James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

The rest of this excerpt is rather uneventful: Bishop Warburton, himself no mean polemicist, compliments Johnson on his letter and Johnson is very gratified; Boswell points out that in the first edition of “The Vanity of Human Wishes” the line about the bad things a scholar can expect was “toil, envy, want, the garret, and the jail”, but in subsequent editions Johnson replaced “the garret” with “the patron”. Finally, in 1760 George III comes to throne. He is the first Hanoverian king who was born and bred in England, and speaking fluent English, he was more interested in the literature of his country than his German-speaking grandfather and great-grandfather. George III grants Johnson a handsome pension of three hundred pounds a year (about $80,000 in today’s money) and for the first time in his life Johnson can be certain of his financial future, more than most of us can say with the current pensions crisis. Boswell takes care to point out that the government absolutely didn’t mean it as a kind of bribe to Johnson, whose political views (Team Stuarts) were widely known, and if after receiving the pension Johnson’s published political writings happened to coincide with the government’s line, that’s pure coincidence. Admittedly, when Johnson wrote against American colonies fight for independence, it was because he truly didn’t like Americans for being slave-holders, and he probably would have written that even without the pension.


James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

The first excerpt is about Samuel Johnson’s early years. Apart from the usual bio details, with which I won’t bother you, Boswell informs us that Johnson’s parents married rather late and had only two children, Samuel and his brother Nathaniel, who died at the age of twenty-five. Samuel Johnson inherited from his father robust body but also “vile melancholy”, or depression, which was to plague him all his life, and of which he had his first serious attack when he went home to Lichfield for summer after his first year of so college, and when he was so prostrated that he could not even see the hour on the town clock. He also inherited from his father his pro-Stuart and high church leanings, and deep piety from his mother. His father was a bookseller in the times when (as I was surprised to read) there were no bookshops outside London, so he often travelled around setting up his stall during market days in the cities as distant as Birmingham. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to Johnson’s parents to send their son to Oxford because of the expense, had not a rich schoolfriend of Samuel promised to support him through college as a sort of paid companion, which promise he however failed to keep. But before that, Michael arrived with his son, telling everyone about his achievements. Samuel, as the eye-witnesses who were present on that day told Boswell, did not make much of impression at the beginning, being rather shy, unless he suddenly joined the conversation with a full quote in Latin from Macrobius, thus showing his wide learning. (I might just add that Boswell did a great job, tracking down all these old friends or acquaintances of Johnson and noting down what they had to say about him; he frequently quotes various anecdotes he heard from them.) He also was not impressed much with his tutor, even though in conversation with Boswell he called him a “worthy man” – he came to him on the first day, and then stopped seeing him. When on the sixth day Dr Jorden asked young Johnson why he had not seen him for the last four days, he answered that he had been sliding in Christ Church meadow. As he claimed in the conversation with Boswell, he had had no idea it was wrong or irreverent to answer in this way.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapters 30 and 31

Imlac enters and Rasselas tells him that his sister’s stories about the miseries of family life almost discourage him from further search. Imlac tells him that he got so entangled in his search for the right way to live that he almost forgot to live. They already know Cairo, big as it is, but how about learning something more about Egypt and its history. Rasselas and Nekayah are at the beginning dimissive: he says he is not interested in stones but in men, she says she is not interested in the past but the present. But Imlac preaches to them a long sermon about how one must understand the past to understand the present. So how about a trip to the pyramids? They agree. They set out and after a few days of easy journey they arrive at the pyramids and camp there. Imlac explains to them how the pyramids are the sturdiest construction ever. They measure the Great Pyramid from the outside on the first day. On the second day, they plan to enter it, but Pekuah, Nekayah’s maid (or maybe lady-in-waiting would be more proper, seeing how she is addressed) says that she’s afraid of ghosts. Rasselas says there are no ghosts, but Imlac says there may be, seeing as the stories about them appeared in all the cultures all over the world. You are not really helping, Imlac, even if in the next breath you say that the ghosts have as much reason to be in the pyramid as anywhere else, and they surely wouldn’t have a reason to hurt them. Pekuah, unsurprisingly, still refuses to go in and Nekayah lets her stay in the camp. She still tries to talk her mistress out of it, but Nekayah says “Though I cannot teach courage… I must not learn cowardice”.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapter 29

