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1770] A CONVERSATION IN LATIN
'He was of opinion, that the English nation cultivated both their soil and their reason better than any other people : but admitted that the French, though not the highest, perhaps, in any department of literature, yet in every department were very high. Intellectual pre-eminence, he observed, was the highest superiority; and that every nation derived their highest reputation from the splendour and dignity of their writers. Voltaire, he said, was a good narrator, and that his principal merit consisted in a happy selection and arrangement of circumstances.
Speaking of the French novels, compared with Richardson's, he said, they might be pretty baubles, but a wren was not an eagle.
'In a Latin conversation with the Père Boscovitch, at the house of Mrs. Cholmondeley, I heard him maintain the superiority of Sir Isaac Newton over all foreign philosophers1, with a dignity and eloquence that surprized that learned foreigner. It being observed to him, that a rage for every thing English prevailed much in France after Lord Chatham's glorious war, he said, he did not wonder at it, for that we had drubbed those fellows into a proper reverence for us, and that their national petulance required periodical chastisement.
'Lord Lyttelton's Dialogues he deemed a nugatory performance. "That man, (said he,) sat down to write a book, to tell the world what the world had all his life been telling him." Somebody observing that the Scotch Highlanders, in the year 1745, had made surprizing efforts, considering their numerous wants and disadvantages: "Yes, Sir, (said he,) their wants were numerous; but you have not mentioned the greatest of them all,-the want of law."
'Speaking of the inward light, to which some methodists pretended, he said, it was a principle utterly incompatible with social or civil security. "If a man (said he,) pretends to a principle of action of which I can know nothing, nay, not so much as that he has it, but only that he pretends to it;
1 In a Discourse by Sir William Jones, addressed to the Asiatick Society [in Calcutta], Feb. 24, 1785, is the following passage :-'One of the most sagacious men in this age who continues, I hope, to improve and adorn it, Samuel Johnson [he had been dead ten weeks], remarked in my hearing, that if Newton had flourished in ancient Greece, he would have been worshipped as a Divinity.' [M.]
how can I tell what that person may be prompted to do? When a person professes to be governed by a written ascertained law, I can then know where to find him.”
'The poem of Fingal, he said, was a mere unconnected rhapsody, a tiresome repetition of the same images. “In vain shall we look for the lucidus ordo, where there is neither end or object, design or moral, nec certa recurrit imago.”
Being asked by a young nobleman, what was become of the gallantry and military spirit of the old English nobility, he replied, "Why, my Lord, I'll tell you what is become of it; it is gone into the city to look for a fortune.'
Speaking of a dull tiresome fellow, whom he chanced to meet, he said, "That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.'
'Much enquiry having been made concerning a gentleman, who had quitted a company where Johnson was, and no information being obtained; at last Johnson observed, that " he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney."
'He spoke with much contempt of the notice taken of Woodhouse, the poetical shoemaker. He said, it was all vanity and childishness and that such objects were, to those who patronised them, mere mirrours of their own superiority." They had better (said he,) furnish the man with good implements for his trade, than raise subscriptions for his poems. He may make an excellent shoemaker, but can never make a good poet. A school-boy's exercise may be a pretty thing for a school-boy; but it is no treat for a man.' Speaking of Boetius, who was the favourite writer of the middle ages, he said it was very surprizing, that upon such a subject, and in such a situation, he should be magis philosophus quàm Christianus.
'Speaking of Arthur Murphy, whom he very much loved, "I don't know (said he,) that Arthur can be classed with the very first dramatick writers; yet at present I doubt much whether we have any thing superiour to Arthur."
'Speaking of the national debt, he said, it was an idle dream to suppose that the country could sink under it. Let the public creditors be ever so clamorous, the interest of millions must ever prevail over that of thousands.
'Of Dr. Kennicott's Collations, he observed, that though
the text should not be much mended thereby, yet it was no small advantage to know, that we had as good a text as the most consummate industry and diligence could procure.
'Johnson observed, that so many objections might be made to every thing, that nothing could overcome them but the necessity of doing something. No man would be of any profession, as simply opposed to not being of it: but every one must do something.
'He remarked, that a London parish was a very comfortless thing; for the clergyman seldom knew the face of one out of ten of his parishioners.
Of the late Mr. Mallet he spoke with no great respect: said, he was ready for any dirty job: that he had wrote against Byng at the instigation of the ministry, and was equally ready to write for him, provided he found his account in it.
