Picture of James Boswell

James Boswell

places mentioned

August 14th to 17th, 1773: In Edinburgh

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To have the company of Chambers and Scott, he delayed his journey so long, that the court of session, which rises on the eleventh of August, was broke up before he got to Edinburgh.

On Saturday the fourteenth of August, 1773, late in the evening, I received a note from him, that he was arrived at Boyd's inn, at the head of the Canongate. I went to him directly. He embraced me cordially; and I exulted in the thought, that I now had him actually in Caledonia. Mr Scott's amiable manners, and attachment to our Socrates, at once united me to him. He told me that, before I came in, the Doctor had unluckily had a bad specimen of Scottish cleanliness. He then drank no fermented liquor. He asked to have his lemonade made sweeter; upon which the waiter, with his greasy fingers, lifted a lump of sugar, and put it into it. The Doctor, in indignation, threw it out of the window. Scott said, he was afraid he would have knocked the waiter down. Mr Johnson told me, that such another trick was played him at the house of a lady in Paris. He was to do me the honour to lodge under my roof. I regretted sincerely that I had not also a room for Mr Scott. Mr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street, to my house in James's court: it was a dusky night: I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh. I heard a late baronet, of some distinction in the political world in the beginning of the present reign, observe, that 'walking the streets of Edinburgh at night was pretty perilous, and a good deal odoriferous'. The peril is much abated, by the care which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but, from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consist of many stories, in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues. A zealous Scotsman would have wished Mr Johnson to be without one of his five senses upon this occasion. As we marched slowly along, he grumbled in my ear, 'I smell you in the dark!' But he acknowledged that the breadth of the street, and the loftiness of the buildings on each side, made a noble appearance.

My wife had tea ready for him, which it is well known he delighted to drink at all hours, particularly when sitting up late, and of which his able defence against Mr Jonas Hanway should have obtained him a magnificent reward from the East India Company. He shewed much complacency upon finding that the mistress of the house was so attentive to his singular habit; and as no man could be more polite when he chose to be so, his address to her was most courteous and engaging; and his conversation soon charmed her into a forgetfulness of his external appearance.

I did not begin to keep a regular full journal till some days after we had set out from Edinburgh; but I have luckily preserved a good many fragments of his Memorabilia from his very first evening in Scotland.

We had, a little before this, had a trial for murder, in which the judges had allowed the lapse of twenty years since its commission as a plea in bar, in conformity with the doctrine of prescription in the civil law, which Scotland and several other countries in Europe have adopted. He at first disapproved of this; but then he thought there was something in it, if there had been for twenty years a neglect to prosecute a crime which was KNOWN. He would not allow that a murder, by not being DISCOVERED for twenty years, should escape punishment. We talked of the ancient trial by duel. He did not think it so absurd as is generally supposed; 'For,' said he, 'it was only allowed when the question was in equilibria, as when one affirmed and another denied; and they had a notion that Providence would interfere in favour of him who was in the right. But as it was found that in a duel, he who was in the right had not a better chance than he who was in the wrong, therefore society instituted the present mode of trial, and gave the advantage to him who is in the right.'

We sat till near two in the morning, having chatted a good while after my wife left us. She had insisted, that to shew all respect to the Sage, she would give up her own bed-chamber to him, and take a worse. This I cannot but gratefully mention, as one of a thousand obligations which I owe her, since the great obligation of her being pleased to accept of me as her husband.

Sunday, 15th August

Mr Scott came to breakfast, at which I introduced to Dr Johnson, and him, my friend Sir William Forbes, now of Pitsligo; a man of whom too much good cannot be said; who, with distinguished abilities and application in his profession of a banker, is at once a good companion, and a good Christian; which I think is saying enough. Yet it is but justice to record, that once, when he was in a dangerous illness, he was watched with the anxious apprehension of a general calamity; day and night his house was beset with affectionate inquiries; and, upon his recovery, Te deum was the universal chorus from the hearts of his countrymen.

Mr Johnson was pleased with my daughter Veronica,1 then a child of about four months old. She had the appearance of listening to him. His motions seemed to her to be intended for her amusement; and when he stopped, she fluttered, and made a little infantine noise, and a kind of signal for him to begin again. She would be held close to him; which was a proof, from simple nature, that his figure was not horrid. Her fondness for him endeared her still more to me, and I declared she should have five hundred pounds of additional fortune.

We talked of the practice of the law. William Forbes said, he thought an honest lawyer should never undertake a cause which he was satisfied was not a just one. 'Sir,' said Mr Johnson, 'a lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence--what shall be the result of legal argument. As it rarely happens that a man is fit to plead his own cause, lawyers are a class of the community, who, by study and experience, have acquired the art and power of arranging evidence, and of applying to the points of issue what the law has settled. A lawyer is to do for his client all that his client might fairly do for himself, if he could. If, by a superiority of attention, of knowledge, of skill, and a better method of communication, he has the advantage of his adversary, it is an advantage to which he is entitled. There must always be some advantage, on one side or other; and it is better that advantage should be had by talents, than by chance. If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.' This was sound practical doctrine, and rationally repressed a too refined scrupulosity of conscience.

