Thomas Gray, Samuel Johnson, & James Boswell


Thomas Gray’s Biography

(1716-1771), was an English poet. His masterpiece, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), is one of the best-known poems in the English language. Its theme is the common fate of common people, who live and die unnoticed and unremembered. The poem includes the famous line "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Although a shy man, Gray carried on a large correspondence. His letters to such friends as the author-politician Horace Walpole, are themselves examples of a minor art form of the period.
Gray was born in London and attended Eton College and Cambridge University. He spent much of his life as a scholar at Cambridge. Gray traveled through France and Italy from 1739 to 1741, and later made many trips through Scotland and the English Lake District. His journals of these travels reveal Gray's appreciation of nature. Gray's first published poem was "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1747). It includes the famous line "... where ignorance is bliss/'Tis folly to be wise." Other major early poems are "Hymn to Adversity" and a sonnet on the death of a friend, Richard West. All were written at his mother's home in Stoke Poges, the village of the churchyard depicted in his famous elegy. The language reflects Gray's fondness for the artificial diction typical of poetry of his time. But he illustrated a new trend toward romanticism in his mood of melancholy moralizing. A romantic feeling appears in his odes "The Bard" (1757) and "The Progress of Poesy" (1757), written in the style of the Greek poet Pindar.

Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness, and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Nor you, ye Proud, impute to these the fault
If Memory o'er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country's blood.

Th' applause of list'ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbad: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined;
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse's flame.

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.

Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

For who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Let the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.

For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
'Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away,
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn;

'There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high.
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

'Hand by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with car, or cross'd in hopeless love.

'One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree; A
nother came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

'The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow through the church-way path we saw him borne,-
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay
Graved on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.'

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A Youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gain'd from Heaven, 'twas all he wish'd, a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” Discussion Questions

1) As the first four stanzas establish the poem’s setting, where is the speaker and what time of day is it?
2) In lines 21-25, what pleasures will these “rude forefathers” no longer partake of?
3) In lines 57-60, what kinds of lives does the poet suggest that these people might have lived under different circumstances?
4) To whom is the closing “Epitaph” dedicated?
5) What is meant by “the inevitable hour” in line 35 and “its mansion” in line 42?
6) How should the reader interpret the sentiments expressed in lines 53-56 and in 77-92?

Dr. Samuel Johnson's Biography

(1709-1784), was the greatest English writer of his day and the subject of a famous biography by his friend James Boswell. Boswell preserved the wit and brilliance of Johnson's conversation; the sharpness of his opinions on people, politics, and literature; and the vigor of his personality. These qualities enabled Johnson to outshine even the most gifted people of his age, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and other members of the Literary Club, which Johnson and Reynolds founded in 1764.
Although Johnson was a remarkable man, his achievements as a writer are even more impressive. Johnson said he talked for pleasure and wrote for bread—and yet he did both very well. His style marked a high point in English prose, and he wrote with a sense of the moral and intellectual responsibilities of authorship. Early years. Johnson was born in Lichfield, the son of a bookseller. He attended Oxford University in 1728 and 1729 but had to leave after his money ran out.
Johnson was nearly penniless when he moved to London in 1737. He contributed to The Gentleman's Magazine from 1738 to 1743, serving chiefly as a reporter of parliamentary debates. His poem London (1738), written in the style of the Roman satirist Juvenal, brought him to the attention of the public. The major productions of this early period were a biography of his friend Richard Savage (1744) and his most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), a Christianized imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire.
Later years. Between 1747 and 1755, Johnson produced almost single-handedly his massive Dictionary of the English Language, which established his fame as a scholar. He developed an equally great reputation as a teacher of moral and religious wisdom through a series of essays in The Rambler (1750-1752) and other magazines, and in his philosophical tale, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759). The great projects of his later years were his eight-volume edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765) and his collection of essays The Lives of the English Poets (1779-1781). Some opinions in these works are eccentric. But the works are notable for their keenness and strength of judgment, and the force and polish of the writing. They established Johnson as one of the best critics in the English language.
In 1773, Johnson and Boswell toured the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Johnson recorded his impressions of the trip in Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). Boswell wrote a diary, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785).

