« PreviousContinue »
in No. 65, he adverts to the literary history of SWIFT, POPE, PEIRESC, and others, but makes a remark on HALE'S "Pleas of the Crown," which did not pass without animadversion; "How HALE would have borne the mutilations which his Pleas of the Crown have suffered from the Editor, they who know his character will easily conceive." As this bore hard upon the character of Mr. EMLYN, to whom Sir JOSEPH JEKYLL, Master of the Rolls, committed the care, as Editor, of the " History of the Pleas of the Crown," an anonymous correspondent in the Gentleman's Magazine*, undertook to vindicate him, and I think with success, although I must speak with deference on a subject of this nature. The same writer endeavours to account for Bishop BURNETT'S manuscript "History of his own Times," not having been deposited in any public library, of which also our author complains; but he was either unconvinced or neglectful, for in the subsequent editions of the IDLER, he made no alteration in these passages. It cannot be concealed that on some occasions Dr. JOHNSON was obstinately averse to withdraw what he had once advanced, although he might without shame or loss of fame have confessed that he had himself discovered reason to change his opinion, or had been convinced by his opponent. In one instance only in this work,he recalled what he had asserted: finding that some of his remarks on imprisonment for debt in Nos. 22 and 38, were founded on an erroneous calculation, he acknowledges this in the second edition.
* 1760, F. 272.
But in the paper in which mention is made of HALE'S Pleas of the Crown, he retains, very probably contrary to remonstrance, an expression of extraordinary harshness, "The authenticity of CLARENDON's History, though printed with the sanction of one of the first Universities of the world, had not an unexpected manuscript been accidentally discovered, would, with the help of factious incredulity, have been brought into question by the two lowest of all human beings, a scribbler for a party, and a Commissioner of Excise." The persons alluded to were Mr. JOHN OLDMIXON, and GEORGE DUCKET, Esq. The character of OLDMIXON may be
given up without regret, but certainly our author lived to prove that a writer for a party is not one of the two lowest of human beings, and might in his cooler moments allow that a Commissioner of Excise is not ex officio the other.
It was, however, a failing in this otherwise excellent and illustrious character, that by such means he sometimes committed his occasional ill-humour to paper, and that even in works where it might have been thought there was little temptation to indulge it. His opinion of Commissioners of Excise in the IDLER is, in truth, a sequel to his definition of Excise in his Dictionary; a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom Excise is paid." Mr. BosWELL was informed that the Commissioners of Excise being offended by this severe reflection, consulted Mr. MURRAY, then Attorney-General, and after
wards the celebrated Earl of MANSFIELD, to know whether redress could be legally obtained, and Mr. MURRAY's opinion is said to have been, that the passage might be considered as actionable, but that it would be more prudent in the Board not to prosecute. Dr. JOHNSON, who probably heard of this application, and was unfriendly to the government-measures of the time, not only made no alteration in his subsequent editions, in the definition, which indeed yet remains, but carried his animosity still farther by the contemptuous mention of the character of a Commissioner in the IDLER.
This obstinate retention of what he had once written, can be exemplified in other words, to the definitions of which we may suppose many objections would be made, and sometimes not without justice. A lady once asked him how he came to define pastern, the "knee of a horse," and he candidly pleaded ignorance, but suffered it to remain for several editions. He retained his definition of pension also, although it gave his enemies a momentary triumph over him. Alias, under which he had introduced his contempt for "Mallett, alias Malloch," the prostitute editor of BOLINGBROKE's posthumous works, was not until after many years changed to" Simson alias Smith." He gave Mr. BOSWELL another instance of his indulgence of private feelings, at the expense of living characters. "You know, Sir, Lord GOWER forsook the old Jaco. bite interest. When I came to the word Renegado, after telling that it meant one who deserts to the enemy, a revolter, I added, sometimes we say a GOWER. Thus it went to press: but
the printer had more wit than 1, and struck it out. The same spirit of discontent with public men and measures induced him in No. 11, to describe the attendant on a Court, as one "whose business it is to watch the looks of a being, weak and foolish as himself." Why he should retain sentiments which he afterwards would have deemed unjust or irreverent, can only be accounted for by supposing that he had forgot, or was not required to correct them. In private life, he was by no means reluctant to acknowledge an error, and especially if it had been attended with injury or uneasiness to any individual. Nor ought it to be omitted in this place that his capricious definitions were sometimes directed against himself. We are indebted to his Biographer for pointing out two cases in which he alludes with ridiculing pleasantry to his own occupation. "Grub-street, the name of a street, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems:" and, "Lexicographer, a writer of Dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."
The reflections on death in No. 41, were the first effusion of the author's sorrow on the death of his mother, which afflicted him in no common degree. Whoever has lost an affectionate mother, will think he has sometimes treated her with less respest than he ought, and to good minds such reflections, although perhaps
* Mr. NICHOLS properly reminds me, "his steady and intelligent friend, Mr. STRAHAN."
without much foundation, have often been found to embitter the loss of parents. To this event in Dr. JOHNSON's history, we owe immediately the composition of his much-admired RASSELAS, written with the affectionate purpose of defraying the expenses of his mother's funeral, and of paying some small debts she left. The cause gave inspiration and vigour to his pen. He told Sir JOSHUA REYNOLDS that he composed it in the evenings of one week, sent it to press as it was written, and had never since read it over. Such a fact must raise our admiration of the astonishing powers which enabled him to defy the common interruptions, or lapses of memory, and to neglect without injury he precautions which all writers have found necessary in order to compose a regular whole. Nor was it in the prime of life only, that his faculties were thus at command and independent of the usual guards against error and confusion. I am enabled to add, upon incontestable authority, that in his latter days, when the strong man bowed himself, he wrote his "Lives of the Poets" in the same defultory manner*.
Mr. BOSWELL adverts to the general want of mottos in this paper, for which he is unable to account, as he had heard Dr. JOHNSON Commend the custom, and never could be at a loss for one, his memory being stored with innumerable passages of the classics. The author told Mrs. Piozzi, however, that "this practice was forborne, the better to conceal himself and
From the information of Mr. NICHOLS, who printed the first edition of the Lives.