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61. Distressed Authors.
No man told a story with so good a grace, or knew so well what would make an effect upon his auditors. When he raised contributions for some distressed author, or wit in want, he often made us all more than amends by diverting descriptions of the lives they were then passing in corners, unseen by any body but himself and that odd old surgeon, Robert Levett, whom he kept in his house to tend the out-pensioners, and of whom he said most truly and sublimely, that
"In misery's darkest caverns known,
His ready help was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,
And lonely want retired to die."
I have forgotten the year, but it could scarcely, I think, be later than 1765 or 1766, that he was called abruptly from our house after dinner, and returning in about three hours, said, he had been with an enraged author, whose landlady pressed him for payment within doors, while the bailiffs beset him without; that he was drinking himself drunk with Madeira to drown care, and fretting over a novel which when finished was to be his whole fortune; but he could not get it done for distraction, nor could he step out of doors to offer it to sale. Mr. Johnson therefore set away the bottle, and went to the bookseller, recommending the performance, and desiring some immediate relief; which when he brought back to the writer, he called the woman of the house directly to partake of punch, and to pass their time in merriment.1
There was a Mr. Boyse, too, who wrote some very elegant verses printed in the Magazines of five-and-twenty years ago, of whose ingenuity and distress I have heard Dr. Johnson tell some curious anecdotes; particularly, that when he was almost perishing with hunger, and some money was produced to purchase him a dinner, he got a bit of roast beef, but could not eat it without catchup, and laid out the last half-guinea he possessed in truffles and
[See Boswell, vol. ii. p. 193.]
mushrooms, eating them in bed, too, for want of clothes, or even a shirt to sit up in.
Another man, for whom he often begged, made as wild use of his friend's beneficence as these, spending in punch the solitary guinea which had been brought him one morning; when, resolving to add another claimant to a share of the bowl, besides a woman who always lived with him, and a footman who used to carry out petitions for charity, he borrowed a chairman's watch, and pawning it for half a crown, paid a clergyman to marry him to a fellowlodger in the wretched house they all inhabited, and got so drunk over the guinea bowl of punch the evening of his wedding day, that having many years lost the use of one leg, he now contrived to fall from the top of the stairs to the bottom, and break his arm; in which condition his companions left him to call Mr. Johnson, who relating the series of his tragi-comical distresses, obtained from the Literary Club a seasonable relief.
62. The Literary Club.
Of that respectable society I have heard him speak in the highest terms, and with a magnificent panegyric on each member, when it consisted only of a dozen or fourteen friends; but as soon as the necessity of enlarging it brought in new faces, and took off from his confidence in the company, he grew less fond of the meeting, and loudly proclaimed his carelessness who might be admitted, when it was become a mere dinner club.
63. Johnson's Incredulity.
Mr. Johnson's incredulity amounted almost to disease, and I have seen it mortify his companions exceedingly. Two gentlemen, I perfectly well remember, dining with us at Streatham in the summer of 1782, when Elliot's brave defence of Gibraltar was a subject of common discourse, one of these men naturally enough began some talk about red-hot balls thrown with surprising dexterity and effect : which Dr. Johnson having listened some time to “ I would advise you, Sir," said he with a cold sneer, "never to relate this story again: you really can scarce imagine
how very poor a figure you make in the telling of it." Our guest being bred a Quaker, and I believe a man of an extremely gentle disposition, needed no more reproofs for the same folly; so if he ever did speak again, it was in a low voice to the friend who came with him. The check was given before dinner, and after coffee I left the room. When in the evening, however, our companions were returned to London, and Mr. Johnson and myself were left alone, with only our usual family about us "I did not quarrel with those Quaker fellows," said he, very seriously. "You did perfectly right," replied I; "for they gave you no cause of offence." "No offence!" returned he with an altered voice; "and is it nothing then to sit whispering together when I am present, without ever directing their discourse towards me, or offering me a share in the conversation?" That was because you frighted him who spoke first about those hot balls. Why, Madam, if a creature is neither capable of giving dignity to falsehood, nor willing to remain contented with the truth, he deserves no better treatment." i
Mr. Johnson's fixed incredulity of every thing he heard, and his little care to conceal that incredulity, was teasing enough to be sure: and I saw Mr. Sharp was pained exceedingly, when relating the history of a hurricane that happened about that time in the West Indies, where, for aught I know, he had himself lost some friends too, he observed Dr. Johnson believed not a syllable of the ac
1 [Mr. Malone, in his MS. notes, is very indignant that Mrs. Piozzi has omitted to state what the story was which produced this observation, and because she has not done so questions the veracity of the whole anecdote; but this is very unjust. Mrs. Piozzi's object was to exhibit Johnson's manners, and not to record the minute details of the Quaker's story. C.]
