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In some cases he has candidly confessed, and in many more he fears he will have shown, his own ignorance; but he can say, that when he has so failed, it has not been for want of diligent inquiry after the desired information.
He has not considered it any part of his duty to defend or to controvert the statements or opinions recorded in the text; but in a few instances, in which either a matter of fact has been evidently mistated, or an important principle has been heedlessly invaded or too lightly treated, he has ventured a few words towards correcting the error.
The desultory nature of the work itself, the repetitions in some instances and the contradictions in others, are perplexing to those who may seek for Dr. Johnson's final opinion on any given subject. This difficulty the editor could not hope, and has, therefore, not attempted, to remove; it is inevitable in the transcript of table-talk, so various, so loose, and so extensive; but he has endeavoured to alleviate it by occasional references to the different places where the same subject is discussed, and by a copious, and he trusts, satisfactory index.
With respect to the spirit towards Dr. JOHNSON himself by which the editor is actuated, he begs leave to say that he feels and has always felt a great, but, he hopes, not a blind admiration of Dr. Johnson. For his writings he feels that admiration undivided and uninterrupted. In his personal conduct and conversation there may be occasionally something to regret and (though rarely) something to disapprove, but less, perhaps, than there would be in those of any other man, whose words, actions, and even thoughts should be exposed to public observation so nakedly as, by a strange concurrence of circumstances, Dr. Johnson's have been.
Having no domestic ties or duties, the latter portion of his life was, as Mrs. Piozzi observes, nothing but conversation, and that conversation was watched and recorded from night to night and from hour to hour with zealous attention and unceasing diligence. No man, the most staid or the most guarded, is always the same in health, in spirits, in opinions.. Human life is a series of inconsistencies; and when Johnsons' early misfortunes, his protracted poverty, his strong passions, his violent prejudices, and, above all, his mental infirmities are considered, it is only wonderful that a portrait so laboriously minute and so painfully faithful does not exhibit more of blemish, incongruity, and error.
The life of Dr. Johnson is indeed a most curious chapter in the history of man; for certainly there is no instance of the life of any other human being having been exhibited in so much detail, or with so much fidelity. There are, perhaps, not many men who have practised so much self-examination as to know themselves as well as every reader knows Dr. Johnson.
We must recollect that it is not his table-talk or his literary conversations only that have been published: all his most private and mest trifling correspondence-all his most common as well as his most confidential intercourses-all his most secret communion with his own conscience-and even the solemn and contrite exercises of his piety, have been divulged and exhibited to the “garish eye" of the world without reserve-I had almost said, without delicacy. Young, with gloomy candour, has said
"Heaven's Sovereign saves all beings but himself
What a man must Johnson have been, whose heart, having been laid more bare than that of any other mortal ever was, has passed almost unblemished through so terrible an ordeal!
The editor confesses, that if he could have had any voice as to the original publications, he probably might have shrunk from the responsibility incurred by Mrs. Piozzi, Mr. Boswell, and, above all, Dr. Strahan-even though they appear to have had (at least, in some degree) Dr. Johnson's own sanction for the disclosures they have made. But such disclosures having been made, it has appeared to the editor interesting and even important to concentrate into one full and perfect view every thing that can serve to complete a history-so extraordinary-so unique.
But while we contemplate with such interest this admirable and perfect portrait, let us not forget the painter: pupils and imitators have added draperies and back grounds, but the head and figure are by Mr. Boswell!
Mr. Burke told Sir James Mackintosh that he thought Johnson showed more powers of mind in company than in his writings; and on another occasion said, that he thought Johnson appeared greater in Mr. Boswell's volumes than even in his own.
It was a strange and fortunate concurrence, that one so prone to talk and who talked so well, should be brought into such close contact and confidence with one so zealous and so able to record. Dr. Johnson was a man of extraordinary powers, but Mr. Boswell had qualities, in their own way, almost as rare. He united lively manners with indefatigable diligence, and the volatile curiosity of a man about town with the drudging patience of a chronicler. With a very good opinion of himself, he was quick in discerning, and frank in applauding, the excellencies of others. Though proud of his own name and lineage, and ambitious of the countenance of the great, he was yet so cordial an admirer of merit, wherever found, that much public ridicule, and something like contempt, were excited by the modest assurance with which he pressed his acquaintance on all the notorieties of his time, and by the ostentatious (but, in the main, laudable) assiduity with which he attended the exile Paoli and the low-born Johnson! These were amiable, and, for us, fortunate inconsistencies. His contemporaries indeed, not without some colour of reason, occasionally complained of him as vain, inquisitive, troublesome, and giddy; but his vanity was inoffensivehis curiosity was commonly directed towards laudable objects-when he meddled, he did so, generally, from good-natured motives-and his giddiness was only an exuberant gaiety, which never failed in the respect and reverence due to literature, morals, and religion: and posterity gratefully acknowledges the taste, temper, and talents with which he selected, enjoyed, and described that polished and intellectual society which still lives in his work, and without his work had perished!
"Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona
Nocte, carent quia vate sacro."
