Dr. Johnson and His Circle
by John Bailey
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E-text prepared by Al Haines

Transcriber's note:

Page numbers are enclosed between curly brackets to assis the reader in using the index.




Author of "Poets and Poetry," "The Claims of French Poetry," etc.

Thornton Butterworth Limited 15 Bedford Street, London, W.C.2

First Published . . . . February 1913 Second Impression . . . September 1919 Third Impression . . . . August 1927 Fourth Impression . . . January 1931

All Rights Reserved




I JOHNSON AS A NATIONAL INSTITUTION . . . . . . . . 7 II THE GENIUS OF BOSWELL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37 III THE LIVES OF BOSWELL AND JOHNSON . . . . . . . . . 70 IV JOHNSON'S CHARACTER AND CHARACTERISTICS . . . . . 109 V JOHNSON'S WORKS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 171 VI THE FRIENDS OF JOHNSON . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 230 BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 253 INDEX . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 265





The name of Samuel Johnson is, of course, not the greatest in English prose, but even to-day, when he has been dead more than a century and a quarter, it is still the most familiar. We live in an age of newspapers. Where all can read, the newspaper press, taken as a whole, will be a fairly accurate reflection of what is in the mind of a people. Nothing will be mentioned frequently in newspapers which is not of some interest to a large number of readers; and whatever is frequently mentioned there cannot fail to become widely known. Tried by this test, Johnson's name must be admitted to be very widely known and of almost universal interest. No man of letters—perhaps scarcely even Shakespeare himself—is so often quoted in the columns of the daily press. His is a name that may {8} be safely introduced into any written or spoken discussion, without fear of the stare of unrecognizing ignorance; and the only danger to which those who quote him expose themselves is that of the yawn of over-familiarity. Even in his own lifetime his reputation extended far beyond the limited circle of literature or scholarship. Actresses delighted in his conversation; soldiers were proud to entertain him in their barracks; innkeepers boasted of his having slept in their inns. His celebrity was such that he himself once said there was hardly a day in which the newspapers did not mention his name; and a year after his death Boswell could venture to write publicly of him that his "character, religious, moral, political and literary, nay his figure and manner, are, I believe, more generally known than those of almost any man." But what was, in his own day, partly a respect paid to the maker of the famous Dictionary and partly a curiosity about "the great Oddity," as the Edensor innkeeper called him, has in the course of the nineteenth century become a great deal more.

He is still for us the great scholar and the strongly marked individuality, but he has gradually attained a kind of apotheosis, a kind of semi-legendary position, almost rivalling that of the great John Bull himself, as the {9} embodiment of the essential features of the English character. We never think of the typical Englishman being like Shakespeare or Milton. In the first place, we know very little about Shakespeare, and not very much about Milton; and so we are thrown back on their works, and our mental picture of them takes on a dim and shadowy grandeur, very unlike what we see when we look within into our familiar and commonplace selves. Nor do Englishmen often plume themselves on their aesthetic or imaginative gifts. The achievements of Wren, or Purcell, or Keats may arouse in them admiration and pride, but never a sense of kinship. When they recognize themselves in the national literature, it is not Hamlet, or Lear, or Clarissa, or Ravenswood that holds up the mirror; but Falstaff, or The Bastard, or Tom Jones, or Jeanie Deans, or perhaps Gabriel Oak: plain people, all of them, whatever their differences, with a certain quiet and downright quality which Englishmen are apt to think the peculiar birthright of the people of this island. It is that quality which was the central thing in the mind of Johnson, and it is to his possession of it, and to our unique knowledge of it through Boswell, that more than anything else he owes this position of the typical Englishman among our men of letters. We can all imagine that {10} under other conditions, and with an added store of brains and character, we might each have been Doctor Johnson. Before we could fancy ourselves Shelley or Keats the self that we know would have to be not developed but destroyed. But in Johnson we see our own magnified and glorified selves.

It has sometimes been asserted to be the function of the man of letters to say what others can feel or think but only he can express. Whatever may be thought of such a definition of literature, it is certain that Johnson discharged this particular function with almost unique success. And he continues to do so still, especially in certain fields. Whenever we feel strongly the point of view of common sense we almost expect to be able to find some trenchant phrase of Johnson's with which to express it. If it cannot be found it is often invented. A few years ago, a lover of Johnson walking along a London street passed by the side of a cabmen's shelter. Two cabmen were getting their dinner ready, and the Johnsonian was amused and pleased to hear one say to the other: "After all, as Doctor Johnson says, a man may travel all over the world without seeing anything better than his dinner." The saying was new to him and probably apocryphal, though the sentiment is one which can well be imagined {11} as coming from the great man's mouth. But whether apocryphal or authentic, the remark well illustrates both the extent and the particular nature of Johnson's fame. You would not find a cabman ascribing to Milton or Pope a shrewd saying that he had heard and liked. Is there any man but Johnson in all our literary history whom he would be likely to call in on such an occasion? That is the measure of Johnson's universality of appeal. And the secret of it lies, to use his own phrase, not used of himself of course, in the "bottom of sense," which is the primary quality in all he wrote and said, and is not altogether absent from his ingrained prejudices, or even from the perversities of opinion which his love of argument and opposition so constantly led him to adopt. Whether right or wrong there is always something broadly and fundamentally human about him which appeals to all and especially to the plain man. Every one feels at home at once with a man who replies to doubts about the freedom of the will with the plain man's answer: "Sir, we know our will's free, and there's an end on't," and if he adds to it an argument which the plain man would not have thought of, it is still one which the plain man and everyone else can understand. "You are surer that you can lift up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any {12} conclusion from a deduction of reasoning." Moreover we all think we are more honest than our neighbours and are at once drawn to the man who was less of a humbug than any man who ever lived. "Clear your mind of cant" is perhaps the central text of Johnson, on which he enlarged a hundred times. "When a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for his country, he has in fact no uneasy feeling." No one who has ever attended an election meeting fails to welcome that saying, or the answer to Boswell's fears that if he were in Parliament he would be unhappy if things went wrong, "That's cant, sir. . . . Public affairs vex no man." "Have they not vexed yourself a little, sir? Have you not been vexed at all by the turbulence of this reign and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, 'That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished'?" "Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed."

Here we all know where we are. This is what we wish we could have said ourselves, and can fancy ourselves saying under more favourable circumstances; and we like the man who says it for us. Certainly no man, not even Swift, ever put the plain man's view with {13} such exactness, felicity, and force as Johnson does a thousand times in the pages of Boswell. And not only in the pages of Boswell. One of the objects of this introductory chapter is to try to give a preliminary answer to the very natural question which confronts every one who thinks about Johnson, how it has come about that a man whose works are so little read to-day should still be so great a name in English life. How is it that in this HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY he is the second author to have a volume to himself, only Shakespeare preceding him? The primary answer is, of course, that we know him, as we know no other man whose face we never saw, whose voice we never heard. Boswell boasted that he had "Johnsonized the land," and that he had shown Johnson in his book as no man had ever been shown in a book before; and the boast is after a hundred years seen to be a literal statement of fact. But after all Boswell did not make Johnson's reputation. On the contrary, it was Johnson's name that sold Boswell's book. No man owes so much to his biographer as Johnson to Boswell, but that must not make us forget that Johnson was the most famous man of letters in England before he ever saw Boswell. Boswell's earnest desire to make his acquaintance and to sit humbly at his feet was only an extreme {14} instance of an attitude of respect and admiration, often even of reverence, commonly felt towards him among the more intelligent and serious portion of the community. He had not then attained to the position of something like Dictatorship which he filled in the world of English letters at the time he wrote the Lives of the Poets, but, except the Shakespeare and the Lives, all the work that gave him that position was already done. In this case, as in others, fame increased in old age without any corresponding increase in achievement, and it was the easy years at Streatham, not the laborious years at Gough Square, that saw him honoured and courted by bishops and judges, peers and commoners, by the greatest of English statesmen and the greatest of English painters. But his kingship was in him from the first. He had been anax andron even among his schoolfellows. His bigness, in more ways than one, made them call him "the great boy," and the father of one of them was astute enough even then to perceive that he would be more than that: "you call him the great boy, but take my word for it, he will one day prove a great man." The boys looked upon him so much as a superior being to themselves that three of them, of whom one was his friend Hector, whom he often saw in later life, "used to come in the morning as his humble {15} attendants and carry him to school. One in the middle stooped while he sat upon his back, and one on each side supported him, and thus he was borne triumphant." Such a tribute by boys to intellectual superiority was less rare in those days than it has become since: but it would not be easy to find a parallel to it at any time. What began at school continued through life. Even when he was poorest and most obscure, there was something about him that secured respect. It is too little to say that no one ever imagined he could with impunity behave disrespectfully to Johnson. No one ever dared to do so. As he flung the well-meant boots from his door at Oxford, so throughout life he knew how to make all men afraid to insult, slight, or patronize him.

