Thursday, 23d September
I took Fingal down to the parlour in the morning, and tried a test proposed by Mr Roderick M'Leod, son to Ulinish. Mr M'Queen had said he had some of the poem in the original. I desired him to mention any passage in the printed book, of which he could repeat the original. He pointed out one in page 50 of the quarto edition, and read the Erse, while Mr Roderick M'Leod and I looked on the English; and Mr M'Leod said, that it was pretty like what Mr M'Queen had recited. But when Mr M'Queen read a description of Cuchullin's sword in Erse, together with a translation of it in English verse, by Sir James Foulis, Mr M'Leod said, that was much more like than Mr M'Pherson's translation of the former passage. Mr M'Queen then repeated in Erse a description of one of the horses in Cuchillin's car. Mr M'Leod said, Mr M'Pherson's English was nothing like it.
When Dr Johnson came down, I told him that I had now obtained some evidence concerning Fingal; for that Mr M'Queen had repeated a passage in the original Erse, which Mr M'Pherson's translation was pretty like; and reminded him that he himself had once said, he did not require Mr M'Pherson's Ossian to be more like the original than Pope's Homer. JOHNSON. 'Well, sir, this is just what I always maintained. He has found names, and stories, and phrases, nay passages in old songs, and with them has blended his own compositions, and so made what he gives to the world as the translation of an ancient poem.' If this was the case, I observed, it was wrong to publish it as a poem in six books. JOHNSON. 'Yes, sir; and to ascribe it to a time too when the Highlanders knew nothing of BOOKS, and nothing of SIX; or perhaps were got the length of counting six. We have been told, by Condamine, of a nation that could count no more than four. This should be told to Monboddo; it would help him. There is as much charity in helping a man down-hill, as in helping him up-hill.' BOSWELL. 'I don't think there is as much charity.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, sir, if his TENDENCY be downwards. Till he is at the bottom, he flounders; get him once there, and he is quiet. Swift tells, that Stella had a trick, which she learned from Addison, of encouraging a man in absurdity, instead of endeavouring to extricate him.'
Mr M'Queen's answers to the inquiries concerning Ossian were so unsatisfactory, that I could not help observing, that, were he examined in a court of justice, he would find himself under a necessity of being more explicit. JOHNSON. 'Sir, he has told Blair a little too much, which is published; and he sticks to it. He is so much at the head of things here, that he has never been accustomed to be closely examined; and so he goes on quite smoothly.' BOSWELL. 'He has never had any body to work him.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; and a man is seldom disposed to work himself; though he ought to work himself, to be sure.' Mr M'Queen made no reply. [Footnote: I think it but justice to say, that I believe Dr Johnson meant to ascribe Mr M'Queen's conduct to inaccuracy and enthusiasm, and did not mean any severe imputation against him.]
