« PreviousContinue »
thing about it for the world.” “Now see (repeated he when he told the story) what a figure a man makes who thus unaccountably chuses to be the frigid narrator of his own disgrace. ІІ volto sciolto, ed i pensieri stretti, was a proverb made on purpose for such mortals, to keep people, if possible, from being thus the heralds of their own shame : for what compassion can they gain by such silly narratives ? No man should be expected to sympathise with the sorrows of vanity. If then you are mortified by any ill usage, whether real or supposed, keep at least the account of such mortifications to yourself, and forbear to proclaim how meanly you are thought on by others, unless you desire to be meanly thought of by all.”
The little history of another friend's superfluous ingenuity will contribute to introduce a similar remark. He had a daughter of about fourteen years old, as I remember, fat and clumsy: and though the father adored, and desired others to adore her, yet being aware perhaps that she was not what the French call paitrie des graces, and thinking I suppose that the old maxim, of
I beginning to laugh at yourself first where you have anything ridiculous about you, was a good one, he comically enough called his girl Trundle when he spoke of her; and many who bore neither of them any ill-will felt disposed to laugh at the happiness of the appellation. “See now (says Dr. Johnson) what haste people are in to be hooted. Nobody ever thought of this fellow nor of his daughter, could he but have been quiet bimself, and forborne to call the eyes of the world on his dowdy and her deformity. But it teaches one to see at least, that if nobody else will nickname one's children, the parents will e'en do it themselves.”
All this held true in matters to Mr. Johnson of more serious consequence.
When Sir Joshua Reynolds had painted his portrait looking into the slit of his pen, and holding it almost close to his eye, as was his general custom, he felt displeased, and told me“ he would not be known by posterity for his defects only, let Sir Joshua do his worst." I said in reply, that Reynolds had no such difficulties about himself, and that he might observe the picture which hung up in the room where we were talking, represented Sir Joshua holding his ear in his hand to catch the sound. “He may paint himself as deaf if he chuses (replied Johnson); but I will not be blinking Sam.”
It is chiefly for the sake of evincing the regularity and steadi
ness of Mr. Johnson's mind that I have given these trifling memoirs, to shew that his soul was not different from that of another person, but, as it was greater; and to give those who did not know him a just idea of his acquiescence in what we call vulgar prejudices, and of his extreme distance from those notions which the world has agreed, I know not very well why, to call romantic. It is indeed observable in his preface to Shakespeare, that while other critics expatiate on the creative powers and vivid imagination of that matchless poet, Dr. Johnson commends him for giving so just a representation of human manners, “that from his scenes a hermit might estimate the value of society, and a confessor predict the progress of the passions.” I have not the book with me here, but am pretty sure that such is his expression.
The general and constant advice he gave too, when consulted about the choice of a wife, a profession, or whatever influences a man’s particular and immediate happiness, was always to reject no positive good from fears of its contrary consequences. “Do not (said he) forbear to marry a beautiful woman if you can find such, out of a fancy that she will be less constant than an ugly one; or condemn yourself to the society of coarseness and vul. garity for fear of the expenses or other dangers of elegance and personal charms, which have been always acknowledged as a positive good, and for the want of which there should always be given some weighty compensation. I have however (continued Mr. Johnson) seen some prudent fellows who forbore to connect themselves with beauty lest coquetry should be near, and with wit or birth lest insolence should lurk behind them, till they have been forced by their discretion to linger life away in tasteless stupidity, and chuse to count the moments by remembrance of pain instead of enjoyment of pleasure.”
When professions were talked of,“ Scorn (said Mr. Johnson) to put your behaviour under the dominion of canters; never think it clever to call physic a mean study, or law a dry one; or ask a baby of seven years old which way his genius leads him, when we all know that a boy of seven years old has no genius for any thing except a peg-top and an apple-pie; but fix on some business where much money may be got and little virtue risqued: follow that business steadily, and do not live as Roger Ascham
1 Johnson's Preface, Shakespeare's Plays, p. 251, 6th ed. Lond., 1813.
2 The Scholemaster, Rog. Ascham. 2nd ed. Lond., 1743, p. 14.
says the wits do, Men know not how; and at last die obscurely, men mark not when."