But these, after all, were qualities that would only affect the few who came into personal contact with him. What was it that affected the larger world and gave him the fame and authority of his later years? Broadly speaking of course it was what he had written, the work he had done, his poems, his Rambler and Idler, his Rasselas, his Shakespeare, above all that colossal and triumphant piece of single-handed labour, the Dictionary of the English Language. But there was more than that. Another man might have written {16} books quite as valuable, and attained to nothing like Johnson's position. A thousand people to-day read what Gray was writing in those years for one who reads what Johnson wrote, and they are quite right. Yet Gray in his lifetime had little fame and no authority except among his friends. Pope, again, had of course immense celebrity, more no doubt than Johnson ever had among men of letters; but he never became, as Johnson did, something almost like a national institution. What was it that gave Johnson what great poets never attained? It could not yet be his reputation as a great talker, which was only beginning to spread. We think of him as the greatest talker the world has ever seen: but that is chiefly due to Boswell, of course, and we are speaking at present of the years before the memorable meeting in the back parlour of Mr. Davies's shop in Russell Street, Covent Garden. Besides, good talk, except in Boswell's pages, is like good acting, a vain thing to those who only know it by hearsay. We are therefore thrown back on Johnson's public work for an explanation of the position he held. What was it in his work, with so little of Pope's amazing wit and brilliancy, with so little of Gray's fine imaginative quality and distinction, prose too, in the main, and not poetry, with none of the prestige of poetry, {17} that gave him what neither Pope nor Gray ever received, what it is scarcely too much to call, the homage of a nation?

The answer is that, especially in England, it is not brilliance or distinction of mind that win the respect of a nation. George III had many faults, but all through his reign he was an admirable representative of the general feelings of his people. And he never did a more representative act than when he gave Johnson a pension, or when he received him in the library of Buckingham House. No doubt many, though not all, of Johnson's political and ecclesiastical prejudices were very congenial to the king, but plenty of people shared George Ill's views without gaining from him an ounce of respect. What he and the nation dimly felt about Johnson was a quality belonging less to the author than to the man. The English, as we were saying just now, think of themselves as a plain people, more honest and direct in word and deed than the rest of the world. George III never affected to be anything but a plain man, was very honest according to his lights, and never for an instant failed to have the courage of his convictions. Such a king and such a people would inevitably be attracted to a man of Johnson's fearless sincerity and invincible common sense. The ideal of the nation is {18} still the same. Johnson once praised the third Duke of Devonshire for his "dogged veracity." We have lately seen one of that duke's descendants and successors, a man of no obvious or shining talents, attain to a position of almost unique authority among his fellow countrymen mainly by his signal possession of this hereditary gift of veracity, honesty and good sense. So it was with Johnson himself. Behind all his learning lay something which no learned language could conceal. "On s'attend a voir un auteur et on trouve un homme." Authors then, as now, were often thought to be fantastical, namby-pamby persons, living in dreams, sharing none of the plain man's interests, eager and querulous about trifles and unrealities, indifferent and incapable in the broad world of life. Nobody could feel that about Johnson.

He never pretended to be superior to the pains or pleasures of the body and never concealed his interest in the physical basis of life. He might with truth have spoken, as Pope did, of "that long disease, my life," for he declares in one of his letters that after he was past twenty his health was such that he seldom enjoyed a single day of ease; and he was so scrupulously truthful when he had a pen in his hand that that must be taken as at the least a literal record of the truth as it appeared {19} to him at that moment. But though he never enjoyed health he never submitted to the tyranny of disease. The manliness that rings through all he wrote made itself felt also in his life, and we are not surprised to hear from Mrs. Thrale, in whose house he lived so long, that he "required less attendance sick or well than ever I saw any human creature." He could conquer disease and pain, but he never affected stoic "braveries," about not finding them very actual and disagreeable realities. In the same way, he never pretended not to enjoy the universal pleasures, such as food and sleep. Boswell records him as saying: "Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously and very carefully, for I look upon it that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else." This is not particularly refined language, and Johnson's manners at the dinner-table, where, until he had satisfied his appetite, he was "totally absorbed in the business of the moment," were not always of a nature to please refined people. But our present point is that they were only an exaggeration of that sense of bodily realities which is one of the things that has always helped to secure for him the plain man's confidence. Throughout his life he kept his {20} feet firmly based on the solid ground of fact. Human life, as it is actually and visibly lived, was the subject of his study and conversation from first to last. He always put fine-spun theories to mercilessly positive tests such as the ordinary man understands and trusts at once, though ordinary men have not the quickness or clearness of mind to apply them. When people preached a theory to him he was apt to confute them simply by applying it to practice. He supposed them to act upon it, and its absurdity was demonstrated. One of his friends was Mrs. Macaulay, who was a republican and affected doctrines of the equality of all men. When Johnson was at her house one day he put on, as he says, "a very grave countenance," and said to her: "Madam, I am now become a convert to your way of thinking. I am convinced that all mankind are upon an equal footing; and to give you an unquestionable proof, madam, that I am in earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well-behaved fellow-citizen, your footman: I desire that he may be allowed to sit down and dine with us." No wonder that, as he adds, "she has never liked me since." To the political thinker, perhaps, such an argument rather proves the insincerity of Mrs. Macaulay than what he claimed for it, "the absurdity of the levelling doctrine." But it exhibits, {21} with a force that no theoretical reasoning could match, the difficulty which doctrines of equality will always have to meet in the resistance of human nature as it is and as it is likely to remain for a long time to come. And it illustrates the habit of Johnson's mind which has always made the unlearned hear him so gladly, the habit of forcing theory to the test of fact. For quick as he was, perhaps quicker than any recorded man, at the tierce and quart of theoretical argument, he commonly used the bludgeon stroke of practice to give his opponent the final blow. We are vaguely distrustful of our reasoning powers, but every man thinks he can understand facts and figures. The quickness of Johnson in applying arithmetical tests to careless statements must have been another of the elements in the fear, respect and confidence he inspired. A gentleman once told him that in France, as soon as a man of fashion marries, he takes an opera girl into keeping, and he declared this to be the general custom. "Pray, sir," said Johnson, "how many opera girls may there be?" He answered, "About four score." "Well then, sir," replied Johnson, "you see there can be no more than fourscore men of fashion who can do this."

There is no art of persuasion, as all orators know, so overwhelming in effect as this appeal, {22} or even appearance of appeal, to a court in which every man feels as much at home as the speaker himself. And though Johnson's use of it is, of course, seen at its most telling in his conversation, it was in him from the first, is a conspicuous feature of all he wrote, and was undoubtedly a powerful factor in winning for him the reputation of manliness and honesty he enjoyed. Take, for instance, a few paragraphs from his analysis of the rhetoric of authors on the subject of poverty. It is No. 202 of The Rambler. There is no better evidence of his perfect freedom from that slavery to words which is the besetting sin of authors.

"There are few words of which the reader believes himself better to know the import than of poverty; yet whoever studies either the poets or philosophers will find such an account of the condition expressed by that term as his experience or observation will not easily discover to be true. Instead of the meanness, distress, complaint, anxiety and dependence, which have hitherto been combined in his ideas of poverty, he will read of content, innocence and cheerfulness, of health and safety, tranquillity and freedom; of pleasures not known but to men unencumbered with possessions; and of sleep that sheds his balsamick anodynes only on the {23} cottage. Such are the blessings to be obtained by the resignation of riches, that kings might descend from their thrones and generals retire from a triumph, only to slumber undisturbed in the elysium of poverty."

* * * * * *

"But it will be found upon a nearer view that they who extol the happiness of poverty do not mean the same state with those who deplore its miseries. Poets have their imaginations filled with ideas of magnificence; and being accustomed to contemplate the downfall of empires, or to contrive forms of lamentation for monarchs in distress, rank all the classes of mankind in a state of poverty who make no approaches to the dignity of crowns. To be poor, in the epick language, is only not to command the wealth of nations, nor to have fleets and armies in pay.

"Vanity has perhaps contributed to this impropriety of style. He that wishes to become a philosopher at a cheap rate easily gratifies his ambition by submitting to poverty when he does not feel it, and by boasting his contempt of riches when he has already more than he enjoys. He who would show the extent of his views and grandeur of his conceptions, or discover his acquaintance with splendour and magnificence, may talk, like Cowley, of an humble station and quiet {24} obscurity, of the paucity of nature's wants, and the inconveniences of superfluity, and at last, like him, limit his desires to five hundred pounds a year; a fortune indeed, not exuberant, when we compare it with the expenses of pride and luxury, but to which it little becomes a philosopher to affix the name of poverty, since no man can with any propriety be termed poor who does not see the greater part of mankind richer than himself."

