Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

on before) with an air of great satisfaction that he had done his duty.

One Sunday morning, as I was walking with him in Twickenham meadows, he began his antics both with his feet and hands, with the latter as if he was holding the reins of a horse like a jockey on full speed. But to describe the strange positions of his feet is a difficult task ; sometimes he would make the back part of his heels to touch, sometimes his toes, as if he was aiming at making the form of a triangle, at least the two sides of one. Though indeed, whether these were his gestures on this particular occasion in Twickenham meadows I do not recollect, it is so long since ; but I well remember that they were so extraordinary that men, women, and children gathered round him, laughing. At last we sat down on some logs of wood by the river side, and they nearly dispersed; when he pulled out of his pocket Grotius De Veritate Religionis," over which he seesawed at such a violent rate as to excite the curiosity of some people at a distance to come and see what was the matter with him.

We drank tea that afternoon at Sir John Hawkins's, and on our return I was surprised to hear Dr. Johnson's minute criticism on Lady Hawkins's dress, with every part of which almost he found fault. It was amazing, so short-sighted as he was, how very observant he was of appearances in dress and behaviour, nay, even of the deportment of servants while waiting at table. One day, as his man Frank was attending at Sir Joshua's Reynolds's table, he observed, with some emotion, that he had placed the salver under his arm. Nor would the conduct of the company, blind as he was to his own many and strange peculiarities, escape his animadversion on some occasions. He thought the use of water-glasses a strange perversion of the idea of refinement, and had a great dislike to the use of a pocket-handkerchief at meals, when, if he happened to have occasion for one, he would rise froin his chair and go to some distance, with his back to the company, and perform the operation as silently as possible.

354. Carving. Johnson at Table. Few people, I have heard him say, understood the art of carving better than himself ; but that it would be highly indecorous in him to attempt it in company, being so nearsighted, that it required a suspension of his breath during the operation.

It must be owned, indeed, that it was to be regretted that he did not practise a little of that delicacy in eating, for he appeared to want breath more at that time than usual. It is certain that he did not appear to the best advantage at the hour of repast ; but of this he was perfectly unconscious, owing probably to his being totally ignorant of the characteristic expressions of the human countenance, and therefore he could have no conception that his own expressed when most pleased any thing displeasing to others; for though, when particularly directing his attention towards any object to spy out defects or perfections, he generally succeeded better than most men ; partly, perhaps, from a desire to excite admiration of his perspicacity, of which he was not a little ambitious- yet I have heard him say, and I often have perceived, that he could not distinguish any man's face half a yard distant from him, not even his most intimate acquaintance.

That Dr. Johnson possessed the essential principles of politeness and of good taste (which I suppose are the same, at least concomitant), none who knew his virtues and his genius will, I imagine, be disposed to dispute. But why they remained with him, like gold in the ore, unfashioned and unseen, except in his literary capacity, no person that I know of has made any inquiry, though in general it has been spoken of as an unaccountable inconsistency in his character. Much, too, may be said in excuse for an apparent asperity of manners which was, at times at least, the natural effect of those inherent mental infirmities to which he was subject. His corporeal defects also contributed largely to the singularity of his manners; and a little reflection on the disqualifying influence of blindness

and deafness would suggest many apologies for Dr. Johnson's want of politeness.

The particular instance I have just mentioned, of his inability to discriminate the features of any one's face, deserves perhaps more than any other to be taken into consideration, wanting, as he did, the aid of those intelligent signs, or insinuations, which the countenance displays in social converse; and which, in their slightest degree, influence and regulate the manners of the polite, or even the common observer. And to his defective hearing, perhaps, his unaccommodating manners may be equally ascribed, which not only precluded him from the perception of the expressive tones of the voice of others, but from hearing the boisterous sound of his own : and nothing, I believe, more conduced to fix upon his character the general stigma of ill-breeding, than his loud imperious tone of voice, which apparently heightened the slightest dissent to a tone of harsh reproof; and, with his corresponding aspect, had an intimidating influence on those who were not much acquainted with him, and excited a degree of resentment which his words in ordinary circumstances would not have provoked. I have often heard him on such occasions express great surprise, that what he had said could have given any offence.

