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Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms/Appendix 7

< Memoirs of a Trait in the Character of George III. of these United Kingdoms

No. 7.

SOME REMARKS ON THE RESPECTIVE CHARACTERS OF GEORGE III. AND DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON; SUGGESTED BY MR. CROKER'S ANNOTATIONS ON THE BIOGRAPHY OF THE MORALIST.



[1]Regret at seeing the merits of this Prince disregarded by those courtiers, or those philosophers, or, whoever the people were whose impenetrable os frontis would have entitled them to some mention in the Dunciad, draws attention to that marked superiority in points of no small importance by general consent, which the one occupant of St. James's, or Buckingham House, shows over the other of Bolt-court, Fleet-street. All readers, where the English language extends, are under signal obligations to Mr. Croker, for detecting the latent source of what is called one of the Doctor's prejudices[2]—much too mild a term, we opine, for the slanderous aspersion of a whole class of public functionaries, certainly entitled to the same protection as—a Secretary of the Admiralty, to wit. It gives but a humiliating view of human nature, when so learned and intellectual a man as Dr. Johnson reduces himself to a level with the illiterate mass, whose prejudices are excusable because they have not his discriminating judgment to be enabled to shake them off. His own opinion of Cibber is brought to recollection by this inconsistent weakness. He was one day speaking in disparagement of Colley (one half of whose conversation was made up of oaths) and when some person reminded him of the merit of his comedies, Johnson was not disposed to allow much weight to that consideration: because as he said, it was his trade to write them. The remark might be conceded, but with a proviso here, for it was his own trade to write Ramblers and Idlers, or what you will, and to inculcate the best rules for our conduct in every department of social life (particularly to avoid prejudices) but it might be the trade of others, if they would, to put them in practice.

The Jacobite prejudices of the literary colossus were able enough, but not so here, for it was that impatience of the control of the laws, and indeed of all control, which characterizes the turbulent democrat of any period, and more especially our own. We scruple not to retort his epithet, he was himself a wretch, when he could thus stigmatize as "the lowest of all human beings," officials employed and paid by the state to collect one of the most important branches of the revenue, and whose bounden duty it became to detect any evasion, or concealment, like that which Michael Johnson seems to have been guilty of: for the facts are stated to have been "fairly against him." Under those circumstances, the officers appear to have adopted the more lenient course, by laying an information against him before the magistrates, which was doubtless less expensive and ruinous than a prosecution by the Exchequer—a forbearance which, if it did not elicit some gratitude from the Bookseller's Son, ought to have neutralized his resentment. How came Mr. Croker to overlook the coincidence between the Jacobite Johnson's hatred of an excise tax, and the democratical outcry against any tax they dislike, including tithes, which leads to unlawful combinations in Ireland at present? We do not know a more curious illustration of the commonplace truism, that "extremes always meet" than this affair affords, and—to improve the joke, we learn further, that, being one of those interesting men who are the founders of their own fortune, Mr. Croker was himself heretofore in an inferior grade of the Irish excise. This jostling might have been expected to induce some acerbity towards the departed philosopher: for could Johnson have been resuscitated, and had some humourist informed him that his biography was annotated by a quondam ganger of spirits above proof, he would have mustered as much ineffable contempt in the expression of his countenance, as the old Lord Auchenleek is described to have shown, while he commented in his native dialect on Jamie keeping such hopeful company.

The author of the Idler was unfortunate in pulling an old house over his head, when he vilified the Commissioners of Excise, as "the lowest of all human beings:" for they could have retorted with a vengeance, by appealing to the Doctor's nearest associates, who would have found it not a little puzzling to defend him from the imputation of being himself at the bottom of the scale; when we read—that, at his club, when Mr. Cox was in the chair, he exclaimed "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel!"— to a philosopher respected like Dr. Adam Smith, he could give the lie direct! And to his friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose fame and consequence were mainly dependant on his skill in the art, he spoke with all possible contempt of painting. It is no excuse, that his sight was bad, for he knew it very well, and, unless he was ungovernably obstinate and opiniated, should have known his incompetency to decide without appeal on such a subject: besides he was opposed to the general sentiment, to which he could be no stranger; which tells us that—

These polished arts have humanized mankind,
Soften'd the rude, and calm'd the savage mind.

Again—he who well knowing his chief intimate, Boswell, had an over-measure of vanity,[3] could harrow his feelings, by intimating that at a preceding period he would have been exalted in (that literary pillory) the Dunciad. We say—he who could thus trample on the common courtesies of civilized existence, might have been taken for a savage in an European dress; but he could not have been imported from America; for, according to Mr. Weld, although the Indians are implacable towards their enemies, yet nothing can exceed their fraternal kindness to each other.