What good sense, what resolute grip on the realities of life, what a love of truth and seriousness, shines through the long sentences! The form and language of the essay may perhaps be too suggestive of the professional author; but how much the opposite, how very human and real, is the stuff and substance of what he says! Professor Raleigh once proposed as a test of great literature, that it should be found applicable and useful in circumstances very different from those that were in the author's mind when he wrote. By that test these words of Johnson are certainly great literature. The degrees of wealth and poverty have varied infinitely in the history of the world. They were very different under the Roman Empire from what they became in the Middle Age; by Johnson's day they had become quite unlike what they had been in {25} the days of Dante and Chaucer; and they have again changed almost or quite as much in the hundred and thirty years that have passed since he died. Yet was there ever a time, will there ever be, when the self-deception of the human heart or the loose thinking of the human mind, will not allow men who never knew poverty to boast of their cheerful endurance of it? Have we not to-day reached a time when men with an assured income of ten, twenty, or even thirty pounds a week, affect to consider themselves too poor to be able to afford to marry? And where will such people better find the needed recall to fact, than in Johnson's trenchant and unanswerable appeal to the obvious truth as all can see it, if they will, for themselves, in the visible conditions of the world about them: "No man can, with any propriety, be termed poor who does not see the greater part of mankind richer than himself?"

This hold on the realities of life is the most essential element in Johnson's greatness. Ordinary people felt it from the first, however unconsciously, and looked to Johnson as something more than an author. Pope might do himself honour by acclaiming the verses of the unknown poet: Warburton might hasten to pay his tribute to the unknown critic: but they could not give Johnson, what neither {26} of them could have gained for himself, the confidence, soon to be felt by the whole reading part of the population of England, that here was a man uniquely rich in the wisdom of every day, learned but no victim of learning, sincerely religious but with a religion that never tried to ignore the facts of human life, a scholar, a philosopher and a Christian, but also pre-eminently a man.

A grave man, no doubt, apt to deal in grave subjects, especially when he had his pen in his hand. But that helped rather than hindered his influence. He would not have liked to think that he owed part of his own authority to the sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans, but no doubt he did. Still the Puritan movement only deepened a vein of seriousness which had been in the English from Saxon days. One may see it everywhere. The Puritans would not have been the power they were if they had not found congenial soil in the English character. The Reformation itself, a Protestant may be excused for thinking, owes its ultimate triumph in England partly to the fact that Englishmen saw in it a movement towards a more serious and ethical religion than the Catholicism either of the Middle Age or of the Jesuits. The same thing may be seen in the narrower fields of literature. The Renaissance {27} on the whole takes a much more ethical note in England than, for instance, in France. A little later indeed, in the France of Pascal and Bossuet, books of devotion and theology were very widely read, as may be seen in the letters of Madame de Sevigne; but they can never have had anything like the circulation which they had in England, both in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Every one who looks at an English country-house library is struck by the abundant provision of sermons, mainly collected, like everything else indeed, in the eighteenth century. And every reader of Boswell's Johnson has been impressed by the frequent recurrence of devotional and religious books in the literary talk of the day, and, what is perhaps more remarkable, by the fact that wherever Boswell and Johnson go they constantly find volumes of sermons lying about, not only in the private houses, but also in the inns where they stay. There never was a period when "conduct," as Matthew Arnold used to call it, was so admitted to be the three-fourths of life he claimed for it, as it was between the Restoration and the French Revolution. It was conduct, not faith, ethics not religion, the "whole duty of man" in this life, not his supernatural destiny in another, that mainly occupied the minds of serious people {28} in that unecclesiastical age. And Johnson, definite Christian, definite Churchman as he was, full even of ecclesiastical prejudices, was just the man to appeal to a generation with such interests as these.

No questions occupied him so much as moral questions. He was all his life considering how he ought to live, and trying to live better. People who are in earnest about these things have always found not only his published prayers or his moral essays, but his life as told by Boswell full of fortifying and stimulating ethical food. All alike exhibit a mind that recognized the problem of the conduct of life as the one thing of supreme interest to a rational man, and recognized it as above all things a moral problem. His treatment of it is usually based on reason, not on mere authority or orthodoxy, or even on Christianity at all. Rasselas, for instance, his most popular ethical work, which was translated into most of the European languages, does not contain a single allusion to Christianity. Its atmosphere is neither Mahomedan nor Christian, but that of pure reason. And when elsewhere he does discuss definitely Christian problems it is usually in the light of free and unfettered reason. Reason by itself has probably never made any one a Christian, and certainly Johnson's {29} Christianity was not an affair of the reason alone, but he was seldom afraid to test it by the touchstone of reason. That was not merely a thing done in accordance with the fashion of his age; it was the inevitable activity of an acute and powerful mind. But the fact that he had in him this absorbing ethical interest, and that throughout his life he was applying to it a rare intellectual energy, and what was rarer still in those fields, a close and unfailing grip on life and reality, gave him that peculiar position to which he came in his last years; one of an authority which was probably not equalled by that of any professed philosopher or divine.

Still, his seriousness could not by itself have given him this position. The English people like their public men to be serious, but they do not like them to be nothing else. The philosopher and the saint, the merely intellectual man or the merely spiritual man, have never been popular characters or become leaders of men, here any more than elsewhere. The essential element in the confidence Johnson inspired was not his seriousness: it was his sovereign sanity, the unfailing common sense, to which allusion has already been made. He was pre-eminently a bookish man, but he was conspicuously free from the unreality that is so often felt {30} in the characters of such men. He knew from the first how to strike a note which showed that he was well aware of the difference between literature and life and their relative importance.

"Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes, And pause awhile from Letters, to be wise."

So he said, as a young man, in his finest poem, and so he acted all through the years. Scholar as he was, and very conscious of the dignity of scholarship, he never forgot that scholarship faded into insignificance in presence of the greater issues of life. In his most scholarly moment, in the Preface to the Dictionary, he will throw out such remark as "this recommendation of steadiness and uniformity (in spelling) does not proceed from an opinion that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness." Such a sentence could not but give plain people a feeling of unusual confidence in the writer. How different they would at once feel it to be, how different, indeed, we still feel it, from the too frequent pedantry of critics, insisting with solemn importance or querulous ill-temper upon trifling points of grammar or style. We know that this man has a scale of things in his mind {31} he will not vilify his opponent's character for the sake of a difference about a Greek construction, or make a lifelong quarrel over the question of the maiden name and birthplace of Shelley's great-grandmother. From first to last he was emphatically a human being, with a feeling for human life as a whole, and in all its parts. He said once: "A mere antiquarian is a rugged being," and he was never himself a mere grammarian or a mere scholar, but a man with an eager interest in all the business and pleasure of life. His high sense of the dignity of literature looked to its large and human side, not to any parade of curious information. Everywhere in his writings plain people are conciliated by his frank attitude as to his own calling, by his perfect freedom from any pontifical airs of the mystery of authorship. "I could have written longer notes," he says in the great Preface to his Shakespeare, "for the art of writing notes is not of difficult attainment." "It is impossible for an expositor not to write too little for some, and too much for others." "I have indeed disappointed no opinion more than my own; yet I have endeavoured to perform my task with no slight solicitude. Not a single passage in the whole work has appeared to me corrupt which I have not attempted to restore; or {32} obscure which I have not endeavoured to illustrate. In many I have failed, like others, and from many, after all my efforts, I have retreated, and confessed the repulse. I have not passed over with affected superiority what is equally difficult to the reader and to myself, but where I could not instruct him have owned my ignorance. I might easily have accumulated a mass of seeming learning upon easy scenes; but it ought not to be imputed to negligence that, where nothing was necessary, nothing has been done, or that, where others have said enough, I have said no more."

A man who writes like this is sure of his public at once. He is instantly seen to be too proud, as well as too sincere, too great a man, in fact, altogether, to stoop to the dishonest little artifices by which vanity tries to steal applause. In his writings as in his talk, he was not afraid to be seen for what he actually was; and just as, when asked how he came to explain the word Pastern as meaning the knee of a horse, he replied at once, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance," so in his books he made no attempt to be thought wiser or more learned than he was. And this modesty which he showed for himself he showed for his author too. The common notion that he depreciated {33} Shakespeare is, indeed, an entire mistake. There were certainly things in Shakespeare which were out of his reach, but that does not alter the fact that Shakespeare has never been better praised than in Johnson's Preface. But he will not say what he does not mean about Shakespeare any more than about himself. There is in him nothing at all of the subtle trickery of the common critic who thinks to magnify his own importance by extravagant and insincere laudation of his author. He is not afraid to speak of the poet with the same simplicity as he speaks of the editor. "Yet it must be at last confessed that, as we owe everything to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom and veneration." He even adds that Shakespeare has "perhaps not one play which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer, would be heard to the conclusion." Whether that is true or not of Johnson's day or of our own—and let us not be too hastily sure of its untruth—at least the man who wrote it in the preface to an edition of Shakespeare lacked neither honesty nor courage. And he had then, as he has still, the reward which the most popular of the virtues will always bring.


