The Life of Samuel Johnson LL. D. Including a Journal Of a Tour to the Hebrides
by James Boswell, Esq. A new Edition, with numerous Additions and Notes By John
Wilson Croker, LL.D., F.R.S. Five volumes, 8vo. London: 1831
This work has greatly disappointed us. Whatever faults we may have been prepared
to find in it, we fully expected that it would be a valuable addition to English
literature; that it would contain many curious facts, and many judicious
remarks; that the style of the notes would be neat, clear, and precise; and that
the typographical execution would be, as in new editions of classical works it
ought to be, almost faultless. We are sorry to be obliged to say that the merits
of Mr. Croker's performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton
on which Dr. Johnson dined, while traveling from London to Oxford, and which he,
with characteristic energy, pronounced to be "as bad as bad could be, ill fed,
ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed." This edition is ill compiled, ill
arranged, ill written, and ill printed.
Nothing in the work has astonished us so much as the ignorance or carelessness
of Mr. Croker with respect to facts and dates. Many of his blunders are such as
we should be surprised to hear any well-educated gentleman commit, even in
conversation. The notes absolutely swarm with misstatements, into which the
editor never would have fallen, if he had taken the slightest pains to
investigate the truth of his assertions, or if he had even been well acquainted
with the book on which he undertook to comment. We will give a few instances.
Mr. Croker tells us in a note that Derrick, who was master of the ceremonies at
Bath, died very poor in 1760.1 We read on; and, a
few pages later, we find Dr. Johnson and Boswell talking of this same Derrick as
still living and reigning, as having retrieved his character, as possessing so
much power over his subjects at Bath, that his opposition might be fatal to
Sheridan's lectures on oratory.2 And all this is in
1763. The fact is, that Derrick died in 1769.
In one note we read, that Sir Herbert Croft, the author of that pompous and
foolish account of Young, which appears among the Lives of the Poets, died in
1805.3 Another note in the same volume states, that
this same Sir Herbert Croft died at Paris, after residing abroad for fifteen
years, on the 27th of April, 1816.4
Mr. Croker informs us, that Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, the author of the
Life of Beattie, died in 1816.5 A Sir William Forbes
undoubtedly died in that year, but not the Sir William Forbes in question, whose
death took place in 1806. It is notorious, indeed, that the biographer of
Beattie lived just long enough to complete the history of his friend. Eight or
nine years before the date which Mr. Croker has assigned for Sir William's
death, Sir Walter Scott lamented that event in the introduction to the fourth
canto of Marmion. Every schoolgirl knows the lines:
"Scarce had lamented Forbes paid The tribute to his Minstrel's shade; The tale
of friendship scarce was told, Ere the narrator's heart was cold: Far may we
search before we find A heart so manly and so kind!"
In one place, we are told, that Allan Ramsay, the painter, was born in 1709, and
died in 1784;6 in another, that he died in 1784, in
the seventy-first year of his age.7
In one place, Mr. Croker says, that at the commencement of the intimacy between
Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, in 1765, the lady was twenty-five years old.8
In other places he says, that Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with
Johnson's seventieth.9 Johnson was born in 1709. If,
therefore, Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson's seventieth,
she could have been only twenty-one years old in 1765. This is not all. Mr.
Croker, in another place, assigns the year 1777 as the date of the complimentary
lines which Johnson made on Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth birthday.10
If this date be correct, Mrs. Thrale must have been born in 1742, and could have
been only twenty-three when her acquaintance with Johnson commenced. Mr. Croker
therefore gives us three different statements as to her age. Two of the three
must be incorrect. We will not decide between them; we will only say, that the
reasons which Mr. Croker gives for thinking that Mrs. Thrale was exactly
thirty-five years old when Johnson was seventy, appear to us utterly frivolous.
Again, Mr. Croker informs his readers that "Lord Mansfield survived Johnson full
ten years."11 Lord Mansfield survived Dr. Johnson
just eight years and a quarter.
