Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1755

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In 1755 we behold him to great advantage; his degree of Master of Arts conferred upon him, his Dictionary published, his correspondence animated, his benevolence exercised.


“I WROTE to you some weeks ago, but believe did not direct accurately, and therefore know not whether you had my letter. I would, likewise, write to your brother, but know not where to find him. I now begin to see land, after having wandered, according to Mr. Warburton's phrase, in this vast sea of words. What reception I shall meet with on the shore, I know not; whether the sound of bells, and acclamations of the people, which Ariosto talks of in his last Canto, or a general murmur of dislike, I know not: whether I shall find upon the coast a Calypso that will court, or a Polypheme that will resist. But if Polypheme comes, have at his eye. I hope, however, the criticks will let me be at peace; for though I do not much fear their skill and strength, I am a little afraid of myself, and would not willingly feel so much ill-will in my bosom as literary quarrels are apt to excite.

“Mr. Baretti is about a work for which he is in great want of Crescimbeni, which you may have again when you please.

“There is nothing considerable done or doing among us here. We are not, perhaps, as innocent as villagers, but most of us seem to be as idle. I hope, however, you are busy; and should be glad to know what you are doing.

“I am, dearest Sir,
“Your humble servant,


["London] Feb. 4, 1755.”


“I RECEIVED your letter this day, with great sense of the favour that has been done me;1 for which I return my most sincere thanks; and entreat you to pay to Mr. Wise such returns as I ought to make for so much kindness so little deserved.

“I sent Mr. Wise the Lexicon, and afterwards wrote to him; but know not whether he had either the book or letter. Be so good as to contrive to enquire.

“But why does my dear Mr. Warton tell me nothing of himself? Where hangs the new volume?2 Can I help? Let not the past labour be lost, for want of a little more; but snatch what time you can from the Hall, and the pupils, and the coffee-house, and the parks, and complete your design.

“I am, dear Sir, &c.


“[London] Feb. 4, 1755.”


“I HAD a letter last week from Mr. Wise, but have yet heard nothing from you, nor know in what state my affair3 stands; of which I beg you to inform me, if you can, tomorrow, by the return of the post.

“Mr. Wise sends me word, that he has not had the Finnick Lexicon yet, which I sent some time ago; and if he has it not, you must enquire after it. However, do not let your letter stay for that.

“Your brother, who is a better correspondent than you, and not much better, sends me word, that your pupils keep you in College: but they do not keep you from writing too? Let them, at least, give you time to write to, dear Sir,

“Your most affectionate, &c.


["London] Feb. 13, 1755.”


“DR. KING4 was with me a few minutes before your letter; this, however, is the first instance in which your kind intentions to me have ever been frustrated.5 I have now the full effect of your care and benevolence; and am far from thinking it a slight honour, or a small advantage; since it will put the enjoyment of your conversation more frequently in the power of, dear Sir,

“Your most obliged and affectionate,


“P.S. I have enclosed a letter to the Vice-Chancellor6 which you will read; and, if you like it, seal and give him.

“[London] Feb. 1755.”
As the Publick will doubtless be pleased to see the whole progress of this well-earned academical honour, I shall insert the Chancellor of Oxford's letter to the University,7 the diploma, and Johnson's letter of thanks to the Vice-Chancellor.
"To the Reverend Dr. HUDDESFORD, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford: to be communicated to the Heads of Houses, and proposed in Convocation.


“MR. SAMUEL JOHNSON, who was formerly of Pembroke College, having very eminently distinguished himself by the publication of a series of Essays, excellently calculated to form the manners of the people, and in which the cause of religion and morality is every where maintained by the strongest powers of argument and language; and who shortly intends to publish a Dictionary of the English Tongue, formed on a new plan, and executed with the greatest labour and judgement; I persuade myself that I shall act agreeably to the sentiments of the whole University, in desiring that it may be proposed in convocation to confer on him the degree of Master of Arts by diploma, to which I readily give my consent; and am,

“Mr. Vice-Chancellor, and Gentlemen,

“Your affectionate friend and servant,


“Grosvenor-street, Feb. 4, 1755.”
“Term. Scti.




