« PreviousContinue »
Preparing for the Press, in one Volume Quarto,
THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
BY JAMES BOSWELL, Esq.
R. Boswell has been collecting materials for this work for
more than twenty years, during which he was honoured with the intimate friendship of Dr. Johnson; to whose memory he is ambitious to erect a literary monument, worthy of so great an authour, and so excellent a man. Dr. Johnson was well informed of his design, and obligingly communicated to him several curious particulars. With these will be interwoven the most authentick accounts that can be obtained from those who knew him best; many sketches of his conversation on a multiplicity of subjects, with various persons, some of them the most eminent of the age; a great number of letters from him at different periods, and several original pieces dictated by him to Mr. Boswell, distinguished by that peculiar energy, which marked every emanation of his mind.
Mr. Boswell takes this opportunity of gratefully acknowledging the many valuable communications which he has received to enable him to render his Life of Dr. Johnson more complete. His thanks are particularly due to the Rev. Dr. Adams, the Rev. Dr. Taylor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Langton, Dr. Brocklesby, the Rev. Thomas Warton, Mr. Hector of Birmingham, Mrs. Porter, and Miss Seward.
He has already obtained a large collection of Dr. Johnson's letters to his friends, and shall be much obliged for such others as yet remain in private hands; which he is the more desirous of col. lecting, as all the letters of that great man, which he has yet seen, are written with peculiar precision and elegance; and he is confident that the publication of the whole of Dr. Johnson's epistolary correspondence will do him the highest honour.
As no one reads Warburton now-I bought the five volumes of his Divine Legation in excellent condition, bound in calf, for ten pence--one or two extracts from his writing may be of interest. His Dedication of that work to the Free-Thinkers is as vigorous as it is abusive. It has such passages as the following :- Low and mean as your buffoonery is, it is yet to the level of the people :' p. xi. I have now done with your buffoonery, which, like chewed bullets, is against the law of arms; and come next to your scurrilities, those stink-pots of your offensive war.' Ib. p. xxii. On page
p xl. he returns again to their cold buffoonery. In the Appendix to vol. v. p. 414, he thus wittily replies to Lowth, who had maintained that “idolatry was punished under the DOMINION of Melchisedec' (p. 409):—Melchisedec's story is a short one; he is just brought into the scene to bless Abraham in his return from conquest. This promises but ill. Had this King and Priest of Salem been brought in cursing, it had had a better appearance : for, I think, punishment for opinions which generally ends in a fagot always begins with a curse. But we may be misled perhaps by a wrong translation. The Hebrew word to bless signifies likewise to curse, and under the management of an intolerant priest good things easily run into their contraries. What follows is his taking tythes from Abraham. Nor will this serve our purpose, unless we interpret these tythes into fines for non-conformity; and then by the blessing we can easily understand absolution. We have seen much stranger things done with the Hebrew verity. If this be not allowed, I do not see how we can elicit fire and fagot from this adventure; for I think there is no inseparable connexion between tythes and persecution but in the ideas of a Quaker.–And so
much for King Melchisedec. But the learned Professor, who has been hardily brought up in the keen atmosphere of WHOLESOME SEVERITIES, and early taught to distinguish between de facto and de jure, thought it needless to enquire into facts, when he was secure of the right.'
This ‘keen atmosphere of wholesome severities' reappears by the way in Mason's continuation of Gray's Ode to Vicissitude :
That breathes the keen yet wholesome air
Of rugged penury.' And later in the first book of Wordsworth’s Excursion (ed. 1857, vi. 29):
• The keen, the wholesome air of poverty.'
Johnson said of Warburton: ‘His abilities gave him an haughty confidence, which he disdained to conceal or mollify; and his impatience of opposition disposed him to treat his adversaries with such contemptuous superiority as made his readers commonly his enemies, and excited against the advocate the wishes of some who favoured the cause. He seems to have adopted the Roman Emperour's determination, oderint dum metuant; he used no allurements of gentle language, but wished to compel rather than persuade.' Johnson's Works, viii. 288. See ante, ii. 41, and iv. 55.
Johnson's Ode written in Sky was thus translated by Lord Houghton :
•Where constant mist enshrouds the rocks,
The labourer's toil,
Through paths that halt from stone to stone,
Thine, gentle Thrale!
Soothes she, I ask, her spouse's care?
Or lively tale?
Hayward's Piozzi, i. 29.
Johnson's use of the word big, where he says ‘I wish the books were twice as big,' enables me to explain a passage in The Life of Fohnson (ante, iii. 396) which had long puzzled me. Boswell there represents him as saying :-'A man who loses at play, or who runs out his fortune at court, makes his estate less, in hopes of making it bigger.' Boswell adds in a parenthesis :-'I am sure of this word, which was often used by him.' He had been criticised by a writer in the Gent. Mag. 1785, p. 968, who quoting from the text the words a big book,' says :- Mr. Boswell has made his friend (as in a few other passages) guilty of a Scotticism. An Englishman reads and writes a large book, and wears a great (not a big or bag) coat.' When Boswell came to publish The Life of Johnson, he took the opportunity to justify himself, though he did not care to refer directly to his anonymous critic. This explanation I discovered too late to insert in the text.