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.

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

The next excerpt is about the famous beef between Dr Johnson and Earl of Chesterfield.  Johnson dedicated his Plan of a Dictionary (essentially a kind of a marketing text) to the Earl. In the 18th c. you usually didn’t do such things unless you learned through the grapevine that the recipient would be pleased, and of course having a patron who was not only a high-ranking aristocrat but also a well-known wit and intellectual would be very advantageous for Johnson. But it all came out not as expected. A widely circulated anecdote then was that Johnson was kept waiting in the Earl’s antechamber because, as he’d been told, Lord had guests, and when the door opened and Johnson saw that the guest who was more important than him was Colley Cibber, a third-rate poet, he left fuming. A friend of the Earl, questioned by Boswell, kind of confirmed the story by saying “Oh, it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes”, but Johnson himself denied the authenticity of that episode. He got little support from the Earl during the arduous seven years of working on the Dictionary (apart from, as I learnt from Wiki, 10 pounds, which sure is more than today’s 10 pounds, but still small change for an earl) and when the Dictionary was about to come out and the Earl tried to placate Johnson by penning two essays praising it for a popular journal, Johnson would have none of it. He wrote Chesterfield a letter which for many year was legendary in London. Boswell finally talked Johnson into writing it down from memory, and later Johnson also found in his papers a copy he dictated to somebody else. So, not to doubt Johnson’s prodigious memory or his capability of holding a grudge, but it is unlikely this is exactly word for word the letter that the Earl received, that’s what I’m saying. But whether the Earl actually read these very words or not, in the version given to Boswell Johnson tells him politely but firmly that at this point his praise is for him like the actions of somebody who wouldn’t help a drowning man, but once the victim is safe on the shore,  he very officiously offers his help. I’ve managed to get by without you, so I’ll manage in the future too, thank you very much. Of course he also inserted this acerbic definition of “patron” in his Dictionary.

 

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

In 1752 Samuel Johnson’s wife dies, and it’s a huge blow to him. Boswell quotes a prayer, found after Johnson’s death in his papers by his servant and heir Francis Barber, in which Johnson quite affectingly says: please God, if it’s true that the dead help their living loved ones, and if you let my wife still help me, could you please let me know? A dream will do.  What follows immediately is an anecdote about how two of Johson’s younger friends were drinking until 3 am and got it into their heads to wake Johnson up and take him for a ramble. As the Helpful Footnote informs us, this possibly couldn’t happen in the year of Tetty’s death, because Boswell says they went to the Temple, where he lived, and Johnson didn’t move there until 1760. Anyway, he appears half-dressed and with a poker in his hand, expecting some ruffians, but when he realizes who they are, he is quite game, gets dressed and joins them. They have a lovely ramble, go to the Covent Garden, where Johnson tries to help the stall-keepers to unload their flowers and vegetables, but they look at him suspiciously and he gives up. In the morning one of the friends leaves them because he is engaged to have breakfast with some young ladies, about which Johnson teases him. Garrick later on comments to Johnson that their escapade would be in the newspapers, and Johnson later says that Garrick would never dare to do such a thing because his wife wouldn’t let him. What the whole episode makes me think about is that there are so many people of genius, whom we admire from a safe time distance, but would never like to be around. Only Theo Van Gogh could stand his brother Vincent, and only the Bronte family could love Emily (and even they sometimes struggled). But Johnson somehow was this rare thing, a man of genius who must have been genuinely nice. Despite all his oddities and the fact that he was poor and unappreciated for much of his life, he seems to attract his large following of men and women, some of whom could be his grandchildren, and who really loved him.

