Samuel Johnson

Alexander Chalmers, "Lesson in Biography; or, How to write the Life of One's Friend" 1791 ca.; in Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. Croker (1831) 5:477-81.


We dined at the chop-house. Dr. Pozz was this day very instructive. We talked of books. I mentioned the History of Tommy Trip. I said it was a great work. Pozz. "Yes, sir, it is a great work; but, sir, it is a great work relatively; it was a great work to you when you was a little boy: but now, sir, you are a great man, and Tommy Trip is a little boy." I felt somewhat hurt at this comparison, and I believe he perceived it; for, as he was squeezing a lemon, he said, "Never be affronted at a comparison. I have been compared to many things, but I never was affronted. No, sir, if they would call me a dog, and you a canister tied to my tail, I would not be affronted."

Cheered by this kind mention of me, though in such a situation, I asked him what he thought of a friend of ours, who was always making comparisons. Pozz. "Sir, that fellow has a simile for every thing but himself. I knew him when he kept a shop: he then made money, sir, and now he makes comparisons. Sir, he would say that you and I were two figs stuck together; two figs in adhesion, sir; and then he would laugh." Bozz. "But have not some great writers determined that comparisons are now and then odious?" Pozz. "No, sir, not odious in themselves, not odious as comparisons; the fellows who make them are odious. The whigs make comparisons."

We supped that evening at his house. I showed him some lines I had made upon a pair of breeches. Pozz. "Sir, the lines are good; but where could you find such a subject in your country?" Bozz. "Therefore it is a proof of invention, which is a characteristic of poetry." Pozz. "Yes, sir, but an invention which few of your countrymen can enjoy." I reflected afterwards on the depth of this remark: it affords a proof of that acuteness which he displayed in every branch of literature. I asked him if lie approved of green spectacles? Pozz. "As to green spectacles, sir, the question seems to be this: if I wore green spectacles, it would be because they assisted vision, or because I liked them. Now, sir, if a man tells me he does not like green spectacles, and that they hurt his eyes, I would not compel him to wear them. No, sir, I would dissuade him." A few months after, I consulted him again on this subject, and he honoured me with a letter, in which he gives the same opinion. It will be found in its proper place, vol. vi. p. 2789. I have thought much on this subject, and must confess that in such matters a man ought to be a free moral agent.

Next day I left town, and was absent for six weeks, three days, and seven hours, as I find by a memorandum in my journal. In this time I had only one letter from him, which is as follows:

DEAR SIR, — My bowels have been very bad. Pray buy me some Turkey rhubarb, and bring with you a copy of your Tour.
"Write to me soon, and write to me often. I am, dear sir, yours, affectionately,

It would have been unpardonable to have omitted a letter like this, in which we see so much of his great and illuminated mind. On my return to town, we met again at the chop-house. We had much conversation to-day: his wit flashed like lightning; indeed, there is not one hour of my present life in which I do not profit by some of his valuable communications.

We talked of wind. I said I knew many persons much distressed with that complaint. Pozz. "Yes, sir, when confined, when pent up." I said I did not know that, but I questioned if the Romans ever knew it. Pozz. "Yes, sir, the Romans knew it." Bozz. "Livy does not mention it." Pozz. "No, sir, Livy wrote History. Livy was not writing the Life of a Friend."

On medical subjects his knowledge was immense. He told me of a friend of ours who had just been attacked by a most dreadful complaint: he had entirely lost the use of his limbs, so that he could neither stand nor walk, unless supported; his speech was quite gone; his eyes were much swollen, and every vein distended, yet his face was rather pale, and his extremities cold; his pulse beat 160 in a minute. I said, with tenderness, that I would go and see him; and, said I, "Sir, I will take Dr. Bolus with me." Pozz. "No, sir, don't go." I was startled, for I knew his compassionate heart, and earnestly asked why? Pozz. "Sir, you don't know his disorder." Bozz. "Pray what is it?" Pozz. "Sir, the man is — dead drunk!" This explanation threw me into a violent fit of laughter, in which he joined me, rolling about as he used to do when he enjoyed a joke; but he afterwards checked me. Pozz. "Sir, you ought not to laugh at what I said. Sir, he who laughs at what another man says, will soon learn to laugh at that other man. Sir, you should laugh only at your own jokes; you should laugh seldom."

We talked of a friend of ours who was a very violent politician. I said I did not like his company. Pozz. "No, sir, he is not healthy; he is sore, sir; his mind is ulcerated; he has a political whitlow; sir, you cannot touch him without giving him pain. Sir, I would 'tot talk politicks with that man; I would talk of cabbage and pease: sir, I would ask him how he got his corn in, and whether his wife was with child; but I would not talk politicks." Bozz. "But perhaps, sir, he would talk of nothing else." Pozz. "Then, sir, it is plain what he would do." On my very earnestly inquiring what that was, Dr. Pozz answered, "Sir, he would let it alone."