Emigration was at this time a common topick of discourse. Dr Johnson regretted it as hurtful to human happiness: 'For,' said he, 'it spreads mankind which weakens the defence of a nation, and lessens the comfort of living. Men, thinly scattered, make a shift, but a bad shift, without many things. A smith is ten miles off: they'll do without a nail or a staple. A taylor is far from them: they'll botch their own clothes. It is being concentrated which produces high convenience.'

Sir William Forbes, Mr Scott, and I, accompanied Mr Johnson to the chapel, founded by Lord Chief Baron Smith, for the Service of the Church of England. The Reverend Mr Carre, the senior clergyman, preached from these words, 'Because the Lord reigneth, let the earth be glad.' I was sorry to think Mr Johnson did not attend to the sermon, Mr Carre's low voice not being strong enough to reach his hearing. A selection of Mr Carre's sermons has, since his death, been published by Sir William Forbes, and the world has acknowledged their uncommon merit. I am well assured Lord Mansfield has pronounced them to be excellent.

Here I obtained a promise from Lord Chief Baron Orde, that he would dine at my house next day. I presented Mr Johnson to his Lordship, who politely said to him, 'I have not the honour of knowing you; but I hope for it, and to see you at my house. I am to wait on you tomorrow.' This respectable English judge will be long remembered in Scotland, where he built an elegant house, and lived in it magnificently. His own ample fortune, with the addition of his salary, enabled him to be splendidly hospitable. It may be fortunate for an individual amongst ourselves to be Lord Chief Baron; and a most worthy man now has the office; but, in my opinion, it is better for Scotland in general, that some of our publick employments should be filled by gentlemen of distinction from the south side of the Tweed, as we have the benefit of promotion in England. Such an interchange would make a beneficial mixture of manners, and render our union more complete. Lord Chief Baron Orde was on good terms with us all, in a narrow country filled with jarring interests and keen parties; and, though I well knew his opinion to be the same with my own, he kept himself aloof at a very critical period indeed, when the Douglas cause shook the sacred security of birthright in Scotland to its foundation; a cause, which had it happened before the Union, when there was no appeal to a British House of Lords, would have left the great fortress of honours and of property in ruins.

When we got home, Dr Johnson desired to see my books. He took down Ogden's Sermons on Prayer, on which I set a very high value, having been much edified by them, and he retired with them to his room. He did not stay long, but soon joined us in the drawing room. I presented to him Mr Robert Arbuthnot, a relation of the celebrated Dr Arbuthnot, and a man of literature and taste. To him we were obliged for a previous recommendation, which secured us a very agreeable reception at St Andrews, and which Dr Johnson, in his Journey, ascribes to 'some invisible friend'.

Of Dr Beattie, Mr Johnson said, 'Sir, he has written like a man conscious of the truth, and feeling his own strength. Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle. And as to Hume--a man who has so much conceit as to tell all mankind that they have been bubbled for ages, and he is the wise man who sees better than they--a man who has so little scrupulosity as to venture to oppose those principles which have been thought necessary to human happiness--is he to be surprised if another man comes and laughs at him? If he is the great man he thinks himself, all this cannot hurt him: it is like throwing peas against a rock.' He added 'something much too rough', both as to Mr Hume's head and heart, which I suppress. Violence is, in my opinion, not suitable to the Christian cause. Besides, I always lived on good terms with Mr Hume, though I have frankly told him, I was not clear that it was right in me to keep company with him, 'But', said I, 'how much better are you than your books!' He was cheerful, obliging, and instructive; he was charitable to the poor; and many an agreeable hour have I passed with him: I have preserved some entertaining and interesting memoirs of him, particularly when he knew himself to be dying, which I may some time or other communicate to the world. I shall not, however, extol him so very highly as Dr Adam Smith does, who says, in a letter to Mr Strahan the printer (not a confidential letter to his friend, but a letter which is published2 with all formality): 'Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his life time and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.' Let Dr Smith consider: Was not Mr Hume blest with good health, good spirits, good friends, a competent and increasing fortune? And had he not also a perpetual feast of fame? But, as a learned friend has observed to me, 'What trials did he undergo, to prove the perfection of his virtue? Did he ever experience any great instance of adversity?' When I read this sentence, delivered by my old Professor of Moral Philosophy, I could not help exclaiming with the Psalmist, 'Surely I have now more understanding than my teachers!'

While we were talking, there came a note to me from Dr William Robertson.

Dear Sir,

I have been expecting every day to hear from you, of Dr Johnson's arrival. Pray, what do you know about his motions? I long to take him by the hand. I write this from the college, where I have only this scrap of paper. Ever yours,


It pleased me to find Dr Robertson thus eager to meet Dr Johnson. I was glad I could answer, that he was come: and I begged Dr Robertson might be with us as soon as he could. Sir William Forbes, Mr Scott, Mr Arbuthnot, and another gentleman dined with us. 'Come, Dr Johnson,' said I, 'it is commonly thought that our veal in Scotland is not good. But here is some which I believe you will like.' There was no catching him: JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, what is commonly thought, I should take to be true. YOUR veal may be good; but that will only be an exception to the general opinion; not a proof against it.'

