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destroyed the monasteries in our island ?” One mɔdestly replied, that he did not know; the other said, Jesus Christ.
Of the truth of stories which ran currently about the town concerning Dr. Johnson, it was impossible to be certain, unless one asked himself; and what he told, or suffered to be told before his face without contradicting, has every possible mark I think of real and genuine authenticity. I made one day very minute enquiries about the tale of his knocking down the famous Tom Osborne with his own Dictionary in the man's own house. “And how was that affair, in earnest ? do tell me, Mr. Johnson ? " “ There is nothing to tell, dearest lady, but that he was insolent and I beat him, and that he was a blockhead and told of it, which I should never have done; so the blows have been multiplying, and the wonder thickening for all these years, as Thomas was never a favourite with the Public. I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues."
I have heard Mr. Murphy relate a very singular story, wh he was present, greatly to the credit of his uncommon skill and knowledge of life and manners: When first the Ramblers came out in separate numbers, as they were the objects of attention to multitudes of people, they happened, as it seems, particularly to attract the notice of a society who met every Saturday evening during the summer at Rumford in Essex, and were known by the name of The Bowling-green Club. These men seeing one day the character of Leviculus the fortune-hunter, or Tetrica the old maid : another day some account of a person who spent his life in hoping for a legacy, or of him who is always prying into other folks' affairs, began sure enough to think they were betrayed ; and that some of the coterie sate down to divert himself by giving to the Public the portrait of all the rest. Filled with wrath against the traitor of Rumford, one of them resolved to write to the printer and enquire the author's name ; Samuel Johnson, was the reply. No more was necessary; Samuel Johnson was the name of the curate, and soon did each begin to load him with reproaches for turning his friends into ridicule in a manner so cruel and unprovoked. In vain did the guiltless curate protest his innocence; one was sure that Aligu meant Mr. Twigg, and that Cupidus was but another name for neighbour Baggs: till the poor parson, unable to contend any longer,
rode to London, and brought them full satisfaction concerning the writer, who from his own knowledge of general manners, quickened by a vigorous and warm imagination, had happily delineated, though unknown to himself, the members of the Bowling-green Club.
Mr. Murphy likewise used to tell before Dr. Johnson, of the first time they met, and the occasion of their meeting, which he related thus : That being in those days engaged in a periodical paper, he found himself at a friend's house out of town; and not being disposed to lose pleasure for the sake of business, wished rather to content his bookseller by sending some unstudied essay to London by the servant, than deny himself the company of his acquaintance, and drive away to his chambers for the purpose of writing something more correct. He therefore took up a French “ Journal Literaire ” that lay about the room, and translating something he liked from it, sent it away without further examination. Time however discovered that he had translated from the French a Rambler of Johnson's, which had been but a month before taken from the English ; and thinking it right to make him his personal excuses, he went next day, and found our friend all covered with soot like a chimney-sweeper, in a little room, with an intolerable heat and strange smell, as if he had been acting Lungs in the “ Alchymist,” making æther.
Come, come (says Dr. Johnson), dear Mur, the story is black enough now; and it was a very happy day for me that brought you first to my house, and a very happy mistake about the Ramblers."
Dr. Johnson was always exceeding fond of chemistry; and we made up a sort of laboratory at Streatham one summer, and diverted ourselves with drawing essences and colouring liquors. But the danger Mr. Thrale found his friend in one day when I was driven to London, and he had got the children and servants round him to see some experiments performed, put an end to all our entertainment; so well was the master of the house persuaded, that his short sight would have been his destruction in a moment, by bringing him close to a fierce and violent fame. Indeed it
a perpetual miracle that he did not set himself on fire reading a-bed, as was his constant custom, when exceedingly unable even to keep clear of mischief with our best help; and
The Gray's Inn Journal, see Life, vol. i., p. 281.
accordingly the fore-top of all bis wigs were burned by the candle down to the very net-work. Mr. Thrale's valet-de-chambre, for that reason, kept one always in his own hands, with which he met him at the parlour-door when the bell had called him down to dinner, and as he went up stairs to sleep in the afternoon, the same man constantly followed him with another.
Future experiments in chemistry however were too dangerous, and Mr. Thrale insisted that we should do no more towards finding the philosopher's stone.
Mr. Johnson's amusements were thus reduced to the pleasures of conversation merely: and what wonder that he should have an avidity for the sole delight he was able to enjoy ? No man conversed so well as he on every subject; no man so acutely discerned the reason of every fact, the motive of every action, the end of every design. He was indeed often pained by the ignorance or causeless wonder of those who knew less than himself, though he seldom drove them away with apparent scorn, unless he thought they added presumption to stupidity : and it was impossible not to laugh at the patience he shewed, when a Welch parson of mean abilities, though a good heart, struck with reverence at the sight of Dr. Johnson, whom he had heard of as the greatest man living, could not find any words to answer his inquiries concerning a motto round somebody's arms which adorned a tomb-stone in Ruabon church-yard. If I remember right, the words were,
“ Heb Dw, Heb Dym,
Dw o’ Diggon.” And though of no very difficult construction, the gentleman seemed wholly confounded, and unable to explain them; till Mr. Johnson having picked out the meaning by little and little, said to the man,
“ Heb is a preposition, I believe Sir, is it not ? ” My countryman recovering some spirits upon the sudden question, cried out, “So I humbly presume Sir,” very comically.