'A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience.
He observed, that a man of sense and education should meet a suitable companion in a wife. It was a miserable thing when the conversation could only be such as, whether the mutton should be boiled or roasted, and probably a dispute about that.
'He did not approve of late marriages, observing that more was lost in point of time, than compensated for by any possible advantages. Even ill assorted marriages were preferable to cheerless celibacy.
'Of old Sheridan he remarked, that he neither wanted parts nor literature; but that his vanity and Quixotism obscured his merits.
'He said, foppery was never cured; it was the bad stamina of the mind, which, like those of the body, were never rectified once a coxcomb, and always a coxcomb.
'Being told that Gilbert Cowper called him the Caliban of literature; "Well, (said he,) Imust dub him the Punchinello."
'Speaking of the old Earl of Corke and Orrery, he said, "that man spent his life in catching at an object, [literary eminence,] which he had not power to grasp.'
'To find a substitution for violated morality, he said, was the leading feature in all perversions of religion.'
VIRGIL AND HOMER QUOTATIONS
'He often used to quote, with great pathos, those fine lines of Virgil:
"Optima quæque dies miseris mortalibus ævi
Speaking of Homer, whom he venerated as the prince of poets, Johnson remarked that the advice given to Diomed by his father, when he sent him to the Trojan war, was the noblest exhortation that could be instanced in any heathen writer, and comprised in a single line :
Αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν, καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων· which, if I recollect well, is translated by Dr. Clarke thus: semper appetere præstantissima, et omnibus aliis antecellere. He observed," it was a most mortifying reflexion for any man to consider, what he had done, compared with what he might have done."
He said few people had intellectual resources sufficient to forego the pleasures of wine. They could not otherwise contrive how to fill the interval between dinner and supper.
'He went with me, one Sunday, to hear my old Master, Gregory Sharpe, preach at the Temple. In the prefatory prayer, Sharpe ranted about Liberty, as a blessing most fervently to be implored, and its continuance prayed for. Johnson observed, that our liberty was in no sort of danger: he would have done much better, to pray against our licentiousness.
'One evening at Mrs. Montagu's, where a splendid company was assembled, consisting of the most eminent literary characters, I thought he seemed highly pleased with the respect and attention that were shewn him, and asked him on our return home if he was not highly gratified by his visit : "No, Sir, (said he,) not highly gratified; yet I do not recollect to have passed many evenings with fewer objections."
'Though of no high extraction himself, he had much respect for birth and family, especially among ladies. He said, "adventitious accomplishments may be possessed by all ranks; but one may easily distinguish the born gentlewoman."
"He said, "the poor in England were better provided for, than in any other country of the same extent: he did not mean little Cantons, or petty Republicks. Where a great
THE CORN LAWS IN IRELAND
proportion of the people (said he,) are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.-Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination."
When the corn laws were in agitation in Ireland, by which that country has been enabled not only to feed itself, but to export corn to a large amount; Sir Thomas Robinson observed, that those laws might be prejudicial to the corntrade of England. "Sir Thomas, (said he,) you talk the language of a savage: what, Sir? would you prevent any people from feeding themselves, if by any honest means they can do it?
'It being mentioned, that Garrick assisted Dr. Brown, the authour of the Estimate, in some dramatick composition, "No, Sir, (said Johnson,) he would no more suffer Garrick to write a line in his play, than he would suffer him to mount his pulpit."
'Speaking of Burke, he said, "It was commonly observed, he spoke too often in parliament; but nobody could say he did not speak well, though too frequently and too familiarly." 'Speaking of economy, he remarked, it was hardly worth while to save anxiously twenty pounds a year. If a man could save to that degree, so as to enable him to assume a different rank in society, then indeed, it might answer some purpose.
'He observed, a principal source of erroneous judgement was, viewing things partially and only on one side as for instance, fortune-hunters, when they contemplated the fortunes singly and separately, it was a dazzling and tempting object; but when they came to possess the wives and their fortunes together, they began to suspect that they had not made quite so good a bargain.
Speaking of the late Duke of Northumberland living very magnificently when Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, somebody remarked it would be difficult to find a suitable successor to him: then exclaimed Johnson, he is only fit to succeed himself. 'He advised me, if possible, to have a good orchard. He knew, he said, a clergyman of small income, who brought up