"CANCELLARIUS, Magistri et Scholares Universitatis Oxoniensis omnibus ad quos hoc presens scriptum pervenerit, salutem in Domino sempiternam.

"Cum eum in finem gradus academici a majoribus nostris instituti fuerint, ut viri ingenio et doctrina praestantes titulis quoque praeter coeteros insignirentur; cumque vir doctissimus Samuel Johnson e Collegio Pembrochiensi, scriptis suis popularium mores informantibus dudum literato orbi innotuerit; quin et linguae patriae tum ornandae tum stabiliendae (Lexicon scilicet Anglicanum summo studio, summo a se judicio congestum propediem editurus) etiam nunc utilissimam impendat operam; Nos igitur Cancellarius, Magistri, et Scholares antedicti, ne virum de literis humanioribus optime meritum diutius inhonoratum praetereamus in solenni Convocatione Doctorum, Magistrorum, Regentium, et non Regentium, decimo die Mensis Februarii Anno Domini Millesimo Septingentesimo Quinquagesimo quinto habita, praefatum virum Samuelem Johnson (conspirantibus omnium suffragiis) Magistrum in Artibus renunciavimus et constituimus; eumque, virtute praesentis diplomatis, singulis juribus privilegiis et honoribus ad istum gradum quaqua pertinentibus frui et gaudere jussimus. "In cujus rei testimonium sigillum Universitatis Oxoniensis praesentibus apponi fecimus. "Datum in Domo nostrae Convocationis die 20 Mensis Feb. Anno Dom. Praedicto. "Diploma supra scriptum per Registrarium lectum erat, et ex decreto venerabilis Domus communi Universitatis sigillo munitum.”8


“SAM. JOHNSON.9 "INGRATUS plane et tibi et mihi videar, nisi quanto me gaudio affecerint quos nuper mihi honores (te, credo, auctore,) decrevit Senatus Academicus, literarum, quo tamen nihil levius, officio, significem; ingratus etiam, nisi comitatem, qua vir eximius10 mihi vestri testimonium amoris in manus tradidit, agnoscam et laudem. Si quid est, unde rei tam gratae accedat gratia, hoc ipso magis mihi placet, quod eo tempore in ordines Academicos denuo cooptatus sim, quo tuam imminuere auctoritatem, famamque Oxonii laedere, omnibus modis conantur homines vafri, nec tamen acuti: quibus ego, prout viro umbratico licuit, semper restiti, semper restiturus. Qui enim, inter has rerum procellas, vel tibi vel Academiae defuerit, illum virtuti et literis, sibique et posteris, defuturum existimo. Vale.”


“AFTER I received my diploma, I wrote you a letter of thanks, with a letter to the Vice-Chancellor, and sent another to Mr. Wise; but have heard from nobody since, and begin to think myself forgotten. It is true, I sent you a double letter, and you may fear an expensive correspondent; but I would have taken it kindly, if you had returned it treble: and what is a double letter to a petty king, that having fellowship and fines, can sleep without a Modus in his head?11

“Dear Mr. Warton, let me hear from you, and tell me something, I care not what, so I hear it but from you. Something I will tell you: -- I hope to see my Dictionary bound and lettered, next week; -- vasta mole superbus. And I have a great mind to come to Oxford at Easter; but you will not invite me. Shall I come uninvited, or stay here where nobody perhaps would miss me if I went? A hard choice! But such is the world to, dear Sir,

“Yours, &c.


“[London] March 20, 1755.”


“THOUGH not to write, when a man can write so well, is an offence sufficiently heinous, yet I shall pass it by. I am very glad that the Vice-Chancellor was pleased with my note. I shall impatiently expect you at London, that we may consider what to do next. I intend in the winter to open a Bibliotheque, and remember, that you are to subscribe a sheet a year: let us try, likewise, if we cannot persuade your brother to subscribe another. My book is now coming in luminis oras. What will be its fate I know not, nor think much, because thinking is to no purpose. I must stand the censure of the great vulgar and the small; of those that understand it, and that understand it not. But in all this, I suffer not alone; every writer has the same difficulties, and, perhaps, every writer talks of them more than he thinks.

“You will be pleased to make my compliments to all my friends; and be so kind, at every idle hour, as to remember, dear Sir,

“Yours, &c.


