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Johnson's indifference to musick.
Miss M'Lean produced some Erse poems by John M'Lean, who was a famous bard in Mull, and had died only a few years ago. He could neither read nor write. She read and translated two of them; one, a kind of elegy on Sir John M'Lean's being obliged to fly his country in 1715; another, a dialogue between two Roman Catholick young ladies, sisters, whether it was better to be a nun or to marry. could not perceive much poetical imagery in the translation. Yet all of our company who understood Erse, seemed charmed with the original. There may, perhaps, be some choice of expression, and some excellence of arrangement, that cannot be shewn in translation.
After we had exhausted the Erse poems, of which Dr. Johnson said nothing, Miss M'Lean gave us several tunes on a spinnet, which, though made so long ago as in 1667, was still very well toned. She sung along with it. Dr. Johnson seemed pleased with the musick, though he owns he neither likes it, nor has hardly any perception of it. At Mr. McPherson's, in Slate, he told us, that 'he knew a drum from a trumpet, and a bagpipe from a guittar, which was about the extent of his knowledge of musick.' To-night he said, that, if he had learnt musick, he should have been afraid he would have done nothing else but play. It was a method of employing the mind without the labour of thinking at all, and with some applause from a man's self'.'
We had the musick of the bagpipe every day, at Armidale, Dunvegan, and Col. Dr. Johnson appeared fond of it, and used often to stand for some time with his ear close to the great drone.
The penurious gentleman of our acquaintance, formerly alluded to, afforded us a topick of conversation to-night. Dr. Johnson said, I ought to write down a collection of the instances of his narrowness, as they almost exceeded belief. Col told us, that O'Kane, the famous Irish harper, was once
1 See ante, ii. 470, and iii. 274, where he said: Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.'
'Ante, p. 315.
The penurious gentleman.
at that gentleman's house. He could not find in his heart to give him any money, but gave him a key for a harp, which was finely ornamented with gold and silver, and with a precious stone, and was worth eighty or a hundred guineas. He did not know the value of it; and when he came to know it, he would fain have had it back; but O'Kane took care that he should not. JOHNSON. 'They exaggerate the value; every body is so desirous that he should be fleeced. I am very willing it should be worth eighty or a hundred guineas; but I do not believe it.' BOSWELL. 'I do not think O'Kane was obliged to give it back.' JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. If a man with his eyes open, and without any means used to deceive him, gives me a thing, I am not to let him. have it again when he grows wiser. I like to see how avarice defeats itself: how, when avoiding to part with money, the miser gives something more valuable.' Col said, the gentleman's relations were angry at his giving away the harp-key, for it had been long in the family. JOHNSON. 'Sir, he values a new guinea more than an old friend.'
Col also told us, that the same person having come up with a serjeant and twenty men, working on the high road, he entered into discourse with the serjeant, and then gave him sixpence for the men to drink. The serjeant asked, 'Who is this fellow?' Upon being informed, he said, ‘If I had known who he was, I should have thrown it in his face.' JOHNSON. 'There is much want of sense in all this. He had no business to speak with the serjeant. He might have been in haste, and trotted on. He has not learnt to be a miser: I believe we must take him apprentice.' BOSWELL. 'He would grudge giving half a guinea to be taught.' JOHNSON. Nay, Sir, you must teach him gratis. You must give him an opportunity to practice your precepts.'
Let me now go back, and glean Johnsoniana. The Saturday before we sailed from Slate, I sat awhile in the afternoon, with Dr. Johnson in his room, in a quiet serious frame. I observed, that hardly any man was accurately prepared for dying; but almost every one left something undone,
Preparations for death.
[Oct. 15. something in confusion; that my father, indeed, told me he knew one man, (Carlisle of Limekilns,) after whose death all his papers were found in exact order; and nothing was omitted in his will. JOHNSON. 'Sir, I had an uncle who died so; but such attention requires great leisure, and great firmness of mind. If one was to think constantly of death, the business of life would stand still. I am no friend to making religion appear too hard. Many good people have done harm by giving severe notions of it. In the same way, as to learning; I never frighten young people with difficulties; on the contrary, I tell them that they may very easily get as much as will do very well. I do not indeed tell them that they will be Bentleys.'