With courage and honesty usually go simplicity and directness. That is not the first praise that Johnson would win from people familiar with caricatures of his style. But it is a complete mistake to suppose that he always wore that heavy armour of magniloquence. He could be as free from pedantry of phrase as he always was from pedantry of thought. He is not only a supreme master of common sense; he is a supreme master of the language of common sense. He has the gift of saying things which no one can misunderstand and no one can forget. His common sense is what its name implies, no private possession thrust upon the minds of others, but their own thoughts expressed for them. That was one of the secrets of the unique confidence he inspired. The jury gave him their verdict because he always put the issue on a basis they could understand. His answer to the specious arguments of the learned is always an appeal to what it needs no learning to know. The critics of Pope's Homer are met by the unanswerable retort: "To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient. The purpose of a writer is to be read." To Pope himself affecting scorn of the great, the same merciless measure of common knowledge is dealt. "His scorn of the great is too often repeated to be real: no man thinks {35} much of that which he despises." And so once more to Pope's victims. If they would have kept quiet, he says, the Dunciad would have been little read: "For whom did it concern to know that one or another scribbler was a dunce?" But this is what the dunces are the last people to realize: indeed, "every man is of importance to himself, and therefore, in his own opinion, to others"; so the victim is the first to "publish injuries or misfortunes which had never been known unless related by himself, and at which those that hear them will only laugh; for no man sympathizes with the sorrows of vanity."

Every one who is much read in Johnson will recall for himself other and perhaps better instances than these of his rare faculty of gathering together into a sentence some piece of the common stock of wisdom or observation, and applying it simply, directly and unanswerably to the immediate business in hand. Is there anything which clears and relieves an argument so well? "The true state of every nation is the state of common life"; "If one was to think constantly of death the business of life would stand still"; "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." How firm on one's feet, on the solid ground of truth, one feels when one reads such sentences! The writer of them {36} is at once recognized as no maker of phrases, no victim of cloudy speculations, self-deceived and the deceiver of others, but a man who kept himself always close to the realities of things. And when to this, which had been always there, was added the special charm of the Lives of the Poets, the old man speaking, often in the first person, without reserve or mystery, out of the fullness of his knowledge of books and men and the general life which is greater than either, then the feeling entertained for him grew into something not very unlike affection. The man who could not be concealed even by the grave abstractions of the earlier works, was now seen and heard as a friend speaking face to face with those who understood him. The wisdom, and learning and piety, the shrewdness and vigour and wit, the invincible common sense, took visible shape in the face of Samuel Johnson, were heard in his audible voice, became known and honoured and loved as a kind of national glory, the embodiment of the mind and character of the English people. And then, of course, came Boswell. And what might have died away as a memory or a legend was made secure from mortality by a work of genius. At the moment Boswell had only to complete an impression already made. But, strong as it was at the time, without Boswell it could {37} not have lasted. Those who had sat with Johnson at the Mitre or "The Club" could not long survive, and could not leave their eyes and ears behind them. Literary fashions changed; popular taste began to ask evermore for amusement and less for instruction or edification; and the works of Johnson were no longer read, except by students of English literature. But for Boswell the great man's name might soon have been unknown to any but bookish men. It is due to Boswell that journalists quote him, and cabmen tell stories about him. Johnson had himself almost every quality that makes for survival except genius; and that, by the happiest of fates for himself and for us, he found in his biographer.



The word genius seems a strange one to apply to Boswell. Macaulay has had his hour of authority with most of us, and, unluckily for him and for us, the worst passages in his Essays are often better remembered {38} than the greatest chapters in his History. It has proved his ill-fortune as well as his glory to have written so vividly that the mind's eye will still see what he wrote clear before it, though twenty years may lie between it and the actual sight of the printed page. At his worst he is like an advertisement hoarding, crude, violent, vulgar, but impossible to escape. The essay on Croker's Boswell is one of those unfortunate moments. It is, unhappily, far better known than its author's article on Johnson written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and its violence still takes the memory by assault. No one forgets the disgusting description of Johnson, or the insults heaped upon Boswell. Least of all can anybody forget the famous paradox about the contrast between Boswell and his book. As a biographer, according to Macaulay, Boswell has easily surpassed all rivals. "Homer is not more decidedly the first of Epic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere." And yet this same Boswell is "a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect"; and, strangest of all, only achieves his amazing success by force of his worthlessness and folly. "If he had not {39} been a great fool he would never have been a great writer."

Macaulay was the most self-confident of men. But, though he set his opinion with assurance against that of any other critic, there was one verdict he respected, the verdict of time. He would not have been astonished to hear that in the eighty years since his essay was written the fame of Boswell's book has continually increased. But few things that have happened since then would have surprised him more than to be told that, in a volume published only fifty years after his death and in part officially addressed to his own University of Cambridge, a Professor of English Literature, one of the two or three universally acknowledged masters of criticism, would be found quietly letting fall, as a thing about which there need be no discussion, a sentence beginning with the words: "A wiser man than Macaulay, James Boswell."

It may be well, before speaking further of Johnson, to say something about the man to whom we owe most of our knowledge of him, the most important member of his circle, this same James Boswell. Like all good biographers, he has put himself into his book; and we know him as well as we know Johnson, as we know no other two men, perhaps, in the history of the world. It cannot be denied {40} that, when we put his great book down, it is not very easy to follow Sir Walter Raleigh in talking of him as a wise man, or even as a wiser man than Macaulay. If Boswell and Macaulay were put into competition in a prize for wisdom, no ordinary examiners would give it to Boswell. By the only tests they could apply, Macaulay must far outstrip him. The wisdom which enabled Macaulay to render splendid services to the State and to literature, and gave him wealth, happiness, popularity and a peerage, is as easily tested, and, it must be confessed, as real, as the unwisdom which ended in Boswell dying the dishonoured death of a drunkard, and leaving a name of which his descendants felt the shame at least as much as the glory.

But there are other tests, and though their superior value may be doubted, they ought not to be altogether ignored. Macaulay, who knew everything and achieved so much, spent his whole life in visible and external activities—talking, reading, writing, governing; and was admired, and, indeed, admirable in them all. But of the wisdom which realizes how essentially inferior all measurable doing, however triumphant, is to being, which is immeasurable, the wisdom which is occupied with the ultimate issues of life and death, he had apparently as little as any man who ever lived. He seems {41} always to have been one of those active, hurrying, useful persons who—

"Fancy that they put forth all their life And never know how with the soul it fares."

Whatever can be said against Boswell that cannot be said. Of this inner wisdom, this quietness of thought, this "folie des grandeurs" of the soul, he had a thousand times as much as Macaulay. He could not cling to it to the end, he could not victoriously live by it and make it himself; but he had seen the vision which Macaulay never saw, and he never altogether forgot it. Every man is partly a lost soul. So far as Boswell was that, he knew it in all the bitter certainty of tears. So far as Macaulay was, he was as unconscious of it as the beasts that perish. And the kingdom of wisdom, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is more easily entered by those who know that they are outside it, than by those who do not know that there is such a place and are quite content where they are.

But these are high matters into which there is no need to go further. It is necessary, however, to say a little more about Boswell's character and abilities. He and Johnson are now linked together for all eternity; and everybody who takes an interest in Johnson is interested in Boswell too. It ought to be {42} much more than interest, and in all true Johnsonians it is. Without Boswell, we should have respected Johnson, honoured him as a man and a writer, liked him as "a true-born Englishman," but we could not have known him enough to love him. By the help of Boswell, we can walk and talk with him, dine with him, be with him at his prayers as well as at his pleasures, laugh with him, learn of him and disagree with him; above all, love him as we only can love a human being, and never a mere wise man or great writer. No Englishman doubts that Boswell has given us one of the great books of the world. But before we realize its greatness, we realize its pleasantness, its companionableness. The Life of Johnson and the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides may be taken for practical purposes as one book; and it has some claim to be the most companionable book in the world. There is no book like it for a solitary meal. A novel, if it is good for anything, is too engrossing for a dinner companion. It is impossible to put it down. It interrupts the business of dining and results in cold food and indigestion. A book of short poems—the Odes of Horace, the Fables of La Fontaine, the Sonnets of Shakespeare or Wordsworth—is much more to the purpose. One may read an Ode or a Sonnet quickly and then turn {43} again to one's dinner, carrying the fine verse in one's mind and tasting it at leisure as one holds good wine in the mouth before letting it pass away into forgetfulness. But poetry is not for every man, nor for every mood of any man: and the moment of dinner is not with most men the moment when they appear most poetic either to others or to themselves.

