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Finding him in a placid humour, and wishing to avail myself of the opportunity which I fortunately had of consulting a fage, to hear whose wisdom, I conceived in the ardour of youthful imagination, that men filled with a noble enthusiasın for intellectual improvement would gladly have resorted from distant lands; I opened my mind to him ingenuously, and gave him a little sketch of my life, to which he was pleased to listen with great attention. .
I acknowledged, that though educated very strictly in the principles of religion, I had for some time been misled into a certain degree of infidelity; but that I was come now to a better way of thinking, and was fully satisfied of the truth of the Christian revelation, though I was not clear as to every point considered to be orthodox. Being at all times a curious examiner of the human mind, and pleased with an undisguised display of what had passed in it, he called to me with warmth, “ Give me your hand; I have taken a liking to you.” He then began to descant upon the force of testimony, and the little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of, why was it so? or why was it not so ? ought not to disturb us : adding, that he himself had at one period been guilty of a temporary neglect of religion, but that it was not the result of argument, but mere absence of thought.
After having given credit to reports of his bigotry, I was agreeably surprized when he expressed the following very liberal sentiment, which has the additional value of obviating an objection to our holy religion, founded upon the discordant tenets of Christians themselves : “For my part, Sir, I think all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.”
We talked of belief in ghosts. He said, “Sir, I make a distinction between what a man may experience by the mere strength of his imagination, and what imagination cannot possibly produce. Thus, suppose I should think that I saw a form, and heard a voice cry · Johnson, you are a very
wicked fellow, and unless you repent you will certainly be punished;' my own unworthiness is so deeply impressed upon my mind, that I might imagine I thus saw and heard, and therefore I should not believe that an external communication had been made to me. But if a form should appear, and a voice should tell me that a particular man had died at a particular place, and a particular hour, a fact which I had no apprehension of, nor any means of knowing, and this fact with all its circumstances should afterwards be unquestionably proved, I should, in that case be persuaded that I had supernatural intelligence imparted to me.”
Here it is proper, once for all, to give a true and fair statement of Johnson's way of thinking upon the question whether departed spirits are ever permitted
to appear in this world, or in any way to operate upon human life. He has been ignorantly misrepresented as weakly credulous upon that subject; and therefore, though I feel an inclination to disdain and treat with silent contempt so absurd a notion concerning my illustrious friend, yet as I find it has gained ground, it is necessary to refute it. The real fact then is, that Johnson had a very philosophical mind, and such a rational respect for testimony, as to make him submit his understanding to what was authentically proved, though he could not comprehend why it was so. Being thus disposed, he was willing to inquire into the truth of any relation of supernatural agency, a general belief of which has prevailed in all nations and ages. But so far was he from being the dupe of implicit faith, that he examined the matter with a jealous attention, and no man was more ready to refute its falshood when he had discovered it. Churchill, in his poem entitled “ The Ghost,” availed himfelf of the absurd credulity imputed to Johnson, and drew a caricature of him under the name of “ Pomposo,” representing him as one of the believers of the story of a Ghost in Cock-lane, which in the year 1762 had gained very general credit in London. Many of my readers, I am convinced, are to this hour under an impression that Johnfon was thus foolishly deceived. It will therefore surprize them a good deal when they are informed upon undoubted authority, that Johnson was one of those by whom the imposture was detected. The story had become so popular, that he thought it should be investigated; and in this research he was assisted by the Reverend Dr. Douglas, now Bishop of Carline, the great detecter of impoftures, who informs me, that after the gentlemen who went and examined into the evidence were satisfied of its falsity, Johnson wrote in their presence an account of it, which was published in the newspapers and Gentleman's Magazine, and undeceived the world 3.
3 The account was as follows: “On the night of the ift of February, many gentlemen, eminent for their rank and character, were, by the invitation of the Reverend Mr. Aldrich, of Clerkenwell, assembled at his house, for the examination of the noises supposed to be made by a departed fpirit, for the detection of some enormous crime.
“ About ten at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl fuppofed to be difturbed by a spirit, had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies. They sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went down stairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud.
“ The supposed spirit had before publickly promised, by an affirmative knock, that it would attend one of the gentlemen into the vault under the church of St. John, Clerkenwell, where the body is deposited, and give a token of her presence there, by a knock upon her coffin ; it was therefore determined to make this trial of the existence or veracity of the supposed spirit.
Our conversation proceeded. “Sir, (said he) I am a friend to subordi- 1763. nation, as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal Ærat. 54 pleasure in governing and being governed.”
“ Dr. Goldsmith is one of the first men we now have as an authour, and he is a very worthy man too. He has been loose in his principles, but he is coming right.”
I mentioned Mallet's tragedy of Elvira, which had been acted the preceding winter at Drury-lane, and that the Honourable Andrew Erskine, Mr. Dempster, and myself, had joined in writing a pamphlet, entitled “ Critical Stricturės” against it +. That the mildness of Dempster's disposition had, however, relented; and he had candidly said, “We have hardly a right to abuse this tragedy; for, bad as it is, how vain should either of us be to write one not near so good.” Johnson. “Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a çarpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”
When I talked to him of the paternal estate to which I was heir, he said, “ Sir, let me tell you, that to be a Scotch landlord, where you have a number of families dependent upon you, and attached to you, is, perhaps, as high a situation as humanity can arrive at. A merchant upon the 'Change of London, with a hundred thousand pounds, is nothing: an English duke,
“ While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl's chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches. When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back, and was required to hold her hands out of bed. From that time, though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency, no evidence of any preter-natural power was exhibited.