Dr Robertson, according to the custom of Edinburgh at that time, dined in the interval between the forenoon and afternoon service, which was then later than now; so we had not the pleasure of his company till dinner was over, when he came and drank wine with us. And then began some animated dialogue, of which here follows a pretty full note.

We talked of Mr Burke. Dr Johnson said, he had great variety of knowledge, store of imagery, copiousness of language. ROBERTSON. 'He has wit too.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; he never succeeds there. 'Tis low; 'tis conceit. I used to say. Burke never once made a good joke.3 What I most envy Burke for, is, his being constantly the same. He is never what we call humdrum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off.' BOSWELL. 'Yet he can listen.' JOHNSON. 'No; I cannot say he is good at that. So desirous is he to talk, that, if one is speaking at this end of the table, he'll speak to somebody at the other end. Burke, sir, is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter but for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say, this is an extraordinary man. Now, you may be long enough with me, without finding any thing extraordinary.' He said, he believed Burke was intended for the law; but either had not money enough to follow it, or had not diligence enough. He said, he could not understand how a man could apply to one thing, and not to another. Robertson said, one man had more judgment, another more imagination. JOHNSON. 'No, sir; it is only, one man has more mind than another. He may direct it differently; he may, by accident, see the success of one kind of study, and take a desire to excel in it. I am persuaded that, had Sir Isaac Newton applied to poetry, he would have made a very fine epick poem. I could as easily apply to law as to tragick poetry.' BOSWELL. 'Yet, sir, you did apply to tragick poetry, not to law.' JOHNSON. 'Because, sir, I had not money to study law. Sir, the man who has vigour, may walk to the east, just as well as to the west, if he happens to tune his head that way.' BOSWELL. 'But, sir, 'tis like walking up and down a hill; one man will naturally do the one better than the other. A hare will run up a hill best, from her fore-legs being short; a dog down.' JOHNSON. 'Nay, sir; that is from mechanical powers. If you make mind mechanical, you may argue in that manner. One mind is a vice, and holds fast; there's a good memory. Another is a file; and he is a disputant, a controversialist. Another is a razor; and he is sarcastical.' We talked of Whitefield. He said, he was at the same college with him, and knew him 'before he began to be better than other people' (smiling); that he believed he sincerely meant well, but had a mixture of politicks and ostentation: whereas Wesley thought of religion only. 4 Robertson said, Whitefield had strong natural eloquence, which, if cultivated, would have done great things. JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, I take it, he was at the height of what his abilities could do, and was sensible of it. He had the ordinary advantages of education; but he chose to pursue that oratory which is for the mob.' BOSWELL. 'He had great effect on the passions.' JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, I don't think so. He could not represent a succession of pathetick images. He vociferated, and made an impression. THERE, again, was a mind like a hammer.' Dr Johnson now said, a certain eminent political friend of ours was wrong, in his maxim of sticking to a certain set of MEN on all occasions. 'I can see that a man may do right to stick to a PARTY,' said he;' that is to say, he is a WHIG, or he is a TORY, and he thinks one of those parties upon the whole the best, and that to make it prevail, it must be generally supported, though, in particulars, it may be wrong. He takes its faggot of principles, in which there are fewer rotten sticks than in the other, though some rotten sticks to be sure; and they cannot well be separated. But, to bind one's self to one man, or one set of men (who may be right to-day and wrong to-morrow), without any general preference of system, I must disapprove.'5

He told us of Cooke, who translated Hesiod, and lived twenty years on a translation of Plautus, for which he was always taking subscriptions; and that he presented Foote to a club, in the following singular manner: 'This is the nephew of the gentleman who was lately hung in chains for murdering his brother.'

In the evening I introduced to Mr Johnson6 two good friends of mine, Mr William Nairne, advocate, and Mr Hamilton of Sundrum, my neighbour in the country, both of whom supped with us. I have preserved nothing of what passed, except that Dr Johnson displayed another of his heterodox opinions--a contempt of tragick acting. He said, 'the action of all players in tragedy is bad. It should be a man's study to repress those signs of emotion and passion, as they are called.' He was of a directly contrary opinion to that of Fielding, in his Tom Jones; who makes Partridge say, of Garrick, 'why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did.' For, when I asked him, 'Would not you, sir, start as Mr Garrick does, if you saw a ghost?' He answered, 'I hope not. If I did, I should frighten the ghost.'