Johnson's "Letter to Lord Chesterfield"

Shortly after the completion of the Dictionary, Lord chesterfield published two articles praising it. He had earlier ignored Johnson's appeals for financial assistance for the writing of the Dictionary.

To the Right Honorable the Earl of Chesterfield

February 7, 1755

My Lord:

I have been lately informed by the proprietor of the World that two papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honor which, being very little accustomed to favors from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.
When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered like the rest of mankind by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself "Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre"; (French for the conqueror of the Earth) that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending, but I found my attendance so little encouraged that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.
Seven years, my Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.
The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with love, and found him a native of the rocks. "Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.
I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which providence has enabled me to do for myself.
Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my Lord,

Your Lordship's most humble, most obedient servant,

Samuel Johnson

"Letter to Lord Chesterfield" Discussion Questions

1) How did Johnson learn about Chesterfield’s articles in the World, and why does Johnson feel he must respond?
2) How much time has passed since Johnson first asked Chesterfield for financial aid?
3) What does Johnson say will not cause him any disappointment at this point?
4) How does the definition of patron in the fourth paragraph apply to Johnson’s experience with Chesterfield?
5) From Johnson's remarks in the next to the last paragraph, what was the probable misinformation that Chesterfield wrote in the World concerning his connection with Johnson?

Johnson's "Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language"

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.
Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which learning and genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.
I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected; suffered to spread under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion: and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance and caprices of innovation.
When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order and energetic without rule: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.
Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar, I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be of use to ascertain or illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time the materials of a dictionary, which, by degrees, I reduced to method, establishing to myself, in the progress of the work, such rules as experience and analogy suggested to me; experience, which practice and observation were continually increasing; and analogy, which, though in some other words obscure, was evident in others....
In hope of giving longevity to that which its own nature forbids to be immortal, I have devoted this book, the labor of years, to the honor of my country, that we may no longer yield the palm of philology, without a contest to the nations of the continent. The chief glory of every people arises from its authors. Whether I shall add anything by my own writings to the reputation of English literature, must be left to time. Much of my life has been lost under the pressures of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me; but I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations and distant ages gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labors afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.
When I am animated by this wish, I look with pleasure on my book, however defective, and deliver it to the world with the spirit of a man that has endeavored well. That it will immediately become popular, I have not promised to myself. A few wild blunders, and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance into contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there never can be wanting some who distinguish desert; who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since, while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand; that a writer will sometimes be hurried by eagerness to the end, and sometimes faint with weariness under a task which Scaliger compares to the labors of the anvil and the mine; that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present; that sudden fits of inadvertency will surprise vigilance, slight avocations will seduce attention, and casual eclipses of the mind will darken learning; and that the writer shall often in vain trace his memory at the moment of need, for that which yesterday he knew with intuitive readiness, and which will come uncalled into his thoughts tomorrow.
In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceed the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow. It may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toll of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge and cooperating diligence of the Italian academicians did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied critics of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its economy and give their second edition another form, I 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 tranquility, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

"Preface to the Dictionary" Discussion Questions

1) How does Johnson classify those who work on dictionaries? What is the lexicographer's "negative recompense"?
2) When Johnson "took the first survey," what did he find lacking in the English speech? What gave his his only assistance?
3) According to Johnson, to whom is the dictionary "devoted"?
4) According to the Preface, why will no dictionary ever be perfect?
5) Why did Johnson decide to write the dictionary? What kind of lexicography had been done in England prior to his work?
6) How did Johnson decide which words to define?
7) Based on Johnson's mixed feelings about his efforts, does Johnson seem hopeful or pessimistic about the "fate" of his dictionary?