2 [Mr. Malone, in his MS. notes, observes on this passage, "Here is another GROSS MISREPRESENTATION. He had no fixed incredulity concerning every thing he heard; but he had observed the great laxity with which almost every story is told, and therefore always examined it accurately, and frequently found some gross exaggeration. The writer herself had not the smallest regard for truth, as Johnson told Mr. Boswell (see his Life of Johnson), and hence this scrutinising habit of her guest was to her a very sore subject." On this I must take leave to say that Mr. Malone's observation defeats itself; because if Dr. Johnson's incredulity was a sore subject with Mrs. Piozzi, she cannot be blamed for recording it. Mr. Malone might have questioned her judgment, in supposing that Johnson was equally incredulous as to other persons, but not her sincerity, in describing him as she found him; and if he found almost every story told with great laxity, is it surprising that he should have an habitual incredulity? — C.]
count: "For 't is so easy," says he, "for a man to fill his mouth with a wonder, and run about telling the lie before it can be detected, that I have no heart to believe hurricanes easily raised by the first inventor, and blown forwards by thousands more." I asked him once if he believed the story of the destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake when it first happened: -"Oh! not for six months," said he, "at least: I did think that story too dreadful to be credited, and can hardly yet persuade myself that it was true to the full extent we all of us have heard."
64. Contradiction. - Burney. Skaiting. Among the numberless people, however, whom I heard him flatly contradict, I never yet saw any one who did not take it patiently excepting Dr. Burney, from whose habitual softness of manners I little expected such an exertion of spirit: the event was as little to be expected. Mr. Johnson asked his pardon generously and genteelly, and when he left the room rose up to shake hands with him, that they might part in peace.
On another occasion, when he had violently provoked Mr. Pepys', in a different but perhaps not a less offensive manner, till something much too like a quarrel was grown up between them, the moment he was gone, "Now,' says Dr. Johnson, "is Pepys gone home hating me, who love him better than I did before: he spoke in defence of his dead friend; but though I hope I spoke better who spoke against him, yet all my eloquence will gain me nothing but an honest man for my enemy!" He did not, however, cordially love Mr. Pepys, though he respected his abilities. "I knew the dog was a scholar," said he, when they had been disputing about the classics for three hours together one morning at Streatham; "but that he had so much taste and so much knowledge I did not believe. I might have taken Barnard's word, though, for Barnard would not lie."
We had got a little French print among us at Bright
1 [See Boswell, vol. viii. p. 57. and post, No. 613.]
helmstone, in November, 1782, of some people skaiting,
with these lines written under :
"Sur un mince crystal l'hiver conduit leurs pas,
Le précipice est sous la glace;
Telle est de nos plaisirs la légère surface,
Glissez, mortels; n'appuyez pas."
And I begged translations from every body. Dr. Johnson gave me this:
"O'er ice the rapid skaiter flies,
With sport above and death below;
He was, however, most exceedingly enraged when he knew that in the course of the season I had asked half a dozen acquaintance to do the same thing, and said, it was a piece of treachery, and done to make every body else look little when compared to my favourite friends the Pepyses, whose translations were unquestionably the best. I will insert them, because he did say so. This is the distich given me by Sir Lucas, to whom I owe more solid obligations, no less than the power of thanking him for the life he saved, and whose least valuable praise is the correctness of his taste:
"O'er the ice as o'er pleasure you lightly should glide;
Both have gulphs which their flattering surfaces hide."
This other more serious one was written by his brother:
"Swift o'er the level how the skaiters slide,
And skim the glitt'ring surface as they go:
Dr. Johnson seeing this last, and thinking a moment, repeated,
"O'er crackling ice, o'er gulphs profound,