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

Boswell writes that what Johnson feared most, being so invested in his intellectual life, was insanity and indeed, at the time of his worst depression he seriously feared, which he shouldn’t because he was obviously so smart. Boswell here seems to confuse intellectual capacity with mental health, which is interesting, taking into account how widespread the cliché of “mad genius” is in our culture, but I guess we have Romantics to thank for that. One of Johnson’s former friends told Boswell that in college Johnson was “a gay and frolicsome fellow”, but Johnson, having heard that, corrected Boswell saying he was simply desperate because of his depression and poverty and he simply didn’t care, which came across as high spirits. Boswell comments that we often don’t understand or know what goes through the minds even of our close friends, and indeed, the passage is sure to strike a note with anybody who knew anybody suffering from depression. The following excerpts are about Johnson’s marriage: because he was so religious and didn’t sleep around (Boswell phrases it more politely, but that’s the sense), once he fell in love, he fell hard. And his choice was all the more surprising because his beloved was a widow twice his age, with no money and apparently not particularly good looking either. (Boswell quotes one of Johnson’s friends about how Johnson told him gravely that it was a love match on both sides, which said friend apparently considered to be a great joke. Also, he exaggerates Tetty’s want of money: while no heiress, she had some, much of it was lost in Johnson’s unsuccessful school for boys, which, however, produced one famous pupil, David Garrick.) But Johnson was himself no great catch either: lean and lanky (it’s hared to imagine Dr Johnson thin, but apparently at that period of his life he was), with scrofula marks and given to strange tics and exclamations (there is some speculation about him suffering from Tourette’s). Again, Mrs Potter, as she was then known, after meeting Johnson told her daughter that he is “the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life”. So this couple, apparently so mismatched, evidently saw something in each other that the world failed to see. Johnson went to ask his mother’s permission, and she loved him and knew him too well to refuse him, despite all the disadvantages listed above.  For some reason, they went to another town on horseback to get married and there was some misunderstanding between them on the way, as Johnson’s bride’s idea of flirtation was to pretend first that he was going too fast, and then that he was going to slow. Irritated, he went off so fast that soon he was out of sight, being sure that she couldn’t lose her way because the road was between two hedges. When she finally reached him, she was in tears. Johnson left for London with Garrick and tried to earn his living by writing, which has never been easy. He befriended a poet Richard Savage, which Boswell, finds surprising, because Savage was known for being a wild and dissolute man. But apparently his stories amused Johnson, because they became friends and later Johnson wrote Savage’s biography. They were often so poor that they had no money to pay for their lodging and had to walk around London all night, apparently in quite good spirits. (The excerpts don’t say it, but apparently Johnson moved out, feeling guilty that he had to live on his wife’s money.)

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.

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

The first excerpt from Boswell’s most famous work is from the preface, where he explains his plan and intentions. He starts by saying modestly that if Dr Johnson had written his own biography, like he did for so many poets, it would have been perfect. But unfortunately, although at several points in life he made attempts to make some autobiographical sketches, these plans came to nothing and eventually he burned most of them before his death. So Boswell flatters himself that in the absence of this biography, his own might be the next best thing, since he not only knew Johnson for twenty years, but recorded his conversations and tried to interview as many of his friends as he could. Boswell says he is going to follow the method employed by William Mason in his life of the poet Thomas Gray, and he is going to rely as much on Johnson’s own letters, notes, and recorded conversations as he can, providing only the narrative necessary for linking the stuff together. He thinks in this way he can provide the best, i.e. the most complete picture of the man, and the best meaning without omitting his faults, which Johnson himself wouldn’t wish to. He emphasizes that Johnson himself knew that Boswell had been intending to write this biography for a long time, and personally furnished him with many facts and anecdotes from his own life.  Finally, Boswell forestalls the charges of the imaginary critics that some of the things he noted down are too small or trivial, because in the lives of great men there is nothing too small or trivial, and indeed, the only objection to the previous biographies of other people was the regret that not enough of these conversations were preserved. And for a man like Johnson, whose modern-day reputation, like Wilde’s, relies so heavily on clever one-liners, this is certainly true.

Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Pope” (the end)

Pope kept on revising and improving his works even after they were printed, in later editions. In acquired knowledge, Johnson believes Dryden was superior to largely self-educated Pope. The rest of the excerpt runs along the lines of Dryden being more natural and expansive, Pope more controlled and reserved. Dryden’s prose is like naturally undulating fields, while Pope’s is like a manicured lawn. Finally, when it comes to genius, Johnson gives the primacy to Dryden, but only very narrowly. “Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it.”