Such imperfect though interesting sketches as Ben Jonson's visit to Drummond, Selden's Table Talk, Swift's Journal, and Spence's Anecdotes, only tantalise our curiosity and excite our regret that there was no Boswell to preserve the conversation and illustrate the life and times of Addison, of Swift himself, of Milton, and, above all, of Shakspeare! We can hardly refrain from indulging ourselves with the imagination of works so instructive and delightful; but that were idle, except as it may tend to increase our obligation to the faithful and fortunate biographer of Dr. Johnson.
Mr. Boswell's birth and education familiarized him with the highest of his acquaintance, and his good-nature and conviviality with the lowest. He describes society of all classes with the happiest discrimination. Even his foibles assisted his curiosity; he was sometimes laughed at, but always well received; he excited no envy, he imposed no restraint. It was well known that he made notes of every conversation, yet no timidity was alarmed, no delicacy demurred; and we are perhaps indebted to the lighter parts of his character for the patient indulgence with which every body submitted to sit for their pictures.
Nor were his talents inconsiderable. He had looked a good deal into books, and more into the world. The narrative portion of his works is written with good sense, in an easy and perspicuous style, and without (which seems odd enough) any palpable imitation of Johnson. But in recording conversations he is unrivalled: that he was eminently accurate in substance, we have the evidence of all his contemporaries; but he is also in a high degree characteristic -dramatic. The incidental observations with which he explains or enlivens
the dialogue, are terse, appropriate, and picturesque-we not merely hear his company, we see them!
Yet his father was, we are told, by no means satisfied' with the life he led, nor his eldest son with the kind of reputation he attained; neither liked to hear of his connexion even with Paoli or Johnson; and both would have been better pleased if he had contented himself with a domestic life of sober respectability.
The public, however, the d spenser of fame, has judged differently, and considers the biographer of Johnson as the most eminent branch of the family pedigree. With less activity, less indiscretion, less curiosity, less enthusiasm, he might, perhaps, have been what the old lord would, no doubt, have thought more respectable; and have been pictured on the walls of Auchinleck (the very name of which we never should have heard) by some stiff provincial painter in a lawyer's wig or a squire's hunting cap; but his portrait, by Reynolds', would not have been ten times engraved; his name could never have become—as it is likely to be as far spread and as lasting as the English language; and "the world had wanted" a work to which it refers as a manual of amusement, a repository of wit, wisdom, and morals, and a lively and faithful history of the manners and literature of England, during a period hardly second in brilliancy, and superior in importance, even to the Augustan age of Anne.
1st May, 1831.
J. W. C.
1 See vol. i. p. 458, n. This feeling is less surprising in old Lord Auchinleck than in Sir Alexander, who was himself a man of the world, clever, literary, and social.-ED.
The following letter (in the Reynolds papers) from Mr. Boswell to Sir Joshua, on the subject of this portrait, ought not to be lost.
"London, 7th June, 1785. "MY DEAR SIR,—The debts which I contracted in my father's lifetime will not be cleared off by me for some years. I therefore think it unconscientious to indulge myself in any expensive article of elegant luxury. But in the mean time, you may die, or I may die; and I should regret very much that there should not be at Auchinleck my portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom I have the felicity of living in social intercourse.
"I have a proposal to make to you. I am for certain to be called to the English bar next February. Will you now do my picture, and the price shall be paid out of the first fees which I receive as a barrister in Westminster Hall. Or if that fund should fail, it shall be paid at any rate in five years hence, by myself or my representatives.
"If you are pleased to approve of this proposal, your signifying your concurrence underneath, upon two duplicates, one of which shall be kept by each of us, will be a sufficient voucher of the obligation. I ever am, with very sincere regard, my dear sir, your faithful and affectionate humble servant,
"I agree to the above conditions.
"London, 10th Sept. 1785."
An engraving from Sir Joshua's portrait is prefixed to one of these volumes: but the editor has been favoured by Mrs. Denham with a pencil sketch of Mr. Boswell in later life, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which, although bordering on caricature, is so evidently characteristic, and (as the editor is assured) so identically like, that he has had it copied, and thinks it will be acceptable as a lively illustration of both the mind and manners of Mr. Boswell-busy self-importance and dogmatical good-nature were Dever more strongly expressed.—ED.
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL, D,
AN ACCOUNT OF HIS STUDIES,
AND NUMEROUS WORKS,
IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER ;
A SERIES OF HIS EPISTOLARY CORRESPONDENCE
AND CONVERSATIONS WITH MANY EMINENT PERSONS;
VARIOUS ORIGINAL PIECES OF HIS COMPOSITION,
THE WHOLE EXHIBITING A VIEW OF LITERATURE AND LITERARY MEN IN GREAT-BRITAIN, FOR NEAR HALF A CENTURY DURING WHICH HE FLOURISHED.
BY JAMES BOSWELL, ESQ.
Quò fit ut OMNIS
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella
PRINTED BY HENRY BALDWIN,
FOR CHARLES DILLY, IN THE POULTRY.
M DCC XCI.