Journal Of A Tour To The Hebrides With Samuel Johnson

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 SHORE [Footnote: Mistress of Edward IV.] could tell–; And VALIERE [Footnote: Mistress of Louis XIV.] 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. [Footnote: Mr Maclaurin’s epitaph, as engraved on a marble tombstone, in the Gray-Friars church-yard, Edinburgh:

Infra situs est COLIN MACLAURIN 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.]

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.