The night we rode to Col's house, I said, 'Lord Elibank is probably wondering what is become of us.' JOHNSON. 'No, no; he is not thinking of us.' BOSWELL. 'But recollect the warmth with which he wrote'. Are we not to believe a man, when he says he has a great desire to see another? Don't you believe that I was very impatient for your coming to Scotland?' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir; I believe you were; and I was impatient to come to you. A young man feels so, but seldom an old man.' I however convinced him that Lord Elibank, who has much of the spirit of a young man, might feel so. He asked me if our jaunt had answered expectation. I said it had much exceeded it. I expected much difficulty with him, and had not found it. 'And (he added) wherever we have come, we have been received like princes in their progress,'
He said, he would not wish not to be disgusted in the Highlands; for that would be to lose the power of distinguishing, and a man might then lie down in the middle of them. He wished only to conceal his disgust.
At Captain M'Lean's, I mentioned Pope's friend, Spence. JOHNSON. He was a weak conceited man'.' BOSWELL. ‘A
1 Ante, p. 206.
Mr. Langton thinks this must have been the hasty expression of a splenetick moment, as he has heard Dr. Johnson speak of Mr. Spence's
Pope's friend, Spence.
good scholar, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'Why, no, Sir.' BOSWELL. 'He was a pretty scholar.' JOHNSON. 'You have about reached him.'
Last night at the inn, when the factor in Tyr-yi spoke of his having heard that a roof was put on some part of the buildings at Icolmkill, I unluckily said, 'It will be fortunate if we find a cathedral with a roof on it.' I said this from a foolish anxiety to engage Dr. Johnson's curiosity more. He took me short at once. What, Sir? how can you talk so? If we shall find a cathedral roofed! as if we were going to a terra incognita; when every thing that is at Icolmkill is so well known. You are like some New-England-men who came to the mouth of the Thames. "Come, (say they,) let us go up and see what sort of inhabitants there are here." They talked, Sir, as if they had been to go up the Susquehannah, or any other American river.'
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16.
This day there was a new moon, and the weather changed for the better. Dr. Johnson said of Miss M'Lean, 'She is the most accomplished lady that I have found in the Highlands. She knows French, musick, and drawing, sews neatly, makes shell-work, and can milk cows; in short, she can do every thing. She talks sensibly, and is the first person whom I have found, that can translate Erse poetry literally'.' We set out, mounted on little Mull horses. Mull
judgment in criticism with so high a degree of respect, as to shew that this was not his settled opinion of him. Let me add that, in the preface to the Preceptor, he recommends Spence's Essay on Pope's Odyssey, and that his admirable Lives of the English Poets are much enriched by Spence's Anecdotes of Pope. BOSWELL. For the Preceptor see ante, i. 222, and Johnson's Works, v. 240. Johnson, in his Life of Pope (ib. viii. 274), speaks of Spence as a man whose learning was not very great, and whose mind was not very powerful. His criticism, however, was commonly just; what he thought he thought rightly; and his remarks were recommended by his coolness and candour.' See ante, iv. 10, 74.
'She was the only interpreter of Erse poetry that I could ever find.' Johnson's Works, ix. 134. See ante, p. 274.
Johnson's oak-stick lost.
[Oct. 16. corresponded exactly with the idea which I had always had of it; a hilly country, diversified with heath and grass, and many rivulets. Dr. Johnson was not in very good humour. He said, it was a dreary country, much worse than Sky. I differed from him. 'O, Sir, (said he,) a most dolorous country'!'
We had a very hard journey to-day. I had no bridle for my sheltie, but only a halter; and Joseph rode without a saddle. At one place, a loch having swelled over the road, we were obliged to plunge through pretty deep water. Dr. Johnson observed, how helpless a man would be, were he travelling here alone, and should meet with any accident; and said, 'he longed to get to a country of saddles and bridles.' He was more out of humour to-day, than he has been in the course of our Tour, being fretted to find that his little horse could scarcely support his weight; and having suffered a loss, which, though small in itself, was of some consequence to him, while travelling the rugged steeps of Mull, where he was at times obliged to walk. The loss that I allude to was that of the large oak-stick, which, as I formerly mentioned, he had brought with him from London'. It was of great use to him in our wild peregrination; for, ever since his last illness in 17663, he has had a weakness in his knees, and has not been able to walk easily. It had too the properties of a measure; for one nail was driven into it at the length of a foot; another at that of a yard. In return for the services it had done him, he said, this morning he would make a present of it to some Museum; but he little thought he was so soon to lose it. As he preferred riding with a switch, it
'After a journey difficult and tedious, over rocks naked and valleys untracked, through a country of barrenness and solitude, we came, almost in the dark, to the sea-side, weary and dejected, having met with nothing but waters falling from the mountains that could raise any image of delight.' Piozzi Letters, i. 170. It is natural, in traversing this gloom of desolation, to inquire, whether something may not be done to give nature a more cheerful face.' Johnson's Works, ix. 136.
• Ante, p. 19.
See ante, i. 603.