“[London] March 25, 1755.”
Dr. Adams told me, that this scheme of a Bibliotheque was a serious one: for upon his visiting him one day, he found his parlour floor covered with parcels of foreign and English literary journals, and he told Dr. Adams he meant to undertake a Review. “How, Sir, (said Dr. Adams,) can you think of doing it alone? All branches of knowledge must be considered in it. Do you know Mathematicks? Do you know Natural History?” Johnson answered, “Why, Sir, I must do as well as I can. My chief purpose is to give my countrymen a view of what is doing in literature upon the continent; and I shall have, in a good measure, the choice of my subject, for I shall select such books as I best understand.” Dr. Adams suggested, that as Dr. Maty had just then finished his Bibliotheque Britannique, which was a well-executed work, giving foreigners an account of British publications, he might, with great advantage assume him as an assistant. “He, (said Johnson) the little black dog! I'd throw him into the Thames.” The scheme, however, was dropped.

In one of his little memorandum books I find the following hints for his intended Review or Literary Journal: “The Annals of Literature, foreign as well as domestick. Imitate Le Clerc -- Bayle -- Barbeyrac. Infelicity of Journals in England. 'Works of the learned.' We cannot take in all. Sometimes copy from foreign Journalists. Always tell.”

“March 29, 1755.


“I HAVE sent some parts of my Dictionary, such as were at hand, for your inspection. The favour which I beg is, that if you do not like them, you will say nothing. I am, Sir,

“Your most affectionate humble servant,


“Norfolk-street, April 23, 1755.


“THE part of your Dictionary which you have favoured me with the sight of has given me such an idea of the whole, that I most sincerely congratulate the publick upon the acquisition of a work long wanted, and now executed with an industry, accuracy, and judgement, equal to the importance of the subject. You might, perhaps, have chosen one in which your genius would have appeared to more advantage, but you could not have fixed upon any other in which your labours would have done such substantial service to the present age and to posterity. I am glad that your health has supported the application necessary to the performance of so vast a task; and can undertake to promise you as one (though perhaps the only) reward of it, the approbation and thanks of every well-wisher to the honour of the English language. I am, with the greatest regard, Sir,

“Your most faithful and
“Most affectionate humble servant,

Mr. Charles Burney, who has since distinguished himself so much in the science of Musick, and obtained a Doctor's degree from the University of Oxford, had been driven from the capital by bad health, and was now residing at Lynne Regis in Norfolk. He had been so much delighted with Johnson's Rambler, and the plan of his Dictionary, that when the great work was announced in the newspapers as nearly finished, he wrote to Dr. Johnson, begging to be informed when and in what manner his Dictionary would be published; entreating, if it should be by subscription, or he should have any books at his own disposal, to be favoured with six copies for himself and friends.

In answer to this application, Dr. Johnson wrote the following letter, of which (to use Dr. Burney's own words) “if it be remembered that it was written to an obscure young man, who at this time had not distinguished himself even in his own profession, but whose name could never have reached the authour of THE RAMBLER, the politeness and urbanity may be opposed to some of the stories which have been lately circulated of Dr. Johnson's natural rudeness and ferocity.”


“IF you imagine that by delaying my answer I intended to show any neglect of the notice with which you have favoured me, you will neither think justly of yourself nor of me. Your civilities were offered with too much elegance not to engage attention; and I have too much pleasure in pleasing men like you, not to feel very sensibly the distinction which you have bestowed upon me.

“Few consequences of my endeavours to please or to benefit mankind have delighted me more than your friendship thus voluntarily offered, which now I have it I hope to keep, because I hope to continue to deserve it.

“I have no Dictionaries to dispose of for myself, but shall be glad to have you direct your friends to Mr. Dodsley, because it was by his recommendation that I was employed in the work.

