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I used to tell him in jest, that his morality was easily contented; and when I have said something as if the wickedness of the world gave me concern, he would cry out aloud against canting, and protest that he thought that there was very little gross wickedness in the world, and still less of extraordinary virtue. Nothing indeed more surely disgusted Dr. Johnson than hyperbole he loved not to be told of sallies of excellence, which he said were seldom valuable, and seldom true. "Heroic virtues,” said he, “are the bons mots of life: they do not appear often, and when they do appear are too much prized, I think; like the aloe-tree, which shoots and flowers once in a hundred years."
44. Life made up of little Things.
Life is made up of little things; and that character is the best which does little but repeated acts of beneficence; as that conversation is the best which consists in elegant and pleasing thoughts, expressed in natural and pleasing terms. "With regard to my own notions of moral virtue," continued he, "I hope I have not lost my sensibility of wrong; but I hope likewise that I have lived long enough in the world to prevent me from expecting to find any action of which both the original motive and all the parts were good."
45. Johnson's Piety and Spirit of Devotion.
The piety of Dr. Johnson was exemplary and edifying. He was punctiliously exact to perform every public duty enjoined by the church, and his spirit of devotion had an energy that affected all who ever saw him pray in private. The coldest and most languid hearers of the word must have felt themselves animated by his manner of reading the Holy Scriptures; and to pray by his sick bed required strength of body as well as of mind, so vehement were his manners. I have many times made it my request to Heaven that I might be spared the sight of his death; and I was spared it!
46. Voluntary Penance.
Mr. Johnson, though in general a gross feeder, kept fast in Lent, particularly the holy week, with a rigour very dangerous to his general health; but though he had left off wine, (for religious motives, as I always believed, though he did not own it,) yet he did not hold the commutation of offences by voluntary penance, or encourage others to practise severity upon themselves. He even once said, that he thought it an error to endeavour at pleasing God by taking the rod of reproof out of his hands."
47. Convents. - The Benedictines.
When we talked of convents, and the hardships suffered in them" Remember always," said he, "that a convent is an idle place, and where there is nothing to be done something must be endured: mustard has a bad taste per se, you may observe, but very insipid food cannot be eaten without it." His respect, however, for places of religious retirement was carried to the greatest degree of veneration. The Benedictine convent at Paris1 paid him all possible honours in return, and the Prior 2 and he parted with tears of tenderness. Two of that college being sent to England on a mission some
1 We learn from the Abbé Mann's Account of the Benedictine Monks in Paris, that this priory was first founded at St. Malo, in 1611, by Giffard, Archbishop of Rheims. The French king not permitting this house to continue at St. Malo, on account of its proximity to England, Archbishop Giffard procured another at Paris, which, in 1642, was changed for one in the Rue St. Jacques, where the monks remained till 1793, when they were involved in the common destruction of the French Revolution. During their existence in Paris, these monks enjoyed all the privileges of the university, with regard to studies, degrees, and benefices annexed to the degrees; and it was by means of these last, that the house enjoyed considerable revenues. MARKLAND.
2 This individual was the Rev. Mr. Cowley. He was at this time about 40 years of age, and he is described to me by a still surviving contemporary (the Rev. A. Ryding, now residing at Ampleforth, near York), as a man of good sense, taste, and judgment. MARKLAND.
3 The Rev. James Compton (see Boswell, vol. viii. p. 201.) and the Rev. Joseph Wilks. Mr. Wilks was born at Coughton Court, Warwickshire, and educated at St. Edmund's, a Benedictine monastery in Paris. He was sometime chaplain to Mr. Basil Fitzherbert, of Swinnerton in Staffordshire, and afterwards the chief priest of Bath. In 1788 he was added to the English Catholic committee, appointed to "watch over and promote their public interests," then consisting of thirteen persons; but having incurred the displeasure of his
years after, spent much of their time with him at Bolt Court I know, and he was ever earnest to retain their friendship; but, though beloved by all his Roman Catholic acquaintance, particularly Dr. Nugent, for whose esteem he had a singular value, yet was Mr. Johnson a most unshaken church-of-England man.
The settled aversion Dr. Johnson felt towards an infidel he expressed to all ranks, and at all times, without the smallest reserve; for though on common occasions he paid great deference to birth or title, yet his regard for truth and virtue never gave way to meaner considerations. We talked of a dead wit one evening, and somebody praised him :-"Let us never praise talents so ill employed, Sir; we foul our mouths by commending such infidels," said he. Allow him the lumières at least, entreated one of the company." I do allow him, Sir,' replied Johnson, "just enough to light him to hell."
Of a Jamaica gentleman, then lately dead" He will not, whither he is now gone," said Johnson, "find much difference, I believe, either in the climate or the company."
