Life of Johnson, Volume 1, James Boswell
Life of Johnson, Volume 1
James Boswell
15:45 h History Lvl 9.46
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) by James Boswell is a biography of English writer Dr. Samuel Johnson. The work was from the beginning a critical and popular success, and represents a landmark in the development of the modern genre of biography. It is notable for its extensive reports of Johnson's conversation. Many have claimed it as the greatest biography written in English, but some modern critics object that the work cannot be considered a proper biography. Boswell's personal acquaintance with his subject began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, and Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson's life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson's life, as Boswell makes various changes to Johnson's quotations and even censors many comments. Nonetheless, the book is valued as both an important source of information on Johnson and his times, as well as an important work of literature.

Life of Johnson, Volume 1

In Six Volumes
Volume I. Life (1709-1765)

James Boswell

Edited by George Birkbeck Norman Hill

Life of Johnson, Volume 1


Fielding, it is said, drank confusion to the man who invented the fifth act of a play. He who has edited an extensive work, and has concluded his labours by the preparation of a copious index, might well be pardoned, if he omitted to include the inventor of the Preface among the benefactors of mankind. The long and arduous task that years before he had set himself to do is done, and the last thing that he desires is to talk about it. Liberty is what he asks for, liberty to range for a time wherever he pleases in the wide and fair fields of literature. Yet with this longing for freedom comes a touch of regret and a doubt lest the ‘fresh woods and pastures new’ may never wear the friendly and familiar face of the plot of ground within whose narrower confines he has so long been labouring, and whose every corner he knows so well. May-be he finds hope in the thought that should his new world seem strange to him and uncomfortable, ere long he may be called back to his old task, and in the preparation of a second edition find the quiet and the peace of mind that are often found alone in ‘old use and wont.’

With me the preparation of these volumes has, indeed, been the work of many years. Boswell’s Life of Johnson I read for the first time in my boyhood, when I was too young for it to lay any hold on me. When I entered Pembroke College, Oxford, though I loved to think that Johnson had been there before me, yet I cannot call to mind that I ever opened the pages of Boswell. By a happy chance I was turned to the study of the literature of the eighteenth century. Every week we were required by the rules of the College to turn into Latin, or what we called Latin, a passage from The Spectator. Many a happy minute slipped by while, in forgetfulness of my task, I read on and on in its enchanting pages. It was always with a sigh that at last I tore myself away, and sat resolutely down to write bad Latin instead of reading good English. From Addison in the course of time I passed on to the other great writers of his and the succeeding age, finding in their exquisitely clear style, their admirable common sense and their freedom from all the tricks of affectation, a delightful contrast to so many of the eminent authors of our own time. Those troublesome doubts, doubts of all kinds, which since the great upheaval of the French Revolution have harassed mankind, had scarcely begun to ruffle the waters of their life. Even Johnson’s troubled mind enjoyed vast levels of repose. The unknown world alone was wrapped in stormy gloom; of this world ‘all the complaints which were made were unjust.’ Though I was now familiar with many of the great writers, yet Boswell I had scarcely opened since my boyhood. A happy day came just eighteen years ago when in an old book-shop, almost under the shadow of a great cathedral, I bought a second-hand copy of a somewhat early edition of the Life in five well-bound volumes. Of all my books none I cherish more than these. In looking at them I have known what it is to feel Bishop Percy’s ‘uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his books in death.’ They became my almost inseparable companions. Before long I began to note the parallel passages and allusions not only in their pages, but in the various authors whom I studied. Yet in these early days I never dreamt of preparing a new edition. It fell to my lot as time went on to criticise in some of our leading publications works that bore both on Boswell and Johnson. Such was my love for the subject that on one occasion, when I was called upon to write a review that should fall two columns of a weekly newspaper, I read a new edition of the Life from beginning to end without, I believe, missing a single line of the text or a single note. At length, ‘towering in the confidence’ of one who as yet has but set his foot on the threshold of some stately mansion in which he hopes to find for himself a home, I was rash enough more than twelve years ago to offer myself as editor of a new edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Fortunately for me another writer had been already engaged by the publisher to whom I applied, and my offer was civilly declined. From that time on I never lost sight of my purpose but when in the troubles of life I well-nigh lost sight of every kind of hope. Everything in my reading that bore on my favourite author was carefully noted, till at length I felt that the materials which I had gathered from all sides were sufficient to shield me from a charge of rashness if I now began to raise the building. Much of the work of preparation had been done at a grievous disadvantage. My health more than once seemed almost hopelessly broken down. Nevertheless even then the time was not wholly lost. In the sleepless hours of many a winter night I almost forgot my miseries in the delightful pages of Horace Walpole’s Letters, and with pencil in hand and some little hope still in heart, managed to get a few notes taken. Three winters I had to spend on the shores of the Mediterranean. During two of them my malady and my distress allowed of no rival, and my work made scarcely any advance. The third my strength was returning, and in the six months that I spent three years ago in San Remo I wrote out very many of the notes which I am now submitting to my readers.

