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not accuse me,” added he, “ of beating down the price of literature: one hates, besides, ever to give that which one has been accustomed to sell : would not you, Sir," turning to Mr. Thrale,“ rather give away money than
17. Reading Mr. Johnson had never, by his own account, been a close student, and used to advise young people never to be without a book in their pocket, to be read at bye-times, when they had nothing else to do. “ It has been by that means,” said he to a boy at our house one day, “ that all my knowledge has been gained, except what I have picked up by running about the world with
wits ready to observe, and my tongue ready to talk. A man is seldom in a humour to unlock his bookcase, set his desk in order, and betake himself to serious study ; but a retentive memory will do something, and a fellow shall have strange credit given him, if he can but recollect striking passages from different books, keep the authors separate in his head, and bring his stock of knowledge artfully into play. How else,” added he, “ do the gamesters manage, when they play for more money than they are worth?
18. The Dictionary. His Dictionary, however, could not, one would think, have been written by running up and down : but he really did not consider it as a great performance; and
“ that he might have done it easily in two years, had not his health received several shocks during the time.” When Mr. Thrale, in consequence of this declaration, teased him, in the year 1768, to give a new edition of it, “ because,” said he, “there are four or five gross faults ;” — “Alas! Sir,” replied Johnson, “ there are four or five hundred faults, instead of four or five ; but you do not consider that it would take me up three whole months' labour, and when the time was expired the work would not be done.” When the booksellers set him about it, however, some years after, he went cheerfully to the business, said he was well paid, and that they deserved to have it done carefully.
used to say,
19. The French Academy. His reply to the person who complimented him on his Dictionary coming out first, mentioning the ill success of the French in a similar attempt, is well known ; and, I trust, has been often recorded : Why, what would you expect, dear Sir,” said he, “ from fellows that eat frogs?
20. Greek. I have often thought Dr. Johnson more free than prudent, in professing so loudly his little skill in the Greek language? : for though he considered it as a proof of a narrow mind to be too careful of literary reputation, yet no man could be more enraged than he, if an enemy, taking advantage of this confession, twitted him with his ignorance ; and I remember when the king of Denmark was in England, one of his noblemen was brought by Mr. Colman to see Dr. Johnson at our country-house ; and having heard, he said, that he was not famous for Greek literature, attacked him on the weak side ; politely adding, that he chose that conversation on purpose to favour himself. Our Doctor, however, displayed so copious, so compendious a knowledge of authors, books, and every branch of learning in that language, that the gentleman appeared astonished.
When he was gone home, says Johnson, “ Now, for all this triumph, I may thank Thrale's Xenophon here, as, I think, excepting that one, I have not looked in a Greek book these ten years : but see what haste my dear friends were all in,” continued he, “ to tell this poor innocent foreigner that I knew nothing of Greek ! Oh, no, he knows nothing of Greek ?” with a loud burst of laughing.
1 For his pleasantry about the French Academy, see Boswell, vol. i. p. 215. — C.
2 [ See Boswell, vol. viii. p. 389.]
21. Pope - Dryden Garrick Congreve and
Young. Of Pope as a writer he had the highest opinion, and once when a lady at our house talked of his preface to Shakspeare as superior to Pope's, “ I fear not, Madam,” said he, “the little fellow has done wonders.” perior reverence of Dryden, notwithstanding, still appeared in his talk as in his writings; and when some one mentioned the ridicule thrown on him in “ The Rehearsal,” as having hurt his general character as an author, “ on the contrary,” says Mr. Johnson, “ the greatness of Dryden's reputation is now the only principle of vitality which keeps the Duke of Buckingham's play from putrefaction.” 1
It was not very easy, however, for people not quite intimate with Dr. Johnson, to get exactly his opinion of a writers's merit, as he would now and then divert himself by confounding those who thought themselves obliged to say to-morrow what he had said yesterday; and even Garrick, who ought to have been better acquainted with his tricks, professed himself mortified, that one time when he was extolling Dryden in a rapture that I suppose disgusted his friend, Mr. Johnson suddenly challenged him to produce twenty lines in a series, that would not disgrace the poet and his admirer.
