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clothe their ideas in holy obscurity; and yet we willingly listen to their oracular sayings, and at length are ourselves infected with the disease.' 66 Singularity," exclaimed one of the guests, "is often a mark of genius." "Then," answered Johnson, "there exist few greater geniuses than Wilton in Chelsea. (1) His manner of writing is the most singular in the world; for, since the last war, he writes with his feet."
Colman spoke of the "Rehearsal," which was formerly so much admired as a masterpiece; but which nobody had patience now to read through. "There was too little salt in it to keep it sweet," said Johnson. Hume was mentioned. "Priestley," said I," objects to this historian the frequent use of Gallicisms." "And I," said Johnson, "that his whole history is a Gallicism." Johnson eagerly seizes every opportunity of giving vent to his hatred against the Scots. Even in his Dictionary we find the following article: "OATS, a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Not recollecting his edition of Shakspeare, which was so far from answering the expectations of the critics I unthinkingly and precipitately enough asked him, "which edition of that poet he most esteemed ?" "Eh!" replied he with a smile; "'t is what we call an unlucky question."
I inquired after Boswell. Johnson seems to love him much; he is sensible of, but forgives him, his enthusiasm. Boswell is a fiery young man, who firmly believes in heroic virtue; and who, in the intoxication of his heart, would have flown with equal ardour to Iceland as to Corsica, in pursuit of a demigod.
You are acquainted with Johnson's works. The Rambler, the Idler; London, a Satire; and the excellent Biography of Savage, are well known in Ger
(1) An old soldier, whose arms had been shot off.
many. But we hear less in our country of Prince Rasselas, a masterly, cold, political romance, as all of the kind are; for a teacher of the art of government, who, remote from, and unpractised in, affairs, writes for kings, can spin out of his brain a texture only of general principles. Irene, a tragedy by Johnson, full of the finest speeches, was hissed, and is forgotten.
This celebrated man had long to contend with poverty; for you must not imagine, that England always rewards her authors in proportion to the general admiration they excite. Often was he obliged to hide himself in a cellar near Moorfields, to avoid being lodged in a room with an iron grate. In those days of adversity he wrote speeches worthy of a Demosthenes, for and 'against the most important questions agitated in Parliament, which were published under the names of the real members. These speeches for a long time passed for genuine in the country; and it is not generally known, that among them is the celebrated speech of Pitt, which he is said to have pronounced, when his youth was objected to him, and which never so flowed from the mouth of Pitt. Johnson has now conducted the Pactolus into his garden. He enjoys a pension of three hundred pounds sterling, not to make speeches; but, as the Opposition asserts, to induce him to remain silent
I forgot to tell you, that Johnson denies the antiquity of Ossian. Macpherson is a native of Scotland; and Johnson would rather suffer him to pass for a great poet than allow him to be an honest man. I am convinced of their authenticity. Macpherson showed me, in the presence of Alexander Dow, at least twelve parcels of the manuscript of the Earse original. Some of these manuscripts seemed to be very old. Literati of my acquaintance, who understand the language, have compared them with the translation; and we must either believe the absurdity, that Macpherson had like
wise fabricated the Earse text, or no longer contend against evidence. Macpherson declaimed a few passages to me. The language sounded melodious enough, but solemnly plaintive and guttural, like the languages of all rude, uncultivated nations.
682. Johnson in the Salisbury Stage. (1)
In the year 1783 (says a correspondent), I went in the stage-coach from London to Salisbury. Upon entering it, I perceived three gentlemen, one of whom strongly attracted my notice. He was a corpulent man, with a book in his hand, placed very near to his eyes. He had a large wig, which did not appear to have been combed for an age his clothes were threadbare. On seating myself in the coach, he lifted up his eyes, and directed them towards me; but in an instant they resumed their former employment. I was immediately struck with his resemblance to the print of Dr. Johnson, given as a frontispiece to the "Lives of the Poets;" but how to gratify my curiosity I was at a loss. I thought, from all I had heard of Dr. Johnson, that I should discover him if, by any means, I could engage him in conversation. The gentleman by the side of him remarked, "I wonder, Sir, that you can read in a coach which travels so swiftly: it would make my head ache." "Ay, Sir," replied he, "books make some people's head ache." This appeared to me Johnsonian. I knew several persons with whom Dr. Johnson was well acquainted: this was another mode of trying how far my conjecture was right. "Do you know Miss Hannah More, Sir?" Well, Sir: the best of all the female versifiers." This phraseology confirmed my former opinion. We now reached Hounslow, and were
(1) [In August 1783, Johnson paid a visit to Mr. Bowles of Heale, near Salisbury. See antè, Vol. VIII. p. 288.]
served with our breakfast. Having found that none of my travelling companions knew this gentleman, I plainly put the question, "May I take the liberty, Sir, to enquire whether you be not Dr. Johnson?""The same, Sir." "I am happy," replied I, "to congratulate the learned world, that Dr. Johnson, whom the papers lately announced to be dangerously indisposed, is re-established in his health." "The civilest young man I ever met From that moment
with in my life," was his answer. he became very gracious towards me. I was then preparing to go abroad; and imagined that I could derive some useful information from a character so eminent for learning. "What book of travels, Sir, would you advise me to read, previously to my setting off upon a tour to France and Italy?" "Why, Sir, as to France, I know no book worth a groat: and as to Italy, Baretti paints the fair side, and Sharp the foul; the truth, perhaps, lies between the two.' Every step which brought us nearer to Salisbury increased my pain, at the thought of leaving so interesting a fellowtraveller. I observed that, at dinner, he contented himself with water, as his beverage. I asked him, "Whether he had ever tasted bumbo ?" a West-Indian potation, which is neither more nor less than very strong punch. "No, Sir," said he. I made some. He tasted; and declared, that if ever he drank any thing else than water, it should be bumbo. When the sad moment of separation, at Salisbury, arrived, "Sir," said he, "let me see you in London, upon your return to your native country. I am sorry that we must part. I have always looked upon it as the worst condition of man's destiny, that persons are so often torn asunder, just as they become happy in each other's society."
683. Knox on the Character of Johnson. (1)
The illustrious character of Pierre de Corneille induced those who approached him to expect something in his manners, address, and conversation, above the common level. They were disappointed; and, in a thousand similar instances, a similar disappointment has taken place. The friends of Corneille, as was natural enough, were uneasy at finding people express their disappointment after an interview with him. They wished him to appear as respectable when near as when at a distance; in a personal intimacy, as in the regions of fame. They took the liberty of mentioning to him his defects, his awkward address, his ungentlemanlike behaviour. Corneille heard the enumeration of his faults with great patience; and, when it was concluded, said with a smile, and with a just confidence in himself, "All this may be very true, but, notwithstanding all this, I am still Pierre de Corneille."
The numberless defects, infirmities, and faults which the friends of Dr. Johnson have brought to public light, were chiefly what, in less conspicuous men, would be passed over as foibles, or excused as mere peccadilloes; and, however his enemies may triumph in the exposure, I think he might, if he were alive, imitate Corneille, and say, "Notwithstanding all this, I am still Samuel Johnson."
Few men could stand so fierce a trial as he has done. His gold has been put into the furnace, and, considering the violence of the fire and the frequent repetition of the process, the quantity of dross and alloy is inconsiderable. Let him be considered not absolutely, but comparatively; and let those who are disgusted with him ask themselves, whether their own characters, or those they most admire, would not exhibit some de
(1) [This and the following are from "Winter Evenings; or Lucubrations," by Dr. Vicesimus Knox.]