Samuel Johnson

In what is a wonderful coincidence I just noticed, thanks to the Google homepage, that today is the anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (18 September 1709). I say a wonderful coincidence because I just purchased both volumes of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson this weekend. I must have been searching for a couple of months now, never finding that almost impossible combination of affordability and good quality. So I was delighted to have spotted a lovely, if rather well-worn (especially the jackets), £3 hardback in a charity shop.

According to Boswell, Johnson ‘had a peculiar facility in seizing at one what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end’. He was irritable and impatient, rushing from one book to the next. I have read an introduction to one edition that encourages the reader to read the book by opening pages at random, examining the parts before taking in the whole, as this is how Johnson would have read it.

Nevertheless, I’m just reading it from cover to cover. Happily, the book is even more absorbing than I expected. Boswell was clearly unusually fascinated with his subject. At one-hundred or so pages in, the image I have of Johnson is extraordinary vivid — his peculiar gesticulations which so amused pupils, his ‘vile melancholy’, his odd marriage to ‘Tetty’, the widow twice his age — Boswell writes of her, ‘Mr. [David] Garrick described her to me as very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastick in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour. I have seen Garrick exhibit her, by his exquisite talent of mimickry, so as to excite the heartiest bursts of laughter; but he, probably, as is the case in all such representations, considerably aggravated the picture.’

Returning to this blog’s raison d’être, here are two quotations by Johnson on music:

[Oliver] GOLDSMITH. ‘The greatest musical performers have but small emoluments. Giardini, I am told, does not get above seven hundred a year.’ JOHNSON. ‘That is indeed but little for a man to get, who does best that which so many endeavour to do. There is nothing, I think, in which the power of art is shown so much as in playing on the fiddle. In all other things we can do something at first. Any man will forge a bar of iron, if you give him a hammer; not so well as a smith, but tolerably. A man will saw a piece of wood, and make a box, though a clumsy one; but give him a fiddle and a fiddle-stick, and he can do nothing.


‘JOHNSON. (laughing,) ‘No, Sir; it must be born with a man to be contented to take up with little things. Women have a great advantage that they may take up with little things, without disgracing themselves: a man cannot, except with fiddling. Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else.’ BOSWELL. ‘Pray, Sir, did you ever play on any musical instrument?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir. I once bought me a flagelet; but I never made out a tune.’ BOSWELL. ‘A flagelet, Sir!—so small an instrument? I should have liked to hear you play on the violoncello. THAT should have been YOUR instrument.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I might as well have played on the violoncello as another; but I should have done nothing else. No, Sir; a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small.


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