Having talked of the strictness with which witnesses are examined in courts of justice, Dr Johnson told us, that Garrick, though accustomed to face multitudes, when produced as a witness in Westminster Hall, was so disconcerted by a new mode of publick appearance, that he could not understand what was asked. It was a cause where an actor claimed a free benefit; that is to say, a benefit without paying the expence of the house; but the meaning of the term was disputed. Garrick was asked, 'Sir, have you a free benefit?' 'Yes.' 'Upon what terms have you it?' 'Upon...the terms...of ...a FREE BENEFIT.' He was dismissed as one from whom no information could be obtained. Dr Johnson is often too hard on our friend Mr Garrick. When I asked him, why he did not mention him in the Preface to his Shakspeare, he said, 'Garrick has been liberally paid for any thing he has done for Shakspeare. If I should praise him, I should much more praise the nation who paid him. He has not made Shakspeare better known; [Footnote: It has been triumphantly asked, 'Had not the plays of Shakspeare lain dormant for many years before the appearance of Mr Garrick? Did he not exhibit the most excellent of them frequently for thirty years together, and render them extremely popular by his own inimitable performance?' He undoubtedly did. But Dr Johnson's assertion has been misunderstood. Knowing as well as the objectors what has been just stated, he must necessarily have meant, that 'Mr Garrick did not as A CRITICK make Shakspeare better known; he did not ILLUSTRATE any one PASSAGE in any of his plays by acuteness of disquisition, sagacity of conjecture:' and what had been done with any degree of excellence in THAT way was the proper and immediate subject of his preface. I may add in support of this explanation the following anecdote, related to me by one of the ablest commentators on Shakspeare, who knew much of Dr Johnson: 'Now I have quitted the theatre,' cries Garrick, 'I will sit down and read Shakspeare.' ''Tis time you should,' exclaimed Johnson, 'for I much doubt if you ever examined one of his plays from the first scene to the last.'] he cannot illustrate Shakspeare: So I have reasons enough against mentioning him, were reasons necessary. There should be reasons FOR it.' I spoke of Mrs Montague's very high praises of Garrick. JOHNSON. 'Sir, it is fit she should say so much, and I should say nothing. Reynolds is fond of her book, and I wonder at it; for neither I, nor Beauclerk, nor Mrs Thrale, could get through it.' [Footnote: No man has less inclination to controversy than I have, particularly with a lady. But as I have claimed, and am conscious of being entitled to, credit, for the strictest fidelity, my respect for the publick obliges me to take notice of an insinuation which tends to impeach it.
Mrs Piozzi (late Mrs Thrale), to her Anecdotes of Dr Johnson, added the following postscript:
Naples, Feb. 10, 1786.
Since the foregoing went to the press, having seen a passage from Mr Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, in which it is said, that I could not get through Mrs Montague's Essay on Shakspeare, I do not delay a moment to declare, that, on the contrary, I have always commended it myself, and heard it commended by every one else; and few things would give me more concern than to be thought incapable of tasting, or unwilling to testify my opinion of its excellence.
It is remarkable that this postscript is so expressed, as not to point out the person who said that Mrs Thrale could not get through Mrs Montague's book; and therefore I think it necessary to remind Mrs Piozzi, that the assertion concerning her was Dr Johnson's, and not mine. The second observation that I shall make on this postscript is, that it does not deny the fact asserted, though I must acknowledge from the praise it bestows on Mrs Montague's book, it may have been designed to convey that meaning.
What Mrs Thrale's opinion is or was, or what she may or may not have said to Dr Johnson concerning Mrs Montague's book, it is not necessary for me to inquire. It is only incumbent on me to ascertain what Dr Johnson said to me. I shall therefore confine myself to a very short state of the fact.
The unfavourable opinion of Mrs Montague's book, which Dr Johnson is here reported to have given, is known to have been that which is uniformly expressed, as many of his friends well remember. So much for the authenticity of the paragraph, as far as it relates to his own sentiments. The words containing the assertion, to which Mrs Piozzi objects, are printed from my manuscript Journal, and were taken down at the time. The Journal was read by Dr Johnson, who pointed out some inaccuracies, which I corrected, but did not mention any inaccuracy in the paragraph in question: and what is still more material, and very flattering to me, a considerable part of my Journal, containing this paragraph, WAS READ SEVERAL YEARS AGO BY MRS THRALE HERSELF, who had it for some time in her possession, and returned it to me, without intimating that Dr Johnson had mistaken her sentiments.
When the first edition of my Journal was passing through the press, it occurred to me, that a peculiar delicacy was necessary to be observed in reporting the opinion of one literary lady concerning the performance of another; and I had such scruples on that head, that in the proof sheet I struck out the name of Mrs Thrale from the above paragraph, and two or three hundred copies of my book were actually printed and published without it; of these Sir Joshua Reynolds's copy happened to be one. But while the sheet was working off, a friend, for whose opinion I have great respect, suggested that I had no right to deprive Mrs Thrale of the high honour which Dr Johnson had done her, by stating her opinion along with that of Mr Beauclerk, as coinciding with, and, as it were, sanctioning his own. The observation appeared to me so weighty and conclusive, that I hastened to the printing house, and, as a piece of justice, restored Mrs Thrale to that place from which a too scrupulous delicacy had excluded her.
