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warmth; the more so, as he was past seventy years of age when he composed them.
92. Mental Decay.
But nothing more certainly offended Mr. Johnson, than the idea of a man's faculties (mental ones I mean) decaying by time. "It is not true, Sir," would he say; "what a man could once do he would always do, unless indeed by dint of vicious indolence, and compliance with the nephews and nieces who crowd round an old fellow, and help to tuck him in, till he, contented with the exchange of fame for ease, e'en resolves to let them set the pillows at his back, and gives no further proof of his existence than just to suck the jelly that prolongs it."
93. Life and Romance.
For such a life, or such a death, Dr. Johnson was indeed never intended by Providence: his mind was like a warm climate, which brings every thing to perfection suddenly and vigorously; not like the alembicated productions of artificial fire, which always betray the difficulty of bringing them forth when their size is disproportionate to their flavour. "Je ferais un Roman tout comme un autre, mais la vie n'est point un Roman," says a famous French writer; and this was so certainly the opinion of the author of The Rambler, that all his conversation precepts tended towards the dispersion of romantic ideas, and were chiefly intended to promote the cultivation of
"That which before thee lies in daily life."
And when he talked of authors, his praise went spontaneously to such passages as are sure, in his own phrase, to leave something behind them useful on common occasions, or observant of common manners. For example, it was not the two last, but the two first, volumes of Clarissa that he prized; "for give me a sick bed, and a dying lady," said he, "and I'll be pathetic myself: but Richardson had picked the kernel of life," he said, "while
Fielding was contented with the husk." It was not King Lear cursing his daughters or deprecating the storm, that I remember his commendations of; but Iago's ingenious malice and subtle revenge; or Prince Hal's gay compliance with the vices of Falstaff, whom he all along despised. Those plays had, indeed, no rivals in Johnson's favour: "No man but Shakspeare," he said, "could have drawn Sir John."
95. Addison's Prose.
His manner of criticising and commending Addison's prose, was the same in conversation as we read it in the printed strictures, and many of the expressions used have been heard to fall from him on common occasions. It was, notwithstanding, observable enough (or I fancied so), that he did never like, though he always thought fit to praise it; and his praises resembled those of a man who extols the superior elegance of high painted porcelain, while he himself always chooses to eat off plate. I told him so one day, and he neither denied it nor appeared displeased.
96. The Pathetic in Poetry.
Of the pathetic in poetry he never liked to speak; and the only passage I ever heard him applaud as particularly tender in any common book, was Jane Shore's exclamation in the last act,
"Forgive me! but forgive me!"
It was not, however, from the want of a susceptible heart that he hated to cite tender expressions; for he was more strongly and more violently affected by the force of words representing ideas capable of affecting him at all, than any other man in the world, I believe; and when he would try to repeat the celebrated Prosa Ecclesiastica pro Mortuis, as it is called, beginning Dies ira, Dies illa, he could never pass the stanza ending thus, Tantus labor non sit cassus, without bursting into a flood of tears; which sensibility I used to quote against him when he would inveigh against devotional poetry, and protest that
all religious verses were cold and feeble, and unworthy the subject; which ought to be treated with higher reverence, he said, than either poets or painters could presume to
excite or bestow.
97. Promptitude of Thought.
Promptitude of thought, and quickness of expression, were among the peculiar felicities of Johnson. His notions rose up like the dragon's teeth sowed by Cadmus all ready clothed, and in bright armour too, fit for immediate battle. He was therefore (as somebody is said to have expressed it) a tremendous converser, and few people ventured to try their skill against an antagonist with whom contention was so hopeless. One gentleman, however, who dined at a nobleman's house in his company and that of Mr. Thrale, to whom I was obliged for the anecdote, was willing to enter the lists in defence of King William's character; and having opposed and contradicted Johnson two or three times petulantly enough, the master of the house began to feel uneasy, and expect disagreeable consequences: avoid which he said, loud enough for the Doctor to hear, “Our friend here has no meaning now in all this, except just to relate at club to-morrow how he teased Johnson at dinner to-day, this is all to do himself honour." "No, upon my word," replied the other, "I see no honour in it, whatever you may do." "Well, Sir!" returned Mr. Johnson sternly, "if you do not see the honour, I am sure I feel the disgrace."