But is there any time which is not the time for Boswell? He does not ask for a mood which may not be forthcoming: he does not demand an attention which it is inconvenient to give. We can take him up and lay him down as and when we will. And he has everything in his store. If we are seriously inclined and wish to have something to think about when we turn from the book to the dinner, he is full of the most serious questions, discussed sometimes wisely, almost always by wise men, the problems of morals and politics, of religion and society and literature, such questions as those of liberty and necessity in philosophy, liberty and government in politics, the English Church and the Roman, private education and public, life in the country and life in the town. Or if we wish, not for problems of any kind, but just for a picture of life as it was lived a hundred and fifty years ago, there is nothing like Boswell's pages for variety, intimacy, veracity and, {44} what is the great point in these matters, lavishness of detail. His book is sown with apparently, but only apparently, insignificant trifles. What and how Johnson ate, his manner in talking and walking, the colour and shape of his clothes, the size of his stick, all these and a thousand similar details we know from Boswell, and because Boswell had the genius to perceive that they accumulate upon us a sensation of life and bodily presence, as of a man standing before our eyes.

So, again, with the many little stories he tells which no one else would have told. Who but he would have treasured up every word of that curious meeting in April 1778, between Johnson and his unimportant old friend Edwards, the man who said that he had tried to be a philosopher, but "cheerfulness was always breaking in"? Yet it is not only one of the most Boswellian but one of the very best things in the whole book. It exactly illustrates what was newest in his method. In an age of generality and abstraction he saw the advantage of the concrete and particular, and put into practice the lesson his master could only preach, "Nothing is too little for so little a creature as man." So the total-abstaining Johnson and the bibulous Reynolds and Boswell will each come before us exactly as they were: and we are amused as we picture {45} the confusion of Reynolds's distinguished parties where the servants had never been taught to wait, and make a note of the progress of social manners as we sympathize with Johnson at Edinburgh throwing the fingered lump of sugar out of the window. Some people, again, like Mr. Gladstone, are fond of observing and discoursing upon the changes of taste in the matter of wine: and such people will find in Boswell almost as much to interest their curiosity as Johnson's own fellowship of tea-drinkers. The drinker of champagne will have to accept the mere modernity of his beverage, which finds no place in Johnson's famous hierarchy: "Claret for boys, port for men, brandy for heroes." Or, once more, if our meal ends in tobacco, we may please ourselves by contemplating the alternate, but never contemporaneous, glories of snuff and tobacco, and note the sage's curious, but strictly truthful, account of the advantages and disadvantages of smoking. "Smoking has gone out. To be sure it is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people's mouths, eyes, and noses, and having the same thing done to us. Yet I cannot account why a thing which requires so little exertion and yet preserves the mind from total vacuity has gone out." Or if we demand a keener relish for our meal than these {46} quiet joys of observation, there is of course the whole store of Johnson's sallies of wit, the things we all quote and forget and like to have recalled to us.

For all these reasons Boswell's book, stuffed full of matter, and such matter as you can take up and lay down at pleasure, is the ideal companion for the man who dines or sups alone. Provided, of course, that he has some tincture of intellectual tastes. Those whose curiosity is only awakened by a prospect of the "sporting tips" will not care for Boswell. For, though the book moves throughout in the big world, and not in an academic groove, it still always moves intellectually. It asks a certain acquaintance with literature and history and the life of the human mind. The talk may, indeed, be almost said to deal with all subjects; but it tends mainly to be of the kind which will come uppermost when able men of a serious and bookish turn congregate together. It requires leisure, and that sense of the value of talk which has grown rarer in the hurry of a generation in which the idlest people affect to be busy, and those who do nothing at all are in a bustle from morning till night. Johnson was never in a hurry, especially in the later days, when he had done his work and was enjoying his fame. Mrs. Thrale says that conversation was all he {47} required to make him happy. He hated people who broke it up to go to bed or to keep an appointment. Much as he delighted in John Wesley's company, he complained that he was never at leisure, which, said Johnson, "is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk as I do." The world has perhaps grown a more industrious place since those days, though nobody yet has managed to put so much into twenty-four hours as Wesley did. Anyhow the conditions that made for such talk as fills Boswell's pages are no doubt less common to-day: and perhaps it only lingers now in some rare Common Room at Oxford or Cambridge, where the evil spirit of classes and examinations has been strictly exorcised, or in an exceptionally well-chosen party at an exceptional country house, or in the old dining societies of London, such as Johnson's own, "The Club," of famous memory. Its modern rarity may, however, only make it the more precious in a book, and it is certainly not the least important element in the popularity of Boswell's work.

That work has always been praised from the day of its appearance. Lord Thurlow, then Chancellor, wrote to Boswell of the Tour to the Hebrides, which is essentially, though not formally, its first instalment, that {48} he had read every word of it, because he could not help it: and added the flattering question, "Could you give a rule how to write a book that a man must read?" Scott, a little later, spoke of it as "without exception the best parlour window book that ever was written." Six editions were issued within twenty years of its appearance, a strong proof of popularity in the case of a voluminous and expensive book. And the praise and popularity have gone on growing ever since. But the strange thing is that the man who wrote it has commonly been treated with insult, and even with contempt. The fact is at first sight so inexplicable that it is worth a little looking into. A man who has done us all such a service as Boswell, who has by the admission even of Macaulay utterly out-distanced all competition in such an important kind of literature as biography, would naturally have been loaded with the gratitude and admiration of posterity. Yet all fools and some wise men have thought themselves entitled to throw a scornful stone at Boswell.

The truth is that Boswell was a man of very obvious weaknesses, the weaknesses to which every fool feels himself superior, and of some grave vices of a sort to which wise men feel little temptation. And, unfortunately, he conquered neither. Rather they conquered {49} him, and made his last years a degradation, and his memory one which his friends were glad to forget. After the death of Johnson in 1784, followed in 1789 by that of Mrs. Boswell, whom Johnson once justly and generously described as the prop and stay of her husband's life, he had no one left to lean on. And he was not a man strong enough to stand alone. But it is time to insist that, when all this has been confessed, we are very far from having told the whole truth about Boswell. The fact is that justice will never be fully done to his memory till Macaulay and some others have been called up from their graves to do penance for their arrogant unfairness. Carlyle did something, but not enough; and he stands almost alone. Yet after all, considering what we owe Boswell, if there be any blindness in our view of him, it surely ought to be blindness to his faults. We have heard enough and to spare of his vanity, his self-importance, his entire lack of dignity, his weakness for wine and worse things than wine. But we have heard very little, far too little, of the kindness and genuineness of the man's whole nature, the warmth of his friendships and the enthusiastic loyalty of his hero-worship, of the reverence for religion and the earnest desire after being a better man, which, though often defeated {50} by temptation, were profound and absolutely sincere.

The notion that a man who does not practise what he preaches is necessarily insincere, always called forth an angry protest from Johnson. "Sir," he broke out at Inverary to Mr. M'Aulay, the historian's grandfather, "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?" No doubt this was a doctrine which Boswell heard gladly: and Johnson may himself have been influenced in his zeal for it by his consciousness that, as he said when enforcing it on another occasion, he had himself preached better than he had practised. "I have, all my life long, been lying till noon: yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good." But, however that may be, he is plainly right in the broad issue. Practice is the only absolute proof of sincerity: but defect in practice is no proof of insincerity. Certainly, no Christian can doubt that the struggling, even though falling, sinner is in at least as hopeful a condition as the complacent person whose principles and practice are fairly conformable to each other because both live only the dormant life of respectability and {51} convention. However, no one in his senses will try to make a hero or a saint out of Boswell. He was, as has been already said, vain, a babbler, a wine-bibber, a man of frequently irregular and ill-governed life. But to judge a man fairly as a whole, you must set his achievements against his failures, and include his aspirations as well as the weakness which prevented their being realized. He may also reasonably ask to be tried by the standard of his contemporaries. If this larger and juster method of judgment be adopted, the unfairness with which Boswell has been treated becomes immediately obvious. After all vanity is more a folly than a crime, and pays its own immediate penalty as no other crime or folly does. The other faults of Boswell, especially drinking, were only too common in a century at the beginning of which Johnson remembered "all the decent people at Lichfield getting drunk every night," and at the end of which the most honoured and feared of English Prime Ministers could appear intoxicated in the House of Commons itself. Drunkenness has not deprived Pitt of the gratitude of England, and we may well be determined that, if we can help it, it shall not deprive Boswell. It is not his vices but his virtues that are notable and unusual. What was extraordinary in his or any other day was {52} the generous enthusiasm which made a young Scotch laird deliberately determine that he would do something more with his life than shoot wildfowl or play cards, made him throw himself first with a curious mixture of vanity and genuine devotion to a noble cause into the Corsican struggle for liberty, and then, vain of his birth and fortune as he was, place himself at the feet, not of a duke or a minister, but of a man of low origin, rough exterior, and rougher manners, in whom he simply saw the best and wisest man he had known. That is not the action of either a bad man or a fool; and assuredly Boswell—in the essence of him—was neither the one nor the other.

