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in the gallery · Encore the cow!' He attempted to vary the performance with very inferior effect, and Dr. Hugh Blair, who sat next him, whispered in his ear, ' Stick to the cow, mon !' His proficiency in the art increased with years, and in a trial of skill between himself and Garrick to see which could give the best personation of Johnson, he absolutely outdid the incomparable actor, who was famous for the faculty, in the conversational part, and was only surpassed by him in the inferior branch of taking off their friend's method of reciting verse. Hannah More was the umpire. With the accuracy of distinction for which he was celebrated, Johnson has remarked that mimicry requires great powers, though it is to make a mean use of them— great acuteness of observation, great retention of what is observed, and great pliancy of organs to represent what is observed.' It is not a little singular that a work which has conferred an immortality upon Boswell far beyond what the most indulgent of his applauding friends would have supposed him capable of attaining, should be the very ground with posterity for questioning his abilities. That a dunce should have produced a biography which, by general confession, stands at the head of its own department of literature—a department so difficult that it can boast fewer masterpieces than any other species of composition -is without a parallel, and hardly conceivable. Imbecility and absurdity could not of themselves give birth to excellence. To exaggerate Boswell's weaknesses was perhaps impossible, but the talents which mingled with them have sometimes been denied or underrated, and a paradoxical antithesis bas been set up between the folly of the man and the greatness of his book. His reasoning faculties were, no doubt, small; he was childisbly vain, and often silly in his conduct; all of which may be equally affirmed of Lord Nelson, and yet did not prevent the coexistence of genius. The Life of Johnson' is rendered in soine degree more entertaining by the foibles of its author, but its plan and execution, everything which constitutes its enduring interest and value, are due to mind and skill, and not to the absence of these qualities.
Jobnson asserted in 1773 that up to that period there bad been no good biography of any literary man in England. “Besides,' he said, the common incidents of life, it sbould tell us his studies, his mode of living, the means by which he attained to excellence, and his opinion of his own works.' There were two things which he was confident he could do well-state what a book ought to be, and why it fell short of the conception. This must have been more particularly the case with biography, which was his favourite pursuit, and one upon which he had re
flected much. Yet before he had uttered the observation which embodied his scheme Boswell had framed a far superior plan, and his correspondence is evidence, if any evidence could be required, that his work was original by design, and not by chance. I am absolutely certain,' he writes to his friend Temple, that my mode of biography, which gives not only a history of Johnson's visible proyress through the world, and of his publications, but a view of his mind in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be more of a Life than any work that has yet appeared.' Several persons had reported the conversations of eminent writers, many had given collections of letters to the world, but nobody before Boswell had framed a distinct idea of combining them into a life-like portrait; of reproducing departed greatness upon paper; of depicting habits, talk, manners, disposition, and appear
with the fulness and exactness of reality. Biography had been cultivated by the ancients as well as the moderns; and after hundreds had tried their bands upon it for centuries, it was no small intellectual distinction to be the first to perceive its true compass and capabilities. Neither was it a mere mechanical task to fill up the outline. Boswell was not very witty, nor very wise, but he had an exquisite appreciation of wit and wisdom. He avows again and again that he only recorded portions of what he heard, and the internal evidence would prove of itself, without his assertion, that he winnowed his matter. No wholesale and servile report could possess the vigour and raciness of his selections. In one or two instances others have retailed the same conversations as himself at more than treble the length, and with not a tithe of the spirit. His tact is the more remarkable, that he carefully treasured up trifes, when, to use his own words, they were amusing and characteristic, and it is seldom in these cases that his judgment is at fault. Fitzherbert said that it was not every man who could carry a bon mot, and probably no man carries witticisms correctly, who has not himself a full comprehension of their point. Boswell carried repartees, maxims, and arguments with accuracy, because he felt their force, and throughout his work details them in a manner which shows the keenness of his relish, To follow the hum of conversation with so much intelligence, and amid the confused medley to distinguish what was worthy to be preserved, required unusual quickness of apprehension, and cannot be reconciled to the notion that he was simply endowed with strength of memory. His sharp eye for manners and motives taught him in addition to preserve the dramatic vitality of his scenes. “The incidental observations,
says Mr. Croker, 'with which he explains or enlivens the dialogue, are terse, appropriate, and picturesque—we not merely hear his company, we see them.'
His perception, again, of character was acute. His portraits not only of Johnson, but of the society grouped around his central figure, are marked by the nicest lines of individuality. Goldsmith, Garrick, Beauclerk, and Dr. Taylor, are drawn with a vividness which could hardly be eclipsed, and, what is the perfection of the art, the result is produced by half-a-dozen easy strokes. He possessed the rare faculty of being able to single out the precise traits which were peculiar to each person, and whoever tries to imitate him will learn to respect the felicitous touches of his discriminating pen. 'Few people,' said Johnson, • who have lived with a man know what to remark about him. The chaplain of Bishop Pearce, whom I was to assist in writing some memoirs of his Lordship, could tell me scarcely anything.' He wanted in his early days of authorship to give a Life of Dryden, and applied for materials to Swinney and Colley Cibber, the only two persons then alive who had seen him. Swinney had nothing to relate of so famous a personage, except that at Will's coffee-house he had a chair by the fire in winter, when it was called his winter chair, and that it was set in the balcony in summer, when it was called his summer chair. Cibber asserted that he was as well acquainted with him as if he had been his own brother, and could tell a thousand anecdotes of him, but his reminiscences were summed up in the barren announcement
that he recollected him a decent old man, arbiter of critical disputes at Will's.' In the latter case Johnson thought that the poverty of the information was partly explained by the little intimacy which Dryden was likely to have permitted to Cibber, in spite of his boasted familiarity. He had perhaps one leg only in the room, and durst not draw in the other. Derrick was sent to Dryden's relations with no better result. I believe,' said Johnson, he got all that I should have got myself, but it was nothing.' In the · Rambler' he states that there are not many who can describe a living acquaintance except by his grosser peculiarities. Swinney, Cibber, and his own relations could not describe the great poet at all. Notwithstanding the immense advantage of having the masterly model of Boswell to work by, the Lives which have appeared since his time have not tended to weaken the opinion expressed by Johnson of the extreme difficulty of the art of biographical portraiture. With rare exceptions the authors have neither known what to tell, nor what to leave untold.
