4 Boswell, Shakespeare, and The Lives
From Samuel Johnson by Sir S. C. Roberts

Such were a few of the events in Johnson's career before his first meeting with Boswell, but enough, perhaps, to indicate the celebrity which he had achieved by 1763. In a diary of the previous year Boswell had recorded how, after reading some Rambler papers to the company assembled in a country house, he delivered his opinion that Johnson was 'a man of much philosophy, extensive reading and real knowledge of human life' and when, on 19 September 1762, he beheld the city of London from Highgate Hill, his soul 'bounded forth to a certain prospect of happy futurity'. On 18 December he was delighted to accept an invitation to meet Johnson at dinner with Tom Davies the bookseller on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, Johnson decided to go to Oxford for Christmas, but Boswell had the pleasure of meeting Goldsmith and seized the opportunity of discussing the Rambler and Idler with him. The famous first meeting in Tom Davies's shop on 16 May 1763 was, in fact, accidental, but was the beginning of one of the most famous associations in history. Boswell had two principal ambitions: to be the friend of famous men and to be a famous author himself.

Among the celebrities whom he wished to meet in London in 1763 Johnson stood very high, and when he found himself supping on easy terms of intimacy with The Rambler and realized that the quality of his talk was equal to that of his writings, he rejoiced at his good fortune and immediately began to make notes of their conversations. ('We sat till between one and two and finished a couple of bottles of port. I went home in high exultation.') But The Life was not an isolated achievement; it was, as has been already observed, the final triumph of a career of literary ambition and effort.

Johnson, for his part, was immediately captivated by Boswell's ingenuous charm. To the end of his life, he looked upon every day to be lost in which he did not make a new acquaintance; Boswell was a superb listener and nothing is more flattering to a lonely scholar than to be entertained by a young man thirty years his junior. Between May and August 1763 the friendship developed. There were suppers at the Mitre and excursions on the Thames, but the most striking proof of Johnson's attachment was his decision to accompany Boswell to Harwich at the end of his London visit. There Boswell received good advice on a variety of subjects. He was bound for Holland, where he was to continue his study of the Law, and Johnson bade him kneel in the Church and commend himself to his Creator and Redeemer. When they came out of the Church, Johnson demonstrated his contempt for the Berkeleian theory of matter by 'striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone'. He also warned Boswell of the folly of pretending indifference to food and of using big words for little matters. As they parted, they promised to write to each other. Boswell expressed the hope that Johnson would not forget him. 'Nay, Sir,' Johnson replied, 'it is more likely you should forget me than that I should forget you.' It was the reply of one who loved the acquaintance of young people; young acquaintances, he said, lasted longest.

To Johnson a club was one of the first necessities of life. In his Dictionary he defined it as 'an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain conditions'. As early as 1749 he founded the Ivy Lane Club, where he would 'pass those hours in a free and unrestrained interchange of sentiments, which otherwise had been spent at home in painful reflection'. It was not a purely literary gathering; three members of the club were physicians (including Johnson's very dear friend, Richard Bathurst, who could not tolerate fools or rogues or Whigs and was, in short, 'a very good hater'); there was Hawkesworth, editor of The Adventurer, John Payne, publisher of The Rambler, Samuel Salter, formerly Archdeacon of Norfolk, and Sir John Hawkins, for whom Johnson was afterwards driven to coin the word 'unclubable'.

More famous was 'The Club', founded in 1764. It was Sir Joshua Reynolds who first suggested its formation to Johnson and amongst the original members were Burke, Beauclerk, Langton, and Goldsmith. Boswell was admitted later, after some hesitation on the part of certain members. Johnson told Boswell the story of his election with characteristic candour: 'Sir, they knew that if they refused you, they'd probably never have got in another. I'd have kept them all out.' Posterity is heavily indebted to Johnson's dictatorship. Meetings of the Club provided Boswell with material for some of his most brilliant reporting. Good company, good food, and good conversation constituted the primary solace of Johnson's life and now that he was relieved of the necessity of earning his living by his pen, he was free to take his pleasures—but not always with a good conscience. On Easter Eve 1764 he recorded:

My indolence, since my last reception of the Sacrament, has sunk into grosser sluggishness, and my dissipation spread into wilder negligence. . . . A kind of strange oblivion has overspread me, so that I know not what has become of the last year.... This is not the life to which heaven is promised.
So, on Easter Day, he went to church (coming in 'at the first of the Psalms') and in his prayers recommended his dear Tetty as well as his father, mother, brother, and Bathurst, 'so far as it might be lawful'. As he received the Sacrament at the altar, he resolved to repel sinful thoughts, to study eight hours daily, to go to church every Sunday and to read the Scriptures. After putting his shilling in the plate, he saw a poor girl at the Sacrament in a bedgown and gave her, privately, a crown. He then prayed earnestly for amendment and repeated his prayer at home.

