However, he was not above being arrested for debt. He had spent his payment for the Dictionary as fast as it came. On March 16, 1756, he wrote to Samuel Richardson: “Sir, I am obliged to entreat your assistance. I am now under arrest for five pounds eighteen shillings.... If you will be so good as to send me this sum, I will gratefully repay you, and add it to all former obligations.”36 Richardson sent six guineas. He earned his bread at this time by writing magazine articles, by composing sermons at two guineas for less articulate clergymen, by taking advance subscriptions to his promised edition of Shakespeare, and by contributing to The Universal Chronicle a weekly essay (April 15, 1758, to April 5, 1760) under the name of “The Idler.” These were in a lighter vein than The Rambler, but still too grave and ponderous for those who must run as they read. One denounced vivisection; another exposed debtors’ prisons; No. 5 lamented the separation of soldiers from their wives, and proposed squads of “Lady Hussars,” who would handle commissary and nursing, and otherwise comfort their men.
In January, 1759, he learned that his ninety-year-old mother, whom he had not seen in twenty-two years, was nearing death. He borrowed money from a printer, and sent her six guineas in a tender letter. She died on January 23. To pay for her funeral and her debts he wrote in the evenings of one week (so he told Reynolds) The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. He sent it to the printer part by part, and received £ 100 for it. On its publication in April the critics hailed it as a classic, and contrasted it patriotically with Voltaire’s Candide, which appeared almost at the same time and dealt with the same problem—Can life bring happiness? Johnson did not delay his answer: “Ye who listen with phantoms of hope, who expect that old age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas.”37
It was the custom of Abyssinian kings (Johnson tells us) to confine the heir to the throne to a pleasant and fertile valley until the time came for his accession. Everything was supplied him: a palace, good food, animal pets, intelligent companions. But in his twenty-sixth year Rasselas wearies of these delights. He misses not only liberty but struggle. “I should be happy if I had something to pursue.” He ponders how he may escape this peaceful valley to see how other men seek and find happiness.
A skillful mechanic proposes to build a flying machine that will lift the Prince and himself above the encircling mountains to freedom. He explains:
He that can swim needs not despair to fly; to swim is to fly in a grosser fluid, and to fly is to swim in a subtler. We are only to proportion our power of resistance to the different density of matter through which we pass. You will be necessarily upborne by the air if you can renew any impulse upon it faster than the air can recede from the pressure. … The labor of rising from the ground will be great, … but as we mount higher, the earth’s attraction, and the body’s gravity, will be gradually diminished till we arrive at a region where the man will float in the air without any tendency to fall.
Rasselas encourages the mechanic, who agrees to make a plane, “but only on this condition, that the art shall not be divulged, and that you shall not require me to make wings for any but ourselves.” “Why,” asks the Prince, “should you envy others so great an advantage?” “If men were all virtuous,” the mechanic replies, “I should with great alacrity teach them to fly. But what would be the security of the good if the bad could at pleasure invade them from the sky?” He builds a plane, tries to fly, and falls into a lake, from which the Prince rescues him.38
Rasselas likes better to talk with Imlac the philosopher, who has seen many lands and men. They find a cave that leads to a passage into the outer world; they escape from their paradise, with the Prince’s sister Nekayah and her maid. Armed with jewels as universal currency, they visit Cairo, join its pleasures, and tire of them. They hear a Stoic philosopher discourse on the conquest of passions; a few days later they find him wild with grief over his daughter’s death. Having read pastoral poetry, they presume that shepherds must be happy; but they discover that the hearts of these men are “cankered with discontent” and with “malevolence toward those that are placed above them.”39 They come upon a hermit, and learn that he secretly longs for the delights of the city. They inquire into domestic felicity, and find every home darkened with discord and “the rude collisions of contrary desires.”40 They explore the Pyramids and judge them the summit of folly. They learn about the happy life of scholars and scientists; they meet a famous astronomer, who tells them that “integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful”;41 but the astronomer goes mad. They conclude that no way of life on earth leads to happiness, and Imlac comforts them with a discourse on the immortality of the soul. They resolve to return to Abyssinia and accept the vicissitudes of life calmly in the confidence of a blessed resurrection.
It is an old story in one of its finest incarnations. What amazes us is the graceful flow and clarity of the style, far removed from the ponderous vocabulary of Johnson’s essays, and even of his conversation. It seemed impossible that the learned lexicographer had written this simple tale, and quite incredible that he had turned out these 141 pages in seven days.