The truth is that he had the strength and the weaknesses of a man of mobile and lively imagination. He would fancy his wife and children drowned or dead for no better reason than that he was not by them; he would dream of being a judge when he had scarcely got a brief, and imagine himself a minister when he had no prospect of getting into Parliament. Other people experience these day-dreaming vanities, but they do not talk or write about them. Boswell did; and we all laugh at him, especially the fools among us: the wiser part add some of the love that belongs to the common kinship of humanity wherever it puts off the mask, the love of which we feel {53} something even for that gross old "bourgeois" Samuel Pepys, just because he laid out his whole secret self in black and white upon the paper. Moreover, Boswell's absurdities had their finer side. The dreamer of improbable disasters and impossible good fortunes is also the dreamer of high and perhaps unattainable ideals. Shall we count it nothing to his honour that, instead of sitting down contentedly among the boon companions of Ayrshire, he aspired to read the best books in the world, to know the wisest men, and in turn to do something himself that should not be forgotten? And note that those aspirations were in large part realized. His intellectual tastes always remained among the keenest of his pleasures: he numbered among his friends the most famous writer of his day, the greatest poet, the greatest painter, the profoundest and most eloquent of all English statesmen; and before he died his apparent failure in personal achievements was transformed into the success that means immortality by the production of a book which after the lapse of a century has many more readers than the works of his great friends whose superiority to himself he would never have dreamed of challenging.

And what did these great men think of him? Did the people who knew him think him altogether a fool? If the magistrates {54} of his native county had thought him merely that they would hardly have chosen him their chairman. Nor would the Royal Academy who filled their honorary offices with such men as Johnson, Goldsmith, and Gibbon, have given them Boswell as a colleague if they had thought him altogether a fool. Reynolds, again, who was his friend through life, and left him 200 pounds in his will to be expended on a picture to be kept for his sake, was not a man who took fools for his friends. Burke, who at first doubted his fitness for election at "The Club," became a great admirer of his wonderful good humour, and received him on his own account and without Johnson as a guest at Beaconsfield, where neither fools nor knaves were commonly welcomed. The whole story of the tour to the Hebrides shows the regard felt for him, as himself and not only as the son of his father or the companion of Johnson, by many of the most distinguished and cultivated men in Scotland. Johnson, the most veracious of men, says of him in Scotland: "There is no house where he is not received with kindness and respect"; and on another occasion he declared that Boswell "never left a house without leaving a wish for his return."

But the most complete refutation of the worthlessness of Boswell is of course the {55} friendship and love he won from Johnson himself. Assuredly, the standard of Johnson, in whose presence nobody dared to swear or talk loosely, was not a low one either morally or intellectually; yet we find him saying that he held Boswell "in his heart of hearts"; perhaps, indeed, he loved Boswell better than any of his friends. "My dear Boswell, I love you very much"; "My dear Boswell, your kindness is one of the pleasures of my life"; "Come to me, my dear Bozzy, and let us be as happy as we can." This is the way Johnson constantly wrote and spoke to him. And this was not merely because Boswell was "the best travelling companion in the world," or even because he was, what Johnson also called him, "a man who finds himself welcome wherever he goes and makes new friends faster than he can want them," but also for graver reasons. Johnson said once that most friendships were the result of caprice or chance, "mere confederacies in vice or leagues in folly," but he did not choose that his own should be of that sort. Beauclerk is the only one of his friends who was not a man of high character. His feeling for Boswell was not a love of vice or folly. He saw Boswell at his best, no doubt: but that best must have had very real and positive good qualities in it to win from Johnson such a remark as he {56} makes in one of his letters: "Never, my dear sir, do you take it into your head to think that I do not love you; you may settle yourself in full confidence both of my love and my esteem; I love you as a kind man, I value you as a worthy man, and hope in time to reverence you as a man of exemplary piety. I hold you, as Hamlet has it, 'in my heart of hearts.'" And there is a still more remarkable tribute in the letter to John Wesley giving Boswell an introduction to him "because I think it very much to be wished that worthy and religious men should be acquainted with each other." Nothing can be more certain than that Johnson would not have written so often in such language as this of a man who was what Macaulay thought Boswell was. Well may the foolish editor of Boswell's letters to Temple, who takes Macaulay's view, talk of the difficulty of explaining how it came about that Boswell formed one of a society which included such men as Johnson and Burke. The truth is that on his theory and Macaulay's it is not explicable at all.

Less explicable still, on that view, is the admitted excellence of Boswell's book. Carlyle dismissed with just contempt the absurd paradox that the greatness of the book was due to the imbecility of the author. That is a theory which it would be waste of time {57} to discuss. But it may be worth while to point out that other and more rational explanations of Boswell's success are also insufficient. His book is acknowledged to have originated a new type of biography. It was felt at once, and has been increasingly felt ever since, that Boswell is so direct and personal that beside him all other biographers seem impersonal and vague, that he is so intimate that he makes all others appear cold and distant, so lifelike that they seem shadowy, so true that they seem false. Now this has commonly been attributed to his habit of noting down on the spot and at the moment anything that struck him in Johnson's talk or doings; and to his perfect willingness to exhibit his own discomfitures so long as they served to honour or illustrate his hero. In this way people have talked of his one merit being faithfulness, and of his work as a succession of photographs. Now it is true enough that his veracity is a very great merit, and that no one was ever so literally veracious as he. But no number of facts, and no quintessence of accuracy in using them, will ever make a great book. Literature is an art, and nothing great in art has ever been done with facts alone. The greatness comes from the quality of mind that is set to work upon the facts. Consequently {58} the secret of the success of the Life of Johnson is to be found in the exact opposite of the assertion of Macaulay. For the truth is that the acknowledged excellence of the book is in exact proportion to the unacknowledged literary gifts of its author.

The law for all works of art and literature is the same. The fact is nothing unless the artist can give it life. Life comes from human personality. Ars est homo additus naturae. Art, that is, is nature seen through a temperament, the facts seen by a particular mind. The landscape into which the painter has put nothing of his own personality is fitter for a surveyor's office than for a picture gallery. The portrait which gives nothing but the sitter's face is as dull as a photograph. Two portraits of the same man, two sketches of the same valley, not only are, but ought to be, quite different from each other. Nature, the facts of the particular face or scene, remain the same for both: but the two different artists, each bringing their own personality, produce different results, when the face or scene has become that composite mixture of man and nature, fact and mind, which is art. And this is as true of all books which are meant to be literature as of painting or sculpture. The story of Electra is, broadly speaking, the same for Aeschylus, Sophocles, {59} and Euripides: but each contributes to it himself, and the result differs. Virgil's tale of Troy is not Homer's: Chaucer gives us one Troilus and Cressida, and Shakespeare another: the fable of the Fox and the Goat takes prose from Phaedrus and poetry from La Fontaine. So Pope's Homer is not Homer, the thing in itself, the unrelated, absolute Homer, but Pope additus Homero; and it is not Euripides pure and simple which is the true account of certain beautiful modern versions of Euripides, but Euripidi additus Murray.

It may be objected that these are all instances from poetry, where the truth aimed at is rather general than particular. And this distinction is a real one. The truth of the Aeneid is its truth to human life as a whole, not its accuracy in reporting the words used on particular occasions by Dido and Turnus, neither of whom may have ever existed. History and biography are, undoubtedly, on a different footing in this respect, just as the artist who calls his picture "Arundel Castle" or "Windermere" is not in the same position of freedom as the painter of an "Evening on the Downs." But the law of homo additus naturae still remains true in this case as in the other, though its application is modified. It is true that a {60} man who pretends to give a representation of Arundel is not justified in adding to it a tower 800 feet high just because he happens himself to have a fancy for towers. But what he has to add, if his work is to be art at all, is the emotional mood, the exaltation, depression, excitement, or whatever it may be, which Arundel stirred in him, and by means of which he and the scene before him were melted into that unity of intensified life which is born of the marriage of nature and man and is what we call art. The next day another man takes his place, and the result, though still Arundel Castle, is an entirely different picture. So in the case of books. The same Socrates is seen in one way when we get that part of him which could unite with the personality of Xenophon, and in quite another when the union is with Plato. The English Civil War marries one side of itself to Clarendon, and another to Milton; and both have that relative truth which is all art wishes for, and which is indeed a greater thing, as having human life in it, than any absolute truth in itself which, if it were discoverable, would be pure science, as useful perhaps, but as dead, as the First Proposition of Euclid. The greatness of literature depends on the degree in which the dead matter of fact belonging to the {61} subject has been quickened into life by the emotional, intellectual and imaginative power of the writer. And this is true of historical and biographical work as well as of poetry.

