Samuel Johnson

William Barnard, "To Sir Joshua Reynolds and Co." Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser (19 October 1776).

The following Jeux d' Esprit was the production of the present Dean of Derry, Doctor Barnard, who advanced in conversation with Sir Joshua Reynolds and other wits, that he thought "no man could improve when he as past the age of forty-five." Johnson (Samuel) who was in company, with his usual elegance and polished grace, immediately turned round to the facetious Dean, and told him he was an instance to the contrary, for that there was great room for improvement in him (the Dean) and wish'd he'd set about it; upon which the Dean the next day sent the following elegant bagatelle to Sir Joshua Reynolds and the same company: If you think it worth your inserting, I may venture to say it will please many of your readers, among the rest
Your humble servant,
Bath, Oct. 12.

By the DEAN of DERRY.
I lately thought no man alive,
Cou'd e'er improve past forty-five,
And ventur'd to assert it;
The observation was not new,
But seem'd to me so just and true,
That none cou'd controvert it.

"No, Sir," says Johnson, "'tis not so,
That's your mistake, and I can shew,
An instance if you doubt it;
You, Sir, who are near forty-eight,
May much improve, 'tis not too late,
I wish you'd set about it."

Encourag'd thus to mend my faults,
I turn'd his counsel in my thoughts,
Which way I shou'd apply it;
Learning and wit seem'd past my reach,
For who can learn when none will teach?
And wit — I cou'd not buy it.

Then come, my friends, and try your skill,
You can inform me if you will,
(My books are at a distance)
With you I'll live and learn, and then
Instead of books, I shall read men,
So lend me your assistance.

Dear *Knight of Plympton, teach me how
To suffer with unruffled brow,
And smile serene like thine;
The jest uncouth, or truth severe,
To such I'll turn my deafest ear,
And calmly drink my wine.

Thou say'st, not only skill is gain'd,
But genius too may be attain'd,
By studious imitation;
Thy temper mild, thy genius fine,
I'll copy till I make them mine,
By constant application.

Thy art of pleasing, teach me, Garrick,
Thou,** who reverest Odes Pindaric,
A second time read o'er;
Oh! cou'd we read thee backwards too,
Last thirty years thou should'st review,
And charm us thirty more.

If I have thoughts, and can't express 'em,
Gibbon shall teach me how to dress 'em,
In terms select and terse;
Jones teach me modesty and Greek,
Smith how to think, Burke how to speak,
And Beauclerc to converse.

Let Johnson teach me how to place,
In fairest light, each borrow'd grace;
From him I'll learn to write;
Copy his clear familiar style,
And from the roughness of his file,
Grow like himself — polite.

* Sir Joshua Reynolds.
** Garrick being asked to read Cumberland's Odes, laughed immoderately, and affirmed that such stuff might as well be read backwards as forwards, and the witty Roscius accordingly read them in that manner, and wonderful to relate! produced the same good sense and poetry as the sentimental author ever had genius to write.