“When you have leisure to think again upon me, let me be favoured with another letter; and another yet, when you have looked into my Dictionary. If you find faults, I shall endeavour to mend them; if you find none, I shall think you blinded by kind partiality: but to have made you partial in his favour, will very much gratify the ambition of, Sir,

“Your most obliged
“And most humble servant,


“Gough-square, Fleet-street,
“April 8, 1755.”
Mr. Andrew Millar, bookseller in the Strand, took the principal charge of conducting the publication of Johnson's Dictionary; and as the patience of the proprietors was repeatedly tried and almost exhausted, by their expecting that the work would be compleated, within the time which Johnson had sanguinely supposed, the learned author was often goaded to dispatch, more especially as he had received all the copy money, by different drafts, a considerable time before he had finished his task. When the messenger who carried the last sheet to Millar returned, Johnson asked him, “Well, what did he say?” -- “Sir, (answered the messenger) he said, thank God I have done with him.” “I am glad (replied Johnson, with a smile,) that he thanks God for any thing.”12 It is remarkable, that those with whom Johnson chiefly contracted for his literary labours were Scotchmen, Mr. Millar and Mr. Strahan. Millar, though himself no great judge of literature, had good sense enough to have for his friends very able men, to give him their opinion and advice in the purchase of copyright; the consequence of which was his acquiring a very large fortune, with liberality. Johnson said of him, “I respect Millar, Sir; he has raised the price of literature.” The same praise may be justly given to Panckoucke, the eminent bookseller of Paris. Mr. Strahan's liberality, judgement, and success, are well known.


“IT has been long observed, that men do not suspect faults which they do not commit; your own elegance of manners, and punctuality of complaisance, did not suffer you to impute to me that negligence of which I was guilty, and which I have not since atoned. I received both your letters, and received them with pleasure proportioned to the esteem which so short an acquaintance strongly impressed, and which I hope to confirm by nearer knowledge, though I am afraid that gratification will be for a time withheld.

“I have, indeed, published my Book,13 of which I beg to know your father's judgement, and yours; and I have now staid long enough to watch its progress in the world. It has, you see, no patrons, and, I think, has yet had no opponents, except the criticks of the coffee-house, whose outcries are soon dispersed into the air, and are thought on no more; from this, therefore, I am at liberty, and think of taking the opportunity of this interval to make an excursion, and why not then into Lincolnshire? or, to mention a stronger attraction, why not to dear Mr. Langton? I will give the true reason, which I know you will approve: -- I have a mother more than eighty years old, who has counted the days to the publication of my book, in hopes of seeing me; and to her, if I can disengage myself here, I resolve to go.

“As I know, dear Sir, that to delay my visit for a reason like this, will not deprive me of your esteem, I beg it may not lessen your kindness. I have very seldom received an offer of friendship which I so earnestly desire to cultivate and mature. I shall rejoice to hear from you, till I can see you, and will see you as soon as I can; for when the duty that calls me to Lichfield is discharged, my inclination will carry me to Langton. I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes, or utter her voice in vain.

“Do not, dear Sir, make the slowness of this letter a precedent for delay, or imagine that I approved the incivility that I have committed; for I have known you enough to love you, and sincerely to wish a further knowledge; and I assure you once more, that to live in a house that contains such a father and such a son, will be accounted a very uncommon degree of pleasure, by, dear Sir,

“Your most obliged,
“And most humble servant,


“May 6, 1755.”


“I AM grieved that you should think me capable of neglecting your letters; and beg you will never admit any such suspicion again. I purpose to come down next week, if you shall be there; or any other week, that shall be more agreeable to you. Therefore let me know. I can stay this visit but a week; but intend to make preparations for a longer stay next time; being resolved not to lose sight of the University. How goes Apollonius?14 Don't let him be forgotten. Some things of this kind must be done, to keep us up. Pay my compliments to Mr. Wise, and all my other friends. I think to come to Kettel-Hall.15 I am, Sir,

“Your most affectionate, &c.


“[London] May 13, 1755:”


“IT is strange how many things will happen to intercept every pleasure, though it [be] only that of two friends meeting together. I have promised myself every day to inform you when you might expect me at Oxford, and have not been able to fix a time. The time, however, is, I think, at last come, and I promise myself to repose in Kettel-Hall, one of the first nights of the next week. I am afraid my stay with you cannot be long; but what is the inference? We must endeavour to make it cheerful. I wish your brother could meet us, that we might go and drink tea with Mr. Wise in a body. I hope he will be at Oxford, or at his nest of British and Saxon antiquities.16 I shall expect to see Spenser finished, and many other things begun. Dodsley is gone to visit the Dutch. The Dictionary sells well. The rest of the world goes on as it did. Dear Sir,

“Your most affectionate, &c.


