1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anonymous, in "Sorting my Letters and Papers" Blackwood's Magazine 26 (November 1829) 753-55.



I am a little easier; but I find it impossible to work myself up again into that amiable state of feeling which was stealing over me, when I got among the flowers of my schoolboy days. However, I can fancy I see James Woodhouse, — tall, erect, venerable, almost patriarchal, in his appearance — in his black-velvet cap, from beneath which his grey locks descended upon his forehead, and on each side of his still fine face, — his long, black, loose gown, — and his benignant air — issuing from his little parlour with a stately step, as the tingling bell which hung over the shop door gave notice of a customer, when it was opened. And then his cordial greeting, and his kind smile, and his clear, sonorous voice — and his primitive "haths" and "doths," and his "hast thous" and "wilt thous" — and the pleasing, to my ears, at least, mixture of a provincial accent, which he still retained in his speech — all these stand before my "mind's eye" as visibly and distinctly, as though it were but yesterday I was of that age, when I longed to have a beard, and write myself man.

I suppose he saw that I was smit with the love of sound reading, from the choice I made out of his literary stores, — for at these visits he would often seat himself behind his counter, while I mounted a high stool, which stood by the door, and tell me the story of his early life. How, when a young man, and following the craft of a cordwainer, in the neighbourhood of Shenstone's Leasowes, some verses he wrote and sent to him, were followed by the patronage of the poet — how a copy of other verses upon the recovery of Shenstone from a fit of sickness, was prefixed to Dodsley's edition of his works — how he afterwards came to London, and was noticed by Mrs. Montague, whose Essay upon Shakspeare he lent me to read — how the fame he acquired in London, as the "poetical shoemaker," made him an object of curiosity to the "great Dr. Johnson," then one of the gods of my youthful idolatry — and how the desire which the "great Dr. Johnson" had to see him, was the occasion of Mrs. Thrale's first acquaintance with the Doctor. Then he would relate all that was said to him by Johnson — give me a description of his manner of talking, — his dress, — his appearance, — which I listened to with such a "greedy ear," that I could have found in my heart to strangle any intruder, who, during the recital, came into the shop to ask for a two-penny stamp, or enquire if he sold sealing-wax. There was, in truth, a simplicity of diction, and a richness of colouring, in the narrations of the good old man, which might have fixed the attention of a much more fastidious auditor than myself.

The anecdote he told me of Mrs. Thrale's introduction to Dr Johnson, I mentioned in the first work I ever wrote. Some years after it had appeared in print, its authenticity was publicly questioned; I forget where, or by whom; but as I was tenacious of my veracity, I resolved to apply to the only two persons then living, who could verify the statement — James Woodhouse and Mrs. Piozzi. The former wrote to me thus:—

"I shall now answer your request concerning the anecdote relating to Dr. Johnson and myself, which is simply this: — I was informed at the time, that Dr. Johnson's curiosity was excited by what was said of me in the literary world, as a kind of wild beast from the country, and expressed a wish to Mr. Murphy, who was his intimate friend, to see me. In consequence of which, Mr. Murphy, being acquainted with Mrs Thrale, intimated to her that both might be invited to dine there at the same time; for, till then, Dr. Johnson had never seen Mrs. Thrale, whom, no doubt, he also much desired to see. As a confirmation of this statement, this anecdote is related in the Introduction to one of the folio editions of the Doctor's Dictionary, where I have seen it, or my memory greatly deceives me. A close intimacy having grown up betwixt the Doctor and Mrs. Thrale, I was a second time invited to dine at her table with the Doctor, at which time the circumstances took place which are recorded in your work."

From Mrs. Piozzi I received a more interesting communication upon the subject; and the concluding sentence of her letter conveys a touching picture of the melancholy blank which the survivor of half a century must ever be doomed to contemplate in his list of friends.

"Brynbella, Aug. 29, 1810.

Sir, — I feel glad to be told that Mr. Woodhouse yet lives, who certainly was made the excuse of bringing Dr Johnson to my acquaintance. My own book tells the story truely. I am confident — yours has not reached me — and I have nothing here at present to refer to: but thus called on, I will try my recollection.

Poor Mr. Murphy was an intimate of my first husband's, and soon after our marriage, expressed an eager desire that we should know the great writer, of whom we were always speaking. Our residence was in the borough of Southwark; yet I could bring him here, says he, only we must seek an ostensible reason for his coming. That reason was found in Mr. Woodhouse's celebrity. The day was appointed, and passed so agreeably, that the same day in the next week was fixed for our meeting again — but I think, Mr. Woodhouse came but once. Johnson's injunction to him about the Spectators struck me very forcibly — 'Give days and nights, sir, to the study of Addison.'

Your letter, saying Mr Murphy is dead, struck me forcibly too: but of friends we were living with forty-six years ago, who is left alive? The portraits painted for Mr. Thrale at Streatham, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, have all lost their originals, except Dr. Burney of Chelsea College, and her, who has the honour to be,

Sir,

Your very obedient humble servt.

H. L. Piozzi.

If I come to town next spring — meaning, if I should live till next spring, and could give you any means of information for your enquiry, pray command me, and accept my best wishes for its success."