On this simple state of facts I shall make no observation whatever.]
Last night Dr Johnson gave us an account of the whole process of tanning, and of the nature of milk, and the various operations upon it, as making whey, &c. His variety of information is surprizing; and it gives one much satisfaction to find such a man bestowing his attention on the useful arts of life. Ulinish was much struck with his knowledge; and said, 'He is a great orator, sir; it is musick to hear this man speak.' A strange thought struck me, to try if he knew any thing of an art, or whatever it should be called, which is no doubt very useful in life, but which lies far out of the way of a philosopher and poet; I mean the trade of a butcher. I enticed him into the subject, by connecting it with the various researches into the manners and customs of uncivilized nations, that have been made by our late navigators into the South Seas. I began with observing, that Mr (now Sir Joseph) Banks tells us, that the art of slaughtering animals was not known in Otaheite, for, instead of bleeding to death their dogs (a common food with them), they strangle them. This he told me himself; and I supposed that their hogs were killed in the same way. Dr Johnson said, 'This must be owing to their not having knives, though they have sharp stones with which they can cut a carcase in pieces tolerably.' By degrees, he shewed that he knew something even of butchery. 'Different animals,' said he, 'are killed differently. An ox is knocked down, and a calf stunned; but a sheep has its throat cut, without any thing being done to stupify it. The butchers have no view to the ease of the animals, but only to make them quiet, for their own safety and convenience. A sheep can give them little trouble. Hales is of opinion, that every animal should be blooded, without having any blow given to it, because it bleeds better.' BOSWELL. 'That would be cruel.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; there is not much pain, if the jugular vein be properly cut.' Pursuing the subject, he said, the kennels of Southwark ran with blood two or three days in the week; that he was afraid there were slaughter-houses in more streets in London than one supposes (speaking with a kind of horrour of butchering), and yet, he added, 'any of us would kill a cow, rather than not have beef.' I said we COULD not. 'Yes,' said he, 'any one may. The business of a butcher is a trade indeed, that is to say, there is an apprenticeship served to it; but it may be learnt in a month.'
I mentioned a club in London, at the Boar's Head in Eastcheap, the very tavern where Falstaff and his joyous companions met; the members of which all assume Shakspeare's characters. One is Falstaff, another Prince Henry, another Bardolph, and so on. JOHNSON. 'Don't be of it, sir. Now that you have a name, you must be careful to avoid many things, not bad in themselves, but which will lessen your character. [Footnote: I do not see why I might not have been of this club without lessening my character. But Dr Johnson's caution against supposing one's self concealed in London, may be very useful to prevent some people from doing many things, not only foolish, but criminal.] This every man who has a name must observe. A man who is not publickly known may live in London as he pleases, without any notice being taken of him; but it is wonderful how a person of any consequence is watched. There was a Member of Parliament, who wanted to prepare himself to speak on a question that was to come in the House; and he and I were to talk it over together. He did not wish it should be known that he talked with me; so he would not let me come to his house, but came to mine. Some time after he had made his speech in the house, Mrs Cholmondeley, a very airy lady, told me, "Well, you could make nothing of him!" naming the gentleman, which was a proof that he was watched. I had once some business to do for government, and I went to Lord North's. Precaution was taken that it should not be known. It was dark before I went; yet a few days after I was told, "Well, you have been with Lord North." That the door of the Prime Minister should be watched, is not strange; but that a Member of Parliament should be watched, or that my door should be watched, is wonderful.'