“[London] June 10, 1755.”


“TO talk of coming to you, and not yet to come, has an air of trifling which I would not willingly have among you; and which, I believe, you will not willingly impute to me, when I have told you, that since my promise, two of our partners17 are dead, and that I was solicited to suspend my excursion till we could recover from our confusion.

“I have not laid aside my purpose; for every day makes me more impatient of staying from you. But death, you know, hears not supplications, nor pays any regard to the convenience of mortals. I hope now to see you next week; but next week is but another name for to-morrow, which has been noted for promising and deceiving.

“I am, &c.


["London] June 24, 1755.”


“I TOLD you that among the manuscripts are some things of Sir Thomas More. I beg you to pass an hour in looking on them, and procure a transcript of the ten or twenty first lines of each, to be compared with what I have; that I may know whether they are yet published. The manuscripts are these:

“Catalogue of Bodl. MS. pag. 122. F. 3. Sir Thomas More.

“1. Fall of angels. 2. Creation and fall of mankind. 3. Determination of the Trinity for the rescue of mankind. 4. Five lectures of our Saviour's passion. 5. Of the institution of the Sacrament, three lectures. 6. How to receive the blessed body of our Lord sacramentally. 7. Neomenia, the new moon. 8. De tristitia, taedio, pavore, et oratione Christi ante captionem ejus.

“Catalogue, pag. 154. Life of Sir Thomas More. Qu. Whether Roper's? Pag. 363. De resignatione Magni Sigilli in manus Regis per D. Thomam Morum. Pag. 364. Mori Defensio Moriae.

“If you procure the young gentleman in the library to write out what you think fit to be written, I will send to Mr. Prince the bookseller to pay him what you shall think proper.

“Be pleased to make my compliments to Mr. Wise, and all my friends. I am, Sir,

“Your affectionate, &c.


“[London] Aug. 7, 1755.”
The Dictionary, with a Grammar and History of the English Language, being now at length published, in two volumes folio, the world contemplated with wonder so stupendous a work atchieved by one man, while other countries had thought such undertakings fit only for whole academies. Vast as his powers were, I cannot but think that his imagination deceived him, when he supposed that by constant application he might have performed the task in three years. Let the Preface be attentively perused, in which is given, in a clear, strong, and glowing style, a comprehensive, yet particular view of what he had done; and it will be evident, that the time he employed upon it was comparatively short. I am unwilling to swell my book with long quotations from what is in every body's hands, and I believe there are few prose compositions in the English language that are read with more delight, or are more impressed upon the memory, than that preliminary discourse. One of its excellencies has always struck me with peculiar admiration; I mean the perspicuity with which he has expressed abstract scientifick notions. As an instance of this, I shall quote the following sentence: “When the radical idea branches out into parallel ramifications, how can a consecutive series be formed of senses in their own nature collateral?” We have here an example of what has been often said, and I believe with justice, that there is for every thought a certain nice adaptation of words which none other could equal, and which, when a man has been so fortunate as to hit, he has attained, in that particular case, the perfection of language.

The extensive reading which was absolutely necessary for the accumulation of authorities, and which alone may account for Johnson's, retentive mind being enriched with a very large and various store of knowledge and imagery, must have occupied several years. The Preface furnishes an eminent instance of a double talent, of which Johnson was fully conscious. Sir Joshua Reynolds heard him say, “There are two things which I am confident I can do very well: one is an introduction to any literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner: the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the authour promised to himself and to the publick.”

