of Reminiscence, however rambling or tiresome, is one generally allow'd
to the very aged; indeed, 'tis frequently by means of such Recollections
that the obscure occurrences of History, and the lesser Anecdotes of the
Great, are transmitted to Posterity.
Tho' many of my readers have at
times observ'd and remark'd a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing,
it hath pleased me to pass amongst the Members of this Generation as a
young Man, giving out the Fiction that I was born in 1890, in America.
I am now, however, resolv'd to unburthen myself of a Secret which I have
hitherto kept thro' Dread of Incredulity; and to impart to the Publick
a true knowledge of my long years, in order to gratifie their taste for
authentick Information of an Age with whose famous Personages I was on
familiar Terms. Be it then known that I was born on the family Estate
in Devonshire, of the 10th day of August, 1690 (or in the new Gregorian
Stile of Reckoning, the 20th of August), being therefore now in my 228th
year. Coming early to London, I saw as a Child many of the celebrated
Men of King William's Reign, including the lamented Mr. Dryden, who
sat much at the Tables of Will's Coffee-House. With Mr. Addison
and Dr. Swift I later became very well acquainted, and was an even
more familiar Friend to Mr. Pope, whom I knew and respected till
the Day of his Death. But since it is of my more recent Associate,
the late Dr. Johnson, that I am at this time desir'd to write; I
will pass over my Youth for the present.
I had first Knowledge of the Doctor
in May of the year 1738, tho' I did not at that Time meet him. Mr.
Pope had just compleated his Epilogue to his Satires (the Piece beginning:
"Not twice a Twelvemonth you appear in Print."), and had arrang'd for its
Publication. On the very Day it appear'd, there was also publish'd
a Satire in Imitation of Juvenal, intitul'd "London", by the then unknown
Johnson; and this so struck the Town, that many Gentlemen of Taste declared,
it was the Work of a greater Poet than Mr. Pope. Notwithstanding
what some Detractors have said of Mr. Pope's petty jealousy, he gave
the Verses of his new Rival no small Praise; and having learnt thro' Mr.
Richardson who the Poet was, told me, 'that Mr. Johnson wou'd soon
I had no personal Acquaintance with
the Doctor till 1763, when I was presented to him at the Mitre Tavern by
Mr. James Boswell, a young Scotchman of excellent Family and great
Learning, but small Wit, whose metrical Effusions I had sometimes revis'd.
Dr. Johnson, as I beheld him,
was a full, pursy Man, very ill drest, and of slovenly Aspect. I
recall him to have worn a bushy Bob-Wig, untyed and without Powder, and
much too small for his Head. His cloaths were of rusty brown, much
wrinkled, and with more than one Button missing. His Face, too full
to be handsom, was likewise marred by the Effects of some scrofulous Disorder;
and his Head was continually rolling about in a sort of convulsive way.
Of this Infirmity, indeed, I had known before; having heard of it from
Mr. Pope, who took the Trouble to make particular Inquiries.
Being nearly seventy-three, full
nineteen Years older than Dr. Johnson (I say Doctor, tho' his Degree
came not till two Years afterward), I naturally expected him to have some
Regard for my Age; and was therefore not in that Fear of him, which others
confess'd. On my asking him what he thought of my favourable Notice
of his Dictionary in The Londoner, my periodical Paper, he said: Sir, I
possess no Recollection of having perus'd your Paper, and have not a great
Interest in the Opinions of the less thoughtful Part of Mankind." Being
more than a little piqued at the Incivility of one whose Celebrity made
me solicitous of his Approbation, I ventur'd to retaliate in kind, and
told him, I was surpris'd that a Man of Sense shou'd judge the Thoughtfulness
of one whose Productions he admitted never having read. "Why, Sir,"
reply'd Johnson, "I do not require to become familiar with a Man's Writings
in order to estimate the Superficiality of his Attainments, when he plainly
skews it by his Eagerness to mention his own Productions in the first Question
he puts to me." Having thus become Friends, we convers'd on many Matters.
When, to agree with him, I said I was distrustful of the Authenticity of
Ossian's Poems, Mr. Johnson said: "That, Sir, does not do your Understanding
particular Credit; for what all the Town is sensible of, is no great Discovery
for a Grub-Street Critick to make. You might as well say, you have
a strong Suspicion that Milton wrote Paradise Lost!"
I thereafter saw Johnson very frequently,
most often at Meetings of THE LITERARY CLUB, which was founded the next
Year by the Doctor, together with Mr. Burke, the parliamentary Orator,
Mr. Beauclerk, a Gentleman of Fashion, Mr. Langton, a pious
Man and Captain of Militia, Sir J. Reynolds, the widely known Painter,
Dr. Goldsmith, the prose and poetick Writer, Dr. Nugent, father-in-law
to Mr. Burke, Sir John Hawkins, Mr. Anthony Charmier, and my
self. We assembled generally at seven o'clock of an Evening, once
a Week, at the Turk's-Head, in Gerrard-Street, Soho, till that Tavern was
sold and made into a private Dwelling; after which Event we mov'd our Gatherings
successively to Prince's in Sackville-Street, Le Tellier's in Dover-Street,
and Parsloe's and The Thatched House in St. James's-Street.
In these Meetings we preserv'd a remarkable Degree of Amity and Tranquillity,
which contrasts very favourably with some of the Dissensions and Disruptions
I observe in the literary and amateur Press Associations of today.
