IV. URSUS MAJOR

What was the Great Bear like? Boswell, after their first meeting (1763) wrote: “Mr. Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance.... A very big man, troubled with sore eyes, the palsy [a nervous tic] and the king’s evil. He is very slovenly in his dress, and speaks with a most uncouth voice.”53 Mrs. Thrale described him in his later years: “His stature was remarkably high, and his limbs exceedingly large. … His features strongly marked, his countenance particularly rugged. … His sight was near, and otherwise imperfect; yet his eyes … were so wild, so piercing, and at times so fierce, that fear was, I believe, the first emotion in the eyes of all his beholders.”54

He deplored as “a waste of time” the hours spent in sitting for a portrait; however, he did this ten times for Reynolds, and once for a bust by Nollekens. In 1756 Sir Joshua showed him as already stout and indolent;55 in 1770 he painted him in profile and made him look like Goldsmith;56 in 1772 the most famous of the portraits delivered him to posterity as a man of ungainly bulk, enormous wig, large full face, lowering brows over puzzled eyes, massive nose, thick lips, and double chin. His wig was repeatedly dislodged by convulsive movements of his head, shoulders, and hands.57 He was careless in his dress; “fine clothes,” he told Boswell, “are good only as they supply the want of other means of procuring respect.”58 Not until he became a guest of the Thrales did he bother much about personal hygiene.

He ate voraciously, having much space to fill, and perhaps recalling hungry years. Boswell reported:

I never knew any man who relished good eating more than he did. When at table he was totally absorbed in the business of the moment; his looks seemed riveted to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite; which was so fierce … that the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.59

He ate fish with his fingers, “because I am shortsighted, and afraid of bones.”60 He could hardly bear the sight of vegetables. In his heartier days he “loved to exhilarate himself with wine, but was never intoxicated but once.”61 When Mrs. Williams denounced drunkenness, saying, “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves,” Johnson retorted, “I wonder, madam, that you have not penetration enough to see the strong inducement to this excess, for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”62 But drinking, he said, “does not improve conversation; it alters the mind so that you are pleased with any conversation.”63 In later life he shunned all liquor, and contented himself with chocolate, lemonade, and countless cups of tea. He never smoked. “It is a shocking thing, blowing smoke out of our mouths into other people’s mouths, eyes, and noses, and having the same thing done to us.” He explained the habit of smoking as “preserving the mind from utter vacuity.”64

His boorish manners were partly a relic of his days and nights in the lower depths, partly the result of physical irritations and mental fears. He was strong, and proud of it; he could knock down a bookseller with little fear of retaliation; he could pick up and throw aside a man who had dared to occupy a chair that Johnson had temporarily vacated; he mounted a horse and joined Thrale in a fifty-mile cross-country foxhunt. But he had difficulty in carrying his own weight. “When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet.”65 When he rode “he had no command or direction of his horse, but was carried as if in a balloon.”66

He suffered, after 1776, from asthma, gout, and dropsy. These and other physical difficulties must have intensified his melancholy, which at times so depressed him that “I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits.”67 He would not believe that any man was happy; of one who claimed to be so he said, “It is all cant; the dog knows he is miserable all the time.”68 A physician having told him that hypochondria sometimes led to insanity, Johnson feared that he would go insane.69 “Of the uncertainties of our present state,” he made Imlac say in Rasselas, “the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.”70

Being nearsighted, he found little pleasure in the beauty of women, nature, or art.71 He thought sculpture was overrated. “The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.”72 He tried to learn some musical instrument, “but I never made out a tune.” “Pray, sir,” he asked, “who is this Bach? Is he a piper?”73—referring to Johann Christian Bach, then (1771) the most famous pianist in England. He felt that music was being spoiled by digital acrobatics. Hearing a violinist praised because the feats he performed were so difficult, Johnson exclaimed, “Difficult—I wish it had been impossible.”74

So vigorous a man must have found it troublesome to deal with the sexual fancies that agitate even the normal mind. When he attended the première of Irene, and was brought by Garrick into the “greenroom” where the players waited between scenes, he rejected a suggestion that he repeat this visit. “No, David, I will never come back. For the white bubbles and the silk stockings of your actresses excite my genitals.”75 Boswell was astonished to hear him say, one day in the Hebrides, “I have often thought that if I kept a seraglio . . ,”76

