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It were superfluous to expatiate on the merits, at least as a source of amusement, of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Whatever doubts may have existed as to the prudence or the propriety of the original publication-however naturally private confidence was alarmed, or individual vanity offended, the voices of criticism and complaint were soon drowned in the general applause. And no wonder: the work combines within itself the four most entertaining classes of writing—biography, memoirs, familiar letters, and that assemblage of literary anecdotes which the French have taught us to distinguish by the termination Ana.
It was originally received with an eagerness and relished with a zest which undoubtedly were sharpened by the curiosity which the unexpected publication of the words and deeds of so many persons still living could not but excite. But this motive has gradually become weaker, and may now be said to be extinct; yet we do not find that the popularity of the work, though somewhat changed in quality, is really diminished; and as the interval which separates us from the actual time and scene increases, so appear to increase the interest and delight which we feel at being introduced, as it were, into that distinguished society of which Dr. Johnson formed the centre, and of which his biographer is the historian.
But though every year thus adds something to the interest and instruction which this work affords, something is, on the other hand, deducted from the amusement which it gives, by the gradual obscurity that time throws over the persons and incidents of private life: many circumstances known to all the world when Mr. Boswell wrote, are already obscure to the best informed, and wholly forgotten by the rest of mankind '.
For instance, when he relates (vol. i. p. 90.) that a “great personage” called the English Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “ Giants," we guess that George III. was the great personage; but all the editor's inquiries (and some of His Majesty's illustrious family have condescended to permit these inquiries to extend even to them) have failed to ascertain to what person or on what occasion that happy expression was used.
Again: When Mr. Boswell's capricious delicacy induced him to suppress names and to substitute such descriptions as “an eminent friend,” “a young gentleman," "a distinguished orator,” these were well understood by the society of the day; but it is become necessary to apprize the reader of our times, that Mr. Burke, Mr. Sheridan, and Mr. Fox, were respectively meant. Nor is it always easy to appropriate Mr. Boswell's circumlocutory designations. It will be seen in the course of this work, that several of them have become so obscure that even the surviving members of the Johnsonian society are unable to recollect who were meant, and it was on one of these occasions that Sir James Mackintosh told the editor that “his work had, at least, not come too soon.”
Mr. Boswell's delicacy is termed capricious, because he is on some occasions candid even to indiscretion, and on others unaccountably mysterious. In the
1“ Dr. Johnson talked with approbation of an intended edition of the Spectator, with notes. He observed that all works which describe manners require notes in sixty or seventy years or less.” Post, vol. i. pp. 304–5. And Dean Swift wrote to Pope on the subject of the Dunciad, "J could wish the notes to be very large in what relates to the persons concerned; for I have long observed, that twenty miles from London nobody understands hints, initial letters, or town facts or passages, and in a few years not even those who live in London." Lett. 16, July, 1728.—Ed.)
report of a conversation he will clearly designate half the interlocutors, while the other half, without any apparent reason, he casts into studied obscurity.
Considering himself to be (as he certainly has been to a greater degree than he could have contemplated) one of the distributors of fame, he has sometimes indulged his partialities or prejudices' by throwing more or less light, and lights more or less favourable, on the different persons of his scene ; some of whom he obtrudes into broad day, while others he only “adumbrates” by imperfect allusions. But many, even of those the most clearly designated and spoken of as persons familiar to every ear, have already lived their day, and are hardly to be heard of except in these volumes. Yet these volumes must be read with imperfect pleasure, without some knowledge of the history of those more than half forgotten persons.
Facts, too, fade from memory as well as names; and fashions and follies are still more transient. But, in a book mainly composed of familiar conversation, how large a portion must bear on the facts, the follies, and the fashions of the time !
To clear up these obscurities—to supply these deficiencies—to retrieve obso. lete and to collect scattered circumstances—and so to restore to the work as much as possible of its original clearness and freshness, have been the main objects of the editor. He is but too well aware how unequal he is to the task, and how imperfectly he has accomplished it. But as the time was rapidly passing away in which any aid could be expected from the contemporaries of Johnson, or even of Boswell, the editor determined to undertake the work-believing that, however ill he might perform it, he should still do it better than, twenty years hence, it could be done by any diligence of research or any felicity of conjecture.