I mentioned a tradesman who had lately set up his coach. Pozz. "He is right, sir; a man who would go on swimmingly cannot get too soon off his legs. That man keeps his coach. Now, sir, a coach is better than a chaise, sir — it is better than a chariot." Bozz. "Why, Sir?" Pozz. "Sir, it will hold more." I begged he would repeat this, that I might remember it, and he complied with great good-humour. "Dr. Pozz," said I, "you ought to keep a coach." Pozz. "Yes, sir, I ought." Bozz. "But you do not, and that has often surprised me." Pozz. 'Surprised you! There, sir, is another prejudice of absurdity. Sir, you ought to be surprised at nothing. A man that has lived half your days ought to be above all surprise. Sir, it is a rule with me never to be surprised. It is mere ignorance, you cannot guess why I do not keep a coach, and you are surprised. Now, sir, if you did know, you would not be surprised." I said, tenderly, "I hope, my dear sir, you will let me know before I leave town." Pozz. "Yes, sir, you shall know now. You shall not go to Mr. Wilkins, and to Mr. Jenkins, and to Mr. Stubbs, and say, why does not Pozz keep a coach? I will tell you myself — Sir, I can't afford it."

We talked of drinking. I asked him whether, in the course of his long and valuable life, he had not known some men who drank more than they could bear? Pozz. "Yes, sir; and then, sir, nobody could bear them. A man who is drunk, sir, is a very foolish fellow." Bozz. "But, sir, as the poet says, 'he is devoid of all care.'" Pozz. "Yes, sir, he cares for nobody; he has none of the cares of life: he cannot be a merchant, sir, for he cannot write his name; he cannot be a politician, sir, for he cannot talk; he cannot be an artist, sir, for he cannot see; and yet, sir, there is science in drinking." Bozz."I suppose you mean that a man ought to know what he drinks." Pozz. "No, sir, to know what one drinks is nothing; but the science consists of three parts. Now, sir, were I to drink wine, I should wish to know them all; I should wish to know when I had too little, when I had enough, and when I had too much. There is our friend * * * * * * * (mentioning a gentleman of our acquaintance); he knows when he has too little, and when he has too much, but he knows not when he has enough. Now, sir, that is the science of drinking, to know when one has enough."

We talked this day on a variety of topics, but I find very few memorandums in my journal. On small beer, he said it was flatulent liquor. He disapproved of those who deny the utility of absolute power, and seemed to be offended with a friend of ours who would always have his eggs poached. Sign-posts, he observed, had degenerated within his memory; and he particularly found fault with the moral of the Beggar's Opera. I endeavoured to defend a work which had afforded me so much pleasure, but could not master that strength of mind with which he argued; and it was with great satisfaction that he communicated to me afterwards a method of curing corns by applying a piece of oiled silk. In the early history of the world, he preferred Sir Isaac Newton's Chronology; but as they gave employment to useful artisans, he did not dislike the large buckles then coming into use.

Next day we dined at the Mitre. I mentioned spirits. Pozz. "Sir, there is as much evidence for the existence of spirits as against it. You may not believe it, but you cannot deny it." I told him that my great grandmother once saw a spirit. He asked me to relate it, which I did very minutely, while he listened with profound attention. When I mentioned that the spirit once appeared in the shape of a shoulder of mutton, and another time in that of a tea-pot, he interrupted me: — Pozz. "There, sir, is the point; the evidence is good, but the scheme is defective in consistency. We cannot deny that the spirit appeared in these shapes; but then we cannot reconcile them. What has a tea-pot to do with a shoulder of mutton? Neither is it a terrific object. There is nothing contemporaneous. Sir, these are objects which are not seen at the same time, nor in the same place." Buzz. "I think, sir, that old women in general are used to see ghosts." Pozz. "Yes, sir, and their conversation is full of the subject: I would have an old woman to record such conversations; their loquacity tends to minuteness."

We talked of a person who had a very bad character. Pozz. "Sir, he is a scoundrel." Bozz. "I hate a scoundrel." Pozz. "There you are wrong: don't hate scoundrels. Scoundrels, sir, are useful. There are many things we cannot do without scoundrels. I would not choose to keep company with scoundrels, but something may be got from them." Buzz. "Are not scoundrels generally fools?" Pozz. "No, sir, they are not. A scoundrel must be a clever fellow; he must know many things of which a fool is ignorant. Any man may be a fool. I think a good book might be made out of scoundrels. I would have a Biographia Flagitiosa, the Lives of Eminent Scoundrels, from the earliest accounts to the present day." I mentioned hanging: I thought it a very awkward situation. Pozz. "No, sir, hanging is not an awkward situation: it is proper, sir, that a man whose actions tend towards flagitious obliquity should appear perpendicular at last." I told him that I had lately been in company with some gentlemen, every one of whom could recollect some friend or other who had been hanged. Pozz. "Yes, sir, that is the easiest way. We know those who have been hanged; we can recollect that: but we cannot number those who deserve it; it would not be decorous, sir, in a mixed company. No, sir, that is one of the few things which we are compelled to think."

[Our regard for literary property prevents our making a larger extract from the above important work. We have, however, we hope, given such passages as will tend to impress our readers with a high idea of this vast undertaking. — Note by the author.]