Monday, 16th August

Dr William Robertson came to breakfast. We talked of Ogden on Prayer. Dr Johnson said, 'The same arguments which are used against God's hearing prayer, will serve against his rewarding good, and punishing evil. He has resolved, he has declared, in the former case as in the latter.' He had last night looked into Lord Hailes's Remarks on the History of Scotland. Dr Robertson and I said, it was a pity Lord Hailes did not write greater things. His lordship had not then published his Annals of Scotland. JOHNSON. 'I remember I was once on a visit at the house of a lady for whom I had a high respect. There was a good deal of company in the room. When they were gone, I said to this lady, "What foolish talking have we had!" "Yes," said she, "but while they talked, you said nothing." I was struck with reproof. How much better is the man who does nothing. Besides, I love anecdotes. I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made. If a man is to wait till he weaves anecdotes into a system, we may be long in getting them, and get but a few, in comparison of what we might get.'

Dr Robertson said, the notions of Eupham Macallan. a fanatick woman, of whom Lord Hailes gives a sketch, were still prevalent among some of the Presbyterians; and therefore it was right in Lord Hailes, a man of known piety, to undeceive them.

We walked out, that Dr Johnson might see some of the things which we have to shew at Edinburgh. We went to the Parliament House, where the Parliament of Scotland sat, and where the Ordinary Lords of Session hold their courts; and to the New Session House adjoining to it, where our Court of Fifteen (the fourteen Ordinaries, with the Lord President at their head) sit as a court of Review. We went to the Advocates' Library, of which Dr Johnson took a cursory view, and then to what is called the Laigh (or Under) Parliament House, where the records of Scotland, which has an universal security by register, are deposited, till the great Register Office be finished. I was pleased to behold Dr Samuel Johnson rolling about in this old magazine of antiquities. There was, by this time, a pretty numerous circle of us attending upon him. Somebody talked of happy moments for composition; and how a man can write at one time, and not at another. 'Nay,' said Dr Johnson, 'a man may write at any time, if he will set himself DOGGEDLY7 to it.'

I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our union with England, we were no more--our independent kingdom was lost. JOHNSON. 'Sir, never talk of your independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too! as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.' Worthy MR JAMES KERR, Keeper of the Records. 'Half our nation was bribed by English money.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, that is no defence: that makes you worse.' Good MR BROWN, Keeper of the Advocates Library. 'We had better say nothing about it.' BOSWELL. 'You would have been glad, however, to have had us last war, sir, to fight your battles!' JOHNSON. 'We should have had you for the same price, though there had been no Union, as we might have had Swiss, or other troops. No, no, I shall agree to a separation. You have only to GO HOME.' Just as he had said this, I to divert the subject, shewed him the signed assurances of the three successive Kings of the Hanover family, to maintain the Presbyterian establishment in Scotland. 'We'll give you that,' said he, 'into the bargain.'

We next went to the great church of St Giles, which has lost its original magnificence in the inside, by being divided into four places of Presbyterian worship. 'Come,' said Dr Johnson jocularly to Principal Robertson,8 'let me see what was once a church!' We entered that division which was formerly called the New Church, and of late the High Church, so well known by the eloquence of Dr Hugh Blair. It is now very elegantly fitted up; but it was then shamefully dirty. Dr Johnson said nothing at the time; but when we came to the great door of the Royal Infirmary, where, upon a board, was this inscription, CLEAN YOUR FEET! he turned about slyly, and said, 'There is no occasion for putting this at the doors of your churches!'

We then conducted him down the Post-house stairs, Parliament Close, and made him look up from the Cow-gate to the highest building in Edinburgh (from which he had just descended), being thirteen floors or stories from the ground upon the back elevation; the front wall being built upon the edge of the hill, and the back wall rising from the bottom of the hill several stories before it comes to a level with the front wall. We proceeded to the College, with the Principal at our head. Dr Adam Fergusson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society gives him a respectable place in the ranks of literature, was with us. As the College buildings are indeed very mean, the Principal said to Dr Johnson, that he must give them the same epithet that a Jesuit did when shewing a poor college abroad: Hae miseriae nostrae. Dr Johnson was, however, much pleased with the library, and with the conversation of Dr James Robertson, Professor of Oriental Languages, the Librarian. We talked of Kennicot's edition of the Hebrew Bible, and hoped it would be quite faithful. JOHNSON. 'Sir, I know not any crime so great that a man could contrive to commit, as poisoning the sources of eternal truth.'

I pointed out to him where there formerly stood an old wall enclosing part of the college, which I remember bulged out in a threatening manner, and of which there was a common tradition similar to that concerning Bacon's study at Oxford, that it would fall upon some very learned man. It had some time before this been taken down, that the street might be widened, and a more convenient wall built. Dr Johnson, glad of an opportunity to have a pleasant hit at Scottish learning, said, 'they have been afraid it never would fall'.

We shewed him the Royal Infirmary, for which, and for every other exertion of generous publick spirit in his power, that noble-minded citizen of Edinburgh, George Drummond, will be ever held in honourable remembrance. And we were too proud not to carry him to the Abbey of Holyrood House, that beautiful piece of architecture, but, alas! that deserted mansion of royalty, which Hamilton of Bangour, in one of his elegant poems, calls

A virtuous palace, where no monarch dwells.