Johnson found in the library of a French lady, whom he visited during his short
visit to Paris, some works which he regarded with great disdain. "I looked,"
says he, "into the books in the lady's closet, and, in contempt, showed them to
Mr. Thrale. Prince Titi, Bibliotheque des Fees, and other books."12
The History of Prince Titi, observes Mr. Croker, "was said to be the
autobiography of Frederick Prince of Wales, but was probably written by Ralph
his secretary." A more absurd note never was penned. The History of Prince Titi,
to which Mr. Croker refers, whether written by Prince Frederick or by Ralph, was
certainly never published. If Mr. Croker had taken the trouble to read with
attention that very passage in Park's Royal and Noble Authors which he cites as
his authority, he would have seen that the manuscript was given up to the
Government. Even if this memoir had been printed, it is not very likely to find
its way into a French lady's bookcase. And would any man in his senses speak
contemptuously of a French lady, for having in her possession an English work,
so curious and interesting as a Life of Prince Frederick, whether written by
himself or by a confidential secretary, must have been? The history at which
Johnson laughed was a very proper companion to the Bibliotheque des Fees, a
fairy tale about good Prince Titi and naughty Prince Violent. Mr. Croker may
find it in the Magasin des Enfans, the first French book which the little girls
of England read to their governesses.
Mr. Croker states that Mr. Henry Bate, who afterwards assumed the name of
Dudley, was proprietor of the Morning Herald, and fought a duel with George
Robinson Stoney, in consequence of some attacks on Lady Strathmore which
appeared in that paper.13 Now Mr. Bate was then
connected, not with the Morning Herald, but with the Morning Post; and the
dispute took place before the Morning Herald was in existence. The duel was
fought in January 1777. The Chronicle of the Annual Register for that year
contains an account of the transaction, and distinctly states that Mr. Bate was
editor of the Morning Post. The Morning Herald, as any person may see by looking
at any number of it, was not established till some years after this affair. For
this blunder there is, we must acknowledge some excuse; for it certainly seems
almost incredible to a person living in our time that any human being should
ever have stooped to fight with a writer in the Morning Post.
"James de Duglas," says Mr. Croker, "was requested by King Robert Bruce, in his
last hours, to repair, with his heart, to Jerusalem, and humbly to deposit it at
the sepulcher of our Lord, which he did in 1329."14
Now, it is well known that he did no such thing, and for a very sufficient
reason, because he was killed by the way. Nor was it in 1329 that he set out.
Robert Bruce died in 1329, and the expedition of Douglas took place in the
following year, "Quand le printemps vint et la saison," says Froissart, in June
1330, says Lord Hailes, whom Mr. Croker cites as the authority for his
Mr, Croker tells us that the great Marquis of Montrose was beheaded at Edinburgh
in 1650.15 There is not a forward boy at any school
in England who does not know that the marquis was hanged. The account of the
execution is one of the finest passages in Lord Clarendon's History. We can
scarcely suppose that Mr. Croker has never read that passage; and yet we can
scarcely suppose that any person who has ever perused so noble and pathetic a
story can have utterly forgotten all its most striking circumstances.
"Lord Townshend," says Mr. Croker, "was not Secretary of State till 1720."16
Can Mr. Croker possibly be ignorant that Lord Townshend was made Secretary of
State at the Accession of George I. in 1714, that he continued to be Secretary
of State till he was displaced by the intrigues of Sunderland and Stanhope at
the close of 1716, and that he returned to the office of Secretary of State, not
in 1720 but in 1721?
Mr. Croker, indeed, is generally unfortunate in his statements respecting the
Townshend family. He tells us that Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, was "nephew of the Prime Minister, and son of a peer who was
Secretary of State, and leader of the House of Lords."17
Charles Townshend was not nephew, but grandnephew, of the Duke of Newcastle, not
son, but grandson, of the Lord Townshend who was Secretary of State, and leader
of the House of Lords.
"General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga," says Mr. Croker, "in March 1778."18
General Bourgoyne surrendered on the 17th of October 1777.
Nothing," says Mr. Croker, "can be more unfounded than the assertion that Byng
fell a martyr to political party. By a strange coincidence of circumstances, it
happened that there was a total change of administration between his
condemnation and his death: so that one party presided at his trial, and another
at his execution: there can be no stronger proof that he was not a political
martyr."19 Now what will our readers think of this
writer, when we assure them that this statement, so confidently made, respecting
events so notorious, is absolutely untrue? One and the same administration was
in office when the court-martial on Byng commenced its sittings, through the
whole trial, at the condemnation, and at the execution. In the month of November
1756, the Duke of Newcastle and Lord Hardwicke resigned; the Duke of Devonshire
became First Lord of the Treasury, and Mr. Pitt, Secretary of State. This
administration lasted till the month of April 1757. Byng's court-martial began
to sit on the 28th of December 1756. He was shot on the 14th of March 1757.