But another and more striking object of this edition is the incorporation with Boswell's Life of numerous other authentic works connected with the biography of Johnson: as this is, as far as the editor knows, a novel attempt, and as it must give his work somewhat of a confused and heterogeneous appearance, he thinks it necessary to state some of the reasons which induced him to adopt so unusual
The first and most cogent is the authority of Mr. Boswell himself; who in his original edition inserted, and in his subsequent editions continued to add, letters, memoranda’, notes, and anecdotes collected from every quarter; but the appearance of his work was so long delayed, that Sir John Hawkins, Mrs. Piozzi, Dr. Strahan, Mr. Tyers, Mr. Nichols, and many others, had anticipated much of what he would have been glad to tell. Some squabbles about copyright had warned him that he must not avail himself of their publications'; and
Mr. Boswell confesses that he has sometimes been influenced by the subsequent conduct of persons in exhibiting or suppressing Dr. Johnson's unfavourable opinion of them.-- See the cases of Lord Monboddo, vol. i. p. 255, and of Mr. Sheridan, vol. i. p. 260; and it is to be feared he has sometimes done so without confessing, perhaps without being conscious of the prejudice. On the other hand, he is sometimes more amiably guilty of extenuation, as in the instances of Doctors Robertson and Beattie, vol. i. p. 237, 247, 299, and 314.
It is not easy to explain why Mr. Boswell was unfavourably disposed towards Sheridan and Goldsmith, though the bias is obvious; but wholly unaccountable are the frequent ridicule and censure which he delighted to provoke and to record against his inoffensive and amiable friend Mr. Langton.
Those who knew Mr. Boswell intimately, inform us (as indeed he himself involuntarily does) that his vanity was very sensitive, and there can be no doubt that personal pique tinged many passages of his book, which, whenever the editor could trace it, he has not failed to notice.—Ed.
? On the use of this Latinism, the editor ventures to repeat a pleasant anecdote told by the Bishop of Ferns. The late Lord Avonmore, giving evidence relative to certain certificates of degrees in the University of Dublin, called them (as they are commonly called) “ Testimoniums." As the clerk was writing down the word, one of the counsel said, “Should it not be rather testimonia ? ” “ Yes," replied Lord Avonmore, “ if you think it better English !” This pleasantry contains a just grammatical criticism; but memoranda has of late been so generally used as an English plural that the editor has ventured to retain it.-En.
3 li is a curious proof of these jealousies, that Mr. Boswell entered at Stationers' Hall as distinct
he was on such bad terms with his rival biographers that he could not expect any assistance or countenance from them. He nevertheless went as far as he though: the law would allow in making frequent quotations from the preceding publications; but as to all the rest, which he did not venture to appropriate to his own use, -the grapes were sour—and he took every opportunity of representing the anecdotes of his rivals as extremely inaccurate and generally undeserving of credit.
It is certain that none of them have attained-indeed they do not pretend to --that extreme verbal accuracy with which Mr. Boswell had, by great zeal and diligence, learned to record conversations; nor in the details of facts are they so precise as Mr. Boswell with good reason claims to be.
Mr. Boswell took, indeed, extraordinary and most laudable pains to attain accuracy'. Not only did he commit to paper at night the conversation of the day, but even in general society he would occasionally take a note of any thing remarkable that occurred; and he afterwards spared no trouble in arranging and supplying the inevitable deficiencies of these hasty memoranda. But, after all, Mr. Boswell himself is not exempt from those errors
quas ant incuria fudit,
Aut humana parum cavit natura; and an attentive examination and collation of the authorities (and particularly of Mr. Boswell's own) have convinced the editor that the minor biographers are entitled not merely to more credit than Mr. Boswell allows them, but to as much as any person writing from recollection, and not from notes made at the moment, can be.
As Mr. Boswell had borrowed much from Sir J. Hawkins and Mrs. Piozzi, the editor has thought himself justified in borrowing more; and he has therefore (as he thinks Mr. Boswell would have done if he could) incorporated with the test nearly the whole of Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes, and such passages of Hawkins'“ Life” and “ Collection of Anecdotes” as relate to circumstances which Mr. Boswell had either not mentioned at all, or touched upon imperfectly.
The same use has been made of several other publications, particularly Murphy's Essay on the Life of Dr. Johnson, Mr. Tyers' eccentric but amusing Sketch, and Mr. Nichols' contributions the Gentleman's Magazine, a publication which, under that gentleman's superintendence, was of peculiar authority in all that relates to Dr. Johnson.
The editor had another important object in adopting this incorporation. Notwithstanding the diligence and minuteness with which Mr. Boswell detailed what he saw of Dr. Johnson's life, his work left large chasms. It must be recollected that they never resided in the same neighbourhood, and that the detailed account of Johnson's domestic life and conversation is limited to the opportunities afforded by Mr. Boswell's occasional visits to London-by the Scottish Tour-and by one meeting at Dr. Taylor's, in Derbyshire. Of above twenty years, therefore, publications, Dr. Johnson's Letter to Lord Chesterfield, and the account of his Conversation with George III., which occupy a few pages of the Life.-Ed.
Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly furnished the editor with the following copy of a note in a blank page of his copy of Boswell's work, dictated and signed in Mr. Wordsworth's presence by the late Sir George Beaumont, whose own accuracy was exemplary, and who lived very much in the society of Johnson's latter days.
" Rydal Mount, 12th Sept 1826. “ Sir Joshua Reynolds told me at his table, immediately after the publication of this book, that every word of it might be depended upon as if given on oath. Boswell was in the habit of bringing the proof sheets to his house previously to their being struck off, and if any of the company happened to have been present at the conversation recorded, he requested him or them to correct any error; and not satisfied with this, he would run over all London for the sake of verifying any single word which might be disputed.
“ G. H. BEAUMONT.” Although it cannot escape notice, that Sir Joshua is here reported to drawn a somewhat vider inference than the premises warranted, the general testimony is satisfactory, and it is to a considerable extent corroborated by every kind of evidence, external and internal.--Ed
that their acquaintance lasted, periods equivalent in the whole to about threequarters of a year only fell under the personal notice of Boswell—and thus has been left many a long hiatus—valde deflendus, but now, alas, quite irreparable !
Mr. Boswell endeavoured, indeed, to fill up these chasms as well as he could with Johnson's letters to his absent friends; but much the largest, and, for this purpose, the most valuable part of his correspondence, was out of his reach; namely, that which Dr. Johnson for twenty years maintained with Mrs. Thrale, and which she published in 1788, in two volumes octavo. For the copyright of these, Mr. Boswell says, in a tone of admiring envy, "she received five hundred pounds." The publication, however, was not very successful—it never reached a second edition, and is now almost forgotten. But through these letters are scattered almost the only information we have relative to Johnson during the long intervals between Mr. Boswell's visits; and from them he has occasionally but cautiously (having the fear of the copyright law before his eyes) made interesting extracts.
These letters being now public property, the editor has been at liberty to follow up Mr. Boswell's imperfect example, and he has therefore made numerous and copious selections from them, less as specimens of Johnson's talents for letter-writing, than as notices of his domestic and social life during the intervals of Mr. Boswell's narrative. Indeed, as letters, few of Johnson's can have any great charm for the common reader; they are full of good sense and good-nature, but in forms too didactic and ponderous to be very amusing. If the editor could have ventured to make so great an alteration in Mr. Boswell's original plan, he would—instead of adding so many letters?—have been inclined to have omitted all, except those which might be remarkable for some peculiar merit, or which might tend to complete the history of Johnson's life. In the large extracts which have been made from Mrs. Thrale's correspondence, he has been guided entirely by this latter object.
The most important addition, however, which the editor has made, is one that needs no apology–he has incorporated with the Life the whole of the Tour To the HEBRIDES, which Mr. Boswell published in one volume in 1785, and which, no doubt, if he could legally have done so, he would himself have incorporated in the Life-of which indeed he expressly tells us, he looks on the Tour but as a portion. It is only wonderful, that since the copyright has expired, any edition of the Life of Johnson should have been published without the addition of this, the most original, curious, and amusing portion of the whole biography.
The Prayers and Meditations, published with rather too much haste after Johnson's death by Dr. Strahan, have also been made use of to an extent which was forbidden to Mr. Boswell. What Dr. Strahan calls Meditations : are, in fact,
1 It appears from the LIFE, that Mr. Boswell visited England a dozen times during his acquaintance with Dr. Johnson, and that the number of days on which they met were about 180, to which is to be added the time of the Tour, during which they met daily from the 18th August, to the 22d November, 1773; in the whole about 276 days. The number of pages in the late editions of the two works is 2528, of which, 1320 are occupied by the history of these 276 days; so that little less than an hundredth part of Dr. Johnson's life occupies above one half of Mr. Boswell's works. Every one must regret that his personal intercourse with his great friend was not more frequent or more continued; but the editor could do but little towards rectifying this disproportion, except by the insertion of the correspondence with Mrs. Thrale.—ED.
2 The number of original letters in this edition is about 100—the number of those collected from various publications (including the extracts from Mrs. Piozzi's) is about 200.-Ed.
