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JOHNSON—THE END OF THE JOURNEY
SUPPED three nights ago with my friend Will Marvel. His
affairs obliged him lately to take a journey into Devonshire,
from which he has just returned. He knows me to be a very
patient hearer, and was glad of my company, as it gave him an
opportunity of disburdening himself, by a minute relation of the
casualties of his expedition.
"Will is not one of those who go out and return with nothing to
tell. He has a story of his travels, which will strike a home-
bred citizen with horror, and has in ten days suffered so often
the extremes of terror and joy, that he is in doubt whether he
shall ever again expose either his body or his mind to such
danger and fatigue.
"When he left London the morning was bright, and a fair day was
promised. But Will is born to struggle with difficulties. That
happened to him, which has sometimes, perhaps, happened to
others. Before he had gone more than ten miles, it began to
rain. What course was to be taken? His soul disdained to turn
back. He did what the King of Prussia might have done; he
flapped his hat, buttoned up his cape, and went forwards,
fortifying his mind by the stoical consolation, that whatever is
violent will be short."
So, with such adventures, the first day passes, and reaching his
inn, after a good supper, Will Marvel goes to bed and sleeps
soundly. But during the night he is
 wakened "by a shower beating
against his windows with such violence as to threaten the
dissolution of nature." Thus he knows that the next day will
have its troubles. "He joined himself, however, to a company
that was travelling the same way, and came safely to the place of
dinner, though every step of his horse dashed the mud in the
In the afternoon he went on alone, passing "collections of
water," puddles doubtless, the depth of which it was impossible
to guess, and looking back upon the ride he marvels at his rash
daring. "But what a man undertakes he must perform, and Marvel
hates a coward at his heart.
"Few that lie warm in their beds think what others undergo, who
have, perhaps, been as tenderly educated, and have as acute
sensations as themselves. My friend was now to lodge the second
night almost fifty miles from home, in a house which he never had
seen before, among people to whom he was totally a stranger, not
knowing whether the next man he should meet would prove good or
bad; but seeing an inn of a good appearance, he rode resolutely
into the yard; and knowing that respect is often paid in
proportion as it is claimed, delivered his injunctions to the
ostler with spirit, and, entering the house, called vigorously
"On the third day up rose the sun and Mr. Marvel. His troubles
and dangers were now such as he wishes no other man ever to
encounter." The way was lonely, often for two miles together he
met not a single soul with whom he could speak, and, looking at
the bleak fields and naked trees, he wished himself safe home
again. His only consolation was that he suffered these terrors
of the way alone. Had, for instance, his friend the "Idler" been
there he could have done nothing but lie down and die.
"At last the sun set and all the horrors of darkness
 came upon
him. . . . Yet he went forward along a path which he could no
longer see, sometimes rushing suddenly into water, and sometimes
encumbered with stiff clay, ignorant whither he was going, and
uncertain whether his next step might not be the last.
"In this dismal gloom of nocturnal peregrination his horse
unexpectedly stood still. Marvel had heard many relations of the
instinct of horses, and was in doubt what danger might be at
hand. Sometimes he fancied that he was on the bank of a river
still and deep, and sometimes that a dead body lay across the
track. He sat still awhile to recollect his thoughts; and as he
was about to alight and explore the darkness, out stepped a man
with a lantern, and opened the turnpike. He hired a guide to the
town, arrived in safety, and slept in quiet.
"The rest of his journey was nothing but danger. He climbed and
descended precipices on which vulgar mortals tremble to look; he
passed marshes like the Serbonian bog,
where armies whole have
sunk; he forded rivers where the current roared like the Egre or
the Severn; or ventured himself on bridges that trembled under
him, from which he looked down on foaming whirlpools, or dreadful
abysses; he wandered over houseless heaths, amidst all the rage
of the elements, with the snow driving in his face, and the
tempest howling in his ears.
"Such are the colours in which Marvel paints his adventures. He
has accustomed himself to sounding words and hyperbolical images,
till he has lost the power of true description. In a road,
through which the heaviest carriages pass without difficulty, and
the post-boy every day and night goes and returns, he meets with
 like those which are endured in Siberian deserts, and
missed nothing of romantic danger but a giant and a dragon. When
his dreadful story is told in proper terms, it is only that the
way was dirty in winter, and that he experienced the common
vicissitudes of rain and sunshine."
I am afraid you will find a good many "too big" words in that.
But if I changed them to others more simple you would get no idea
of the way in which Johnson wrote, and I hope those you do not
understand you will look up in the dictionary. It will not be
Johnson's own dictionary, however, for that has grown old-
fashioned, and its place has been taken by later ones. For some
of Johnson's meanings were not correct, and when these mistakes
were pointed out to him he was not in the least ashamed. Once a
lady asked him how he came to say that the pastern was the knee
of a horse, and he calmly replied, "Ignorance, madam, pure
ignorance." "Dictionaries are like watches," he said, "the worst
is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite
With some words, instead of giving the original meaning, he gave
a personal meaning, that is he allowed his own sense of humor,
feelings or politics, to color the meaning. For instance, he
disliked the Scots, so for the meaning of Oats he gave, "A grain
which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland
supports the people." He disliked the Excise duty, so he called
it "A hateful tax levied by wretches hired by those to whom
excise is paid." For this last meaning he came very near being
punished for libel.