I was much entertained while Principal Robertson fluently harangued to Dr Johnson, upon the spot, concerning scenes of his celebrated History of Scotland. We surveyed that part of the palace appropriated to the Duke of Hamilton, as Keeper, in which our beautiful Queen Mary lived, and in which David Rizzio was murdered; and also the State Rooms. Dr Johnson was a great reciter of all sorts of things serious or comical. I over-heard him repeating here, in a kind of muttering tone, a line of the old ballad, 'Johnny Armstrong's Last Good-Night':

'And ran him through the fair body!'9

We returned to my house, where there met him, at dinner, the Duchess of Douglas, Sir Adolphus Oughton, Lord Chief Baron, Sir William Forbes, Principal Robertson, Mr Cullen, advocate. Before dinner, he told us of a curious conversation between the famous George Faulkner and him. George said that England had drained Ireland of fifty thousand pounds in specie, annually, for fifty years. 'How so, sir!' said Dr Johnson, 'you must have a very great trade?' 'No trade.' 'Very rich mines?' 'No mines.' 'From whence, then, does all this money come?' 'Come! why out of the blood and bowels of the poor people of Ireland!'

He seemed to me to have an unaccountable prejudice against Swift; for I once took a liberty to ask him, if Swift had personally offended him, and he told me, he had not. He said to-day, 'Swift is clear, but he is shallow. In coarse humour, he is inferior to Arbuthnot; in delicate humour, he is inferior to Addison: so he is inferior to his contemporaries; without putting him against the whole world. I doubt if the Tale of a Tub was his: it has so much more thinking, more knowledge, more power, more colour, than any of the works which are indisputably his. If it was his, I shall only say, he was impar sibi.'

We gave him as good a dinner as we could. Our Scotch muir-fowl, or growse, were then abundant, and quite in season; and, so far as wisdom and wit can be aided by administering agreeable sensations to the palate, my wife took care that our great guest should not be deficient.

Sir Adolphus Oughton, then our Deputy Commander in Chief, who was not only an excellent officer, but one of the most universal scholars I ever knew, had learned the Erse language, and expressed his belief in the authenticity of Ossian's poetry. Dr Johnson took the opposite side of that perplexed question; and I was afraid the dispute would have run high between them. But Sir Adolphus, who had a very sweet temper, changed the discourse, grew playful, laughed at Lord Monboddo's notion of men having tails, and called him a Judge, a posteriori, which amused Dr Johnson; and thus hostilities were prevented.

At supper we had Dr Cullen, his son the advocate, Dr Adam Fergusson, and Mr Crosbie, advocate. Witchcraft was introduced. Mr Crosbie said, he thought it the greatest blasphemy to suppose evil spirits counteracting the Deity, and raising storms, for instance, to destroy his creatures. JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, if moral evil be consistent with the government of the Deity, why may not physical evil be also consistent with it? It is not more strange that there should be evil spirits, than evil embodied spirits. And as to storms, we know there are such things; and it is no worse that evil spirits raise them, than that they rise.' CROSBIE. 'But it is not credible, that witches should have effected what they are said in stories to have done.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I am not defending their credibility. I am only saying, that your arguments are not good, and will not overturn the belief of witchcraft.' (Dr Fergusson said to me, aside, 'He is right.') 'And then, sir, you have all mankind, rude and civilized, agreeing in the belief of the agency of preternatural powers. You must take evidence: you must consider, that wise and great men have condemned witches to die.' CROSBIE. 'But an Act of Parliament put an end to witchcraft.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; witchcraft had ceased; and therefore an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent persecution for what was not witchcraft. Why it ceased, we cannot tell, as we cannot tell the reason of many other things.' Dr Cullen, to keep up the gratification of mysterious disquisition, with the grave address for which he is remarkable in his companionable as in his professional hours, talked, in a very entertaining manner, of people walking and conversing in their sleep. I am very sorry I have no note of this. We talked of the Ouran-Outang, and of Lord Monboddo's thinking that he might be taught to speak. Dr Johnson treated this with ridicule. Mr Crosbie said, that Lord Monboddo believed the existence of every thing possible; in short, that all which is in posse might be found in esse. JOHNSON. 'But, sir, it is as possible that the Ouran-Outang does not speak, as that he speaks. However, I shall not contest the point. I should have thought it not possible to find a Monboddo; yet HE exists.' I again mentioned the stage. JOHNSON. 'The appearance of a player, with whom I have drunk tea, counteracts the imagination that he is the character he represents. Nay, you know, nobody imagines that he is the character he represents. They say, "See Garrick! how he looks to-night! See how he'll clutch the dagger!" That is the buz of the theatre.'