This account of Easter, 1764, is no isolated record. It is typical of Johnson's self-examination at Easter, or on his birthday, or on New Year's Day over a long period of years.

There was one delay that weighed with particular force on Johnson's mind. In 1756 he had published his Proposals for an edition of Shakespeare, hoping to complete the work by the end of the following year. It was a mark of editorial optimism not peculiar to Johnson or his period. But after six years it provoked some raillery:

He for subscribers baits his hook
And takes your cash; but where's the book?

When the eight volumes at length appeared in 1765, the subscribers' names were not included in them. For this omission Johnson gave what he described as two cogent reasons—he had lost the names and spent the money.

After the Dictionary, the edition of Shakespeare is the most valuable legacy of Johnson's scholarship. Every generation produces its quota of Shakespearian editors and critics and, in 1908, Walter Raleigh remarked that while Johnson had been neglected and depreciated in the nineteenth century he would probably be respected in the twentieth. This forecast has been precisely fulfilled and the latest editor of Shakespeare is not ashamed to entitle the first chapter of his book on Falstaff 'Back to Johnson'.( J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (1943).)

All his life Johnson had been a devoted student of Shakespeare; he began at so early an age that the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet terrified him when he was alone. His first work as an anonymous commentator (Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth) was published in 1745, with a postscript on the recent edition of Sir Thomas Hanmer which was weighed in the balance and found wanting:

Its pomp recommends it more than its accuracy. There is no distinction made between the ancient reading and the innovations of the editor; there is no reason given for any of the alterations which are made; the emendations of former criticks are adopted without any acknowledgment, and few of the difficulties are removed which have hitherto embarrassed the readers of Shakespeare.

To this devasting summary of editorial failure Johnson appended proposals for an edition of his own; but copyright difficulties arose and it was not until after the publication of the Dictionary, which abounds in quotations from Shakespeare, that he issued his more elaborate Proposals. Here, the justification of a new edition and the primary obligations of an editor are set out in positive form:

first, it is his business to correct what is corrupt and the circumstances of the writing of Shakespeare's plays made this a difficult task, since they were 'vitiated by the blunders of the penman . . . changed by the affectation of the player . . . and printed without the concurrence of the author'; secondly, Shakespeare presented many obscurities which it was the commentator's duty to elucidate, especially the obscurities inherent in Shakespeare's common colloquial language with its 'allusive, elliptical and proverbial' phrases; lastly, in order to appreciate Shakespeare s use of his sources, the editor must read the story 'in the very book which Shakespeare consulted'.

As to the occurrence of obsolete diction in the plays, Johnson claimed, not immodestly, that he had had more motives to consider the whole extent of the English language than any other man.

Philology apart, Johnson was too honest a critic not to 'confess the faults of our favourite to gain credit to our praise of his excellencies', and his fundamental criticism of Shakespeare was the criticism of the Christian moralist:

His precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good and evil . . . he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate: for it is always a writer's duty to make the world better.

There speaks The Rambler and by any argument for the artist's primary duty of self-expression he would have been unshaken.

Another characteristic mark of Johnson's approach was that he had a greater relish for the printed than the spoken word. Many of the plays, he thought, and particularly the tragedies, were the worse for being acted and he was insensitive to dramatic illusion:

The truth is that the spectators are always in their senses and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage and that the players are only players. They come to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation.

Here Johnson reveals his fundamentally bookish attitude to the drama. What good actor is content with recitation? What good playgoer with elegant modulation? And yet Johnson realized, as clearly as any modern critic, that it was for the playgoer that the plays were written:

Shakespeare regarded more the series of ideas, than of words; and his language not being designed for the reader's desk, was all that he desired it to be, if it conveyed his meaning to the audience.

But it was at his reader's desk that Johnson absorbed, and was absorbed by, Shakespeare's series of ideas. By the great tragedies he was deeply moved. So shocked was he by Cordelia's death that he could not bring himself to read again the last scenes of the play till he undertook to revise them as an editor; and on the murder of Desdemona he wrote:

I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured.