An interval of some years of comparative health that I enjoyed between my two severest illnesses allowed me to try my strength as a critic and an editor. In Dr. Johnson: His Friends and his Critics, which I published in the year 1878, I reviewed the judgments passed on Johnson and Boswell by Lord Macaulay and Mr. Carlyle, I described Oxford as it was known to Johnson, and I threw light on more than one important passage in the Life. The following year I edited Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to Corsica and his curious correspondence with the Hon. Andrew Erskine. The somewhat rare little volume in which are contained the lively but impudent letters that passed between these two friends I had found one happy day in an old book-stall underneath the town hall of Keswick. I hoped that among the almost countless readers of Boswell there would be many who would care to study in one of the earliest attempts of his joyous youth the man whose ripened genius was to place him at the very head of all the biographers of whom the world can boast. My hopes were increased by the elegance and the accuracy of the typography with which my publishers, Messrs. De La Rue & Co., adorned this reprint. I was disappointed in my expectations. These curious Letters met with a neglect which they did not deserve. Twice, moreover, I was drawn away from the task that I had set before me by other works. By the death of my uncle, Sir Rowland Hill, I was called upon to edit his History of the Penny Postage, and to write his Life. Later on General Gordon’s correspondence during the first six years of his government of the Soudan was entrusted to me to prepare for the press. In my Colonel Gordon in Central Africa I attempted to do justice to the rare genius, to the wise and pure enthusiasm, and to the exalted beneficence of that great man. The labour that I gave to these works was, as regards my main purpose, by no means wholly thrown away. I was trained by it in the duties of an editor, and by studying the character of two such men, who, though wide as the poles asunder in many things, were as devoted to truth and accuracy as they were patient in their pursuit, I was strengthened in my hatred of carelessness and error.

With all these interruptions the summer of 1885 was upon me before I was ready for the compositors to make a beginning with my work. In revising my proofs very rarely indeed have I contented myself in verifying my quotations with comparing them merely with my own manuscript. In almost all instances I have once more examined the originals. ‘Diligence and accuracy,’ writes Gibbon, ‘are the only merits which an historical writer may ascribe to himself; if any merit indeed can be assumed from the performance of an indispensable duty.’ By diligence and accuracy I have striven to win for myself a place in Johnson’s school — ‘a school distinguished,’ as Sir Joshua Reynolds said, ‘for a love of truth and accuracy.’ I have steadily set before myself Boswell’s example where he says: — ‘Let me only observe, as a specimen of my trouble, that I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London, in order to fix a date correctly; which, when I had accomplished, I well knew would obtain me no praise, though a failure would have been to my discredit.’ When the variety and the number of my notes are considered, when it is known that a great many of the authors I do not myself possess, but that they could only be examined in the Bodleian or the British Museum, it will be seen that the labour of revising the proofs was, indeed, unusually severe. In the course of the eighteen months during which they have been passing through the press, fresh reading has given fresh information, and caused many an addition, and not a few corrections moreover to be made, in passages which I had previously presumed to think already complete. Had it been merely the biography of a great man of letters that I was illustrating, such anxious care would scarcely have been needful. But Boswell’s Life of Johnson, as its author with just pride boasts on its title-page, ‘exhibits a view of literature and literary men in Great Britain, for near half a century during which Johnson flourished.’ Wide, indeed, is the gulf by which this half-century is separated from us. The reaction against the thought and style of the age over which Pope ruled in its prime, and Johnson in its decline, — this reaction, wise as it was in many ways and extravagant as it was perhaps in more, is very far from having spent its force. Young men are still far too often found in our Universities who think that one proof of their originality is a contempt of authors whose writings they have never read. Books which were in the hands of almost every reader of the Life when it first appeared are now read only by the curious. Allusions and quotations which once fell upon a familiar and a friendly ear now fall dead. Men whose names were known to every one, now often have not even a line in a Dictionary of Biography. Over manners too a change has come, and as Johnson justly observes, ‘all works which describe manners require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less.’ But it is not only Boswell’s narrative that needs illustration. Johnson in his talk ranges over a vast number of subjects. In his capacious memory were stored up the fruits of an almost boundless curiosity, and a wide and varied reading. I have sought to follow him wherever a remark of his required illustration, and have read through many a book that I might trace to its source a reference or an allusion. I have examined, moreover, all the minor writings which are attributed to him by Boswell, but which are not for the most part included in his collected works. In some cases I have ventured to set my judgment against Boswell’s, and have refused to admit that Johnson was the author of the feeble pieces which were fathered on him. Once or twice in the course of my reading I have come upon essays which had escaped the notice of his biographer, but which bear the marks of his workmanship. To these I have given a reference. While the minute examination that I have so often had to make of Boswell’s narrative has done nothing but strengthen my trust in his statements and my admiration of his laborious truthfulness, yet in one respect I have not found him so accurate as I had expected. ‘I have,’ he says, ‘been extremely careful as to the exactness of my quotations.’ Though in preparing his manuscript he referred in each case ‘to the originals,’ yet he did not, I conjecture, examine them once more in revising his proof-sheets. At all events he has allowed errors to slip in. These I have pointed out in my notes, for in every case where I could I have, I believe, verified his quotations.