Bishop, Dr. Walmsley (most probably with reference to the proceedings of this committee - see Butler's Historical Memoirs of the Catholics, vol. iv.), he quitted England, and after visiting various parts of the Continent, died at Douay in 1829, about the age of 82. Whilst in England, he was well received at Oxford; and it is said that he gave some assistance to Dr. Kennicot, when preparing his Hebrew Bible, in which language Wilks was a proficient. Mr. Ryding, who knew him intimately, describes Wilks as a humble and devout man, possessing very superior talents. At Johnson's suggestion, he wrote the Life of Socrates, which the former promised to revise, particularly with a view to expunge any Gallicisms which might have crept into the work. It is believed that it was finished, but never published. Johnson selected Wilks as his companion, when visiting the public libraries, &c. in Paris. At the King's library Johnson's singular appearance, and his full-mouthed pronunciation of Latin, exposed him to some ridicule from a French Abbé. According to Mr. Ryding, Johnson declared to the Prior, that, so much was he pleased with his reception by the Benedictines, that, could he procure an increase to his pension, he would return to France, with the intention of ending his days as an inmate of the monastery. To every one conversant with the opinions which Johnson openly expressed as to certain important tenets of Popery, as well as with his arguments against monastic and solitary life, not only will many weighty objections occur, as to the probability of such intention having been seriously entertained, but it must also be evident, that to a man retiring from the world an increase of pension would be useless, and that a life of literary ease would have proved a slender compensation to Johnson for the loss of Bolt Court and the Literary Club. MARKLAND.
The Abbé Raynal probably remembers that, being at the house of a common friend in London, the master of it approached Johnson with that gentleman so much celebrated in his hand, and this speech in his mouth: "Will you permit me, Sir, to present to you the Abbé Raynal?" "No, Sir," replied the Doctor, very loud; and suddenly turned away from them both.
49. Dancing Master. — Palmyra.
He would sometimes good-naturedly enter into a long chat for the instruction or entertainment of people he despised. I perfectly recollect his condescending to delight my daughter's dancing-master with a long argument about his art; which the man protested, at the close of the discourse, the Doctor knew more of than himself; who remained astonished, enlightened, and amused by the talk of a person little likely to make a good disquisition upon dancing.
I have sometimes indeed been rather pleased than vexed when Mr. Johnson has given a rough answer to a man who perhaps deserved one only half as rough, because I knew he would repent of his hasty reproof, and make us all amends by some conversation at once instructive and entertaining, as in the following cases: A young fellow asked him abruptly one day," Pray, Sir, what and where is Palmyra? I heard somebody talk last night of the ruins of Palmyra." ""Tis a hill in Ireland," replies Johnson, "with palms growing on the top, and a bog at the bottom, and so they call it Palm-mira." Seeing, however, that the lad thought him serious, and thanked him for the information, he undeceived him very gently indeed; told him the history, geography, and chronology of Tadmor in the wilderness, with every incident that literature could furnish, I think, or eloquence express, from the building of Solomon's palace to the voyage of Dawkins and Wood.
When he was musing over the fire in our drawingroom at Streatham, a young gentleman called to him
suddenly, and I suppose he thought disrespectfully, in these words: "Mr. Johnson, would you advise me to "I would advise no man to marry, Sir," marry?" returns for answer in a very angry tone Dr. Johnson, "who is not likely to propagate understanding;' and so left the room. Our companion looked confounded, and I
believe had scarce recovered the consciousness of his own existence, when Johnson came back, and drawing his chair among us, with altered looks and a softened voice, joined in the general chat, insensibly led the conversation to the subject of marriage, where he laid himself out in a dissertation so useful, so elegant, so founded on the true knowledge of human life, and so adorned with beauty of sentiment, that no one ever recollected the offence, except to rejoice in its consequences. He repented just as certainly, however, if he had been led to praise any person or thing by accident more than he thought it deserved, and was on such occasions comically earnest to destroy the praise or pleasure he had unintentionally given.
Sir Joshua Reynolds mentioned some picture as excellent. "It has often grieved me, Sir," said Mr. Johnson, "to see so much mind as the science of painting requires, laid out upon such perishable materials : why do not you oftener make use of copper? I could wish your superiority in the art you profess to be preserved in stuff more durable than canvass." Sir Joshua urged the difficulty of procuring a plate large enough for historical subjects, and was going to raise further objections: What foppish obstacles are these!" exclaims, on a sudden, Dr. Johnson: "here is Thrale, who has a thousand ton of copper; you may paint it all round if you will, I suppose; it will serve him to brew in afterwards will it not, Sir ?" to my husband, who sat by.
Indeed, Dr. Johnson's utter scorn of painting was such, that I have heard him say, that he should sit very quietly in a room hung round with the works of the greatest masters, and never feel the slightest disposition to turn them if their backs were outermost, unless it