In general his faults were more obvious than his virtues, which were quite as real. We might justly invert Horace Walpole’s comment that “though he was good-natured at bottom he was very ill-natured at top.”77 Goldsmith said the same thing more graciously: “Johnson has a roughness in his manner, but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but the skin.”78 Untidy, indolent, superstitious, rude, dogmatic, proud, he was also kind, humane, generous, quick to ask forgiveness and to forgive. Mrs. Thrale reckoned that Johnson gave away £ 200 of his £ 300 pension;79 and she added:

He nursed whole nests of people in his house. … Commonly spending the middle of the week at our house, he kept his numerous family in Fleet Street upon a settled allowance, but returned to them every Saturday to give them three good dinners, and his company, before he came back to us on the Monday night—treating them with the same, or perhaps more ceremonious civility than he would have done by as many people of fashion.80

He wrote prefaces, dedications, sermons, even legal opinions, for others, often gratis. He labored by word and pen to save Dr. William Dodd from the gallows. Seeing a prostitute lying in the street he (then seventy-five) took her on his back, carried her to his rooms, cared for her till she was well, and “endeavored to put her in a virtuous way of living.”81 George Steevens, who collaborated with him in editing Shakespeare, said: “Could the many bounties he studiously concealed, the many acts of humanity he performed in private, be displayed with equal circumstantiality [as his frailties], his defects would be so far lost in the blaze of his virtues that the latter only would be regarded.”82

In the last nineteen years of his life he wrote only one substantial book—Lives of the Poets; otherwise he substituted the tongue for the pen. He described himself as “a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk.”83 If we leave eating aside, he lived most when he was talking to an intelligent company. He had gathered, by observation and reading, an extraordinary fund and range of knowledge about human affairs; he carried much of it in his lumber room of memory, and he welcomed a chance to unburden himself.Yet he seldom initiated any serious discussion; he spoke up only when someone raised a subject or a challenge. He was always tempted to oppose what another had said; he was ready to defend any proposition or its opposite; he relished debate, knowing himself invincible; and he was resolved to win the argument, even if truth should perish beneath his blows. He knew that this was not the finest kind of conversation, but he was sure that it was the most interesting. In the heat and zest of the conflict he found little place for courtesy. “He spared none of us,” said Boswell.84 To one disputant: “I have found you an argument, but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”85 “There is no arguing with Johnson,” said Goldsmith; “for if his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt.”86 “When I called upon Dr. Johnson next morning,” Boswell relates, “I found him highly satisfied with his colloquial powers the preceding evening. ‘Well (said he), we had a good talk.’ Boswell. ‘Yes, Sir, you tossed and gored several persons.’”87 Thomas Sheridan called him a bully,88 and Gibbon called him a bigot.89 Lord Monboddo called him “the most invidious and malignant man I have ever known, who praised no author or book that other people praised [he praised Fanny Burney’sEvelina], and … could not with any patience hear any other person draw the attention of the company for ever so short a time.”90 Horace Walpole, secure in his sinecures, shuddered at thought of him, and summed him up as seen by the son of a Whig prime minister:

With a lumber of learning and some strong points, Johnson was an odious and mean character. By principle a Jacobite, arrogant, self-sufficient, and overbearing. … He had prostituted his pen to party even in a dictionary, and had afterwards, for a pension, contradicted his own definitions. His manners were sordid, supercilious, and brutal, his style ridiculously bombastic and vicious, and in one word, with all the pedantry he had all the gigantic littleness of a country schoolmaster. … What will posterity think of us when it reads what an idol we adored?91

Ideally, of course, the best conversation is in a small unhurried group where all are informed and courteous; or, as Johnson put it in an amiable interlude: “That is the happiest conversation where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments”;92 but when did he have that experience? “Treating your adversary with respect,” he told Boswell, presumably with a twinkle in his eyes, “is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled.”93 We who never felt his butt forgive him all those blows and insults and prejudices because his wit and humor and penetration, his preference of realities to pretenses, of candor to cant, and his capacity for concentrating wisdom in a phrase, make him one of the most dominating characters in English history.

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