In his treatment of the comedies Johnson shows clearly how the Rabelaisian and the moralist were constantly striving for the mastery within him. Thus, the one great fault that he found in the Merry Wives was the frequency of profane expressions; 'there are laws of higher authority than those of criticism'; at the end of As You Like It, Shakespeare had 'lost an opportunity of exhibiting a moral lesson'.

But to Falstaff Johnson made a complete surrender. Despicable as he might be from the moralist's point of view, he was saved 'by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter'. No one was more keenly aware than Johnson of the virtue of cheerfulness. His first observation on the characters of The Tempest is that Gonzalo, being the only good man that appears with the King, is the only man that preserves his cheerfulness in the wreck.

Like all critics, Johnson had his prejudices and his limitations; but he never forgot the stature of the poet whom he was editing:

The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabricks of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare.

Johnson's criticism, too, has its adamantine qualities.

For the last twenty years of his life Johnson liked to regard himself as a professional writer who had won his discharge. 'I wonder, Sir', said Boswell, 'you have not more pleasure in writing than in not writing.' 'Sir', said Johnson, 'you may wonder.' Nevertheless, circumstances led him to produce two works of substance. In 1773 Boswell persuaded him to make a tour in Scotland. Starting from Edinburgh, the travellers followed the east road and turned westwards through Banff and Inverness. At Anoch, Johnson found himself seated on a bank, 'such as a writer of Romance might have delighted to feign'

I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself Whether I spent the hour well I know not: for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

The narration was published in 1775 and was entitled A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. By all except professed students of Johnson it is commonly neglected in favour of Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). The preference is natural. The Tour was, in fact, the first instalment of The Life and Boswell had Johnson's authority for saying that it was a very exact picture. It was not only exact, but brilliant. 'Let me not be censured', he wrote, 'for mentioning minute particulars'; and it is this particularity, based upon acute observation and continuous industry, which has won the admiration and the affection of the great company of Boswellians. Johnson's own account was different. Primarily he was concerned to describe a country and a society that were new to him. Himself fundamentally urban, he thought it worth while to record his impression of the religion, language, education, agriculture, and daily life of a society which he had long desired to visit. At an early age he had read Martin's Description of the Western Islands (1703) and in one respect he was disappointed. Since the '45 the Highlanders had been tamed:

We came hither too late to see what we expected, a people of peculiar appearance and a system of antiquated life. The clans retain little now of their original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and the reverence of their Chiefs abated.

Nevertheless, he rejoiced to find a vigorous patriarchal life at Raasay:

Raasay has little that can detain a traveller, except the Laird and his family; but their power wants no auxiliaries. Such a seat of hospitality, amidst the winds and waters, fills the imagination with a delightful contrariety of images. Without is the rough ocean and the rocky land, the beating billows and the howling storm: within is Plenty and elegance, beauty and gaiety, the song and the dance. In Raasay, if I could have found an Ulysses, I had fancied a Phaeacia.

Not all of Johnson's comments are so favourable. He was interested in everything that he saw and did not shrink from blunt criticism. But he realized very clearly his limitations as a city-dweller and modestly reflected that his thoughts on national manners were the thoughts of one who had seen but little.

The second work of Johnson's later life is, perhaps, the one that is best known, or least neglected, today—The Lives of the Poets. Like the Dictionary, the scheme for The Lives originated in a group of booksellers who planned an elegant and uniform edition of the English Poets and invited Johnson to write a short life of each poet included in the edition. For once, Johnson undertook the work without hesitation. An introduction to a literary work was one of the things which he felt confident he could do well and he had at first no intention to give more than a short account of each poet. But the 'honest desire of giving useful pleasure' led him to write more when he felt so disposed and his essays on such poets as Cowley, Dryden, and Pope have become classics of English criticism. For many less eminent writers Johnson felt that 'little lives, and little criticism' would serve and appealed to his friends for biographical facts. He wrote, for instance, to Dr Farmer to enquire whether there might be useful material at Cambridge, and offered to inspect such material himself, 'for who that has once experienced the civilities of Cambridge would not snatch the opportunity of another visit?' Similarly he wrote to William Sharp for information about Dr Watts, whose name he had always held in veneration. 'I wish to distinguish Watts,' he wrote, 'a man who never wrote but for a good purpose.' When he came to write The Life, he counselled his readers to imitate Watts 'in all but his non-conformity'. For a short life of Lyttelton, whom he did not like, Johnson applied to his brother, Lord Westcote: 'My desire is to avoid offence, and to be totally out of danger.' On the other hand, the help given by his old friend, Gilbert Walmsley, in the Lye of Edmund Smith led Johnson to include a tribute to Walmsley himself which is as splendid as it is irrelevant:

He was a Whig, with all the virulence and malevolence of his party; yet difference of opinion did not keep us apart. I honoured him, and he endured me.
He had mingled with the gay world, without exemption from its vices or its follies, but had never neglected the cultivation of his mind; his belief of Revelation was unshaken; his learning preserved his principles; he grew first regular, and then pious.... His acquaintance with books was great; and what he did not immediately know, he could at least tell where to find. Such was his amplitude of learning, and such his copiousness of communication, that it may be doubted whether a day now passes in which I have not some advantage from his friendship.

