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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 Wropriety 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. 196.) 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.”
1“ Dr. Johnson talked with approbation of an intended edition of the Spec. tator, with notes. He observed that all works which describe manners require notes in sixty or seventy years or less.” Post, v. ii. p. 200. And Dean Swift wrote to Pope on the subject of the Dunciad, “ I 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.
Mr. Boswell's delicacy is termed capricious, because he is on some occasions candid even to indiscretion, and on others unaccountably mysterious. In the 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.
1 Mr. Boswell confesses that he has sometimes been influenced by the subsequent conduct of persons in exhibiting or suppressing Dr. Johnson's unfa. Fourable opinion of them.—See the cases of Lord Monboddo, v. ii. p. 75, and of Mr. Sheridan, v. ii. p. 88; 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 in. stances of Doctors Robertson and Beattie, v. ii. p. 30, 54, 187, and 225.
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 in. voluntarily 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.
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 obsolete 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 a course.
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 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 thought 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,
Od 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 testi. monia ?” “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.-ED.
2 It is a curious proof of these jealousies, that Mr. Boswell entered at Stationers' Hall as distinct publications, Dr. Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield, and the account of his conversation with George 111., which occupy a few pages of the Life. ED.