Fame although too silent on the virtues of our third George, as is unhappily seen here, hats been less reserved on certain defects that interfered with the graces, but insulted no one. That rapidity of utterance of which he was accused when the bow was unbent, in colloquial intercourse, wholly disappeared when he was collected and deliberate of purpose; for, according to Dr. Letsom, whose judgment few can question, "he was the finest reader he ever heard."—On the contrary, the rudeness of the distinguished man of letters, spoken of, was a severe annoyance to those who were not disposed to tolerate it, in consideration of so much merit. We learn from Mr. Cumberland, that when Goldsmith had to muster a party of good men and true for the first night of his comedy, "She stoops to Conquer," and when Dr. Johnson was not to be forgotten, he paid court to him, and, on that day, had patience with his provoking language, "as Boswell had on every day."

There was one, and only one, eminent Author of the preceding generation, whose failing, which often threw good manners out of the window, bore a striking resemblance to the strange latitude of non-observances which Dr. Johnson showed even towards those for whom he professed much esteem. The biographers of Dean Swift say, that he knew and exacted from others the punctilios of good breeding; and yet his own demeanour was formed on no model that his friends knew of. He was often very rude, which is illustrated by his behaviour to the Countess of Burlington. Pope and Dryden, Steele and Addison, Locke and Newton, and their contemporaries of chief note, have not left any thing recorded of them resembling the peculiarities of this pair of originals. How it came that Swift and Johnson manifested the same habit, considering their early lives and prospects were so dissimilar, we are unequal to expound; but both these uncommon men must have known that any ordinary fellow, who had affected the same licence, would have been shouldered out of the room, and excluded from all society but that of the bear garden. In becoming so eccentric, did they presume then on the deference which they knew was paid to the consequence derived from their works—or were these vagaries unpremeditated?

The sagacity Mr. Croker has shown in detecting the source of the Doctor's hatred of excisemen and excise laws (which the great Cham of literature must have imagined would never meet the light) and his success in elucidating numerous passages in Boswell's work, without prejudice to those of Mrs. Piozzi, Sir John Hawkins, &c., indicating how much his services might have been valued by the commonwealth of letters, had they taken a different direction; as they might have done in a season of peace, we suppose, without deranging his regular avocations, we cannot but regret that the summons which recently stimulated him to dip his pen in never-fading ink, when Samuel Johnson was the theme; was some fifteen years ago, either entirely unheard, or only as small and exile a voice as that of Hylas to his Master, who thought him three miles off[4] (when the water nymphs had got possession of his page.)—Had Mr. Croker, in 1818, when he resorted to the records of the Board of Longitude, for his purpose at the time, followed up a hint (much broader than the parchment manufactory) in one of those records, dated the 28th November, 1772, which he either overlooked, or passed on to the order of the day; nobody would have thought on

A waste of genius in the toil of Knolles—

for by the educated part of the community the subject would have been welcomed as an useful antidote against the return of those times, the signs of which are portentous in the horizon, when a certain Baronet, whose name—

———t' oblivion better were consigned,

actually moves in his place, in the Commons—that the House of Peers be abolished.—By the way, for a moiety of the impertinence displayed in the document alluded to, in which these mental cultivators indirectly intimate to his Majesty, that he was poaching on their manor, would not Cromwell have shipped off such consequential coxcombs in the expedition under Penn and Venables? with, or without commissions, assigning as an orthodox reason, that—"Judgments are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools."

These reflections arose not from any desire to undervalue the labours of Dr. Johnson, whole pages of whose works Johan Horrins has by heart, or to hold cheap those benevolent qualities, which his patience with the testy blind gentlewoman, Mrs. Williams, and even his consideration for his poor old cat, may illustrate,[5] but were suggested by the extraordinary disparity between the Moralist and the Monarch, in the important article of self-control: the value of which a philosopher of the world, like Lord Chesterfield, and a spiritual preceptor, are equally prepared to demonstrate, though not from the same premises. We learn that Ursa major when going to be introduced to the old Laird of Auchenleek, was entreated and implored by his companion, to avoid, in conversation, two subjects which would be sure to produce discord. The first of these (which was something about Sir John Pringle) was passed by, but the other soon led to an acrimonious altercation, which could only be stopped by an appeal to the rights of hospitality; which luckily his host was scrupulous of. So extravagant was the petulance of an author, with whose learned lucubrations we are so much entertained, that, being partial to late hours himself, he has been known to say, a man was a scoundrel that went to bed before twelve o'clock!

There was this enormous difference between the early lives and prospects of these contrasted characters; that the scholar might have apostrophized adversity in the language of Gray—

Daughter of Jove! relentless pow'r!
  Thou tamer of the human breast;
Whose iron scourge, and tort'ring hour
  The bad affrights, afflicts the best.
Bound in thine adamantine chain,
The proud are taught to taste of pain—

He had tasted deeply the cup of bitterness, yet it imparted no humility to address in after-life, which was the fruit to have been expected from those lessons.—Now we see, George 3rd when only a boy of twelve (a sensible boy, says Lord Chesterfield) became heir apparent to the crown of these realms, with a probability of succeeding to it in the prime of youth—a circumstance so unfavourable to suavity of manners and command of temper, that if an impatience of contradiction had been noticed, and an everlasting dictum heard from him, we could scarcely have quarelled with effects corresponding with their causes.