This paragraph sheds no additional light or lustre on the poetry of Edmund Smith; but it is a good example of the 'obiter dicta' that serve to enhance the charm of The Lives Of The Poets. 'Sir,' said Johnson, 'the biographical part of literature is what I love most', and in these Lives he was concerned at least as much with fact and anecdote as with theories of poetry. He made no attempt to separate the poetry from the personality of the poet, and if he disliked the personality, he frankly coloured his criticism with his dislike. The two best known instances of this are the Lives of Milton and Gray.

About the greatness of the author of Paradise Lost Johnson had no doubts:

The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great.... He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.

As an epic poet, Milton displayed all the qualities which Johnson sought—knowledge, morality, piety, grandeur; and his confession that 'we read Milton for instruction . . . and look elsewhere for recreation' is, in effect, a tribute to the intellectual and emotional effort which a proper appreciation of Paradise Lost demands. Even Johnson's notorious prejudice against blank verse is forgotten in the sublimity of Milton's subject:

I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is.

Such is Johnson's considered verdict on a poem which is 'not the greatest of heroic poems only because it is not the first'. These are the concluding words of a long essay, but much earlier the reader will, no doubt, have been astonished by the two devastating pages on 'Lycidas'. Why should Johnson have condemned its diction as harsh, its rhymes as uncertain, its numbers as unpleasing ? Why should he have set his mind so stubbornly against an appreciation of such lines as:

We drove a field and both together heard
What time the Gray-fly winds her sultry horn
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night

and commented, like a fractious child:

' We know that they never drove a field and that they had no flocks to batten?'

Part of the answer must be sought in the biographical portion of the essay, in which Milton's religious and political opinions are ruthlessly denounced:

He has not associated himself with any denomination of Protestants; we know rather what he was not, than what he was. He was not of the Church of Rome; he was not of the Church of England. To be of no church is dangerous.... Milton, who appears to have had full conviction of the truth of Christianity . . . yet grew old without any visible worship.

To Johnson, a good Church-of-England man who preferred the Papists to the Presbyterians because the latter body had no church or apostolical ordination, any kind of undenominationalism was exasperating. Similarly, in politics:

His political notions were those of an acrimonious and surly republican. . . . Milton's republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness and a sullen desire of independence.... He hated monarchs in the State and prelates in the Church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey.

'Lycidas' was in the form of a pastoral ('easy, vulgar and therefore disgusting'); but in spite of such epithets, Johnson could take pleasure in a pastoral poem, provided that it was genuinely descriptive of country life. Years before, in a Rambler essay, he had declared it to be an improper medium of political or ecclesiastical criticism. Furthermore, 'Lycidas' mingled 'trifling fictions' with 'the most awful and sacred truths' and so became the target of Johnson's exaggerated scorn. His criticism of the poem is distorted by his fundamental distrust of the anarchical temperament of the poet— but it did not weaken his belief in Milton's greatness.

Against Gray, Johnson was less violently prejudiced. Here again, he paid full tribute to the 'Elegy', but he had little patience with the fastidious productions of the scholar who asked for leisure to be good and wrote only when the humour took him. He also disliked what he regarded as Gray's affectation in his tricks of inversion and in the use of antiquarian epithets. In the Lives both of Milton and Gray it is possible to detect some slight bitterness on Johnson's part as he compared their academic careers with his own four terms at Oxford, followed by the long years in Grub Street. The mythological imagery of Lycidas, he observes, 'is such as a college easily supplies' and the even tenour of Milton's life appeared to be attainable only in colleges. Gray's plea, made from college rooms, that he could write only when he was in the right mood Johnson dismissed as 'Fantastick Foppery'. The Rambler had produced his paper twice a week, whatever his mood.