The value of Boswell's graphic narrative is vastly increased by the minute fidelity of the representation. Sir Joshua Reynolds observed of the veracious Johnson, that, admirable as he was in sketching characters, he obtained distinctness at the expense of perfect accuracy, and assigned to people more than they really had, whether of good or bad ; but to Boswell's book the great painter gave the remarkable testimony, that every word of it might be depended upon as if delivered upon oath. Though many persons, when it appeared, were displeased with the way in which they themselves were exhibited, no one accused him of serious misrepresentation, or of sacrificing truth to effect. He never heightened a scene, exaggerated a feature, improved a story, or polished a conversation. His veneration for his hero could not entice him into smoothing down his asperities. Hannah More begged that he might be drawn less rudely than life. I will not cut off his claws, Boswell roughly replied, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody.'
When it was asserted in Johnson's presence that the life of a mere literary man could not be very entertaining,' Johnson replied that this was a remark which had been made and repeated without justice.' He had previously written a paper in the ‘Idler' to disprove the opinion by argument, and had since done much in bis Lives of the Poets' to disprove it by example. He affirmed in conversation that no mode of existence had more interesting variety, and in his essay he pointed out that, besides partaking of the common condition of humanity, a writer was exposed to many vicissitudes which were peculiar to his craft. He argued that the life of a literary man might be very entertaining as a literary life, and that, as the "gradations of a general's career were from battle to battle, those of an author's were from book to book.' Boswell has added to his other distinctions that he has even gone beyond the position of his hero, and has demonstrated that the history of a literary man may not only be as entertaining as any other, but may be without exception the most entertaining book ever read.' This is his own judgment of his · Life of Johnson,' and posterity has confirmed the verdict. The wit, the wisdom, the anecdote, the talk of famous men and the talk about them, the strangeness and vivacity of the incidents, the singularity and eminence of the characters, the whole of a grand scene in a great period, revealed, as it were, both to the eye and ear,
a combine to render his book the most fascinating and instructive that ever issued from the press.
The Letters of Boswell,' which have recently appeared, exhibit him rather in his weakness than his strength. Many of them ought never to have seen the light, and they have been
edited with a flippancy and a bad taste which are far too glaring to need exposure. The contradictory elements of which Boswell's character was compounded come out more strongly if possible in his private correspondence than in the works he gave to the world. The pride of ancient blood, he said in his • Tour to the Hebrides,' was his predominant passion, and he tells Temple that his grand object in life is the family of Auchinleck. The importance he attached to his station was no doubt extravagant, and often broke out in a childish fashion, as, when some spurious lines by · Mr. Boswell' appeared in an obscure paper called the ‘Oracle,' he went to the editor and got him to promise to mention“ handsomely' that they were not hy James Boswell, Esq. But his respect for the aristocracy of rank was swallowed up in his veneration for the aristocracy of genius. “I have the happiness,' he wrote to Lord Chatham, of being capable to contemplate with supreme delight those distinguished spirits by which God is sometimes pleased to bonour humanity. To these he attached himself with a fervour which no ridicule could abate, and he is immortal through his devotion to the plebeian Johnson, who declared, • I have great merit in being zealous for the honours of birth, for I can hardly tell wbo was my grandfather.' The narrow-minded old judge who really believed that a knowledge of the technicalities of law was a higher acquisition than any literary attainment, and that to be Laird of Auchinleck was a loftier distinction than to be a Johnson or a Burke, upbraided his son · for going over Scotland with a brute. The son who, in spite of his own assertion, had a far more predominant passion than pride of blood, exclaimed, when relating the circumstance, Think how shockingly erroneous ! He had equal enthusiasm for General Paoli; and when he brought both his idols together, and acted as interpreter between them, he happily compared himself to an isthmus connecting two great continents. He did not, however, in his zeal for Corsica and its hero, commit the often quoted absurdity of parading bimself at the Stratford Jubilee with the label Corsica Boswell' on his bat. Davies, who is the sole authority for the assertion, withdrew it when better informed, and substituted a version which agrees with that which was given at the time in the • London Magazine.' The struggles of Corsica for independence had roused popular sympathy in England. Boswell's account of the island and people had been recently published, and generally applauded ; and in the midst of the attention which he himself had largely contributed to attract to the cause, he went to the Stratford masquerade, where everybody appeared in a fancy dress, habited as a Corsican chief. The true inscription embroidered