How should puny scribblers be abashed and disappointed, when they find him displaying a perfect theory of lexicographical excellence, yet at the same time candidly and modestly allowing that he “had not satisfied his own expectations.” Here was a fair occasion for the exercise of Johnson's modesty, when he was called upon to compare his own arduous performance, not with those of other individuals, (in which case his inflexible regard to truth would have been violated had he affected diffidence,) but with speculative perfection; as he, who can outstrip all his competitors in the race, may yet be sensible of his deficiency when he runs against time. Well might he say, that “the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned;” for he told me, that the only aid which he received was a paper containing twenty etymologies, sent to him by a person then unknown, who he was afterwards informed was Dr. Pearce, Bishop of Rochester. The etymologies, though they exhibit learning and judgement, are not, I think, entitled to the first praise amongst the various parts of this immense work. The definitions have always appeared to me such astonishing proofs of acuteness of intellect and precision of language, as indicate a genius of the highest rank. This it is which marks the superior excellence of Johnson's Dictionary over others equally or even more voluminous, and must have made it a work of much greater mental labour than mere Lexicons, or Word-Books, as the Dutch call them. They, who will make the experiment of trying how they can define a few words of whatever nature, will soon be satisfied of the unquestionable justice of this observation, which I can assure my readers is founded upon much study, and upon communication with more minds than my own.

A few of his definitions must be admitted to be erroneous. Thus, Windward and Leeward, though directly of opposite meaning, are defined identically the same way;18 as to which inconsiderable specks it is enough to observe, that his Preface announces that he was aware there might be many such in so immense a work; nor was he at all disconcerted when an instance was pointed out to him. A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.” His definition of Network has been often quoted with sportive malignity, as obscuring a thing in itself very plain. But to these frivolous censures no other answer is necessary than that with which we are furnished by his own Preface. “To explain, requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found. For as nothing can be proved but by supposing something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to admit of definition. Sometimes easier words are changed into harder; as, burial, into sepulture or interment; dry, into desiccative; dryness, into siccity or aridity; fit, into paroxism; for, the easiest word, whatever it be, can never be translated into one more easy.”

His introducing his own opinions, and even prejudices, under general definitions of words, while at the same time the original meaning of the words is not explained, as his Tory, Whig, Pension, Oats, Excise,19 and a few more, cannot be fully defended, and must be placed to the account of capricious and humorous indulgence. Talking to me upon this subject when we were at Ashbourne in 1777, he mentioned a still stronger instance of the predominance of his private feelings in the composition of this work, than any now to be found in it. “You know, Sir, Lord Gower forsook the old Jacobite interest. When I came to the Renegado, after telling that it meant 'one who deserts to the enemy, a revolter,' I added, Sometimes we say a GOWER. Thus it went to the press: but the printer had more wit than I, and struck it out.”

Let it, however, be remembered, that this indulgence does not display itself only in sarcasm towards others, but sometimes in playful illusion to the notions commonly entertained of his own laborious task. Thus: “Grub-street, the name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence, any mean production is called Grub-street.” -- “Lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.”

At the time when he was concluding his very eloquent Preface, Johnson's mind appears to have been in such a state of depression, that we cannot contemplate without wonder the vigourous and splendid thoughts which so highly distinguish that performance. “I (says he) may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which if I could obtain in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave; and success and miscarriage are empty sounds. I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.” That this indifference was rather a temporary than an habitual feeling, appears, I think, from his letters to Mr. Warton; and however he may have been affected for the moment, certain it is that the honours which his great work procured him, both at home and abroad, were very grateful to him. His friend the Earl of Corke and Orrery, being at Florence, presented it to the Accademia della Crusca. That Academy sent Johnson their Vocabolario, and the French Academy sent him their Dictionnaire, which Mr. Langton had the pleasure to convey to him.

It must undoubtedly seem strange, that the conclusion of his Preface should be expressed in terms so desponding, when it is considered that the authour was then only in his forty-sixth year. But we must ascribe its gloom to that miserable dejection of spirits to which he was constitutionally subject, and which was aggravated by the death of his wife two years before. I have heard it ingeniously observed by a lady of rank and elegance, that “his melancholy was then at its meridian.” It pleased God to grant him almost thirty years of life after this time; and once when he was in a placid frame of mind, he was obliged to own to me that he had enjoyed happier days, and had many more friends, since that gloomy hour, than before.

It is a sad saying, that “most of those whom he wished to please had sunk into the grave;” and his case at forty-five was singularly unhappy, unless the circle of his friends was very narrow. I have often thought, that as longevity is generally desired, and I believe, generally expected, it would be wise to be continually adding to the number of our friends, that the loss of some may be supplied by others. Friendship, “the wine of life,” should, like a well-stocked cellar, be thus continually renewed; and it is consolatory to think, that although we can seldom add what will equal the generous first growths of our youth, yet friendship becomes insensibly old in much less time than is commonly imagined, and not many years are required to make it very mellow and pleasant. Warmth will, no doubt, make a considerable difference. Men of affectionate temper and bright fancy will coalesce a great deal sooner than those who are cold and dull.