There is something at once diverting and provoking in the cool and authoritative
manner in which Mr. Croker makes these random assertions. We do not suspect him
of intentionally falsifying history. But of this high literary misdemeanor we do
without hesitation accuse him that he has no adequate sense of the obligation
which a writer, who professes to relate facts, owes to the public. We accuse him
of a negligence and an ignorance analogous to that crassa negligentia, and that
crassa ignorantia, on which the law animadverts in magistrates and surgeons,
even when malice and corruption are not imputed. We accuse him of having
undertaken a work which, if not performed with strict accuracy, must be very
much worse than useless, and of having performed it as if the difference between
an accurate and an inaccurate statement was not worth the trouble of looking
into the most common book of reference.
But we must proceed. These volumes contain mistakes more gross, if possible,
than any that we have yet mentioned. Boswell has recorded some observations made
by Johnson on the changes which had taken place in Gibbon's religious opinions.
That Gibbon when a lad at Oxford turned Catholic is well known. "It is said,"
cried Johnson, laughing, "that he has been a Mahommedan." "This sarcasm," says
the editor, "probably alludes to the tenderness with which Gibbon's malevolence
to Christianity induced him to treat Mahommedanism in his history." Now the
sarcasm was uttered in 1776; and that part of the History of the Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire which relates to Mahommedanism was not published till
1788, twelve years after the date of this conversation, and near four years
after the death of Johnson.20
"It was in the year 1761," says Mr. Croker, "that Goldsmith published his Vicar
of Wakefield. This leads the editor to observe a more serious inaccuracy of Mrs.
Piozzi, than Mr. Boswell notices, when he says Johnson left her table to go and
sell the Vicar of Wakefield for Goldsmith. Now Dr. Johnson was not acquainted
with the Thrales till 1765, four years after the book had been published."21
Mr. Croker, in reprehending the fancied inaccuracy of Mrs. Thrale, has himself
shown a degree of inaccuracy, or, to speak more properly, a degree of ignorance,
hardly credible. In the first place, Johnson became acquainted with the Thrales,
not in 1765, but in 1764, and during the last weeks of 1764 dined with them
every Thursday, as is written in Mrs. Piozzi's anecdotes. In the second place,
Goldsmith published the Vicar of Wakefield, not in 1761, but in 1766. Mrs.
Thrale does not pretend to remember the precise date of the summons which called
Johnson from her table to the help of his friend. She says only that it was near
the beginning of her acquaintance with Johnson, and certainly not later than
1766. Her accuracy is therefore completely vindicated. It was probably after one
of her Thursday dinners in 1764 that the celebrated scene of the landlady, the
sheriff's officer, and the bottle of Madeira, took place.22
The very page which contains this monstrous blunder, contains another blunder,
if possible, more monstrous still. Sir Joseph Mawbey, a foolish member of
Parliament, at whose speeches and whose pig-styes the wits of Brookes's were,
fifty years ago, in the habit of laughing most unmercifully, stated, on the
authority of Garrick, that Johnson, while sitting in a coffee-house at Oxford,
about the time of his doctor's degree, used some contemptuous expressions
respecting Home's play and Macpherson's Ossian. "Many men," he said, "many
women, and many children, might have written Douglas." Mr. Croker conceives that
he has detected an inaccuracy, and glories over poor Sir Joseph in a most
characteristic manner. I have quoted this anecdote solely with the view of
showing to how little credit hearsay anecdotes are in general entitled. Here is
a story published by Sir Joseph Mawbey, a member of the House of Commons, and a
person every way worthy of credit, who says he had it from Garrick. Now mark:
Johnson's visit to Oxford, about the time of his doctor's degree, was in 1754,
the first time he had been there since he left the university. But Douglas was
not acted till 1756, and Ossian not published till 1760. All, therefore, that is
new in Sir Joseph Mawbey's story is false."23
Assuredly we need not go far to find ample proof that a member of the House of
Commons may commit a very gross error. Now mark, say we, in the language of Mr.
Croker. The fact is, that Johnson took his Master's degree in 1754,24
and his Doctor's degree in 1775.25 In the spring of
1776,26 he paid a visit to Oxford, and at this
visit a conversation respecting the works on Home and Macpherson might have
taken place, and, in all probability, did take place. The only real objection to
the story Mr. Croker has missed. Boswell states, apparently on the best
authority, that, as early at least as the year 1763, Johnson, in conversation
with Blair, used the same expressions respecting Ossian, which Sir Joseph
represents him as having used respecting Douglas.27
Sir Joseph, or Garrick, confounded, we suspect, the two stories. But their error
is venial, compared with that of Mr. Croker.
