Monday, February 02, 2009

Outtake from Boswell

BOSWELL. 'I was this morning in Ridley's shop, Sir; and was told, that Mrs. Pickard's little volume called Dr. Johnson's London, has sold very much.' JOHNSON. 'Yet the Journey to the Hebrides has not had a great sale. Sir,it is a mighty impudent thing. BOSWELL. 'Have you read the book?' JOHNSON (flying into a passion). 'Have I read the book, Sir! Dr. Johnson's London? I'd much sooner read a book entitled Dr. London's Johnson. In a duodecimo disquisition on that eminent physician's purportedly prodigious pizzle, I should at least hope to be afforded the extensive view of an object with which I am as yet wholly unacquainted at first hand.[1] No, Sir: the visitation of familiar places, under the guidance of a cicerone who must perforce exhibit them in the character of novelties, is such as may instigate only the most profoundly melancholy and terrifick train of speculations in the mind of the visitant.' Then, his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he 'breathed out threatenings and slaughter' against Mrs. Pickard, calling her a, 'Strumpet--a Robber--a Piratess;' and exclaiming, he'd 'burn and destroy her.'

During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I thought to divert his attention by adverting him to his own sentiments on this very topick. For, notwithstanding the high veneration which I entertained for Dr. Johnson, I was sensible that he was sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of vanity, and by means of that I hoped I should gain my point: 'But did you not yourself once remark to me, Sir, that "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life"?' JOHNSON (cooling but a little). 'Indeed I did. But I was speaking of London as a vast terra incognita, an engine of new scenes and prospects, as against a repository or sarcophagous of dessicated memories, such as might have furnished amply lugubrious matter for the genius of Sir Thomas Browne or of the authour of Night Thoughts. For me, Sir, the wonderful immensity of this city consists in the innumerable unexplored little lanes and courts, the multiplicity of unfamiliar human habitations crouded together; rather than in such hoarily inurate loca johnsoniani as Johnson's Court and the Mitre. As Dryden says: "Strange cozenage! none would tread past streets again, Yet all hope pleasure from what still remain." For my part, I never passed a single paving-stone in my life which I would wish to re-tread, were an angel to make the proposal to me. I should venture to say, Sir, that had it not been for the tender regard I shall ever bear towards the memory of my dear wife, and, by extension towards her progeny,[2] I should not have revisited even my native city of Lichfield once in these last two-and-twenty years.'

I attempted to continue the conversation. He was so provoked, that he said, 'Give us no more of this;' and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, 'Don't let us meet to-morrow.'[3]


[1] For all of Dr London's purportedly prodigious 'eminence,' this passage constitutes, to the best of the editor's knowledge, the only surviving allusion to his existence (and, axiomatically, to that of his member).

[2] His step-daughter, Miss Lucy Porter. MALONE.

[3] "I'" Cf. the parallel passage in Boswell's journal: 'BOSWELL. "Pray, Sir: let us continue our conversation." JOHNSON. "Give us no more of this." BOSWELL. "But, Sir--" JOHNSON. "Give us no more of this, thou porcifutuacious avenivore [=pig-fucking oat-eater--DR]!" I was much alarmed and distressed by this last expression, and said to him, "Well, Sir, you are now in a bad humour." JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir." I was going to stay, and had got no farther than the staircase. He pushed me, and frowning said, "Get you gone--out"; a peremptory mode of ordering me to leave, which I accordingly and immediately did, as he thundered down at me from two pair of stairs up, "Don't let us meet tomorrow!"'

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