When Johnson thought of beginning the dictionary he wrote about
it to Lord Chesterfield, a great man and fine gentleman of the
day. As the fashion was, Johnson had chosen this great man for
his patron. But Lord Chesterfield, although his vanity was
 the idea of having a book dedicated to him, was too
delicate a fine gentleman to wish to have anything to do with a
man he considered poor. "He throws anywhere but down his
throat," he said, "whatever he means to drink, and mangles what
he means to carve. . . . The utmost I can do for him is to
consider him a respectable Hottentot." So, when Johnson had
called several times and been told that his lordship was not at
home, or had been kept waiting for hours before he was received,
he grew angry, and marched away never to return, vowing that he
had done with patrons for ever.
The years went on, and Johnson saw nothing of his patron. When,
however, the dictionary was nearly done, Lord Chesterfield let it
be known that he would be pleased to have it dedicated to him.
But Johnson would have none of it. He wrote a letter which was
the "Blast of Doom, proclaiming into the ear of Lord
Chesterfield, and, through him, of the listening world, that
patronage would be no more!"
"Seven years, my Lord, have now passed," wrote Johnson, "since I
waited in your outward rooms and 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, and one smile of favour.
Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before.
. . .
"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 the
ground cumbers him with help? The notice which you have been
pleased to take of my labours, 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."
There was an end of patronage so far as Johnson was concerned,
and it was the beginning of the end of it with others. Great Sam
had roared, he had asserted himself, and with the publication of
his dictionary he became "The Great Cham
He had by this time founded a club of literary men which met at
"a famous beef-steak house," and here he lorded it over his
fellows as his bulky namesake had done more than a hundred years
before. In many ways there was a great likeness between these
two. They were both big and stout (for Sam was now stout). They
were loud-voiced and dictatorial. They both drank a great deal,
but Ben, alas, drank wine overmuch, as was common in his day,
while Sam drank endless cups of tea, seventeen or eighteen it
might be at a sitting, indeed he called himself a hardened and
shameless tea-drinker. But, above all, their likeness lies in
the fact that they both dominated the literary men of their
period; they were kings and rulers. They laid down the law and
settled who was great and who little among the writers of the
day. And it was not merely the friends around Johnson who heard
him talk, who listened to his judgments about books and writers.
The world outside listened, too, to what he had to say, and you
will remember that it was he who utterly condemned Macpherson's
pretended poems of Ossian, "that pious three-quarters fraud"
of which you have already read in chapter IV.
Johnson had always spent much of his time in taverns, and was now
more than ever free to do so. For while he was still working at
his dictionary he suffered a great grief in the death of his
wife. He had loved her truly
 and never ceased to mourn her loss.
But though he had lost his wife, he did not remain solitary in
his home, for he opened his doors to a queer collection of waifs
and strays—three women and a man, upon whom he took pity because
no one else would. They were ungrateful and undeserving, and
quarreled constantly among themselves, so that his home could
have been no peaceful spot. "Williams hates everybody," he
writes; "Levett hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams;
Desmoulins hates them both; Poll loves none of them." It does
not sound peaceful or happy.
Some years after the death of Johnson's wife his mother died at
the age of ninety, and although he had not been with her for many
years, that too was a grief. The poor lady had had very little
to live on, and she left some debts. Johnson himself was still
struggling with poverty. He had no money, so to pay his mother's
few debts, and also the expenses of her funeral, he sat down to
write a story. In a week he had finished Rasselas, Prince of
The story of Rasselas is that of a prince who is shut up in the
Happy Valley until the time shall come for him to ascent the
throne of his father. Everything was done to make life in the
Happy Valley peaceful and joyful, but Rasselas grew weary of it;
to him it became but a prison of pleasure, and at last, with his
favorite sister, he escaped out into the world. The story tells
then of their search for happiness. But perfect happiness they
cannot find, and discovering this, they decide to return to the
There is a vein of sadness throughout the book. It ends as it
were with a big question mark, with a "conclusion in which
nothing is concluded." For the position of the prince and his
sister was unchanged, and they had not found what they sought.
Is it to be found at all? The
 story is a revelation of Johnson
himself. He never saw life joyously, and at times he had fits of
deep melancholy which he fought against as against a madness. "I
inherited," he said, "a vile melancholy from my father, which has
made me mad all my life, at least not sober," and his long
struggle with poverty helped to deepen this melancholy.
But a year or two after Rasselas was written, a great change came
in Johnson's life, which gave him comfort and security for the
rest of his days. George III had come to the throne. He thought
that he would like to do something for literature, and offered
Johnson a pension of three hundred pounds a year.