We will not multiply instances of this scandalous inaccuracy. It is clear that a
writer who, even when warned by the text on which he is commenting, falls into
such mistakes as these, is entitled to no confidence whatever. Mr. Croker has
committed an error of five years with respect to the publication of Goldsmith's
novel, an error of twelve years with respect to the publication of part of
Gibbon's History, an error of twenty-one years with respect to an event in
Johnson's life so important as the taking of the doctoral degree. Two of these
three errors he has committed, while ostentatiously displaying his own accuracy,
and correcting what he represents as the loose assertions of others. How can his
readers take on trust his statements concerning the births, marriages, divorces,
and deaths of a crowd of people, whose names are scarcely known to this
generation? It is not likely that a person who is ignorant of what almost
everybody knows can know that of which almost everybody is ignorant. We did not
open this book with any wish to find blemishes in it. We have made no curious
researches. The work itself, and a very common knowledge of literary and
political history, have enabled us to detect the mistakes which we have pointed
out, and many other mistakes of the same kind. We must say, and we say it with
regret, that we do not consider the authority of Mr. Croker, unsupported by
other evidence, as sufficient to justify any writer who may follow him in
relating a single anecdote or in assigning a date to a single event.
Mr. Croker shows almost as much ignorance and heedlessness in his criticisms as
in his statements concerning facts. Dr. Johnson said, very reasonably as it
appears to us, that some of the satires of Juvenal are too gross for imitation.
Mr. Croker, who, by the way, is angry with Johnson for defending Prior's tales
against the charge of indecency, resents this aspersion on Juvenal, and indeed
refuses to believe that the doctor can have said anything so absurd. "He
probably said--some passages of them--for there are none of Juvenal's satires to
which the same objection may be made as to one of Horace's, that it is
altogether gross and licentious."28 Surely Mr.
Croker can never have read the second and ninth satires of Juvenal.
Indeed the decisions of this editor on points of classical learning, though
pronounced in a very authoritative tone, are generally such that, if a schoolboy
under our care were to utter them, our soul assuredly should not spare for his
crying. It is no disgrace to a gentleman who has been engaged during near thirty
years in political life that he has forgotten his Greek and Latin. But he
becomes justly ridiculous if, when no longer able to construe a plain sentence,
he affects to sit in judgment on the most delicate questions of style and meter.
From one blunder, a blunder which no good scholar would have made, Mr. Croker
was saved, as he informs us, by Sir Robert Peel, who quoted a passage exactly in
point from Horace. We heartily wish that Sir Robert, whose classical attainments
are well known, had been more frequently consulted. Unhappily he was not always
at his friend's elbow; and we have therefore a rich abundance of the strangest
errors. Boswell has preserved a poor epigram by Johnson, inscribed "Ad Lauram
parituram." Mr. Croker censures the poet for applying the word puella to a lady
in Laura's situation, and for talking of the beauty of Lucina. "Lucina," he
says, "was never famed for her beauty."29 If Sir
Robert Peel had seen this note, he probably would have again refuted Mr.
Croker's criticisms by an appeal to Horace. In the secular ode, Lucina is used
as one of the names of Diana, and the beauty of Diana is extolled by all the
most orthodox doctors of the ancient mythology, from Homer in his Odyssey, to
Claudian in his Rape of Proserpine. In another ode, Horace describes Diana as
the goddess who assists the "laborantes utero puellas." But we are ashamed to
detain our readers with this fourth-form learning.
Boswell found, in his tour to the Hebrides, an inscription written by a Scotch
minister. It runs thus: "Joannes Macleod, etc. gentis suae Philarchus, etc
Florae Macdonald matrimoniali vinculo conjugatus turrem hanc Beganodunensem
proaevorum habitaculum longe vetustissimum, diu penitus labefactatam anno aerae
vulgaris MDCLXXXVI. instauravit."--"The minister," says Mr. Croker, "seems to
have been no contemptible Latinist. Is not Philarchus a very happy term to
express the paternal and kindly authority of the head of a clan?"30
The composition of this eminent Latinist, short as it is, contains several words
that are just as much Coptic as Latin, to say nothing of the incorrect structure
of the sentence. The word Philarchus, even if it were a happy term expressing a
paternal and kindly authority, would prove nothing for the minister's Latin,
whatever it might prove for his Greek. But it is clear that the word Philarchus
means, not a man who rules by love, but a man who loves rule. The Attic writers
of the best age used the word philarchos in the sense which we assign to it.
Would Mr. Croker translate philosophos, a man who acquires wisdom by means of
love, or philokerdes, a man who makes money by means of love? In fact, it
requires no Bentley or Casaubon to perceive that Philarchus is merely a false
spelling for Phylarchus, the chief of a tribe.
