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Brooding o'er Lexicons to pass the day,
Such is the picture for which Dr. Johnson sat to himself. He gives the prominent features of his character; his lassitude, his morbid melancholy, his love of fame, his dejection, his tavern parties, and his wandering reveries, Vacuæ mala somnia mentis, about which so much has been written; all are painted in miniature, but in vivid colours, by his own hand. His idea of writing more dictionaries was not merely said in verse. Mr. Hamilton, who was at that time an eminent printer, and well acquainted with Dr. Johnson, remembers that he engaged in a Commercial Dictionary, and, as appears by the receipts in his possession, was paid his price for several sheets; but he soon relinquished the undertaking.
578. Boswell's Introduction to Johnson.
Upon one occasion, I went with Dr. Johnson into the shop of Davies, the bookseller, in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Davies came running to him almost out of breath with joy: "The Scots gentleman is come, Sir; his principal wish is to see you; he is now in the back parlour." “Well, well, I'll see the gentleman," said Johnson. He walked towards the room. Mr. Boswell was the person. I followed with no small curiosity. "I find," said Mr. Boswell," that I am come to London at a bad time, when great popular prejudice has gone forth against us North Britons; but, when I am talking to you, I am talking to a large and liberal mind, and you know that I cannot help coming from Scotland." Sir," said Johnson, "no more can the rest of your countrymen." (2)
579. Dread of Death.
For many years, when he was not disposed to enter into the conversation going forward, whoever sat near his chair might hear him repeating, from Shakspeare,—
(1) [This spirited translation, or rather imitation, is by Mr. Murphy.] (2) [Mr. Boswell's account of this introduction is somewhat different from the above. See Life, vol. i. p. 400.]
"Ay, but to die and go we know not where ;
And from Milton,
"Who would lose,
For fear of pain, this intellectual being!"
580. Essex-Head Club.
Johnson, being in December 1783 eased of his dropsy, began to entertain hopes that the vigour of his constitution was not entirely broken. For the sake of conversing with his friends, he established a conversation-club, to meet on every Wednesday evening; and, to serve a man whom he had known in Mr. Thrale's household for many years, the place was fixed at his house in Essex Street near the Temple. To answer the malignant remarks of Sir John Hawkins on this subject were a wretched waste of time. Professing to be Johnson's friend, that biographer has raised more objections to his character than all the enemies to that excellent man. Sir John had a root of bitterness that "put rancours in the vessel of his peace." "Fielding," he says, "was the inventor of a cant phrase, Goodness of Heart, which means little more than the virtue of a horse or a dog." He should have known that kind affections are the essence of virtue; they are the will of God implanted in our nature, to aid and strengthen moral obligation; they incite to action; a sense of benevolence is no less necessary than a sense of duty. Good affections are an ornament not only to an author but to his writings. He who shows himself upon a cold scent for opportunities to bark and snarl throughout a volume of six hundred pages may, if he will, pretend to moralise; but "goodness of heart," or, to use the politer phrase, the "virtue of a horse or a dog," would redound more to his honour.
581. Character of Johnson.
If we now look back, as from an eminence, to view the scenes of life and the literary labours in which Dr.
Johnson was engaged, we may be able to delineate the features of the man, and to form an estimate of his genius. As a man, Dr. Johnson stands displayed in open daylight. Nothing remains undiscovered. Whatever he said is known; and without allowing him the usual privilege of hazarding sentiments, and advancing positions, for mere amusement, or the pleasure of discussion, criticism has endeavoured to make him answerable for what, perhaps, he never seriously thought. His Diary, which has been printed, discovers still more. We have before us the very heart of the man, with all his inward consciousness. And yet, neither in the open paths of life, nor in his secret recesses, has any one vice been discovered. We see him reviewing every year of his life, and severely censuring himself for not keeping resolutions, which morbid melancholy and other bodily infirmities rendered impracticable. We see him for every little defect imposing on himself voluntary penance, and to the last, amidst paroxysms and remissions of illness, forming plans of study and resolutions to amend his life. (') Many of his scruples may be called weaknesses; but they are the weaknesses of a good, a pious, and most excellent man.
Johnson was born a logician; one of those to whom only books of logic are said to be of use. In consequence of his skill in that art, he loved argumentation. No man thought more profoundly, nor with such acute discernment. A fallacy could not stand before him it was sure to be refuted by strength of reasoning, and a precision both in idea and expression almost unequalled. When he chose by apt illustration to place the argument of his adversary in a ludicrous light, one was almost inclined to think ridicule the test of truth. He was surprised to be told, but it is certainly true, that, with great powers of mind, wit and humour were his shining talents. That he often argued for the sake of triumph over his adversary, cannot be dissembled. Dr. Rose, of Chiswick, has been heard to tell a friend of his, who thanked him for introducing him to Dr. Johnson, as he had been convinced, in the
(1) [On the subject of voluntary penance, see the Rambler, No. 110.]
course of a long dispute, that an opinion, which he had embraced as a settled truth, was no better than a vulgar error. This being reported to Johnson, “Nay," said he, "do not let him be thankful; for he was right, and I was wrong." Like his uncle Andrew, in the ring at Smithfield, Johnson, in a circle of disputants, was determined neither to be thrown nor conquered. Notwithstanding all his piety, self-government, or the command of his passions in conversation, does not seem to have been among his attainments. Whenever he thought the contention was for superiority, he has been known to break out with violence, and even ferocity. When the fray was over, he generally softened into repentance, and, by conciliating measures, took care that no animosity should be left rankling in the breast of his antagonist.
It is observed by the younger Pliny, that in the confines of virtue and great qualities there are generally vices of an opposite nature. In Dr. Johnson, not one ingredient can take the name of vice. From his attainments in literature grew the pride of knowledge; and from his powers of reasoning, the love of disputation and the vainglory of superior vigour. His piety, in some instances, bordered on superstition. He was willing to believe in preternatural agency, and thought it not more strange that there should be evil spirits than evil men. Even the question about second sight held him in suspense.
Since virtue, or moral goodness, consists in a just conformity of our actions to the relations in which we stand to the Supreme Being and to our fellow-creatures, where shall we find a man who has been, or endeavoured to be, more diligent in the discharge of those essential duties? His first Prayer was composed in 1738; he continued those fervent ejaculations of piety to the end of his life. In his Meditations we see him scrutinising himself with severity, and aiming at perfection unattainable by man. His duty to his neighbour consisted in universal benevolence, and a constant aim at the production of happiness. Who was more sincere and steady in his friendships?
His humanity and generosity, in proportion to his slender income, were unbounded. It has been truly said, that the
lame, the blind, and the sorrowful, found in his house a sure retreat. A strict adherence to truth he considered as a sacred obligation, insomuch that, in relating the most minute anecdote, he would not allow himself the smallest addition to embellish his story. The late Mr. Tyers, who knew Dr. Johnson intimately, observed, that "he always talked as if he was talking upon oath." After a long acquaintance with this excellent man, and an attentive retrospect to his whole conduct, such is the light in which he appears to the writer of this essay. The following lines of Horace may be deemed his picture in
"Iracundior est paulo, minus aptus acutis
Naribus horum hominum, rideri possit, eo quod
In pede calceus hæret; at est bonus, ut melior vir
Non alius quisquam; at tibi amicus at ingenium ingens ;
"Your friend is passionate, perhaps unfit
For the brisk petulance of modern wit;
His hair ill-cut, his robe that awkward flows,
Or his large shoes to raillery expose
The man you love; yet is he not possest
A genius of extensive knowledge lies."