Johnson was now a man of fifty-four. He was acknowledged as the
greatest man of letters of his day, yet he was still poor. Three
hundred pounds seemed to him wealth, but he hesitated to accept
it. He was an ardent Tory and hated the House of Hanover. In
his dictionary he had called a pension "an allowance made to any
one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood
to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his
country." A pensioner he had said was "A slave of state hired by
a stipend to obey his master." Was he then to become a traitor
to his country and a slave of state?
But after a little persuasion Johnson yielded, as the pension
would be given to him, he was told, not for anything that he
would do, but for what he had done. "It is true," he said
afterwards, with a smile, "that I cannot now curse the House of
Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James's
health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for.
But, sir, I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of
Hanover, and drinking King James's health, are amply overbalanced
by three hundred pounds a year."
Johnson had always been indolent. It was perhaps
 only poverty
that had forced him to write, and now that he was comfortably
provided for he became more indolent still. He reproached
himself, made good resolutions, and prayed over this fault, but
still he remained slothful and idle. He would lie abed till two
o'clock, and sit up half the night talking, and an edition of
Shakespeare which he had promised years before got no further on.
An edition of another man's works often means a great deal of
labor in making notes and comments. This is especially so if
hundreds of years have passed since the book was first written
and the language has had time to change, and Johnson felt little
inclined for this labor. But at length he was goaded into
working upon his Shakespeare by some spiteful verses on his
idleness, written by a political enemy, and after long delay it
Just a little before this a young Scotsman named James Boswell
got to know the great man. He worshiped Johnson and spent as
much time with him as he could. It was a strange friendship
which grew up between these two. The great man bullied and
insulted yet loved the little man, and the little man accepted
all the insults gladly, happy to be allowed to be near his hero
on any conditions whatever. He treasured every word that Johnson
spoke and noted his every action. Nothing was too small or
trivial for his loving observation. He asked Johnson questions
and made remarks, foolish or otherwise, in order to draw him out
and make him talk, and afterwards he set down everything in a
And when Johnson was dead Boswell wrote his life. It is one of
the most wonderful lives ever written—perhaps the most
wonderful. And when we have read it we seem to know Johnson as
well as if we had lived with him. We see and know him in all his
greatness and all his littleness, in all his weakness and all his
It was with Boswell that Johnson made his most
 famous journey,
his tour to Scotland. For, like his namesake, Ben, he too
visited Scotland. But he traveled in a more comfortable manner,
and his journey was a much longer one, for he went as far as the
Hebrides. It was a wonderful expedition for a man of sixty-four,
especially in those days when there were no trains and little
ease in the way of traveling, and when much of it had to be done
on rough ponies or in open boats.
On his return Johnson wrote an account of this journey which did
not altogether please some of the Scots. But indeed, although
Johnson did not love the Scots, there is little in his book at
which to take offense.
Johnson's last work was a series of short lives of some of the
English poets from the seventeenth century onwards. It is
generally looked upon as his best. And although some of the
poets of whom he wrote are almost forgotten, and although we may
think that he was wrong in his criticisms of many of the others,
this is the book of Johnson's which is still most read. For it
must be owned that the great Sam is not much read now, although
he is such an important figure in the history of our literature.
It is as a person that we remember him, not as a writer. He
stamped his personality, as it is called, upon his age. Boswell
caught that personality and preserved it for us, so that, for
generation after generation, Johnson lives as no other character
in English literature lives. Boswell gave a new meaning to the
word biographer, that is the writer of a life, and now when a
great man has had no one to write his life well, we say "He lacks
Boswell after a time joined the famous club at which Johnson and
his friends met together and talked. Johnson loved to argue, and
he made a point of always getting the best of an argument. If he
could not do so by reason, he simply roared his opponent down and
silenced him by sheer rudeness. "There is no arguing with
 said one of his friends, Oliver Goldsmith, "for when
his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of
it." And perhaps Goldy, as Johnson called him, had to suffer
more rudeness from him than any of his friends to save Bozzy.
Yet the three were often to be found together, and it was
Goldsmith who said of Johnson, "No man alive has a more tender
heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin."
"There is no arguing with Johnson," said Goldsmith "For when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it."
And indeed in Johnson's outward appearance there was much of the
bear. He was a sloven in dress. His clothes were shabby and
thrown on anyhow. "I have no passion for clean linen," he said
himself. At table he made strange noises and ate greedily, yet
in spite of all that, added to his noted temper and rude manners,
men loved him and sought his company more than that of any other
writer of his day, for "within that shaggy exterior of his there
beat a heart warm as a mother's, soft as a little child's."
After Johnson received his pension we may look upon him as a
lumbering vessel which has weathered many a strong sea and has
now safely come to port. His life was henceforth easy. He
received honorary degrees, first from Dublin and then from
Oxford, so that he became Dr. Johnson. For two-and-twenty years
he enjoyed his pension, his freedom and his honors; then, in
1784, surrounded by his friends, he died in London, and was
buried in Westminster Abbey.
BOOKS TO READ
Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.