There are some, perhaps, who feel about Johnson's writings as Johnson felt about Milton. They recognize the element of greatness in them and read them as a matter of duty; but for recreation and companionship they turn elsewhere—and most naturally to Boswell. They may recognize that Johnson's own works were, historically, the foundation of The Life, but the brilliance of Boswell's superstructure, with its superb record of conversation and its convincing picture of the social scene has inevitably monopolized their interest. But for Boswell it was always the Rambler who argued and declaimed. Whether at the Mitre, the Club, or Mrs Thrale's dining-table Boswell looked for instruction at least as much as for entertainment —indeed, he was slightly shocked whenever Johnson indulged his capacity for pure fun. At Corricatachin, for instance, Boswell found it 'highly comick' to see the grave philosopher—the Rambler—toying with a Highland beauty (and a married woman, too) upon his knee; when Johnson 'exulted in his own pleasantry' at the expense of Bennet Langton, Boswell felt that it was not such as might be expected from the author of The Rambler. But whether the evening's conversation had been grave or gay, there came, inevitably, 'the one time at night when he must go home', and at home Johnson would be left to his reflections and his melancholy—the melancholy not merely of loneliness, but of penitence. For to Johnson the doctrine of the sinfulness of man and of man's redemption by the passion of Jesus Christ was fundamental. Year after year he recited his sins of omission—his failure to read good books (and particularly the Bible): to rise early; to worship regularly; to keep a journal; to avoid idleness. On his birthday in 1764 he deplored that he had spent fifty-five years in resolving but had done nothing. It was his conscience as a scholar that especially troubled him. He knew that he had been endowed with a scholar's talents, but how had he used them? 'O God,' he prayed, 'make me to remember that the night cometh when no man can work.'

At Easter 1779 he found little good of himself to report except the publication of the first part of The Lives Of The Poets and 'a little charity'. The last phrase is significant. Johnson sought the companionship he needed to make life endurable not only in distinguished clubs and fashionable drawing-rooms, but amongst the poor and the unfortunate, and to several of these he offered a refuge in his own house. Among them were Anna Williams, the blind lady to whose 'variety of knowledge' he was indebted for thirty years; Mrs Desmoulins, the daughter of his godfather (Dr Swinfen), to whom he made an allowance of half-a-guinea a week; Francis Barber, his negro servant, whom he sent to school at Bishop's Stortford; and Robert Levet, 'an obscure practiser of physick amongst the lower people', who shared Johnson's penny loaf at breakfast. In the great panorama of Boswell's narrative there are many minor figures who have attained immortality by a single phrase or incident. Of these, the best known, perhaps, is Oliver Edwards, who remarked, 'You are a philosopher, Dr Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.' But Robert Levet's immortality was conferred upon him by Johnson himself in a tribute that came straight from the heart of a man who had lost his friend:

Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.
Well try'd, through many a varying year,
See LEVET to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of ev'ry friendless name the friend....
In misery's darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan
And lonely want retir'd to die.
No summons, mock'd by chill delay,
No petty gain, disdain'd by pride;
The modest wants of ev'ry day
The toil of ev'ry day supply'd.
His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th' Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ'd.

Here, as Walter Raleigh suggests, the reader may find at least a partial explanation of Johnson's failure to appreciate 'Lycidas' as a lament for a friend.

Johnson's treatment of Francis Barber was prompted not only by personal affection, but by his persistent hatred of the slave-trade. How is it, he asked, that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? Johnson disliked yelps for liberty wherever they came from, but when Macaulay described him as 'a Tory . . . from mere passion such as inflamed the Capulets against the Montagues', he was seeking too easy an answer. It is true that Johnson was inflamed by passion; but it was a passion not for a party, but for order in Church and State and Society. The first Whig was the Devil who had upset the order of Heaven, and Whig talk about Liberty in the abstract infuriated him, especially when it championed a man of the character of Wilkes. As to the American colonists, Johnson regarded them simply as English subjects who had voluntarily crossed the ocean and left their voting rights behind them; they still enjoyed the protection of the armed forces of the crown and for that protection it was right that they should pay. But, whatever his views on current controversy, Johnson was no supporter of absolute power:

When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head.

So he regarded the Irish situation of his own time with profound misgiving. 'The Irish,' he said, 'are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority.' In France he deplored the lack of a healthy middle class between the magnificence of the rich and the misery of the poor. A decent provision for the poor was, he said, the true test of civilization—and by a decent provision he meant something more than the bare necessities.

'What signifies', said someone, 'giving halfpence to common beggars ? they only lay it out in gin and tobacco.'
'And why', thundered Johnson, 'should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence ?'
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