The proposition which I have now endeavoured to illustrate was, at a subsequent period of his life, the opinion of Johnson himself. He said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”

The celebrated Mr. Wilkes, whose notions and habits of life were very opposite to his, but who was ever eminent for literature and vivacity, sallied forth with a little Jeu d'Esprit upon the following passage in his Grammar of the English Tongue, prefixed to the Dictionary: “H seldom, perhaps never, begins any but the first syllable.” In an essay printed in “the Public Advertiser,” this lively writer enumerated many instances in opposition to this remark; for example, “The authour of this observation must be a man of a quick appre-hension, and of a most compre-hensive genius.” The position is undoubtedly expressed with too much latitude.

This light sally, we may suppose, made no great impression on our Lexicographer; for we find that he did not alter the passage till many years afterwards.20

He had the pleasure of being treated in a very different manner by his old pupil Mr. Garrick, in the following complimentary Epigram:

“TALK of war with a Briton, he'll boldly advance, That one
English soldier will beat ten of France; Would we alter the
boast from the sword to the pen, Our odds are still greater,
still greater our men; In the deep mines of science though
Frenchmen may toil, Can their strength be compar'd to Locke,
Newton, and Boyle?  Let them rally their heroes, send forth all
their pow'rs, Their verse-men and prose-men, then match them
with ours!  First Shakspeare and Milton, like Gods in the fight,
Have put their whole drama and epick to flight; In satires,
epistles, and odes, would they cope, Their numbers retreat
before Dryden and Pope; And Johnson, well-arm'd like a hero of
yore, Has beat forty French,21 and will beat
forty more!” 
Johnson this year gave at once a proof of his benevolence, quickness of apprehension, and admirable art of composition, in the assistance which he gave to Mr. Zachariah Williams, father of the blind lady whom he had humanely received under his roof. Mr. Williams had followed the profession of physick in Wales; but having a very strong propensity to the study of natural philosophy, had made many ingenious advances towards a discovery of the longitude, and repaired to London in hopes of obtaining the great parliamentary reward. He failed of success; but Johnson having made himself master of his principles and experiments, wrote for him a pamphlet, published in quarto, with the following title: “An Account of an Attempt to ascertain the Longitude at Sea, by an exact Theory of the Variation of the Magnetical Needle; with a Table of the Variations at the most remarkable Cities in Europe, from the year 1660 to 1680.” + To diffuse it more extensively, it was accompanied with an Italian translation on the opposite page, which it is supposed was the work of Signor Baretti,22 an Italian of considerable literature, who having come to England a few years before, had been employed in the capacity both of a language master and an authour, and formed an intimacy with Dr. Johnson. This pamphlet Johnson presented to the Bodleian Library.23 On a blank leaf of it is pasted a paragraph cut out of a newspaper, containing an account of the death and character of Williams, plainly written by Johnson.24

In July this year he had formed some scheme of mental improvement, the particular purpose of which does not appear. But we find in his “Prayers and Meditations,” p. 25, a prayer entitled, “On the Study of Philosophy, as an instrument of living;” and after it follows a note, “This study was not pursued.”

On the 13th of the same month he wrote in his Journal the following scheme of life, for Sunday: “Having lived” (as he with tenderness of conscience expresses himself) “not without an habitual reverence for the Sabbath, yet without that attention to its religious duties which Christianity requires;
“1. To rise early, and in order to it, to go to sleep early on Saturday.

“2. To use some extraordinary devotion in the morning.

“3. To examine the tenour of my life, and particularly the last week; and to mark my advances in religion, or recession from it.

“4. To read the Scripture methodically with such helps as are at hand.

“5. To go to church twice.

“6. To read books of Divinity, either speculative or practical.

“7. To instruct my family.

“8. To wear off by meditation any worldly soil contracted in the week.”


1. “His degree had now past, according to the usual form, the suffrages of the heads of Colleges; but was not yet finally granted by the University. It was carried without a single dissentient voice.”