Meanwhile he had moved again, from Gough Square to Staple Inn (March 23, 1759); soon he would move to Gray’s Inn, then to Inner Temple Lane. These changes were probably motivated by economy; but in July, 1762, Johnson was suddenly lifted into relative affluence by a pension of £ 300 a year granted him by George III on the advice of Lord Bute. Why this beneficence fell upon a man who had persistently opposed the Hanoverian dynasty, had belabored the Scots at every turn, and had described a pension as “pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country,” has been the subject of many mystery stories. Johnson’s enemies charged him with preferring money to principle, and assumed that Bute was looking for a mighty pen to answer Wilkes, Churchill, and others who were denigrating him with ink. Johnson claimed that he had accepted the pension on the explicit understanding, twice confirmed by Bute, that he would not be asked to write in support of the government.42 He confided to Boswell that “the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover, and drinking King James’s health, was amply overbalanced by £ 300 a year.”43 In any case he earned the pension many times over, not so much by the political tracts of later years, but by enriching English literature with pen and speech, with wisdom and cleansing wit.
He had enough friends to afford a scattering of enemies. “Friendship,” he said, “is the cordial drop to make the nauseous draft of life go down.”44 In almost every gathering that he attended he became the center of conversation, not so much because he forced his way to it, but because he was the most individual personality in the literary circles of London, and could be relied upon to say something whenever he spoke. It was Reynolds who suggested the formation of “the Club,” which Boswell later called “the Literary Club”; Johnson seconded the motion, and on April 16, 1764, the new group began its Monday-evening meetings at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street, Soho. The original members were Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Christopher Nugent, Topham Beauclerk, Bennet Langton, Anthony Chamier, and Sir John Hawkins. Others were added later by vote of the Club: Gibbon, Garrick, Sheridan, Fox, Adam Smith, Dr. Burney . . .
Boswell did not win admission till 1773, partly, it may be, because he was only occasionally in London. During the twenty-one years between his meeting with Johnson and Johnson’s death, he spent no more than two years and a few weeks within reach of his idol. The unconcealed warmth of his admiration, and Johnson’s awareness that Boswell was planning a biography of him, made the older man forgive the Scot’s almost sycophantic idolatry. A good talker and a good listener make a happy couple. Johnson had no high regard for Boswell’s brains. When “Bozzy,” as he called him, remarked that the wine he had drunk in the course of their conversation had given him a headache, Johnson corrected him: “Nay, sir, it was not the wine that made your head ache, but the sensethat I put into it.” “What, sir,” Boswell exclaimed, “will sense make the head ache?” “Yes, sir, when it is not used to it.”45 (There are passages in the Life where Boswell seems to be talking better sense than Johnson.) Praising Pope’s Dunciad, Johnson noted that it had given some dunces a lasting fame, and continued his fun: “It was worth while being a dunce then. Ah, sir, hadst thou lived in those days!”46 But the aging bear soon learned to like his cub. “There are few people whom I take so much to as you,” he told him in 1763.47 “Boswell,” he said, “never left a house without leaving a wish for his return.”48 In 1775 Boswell was given a room in Johnson’s lodgings to sleep in when the conversation had kept him late.49
On March 31, 1772, he wrote in his journal: “I have constant plan to write the life of Mr. Johnson. I have not told him of it yet, nor do I know if I should tell him.” But Johnson knew of it by April, 1773, if not sooner.50 Others knew of it, and resented Boswell’s way of raising controversial questions with the evident aim of drawing the old master out and getting some new gem for the biography. The inquisitive Scot boasted that “the fountain was at times locked up till I opened the spring.”51 The Johnson that we know and relish might never have taken form without the stimulus of Boswell’s fond provocation and tireless pursuit. How different is the Johnson that we find in Hawkins’ Life, or even in the lively Anecdotes of Mrs. Thrale!
It was in January, 1765, that Johnson began with the Thrales an association that played a larger part in his life than his friendship for Boswell. Henry Thrale was a brewer, son of a brewer. He had received a good education, had traveled, and was to certify his status by being elected to Parliament. In 1763 he married Hester Lynch Salusbury, a Welsh girl only five feet tall but vivacious and intelligent. Henry, twelve years her senior, absorbed himself in his business, but attended to his wife sufficiently to make her pregnant annually between 1764 and 1778, and to convey to her his venereal infection.52 She bore him twelve children, of whom eight died in infancy. She solaced herself with literature, and when her husband brought home with him the famous Samuel Johnson, she used all her feminine arts and graces to attach him to the family. Soon he was dining with the Thrales every Thursday in their Southwark home; and from 1766 onward he usually spent the summer with them in their country villa at Streatham in Surrey. With Johnson as a center, Mrs. Thrale made her home a salon, to which came Reynolds, Goldsmith, Garrick, Burke, the Burneys, and finally and jealously Boswell—for he learned that Mrs. Thrale was gathering notes about her lion’s looks and ways and words. So theLife was to have a rival.