Tuesday, 17th August

Sir William Forbes came to breakfast, and brought with him Dr Blacklock, whom he introduced to Dr Johnson, who received him with a most humane complacency. 'Dear Blacklock, I am glad to see you!' Blacklock seemed to be much surprised, when Dr Johnson said, 'it was easier to him to write poetry than to compose his Dictionary. His mind was less on the stretch in doing the one than the other. Besides; composing a dictionary requires books and a desk: you can make a poem walking in the fields, or lying in bed.' Dr Blacklock spoke of scepticism in morals and religion, with apparant uneasiness, as if he wished for more certainty. Dr Johnson, who had thought it all over, and whose vigorous understanding was fortified by much experience, thus encouraged the blind bard to apply to higher speculations what we willingly submit to in common life: in short, he gave him more familiarly the able and fair reasoning of Butler's Analogy: 'Why, sir, the greatest concern we have in this world, the choice of our profession, must be determined without demonstrative reasoning. Human life is not yet so well known, as that we can have it. And take the case of a man who is ill. I call two physicians: they differ in opinion. I am not to lie down, and die between them: I must do something.' The conversation then turned on atheism; on that horrible book, Systeme de la Nature; and on the supposition of an eternal necessity, without design, without a governing mind. JOHNSON. 'If it were so, why has it ceased? Why don't we see men thus produced around us now? Why, at least, does it not keep pace, in some measure, with the progress of time? If it stops because there is now no need of it, then it is plain there is, and ever has been, an all-powerful intelligence. But stay!' said he, with one of his satyrick laughs. 'Hal ha! ha! I shall suppose Scotchmen made necessarily, and Englishmen by choice.'

At dinner this day, we had Sir Alexander Dick, whose amiable character, and ingenious and cultivated mind, are so generally known (he was then on the verge of seventy, and is now (1785) eighty-one, with his faculties entire, his heart warm, and his temper gay); Sir David Dalrymple; Lord Hailes; Mr Maclaurin, advocate; Dr Gregory, who now worthily fills his father's medical chair; and my uncle, Dr Boswell. This was one of Dr Johnson's best days. He was quite in his element. All was literature and taste, without any interruption. Lord Hailes, who is one of the best philologists in Great Britain, who has written papers in the World, and a variety of other works in prose and in verse, both Latin and English, pleased him highly. He told him, he had discovered the Life of Cheynel, in the Student, to be his. JOHNSON. 'No one else knows it.' Dr Johnson had, before this, dictated to me a law-paper, upon a question purely in the law of Scotland, concerning 'vicious intromission', that is to say, intermeddling with the effects of a deceased person, without a regular title; which formerly was understood to subject the intermeddler to payment of all the defunct's debts. The principle has of late been relaxed. Dr Johnson's argument was, for a renewal of its strictness. The paper was printed, with additions by me, and given into the Court of Session. Lord Hailes knew Dr Johnson's part not to be mine, and pointed out exactly where it began, and where it ended. Dr Johnson said, 'It is much, now, that his lordship can distinguish so.'

In Dr Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes, there is the following passage:

The teeming mother, anxious for her race,
Begs, for each birth, the fortune of a face:
Yet VANE could tell, what ills from beauty spring;
And SEDLEY curs'd the charms which pleas'd a king.

Lord Hailes told him, he was mistaken in the instances he had given of unfortunate fair ones; for neither Vane nor Sedley had a title to that description. His Lordship has since been so obliging as to send me a note of this, for the communication of which I am sure my readers will thank me.

The lines in the tenth Satire of Juvenal, according to my alteration, should have run thus:

Yet SHORE10 could tell--;
And VALIERE11 curs'd--.

The first was a penitent by compulsion, the second by sentiment; though the truth is, Mademoiselle de la Valiere threw herself (but still from sentiment) in the King's way.

'Our friend chose Vane, who was far from being well-looked; and Sedley, who was so ugly, that Charles II said, his brother had her by way of penance.'

Mr Maclaurin's learning and talents enabled him to do his part very well in Dr Johnson's company. He produced two epitaphs upon his father, the celebrated mathematician. One was in English, of which Dr Johnson did not change one word. In the other, which was in Latin, he made several alterations. In place of the very words of Virgil, Ubi luctus et pavor et plurima mortis imago, he wrote Ubi luctus regnant et pavor. He introduced the word prorsus into the line Mortalibus prorsus non absit solatium and after Hujus enim scripta evolve, he added, Mentemque tantarum rerum capacem corpori caduco superstitem crede; which is quite applicable to Dr Johnson himself. 12

Mr Murray, advocate, who married a niece of Lord Mansfield's and is now one of the Judges of Scotland, by the title of Lord Henderland, sat with us a part of the evening; but did not venture to say any thing, that I remember, though he is certainly possessed of talents which would have enabled him to have shewn himself to advantage, if too great anxiety had not prevented him.

At supper we had Dr Alexander Webster, who, though not learned, had such a knowledge of mankind, such a fund of information and entertainment, so clear a head and such accommodating manners, that Dr Johnson found him a very agreeable companion.

