Monday, January 17, 2011


The measure of a man

Samuel Johnson was known for his vigor as an author and as a man - he was tall and large and often slovenly, his writing was erudite and prolific, his conversation second to none. He had a wide acquaintance, and surely one great measure of a man's worth is how he appears in the eyes of others. Now we know that Boswell was attempting to capture on paper the genius of his beloved great friend, so he was wildly prejudiced in his favor, but Boswell himself states over and over again throughout his writings that this portrait is created from both light and shade, to show the whole person, and is not merely a panegyric, as biographies had largely been up until this particular one.

Johnson is described by his acquaintances thusly:

" great a mind as his cannot be moved by inferior objects: an elephant does not run and skip like lesser animals." (Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides p.230)

"He appears to me like a great mill, into which a subject is thrown to be ground. It requires, indeed, fertile minds to furnish materials for this mill." (ibid p.338)

"When you see him first, you are struck with aweful reverence; - then you admire him; - and then you love him cordially." (ibid p.343)

"Pliability of address I conceive to be inconsistent with that majestick power of mind which he possesses, and which produces such noble effects. A lofty oak will not bend like a supple willow." (ibid p.353)

"This man is just a hogshead of sense." (ibid p.390)

"...he was a dungeon of wit..." (p.391)

"...URSA MAJOR." (ibid p.420)

"...slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk." (Boswell's Life of Johnson Volume I p.265)

"A robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries." (ibid Volume II p.5)

"He's a tremendous companion." (ibid p.106)

"I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree." (ibid p.226)

Another measure of such a man could be gleaned from how he describes others. Johnson is not quite as generous with them as they are of him, perhaps. At least in his public conversation, which by accounts was combative and overbearing to the point of compulsion. For example, he would often take the contrary position in a discussion, just to argue a point well, even if he didn't actually believe what he was arguing for and might later contradict himself. He appeared to delight in this form of winning, what we call one-upmanship today. But, as Boswell notes well into his Life, after numerous examples of such, his friends encouraged him in this, just to hear him argue and speak, and "He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it." (Life Volume I p.391)

Some examples of Johnson's thoughts about his contemporaries:

Burke: He "...has a mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar cruet." (Journal of a Tour p.341)

Lady Eglintoune: "Her figure was majestick, her manners high-bred, her reading extensive, and her conversation elegant." (ibid p.414)

Chesterfield: "This man... I thought had been a Lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords." (Boswell's Life of Johnson Volume I p.177)

Churchill: "Sir, I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still. However, I will acknowledge that I have a better opinion of him now, than I once had; for he has shewn more fertility than I expected. To be sure, he is a tree that cannot produce good fruit: he bears only crabs. But, Sir, a tree that produces a great many crabs is better than a tree which produces only a few." (ibid p.208) (Ouch!)

Anonymous: "He is, indeed, continually attempting wit, but he fails. And I have no more pleasure in hearing a man attempting wit and failing, than in seeing a man trying to leap over a ditch and tumbling into it. (ibid p.302)

Baretti: "There are strong powers in his mind. He has not, indeed, many hooks; but with what hooks he has, he grapples very forcibly." (ibid p.373)

Burton: "Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, he said, was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise. (ibid p.415)

Gray: "BOSWELL - '... but surely he was not dull in his poetry.' JOHNSON. Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT.'" (ibid p.569) (Ouch, OUCH!)

Cibber: "It is wonderful that a man, who for forty years had lived with the great and the witty, should have acquired so ill the talents of conversation: and he had but half to furnish; for one half of what he said was oaths." (ibid p.578)

Goldsmith: "Goldsmith, Sir, will give us a very fine book upon the subject; but if he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history." (ibid Volume II p.60)

Boswell: "I can tell you that I have heard you mentioned as a man whom everybody likes. I think that life has little more to give." (ibid p.274)

So much of this was said publicly, at times when Johnson apparently could not bear to be bested in conversation. One of the great surprises for me as a common reader, in making my way through this series of related books, is the difference between Johnson's bombast in public and his private persona. Much of the Life is long descriptions of table-talk, but Boswell also quotes at length from Johnson's personal letters and his private memorandum booklets, his pocket journals (later published as Prayers and Meditations - I do not yet possess a copy), to illustrate this very difference and round out his portrait, as it were. In his private writings, and many of his essays I have yet to mention, we encounter Johnson as a deeply religious man concerned with morality, eternity, charity, humility, fidelity to his duty and his friends, and his opinion of his own perceived failings as a human being. I find this most endearing. Boswell tells us repeatedly that this is also how Johnson truly was - his superego stilled - when not in company. I still haven't finished the Life. Two hundred pages to go. I am postponing the ending as long as I can, and reading in other Boswell/Johnson books, to keep these men and their times alive for a while longer.

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