Johnson's from "A Dictionary of the English Language"

athletick: Strong of body; vigorous; lusty; robust. Science distinguishes a man of honor from one of those athletick brutes, whom underservedly we call heroes. Dryden.

bang: A blow; a thump; a stroke: a low word. I am a bachelor. That's to say, they are fools that marry; you'll bear me a bang for that. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.

to barbecue: A term used in the West Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised about two foot above a charcoal fire, with which it is surrounded. Oldfield, with more than harpy throat endu'd, Cries, send me, gods, a whole hog barbecu'd. Pope.

buffleheaded: A man with a large head, like a buffalo; dull; stupid; foolish.

cream: The unctuous or oily part of milk, which, when it is cold, floats on the top, and is changed by the agitation of the churn into butter; the flower of milk.

electricity: A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them. Quincy. Such was the account given a few years ago of electricity; but the industry of the present age, first excited by the experiments of Gray, has discovered in electricity a multitude of philosophical wonders. Bodies electrified by a sphere of glass, turned nimbly round, not only emit flame, but may be fitted with such a quantity of the electrical vapor as, if discharged at once upon a human body, would endanger life. The force of this vapor has hitherto appeared instantaneous, persons at both ends of a long chain seeming to be struck at once. The philosophers are now endeavoring to intercept the strokes of lightning.

to furnace: To throw out as sparks from a furnace. A bad word. He furnaces the thick sighs from him. Shakespeare's Cymbeline.

gang: A number herding together; a troop; a company; a tribe; a herd. It is seldom used but in contempt or abhorrence.

hatchet-face. An ugly face; such, I suppose, as might be hewn out of a block by a hatchet.

Lifeguard: The guard of a king's person.

modern: In Shakespeare, vulgar; mean; common. We have our philosophical persons to make modern and familiar things supernatural and causeless. Shakespeare.

patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

pickle: Condition; state. A word of contempt and ridicule. How cam'st though in this pickle? Shakespeare.

plumper: Something worn In the mouth to swell out the cheeks. She dex'trously her plumpers draws, that serve to fill her hollow jaws. Swift's Miscellanies.

shill-i-shall-i: A corrupt reduplication of shall I? The question of a man hesitating. To stand shill-i-shall-i is to continue hesitating and procrastinating. I am somewhat dainty in making a resolution, because when I make it, I keep it; I don't stand shill-i-shall-i then; if I say't, I'll do't. Congreve's Way of the World.

to sneeze: To emit wind audibly by the nose.

willow. A tree worn by forlorn lovers.

to wipe: To cheat; to defraud. The next bordering lords commonly encroach one upon another, as one is stronger, or lie still in wait to wipe them out of their lands. Spenser, On Ire land.

youngster, younker: A young person. In contempt.

youth: The part of life succeeding to childhood and adolescence; the time from fourteen to twenty-eight.

"Excerpts from the Dictionary" Discussion Questions

1) How does Johnson indicate a word's part of speech?
2) Why would the definition of a word like "electricity" be longer than the others?
3) Based on what has been said about Lord Chesterfield, how does that relate to Johnson's definition of "patron"?
4) Where does Johnson go to seek definitions for his words?