Dr. Johnson had indeed a veneration for the voice of mankind beyond what most people will own; and as he liberally confessed that all his own disappointments proceeded from himself, he hated to hear others complain of general injustice. I remember when lamentation was made of the neglect shewed to Jeremiah Markland, a great philologist as some one ventured to call him“He is a scholar undoubtedly Sir (replied Dr. Johnson), but remember that he would run from the world, and that it is not the world's business to run after him. I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and does nothing when he is there but sit and growl; let him come out as I do, and bark. The world (added he) is chiefly unjust and ungenerous in this, that all are ready to encourage a man who once talks of leaving it, and few things do really provoke me more, than to hear people prate of retirement, when they have neither skill to discern their own motives, or penetration to estimate the consequences: but while a fellow is active to gain either power or wealth (continued he), every body produces some hindrance to his advancement, some sage remark, or some unfavourable prediction; but let him once say slightly, I have had enough of this troublesome, bustling world, 'tis time to leave it now:
Ah, dear Sir, cries the first old acquaintance he meets, I am glad to find you in this happy disposition: yes, dear friend! do retire and think of nothing but your own ease: there's Mr. William will find it a pleasure to settle all your accounts and relieve you from the fatigue ; Miss Dolly makes the charmingest chicken broth in the world, and the cheese cakes we eat of her's once, how good they were: I will be coming every two or three days myself to chat with you in a quiet way; so snug! and tell you how matters go upon 'Change, or in the House,' or according to the blockhead's first pursuits, whether lucrative or politic, which thus he leaves ; and lays himself down a voluntary prey to his own sensuality and sloth, while the ambition and avarice of the nephews and nieces, with their rascally adherents and coadjutors, reap the advantage, while they fatten their fool." As the votaries of retirement had little of Mr. Johnson's
applause, unless that he knew that the motives were merely devotional, and unless he was convinced that their rituals were accompanied by a mortified state of the body, the sole proof of
their sincerity which he would admit, as a compensation for such fatigue as a worldly life of care and activity requires; so of the various states and conditions of humanity, he despised none more than the man who marries for a maintenance: and of a friend who made an alliance on no higher principles he said once, “Now has that fellow (it was a nobleman of whom we were speaking) at length obtained a certainty of three meals a day, and for that certainty, like his brother dog in the fable, he will get his neck galled for life with a collar."
That poverty was an evil to be avoided by all honest means however, no man was more ready to avow : concealed poverty particularly, which he said was the general corrosive that destroyed the peace of almost every family; to which no evening perhaps ever returned without some new project for hiding the sorrows and dangers of the next day. “Want of money (says Dr. Johnson) is sometimes concealed under pretended avarice, and sly hints of aversion to part with it; sometimes under stormy anger, and affectation of boundless rage; but oftener still under a show of thoughtless extravagance and gay neglectwhile to a penetrating eye, none of these wretched veils suffice to keep the cruel truth from being seen. Poverty is hic et ubique (says he), and if you do shut the jade out of the door, she will always contrive in some manner to poke her pale lean face in at the window.”
I. have mentioned before that old age had very little of Mr. Johnson's reverence: “a man commonly grew wickeder as he grew older (he said), at least he but changed the vices of youth ; headstrong passion and wild temerity, for treacherous caution and desire to circumvent. I am always (said he) on the young people's side, when there is a dispute between them and the old
you have at least a chance for virtue till age has withered its very root.” While we were talking, my mother's spaniel, whom he never loved, stole our toast and butter; “Fye Belle! said I, you used to be upon honour; “Yes, Madam (replies Jobnson), but Belle grows old.” His reason for hating the dog was, “because she was a professed favourite (he said), and because her lady ordered her from time to time to be washed and combed: a foolish trick (said he) and assumption of superiority that every one's nature revolts at; so because one must not wish ill to the lady in such cases (continued he), one curses the cur." The truth is, Belle was not well behaved, and being a large spaniel, was troublesome enough at dinner with frequent solicitations to be fed. “This animal (said Dr. Johnson one day) would have been of extraordinary merit and value in the state of Lycurgus; for she condemns one to the exertion of perpetual vigilance."
He had indeed that strong aversion felt by all the lower ranks of people towards four-footed companions very completely, notwithstanding he had for many years a cat which he called Hodge, that kept always in his room at Fleet-street; but so exact was he not to offend the human species by superfluous attention to brutes, that when the creature was sick and old and could eat nothing but oysters, Mr. Johnson always went out himself to buy Hodge's dinner, that Francis the Black's delicacy might not be hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped.
No one was indeed so attentive not to offend in all such sort of things as Dr. Johnson ; nor so careful to maintain the ceremonies of life: and though he told Mr. Thrale once that he never sought to please till past thirty years old, considering the matter as hopeless, he had been always studious not to make enemies, by apparent preference of himself. It happened very comically, that the moment this curious conversation past, of which I was a silent auditress, was in the coach, in some distant province, either Shropshire or Derbyshire I believe; and as soon as it was over, Mr. Johnson took out of his pocket' a little book and read, while a gentleman of no small distinction for his birth and elegance suddenly rode up to the carriage, and paying us all his proper compliments, was desirous not to neglect Dr. Johnson; but observing that he did not see him, tapt him gently on the shoulder —“'Tis Mr. Ch-Im-ley,” says my husband ;—“Well, Sir! and what if it is Mr. Ch-Im-ley!" says the other sternly, just lifting his eyes a moment from his book, and returning to it again with renewed avidity.
He had sometimes fits of reading very violent; and when he was in earnest about getting through some particular pages, for I have heard him say he never read but one book, which he did not consider as obligatory, through in his whole life (and Lady Mary Wortley's Letters was the book); he would be quite lost to company, and withdraw all his attention to what he was read
i See Boswell on this occurrence, vol. iv. (June 30, 1784).