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530. Personal Peculiarities.
Johnson's countenance, when in a good humour, was not disagreeable. His face clear, his complexion good, and his features not ill formed, many ladies have thought they might not have been unattractive when he was young. Much misrepresentation has prevailed on this subject, among such as did not personally know him.
That he had some whimsical peculiarities of the nature described by Mr. Boswell, is certainly true; but there is no reason to believe they proceeded from any superstitious motives, wherein religion was concerned : they are rather to be ascribed to the "mental distempers" to which Boswell has so repeatedly alluded.
Johnson was so extremely short-sighted, that he had no conception of rural beauties; and, therefore, it is not to be wondered, that he should prefer the conversation of the metropolis to the silent groves and views of Hampstead and Greenwich; which, however delightful, he could not see. In his Tour through the Highlands of Scotland, he has somewhere observed, that one mountain was like another; so utterly unconscious was he of the wonderful variety of sublime and beautiful scenes those mountains exhibited. I was once present when the case of a gentleman was mentioned, who, having, with great taste and skill, formed the lawns and plantations about his house into most beautiful landscapes, to complete one part of the scenery, was obliged to apply for leave to a neighbour with whom he was not upon cordial terms; when Johnson made the following remark, which at once shows what ideas he had of landscape improvement, and how happily he applied the most common incidents to moral instruction. "See how inordinate desires enslave a man! No desire can be more innocent than to have a pretty garden, yet, indulged to excess, it has made this poor man submit to
531. Johnson's Manner of Composing.
Johnson's manner of composing has not been rightly understood. He was so extremely short-sighted, from the defect in his eyes, that writing was inconvenient to him; for, whenever he wrote, he was obliged to hold the paper close to his face. He, therefore, never composed what we call a foul draft on paper of any thing he published, but used to revolve the subject in his mind, and turn and form every period, till he had brought the whole to the highest correctness and the most perfect arrangement. Then his uncommonly retentive memory enabled him to deliver a whole essay, properly finished, whenever it was called for. I have often heard him humming and forming periods, in low whispers to himself, when shallow observers thought he was muttering prayers, &c. But Johnson is well known to have represented his own practice, in the following passage in his Life of Pope : "Of composition there are different methods. Some employ at once memory and invention; and, with little intermediate use of the pen, form and polish large masses by continued meditation, and write their productions only when, in their own opinion, they have completed them."
532. Dislike of Swift.
The extraordinary prejudice and dislike of Swift, manifested on all occasions by Johnson, whose political opinions coincided exactly with his, has been difficult to account for; and is therefore attributed to his failing in getting a degree, which Swift might not choose to solicit, for a reason given below. The real cause is believed to be as follows: The Rev. Dr. Madden (1), who distinguished himself so laudably by giving premiums to the young students of Dublin College, for
(1) [See antè, Vol. II. p. 8. and 73.]
which he had raised a fund, by applying for contributions to the nobility and gentry of Ireland, had solicited the same from Swift, when he was sinking into that morbid idiocy which only terminated with his life, and was saving every shilling to found his hospital for lunatics; but his application was refused with so little delicacy, as left in Dr. Madden a rooted dislike to Swift's character, which he communicated to Johnson, whose friendship he gained on the following occasion: Dr. Madden wished to address some person of high rank, in prose or verse; and, desirous of having his composition examined and corrected by some writer of superior talents, had been recommended to Johnson, who was at that time in extreme indigence; and having finished his task, would probably have thought himself well rewarded with a guinea or two, when, to his great surprise, Dr. Madden generously slipped ten guineas into his hand. This made such an impression on Johnson, as led him to adopt every opinion of Dr. Madden, and to resent, as warmly as himself, Swift's rough refusal of the contribution; after which the latter could not decently request any favour from the University of Dublin.
533. The Dictionary.
The account of the manner in which Johnson compiled his Dictionary, as given by Mr. Boswell (1), is confused and erroneous, and, a moment's reflection will convince every person of judgment, could not be correct; for, to write down an alphabetical arrangement of all the words in the English language, and then hunt through the whole compass of English literature for all their different significations, would have taken the whole life of any individual; but Johnson, who, among other peculiarities of his character, excelled most men in con
triving the best means to accomplish any end, devised the following mode for completing his Dictionary, as he himself expressly described to the writer of this account. He began his task by devoting his first care to a diligent perusal of all such English writers as were most correct in their language, and under every sentence which he meant to quote he drew a line, and noted in the margin the first letter of the word under which it was to occur. He then delivered these books to his clerks, who transcribed each sentence on a separate slip of paper, and arranged the same under the word referred to. By these means he collected the several words and their different significations; and when the whole arrangement was alphabetically formed, he gave the definitions of their meanings, and collected their etymologies from Skinner, Junius, and other writers on the subject. In completing his alphabetical arrangement, he, no doubt, would recur to former dictionaries, to see if any words had escaped him; but this, which Mr. Boswell makes the first step in the business, was in reality the last; and it was doubtless to this happy arrangement that Johnson effected in a few years, what employed the foreign academies nearly half a century.
534. Miss Williams. (1)
During the summer of 1764, Johnson paid a visit to me, at my vicarage-house in Easton-Mauduit, near Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire, and spent parts of the months of June, July, and August with me, accompanied by his friend Miss Williams, whom Mrs. Percy found a very agreeable companion. As poor Miss Williams, whose history is so connected with that of Johnson, has not had common justice done her by his biographers, it may be proper to mention, that, so far from being a constant source of disquiet and vexation to him, although she had been totally blind for the
(1) [See ante, Vol. I. p. 274.]
last thirty years of her life, her mind was so well cultivated, and her conversation so agreeable, that she very much enlivened and diverted his solitary hours; and, though there may have happened some slight disagreements between her and Mrs. Desmoulins, which, at the moment, disquieted him, the friendship of Miss Williams contributed very much to his comfort and happiness. For, having been the intimate friend of his wife, who had invited her to his house, she continued to reside with him, and in her he had always a conversable companion; who, whether at his dinners or at his tea-table, entertained his friends with her sensible conversation. Being extremely clean and neat in her person and habits, she never gave the least disgust by her manner of eating; and when she made tea for Johnson and his friends, conducted it with so much delicacy, by gently touching the outside of the cup, to feel, by the heat, the tea as it ascended within, that it was rather matter of admiration than of dislike to every attentive observer.
Johnson was fond of disputation, and willing to see what could be said on each side of the question, when a subject was argued. At all other times, no man had a more scrupulous regard for truth; from which, I verily believe, he would not have deviated to save his life.
536. Robert Levett.
Mr. Boswell describes Levett as a man of a strange, grotesque appearance, stiff and formal in his manner.(1) This is misrepresented. He was a modest, reserved man; humble and unaffected; ready to execute any commission for Johnson; and grateful for his patronage.