A young fellow, less confident of his own abilities, lamenting one day that he had lost all his Greek, — “ İ believe it happened at the same time, Sir," said Johnson, "that I lost all my large estate in Yorkshire."
The Lincolnshire lady who showed him a grotto she had been making, came off no better, as I remember: "Would it not be a pretty cool habitation in summer, Mr. Johnson?" said she. "I think it would, Madam," replied he, "for a toad."
This was not
1 [Mrs. Langton, mother of his friend. — Malone MS. notes. meant as rudeness to the lady; but Johnson hated grottos, and thought, as he has said in his Life of Pope, that they were "not often the wish or pleasure of an Englishman, who has more frequent need to solicit than to exclude the sun."]
When Mr. Johnson had a mind to compliment any one, he did it with more dignity to himself, and better effect upon the company, than any man. When Sir Joshua Reynolds left the room one day, he said, "There goes a man not to be spoiled by prosperity." And when Mrs. Montagu showed him some China plates which had once belonged to Queen Elizabeth, he told her, "that they had no reason to be ashamed of their present possessor, who was so little inferior to the first."
He was not at all offended when, comparing all our acquaintance to some animal or other, we pitched upon the elephant for his resemblance, adding that the proboscis of that creature was like his mind most exactly, strong to buffet even the tiger, and pliable to pick up even the pin. The truth is, Mr. Johnson was often goodhumouredly willing to join in childish amusements, and hated to be left out of any innocent merriment that was going forward. Mr. Murphy always said, he was incomparable at buffoonery; and I verily think if he had had good eyes, and a form less inflexible, he would have made an admirable mimic.
99. Johnson on Horseback.- Hunting.
He certainly rode on Mr. Thrale's old hunter with a good firmness, and though he would follow the hounds fifty miles an end sometimes, would never own himself either tired or amused. "I have now learned," said he, "by hunting, to perceive that it is no diversion at all, nor ever takes a man out of himself for a moment: the dogs have less sagacity than I could have prevailed on myself to suppose; and the gentlemen often call to me not to ride over them. It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them." He was however proud to be amongst the sportsmen; and I think no praise ever went so close to his heart, as when Mr. Hamilton called out one day upon Brighthelmstone Downs, "Why, John
son rides as well, for aught I see, as the most illiterate fellow in England."
Mr. Johnson, as he was a very talking man himself, had an idea that nothing promoted happiness so much as conversation. A friend's erudition was commended one day as equally deep and strong:-"He will not talk, Sir," was the reply, "so his learning does no good, and his wit, if he has it, gives us no pleasure: out of all his boasted stores I never heard him force but one word, and that word was Richard."
With a contempt not inferior he received the praises of a pretty lady's face and behaviour: "She says nothing, Sir," answers Johnson; "a talking blackamoor were better than a white creature who adds nothing to life, and by sitting down before one thus desperately silent, takes away the confidence one should have in the company of her chair if she were once out of it."
101. Love. -Francis Barber.
As we had been saying one day, that no subject failed of receiving dignity from the manner in which Mr. Johnson treated it, a lady at my house said she would make him talk about love, and took her measures accordingly, deriding the novels of the day because they treated about love. "It is not," replied our philosopher, "because they treat, as you call it, about love, but because they treat of nothing, that they are despicable: we must not ridicule a passion which he who never felt never was happy, and he who laughs at never deserves to feel passion which has caused the change of empires, and the loss of worlds a passion which has inspired heroism and subdued avarice." He thought he had already said too much. "A passion, in short," added he with an altered
1 [Mr. Boswell says, that Johnson once hunted; this seems more probable than Mrs. Piozzi's and Hawkins's statements, from which it would be inferred, that he hunted habitually. It seems hard to figure to one's self Dr. Johnson fairly joining in this violent and, to him, one would suppose, extravagant and dangerous amusement. — C.]