When Dr Johnson and I were left by ourselves, I read to him my notes of the opinions of our Judges upon the questions of Literary Property. He did not like them; and said, 'they make me think of your Judges not with that respect which I should wish to do'. To the argument of one of them, that there can be no property in blasphemy or nonsense, he answered, 'then your rotten sheep are mine! By that rule, when a man's house falls into decay, he must lose it.' I mentioned an argument of mine, that literary performances are not taxed. As Churchill says,

No statesman yet has thought it worth his pains
To tax our labours, or excite our brains;

and therefore they are not property. 'Yet,' said he, 'we hang a man for stealing a horse, and horses are not taxed.' Mr Pitt has since put an end to that argument.

1 "The saint's name of Veronica was introduced into our family through my great grandmother Veronica, Countess of Kincardine, a Dutch lady of the noble house of Sommelsdyck, of which there is a full account in Bayle's Dictionary. The family had once a princely right in Surinam. The governour of that settlement was appointed by the States General, the town of Amsterdam, and Sommelsdyck. The States General have acquired Sommelsdyck's right; but the family has still great dignity and opulence, and by intermarriages is connected with many other noble families. When I was at the Hague, I was received with all the affection of kindred. The present Sommelsdyck has an important charge in the Republick, and is as worthy a man as lives. He has honoured me with his correspondence for these twenty years. My great grandfather, the husband of Countess Veronica, was Alexander, Earl of Kincardine, that eminent Royalist whose character is given by Burnet in his History of his own Times. From him the blood of Bruce flows in my veins. Of such ancestry who would not be proud? And, as Nihil est, nisi hoc sciat alter, is peculiarly true of genealogy, who would not be glad to seize a fair opportunity to let it be known "

2 This letter, though shattered by the sharp shot of Dr Horne of Oxford's wit, in the character of 'One of the People called Christians', is still prefixed to Mr Home's excellent History of England, like a poor invalid on the piquet guard, or like a list of quack medicines sold by the same bookseller, by whom a work of whatever nature is published; for it has no connection with his History, let it have what it may with what are called his Philosophical Works. A worthy friend of mine in London was lately consulted by a lady of quality, of most distinguished merit, what was the best History of England for her son to read. My friend recommended Hume's. But, upon recollecting that its usher was a superlative panegyrick on one, who endeavoured to sap the credit of our holy religion, he revoked his recommendation. I am really sorry for this ostentatious alliance; because I admire The Theory of Moral Sentiments , and value the greatest part of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations . Why should such a writer be so forgetful of human comfort, as to give any countenance to that dreary infidelity which would' make us poor indeed!'


This was one of the points upon which Dr Johnson was strangely heterodox. For, surely, Mr Burke, with his other remarkable qualities, is also distinguished for his wit, and for wit of all kinds too; not merely that power of language which Pope chooses to denominate wit.

True wit is Nature to advantage drest;
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well exprest.

but surprising allusions, brilliant sallies of vivacity, and pleasant conceits. His speeches in Parliament are strewed with them. Take, for instance, the variety which he has given in his wide range, yet exact detail, when exhibiting his Reform Bill. And his conversation abounds in wit. Let me put down a specimen. I told him, I had seen, at a blue stocking assembly, a number of ladies sitting round a worthy and tall friend of ours, listening to his literature. 'Ay,' said he, 'like maids round a May-pole.' I told him, I had found a perfect definition of human nature, as distinguished from the animal. An ancient philosopher said, man was a 'two-legged animal without feathers', upon which his rival sage had a cock plucked bare, and set him down in the school before all the disciples, as a 'Philosophick Man'. Dr Franklin said, man was 'a tool-making animal', which is very well; for no animal but man makes a thing, by means of which he can make another thing. But this applies to very few of the species. My definition of man is, 'a Cooking Animal'. The beasts have memory, judgment and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. The trick of the monkey using the cat's paw to roast a chestnut is only a piece of shrewd malice in that turpissima bestia, which humbles us so sadly by its similarity to us. Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats. 'Your definition is good,' said Mr Burke, 'and I now see the full force of the common proverb. "There is REASON in roasting of eggs".' When Mr Wilkes, in his days of tumultuous opposition, was borne upon the shoulders of the mob. Mr Burke (as Mr Wilkes told me himself, with classical admiration,) applied to him what Horace says of Pindar,

... numerisque fertur
LEGE solutis.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, who agrees with me entirely as to Mr Burke's fertility of wit said, that this was 'dignifying a pun'. He also observed, that he has often heard Burke say, in the course of an evening, ten good things, each of which would have served a noted wit (whom he named) to live upon for a twelvemonth.