James Boswell's Biography

(1740-1795), was a Scottish author who wrote what is probably the most brilliant biography in the English language, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Although his fame rests chiefly on his association with Johnson, the greatest English writer of the time, Boswell revealed his fascinating personality in many other writings. His lively private journals record his most intimate thoughts and experiences. In astonishing detail, the journals describe the contradictory character of Boswell lively and moody, lustful and devout, vain and affectionate.
Boswell was born in Edinburgh, the son of a distinguished judge who wanted his son to work in the law. But Boswell's ambition was to win fame as an author and to move in the society of great men. In 1763, in a small London bookshop, Boswell met Johnson. Between 1763 and 1766, Boswell traveled in Europe and met the great French writers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He also met the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli, and enthusiastically supported Corsica's fight for independence from the republic of Genoa. Boswell's Account of Corsica (1768) made him famous.
Boswell began to practice law in Edinburgh in 1766, but the lure of London and Johnson's stimulating company prompted frequent visits. In 1773, he invited Johnson on a tour of the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) is a colorful account of their trip. After Johnson died in 1784, Boswell, assisted by the great scholar Edmund Malone, began the difficult task of writing his friend's biography. Boswell probably had decided to undertake this project soon after he met Johnson. During the many years of their friendship, he had tirelessly collected materials on Johnson's life, filling his journals with authentic transcriptions of Johnson's conversations. This diligence and Boswell's skill in transforming the various incidents of Johnson's life into a unified work of art resulted in a new type of vivid biography. Boswell did not merely record facts and dates, and he did not conceal the blemishes of his friend's character to glorify him. He followed Johnson's belief that through biography, readers may learn by example how to copy the virtues and avoid the follies of even the greatest people.
Boswell's supreme achievement was to bring Johnson to life, allowing him to speak for himself in his letters and his conversation. Thanks to Boswell's memory, his sense of the dramatic, and his keen ear for intonations, Johnson and his words are, as Boswell had hoped, "almost entirely preserved."

from Boswell's "The Life of Samuel Johnson"

This is to me a memorable year; for in it I had the happiness to obtain the acquaintance of that extraordinary man whose memoirs I am now writing; an acquaintance which I shall ever esteem as one of the most fortunate circumstances in my life. Though then but two-and-twenty, I had for several years read his works with delight and instruction, and had the highest reverence for their authour, which had grown up in my fancy into a kind of mysterious veneration, by figuring to myself a state of solemn elevated abstraction, in which I supposed him to live in the immense metropolis of London.
Mr. Thomas Davies the actor, who then kept a bookseller's shop in Russel-street, Covent-garden, told me that Johnson was very much his friend, and came frequently to his house, where he more than once invited me to meet him; but by some unlucky accident or other he was prevented from coming to us.
At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,--he announced his aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, 'Look, my Lord, it comes.' I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson's figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he had published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation, which was the first picture his friend did for him, which Sir Joshua very kindly presented to me, and from which an engraving has been made for this work. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, 'Don't tell where I come from.'--'From Scotland,' cried Davies roguishly. 'Mr. Johnson, (said I) I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.' I am willing to flatter myself that I meant this as light pleasantry to sooth and conciliate him, and not as an humiliating abasement at the expence of my country. But however that might be, this speech was somewhat unlucky; for with that quickness of wit for which he was so remarkable, he seized the expression "come from Scotland," which I used in the sense of being of that country; and, as if I had said that I had come away from it, or left, retorted, "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next. He then addressed himself to Davies: "What do you think of Garrick? He has refused me an order for the play for Miss Williams, because he knows the house will be full, and that an order would be worth three shillings." Eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him, I ventured to say, "0, Sir, I cannot think Mr. Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you." "Sir," said he, with a stern look, "I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject." Perhaps I deserved this check; for it was rather presumptuous in me, an entire stranger, to express any doubt of the justice of his animadversion upon his old acquaintance and pupil. I now felt myself much mortified, and began to think that the hope which I had long indulged of obtaining his acquaintance was blasted. And, in truth, had not my ardor been uncommonly strong, and my resolution uncommonly persevering, so rough a reception might have deterred me forever from making any further attempts. Fortunately, however, I remained upon the field not wholly discomfited; and was soon rewarded by hearing some of his conversation, of which I preserved the following short minute, without marking the questions and observations by which it was produced.
"People," he remarked, "may be taken in once, who imagine that an author is greater in private life than other men. Uncommon parts require uncommon opportunities for their exertion."
"In barbarous society, superiority of parts is of real consequence. Great strength or great wisdom is of much value to an individual. But in more polished times there are people to do everything for money; and then there are a number of other superiorities, such as those of birth and fortune, and rank, that dissipate men's attention, and leave no extraordinary share of respect for personal and intellectual superiority. This is wisely ordered by Providence, to preserve some equality among mankind."
"Sir, this book (The Elements of Criticism, which he had taken up) is a pretty essay, and deserves to be held in some estimation, though much of it is chimerical."
Speaking of one who with more than ordinary boldness attacked public measures and the royal family, he said, "I think he is safe from the law, but he is an abusive scoundrel; and instead of applying to my Lord Chief Justice to punish him, I would send half a dozen footmen and have him well ducked."
"The notion of liberty amuses the people of England, and helps to keep off the taediurn vitae. When a butcher tells you that his heart bleeds for his country, he has, in fact, no uneasy feeling."
"Sheridan will not succeed at Bath with his oratory. Ridicule has gone down before him, and, I doubt, Derrick is his enemy."
"Derrick may do very well, as long as he can outrun his character; but the moment his character gets up with him, it is all over."
It is, however, but just to record, that some years afterwards, when I reminded him of this sarcasm, he said, "Well, but Derrick has now got a character that he need not run away from."
I was highly pleased with the extraordinary vigor of his conversation, and regretted that I was drawn away from it by an engagement at another place. I had, for a part of the evening, been left alone with him, and had ventured to make an observation now and then, which he received very civilly; so that I was satisfied that though there was a roughness in his manner, there was no ill nature in his disposition. Davies followed me to the door, and when I complained to him a little of the hard blows which the great man had given me he kindly took upon him to console me by saying, "Don't be uneasy. I can see he likes you very well."

