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thing in itself very plain. But to these frivolous censures no other answer is necessary than that with which we are furnished by his own Preface:
"To explain, requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found. For, as nothing can be proved but by supposing something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to admit of definition. Sometimes easy words are changed into harder; as, burial, into sepulture or interment; dry, into desiccative; dryness, into siccity, or aridity; fit, into paroxysm; for the easiest word, whatever it be, can never be translated into one more easy.”
His introducing his own opinions, and even preju dices under general definitions of words, while at the same time the original meaning of the words is not explained, as his
"TORY [a cant term, derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying a savage. One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state and the apostolic hierarchy of the church of England: opposed to a Whig].
"WHIG [the name of a faction].
"PENSION [an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country].
"PENSIONER [a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master].
"OATS [a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people].
"EXCISE [a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by WRETCHES hired by those to whom excise is paid. (1)]”
(1) The commissioners of excise being offended by this
And a few more, cannot be fully defended, and must be placed to the account of capricious and humorous indulgence.
severe reflection, consulted Mr. Murray, then Attorney-General, to know whether redress could be legally obtained. I wished to have procured for my readers a copy of the opinion which he gave, and which may now be justly considered as history: but the mysterious secrecy of office, it seems, would not permit it. I am, however, informed, by very good authority, that its import was, that the passage might be considered as actionable; but that it would be more prudent in the board not to prosecute. Johnson never made the smallest alteration in this passage. We find he still retained his carly prejudice against excise; for in "The Idler," No. 65., there is the following very extraordinary paragraph: "The authenticity of Clarendon's History, though printed with the sanction of one of the first universities of the world, had not an unexpected manuscript been happily discovered, would, with the help of factious credulity, have been brought into question, by the two lowest of all human beings, a scribbler for a party, and a commissioner of excise." The persons to whom he alludes were Mr. John Oldmixon, and George Ducket, Esq.- Boswell.
I am more fortunate than Mr. Boswell, in being able (through the favour of Sir F. H. Doyle, now deputy-chairman of the excise board) to present the reader with the case submitted to Lord Mansfield, and his opinion.
"CASE for the opinion of Mr. Attorney-General.
"Mr. Samuel Johnson has lately published A Dictionary of the English Language,' in which are the following
"Excise, n. s. A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.'
"The author's definition being observed by the commissioners of excise, they desire the favour of your opinion. "Qu. Whether it will not be considered as a libel, and if so, whether it is not proper to proceed against the author, printers, and publishers thereof, or any and which of them, by information, or how otherwise?"
"I am of opinion that it is a libel. But under all the circumstances, I should think it better to give him an opportunity of altering his definition; and, in case he do not, to threaten him with an information.
"29th Nov. 1755.
Whether any such step was taken, Sir Francis Doyle has not been able to discover: probably not; but Johnson, in his own
Talking to me upon this subject when we were at Ashbourne in 1777, he mentioned a still stronger instance of the predominance of his private feelings in the composition of this work, than any now to be found in it. "You know, sir, Lord Gower forsook the old Jacobite interest. When I came to the word Renegado, after telling that it meant ' one who deserts to the enemy, a revolter,' I added, Sometimes we say a GOWER. Thus it went to the press : but the printer had more wit than I, and struck it out." (')
Let it, however, be remembered, that this indulgence does not display itself only in sarcasm towards others, but sometimes in playful allusion to the notions commonly entertained of his own laborious task. Thus: "Grub Street, the name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub Street."- Lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge."
At the time when he was concluding his very eloquent Preface, Johnson's mind appears to have been in such a state of depression, that we cannot contemplate without wonder the vigorous and splendid thoughts which so highly distinguish that performance.
"I (says he) may surely be contented without the
octavo abridgment of the Dictionary, had the good sense to omit the more offensive parts of the definitions of both EXCISE and PENSION. We have already seen (antè, Vol. I. p. 31.) the probable motive of the attack on the Excise. CROKER.
(1) Lord Gower, after a long opposition to the Whig ministry (which was looked upon as equivalent to Jacobitism), accepted, in 1742, the office of Privy Seal, and was the object of much censure both with Whigs and Tories. — C.
praise of perfection, which if I could obtain in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave; and success and miscarriage are empty sounds. I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise."
That this indifference was rather a temporary than an habitual feeling, appears, I think, from his letters to Mr. Warton; and however he may have been affected for the moment, certain it is that the honours which his great work procured him, both at home and abroad, were very grateful to him. His friend the Earl of Corke and Orrery, being at Florence, presented it to the Academia della Crusca. That Academy sent Johnson their Vocabulario, and the French Academy sent him their Dictionnaire, which Mr. Langton had the pleasure to convey to him.
It must undoubtedly seem strange, that the conclusion of his Preface should be expressed in terms so desponding, when it is considered that the author was then only in his forty-sixth year. But we must ascribe its gloom to that miserable dejection of spirits to which he was constitutionally subject, and which was aggravated by the death of his wife two years before. I have heard it ingeniously observed by a lady of rank and elegance, that "his melancholy was then at its meridian." It pleased God to grant him almost thirty years of life after this time; and once when he was in a placid frame of mind, he was obliged to own to me that he had enjoyed happier days, and had many more friends, since that gloomy hour, than before.
It is a sad saying, that "most of those whom he wished to please had sunk into the grave;" and his case at forty-five was singularly unhappy, unless the circle of his friends was very narrow. I have often thought, that as longevity is generally desired, and I believe, generally expected, it would be wise to be continually adding to the number of our friends, that the loss of some may be supplied by others. Friendship, "the wine of life," should, like a well stocked cellar, be thus continually renewed; and it is consolatory to think, that although we can seldom add what will equal the generous first-growths of our youth, yet friendship becomes insensibly old in much less time than is commonly imagined, and not many years are required to make it very mellow and pleasant. Warmth will, no doubt, make a considerable difference. Men of affectionate temper and bright fancy will coalesce a great deal sooner than those who are cold and dull.
The proposition which I have now endeavoured to illustrate was, at a subsequent period of his life, the opinion of Johnson himself. He said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, "If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair."
The celebrated Mr. Wilkes, whose notions and habits of life were very opposite to his, but who was ever eminent for literature and vivacity, sallied forth with a little Jeu d'Esprit upon the following passage in his Grammar of the English Tongue, prefixed to the Dictionary: "H seldom, perhaps never, begins