" The spirit was then very seriously advertised that the person to whom the promife was made of striking the coffin, was then about to visit the vault, and that the performance of the promise was then claimed. The company at one o'clock went into the church, and the gentleman to whom the promise was made, went with another into the vault. The spirit was folemnly required to perform its promise, but nothing more than silence ensued : the person supposed to be accused by the spirit, then went down with several others, but no effect was perceived. Upon their return they examined the girl, but could draw no confession from her. Between two and three the desired and was permitted to go home with her father.
“ It is, therefore, the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting. a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.”
4 The Critical Review, in which Mallet himself sometimes wrote, characterised this pamphlet as “ the crude efforts of envy, petulance, and self-conceit.” There being thus three epithets, we the three authours had a humourous contention how each should be appropriated.
with an immense fortune, is nothing: he has no tenants who consider themselves as under his patriarchal care, and who will follow him to the field upon any emergency."
His notion of the dignity of a Scotch landlord had been formed upon what he had heard of the Highland Chiefs; for it is long since a lowland landlord has been so curtailed in his feudal authority, that he has little more influence over his tenants than an English landlord ; and of late years most of the Highland Chiefs have destroyed, by means too well known, the princely power which they once enjoyed.
He proceeded : “ Your going abroad, Sir, and breaking off idle habits, may be of great importance to you. I would go where there are courts and learned men. There is a good deal of Spain that has not been perambulated. I would have you go thither. A man of inferiour talents to yours may furnish us with useful observations upon that country.' His supposing me, at that period of life, capable of writing an account of my travels that would deserve to be read, elated me not a little.
I appeal to every impartial reader whether this faithful detail of his frankness, complacency, and kindness to a young man, a stranger and a Scotchman, does not refute the unjust opinion of the harshness of his general demeanour. His occasional reproofs of folly, impudence, or impiety, and even the sudden fallies of his constitutional irritability of temper, which have been preserved for the poignancy of their wit, have produced that opinion among those who have not considered that such instances, though collected by Mrs. Piozzi into a small volume, and read over in a few hours, were, in fact, scattered through a long series of years ; years, in which his time was chiefly spent in instructing and delighting mankind by his writings and conversation, in acts of piety to God, and good will to men.
I complained to him that I had not yet acquired much knowledge, and asked his advice as to my studies. He said, “ Don't talk of study now. I will give you a plan ; but it will require some time to consider of it.” is very good in you, Mr. Johnson, (I replied) to allow me to be with you thus. Had it been foretold to me some years ago that I should pass an evening with the authour of the RAMBLER, how should I have exulted !” What I then expressed was sincerely from the heart. He was satisfied that it was, and cordially answered, “Sir, I am glad we have met. I hope we shall pass many evenings and mornings too, together.” We finished a couple of bottles of port, and fat till between one and two in the morning.
He wrote this year in the Critical Review the account of “ Telemachus, a .1763 Mask,” by the Reverend George Graham, of Eton College. The subject of Ætat. 54. this beautiful poem was particularly interesting to Johnson, who had much experience of “ the conflict of opposite principles,” which he describes as, “ The contention between pleasure and virtue, a struggle which will always be continued while the present system of nature shall sublist: nor can history or poetry exhibit more than pleasure triumphing over virtue, and virtue subjugating pleasure.”
As Dr. Oliver Goldsmith will frequently appear in this narrative, I shall endeavour to make my readers in some degree acquainted with his singular character. He was a native of Ireland, and a contemporary with Mr. Burke, at Trinity College, Dublin, but did not then give much promise of future celebrity. He, however, observed to Mr. Malone, that “ though he made no great figure in mathematicks, which was a study in much repute there, he could turn an Ode of Horace better than any of them.” He afterwards studied physick at Edinburgh, and upon the Continent; and I have been informed, was enabled to pursue his travels on foot, partly by demanding at Universities to enter the lifts as a disputant, by which, according to the cultom of many of them, he was entitled to the premium of a crown, when luckily for him his challenge was not accepted; so that, as I once observed to Dr. Johnson, he disputed his passage through Europe. He then came to England, and was employed successively in the capacities of an usher to an academy, a corrector of the press, a reviewer, and a writer for a newspaper. He had fagacity enough to cultivate afliduously the acquaintance of Johnson, and his faculties were gradually enlarged by the contemplation of such a model. To me and many others it appeared that he studiously copied the manner of Johnson, though, indeed, upon a smaller scale.
At this time I think he had published nothing with his name, though it was pretty generally known that one Dr. Goldsmith was the authour of "An Essay on the present State of polite Literature," and of “ The Citizen of the World,” a series of letters supposed to be written from London by a Chinese. No man had the art of displaying with more advantage as a writer, whatever literary acquisitions he made. “Nihil quod tetigit non ornavit." His mind resembled a fertile, but thin foil. There was a quick, but not a strong vegetation, of whatever chanced to be thrown upon it. No deep root could be struck. The oak of the forest did not grow there; but the elegant
3 See his Epitaph in Westminster Abbey, written by Dr. Johnson.