions in favour of his own; yet whenever disputes arose in his household among the many odd inhabitants of which it consisted, he always sided with Francis against the others, whom he suspected (not unjustly I believe) of greater malignity. It seems at once vexatious and

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors][merged small]


comical to reflect, that the dissensions those people chose to live
constantly in, distressed and mortified him exceedingly. He
really was oftentimes afraid of going home, because he was so
sure to be met at the door with numberless complaints; and he
used to lament pathetically to me, and to Mr. Sastres the Italian
master, who was much his favourite, that they made his life
miserable from the impossibility he found of making theirs happy,
when every favour he bestowed on one was wormwood to the
rest. If however I ventured to blame their ingratitude, and
condemn their conduct, he would instantly set about softening
the one and justifying the other; and finished commonly by tell.
ing me, that I knew not how to make allowances for situations I
never experienced.

“ To thee no reason who know'st only good,
But evil hast not try'd.”

Dr. Johnson knew how to be merry with mean people too, as
well as to be sad with them; he loved the lower ranks of humanity
with a real affection : and though his talents and learning kept
him always in the sphere of upper life, yet he never lost sight of
the time when he and they shared pain and pleasure in common.
A borough election once shewed me his toleration of boisterous
mirth, and his content in the company of people whom one would
have thought at first sight little calculated for his society. A
rough fellow one day on such an occasion, a hatter by trade,
seeing Mr. Johnson's beaver in a state of decay, seized it sud-
denly with one hand, and clapping him on the back with the
other; Ah, Master Johnson (says he) this is no time to be
thinking about hats.” “No, no, Sir (replies our Doctor in a
cheerful tone), hats are of no use now, as you say, except to


in the air and huzza with ; ” accompanying his words with the true election halloo.

But it was never against people of coarse life that his contempt was expressed, while poverty of sentiment in men who considered themselves to be company for the parlour, as he called it, was what he would not bear. A very ignorant young fellow, who had plagued us all for nine or ten months, died at last consumptive: “I think (said Mr. Johnson when he heard the news), I am afraid, I should have been more concerned for the death of the dog ; but

(hesitating a while) I am not wrong now in all this, for the dog acted up to his character on every occasion that

[ocr errors]


[ocr errors]

we know; but that dunce of a fellow helped forward the general disgrace of humanity.” “Why dear Sir (said I), how odd you

" are!

you have often said the lad was not capable of receiving further instruction.” “He was (replied the Doctor) like a corked bottle, with a drop of dirty water in it, to be sure; one might pump upon it for ever without the smallest effect; but when every method to open and clean it had been tried, you would not have me grieve that the bottle was broke at last."

This was the same youth who told us he had been reading Lucius Florus; Florus Delphini was the phrase ; " and my

mother (said he) thought it had something to do with Delphos; but of that I know nothing.” “Who founded Rome then (enquired Mr. Thrale) ? The lad replied, Romulus. “ And who succeeded Romulus (said I)?” A long pause, and apparently distressful hesitation, followed the difficult question. Why will you ask him in terms that he does not comprehend (said Mr. Johnson enraged)? You might as well bid him tell you who phlebotomised Romulus. This fellow's dulness is elastic (continued he), and all we do is but like kicking at a woolsack."

The pains he took however to obtain the young man more patient instructors, were many, and oftentimes repeated. He was put under the care of a clergyman in a distant province; and Mr. Johnson used both to write and talk to his friend concerning his education. It was on that occasion that I remember his saying, “ A boy should never be sent to Eton or Westminster school before he is twelve years old at least; for if in his years of babyhood he 'scapes that general and transcendent knowledge without which life is perpetually put to a stand, he will never get it at a public school, where if he does not learn Latin and Greek, he learns nothing.” Mr. Johnson often said, 66 that there was too much stress laid upon literature as indispensably necessary : there is surely no need that every body should be a scholar, no call that every one should square the circle. Our manner of teaching (said he) cramps and warps many a mind, which if left more at liberty would have been respectable in some way, though perhaps not in that. We lop our trees, and prune them, and pinch them about (he would say), and nail them tight up to the wall, while a good standard is at last the only thing for bearing healthy fruit, though it commonly begins later. Let the people learn necessary knowledge; let them learn to count their fingers, and to count their money, before they are caring for the classics ;

« PreviousContinue »