Johnson's Character

The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honored it with a perusal, may be considered as well acquainted with him. As, however, it may be expected that I should collect into one view the capital and distinguishing features of this extraordinary man, I shall endeavor to acquit myself of that part of my biographical undertaking, however difficult it may be to do that which many of my readers will do better for themselves.
His figure was large and well formed, and his countenance of the cast of an ancient statue; yet his appearance was rendered strange and somewhat uncouth by convulsive cramps, by the scars of that distemper' which it was once imagined the royal touch could cure, and by a slovenly mode of dress. He had the use only of one eye; yet so much does mind govern and even supply the deficiency of organs, that his visual perceptions, as far as they extended, were uncommonly quick and accurate. So morbid was his temperament, that he never knew the natural joy of a free and vigorous use of his limbs: when he walked, it was like the struggling gait of one in fetters; when he rode, he had no command or direction of his horse, but was carried as if in a balloon. That with his constitution and habits of life he should have lived seventy-five years, is a proof that an inherent vivida vis is a powerful preservative of the human frame.
Man is, in general, made up of contradictory qualities; and these will ever show themselves in strange succession, where a consistency in appearance at least, if not in reality, has not been attained by long habits of philosophical discipline. In proportion to the native vigor of the mind, the contradictory qualities will be the more prominent, and more difficult to be adjusted; and, therefore, we are not to wonder that Johnson exhibited an eminent example of this remark which I have made upon human nature. At different times, he seemed a different man, in some respects; not, however, in any great or essential article, upon which he had fully employed his mind, and settled certain principles of duty, but only in his manners and in the display of argument and fancy in his talk. He was prone to superstition, but not to credulity. Though his imagination might incline him to a belief of the marvelous and the mysterious, his vigorous reason examined the evidence with jealousy He was a sincere and zealous Christian, of high Church of England and monarchical principles, which he would not tamely suffer to be questioned: and had, perhaps, at an early period, narrowed his mind somewhat too much, both as to religion and politics. His being impressed with the danger of extreme latitude in either, though he was of a very independent spirit, occasioned his appearing somewhat unfavorable to the prevalence of that noble freedom of sentiment which is the best possession of man. Nor can it be denied, that he had many prejudices; which, however, frequently suggested many of his pointed sayings that rather show a playfulness of fancy than any settled malignity. He was steady and inflexible in maintaining the obligations of religion and morality; both from a regard for the order of society, and from a veneration for the Great Source of all order; correct, nay, stern in his taste; hard to please, and easily offended; impetuous and irritable in his temper, but of a most humane and benevolent heart, which showed itself not only in a most liberal charity, as far as his circumstances would allow,but in a thousand instances of active benevolence He was afflicted with a bodily disease, which made him often restless and fretful; and with a constitutional melancholy, the clouds of which darkened the brightness of his fancy, and gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking: we, therefore, ought not to wonder at his sallies of impatience and passion at any time; especially when provoked by obtrusive ignorance, or presuming petulance; and allowance must be made for his uttering hasty and satirical sallies even against his best friends. And, surely, when it is considered, that, "amidst sickness and sorrow," he exerted his faculties in so many works for the benefit