I find, since the former edition, that some persons have objected to the instances which I have given of Mr Burke's wit, as not doing justice to my very ingenious friend; the specimens produced having, it is alleged, more of conceit than real wit and being merely sportive sallies of the moment, not justifying the encomium which they think with me, he undoubtedly merits. I was well aware, how hazardous it was to exhibit particular instances of wit, which is of so airy and spiritual a nature as often to elude the hand that attempts to grasp it. The excellence and efficacy of a bon mot depend frequently so much on the occasion on which it is spoken, on the particular manner of the speaker, on the person of whom it is applied, the previous introduction, and a thousand minute particulars which cannot be easily enumerated, that it is always dangerous to detach a witty saying from the group to which it belongs, and to see it before the eye of the spectator, divested of those concomitant circumstances, which gave it animation, mellowness, and relief. I ventured, however, at all hazards to put down the first instances that occurred to me, as proofs of Mr Burke's lively and brilliant fancy; but am very sensible that his numerous friends could have suggested many of a superior quality. Indeed, the being in company with him, for a single day, is sufficient to shew that what I have asserted is well founded; and it was only necessary to have appealed to all who know him intimately, for a complete refutation of the heterodox opinion entertained by Dr Johnson on this subject. HE allowed Mr Burke, as the reader will find hereafter, to be a man of consummate and unrivalled abilities in every light except that now under consideration; and the variety of his allusions, and splendour of his imagery, have made such an impression on ALL THE REST of the world, that superficial observers are apt to overlook his other merits, and to suppose that wit is his chief and most prominent excellence; when in fact it is only one of the many talents that he possesses, which are so various and extraordinary, that it is very difficult to ascertain precisely the rank and value of each.

4 That cannot be said now, after the flagrant part which Mr John Wesley took against our American brethren, when, in his own name, he threw amongst his enthusiastic flock, the very individual combustibles of Dr Johnson's Taxation no Tyranny: and after the intolerant spirit which he manifested against our fellow Christians of the Roman Catholick Communion, for which that able champion, Father O'Leary, has given him so hearty a drubbing. But I should think myself very unworthy, if I did not at the same time acknowledge Mr John Wesley's merit, as a veteran 'Soldier of Jesus Christ', who has, I do believe, 'turned many from darkness into light, and from the power of Satan to the living God'.

5 If due attention were paid to this observation, there would be more virtue, even in politicks. What Dr Johnson justly condemned, has, I am sorry to say, greatly increased in the present reign. At the distance of four years from this conversation, 21st February 1777, My Lord Archbishop of York, in his 'Sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts', thus indignantly describes the then state of parties: 'Parties once had a PRINCIPLE belonging to them, absurd perhaps, and indefensible, but still carrying a notion of DUTY, by which honest minds might easily be caught.

'But they are now COMBINATIONS OF INDIVIDUALS, who, instead of being the sons and servants of the community, make a league for advancing their PRIVATE INTERESTS. It is their business to hold high the notion of POLITICAL HONOUR. I believe and trust, it is not injurious to say, that such a bond is no better than that by which the lowest and wickedest combinations are held together; and that it denotes the last stage of political depravity.'

To find a thought, which just shewed itself to us from the mind of JOHNSON, thus appearing again at such a distance of time, and without any communication between them, enlarged to full growth in the mind of MARKHAM, is a curious object of philosophical contemplation. That two such great and luminous minds should have been so dark in one corner--that THEY should have held it to be 'wicked rebellion in the British subjects established in America, to resist the abject condition of holding all their property at the mercy of British subjects remaining at home, while their allegiance to our common Lord the King was to be preserved inviolate'--is a striking proof to me, either that 'He who fitteth in Heaven', scorns the loftiness of human pride, or that the evil spirit, whose personal existence I strongly believe, and even in this age am confirmed in that belief by a Fell, nay, by a Hurd, has more power than some choose to allow.

6 It may be observed, that I sometimes call my great friend, MR Johnson, sometimes DR Johnson, though he had at this time a doctor's degree from Trinity College, Dublin. The University of Oxford afterwards conferred it upon him by a diploma, in very honourable terms. It was some time before I could bring myself to call him Doctor; but as he has been long known by that title, I shall give it to him in the rest of this Journal.

7 This word is commonly used to signify sullenly, gloomily: and in that sense alone it appears in Dr Johnson's Dictionary. I suppose he meant by it 'with an OBSTINATE RESOLUTION, similar to that of a sullen man'.

8 I have hitherto called him Dr William Robertson, to distinguish him from Dr James Robertson, who is soon to make his appearance. But 'Principal', from his being the head of our college, is his usual designation, and is shorter; so I shall use it hereafter.

9 The stanza from which he took this line is:

But then rose up all Edinburgh,
They rose up by thousands three;
A cowardly Scot came John behind,
And ran him through the fair body!

10 Mistress of Edward IV.

11 Mistress of Louis XIV.

12 Mr Maclaurin's epitaph, as engraved on a marble tombstone, in the Gray-Friars church-yard, Edinburgh:

Infra situs est
Mathes. olim in Acad. Edin. Prof.
Electus ipso Newtono suadente.
H. L. P. F.
Non ut nomini paterno consulat,
Nam tali auxilio nil eget;
Sed ut in hoc infelici campo,
Ubi luctus regnant et pavor,
Mortalibus prorsus non absit solatium:
Hujus enim scripta evolve,
Mentemque tantarum rerum capacem
Corpori caduco superstitem crede.

James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford, Mississippi, 2004)

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