Garrick produced a passage that he had once heard the Doctor commend, in which he now found, if I remember rightly, sixteen faults, and made Garrick look silly at his own table. When I told Mr. Johnson the story, Why, what a monkey was David now," says he, “ to tell of his own disgrace!”
In the course of that hour's chat, he told me how he used to tease Garrick by commendations of the tomb scene in Congreve's Mourning Bride, protesting that Shakspeare had, in the same line of excellence, nothing as good : “ All which is strictly true,” said he; “but that is no reason for supposing Congreve is to stand in competition
1 If this opinion on the republication of “ The Rehearsal” be correct, it must, - as sometimes happens — have fallen and risen again. The truth is, that the greater number of readers at present admire the wit of “ The Rehearsal,"without ever thinking of its being a satire on Dryden. — FONNEREAU.
with Shakspeare: these fellows know not how to blame, nor how to commend.”
I forced him one day, in a similar humour, to prefer Young's description of night to the so much admired ones of Dryden and Shakspeare, as more forcible, and more general. Every reader is not either a lover or a tyrant, but every reader is interested when he hears that
“ Creation sleeps ; 't is as the general pulse
Of life stood still, and nature made a pause ;
prophetic of its end.”
“ This,” said he, “is true ; but remember that, taking the compositions of Young in general, they are but like bright stepping-stones over a miry road. Young froths, and foams, and bubbles sometimes very vigorously ; but we must not compare the noise made by your tea-kettle here with the roaring of the ocean.”
22. Corneille. Shakspeare. Steele. Somebody was praising Corneille one day in opposition to Shakspeare: “ Corneille is to Shakspeare," replied Mr. Johnson, “as a clipped hedge is to a forest.” When we talked of Steele's Essays, “ They are too thin,” says our critic, “ for an Englishman's taste : mere superficial observations on life and manners, without erudition enough to make them keep, — like the light French wines, which turn sour with standing a while, for want of body, as we call it.”
23. Style of Swift. . A friend was praising the style of Dr. Swift ; Mr. Johnson did not find himself in the humour to agree with him : the critic was driven from one of his performances to the other. At length, “ You must allow me," said the gentleman, “ that there are strong facts in the account of the · Four last Years of Queen Anne.' “ Yes, surely, Sir," replies Johnson, “and so there are in the Ordinary of Newgate's account.
24. “ New Manner of Writing.” This was like the story which Mr. Murphy tells, and Johnson always acknowledged : how Dr. Rose of Chiswick, contending for the preference of Scotch writers over the English, after having set up his authors like nine-pins, while the Doctor kept bowling them down again ; at last, to make sure of victory, he named Ferguson upon “ Civil Society," and praised the book for being written in a new
“ I do not,” says Johnson, “ perceive the value of this new manner; it is only like Buckinger, who had no hands, and so wrote with his feet.”
25. Robertson. - Canting. When he related to me a short dialogue that passed between himself and a writer of the first eminence in the world, when he was in Scotland, I was shocked to think how he must have disgusted him. Dr. Robertson asked me, said he, why I did not join in their public worship when among them? “ for,” said he, “I went to your churches often when in England." “ So,” replied Johnson, “ I have read that the Siamese sent ambassadors to Louis Quatorze, but I never heard that the king of France thought it worth his while to send ambassadors from his court to that of Siam.”
He was no gentler with myself, or those for whom I had the greatest regard. When I one day lamented the loss of a first cousin killed in America; “ Prithee, my dear,” said he, “ have done with canting : how would the world be worse for it, I may ask, if all your relations were at once spitted like larks, and roasted for Presto’s sup
Presto was the dog that lay under the table while
26. Young Peas. When we went into Wales together, and spent some time at Sir Robert Cotton's at Lleweny, one day at dinner I meant to please Mr. Johnson particularly with a dish of
· [See Boswell, vol. vii. p. 192.)