End of Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Amidst the melancholy clouds which hung over the dying Johnson, his characteristical manner shewed itself on different occasions. When Dr. Warren, in the usual style, hoped that he was better; his answer was, ‘No, Sir; you cannot conceive with what acceleration I advance towards death.’

Mr. Windham having placed a pillow conveniently to support him, he thanked him for his kindness, and said, ‘That will do, —all that a pillow can do.’

Johnson, with that native fortitude, which, amidst all his bodily distress and mental sufferings, never forsook him, asked Dr. Brocklesby, as a man in whom he had confidence, to tell him plainly whether he could recover. ‘Give me (said he,) a direct answer.’ The Doctor having first asked him if he could hear the whole truth, which way soever it might lead, and being answered that he could, declared that, in his opinion, he could not recover without a miracle. ‘Then, (said Johnson,) I will take no more physick, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.’

Having, as has been already mentioned, made his will on the 8th and 9th of December, and settled all his worldly affairs, he languished till Monday, the 13th of that month, when he expired, about seven o’clock in the evening, with so little apparent pain that his attendants hardly perceived when his dissolution took place.

A few days before his death, he had asked Sir John Hawkins, as one of his executors, where he should be buried; and on being answered, ‘Doubtless, in Westminster-Abbey,’ seemed to feel a satisfaction, very natural to a Poet; and indeed in my opinion very natural to every man of any imagination, who has no family sepulchre in which he can be laid with his fathers. Accordingly, upon Monday, December 20, his remains were deposited in that noble and renowned edifice; and over his grave was placed a large blue flag-stone, with this inscription: –‘SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D. Obiit XIII die Decembris, Anno Domini M.DCC.LXXXIV. Aetatis suae LXXV.’

Tunes on the fiddle

In the evening our gentleman-farmer, and two others, entertained themselves and the company with a great number of tunes on the fiddle. Johnson desired to have ‘Let ambition fire thy mind,’ played over again, and appeared to give a patient attention to it; though he owned to me that he was very insensible to the power of musick. I told him, that it affected me to such a degree, as often to agitate my nerves painfully, producing in my mind alternate sensations of pathetick dejection, so that I was ready to shed tears; and of daring resolution, so that I was inclined to rush into the thickest part of the battle. ‘Sir, (said he,) I should never hear it, if it made me such a fool.’

Boswell, Life of Johnson.

It is not so. Do not tell this again.

Next morning, while we were at breakfast, Johnson gave a very earnest recommendation of what he himself practised with the utmost conscientiousness: I mean a strict attention to truth, even in the most minute particulars. ‘Accustom your children (said he,) constantly to this; if a thing happened at one window, and they, when relating it, say that it happened at another, do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.’ Our lively hostess, whose fancy was impatient of the rein, fidgeted at this, and ventured to say, ‘Nay, this is too much. If Mr. Johnson should forbid me to drink tea, I would comply, as I should feel the restraint only twice a day; but little variations in narrative must happen a thousand times a day, if one is not perpetually watching.’ JOHNSON. ‘Well, Madam, and you OUGHT to be perpetually watching. It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.’

He was indeed so much impressed with the prevalence of falsehood, voluntary or unintentional, that I never knew any person who upon hearing an extraordinary circumstance told, discovered more of the incredulus odi. He would say, with a significant look and decisive tone, ‘It is not so. Do not tell this again.’ He inculcated upon all his friends the importance of perpetual vigilance against the slightest degrees of falsehood.

I’d love to have seen Johnson seen the twitters and whatsapps and facebooks of the world…

James Boswell, Life of Johnson.


Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON. ‘I have looked into it.’ ‘What (said Elphinston,) have you not read it through?‘ Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, ‘No, Sir, do you read books through?

Boswell, Life of Johnson.

Bad Boswell Bad

Or girl:

“Sir, while you are considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt them both”.

You’ve heard variations of this aphorism; I wonder if Johnson was the first to get to it:

“Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, it’s not in Nature” — “So (said he), I allowed him all his own merit”.

Words of disproportionate magnitude:

Next day we got to Harwich to dinner; and my passage in the packet-boat to Helvoetsluys being secured, and my baggage put on board, we dined at our inn by ourselves. I happened to say it would be terrible if he should not find a speedy opportunity of returning to London, and be confined to so dull a place. JOHNSON. ‘Don’t, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here.’ The practice of using words of disproportionate magnitude, is, no doubt, too frequent every where; but, I think, most remarkable among the French, of which, all who have travelled in France must have been struck with innumerable instances.

Damned you are if it doesn’t:

‘There links, perhaps, in every human heart a desire of distinction, which inclines every man first to hope, and then to believe, that Nature has given him something peculiar to himself’.

