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Conversation best displays character.
piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyrick, and not to be known from one another but by extrinsick and casual circumstances. "Let me remember, (says Hale,) when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country." If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue and to truth'.'
What I consider as the peculiar value of the following work, is, the quantity it contains of Johnson's conversation; which is universally acknowledged to have been eminently instructive and entertaining; and of which the specimens that I have given upon a former occasion2, have been received with so much approbation, that I have good grounds for supposing that the world will not be indifferent to more ample communications of a similar nature.
That the conversation of a celebrated man, if his talents have been exerted in conversation, will best display his character, is, I trust, too well established in the judgment of mankind, to be at all shaken by a sneering observation of Mr. Mason, in his Memoirs of Mr. William Whitehead, in which there is literally no Life, but a mere dry narrative of facts3. I do not think it was quite necessary to attempt a depreciation of what is universally esteemed, because it was not to be found in the immediate object of the ingenious writer's pen; for in truth, from a man so still and so tame, as to be contented to pass many years as the domestick companion of a superannuated lord and lady, conversation could no more be expected, than from a Chinese mandarin on a chimney-piece, or the fantastick figures on a gilt leather skreen.
If authority be required, let us appeal to Plutarch, the prince of ancient biographers. Οὔτε ταῖς ἐπιφανεστάταις πράξεσι πάντως ἔνεστι δήλωσις ἀρετῆς ἢ κακίας, ἀλλὰ πρᾶγμα βραχὺ πολλάκις, καὶ ῥῆμα, καὶ παιδιά τις ἔμφασιν ἤθους ἐποίησεν μᾶλλον ἢ μάχαι μυριόνεκροι, καὶ παρατάξεις αἱ μέγισται, καὶ πολιορκίαι πόλεων. ‘Nor is it always in the most distinguished atchievements that men's virtues or vices
* Rambler, No. 60. BOSWELL. In the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.
Mason's Life of Gray is excellent, because it is interspersed with letters which show us the man. His
Life of Whitehead is not a life at all, for there is neither a letter nor a saying from first to last.' Letters of Boswell, p. 265.
The Earl and Countess of Jersey. WRIGHT.
Dr. Johnson on biography.
may be best discerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person's real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battles'.'
To this may be added the sentiments of the very man whose life I am about to exhibit.
'The business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestick privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exteriour appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is with great propriety said by its authour to have been written, that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.
'There are many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science, or increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences. Thus Sallust, the great master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melanchthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that when he had made an appointment, he expected not only the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspence; and all the plans and enterprises of De Witt are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character, which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.
'But biography has often been allotted to writers, who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life, when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; 3and have so little regard to the manners 3 or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.
'There are indeed, some natural reasons why these narratives are often written by such as were not likely to give much instruction or delight,
Plutarch's Life of Alexander, Langhorne's Translation. Boswell.
2 In the original, revolving some
3 In the original, and so little regard the manners.
Reply to possible objections.
and why most accounts of particular persons are barren and useless. If a life be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which. give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, 'and are transmitted1 by tradition. We know how few can pourtray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind; and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original 2.'
I am fully aware of the objections which may be made to the minuteness on some occasions of my detail of Johnson's conversation, and how happily it is adapted for the petty exercise of ridicule, by men of superficial understanding and ludicrous fancy; but I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man. I am therefore exceedingly unwilling that any thing, however slight, which my illustrious friend thought it worth his while to express, with any degree of point, should perish. For this almost superstitious reverence, I have found very old and venerable authority, quoted by our great modern prelate, Secker, in whose tenth sermon there is the following passage:
'Rabbi David Kimchi, a noted Jewish Commentator, who lived about five hundred years ago, explains that passage in the first Psalm, His leaf also shall not wither, from Rabbins yet older than himself, thus: That even the idle talk, so he expresses it, of a good man ought to be regarded; the most superfluous things he saith are always of some value. And other ancient authours have the same phrase, nearly in the same sense.'