I have not thought that it was my duty as an editor to attempt to refute or even to criticise Johnson’s arguments. The story is told that when Peter the Great was on his travels and far from his country, some members of the Russian Council of State in St. Petersburgh ventured to withstand what was known to be his wish. His walking-stick was laid upon the table, and silence at once fell upon all. In like manner, before that editor who should trouble himself and his readers with attempting to refute Johnson’s arguments, paradoxical as they often were, should be placed Reynolds’s portrait of that ‘labouring working mind.’ It might make him reflect that if the mighty reasoner could rise up and meet him face to face, he would be sure, on which ever side the right might be, even if at first his pistol missed fire to knock him down with the butt-end of it. I have attempted therefore not to criticise but to illustrate Johnson’s statements. I have compared them with the opinions of the more eminent men among his contemporaries, and with his own as they are contained in other parts of his Life, and in his writings. It is in his written works that his real opinion can be most surely found. ‘He owned he sometimes talked for victory; he was too conscientious to make error permanent and pernicious by deliberately writing it.’ My numerous extracts from the eleven volumes of his collected works will, I trust, not only give a truer insight into the nature of the man, but also will show the greatness of the author to a generation of readers who have wandered into widely different paths.

In my attempts to trace the quotations of which both Johnson and Boswell were somewhat lavish, I have not in every case been successful, though I have received liberal assistance from more than one friend. In one case my long search was rewarded by the discovery that Boswell was quoting himself. That I have lighted upon the beautiful lines which Johnson quoted when he saw the Highland girl singing at her wheel, and have found out who was ‘one Giffard,’ or rather Gifford, ‘a parson,’ is to me a source of just triumph. I have not known many happier hours than the one in which in the Library of the British Museum my patient investigation was rewarded and I perused Contemplation.

Fifteen hitherto unpublished letters of Johnson; his college composition in Latin prose; a long extract from his manuscript diary; a suppressed passage in his Journey to the Western Islands; Boswell’s letters of acceptance of the office of Secretary for Foreign Correspondence to the Royal Academy; the proposal for the publication of a Geographical Dictionary issued by Johnson’s beloved friend, Dr. Bathurst; and Mr. Recorder Longley’s record of his conversation with Johnson on Greek metres, will, I trust, throw some lustre on this edition.