We set out this morning on our way to Talisker, in Ulinish's boat, having taken leave of him and his family. Mr Donald M'Queen still favoured us with his company, for which we were much obliged to him. As we sailed along Dr Johnson got into one of his fits of railing at the Scots. He owned that they had been a very learned nation for a hundred years, from about 1550 to about 1650; but that they afforded the only instance of a people among whom the arts of civil life did not advance in proportion with learning; that they had hardly any trade, any money, or any elegance, before the Union; that it was strange that, with all the advantages possessed by other nations, they had not any of those conveniences and embellishments which are the fruit of industry, till they came in contact with a civilized people. 'We have taught you,' said he, 'and we'll do the same in time to all barbarous nations, to the Cherokees, and at last to the Ouran- Outangs'; laughing with as much glee as if Monboddo had been present. BOSWELL. 'We had wine before the Union.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; you had some weak stuff, the refuse of France, which would not make you drunk.' BOSWELL. 'I assure you, sir, there was a great deal of drunkenness.' JOHNSON. 'No, sir; there were people who died of dropsies, which they contracted in trying to get drunk.'
I must here gleen some of his conversation at Ulinish, which I have omitted. He repeated his remark, that a man in a ship was worse than a man in a jail. 'The man in a jail,' said he, 'has more room, better food, and commonly better company, and is in safety.' 'Ay; but,' said Mr M'Queen, 'the man in the ship has the pleasing hope of getting to shore.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, I am not talking of a man's getting to shore; but a man while he is in a ship: and then, I say, he is worse than a man while he is in a jail. A man in a jail MAY have the "pleasing hope" of getting out. A man confined for only a limited time, actually HAS it.' M'Leod mentioned his schemes for carrying on fisheries with spirit, and that he would wish to understand the construction of boats. I suggested that he might go to a dock-yard and work, as Peter the Great did. JOHNSON. 'Nay, sir, he need not work. Peter the Great had not the sense to see that the mere mechanical work may be done by any body, and that there is the same art in constructing a vessel, whether the boards are well or ill wrought. Sir Christopher Wren might as well have served his time to a bricklayer, and first, indeed, to a brick-maker.'
There is a beautiful little island in the Loch of Dunvegan, called Isa. M'Leod said, he would give it to Dr Johnson, on condition of his residing on it three months in the year; nay one month. Dr Johnson was highly amused with the fancy. I have seen him please himself with little things, even with mere ideas like the present. He talked a great deal of this island--how he would build a house there, how he would fortify it, how he would have cannon, how he would plant, how he would sally out and TAKE the isle of Muck; and then he laughed with uncommon glee, and could hardly leave off. I have seen him do so at a small matter that struck him, and was a sport to no one else. Mr Langton told me, that one night he did so while the company were all grave about him: only Garrick, in his significant smart manner, darting his eyes around, exclaimed, 'VERY jocose, to be sure!' M'Leod encouraged the fancy of Dr Johnson's becoming owner of an island; told him, that it was the practice in this country to name every man by his lands; and begged leave to drink to him in that mode: 'Island Isa, your health!' Ulinish, Talisker, Mr M'Queen, and I, all joined in our different manners, while Dr Johnson bowed to each, with much good humour.
We had good weather, and a fine sail this day. The shore was varied with hills, and rocks, and corn-fields, and bushes, which are here dignified with the name of natural wood. We landed near the house of Ferneley, a farm possessed by another gentleman of the name of M'Leod, who, expecting our arrival, was waiting on the shore, with a horse for Dr Johnson. The rest of us walked. At dinner, I expressed to M'Leod the joy which I had in seeing him on such cordial terms with his clan. 'Government,' said he, 'has deprived us of our ancient power; but it cannot deprive us of our domestick satisfactions. I would rather drink punch in one of their houses' (meaning the houses of his people) 'than be enabled by their hardships, to have claret in my own.' This should be the sentiment of every chieftain. All that he can get by raising his rents, is more luxury in his own house. Is it not better to share the profits of his estate, to a certain degree, with his kinsmen, and thus have both social intercourse and patriarchal influence?