Begin again where you left off:

‘Let all such fancies, illusive and destructive, be banished henceforward from your thoughts for ever. Resolve, and keep your resolution; choose, and pursue your choice. If you spend this day in study, you will find yourself still more able to study to-morrow; not that you are to expect that you shall at once obtain a complete victory. Depravity is not very easily overcome. Resolution will sometimes relax, and diligence will sometimes be interrupted; but let no accidental surprise or deviation, whether short or long, dispose you to despondency. Consider these failings as incident to all mankind. Begin again where you left off, and endeavour to avoid the seducements that prevailed over you before’.

Bad, Boswell, bad:

‘Let me have a long letter from you as soon as you can. I hope you continue your journal, and enrich it with many observations upon the country in which you reside. It will be a favour if you can get me any books in the Frisick language, and can enquire how the poor are maintained in the Seven Provinces. I am, dear Sir,

              ‘Your most affectionate servant,
                            ‘SAM. JOHNSON.’
 London, Dec. 8, 1763.’

I am sorry to observe, that neither in my own minutes, nor in my letters to Johnson, which have been preserved by him, can I find any information how the poor are maintained in the Seven Provinces.

Boswell, Life of Johnson.

The evil most to be dreaded

To Johnson, whose supreme enjoyment was the exercise of his reason, the disturbance or obscuration of that faculty was the evil most to be dreaded. Insanity, therefore, was the object of his most dismal apprehension; and he fancied himself seized by it, or approaching to it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary soundness and vigour of judgement. That his own diseased imagination should have so far deceived him, is strange; but it is stranger still that some of his friends should have given credit to his groundless opinion, when they had such undoubted proofs that it was totally fallacious; though it is by no means surprising that those who wish to depreciate him, should, since his death, have laid hold of this circumstance, and insisted upon it with very unfair aggravation.

Johnson, due to poverty, had to leave his Oxford college Pembroke in autumn 1731, without a degree, and ‘returned to his native city, destitute, and not knowing how he should gain a decent livelihood’. His father died in December of that same year. Almost left to the charity of his friends, in some occasion he mentioned that he had read at Pembroke A Voyage to Abyssinia, by Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit, which his friends then urged him to translate and abridge into English. And in the preface, Boswell says, the Johnsonian style begins to appear:

‘The Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general vein of his countrymen, has amused his reader with no romantick absurdity, or incredible fictions; whatever he relates, whether true or not, is at least probable; and he who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of probability, has a right to demand that they should believe him who cannot contradict him.

‘He appears, by his modest and unaffected narration, to have described things as he saw them, to have copied nature from the life, and to have consulted his senses, not his imagination. He meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears, and his cataracts fall from the rocks without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants.

‘The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unceasing sunshine; nor are the nations here described either devoid of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private or social virtues. Here are no Hottentots without religious polity or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences; he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial enquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason; and that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced, in most countries, their particular inconveniencies by particular favours.’


A defect in our nervous systems

A race of substantial yeomanry:

His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, of obscure extraction, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire.

A vile melancholy (watch for more later):

Mr. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body, and of a strong and active mind; yet, as in the most solid rocks veins of unsound substance are often discovered, there was in him a mixture of that disease, the nature of which eludes the most minute enquiry, though the effects are well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness. From him then his son inherited, with some other qualities, ‘a vile melancholy,’ which in his too strong expression of any disturbance of the mind, ‘made him mad all his life, at least not sober.’

Now Sir, if a boy could answer every question:

He began to learn Latin with Mr. Hawkins, usher, or under-master of Lichfield school, ‘a man (said he) very skilful in his little way.’ With him he continued two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr. Hunter, the head-master, who, according to his account, ‘was very severe, and wrong-headedly severe. He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question; and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every question, there would be no need of a master to teach him.’

An effect which terminates in itself:

Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. ‘I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terrour to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there’s an end on’t; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.’

Lurking in his constitution (here it comes again, but it’s not the sun):

The ‘morbid melancholy,’ which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner. While he was at Lichfield, in the college vacation of the year 1729, he felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labours, and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence. How wonderful, how unsearchable are the ways of GOD! Johnson, who was blest with all the powers of genius and understanding in a degree far above the ordinary state of human nature, was at the same time visited with a disorder so afflictive, that they who know it by dire experience, will not envy his exalted endowments. That it was, in some degree, occasioned by a defect in his nervous system, that inexplicable part of our frame, appears highly probable.

James Boswell, Life of Johnson.




Business of the biographer

An action of small note:

Nor is it always in the most distinguished atchievements that men’s virtues or vices may be best discerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person’s real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battles.

(Plutarch, Life of Alexander)

Vulgar greatness:

The business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestick privacies, and display the minute details of daily life.


His walk was now quick, and again slow:

There are many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science, or increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences. Thus Sallust, the great master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving with violent commotion.


The idleness of suspense:

Thus the story of Melanchthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that when he had made an appointment, he expected not only the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspence.


James Boswell’s Life of Johnson.