of mankind, and particularly that he achieved the great and admirable Dictionary of our language, we must be astonished at his resolution. The solemn text, "of him to whom much is given, much will be required," seems to have been ever present to his mind, in a rigorous sense, and to have made him dissatisfied with his labors and acts of goodness, however comparatively great; so that the unavoidable consciousness of his superiority was, in that respect, a cause of disquiet. He suffered so much from this, and from the gloom which perpetually haunted him and made solitude frightful, that it may be said of him, "If in this life only he had hope, he was of all men most miserable." He loved praise, when it was brought to him; but was too proud to seek for it. He was somewhat susceptible of flattery. As he was general and unconfined in his studies, he cannot be considered as master of any one particular science; but he had accumulated a vast and various collection of learning and knowledge, which was so arranged in his mind, as to be ever in readiness to be brought forth. But his superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge, which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was, in him, true, evident, and actual wisdom. His moral precepts are practical; for they are drawn from an intimate acquaintance with human nature. His maxims carry conviction; for they are founded on the basis of common sense, and a very attentive and minute survey of real life. His mind was so full of imagery, that he might have been perpetually a poet; yet it is remarkable, that, however rich his prose is in this respect, his poetical pieces, in general, have not much of that splendor, but are rather distinguished by strong sentiment and acute observation, conveyed in harmonious and energetic verse, particularly in heroic couplets. Though usually grave, and even aweful, in his deportment, he possessed uncommon and peculiar powers of wit and humor; he frequently indulged himself in colloquial pleasantry; and the heartinest merriment was often enjoyed in his company; with this great advantage, that as it was entirely free from any poisonous tincture of vice or impiety, it was salutary to those who shared in it. He had accustomed himself to such accuracy in his common conversation, that he at all times expressed his thoughts with great force, and an elegant choice of language, the effect of which was aided by his having a loud voice, and a slow deliberate utterance. In him were united a most logical head with a most fertile imagination, which gave him an extraordinary advantage in arguing: for he could reason close or wide, as he saw best for the moment. Exulting in his intellectual strength and dexterity, he could, when he pleased, be the greatest sophist that ever contended in the lists of declamation; and, from a spirit of contradiction and a delight in showing his powers, he would often maintain the wrong side with equal warmth and ingenuity; so that, when there was an audience, his real opinions could seldom be gathered from his talk; though when he was in company with a single friend, he would discuss a subject with genuine fairness: but he was too conscientious to make error permanent and pernicious, by deliberately writing it; and, in all his numerous works, he earnestly inculcated what appeared to him to be the truth; his piety being constant, and the ruling principle of all his conduct.
Such was Samuel Johnson, a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues, were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson Discussion Questions

1) What are the particular details of Johnson’s appearance that Boswell chooses to record?
2) According to Boswell, what would be Johnson’s position on each of the following: superstition, religion, praise, and flattery?
3) What is shown about Johnson when he expresses his views through his sarcasm over Boswell’s Scottish background, his desire to get free theater tickets for a friend, and his rude reply on the topic of David Garrick?
4) Based on Boswell’s reaction to Johnson’s behavior at their first meeting, what does the reader learn about Boswell’s character?