We had a very good ride, for about three miles, to Talisker, where Colonel M'Leod introduced us to his lady. We found here Mr Donald M'Lean, the young Laird of Col (nephew to Talisker), to whom I delivered the letter with which I had been favoured by his uncle, Professor M'Leod, at Aberdeen. He was a little lively young man. We found he had been a good deal in England, studying farming, and was resolved to improve the value of his father's lands, without oppressing his tenants, or losing the ancient Highland fashions.
Talisker is a better place than one commonly finds in Sky. It is situated in a rich bottom. Before it is a wide expanse of sea, on each hand of which are immense rocks; and, at some distance in the sea, there are three columnal rocks rising to sharp points. The billows break with prodigious force and noise on the coast of Talisker. There are here a good many well-grown trees. Talisker is an extensive farm. The possessor of it has, for several generations, been the next heir to M'Leod, as there has been but one son always in that family. The court before the house is most injudiciously paved with the round blueish-grey pebbles which are found upon the sea-shore; so that you walk as if upon cannon-balls driven into the ground.
After supper, I talked of the assiduity of the Scottish clergy, in visiting and privately instructing their parishioners, and observed how much in this they excelled the English clergy. Dr Johnson would not let this pass. He tried to turn it off, by saying, 'There are different ways of instructing. Our clergy pray and preach.' M'Leod and I pressed the subject, upon which he grew warm, and broke forth: 'I do not believe your people are better instructed. If they are, it is the blind leading the blind; for your clergy are not instructed themselves.' Thinking he had gone a little too far, he checked himself, and added, 'When I talk of the ignorance of your clergy, I talk of them as a body: I do not mean that there are not individuals who are learned' (looking at Mr M'Queen). 'I suppose there are such among the clergy in Muscovy. The clergy of England have produced the most valuable books in support of religion, both in theory and practice. What have your clergy done, since you sunk into presbyterianism? Can you name one book of any value, on a religious subject, written by them?' We were silent. 'I'll help you. Forbes wrote very well; but I believe he wrote before episcopacy was quite extinguished.' And then pausing a little, he said, 'Yes, you have Wishart against Repentance.' [Footnote: This was a dexterous mode of description, for the purpose of his argument; for what he alluded to was, a sermon published by the learned Dr William Wishart, formerly principal of the college at Edinburgh, to warn men AGAINST confiding in a death-bed REPENTANCE, of the inefficacy of which he entertained notions very different from those of Dr Johnson.] BOSWELL. 'But, sir, we are not contending for the superior learning of our clergy, but for their superior assiduity.' He bore us down again, with thundering against their ignorance, and said to me, 'I see you have not been well taught; for you have not charity.' He had been in some measure forced into this warmth, by the exulting air which I assumed; for, when he began, he said, 'Since you will drive the nail!' He again thought of good Mr M'Queen, and, taking him by the hand, said, 'Sir, I did not mean any disrespect to you.'
Here I must observe, that he conquered by deserting his ground, and not meeting the argument as I had put it. The assiduity of the Scottish clergy is certainly greater than that of the English. His taking up the topick of their not having so much learning, was, though ingenious, yet a fallacy in logick. It was as if there should be a dispute whether a man's hair is well dressed, and Dr Johnson should say, 'Sir, his hair cannot be well dressed; for he has a dirty shirt. No man who has not clean linen has his hair well dressed.' When some days afterwards he read this passage, he said, 'No, sir; I did not say that a man's hair could not be well dressed because he has not clean linen, but because he is bald.'
He used one argument against the Scottish clergy being learned, which I doubt was not good. 'As we believe a man dead till we know that he is alive; so we believe men ignorant till we know that they are learned.' Now our maxim in law is, to presume a man alive, till we know he is dead. However, indeed, it may be answered, that we must first know he has lived; and that we have never known the learning of the Scottish clergy. Mr M'Queen, though he was of opinion that Dr Johnson had deserted the point really in dispute, was much pleased with what he said, and owned to me, he thought it very just; and Mrs M'Leod was so much captivated by his eloquence, that she told me 'I was a good advocate for a bad cause.'