Of one thing I am certain, that considering how highly the small portion which we have of the table-talk and other anecdotes of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more, I am justified in preserving rather too many of Johnson's sayings, than too few; especially as from the diversity of dispositions it cannot be known with certainty beforehand, whether what may seem trifling to some, and perhaps to the collector himself, may not be most agreeable to
In the original, and are rarely transmitted. 2 Rambler, No. 60.
Johnson's birth and baptism.
many; and the greater number that an authour can please in any degree, the more pleasure does there arise to a benevolent mind.
To those who are weak enough to think this a degrading task, and the time and labour which have been devoted to it misemployed, I shall content myself with opposing the authority of the greatest man of any age, JULIUS CAESAR, of whom Bacon observes, that 'in his book of Apothegms which he collected, we see that he esteemed it more honour to make himself but a pair of tables, to take the wise and pithy words of others, than to have every word of his own to be made an apothegm or an oracle'.'
Having said thus much by way of introduction, I commit the following pages to the candour of the Publick.
SAMUEL JOHNSON was born at Lichfield, in Staffordshire, on the 18th of September, N.S., 1709; and his initiation into the Christian Church was not delayed; for his baptism is recorded, in the register of St. Mary's parish in that city, to have been performed on the day of his birth. His father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire3, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility. His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, of obscure extraction, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationers. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of
1 Bacon's Advancement of Learning, Book I. BOSWELL.
" Johnson's godfather, Dr. Samuel Swinfen, according to the author of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Dr. Johnson, 1785, p. 10, was at the time of his birth lodging with Michael Johnson. Johnson had uncles on the mother's side, named Samuel and Nathanael (see Notes and Queries, 5th S. v. 13), after whom he and his brother may have been named. It seems more likely that it was his godfather who gave him his name.
3 So early as 1709 The Tatler complains of this 'indiscriminate assump
an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire'. They were well advanced in years when they married, and never had more than two children, both sons; Samuel, their first born, who lived to be the illustrious character whose various excellence I am to endeavour to record, and Nathanael, who died in his twenty-fifth year.
Mr. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body, and of a strong and active mind; yet, as in the most solid rocks veins of unsound substance are often discovered, there was in him a mixture of that disease, the nature of which eludes the most minute enquiry, though the effects are well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness. From him then his son inherited, with some other qualities, 'a vile melancholy,' which in his too strong expression of any disturbance of the mind, 'made him mad all his life, at least not sober3. Michael was, however, forced by the
in the book-trade as early as 1681; for in the Life of Dryden his son says, 'The sale of Absalom and Achitophel was so large, that my father, an old bookseller, told me, he had not known it equalled but by Sacheverell's Trial.' Johnson's Works, vii. 276. In the Life of Sprat he is described by his son as 'an old man who had been no careless observer of the passages of those times.' Ib. 392.
Her epitaph says that she was born at Kingsnorton. Kingsnorton is in Worcestershire, and not, as the epitaph says, 'in agro Varvicensi.' When Johnson a few days before his death burnt his papers, some fragments of his Annals escaped the flames. One of these was never seen by Boswell; it was published in 1805 under the title of An Account of the Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, from his Birth to his Eleventh Year, written by himself. In this he says (p. 14), 'My mother had no value for my father's relations; those indeed whom we knew of were much lower than hers.' Writing to Mrs. Thrale
on his way to Scotland he said: 'We changed our horses at Darlington, where Mr. Cornelius Harrison, a cousin-german of mine, was perpetual curate. He was the only one of my relations who ever rose in fortune above penury, or in character above neglect.' Piozzi Letters, i. 105. His uncle Harrison he described as 'a very mean and vulgar man, drunk every night, but drunk with little drink, very peevish, very proud, very ostentatious, but luckily not rich.' Annals, p. 28. In Notes and Queries, 6th S. x. 465, is given the following extract of the marriage of Johnson's parents from the Register of Packwood in Warwickshire :
'1706. Mickell Johnsones of lichfield and Sara ford maried June the 9th.'
2 Mrs. Piozzi (Anec. p. 3) records that Johnson told her that 'his father was wrong-headed, positive, and afflicted with melancholy.'
3 Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd edit. p. 213 [Sept. 16].