That is the point to be remembered about Boswell, and to be set against his detractors. His book is admittedly one of the most living books in existence. That life can have come from no one but the author. It is the irrefutable proof of his genius. Life and power do not issue, here any more than elsewhere, out of folly and nonentity. The Life of Johnson is the result of the most intimate and fertile union between biographer and his subject which has ever occurred, and it gives us in consequence more of the essence of both than any other biography. Boswell brought to it his own bustling activity and curiosity from which it draws its vividness and variety: he brought to it also his warm-hearted, half-morbid emotionalism from which it derives its many moving pages: he brought to it his reverence for Johnson, which enabled him to exhibit, as no other man could, that kingship and priesthood which was a real part, though not the whole, of Johnson's relation to his circle. We see Johnson in his pages as the guide, philosopher and friend of all who came in his way, the intellectual and spiritual father of Boswell, the master of his {62} studies, the director of his conscience. Nobody else in that company saw as much of the true and great Johnson as Boswell's loving devotion enabled him to see; and when he came to write the life he put himself into it, with the result that the portrait of Johnson as posterity sees it, will never lose the halo of glory with which the Boswellian hero-worship crowned it for all time.

This was the all-important homo additus naturae part of Boswell's work: the setting his subject in the light of his own imaginative and emotional insight. But there was more than that. Boswell had not only the temperament of the artist: he had an artist's craftsmanship. The Life makes four large octavo volumes, each of some 500 pages, in the great Oxford Edition by Birkbeck Hill: and the Tour to the Hebrides makes a fifth. That is a big book: yet so perfect an artist is Boswell, that scarcely once for a single page in all the five volumes is the chief light turned in any direction except that of Johnson. Anybody who has even read, much more anybody who has written, a book of any length knows how difficult and rare an achievement it is to maintain perfect unity of subject, never to lose the sense of proportion, never to let side issues and secondary personages obstruct or conceal the main business in hand. {63} There is nothing of the kind in Boswell. Under his hand no episode is ever allowed to be more than an episode, no minor character ever occupies the centre of the stage. Whoever and whatever is mentioned is mentioned only in relation to Johnson. Many great men, greater some of them than his hero are brought into his picture, but it is never upon them that the chief light is thrown. All the other figures, whoever they are, are here but attendants upon Johnson's greatness, foils to his wit, witnesses to his virtues, his friends or his foes, the subjects or victims of his talk, anything that you will in connection with him, but apart from him—nothing. All that they say or do or suffer, is told us only to set Johnson in a clearer light. The unity of the picture is never broken. And that is the same thing as saying that Boswell is not merely what every one has seen, a unique collector of material: he is also what so few have seen, an artist of the very highest rank.

This is seen, too, in another important point. The danger of the hero-worshipping biographer is only too familiar to us. His book is usually a monotonous and insipid record of virtue or wisdom. The hero is always right, and always victorious, with the result that the book is at once tedious and incredible. But Boswell knew better than {64} that. He was too much of an artist not to know that he wanted shadows to give value to his lights, and too much a lover of the fullness and variety of life not to want to get all of it that he possibly could into his picture. Like all great writers, there was scarcely anything he was afraid of handling, because there was scarcely anything of which he was not conscious that he could bend it to his will and force it to take its place, and no more than its place, in his scheme. Consequently, he has the courage to show us his hero, now wrong-headed and perverse, now rude almost to brutality, now so weak that the same resolution is repeated year after year only to be again broken and again renewed, now so gross and almost repulsive in his appearance and habits that it requires all his greatness to explain the welcome which well-bred men and refined women everywhere gave him. Nothing better shows the greatness of Boswell. He was not afraid to paint the wart on his Cromwell's nose, because he knew that he could so give the nobleness of the whole face, that the wart would merely add to the truthfulness of the portrait without detracting from its nobleness. The vast quantity of material which he brought into his book and the complete mastery which he maintained over it, is shown by the fact {65} that few or no biographies record so many ridiculous or discreditable circumstances about their hero, and yet none leaves a more convincing impression of his greatness.

The notion, then, that the man who wrote the Life of Johnson was a fool, is an absurdity. If the arguments in its favour prove anybody a fool it is not Boswell. Nor is it even true that Boswell, like some great artists, escaped apparently by some divine gift from his natural folly just during the time necessary for the production of his great work, but at all other times relapsed at once into imbecility. We know how scrupulously accurate he was in what he wrote, not only from his candour in relating his own defeats, but from the many cases in which he confesses that he was not quite sure of the exact facts, such as, to give one instance, whether Johnson, on a certain occasion, spoke of "a page" or "ten lines" of Pope as not containing so much sense as one line of Cowley. Therefore we may take the picture he gives of himself in his book as a fair one. And what is it? Does it bear out the notorious assertion that "there is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion or society which is not either commonplace or absurd"? One would sometimes imagine Macaulay had never read the book of which he speaks with such {66} confident decision. Certainly, except as a biographer, Boswell was not a man of any very remarkable abilities. But, in answer to such an insult as Macaulay's, Boswell's defenders may safely appeal to the book itself, and to everybody who has read it with any care. Will any one deny that not once or twice, but again and again, the plain sense of some subject which had been distorted or confused by the perverse ingenuity of Johnson "talking for victory" comes quietly, after the smoke has cleared away, from the despised imbecility of Boswell? Who gives the judgment which every one would now give about the contest with the American colonies? Not Johnson but Boswell; not the author of Taxation No Tyranny, but the man who wrote so early as 1775 to his friend Temple: "I am growing more and more an American. I see the unreasonableness of taxing them without the consent of their Assemblies; I think our Ministry are mad in undertaking this desperate war." Who was right and who was wrong on the question of the Middlesex Election? Nobody now doubts that Boswell was right, and Johnson was wrong. Which has proved wiser, as we look back, Johnson who ridiculed Gray's poetry, or Boswell who sat up all night reading it? The fact is that Boswell was undoubtedly a {67} sensible and cultivated as well as a very agreeable man, and as such was warmly welcomed at the houses of the most intelligent men of his day.

The old estimate, then, of James Boswell must be definitely abandoned. The man who knew him best, his friend Temple, the friend of Gray, said of him that he was "the most thinking man he had ever known." We may not feel able to regard that as anything more than the judgment of friendship: but it is not fools who win such judgments even from their friends. We may wonder at the word "genius" being applied to him; and if genius be taken in the stricter modern sense of transcendent powers of mind, the sense in which it is applied to Milton or Michael Angelo, there is of course no doubt that it would be absurd to apply it to Boswell. But if the word be used in the old looser sense, or if it be given the definite meaning of a man who originates an important new departure in a serious sphere of human action, who creates something of a new order in art or literature or politics or war, then Boswell's claim to genius cannot be questioned. Just as another member of "Johnson's Club" was in those years writing history as it had never been written before, so, and to a far more remarkable degree, Boswell was writing {68} biography as it had never been written before. Gibbon's Decline and Fall was in fact a far less original performance, far less of a new departure, than Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell's book is in truth what he himself called it, "more of a life than any work that has ever yet appeared." After it the art of biography could never be merely what it had been before. And in that sense, the sense of a man whose work is an advance upon that of his predecessors, not merely in degree, but in kind, Boswell was undoubtedly and even more than Gibbon, entitled to the praise of genius.

Let us all, then, unashamedly and ungrudgingly give the rein to our admiration and love of Boswell. There is a hundred years between us and his follies, and every one of the hundred is full of his claim upon our gratitude. Let us now be ready to pay the debt in full. Let us be sure that there is something more than mere interest or entertainment in a book which so wise a man as Jowett confessed to having read fifty times, of which another lifelong thinker about life, a man very different from Jowett, Robert Louis Stevenson, could write: "I am taking a little Boswell daily by way of a Bible; I mean to read him now until the day I die." And not only in the book but in the author too. Let us be {69} sure with Carlyle that if "Boswell wrote a good book" it was not because he was a fool, but on the contrary "because he had a heart and an eye to discern Wisdom, and an utterance to render it forth: because of his free insight, of his lively talent, above all of his love and childlike open-mindedness." In the particular business he had to carry through, these qualities were an equipment amounting to a modest kind of genius. They enabled him to produce a book which has given as much pleasure perhaps to intelligent men as any book that ever was written. Let us be careful whenever we think of Boswell to remember this side, the positive, creative, permanent side of him: and not so careful as our grandfathers generally were, to remember the other side which ceased to have any further importance on that night in May 1795 when he ended the fifty-five years of a life in which he had found time for more follies than most men, for more vices perhaps, certainly for more wisdom, but also for what most men never so much as conceive, the preparation and production of a masterpiece.