Mr. Croker, whom we believe greatly to respect the memory of this Monarch; who is assuredly well entitled to the regard of any literary person that visits the royal library now adorning the British Museum, will excuse us, if we observe that the hint in the minutes of the Board of Longitude alluded to, which it happened he passed by, would, with a little attention, have led him to find, on a comparison of circumstances, that to the embittered and haughty spirit of Dr. Maskelyne, thus thwarted point blank in his special purposes, the origin and main support of these licentious demonstrations may be ascribed (in a Court where he sat as Judge in his own cause, and never had the delicacy to withdraw.) The challenge to produce his discoveries by the Moon, might have shown him writhing on tenter-hooks; nathless he was determined not to succumb to the Mechanic, or WHOSOEVER WERE HIS ABETTORS, while he was backed by his Colleagues from Cam and Isis, for reasons equivalent to the esprit du corps, and seconded by Lord Sandwich, from motives that never transpired: and the Lunar party knowing that by the letter, though not in the spirit of the Commission of which they formed a part, slid were then a majority, they were responsible to Parliament, but not to the crown, they mustered a front, in opposition to the King's sentiments, which, originating as it did, in private and personal animosity, would have exposed them to public scorn, had the particulars been known.—When George 3rd condescended (and in him it was a condescension) to communicate with them, not indeed in the regal character, but as it were like a private gentleman, anxious for the improvement of navigation and scientific mechanics. As they could not affect an ignorance of by whom the junior Harrison was sent, unless they had more brass about them than Wood, the half-penny monger in the Drapier's Letters; it was wholly inconsistent with a monarchial Government, where the King is the fountain of honour, to dismiss his messenger (metaphorically speaking) with no better than a slap on the jaws. And most certainly, could Mr. Croker's favourite philosopher, in theory, have changed places with the greater philosopher, in practice, on receiving such a report, he would have blended his voice, not with the music—but the thunder of the spheres.



Notes

  1. The Note, page 15, continued.
  2. Johnson, in his Dictionary, defines "excise, a hateful tax, levied upon commodities, and adjudged, not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid;" and in the Idler (No. 65) he calls a Commissioner of Excise "one of the lowest of all human beings." This violence of language seems so little reasonable, that the editor was induced to suspect some cause of personal animosity; this mention of the trade [by his father] in parchment (an exciseable article) afforded a clue, which has led to the confirmation of that suspicion. In the records of the Excise Board, is to be found the following letter, addressed to the supervisor of excise at Lichfield:—"July 25th, 1725.—The Commissioners received yours of the 22nd instant; and since the justices would not give judgment against Mr. Michael Johnson, the tannery notwithstanding the facts were fairly against him, the Board directs, that the next time he offends, you do not lay an information against him, but send an affidavit of the fact, that he may be prosecuted in the Exchequer."
  3. The character of a jolly fellow, which Mr. Croker finds Boswell had got among his countrymen and which, to many, is synonymous with that of a hearty one, does not accord with an anecdote in Holcroft's diary. Mr. Lowry, an engraver, applied to Boswell's literary patron to write him a letter to serve his interest in some advantage he was soliciting: with tikis the Doctor kindly complied. As the applicant was leaving the house, Boswell met him, and, as might be expected, was inquisitive to know his business, and to see the letter. For which purpose, he showed him the greatest attention, to draw him to the next coffee-house, and induce him to wait till he had copied it; but the moment the copy was finished, and in his pocket, the proud Scotchman took no further notice of him. From the above it seems, Boswell, when off his guard, and not apprehending any future consequences, had more dissimulation in his composition than Johnson would at all have relished: for had he detected him at such a season with a bifrons, like Janus, he would have held a tremendous cat-o'nine-tails over the young laird of Auchenleek; any lash in which, would have been equivalent to Simkin's denunciation of the Captain (in the New Bath Guide)

    ———the man I abhor, like the devil, dear mother,
    Who one thing conceals, and professes another.

  4. Lord Bacon deduces from this fable, that the antients were well acquainted with the effect of sound passing through water, which is as here described.
  5. Had Dr. Johnson had children, his paternal affection, and solicitude for their welfare, would have tended to enlarge the labours of Mr. Croker. This amiable trait, in George 3rd, expanded to a degree that proved fatal to bis mental faculties. Previous to the last interview with his Daughter, Sophia, the Princess had a ring made and engraven on it

    When this you see
    Remember me.

    This ring she put on her Father's finger, not foreseeing the overpowering shock to his sensibility; for he was never more himself, afterwards, but lived and died a subject for a lunatic asylum.