Under such disadvantages, it was not much to be wondered at that Dr. Johnson should have committed many blunders and absurdities, and excited surprise and resentment in company; one in particular I remember. Being in company with Mr. Garrick and some others, who were unknown to Dr. Johnson, he was saying something tending to the disparagement of the character or of the works of a gentleman present — I have forgot which ; on which Mr. Garrick touched his foot under the table ; but he still went on, and Garrick, much alarmed, touched him a second time, and, I believe, the third ; at last Johnson exclaimed, “ David, David, is it you?

? What makes you tread on my toes so ?” This little anecdote, perhaps, indicates as much the want of prudence in Dr. Johnson as the want of sight. But had he at first seen Garrick's expressive countenance, and (probably) the embarrassment of the rest

of the company on the occasion, it doubtless would not have happened.

It were also much to be wished, in justice to Dr. Johnson's character for good manners, that many jocular and ironical speeches which have been reported had been noted as such, for the information of those who were unacquainted with him.

Dr. Johnson was very ambitious of excelling in common acquirements, as well as the uncommon, and particularly in feats of activity. One day, as he was walking in Gunisbury Park (or Paddock) with some gentlemen and ladies, who were admiring the extraordinary size of some of the trees, one of the gentlemen remarked that, when he was a boy, he made nothing of climbing (swarming, I think, was the phrase) the largest there. Why, I can swarm it now,” replied Dr. Johnson, which excited a hearty laugh — (he was then between fifty and sixty); on which he ran to the tree, clung round the trunk, and ascended to the branches, and, I believe, would have gone in amongst them, had he not been very earnestly entreated to descend; and down he came with a triumphant air, seeming to make nothing of it.

At another time, at a gentleman's seat in Devonshire, as he and some company were sitting in a saloon, before which was a spacious lawn, it was remarked as a very proper place for running a race. A young lady present boasted that she could outrun any person ; on which Dr. Johnson rose up

and said, “ Madam, you cannot outrun me;" and, going out on the lawn, they started. The lady at first had the advantage ; but Dr. Johnson happening to have slippers on much too small for his feet, kicked them off up into the air, and ran a great length without them, leaving the lady far behind him, and, having won the victory, he returned, leading her by the hand, with looks of high exultation and delight. ()

Though it cannot be said that he was “in manners

(1) (This exhibition occurred during his visit to Devonshire in 1762, at the house of the lady to whom he made the avowal mentioned by Boswell, vol. i. p. 368. — C.]

gentle," yet it justly can that he was “ in affections mild,” benevolent, and compassionate ; and to this combination of character may, I believe, be ascribed, in a great measure, his extraordinary celebrity ; his being beheld as a phenomenon or wonder of the

age. And yet Dr. Johnson's character, singular as it certainly was from the contrast of his mental endowments with the roughness of his manners, was, I believe, perfectly natural and consistent throughout; and to those who were intimately acquainted with him must, I imagine, have appeared so. For being totally devoid of all deceit, free from every tinge of affectation or ostentation, and unwarped by any vice, his singularities, those strong lights and shades that so peculiarly distinguish his character, may the more easily be traced to their primary and natural

causes.

The luminous parts of his character, his soft affections, and I should suppose his strong intellectual powers, at least the dignified charm or radiancy of them, must be allowed to owe their origin to his strict, his rigid principles of religion and virtue; and the shadowy parts of his character, his rough, unaccommodating manners, were in general to be ascribed to those corporeal defects that I have already observed naturally tended to darken his perceptions of what may be called propriety and impropriety in general conversation ; and of course in the ceremonious or artificial sphere of society gave his deportment so contrasting an aspect to the apparent softness and general uniformity of cultivated manners.

And perhaps the joint influence of these two primeval causes, his intellectual excellence and his corporeal defects, mutually contributed to give his manners a greater degree of harshness than they would have had if only under the influence of one of them ; the imperfect perceptions of the one not unfrequently producing misconceptions in the other.

Besides these, many other equally natural causes concurred to constitute the singularity of Dr. Johnson's character. Doubtless, the progress of his education had a double tendency to brighten and to obscure it. But I

« VorigeDoorgaan »