Mr. Croker has favored us with some Greek of his own. "At the altar," says Dr.
Johnson, "I recommended my th ph." "These letters," says the editor, "(which Dr.
Strahan seems not to have understood) probably mean phnetoi philoi, departed
friends."31 Johnson was not a first-rate Greek
scholar; but he knew more Greek than most boys when they leave school; and no
schoolboy could venture to use the word thnetoi in the sense which Mr. Croker
ascribes to it without imminent danger of a flogging.
Mr. Croker has also given us a specimen of his skill in translating Latin.
Johnson wrote a note in which he consulted his friend, Dr. Lawrence, on the
propriety of losing some blood. The note contains these words:--"Si per te
licet, imperatur nuncio Holderum ad me deducere." Johnson should rather have
written "imperatum est." But the meaning of the words is perfectly clear. "If
you say yes, the messenger has orders to bring Holder to me." Mr. Croker
translates the words as follows: "If you consent, pray tell the messenger to
bring Holder to me."32 If Mr. Croker is resolved to
write on points of classical learning, we would advise him to begin by giving an
hour every morning to our old friend Corderius.
Indeed we cannot open any volume of this work in any place, and turn it over for
two minutes in any direction, without lighting on a blunder. Johnson, in his
Life of Tickell, stated that a poem entitled "The Royal Progress," which appears
in the last volume of the Spectator, was written on the accession of George I.
The word "arrival" was afterwards substituted for accession." "The reader will
observe," says Mr. Croker, that the Whig term accession, which might imply
legality, was altered into a statement of the simple fact of King George's
arrival."33 Now Johnson, though a bigoted Tory, was
not quite such a fool as Mr. Croker here represents him to be. In the Life of
Granville, Lord Lansdowne, which stands a very few pages from the Life of
Tickell, mention is made of the accession of Anne, and of the accession of
George I. The word arrival was used in the Life of Tickell for the simplest of
all reasons. It was used because the subject of the poem called "The Royal
Progress" was the arrival of the king, and not his accession, which took place
near two months before his arrival.
1 Vol. I. 394.
2 I. 404.
3 Vol. iv. 321.
4 iv. 428.
5 ii. 262.
6 iv. 105.
7 v. 281.
8 I. 510.
9 iv. 271, 322.
10 iii. 463.
11 ii. 151.
12 iii. 271.
13 v. 196.
14 Vol. iv. 29.
15 ii. 526.
16 iii. 52.
17 iii. 368.
18 iv. 222.
19 I. 298.
20 A defense of this blunder was attempted. That the
celebrated chapters in which Gibbon has traced the progress of Mahommedanism
were not written in 1776 could not be denied. But it was confidently asserted
that his partiality to Mahommedanism appeared in his first volume. This
assertion is untrue. No passage which can by any art be construed into the
faintest indication of the faintest partiality for Mahommedanism has ever been
quoted or ever will be quoted from the first volume of the History of the
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
To what, then, it has been asked, could Johnson allude? Possibly to some
anecdote or some conversation of which all trace is lost. One conjecture may be
offered, though with diffidence. Gibbon tells us in his Memoirs, that at Oxford
he took a fancy for studying Arabic, and was prevented from doing so by the
remonstrances of his tutor. Soon after this, the young man fell in with
Bossuet's controversial writings, and was speedily converted by them to the
Roman Catholic faith. The apostasy of a gentleman commoner would of course be
for a time the chief subject of conversation in the common room of Magdalene.
His whim about Arabic learning would naturally be mentioned, and would give
occasion to some jokes about the probability of his turning Mussulman. If such
jokes were made, Johnson, who frequently visited Oxford, was very likely to hear
21 Vol. v. 409
22 This paragraph has been altered; and a slight inaccuracy
immaterial to the argument, has been removed.
23 Vol. v. 409.
24 I. 262.
25 iii. 205.
26 iii. 326.
27 I. 405.
28 Vol. I. 167.
29 I. 133.
30 ii. 458.
31 Vol. iv. 251. An attempt was made to vindicate this
blunder by quoting a grossly corrupt passage from the Iketides of Euripides
bathi kai antiason gonaton, epi kheira balousa, teknon te thnaton komisai demas.
The true reading, as every scholar knows, is teknon, tethneoton komisai demas.
Indeed without this emendation it would not be easy to construe the words, even
if thnaton could bear the meaning which Mr. Croker assigns to it.
32 v. 17.
33 iv. 425.
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II
Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II, Thomas Babbington Macaulay,