3 These Meditations have been the cause of much ridicule and some obloquy, which would be not wholly undeserved if it were true, as Dr. Strahan thoughtlessly gave the world to suppose, that they were arranged by Dr. Johnson, and delivered to Dr. Stratan for the express purpose of public cation. An inspection of the original manuscripts (now properly and fortunately lodged in Pembroke College) has convinced the editor (and, as he is glad to find, every body else who has examined them), that the opinion derived from Dr. Strahan's statement echoed by Mr. Boswell, is wholly unfounded. In the confusion of a mind which the approach of death was beginning to affect, and in the agitation which a recent attempt to spoliate two of his note books had occasioned, Dr. Johnson seems w have given Dr. Strahan a confused bundle of loose papers-scraps, half-sheets, and a few leaves nothing but Diaries of the author's moral and religious state of mind, intermixed with some notices of his bodily health and of the interior circumstances of his domestic life. Mr. Boswell had ventured to qu some of these: the present edition contains all that appear to offer any thing of interest.
The editor has also incorporated in this work a small volume, published in 1802, but now become scarce, containing an Account of Dr. Johnson's Early Life, written by himself, and a curious correspondence with Miss Boothby, of which Mr. Boswell had given one, and Mrs. Piozzi three or four letters i.
Mr. Duppa published in 1806, with copious explanatory notes, a diary which Johnson had kept during a Tour through North Wales, made, in 1775, in company with Mr. Thrale and his family. Mr. Boswell had, it appears, inquired in vain for this diary: if he could have obtained it, he would, no doubt, have inserted it, as he did the similar notes of the Tour in France in the succeeding year. By the liberality of Mr. Duppa, the editor has been enabled to incorporate this volume with the present edition.
The editor will now recapitulate the publications which will be found, in the whole or in part, in the volumes of the present edition.
1. The whole of Mr. Malone's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, 4 vols. 8vo. 2. The whole of the first and most copious? edition of Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, 1 vol. 8vo.
3. The whole (though differently arranged) of Mrs. Piozzi's Anecdotes of Dr Johnson, 1 vol. sm. 8vo.
4. The whole of Dr. Johnson's Tour in Wales, with notes, by R. Duppa, Esq., 1 vol. 12mo.
5. The whole of an Account of the Early Life of Dr. Johnson, with his Correspondence with Miss Boothby, 1 vol. 16mo.
6. A great portion of the Letters to and from Dr. Johnson, published by H. L. Piozzi, 2 vols. 8vo.
7. Large extracts from the Life of Dr. Johnson, by Sir J. Hawkins, 1 vol. 8vo. 8. All, that had not been already anticipated by Mr. Boswell or Mrs. Piozzi, of the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, and Opinions of Dr. Johnson,” published by Sir J. Hawkins, in his edition of Johnson's works.
9. Extracts from Sketches of Dr. Johnson, by Thomas Tyers, Esq., a pamphlet, in 8vo.
10. Extracts from Murphy's Essay on the Life of Dr. Johnson, from Mr. Nichols' and Mr. Stevens' contributions to the Gentleman's and London Magazines, and from the Lires and Memoirs of Cumberland, Cradock, Miss Hawkins, Lord Charlemont, the Wartons, and other friends and acquaintances of Dr. Johnson.
11. The whole of a Poetical Review of the Character of Dr. Johnson, by John Courtenay, Esq., in 4to.
But besides these printed materials, the editor has been favoured with many papers connected with Dr. Johnson, his life, and society, hitherto unpublished. Of course, his first inquiries were directed towards the original manuscript of Mr. Boswell's Journal, which would no doubt have enabled him to fill up all the blanks and clear away much of the obscurity that exist in the printed Life. It was to be hoped that the archives of Auchinleck, which Mr. Boswell frequently and pompously mentions, would contain the original materials of these works, which he himself, as well as the world at large, considered as his best claims to stitched together. The greater part of these papers were the Prayers, the publication of which, no doubt (for Dr. Strahan says so), Dr. Johnson sanctioned; but mixed with them were those Diaries to which it is probable that Dr. Johnson did not advert, and which there is every reason to suppose he never could have intended to submit to any human eye but his own. Well understood, as the secret confessions of his own contrite conscience, they do honour to Dr. Johnson's purity and piety; but very different would be their character, if it appeared that he had ostentatiously prepared them for the press. See more on this subject in the notes, vol. i. p. 97, and vol. ii. November 16, 1784. -Ed.
? This correspondence will be found in the Appendix to vol. 11.—ED.
? Mr. Boswell, in his subsequent editions, omitted some and softened down other passages, which, the reason for the alterations having gone by, are restored.-Ep.