In many notes I have been able to clear up statements in the text which were not fully understood even by the author, or were left intentionally dark by him, or have become obscure through lapse of time. I would particularly refer to the light that I have thrown on Johnson’s engaging in politics with William Gerard Hamilton, and on Burke’s ‘talk of retiring.’ In many other notes I have established Boswell’s accuracy against attacks which had been made on it apparently with success. It was with much pleasure that I discovered that the story told of Johnson’s listening to Dr. Sacheverel’s sermon is not in any way improbable, and that Johnson’s ‘censure’ of Lord Kames was quite just. The ardent advocates of total abstinence will not, I fear, be pleased at finding at the end of my long note on Johnson’s wine-drinking that I have been obliged to show that he thought that the gout from which he suffered was due to his temperance. ‘I hope you persevere in drinking,’ he wrote to his friend, Dr. Taylor. ‘My opinion is that I have drunk too little.’

In the Appendices I have generally treated of subjects which demanded more space than could be given them in the narrow limits of a foot-note. In the twelve pages of the essay on Johnson’s Debates in Parliament I have compressed the result of the reading of many weeks. In examining the character of George Psalmanazar I have complied with the request of an unknown correspondent who was naturally interested in the history of that strange man, ‘after whom Johnson sought the most.’ In my essay on Johnson’s Travels and Love of Travelling I have, in opposition to Lord Macaulay’s wild and wanton rhetoric, shown how ardent and how elevated was the curiosity with which Johnson’s mind was possessed. In another essay I have explained, I do not say justified, his strong feelings towards the founders of the United States; and in a fifth I have examined the election of the Lord Mayors of London, at a time when the City was torn by political strife. To the other Appendices it is not needful particularly to refer.

In my Index, which has cost me many months’ heavy work, ‘while I bore burdens with dull patience and beat the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution,’ I have, I hope, shown that I am not unmindful of all that I owe to men of letters. To the dead we cannot pay the debt of gratitude that is their due. Some relief is obtained from its burthen, if we in our turn make the men of our own generation debtors to us. The plan on which my Index is made will, I trust, be found convenient. By the alphabetical arrangement in the separate entries of each article the reader, I venture to think, will be greatly facilitated in his researches. Certain subjects I have thought it best to form into groups. Under America, France Ireland, London, Oxford, Paris, and Scotland, are gathered together almost all the references to those subjects. The provincial towns of France, however, by some mistake I did not include in the general article. One important but intentional omission I must justify. In the case of the quotations in which my notes abound I have not thought it needful in the Index to refer to the book unless the eminence of the author required a separate and a second entry. My labour would have been increased beyond all endurance and my Index have been swollen almost into a monstrosity had I always referred to the book as well as to the matter which was contained in the passage that I extracted. Though in such a variety of subjects there must be many omissions, yet I shall be greatly disappointed if actual errors are discovered. Every entry I have made myself, and every entry I have verified in the proof-sheets, not by comparing it with my manuscript, but by turning to the reference in the printed volumes. Some indulgence nevertheless may well be claimed and granted. If Homer at times nods, an index-maker may be pardoned, should he in the fourth or fifth month of his task at the end of a day of eight hours’ work grow drowsy. May I fondly hope that to the maker of so large an Index will be extended the gratitude which Lord Bolingbroke says was once shown to lexicographers? ‘I approve,’ writes his Lordship, ‘the devotion of a studious man at Christ Church, who was overheard in his oratory entering into a detail with God, and acknowledging the divine goodness in furnishing the world with makers of dictionaries.’

In the list that I give in the beginning of the sixth volume of the books which I quote, the reader will find stated in full the titles which in the notes, through regard to space, I was forced to compress.

The Concordance of Johnson’s sayings which follows the Index will be found convenient by the literary man who desires to make use of his strong and pointed utterances. Next to Shakespeare he is, I believe, quoted and misquoted the most frequently of all our writers. ‘It is not every man that can carry a bon-mot.’ Bons-mots that are miscarried of all kinds of good things suffer the most. In this Concordance the general reader, moreover, may find much to delight him. Johnson’s trade was wit and wisdom, and some of his best wares are here set out in a small space. It was, I must confess, with no little pleasure that in revising my proof-sheets I found that the last line in my Concordance and the last line in my six long volumes is Johnson’s quotation of Goldsmith’s fine saying; ‘I do not love a man who is zealous for nothing.’

In the ‘forward’ references in the notes to other passages in the book, the reader may be surprised at finding that while often I only give the date under which the reference will be found, frequently I am able to quote the page and volume. The explanation is a simple one: two sets of compositors were generally at work, and two volumes were passing through the press simultaneously.

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