2. “On Spenser.”

3. “Of the degree.”

4. “Principal of Saint Mary Hall at Oxford. He brought with him the diploma from Oxford.”

5. “I suppose Johnson means that my kind intention of being the first to give him the good news of the degree being granted was frustrated, because Dr. King brought it before my intelligence arrived.”

6. “Dr. Huddesford, President of Trinity College.”

7. Extracted from the Convocation Register, Oxford.

8. The original is in my possession.

9. [The superscription of this letter was not quite correct in the early editions of this work. It is here given from Dr. Johnson's original letter, now before me. -- M.]

10. We may conceive what a high gratification it must have been to Johnson to receive his diploma from the hands of the great Dr. KING, whose principles were so congenial with his own.

11. “The words in Italicks are allusions to passages in Mr. Warton's poem called 'The PROGRESS Of DISCONTENT,' now lately published.”

12. Sir John Hawkins, p. 341, inserts two notes as having passed formally between Andrew Millar and Johnson, to the above effect. I am assured this was not the case. In the way of incidental remark it was a pleasant play of raillery. To have deliberately written notes in such terms would have been morose.

13. His Dictionary.

14. “A translation of Apollonius Rhodius was now intended by Mr. Warton.”

15. [Kettel-Hall is an ancient tenement, adjoining to Trinity College, built about the year 1615, by Dr. Ralph Kettel, then President, for the accommodation of Commoners of that Society. In this ancient hostel, then in a very ruinous state, about forty years after Johnson had lodged there, Mr. Windham and the present writer were accommodated with two chambers, of primitive simplicity, during the installation of the Duke of Portland as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, in 1793. It has since been converted into a commodious private house. -- M.]

16. “At Ellsfield, a village three miles from Oxford.”

17. “Booksellers concerned in his Dictionary.”

18. [He owns in his Preface the deficiency of the technical part of his work; and he said, he should be much obliged to me for definitions of musical terms for his next edition, which he did not live to superintend. -- BURNEY.]

19. He thus defines Excise: “A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom Excise is paid.” The Commissioners of Excise being offended by this severe reflection, consulted Mr. Murray, then Attorney-General, to know whether redress could be legally obtained. I wished to have procured for my readers a copy of the opinion which he gave, and which may now be justly considered as history: but the mysterious secrecy of office it seems would not permit it. I am, however, informed by very good authority, that its import was, that the passage might be considered as actionable; but that it would be more prudent in the board not to prosecute. Johnson never made the smallest alteration in this passage. We find he still retained his early prejudice against Excise; for in “The Idler, No. 65,” there is the following very extraordinary paragraph: “The authenticity of Clarendon's history, though printed with the sanction of one of the first Universities of the world, had not an unexpected manuscript been happily discovered, would, with the help of factious credulity, have been brought into question, by the two lowest of all human beings, a Scribbler for a party, and a Commissioner of Excise.” The persons to whom he alludes were Mr. John Oldmixon, and George Ducket, Esq.

20. In the third edition, published in 1773, he left out the words perhaps never, and added the following paragraph:
“It sometimes begins middle or final syllables in words compounded, as block-head, or derived from the Latin, as comprehended.”
21. The number of the French Academy employed in settling their language.

22. [This ingenious foreigner, who was a native of Piedmont, came to England about the year 1753, and died in London, May 5, 1789. A very candid and judicious account of him and his works, beginning with the words, “So much asperity,” and written, it is believed, by a distinguished dignitary in the church, may be found in the Gentleman's Magazine, for that year, p. 469. -- M.]

23. See note by Mr. Warton, Aetat. 45 (Letter “To Mr. Chambers, of Lincoln College.”) [from which it appears that “12th” in the next note means the 12th of July, 1755. -- M].

24. “On Saturday the 12th, about twelve at night, died Mr. Zachariah Williams, in his eighty-third year, after an illness of eight months, in full possession of his mental faculties. He has been long known to philosophers and seamen for his skill in magnetism, and his proposal to ascertain the longitude by a peculiar system of the compass. He was a man of industry indefatigable, of conversation inoffensive, patient of adversity and disease, eminently sober, temperate, and pious; and worthy to have ended life with better fortune.”