Stories of humour do not tell well in books; and what made impression on the friends who heard a jest, will seldom much delight the distant acquaintance or sullen critic who reads it. The cork model of Paris is not more despicable as a resemblance of a great city, than this book, levior cortice, as a specimen of Johnson's character. Yet every body naturally likes to gather little specimens of the rarities found in a great country; and could I carry home from Italy square pieces of all the curious marbles which are the just glory of this surprising part of the world, I could scarcely contrive perhaps to arrange them so meanly as not to gain some attention from the respect due to the places they once belonged to.-Such a piece of motley Mosaic work will these Anecdotes inevitably make; but let the reader remember that he was promised nothing better, and so be as contented as he can.
An Irish trader at our house one day heard Johnson launch out into very great and greatly deserved praises of Mr. Edmund Burke: delighted to find his countryman stood so high in the opinion of a man he had been told so much of,
“ Sir (said he), give me leave to tell something of Mr. Burke now.”
We were all silent, and the honest Hibernian began to relate how Mr. Burke went to see the collieries in a distant province ; and he would go down into the bowels of the earth (in a bag) and he would examine every thing : "he went in a bag Sir, and ventured his health and his life for knowledge; but he took care of his clothes, that they should not be spoiled, for he went down in a bag." “ Well Sir (says Mr. Johnson good-humouredly), if our friend Mund should die in any of these hazardous exploits, you and I would write his life and panegyric together; and your chapter of it should be entitled thus : Burke in a Bag.”
He had always a very great personal regard and particular affection for Mr. Edmund Burke, as well as an esteem difficult for me to repeat, though for him only easy to express. And when at the end of the year 1774 the general election called us all different ways, and broke up the delightful society in which we had spent some time at Beaconsfield, Dr. Johnson shook the hospitable master of the house kindly by the hand, and said, “Farewell my dear Sir, and remember that I wish you all the success which ought to be wished you, which can possibly be wished you indeed—by an honest man.”
I must here take leave to observe, that in giving little memoirs of Mr. Johnson's behaviour and conversation, such as I saw and heard it, my book lies under manifest disadvantages, compared with theirs, who having seen him in various situations, and observed his conduct in numberless cases, are able to throw stronger and more brilliant lights upon his character. Virtues are like shrubs, which yield their sweets in different manners according to the circumstances which surround them: and while
generosity of soul scatters its fragrance like the honeysuckle, and delights the senses of many occasional passengers, who feel the pleasure, and half wonder how the breeze has blown it from so far, the more sullen but not less valuable myrtle waits like fortitude to discover its excellence till the hand arrives that will crush it, and force out that perfume whose durability well compensates the difficulty of production.
I saw Mr. Johnson in none but a tranquil uniform state, passing the evening of his life among friends, who loved, honoured, and admired him: I saw none of the things he did, except such acts of charity as have been often mentioned in this book, and such writings as are universally known. What he said is all I can relate, and from what he said, those who think it worth while to read these Anecdotes, must be contented to gather his character. Mine is a mere candle-light picture of his latter days, where every thing falls in dark shadow except the face, the index of the mind; but even that is seen unfavourably, and with a paleness beyond what nature gave it.
When I have told how many follies Dr. Johnson knew of others, I must not omit to mention with how much fidelity he would always have kept them concealed, could they of whom he knew the absurdities have been contented, in the common phrase, to keep their own counsel. But returning home one day from dining at the chaplain's table, he told me, that Dr. Goldsmith had given a very comical and unnecessarily exact recital there of his own feelings when his play was hissed; telling the company how he went indeed to the Literary Club at night, and chatted gaily among his friends, as if nothing had happened amiss; that to impress them still more forcibly with an idea of his magnaninity, he even sung his favourite song about an old woman tossed in a blanket seventeen times as high as the moon; “but all this while I was suffering horrid tortures (said he), and verily believe that if I had put a bit into my mouth it would have strangled me on the spot, I was so excessively ill; but I made more noise than usual to cover all that, and so they never perceived
my not eating, nor I believe at all imaged to themselves the anguish of my heart : but when all were gone except Johnson here, I burst out a-crying, and even swore by that I would never write again.” “All which, Doctor (says Mr. Johnson, amazed at his odd frankness), I thought had been a secret between you and me; and I am sure I would not have said any