Rasselas argues that if something (marriage) is good for the general mankind, it must be good for individuals, unless some of these individuals are sacrificed on the altar of the greater good. He thinks that maybe all the woes of marriage come from the fact that people marry young, under the influence of passion. If they waited longer, they would make more prudent choices. Also the generation gap would actually help, because with younger parents sons are keen to get their inheritance when their father are not ready to quit the scene yet, and daughters start to bloom when their mothers are not ready to fade yet. Nekayah answers that late marriages also have their disadvantages, because older people are set in their ways and do not easily conform to each other.  Rasselas says that when he shall seek a wife, the first question would be whether she shall be lead by reason. His sister tells him that in everyday family life there is no time to make logical disquisitions about every tiny detail. Also people marrying late, if they don’t have to fear for the competition from their children, they also run the risk of bereaving them early, thus not being able to lead them into adulthood and not seeing their successes. She says “”I believe it will be found that those who marry late are best pleased with their children, and those who marry early with their partners.” Rasselas hopes you can find some kind of point in your life when you can find the perfect balance between the two, but his sister tells him that the people who try to have both things, often end up by having neither. I wonder how Johnson’s own marriage (he married young a woman twenty years his senior, and it was apparently quite a happy marriage) would be discussed by Rasselas and Nekayah.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapter 28

Rasselas tells his sister, Oh c’mon, wars and tempests happen only rarely, and political events usually do not concern ordinary people, who just get on with their lives. I think marriage must be the way to happiness because it is natural. When I see how many unhappy marriages there are, answers his sister, I tend to think that “marriage is rather permitted than approved”. Rasselas says, just a moment ago you said celibacy made people unhappy – two things cannot be the worst at the same time. Nekayah answers it’s difficult to appreciate properly two so vast issues – like when we face huge structures, we can see them only partly. Let us not argue, then, says Rasselas, but I still think you’re too hasty to declare marriage an unhappy state because of the few unhappy couples you know. It’s like concluding that because there is a lot of misery in human life, it can’t be God’s gift. Marriage is necessary to people the world, after all. It’s neither my problem nor yours how the world is going to be peopled, says his sister. I can rest assured we are not going to die out within this generation, and our inquiry is personal, not general. She sounds really depressed.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapters 26 and 27

Nekayah tells her brother that in families people are not happy, because once children are past infancy, the young can’t temperamentally agree with the old, and the other way round, not to mention other woes of family life as becoming too dependent on one’s servants, quarrelling with one’s spouse etc. Rasselas says that if things are like that, perhaps it’s best not to have a family, but his sister tells him it’s not a solution: people who live without families become peevish and malevolent; “marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleaures”. Rasselas in turn tells her that there is no happiness among the mighty and powerful, because the more power you have, the more chances you have of offending someone, and even the most conscientious rulers can overlook somebody. (t reminds me a bit about Captain Sentry in Steele’s essay.) He thought that people who lead only private lives, whose circle of influence is entirely under their control and who do not have to delegate, can be truly happy. But his sister tells him happiness is not to be found on this earth; all natural (like tempests) and almost all political (wars) evils affect both the bad and good; the only advantage good people have is that they can look forward to the happier afterlife and face the present misfortunes with equanimity.

Samuel Johnson – “Rasselas” chapters 17 and 18

The title of chapter 17, “The Prince Associates with Young Men of Spirits and Gaiety” is more promising than its contents. Yes, Rasselas does decide to sow his wild oats, but just a few days later he is “weary and disgusted”, and returns to virtuous life. Before he leaves, he preaches his friends a sermon about how this way of life is going to turn out very bad for them when they get older, but they only laugh at him. The next step in his education is when by chance he goes to see a certain philosopher teaching at his school. The philosopher’s teachings are basically a version of stoicism – he teaches how one should not be governed by passions, but only by reason. Rasselas loves this and after his lecture he approaches him, asking for a permission to visit him at home. The philosopher first hesitates, but when Rasselas drops a purse of gold into his hand, he agrees. Rasselas comes back home and is all elated about how he met the Best! Teacher! Ever!, although Imlac warns him that “the teachers of morality… discourse like angels, but they live like men”. After a few days Rasselas goes to see the philosopher, and when the servants don’t want to admit him, he again bribes his way in. The philosopher, as it turns out, is in mourning after the sudden loss of his daughter (maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t think anybody would add with such ease “from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age”, which makes it unpleasantly close to “I mourn her only because she was going to be my primary caregiver”). Rasselas, somewhat tactlessly, points out that according to his own teachings death happens to everyone, so there’s no point in getting emotional over the external things; only truth and reason are unchangeable and worth being attached to. What’s the good of truth and reason for me now, answers the unhappy father. Rasselas realizes it’s best to stop and goes home, “convinced of the emptiness of rhetorical sound”.