These two men, then, are for ever inseparable. They go down the centuries together, Johnson owing most of his immortality to the genius of Boswell, Boswell owing to Johnson that inspiring opportunity without which genius cannot discover that it is genius. There were other men in Johnson's circle, whom he knew longer and respected more; but for us, Boswell's position in relation to Johnson is unique. Beside him the others, even Burke and Reynolds, are, in this connection, shadows. They had their independent fields of greatness in which Johnson had no share: Boswell's greatness is all Johnsonian. We cannot think of him apart from Johnson: and he has so managed that we can scarcely think of Johnson apart from him. No one who occupies himself with the one can ignore the other: in interest and popularity they stand or fall together. It may be well, therefore, before going further, to give the bare facts of both their lives; dismissing Boswell first, as the less important, and then devoting the rest of the chapter to Johnson.


James Boswell was born in 1740. He came of an ancient family, a fact he never forgot, as, indeed, few people do who have the same advantage. His father was a Scottish judge with the title of Lord Auchinleck. The first of the family to hold the estate of Auchinleck, which is in Ayrshire, was Thomas Boswell, who received a grant of it from James IV in whose army he went to Flodden and shared the defeat and death of his patron. The estate had therefore belonged to the Boswells over two hundred years when the future biographer of Johnson was born. His father and he were never congenial spirits. The judge was a Whig with a practical view of life and had no sympathy with his son's romantic propensities either in religion, politics or literature. A plain Lowland Scot, he did not see why his son should take up with Toryism, Anglicanism, or literary hero-worship. When James, after first attaching himself to Paoli, the leader of the Corsican struggle for independence, returned home and took up the discipleship to Johnson which was to be the central fact in the rest of his life, his father frankly despaired of him, and broke out, according to Walter Scott: "There's nae hope for Jamie, mon. Jamie is gaen clean gyte. What do you think, mon? He's done wi' Paoli—he's off wi' the {72} landlouping scoundrel of a Corsican; and whose tail do you think he has pinned himself to now, mon? A dominie, mon—an auld dominie: he keeped a schule, and cau'd it an acaadamy." Well might Boswell say that they were "so totally different that a good understanding is scarcely possible." Beside disliking Paoli and Johnson, Lord Auchinleck cared nothing for some of Boswell's strict feudal notions, had the bad taste to give his son a step-mother, and to be as unlike him as possible in the matter of good spirits. Scarcely anything could interfere with the judge's cheerfulness, while Boswell was always falling into depressions about nothing in particular and perhaps indulging in the "foolish notion," rebuked by Johnson, that "melancholy is a proof of acuteness." But in spite of their differences the father and son managed to avoid anything like a definite breach. Boswell was sincerely anxious to please his father, and was constantly urged in that direction by his great mentor: and after all the judge went some way to meet his singular son, for he paid his debts and entertained both Paoli and Johnson at Auchinleck. The latter visit was naturally a source of some anxiety to Boswell and it did not go off without a storm when the old Whig and the old Tory unluckily got on to the topic of Charles I and Cromwell: but all {73} ended well, and Boswell characteristically ends his story of it, written after both were dead, with the pious hope that the antagonists had by then met in a higher state of existence "where there is no room for Whiggism."

Full of activities as Boswell's life was, the definite facts and dates in it are not very numerous. He was sent to Glasgow University, and wished to be a soldier, but was bred by his father to the law. No doubt he gave some early signs of intellectual promise, for which it was not thought the army provided a fit sphere, for the Duke of Argyle is reported to have said to his father when he was only twenty: "My lord, I like your son: this boy must not be shot at for three-and-sixpence a day." He paid his first visit to London in 1760; and, having heard a good deal about Johnson from one Mr. Gentleman, and from Derrick, a very minor poet, he at once sought an introduction, but had to leave London without succeeding in his object. He was equally unsuccessful when he was in London the next year, during which he published some anonymous poems which would not have helped him to secure the desired introduction. The great event occurred at last in 1763. The day was the 16th of May and the scene the house of Davies, the bookseller. "At last," says Boswell, "on {74} Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,—he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, 'Look, my Lord, it comes.'"

So, with characteristic accuracy and characteristic imagination, begins his well-known account of his first meeting with his hero, and the storms to which he was exposed in its course. But all ended satisfactorily, for when the great man was gone, Davies reassured the nervous Boswell by saying: "Don't be uneasy, I can see he likes you very well." A few days afterwards Boswell called on Johnson at his Chambers in the Temple, and the great friendship which was the pleasure and business of his life was definitely begun. Yet it is worth remembering, if only as an additional proof of Boswell's biographical genius, that, according to the calculation of Dr. Birkbeck Hill, when all the weeks and months during which Johnson and Boswell were living within reach of each {75} other are added together, they amount to little more than two years. And of course this includes all the days on which they were both in London, on many, or rather most, of which they did not meet.

A few months after the first meeting, Boswell went by his father's wish to Utrecht to study law. But before that the friendship was got on to a firm footing, and Boswell had had the pride and pleasure of hearing Johnson say, "There are few people whom I take so much to, as you." A still stronger proof of Johnson's feeling was that he insisted on going with Boswell to Harwich to see him out of England. This was the occasion on which he scarified the good Protestants who were with them in the coach by defending the Inquisition, and invited one of the ladies who said she never allowed her children to be idle to take his own education in hand; "'for I have been an idle fellow all my life.' 'I am sure, sir,' said she, 'you have not been idle.' 'Nay, madam, it is very true, and that gentleman there,' pointing to me, 'has been idle. He was idle at Edinburgh. His father sent him to Glasgow where he continued to be idle. He then came to London where he has been very idle; and now he is going to Utrecht where he will be as idle as ever.' I asked him privately how he could expose me {76} so. 'Pooh, Pooh!' said he, 'they know nothing about you and will think of it no more.'" When he was not engaged in these alarums and excursions or in reproving Boswell for giving the coachman a shilling instead of the customary sixpence, he was occupied in reading Pomponius Mela De Situ Orbis. How complete the picture is and how vivid! It once more gives Boswell's method in miniature.

He seems to have stayed at Utrecht about a year, afterwards travelling in Germany, where he visited Wittenberg, and sat down to write to Johnson in the church where the Reformation was first preached, with his paper resting on the tomb of Melanchthon. It is noticeable that, though he had only known Johnson a year, he already hoped to be his biographer. "At this tomb, then, my ever dear and respected friend, I vow to thee an eternal attachment. It shall be my study to do what I can to render your life happy: and, if you die before me, I shall endeavour to do honour to your memory." He was also at this time in Italy and Switzerland, where he visited Voltaire and gratified him by quoting a remark of Johnson's that Frederick the Great's writings were the sort of stuff one might expect from "a footboy who had been Voltaire's amanuensis." Nor did this {77} collector of celebrities omit to visit Rousseau, the rival lion of the day, between whom and Voltaire the orthodox Johnson thought it was "difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity." But as far as Boswell's records go, he never said such violent things of Voltaire as of Rousseau, whom he called "a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society and transported to work in the plantations." Boswell, however, was an admirer of the Vicaire Savoyard, and said what he could in defence of his host, in return for the hospitality he had enjoyed at Neuchatel, with the usual result, of course, that Johnson only became more outrageous.

In 1765 Boswell made the acquaintance of another distinguished man with whom his name will always be connected. Corsica had at that time been long, and on the whole victoriously, engaged in a struggle to free itself from the hated rule of Genoa. The leader of the Corsicans was a man of high birth, character and abilities, Pascal Paoli, who had acted since 1753 at once as their General and as the head of the civil administration. Both the generous and the curious element in Boswell made him anxious not to return from Italy without seeing something of so interesting a people and so great a hero. Armed with introductions from Rousseau {78} and others and with such protection as a British Captain's letter could give him against Barbary Corsairs, he sailed from Leghorn to Corsica in September 1765. His account of the island and of his tour there, published in 1768, is still very good reading. He soon made his way to the palace where Paoli was residing, with whom he at first felt himself in a presence more awe-inspiring than that of princes, but ventured after a while upon a compliment to the Corsicans. "Sir, I am upon my travels, and have lately visited Rome. I am come from seeing the ruins of one brave and free people: I now see the rise of another." The good sense of Paoli declined any parallel between Rome and his own little people, but he soon received Boswell into his intimacy and spent some hours alone with him almost every day. One fine answer of his, uniting the scholar and the patriot, is worth quoting. Boswell asked him how he, who confessed to his love of society and particularly of the society of learned and cultivated men, could be content to pass his life in an island where no such advantages were to be had; to which Paoli replied at once—

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