This Tranquillity was the more remarkable, because we had amongst us Gentlemen
of very opposed Opinions. Dr. Johnson and I, as well as many
others, were high Tories; whilst Mr. Burke was a Whig, and against
the American War, many of his Speeches on that Subject having been widely
publish'd. The least congenial Member was one of the Founders, Sir
John Hawkins, who hath since written many misrepresentations of our Society.
Sir John, an eccentrick Fellow, once declin'd to pay his part of the Reckoning
for Supper, because 'twas his Custom at Home to eat no Supper. Later
he insulted Mr. Burke in so intolerable a Manner, that we all took
Pains to shew our Disapproval; after which Incident he came no more to
our Meetings. However, he never openly fell out with the Doctor,
and was the Executor of his Will; tho' Mr. Boswell and others have
Reason to question the genuineness of his Attachment. Other and later
Members of the CLUB were Mr. David Garrick, the Actor and early Friend
of Dr. Johnson, Messieurs Tho. and Jos. Warton, Dr.
Adam Smith, Dr. Percy, Author of the Reliques, Mr. Edw.
Gibbon, the Historian, Dr. Burney, the Musician, Mr. Malone,
the Critick, and Mr. Boswell. Mr. Garrick obtain'd Admittance
only with Difficulty; for the Doctor, notwithstanding his great Friendship,
was for ever affecting to decry the Stage and all Things connected with
it. Johnson, indeed, had a most singular Habit of speaking for Davy
when others were against him, and of arguing against him, when others were
for him. I have no Doubt that he sincerely lov'd Mr. Garrick,
for he never alluded to him as he did to Foote, who was a very coarse Fellow
despite his comick Genius. Mr. Gibbon was none too well lik'd,
for he had an odious sneering Way which offended even those of us who most
admir'd his historical Productions. Mr. Goldsmith, a little
Man very vain of his Dress and very deficient in Brilliancy of Conversation,
was my particular Favourite; since I was equally unable to shine in the
Discourse. He was vastly jealous of Dr. Johnson, tho' none
the less liking and respecting him. I remember that once a Foreigner,
a German, I think, was in our Company; and that whilst Goldsmith was speaking,
he observ'd the Doctor preparing to utter something. Unconsciously
looking upon Goldsmith as a meer Encumbrance when compar'd to the greater
Man, the Foreigner bluntly interrupted him and incurr'd his lasting Hostility
by crying, "Hush, Toctor Shonson iss going to speak!"
In this luminous Company I was tolerated
more because of my Years than for my Wit or Learning; being no Match at
all for the rest. My Friendship for the celebrated Monsieur Voltaire
was ever a Cause of Annoyance to the Doctor; who was deeply orthodox, and
who us'd to say of the French Philosopher: "Vir est acerrimi Ingenii et
Mr. Boswell, a little teazing
Fellow whom I had known for some Time previously, us'd to make Sport of
my aukward Manners and old-fashion'd Wig and Cloaths. Once coming
in a little the worse for Wine (to which he was addicted) he endeavour'd
to lampoon me by means of an Impromptu in verse, writ on the Surface of
the Table; but lacking the Aid he usually had in his Composition, he made
a bad grammatical Blunder. I told him, he shou'd not try to pasquinade
the Source of his Poesy. At another Time Bozzy (as we us'd to call
him) complain'd of my Harshness toward new Writers in the Articles I prepar'd
for The Monthly Review. He said, I push'd every Aspirant off the
Slopes of Parnassus. "Sir," I reply'd, "you are mistaken. They
who lose their Hold do so from their own Want of Strength; but desiring
to conceal their Weakness, they attribute the Absence of Success to the
first Critick that mentions them." I am glad to recall that Dr. Johnson
upheld me in this Matter.
Dr. Johnson was second to
no Man in the Pains he took to revise the bad Verses of others; indeed,
'tis said that in the book of poor blind old Mrs. Williams, there
are scarce two lines which are not the Doctor's. At one Time Johnson
recited to me some lines by a Servant to the Duke of Leeds, which had so
amus'd him, that he had got them by Heart. They are on the Duke's
Wedding, and so much resemble in
Quality the Work of other and more recent poetick Dunces, that I cannot
forbear copying them:
"When the Duke of Leeds shall marry'd
To a fine young Lady of high Quality
How happy will that Gentlewoman
In his Grace of Leeds' good Company."
I ask'd the Doctor, if he had ever
try'd making Sense of this Piece; and upon his saying he had not, I amus'd
myself with the following Amendment of it:
When Gallant LEEDS auspiciously
The virtuous Fair, of antient Lineage
How must the Maid rejoice with conscious
To win so great an Husband to her
On shewing this to Dr. Johnson,
he said, "Sir, you have straightened out the Feet, but you have put neither
Wit nor Poetry into the Lines."
It wou'd afford me Gratification
to tell more of my Experiences with Dr. Johnson and his circle of
Wits; but I am an old Man, and easily fatigued. I seem to ramble
along without much Logick or Continuity when I endeavour to recall the
Past; and fear I light upon but few Incidents which others have not before
discuss'd. Shou'd my present Recollections meet with Favour, I might
later set down some further Anecdotes
of old Times of which I am the only Survivor. I recall many things
of Sam Johnson and his Club, having kept up my Membership in the Latter
long after the Doctor's Death, at which I sincerely mourn'd. I remember
how John Burgoyne, Esq., the General, whose Dramatick and Poetical Works
were printed after his Death, was blackballed by three Votes; probably
because of his unfortunate Defeat in the American War, at Saratoga.
Poor John! His Son fared better, I think, and was made a Baronet.
But I am very tired. I am old, very old, and it is Time for my Afternoon