« PreviousContinue »
altercation with Adam Smith, to whom he had been so rough, that Strahan, after Smith was gone, had remonstrated with him, and told him that I was coming soon, and that he was uneasy to think that he might behave in the same manner to me. No, no, sir,' said Johnson ; • I warrant you Robertson and I shall do very well. Accordingly he was gentle and good humoured and courteous with me the whole evening; and he has been so upon every occasion that we have met since. I have often said, (laughing,) that I have been in a great measure indebted to Smith for my good reception.” BoswELL. “ His power of reasoning is very strong; and he has a peculiar art of drawing characters, which is as rare as good portrait painting.” Sir Joshua REYNOLDS. “ He is undoubtedly admirable in this ; but, in order to mark the characters which he draws, he overcharges them, and gives people more than they really have, whether of good or bad."
No sooner did he, of whom we had been thus talking so easily, arrive, than we were all as quiet as a school upon the entrance of the head master; and were very soon set down to a table covered with such variety of good things, as contributed not a little to dispose him to be pleased.
RAMSAY. “I am old enough to have been a contemporary of Pope. His poetry was highly admired in his lifetime, more a great deal than after his death.” Johnson. “Sir, it has not been less admired since his death: no authors ever had so much fame in their own lifetime as Pope and Voltaire : and Pope's poetry has been as much admired since his death as during his life; it has only not been as much talked of, but that is owing to its being now more distant, and people having other writings to talk of. Virgil is less talked of than Pope, and Homer is less talked of than Virgil; but they are not less admired. We must read what the world reads at the moment. It has been maintained that this superfetation, this teeming of the press in modern times, is prejudicial to good literature, because it obliges us to read so much of what is of inferiour value, in order to be in the fashion; so that better works are neglected for want of time, because a man will have more gratification of bis vanity in conversation, from having read modern books, than from having read the best works of antiquity. But it must be considered, that we have now more knowledge generally diffused: all our ladies read now, which is a great extension. Modern writers are 'the moons of literature; they shine with reflected light, with light borrowed from the ancients. Greece appears to me to be the fountain of knowledge ; Rome of elegance." RAMSAY. “ I suppose Homer's Iliad to be a collection of pieces which had been written before his time. I should like to see a translation of it in poetical prose, like the book of Ruth or Job.”
ROBERTSON. “Would you, Dr. Johnson, who are master of the English language, but try your hand upon a part of it.” Johnson. “Sir, you would not read it without the pleasure of verseh."
We talked of antiquarian researches. Johnson. “ All that is really known of the ancient state of Britain is contained in a few pages. We can know no more than what the old writers have told us; yet what large books have we upon it, the whole of which, excepting such parts as are taken from those old writers, is all a dream, such as Whitaker's Manchester. I have heard Henry's History of Britain well spoken of: I am told it is carried on in separate divisions, as the civil, the military, the religious history: I wish much to have one branch well done, and that is the history of manners, of common life.” ROBERTson. “Henry should have applied his attention to that alone, which is enough for any man; and be might have found a great deal scattered in various books, had he read solely with that view. Henry erred in not selling his first volume at a moderate price to the booksellers, that they
h This experiment, which madam Dacier made in vain, has since been tried in our own language by the editor of Ossian; and we must either think very meanly of his abilities, or allow that Dr. Johnson was in the right. And Mr Cowper, a man of real genius, has miserably failed in his blank verse translation.-BOSWELL.
might have pushed him on till he had got reputation. I sold my History of Scotland at a moderate price, as a work by which the booksellers might either gain or not; and Cadell has told me, that Miller and he have got six thousand pounds by it. I afterwards received a much higher price for my writings. An author should sell his first work for what the booksellers will give, till it shall appear whether he is an author of merit, or, which is the same thing as to purchase-money, an author who pleases the publicki."
Dr. Robertson expatiated on the character of a certain nobleman; that he was one of the strongest-minded men that ever lived: that he would sit in company quite sluggish, while there was nothing to call forth his intellectual vigour; but the moment that any important subject was started, for instance, how this country is to be defended against a French invasion, he would rouse himself, and show his extraordinary talents with the most powerful ability and animation. Johnson. “ Yet this man cut his own throat. The true strong and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great things and small. Now I am told the king of Prussia will say to a servant, · Bring me a, bottle of such a wine, which came in such a year; it lies in such a corner of the cellars.' I would have a man great in great things, and elegant in little things." He said to me afterwards, when we were by ourselves, “ Robertson was in a mighty romantick humour; he talked of one whom he did not know; but I downed him with the king of Prussia.” Yes, sir,” said I, you
threw a bottle at his head."
An ingenious gentleman was mentioned, concerning whom both Robertson and Ramsay agreed that he had a constant .firmness of mind; for after a laborious day, and amidst a multiplicity of cares and anxieties, he would sit down with his sisters and be quite cheerful and good hu
1 " The patronage of English literature has long since been devolved on our booksellers, and the measure of their liberality is the least ambiguous test of our common success.” Gibbon's Memoirs of himself.-ED.
moured. Such a disposition, it was observed, was a
6 A man,"
friend for once discovered a want of knowledge or forgetfulness; for Louis the fourteenth did send an embassy to the king of Siam', and the abbé Choisi,
k Mrs. Piozzi confidently mentions this as having passed in Scotland. Anecdotes, p. 62.
| The abbé de Choisi was sent by Louis the fourteenth on an embassy to the king of Siam in 1683, with a view, it has been said, to convert the king of that country to christianity.”—Malone.
who was employed in it, published an account of it in two volumes.
Next day, Thursday, April 30th, I found him at home by himself. JOHNSON.“ Well, sir, Ramsay gave us a splendid dinner. I love Ramsay. You will not find a man in whose conversation there is more instruction, more information, and more elegance, than in Ramsay's.” BosWELL. “ Wbat I admire in Ramsay, is his continuing to be so young.” JoAnson. “Why yes, sir, it is to be admired. I value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation. I am now sixty-eight, and I have no more of it than at twenty-eight.” BOSWELL. “ But, sir, would not you wish to know old age? He who is never an old man, does not know the whole of human life; for old age is one of the divisions of it.” Johnson.
Nay, sir, what talk is this?” Boswell. “ I mean, sir, the Sphinx's description of it—morning, noon, and night. I would know night, as well as morning and noon." JOHNSON. “ What, sir, would you know what it is to feel the evils of old age? Would you have the gout? Would you have decrepitude ?”—Seeing him heated, I would not argue any farther; but I was confident that I was in the right. I would, in due time, be a Nestor, an elder of the people; and there should be some difference between the conversation of twenty-eight and sixty-eight ". A grave picture should not be gay. There is a serene, solemn, placid old age. Johnson. “ Mrs. Thrale's mother said of me what flattered me much. A clergyman was complaining of want of society in the country where he lived ; and
m Johnson clearly meant, (what the author has often elsewhere mentioned,) that he had none of the listlessness of old age, that he had the same activity and energy of mind as formerly; not that a man at sixty-eight might dance in a publick assembly with as much propriety as he could at twenty-eight. His conversation, being the product of much various knowledge, great acuteness, and extraordinary wit, was equally well suited to every period of life; and as in his youth it probably did not exhibit any unbecoming levity, so certainly in his later years it was totally free from the garrulity and querulousness of old age.—MALONE.