Thursday, November 08, 2007

"I am now getting into the habit of sitting at home all the morning and reading."

{A detail from Thomas Rowlandson's Vauxhall Gardens (1784) showing Boswell, Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Oliver Goldsmith}

From James Boswell, I've learned that ever since leaving college I've unwittingly followed a Johnsonian approach to learning--with today's day off from work falling particularly in line with his precepts:
He said he would not advise a plan of study, for he had never pursued one two days. "And a man ought just to read as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good. Idleness is a disease which must be combated. A young man should read five hours every day, and so may acquire a great deal of knowledge."
And all along I just thought of it as the life of a curious dilettante!

Speaking of curiosity, in noting Boswell's fear of ghosts yesterday, I neglected to mention Johnson's position on the matter. Being of a cast of mind that required him to examine every conceivable question, he of course had one:
He talked of belief in ghosts; and he said that he made a distinction between what a man might find out by the strength of his imagination, and what could not possibly be found out so. "Thus, supposed 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.' This is a thought which is so deeply impressed upon my mind that I might imagine I saw and heard so and so; and therefore I would not credit this, at least would not insist on your believing it. But if a form appeared, and a voice told me such a man is dead at such a place and such an hour; if this proves true upon inquiry, I should certainly think I had supernatural intelligence given me."

I also should add some meat to my earlier note that part of what makes Boswell so much fun is his ear for the oddities of everyday speech. An account he gives of the woman who cleaned and cooked for him and his roommate ends with one of the best examples:
[Mrs. Legge] is perhaps as curious an animal as has appeared in human shape. She presents a strong idea of one of the frightful witches in Macbeth. . . . She . . . owns that she married Mr. Legge for money. He is a little queer round creature; and claiming kindred with Baron Legge, he generally goes by the name of The Baron, and fine fun we have with him. . . . To give a specimen of Mrs. Legge, who is a prodigious prater. She said to Bob this morning, "Ay, ay, Master Robert, you may talk. But we knows what you young men are. Just cock-sparrows. You can't stand it out. But the Baron! O Lord! the Baron is a staunch man. Ay, ay, did you never hear that God never made a little man but he made it up to him in something else? Yes, yes, the Baron is a good man, an able man. He laid a married woman upon the floor while he sent the maid out for a pint of porter. But he was discovered, and so I come to know of it."

One unanticipated pleasure of Boswell's journal is the passing acquaintance it gives us with David Garrick. Garrick, the most celebrated actor of the age (or any age?), is an inescapable presence in the letters, journals, biographies, and histories of the eighteenth century, and Boswell gives us occasional glimpses of both his fame and his personality. This note of Boswell's attendance at one of Garrick's performances as King Lear gives an idea of the extent of Garrick's popular success and of the power of his acting:
So very high is his reputation, even after playing so long, that the pit was full in ten minutes after four, although the play did not begin till half an hour after six. I kept my self at a distance from all acquaintances, and got into a proper frame. Mr. Garrick gave me most perfect satisfaction. I was fully moved, and I shed abundance of tears.
No Proustian dashing of too-highly-raised hopes to be found there. Meanwhile, though he and Boswell never become more than casual acquaintances, Garrick comes off well in their meetings, seeming friendly, interested, and kind. Once when Boswell calls on him at the Drury Lane Theatre, he delivers a memorable line to seal an invitation to tea:
"And pray, will you fix a day when I shall have the pleasure of treating you with tea?" I fixed next day. "Then, Sir," said he, "the cups shall dance and the saucers skip."
The pleasantly individual cast of that image helps make clear why Johnson called Garrick, "the first man in the world for sprightly conversation."

Finally, because the weekend approaches, a reminder that though the perils of drink are many, they can often be an utterly reasonable price to pay for the company to which they admit one. Following a two-bottles-of-port night with Dr. Johnson, Boswell records:
A bottle of thick English port is a very heavy and a very inflammatory dose. I felt it last time that I drank it for several days, and this morning it was boiling in my veins. Dempster came and saw me, and said I had better be palsied at eighteen than not keep company with such a man as Johnson.
Were I a more capable drinker, or had I just a tad fewer readers, I could offer individual toasts to each of you. As is, prudence dictates that I raise a single glass: here's to rambles with Boswell, which I hope you've enjoyed.

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