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Last Illness, and Death.
My readers are now, at last, to behold SAMUEL JOHNSON preparing himself for that doom, from which the most exalted powers afford no exemption to man. Death had always been to him an object of terror; so that, though by no means happy, he still clung to life with an eagerness at which many have wondered. At any time when he was ill, he was very much pleased to be told that he looked better. An ingenious member of the Eumelian Club (1) informs me, that upon one occasion, when he said to him that he saw health returning to his cheek, Johnson seized him by the hand and exclaimed, "Sir, you are one of the kindest friends I ever had."
His own statement of his views of futurity will appear truly rational; and may, perhaps, impress the unthinking with seriousness.
(1) A club in London, founded by the learned and ingenious physician, Dr. Ash, in honour of whose name it was called Eumelian [literally, well-ashed], from the Greek EvμEλas: though it was warmly contended, and even put to a vote, that it should have the more obvious appellation of Fraxinean, from the Latin.
"You know,” says he (1) to Mrs. Thrale, “I never thought confidence with respect to futurity any part of the character of a brave, a wise, or a good man. very has no place where it can avail nothing; wisdom impresses strongly the consciousness of those faults, of which it is, perhaps, itself an aggravation; and goodness, always wishing to be better, and imputing every deficience to criminal negligence, and every fault to voluntary corruption, never dares to suppose the condition of forgiveness fulfilled, nor what is wanting in the crime supplied by penitence.
"This is the state of the best; but what must be the condition of him whose heart will not suffer him to rank himself among the best, or among the good? Such must be his dread of the approaching trial, as will leave him little attention to the opinion of those whom he is leaving for ever; and the serenity that is not felt, it can be no virtue to feign."
His great fear of death, and the strange dark manner in which Sir John Hawkins (2) imparts the uneasiness which he expressed on account of offences with which he charged himself, may give occasion to injurious suspicions, as if there had been something of more than ordinary criminality weighing upon his conscience. On that account, therefore, as well as from the regard to truth which he inculcated (3), I am to mention (with all possible respect and delicacy, however), that his con
(1) Letters, Vol. II. p. 3.
(2) I am obliged to say, that I can see nothing more strange or dark in Hawkins's expressions than in Mr. Boswell's-nay, than in Dr. Johnson's own.
(3) See what he said to Mr. Malone, antè, p. 23.
duct, after he came to London, and had associated with Savage and others, was not so strictly virtuous, in one respect, as when he was a younger man. It was well known that his amorous inclinations were uncommonly strong and impetuous. He owned to many of his friends, that he used to take women of the town to taverns, and hear them relate their history. In short, it must not be concealed, that like many other good and pious men, among whom we may place the apostle Paul upon his own authority, Johnson was not free from propensities which were ever "warring against the law of his mind," and that in his combats with them, he was sometimes
Here let the profane and licentious pause; let them not thoughtlessly say that Johnson was an hypocrite, or that his principles were not firm, because his practice was not uniformly conformable to what he professed.
Let the question be considered independent of moral and religious associations; and no man will deny that thousands, in many instances, act against conviction. Is a prodigal, for example, an hypocrite, when he owns he is satisfied that his extravagance will bring him to ruin and misery? We are sure he believes it; but immediate inclination, strengthened by indulgence, prevails over that belief in influencing his conduct. Why then shall credit be refused to the sincerity of those who acknowledge their persuasion of moral and religious duty, yet sometimes fail of living as it requires? I
heard Dr. Johnson once observe, "There is something noble in publishing truth, though it condemns one's self." (1) And one who said in his presence, "he had no notion of people being in earnest in their good professions, whose practice was not suitable to them," was thus reprimanded by him: "Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?" (2)
But let no man encourage or soothe himself in "presumptuous sin," from knowing that Johnson was sometimes hurried into indulgences which he thought criminal. I have exhibited this circumstance as a shade in so great a character, both from my sacred love of truth, and to show that he was not so weakly scrupulous as he has been represented by those who imagine that the sins, of which a deep sense was upon his mind, were merely such little venial trifles as pouring milk into his tea on Good-Friday. His understanding will be defended by my statement, if his consistency of conduct be in some degree impaired. But what wise man would, for momentary gratifications, deliberately subject himself to suffer such uneasiness as we find
(1) Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (antè, Vol. IV. p. 221.). On the same subject, in his letter to Mrs. Thrale, dated November 29. 1783, he makes the following just observation : "Life, to be worthy of a rational being, must be always in pro gression; we must always purpose to do more or better than in time past. The mind is enlarged and elevated by mere purposes, though they end as they began, by airy contemplation. We compare and judge, though we do not practise."
(2) See antè, Vol. V. p. 104.
was experienced by Johnson in reviewing his conduct as compared with his notion of the ethics of the Gospel? Let the following passages be kept in remembrance:
"O God, giver and preserver of all life, by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained, look down upon me with tenderness and mercy; grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed; that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness." (Pr. and Med. p.47.)
“O Lord, let me not sink into total depravity; look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin." (p. 68.)
'Almighty and most merciful Father, who hath continued my life from year to year, grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures, and more careful of eternal happiness." (P. 84.)
"Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt; but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts, more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws." (p. 120.)
66 Forgive, O merciful Lord, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws. Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance: so that when I shall be called into another state, I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen." (p. 130.)
Such was the distress of mind, such the penitence of Johnson, in his hours of privacy, and in his devout approaches to his Maker. His sincerity, therefore, must appear to every candid mind unquestionable.