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"Je suis Cassandre descendue des cieux,
Pour vous faire entendre, mesdames et messieurs,
he cried out gaily and suddenly, almost in a moment,
"I am Cassandra come down from the sky,
To tell each bystander what none can deny,
That I am Cassandra come down from the sky."
The pretty Italian verses, too, at the end of Baretti's book, called " Easy Phraseology," he did all improvviso,
in the same manner:
"Viva! viva la padrona!
Tutta bella, e tutta buona,
"Long may live my lovely Hetty!
The famous distich, too, of an Italian improvvisatore, who, when the Duke of Modena ran away from the comet in the year 1742 or 1743,
"Se al venir vestro i principi sen' vanno,
Deh venga ogni di
durate un anno;"
"which," said he, "would do just as well in our language thus:
"If at your coming princes disappear,
Comets! come every day—and stay a year."
When some one in company commmended the verses of M. de Benserade à son Lit;
"Théatre des ris et des pleurs,
he replied, without hesitating,
"In bed we laugh, in bed we cry,
31. Lord Anson. - Wits.
The epigram written at Lord Anson's house many years ago, "where," says Mr. Johnson, "I was well received and kindly treated, and, with the true gratitude of a wit, ridiculed the master of the house before I had left it an hour," has been falsely printed in many papers since his death. I wrote it down from his own lips one evening in August, 1772, not neglecting the little preface, accusing himself of making so graceless a return for the civilities shown him. He had, among other elegancies about the park and gardens, been made to observe a temple to the winds, when this thought naturally presented itself to a wit :
"Gratum animum laudo; Qui debuit omnia ventis,
32. Dr. Lawrence.
Poor Dr. Lawrence had long been his friend and confidant. The conversation I saw them hold together in Essex Street one day in the year 1781 or 1782 was a melancholy one, and made a singular impression on my mind. He was himself exceedingly ill, and I accompanied him thither for advice. The physician was, however, in some respects, more to be pitied than the patient. Johnson was panting under an asthma and dropsy; but Lawrence had been brought home that very morning struck with the palsy, from which he had, two hours before we came, strove to awaken himself by blisters: they were both deaf, and scarce able to speak besides; one from difficulty of breathing, the other from paralytic debility. To give and receive medical counsel, therefore, they fairly sat down on each side a table in the doctor's gloomy apartment, adorned with skeletons, preserved monsters, &c., and agreed to write Latin billets to each other. Such a scene did I never see ! 66 You," said Johnson, "are timidè and gelide;" finding that his friend had pre
scribed palliative, not drastic remedies. "It is not me,' replies poor Lawrence, in an interrupted voice; "'tis nature that is gelide and timide." In fact, he lived but few months after, I believe, and retained his faculties a still shorter time. He was a man of strict piety and profound learning, but little skilled in the knowledge of life or manners, and died without having ever enjoyed the reputation he so justly deserved.
When Mr. Johnson felt his fancy, or fancied he felt it, disordered, his constant recurrence was to the study of arithmetic; and one day that he was totally confined to his chamber, and I inquired what he had been doing to divert himself, he showed me a calculation which I could scarce be made to understand, so vast was the plan of it, and so very intricate were the figures: no other, indeed, than that the national debt, computing it at one hundred and eighty millions sterling, would, if converted in silver, serve to make a meridian of that metal, I forget how broad, for the globe of the whole earth, the real globe.
34. Number and Numeration.
On a similar occasion, I asked him (knowing what subject he would like best to talk upon) how his opinion stood towards the question between Pascal and Soame Jenyns about number and numeration; as the French philosopher observes that infinity, though on all sides astonishing, appears most so when the idea is connected with the idea of number; for the notions of infinite number, and infinite number we know there is, stretches one's capacity still more than the idea of infinite space: "Such a notion, indeed," adds he, "can scarcely find room in the human mind." Our English author, on the other hand, exclaims, Let no man give himself leave to talk about infinite number, for infinite number is a contradiction in whatever is once numbered we all see cannot be infinite." "I think," said Mr. Johnson, after a pause, "we must settle the matter thus: numeration is certainly infinite, for eternity might be employed in adding unit to
unit; but every number is in itself finite, as the possibility of doubling it easily proves: besides, stop at what point you will, you find yourself as far from infinitude as ever.'
35. Historical Fact.- General Polity.
As ethics, or figures, or metaphysical reasoning, was the sort of talk he most delighted in, so no kind of conversation pleased him less, I think, than when the subject was historical fact or general polity. "What shall we learn from that stuff?" said he: "let us not fancy, like Swift, that we are exalting a woman's character by telling how she
"Could name the ancient heroes round,
Explain for what they were renown'd," &c.
I must not, however, lead my readers to suppose that he meant to reserve such talk for men's company as a proof of pre-eminence. "He never," as he expressed it, "desired to hear of the Punic war while he lived: such conversation was lost time," he said, "and carried one away from common life, leaving no ideas behind which could serve living wight as warning or direction.
"How I should act is not the case,
But how would Brutus in my place?
And now," cries Mr. Johnson, laughing with obstreperous violence, "if these two foolish lines can be equalled in folly, except by the two succeeding ones, show them me.' 99 1
Dr. Johnson's cen
1 These are two lines of Swift's Verses to Stella, 1720. sure was too violent, and indeed he seems not to have correctly understood the dean's illustration. He is laying down certain general rules for distinguishing what honour is, and he exposes the many false meanings which the world assigns to that word. He proceeds to say, that men should not decide what is honourable by a reference to their own feelings and circumstances, which naturally bias the judgment, but should consider, without reference to self, how a wise and good
man would act.
"In points of honour to be tried,
36. Catiline and Tom Thumb.
I asked him once concerning the conversation powers of a gentleman' with whom I was myself unacquainted: -"He talked to me at club one day," replies our Doctor, "concerning Catiline's conspiracy-so I withdrew my attention, and thought about Tom Thumb."
37. Modern Politics.
Modern politics fared no better. I was one time extolling the character of a statesman, and expatiating on the skill required to direct the different currents, reconcile the jarring interests, &c. :-" Thus," replies he, "a mill is a complicated piece of mechanism enough, but the water is no part of the workmanship."
On another occasion, when some one lamented the weakness of a then present minister, and complained that he was dull and tardy, and knew little of affairs, -" You may as well complain, Sir," says Johnson, "that the accounts of time are kept by the clock; for he certainly does stand still upon the stair-head-and we all know that he is no great chronologer."
38. French Invasion.
In the year 1777, or thereabouts, when all the talk was of an invasion, he said most pathetically one afternoon, "Alas! alas! how this unmeaning stuff spoils all my comfort in my friends' conversation! Will the people
never have done with it; and shall I never hear a sentence again without the French in it? Here is no
It is plain here, and still plainer from the whole context of the poem, that Brutus, Cato, and Socrates are here put as the representatives of Patriotism and Virtue; and as the names of Zoilus, Bavius, or Pandarus are used generically to signify infamous persons, so here Brutus, Cato, and Socrates (which might as well have been Sidney, Somers, or Clarendon, or any other illustrious names,) are used as terms of honour, to give point and a kind of dramatic effect to the general proposition. Swift never dreamt (as Mrs. Piozzi's report would lead us to think that Johnson supposed) to advise that our rules of conduct were to be drawn from the actual events of Greek and Roman history. This would have been as absurd as Johnson's own introduction of Roman manners into London in his description of the burning of Orgilio's palace, or the invocation of Democritus, which sounds so strangely amidst the modern illustrations of his own beautiful and splendid Vanity of Human Wishes.- C.
Mr. Agmondesham Vesey. See Boswell, vol. vii. p. 375.