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Samuel Johnson's Last Years
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson", by Sir John Hawkins
- 1781 -
We must now take our leave of Johnson as an author*, and view him as a man worn out with literary labour and disease, contemplating his dissolution, and exerting all his powers to resist that constitutional malady which now, more than ever, oppressed him. To divert himself from a train of thinking which often involved him in a labyrinth of doubts and difficulties touching a future state of existence, he solicited the frequent visits of his friends and acquaintance, the most discerning of whom could not but see, that the fabric of his mind was tottering; and, to allay those scruples and terrors which haunted him in his vacant hours, he betook himself to the reading of books of practical divinity, and, among the rest, the writings of Baxter, and others of the old puritan and non-conforming divines. Of Baxter*, he entertained a very high opinion, and often spoke of him to me as a man of great parts, profound learning, and exemplary piety: he said, of the office for the communion drawn up by him and produced at the Savoy-conference, that it was one of the finest compositions of the ritual kind he had ever seen*. It was a circumstance to be wondered at, that a high-churchman, as Johnson ever professed himself to be, should be driven to seek for spiritual comfort in the writings of sectaries; men whom he affected, as well to condemn for their ignorance, as to hate for their principles; but, as his acquaintance with the world, and with the writings of such men as Watts, Foster, Lardner, and Lowman,* increased, these prejudices were greatly softened. Of the early puritans, he thought their want of general learning was atoned for by their skill in the Scriptures, and the holiness of their lives*; and, to justify his opinion of them, and their writings, he once cited to me a saying of Howell in one of his letters, that to make man a complete Christian, he must have the works of a Papist, the words of a Puritan, and the faith of a Protestant*. At times when he was most distressed, I recommended to him the perusal of bishop Taylor's 'Rules and Exercises of holy Living and Dying,' and also, his 'Ductor Dubitantium,' a book abounding in erudition, and most aptly suiting his circumstances. Of the former, though he placed the author at the at the head of all the divines that have succeeded the fathers, he said, that in the reading thereof, he had found little more than he had brought himself; and, at the mention of the latter, he seemed to shrink. His Greek testament was generally within his reach, and he red much in it. He was competently skilled in the writings of the fathers, yet was he more conversant with those of the great English church-men, namely, Hooker, Usher, Mede, Hammond, Sanderson, Hall, and others of that class. Dr. Henry More, of Cambridge, he did not much affect: he was a platonist, and, in Johnson's opinion, a visionary. He would frequently cite from him, and laugh at, a passage to this effect:—'At the consummation of all things, it shall come to pass, that eternity shall shake hands with opacity.' He had never, till I mentioned him, heard of Dr. Thomas Jackson, of Corpus Christi college, Oxon. Upon my recommendation of his works, in three folio volumes, he made me a promise to buy and study them, which he lived not to perform. He was, for some time, pleased with Kempis's tract 'De Imitatione Christi,' but at length laid it aside, saying, that the main design of it was to promote monastic piety, and inculcate eccliastical obedience. One sentiment therein, he, however, greatly applauded, and I find it adopted by bishop Taylor, who gives it in the following words:—'It is no great matter to live lovingly and good-natured, with humble and meek persons; but he that can do so with the froward, with the wilful, and the ignorant, with the peevish and perverse, he only hath true charity. Always remembering, that our true solid peace, the peace of God, consists rather in compliance with others, than in being complied with; in suffering and forbearing, rather than in contention and victory*.'
In the course of these studies, he exercised his powers of eloquence, in the composition of forms of devotion, adapted to his circumstances and the state of his mind at different times. Of these, a specimen has lately been given to the public. He also translated into Latin many of the collects in our liturgy. This was a practice which he took up in his early years, and continued through his life, as he did also the noting down the particular occurrences of each day thereof, but in a loose and desultory way, in books of various forms, and in no regular or continued succession.
He seemed to acquiesce in that famous saying of John Valdesso, which induced the emperor Charles the fifth to resign his crown, and betake himself to religious retirement; 'Oportet inter vitæ negotia, et diem mortis, spatium aliquod intercedere*,' nevertheless, he was but an ill husband of his time. He was, throughout his life, making resolutions to rise at eight, no very early hour, and breaking them. The visits of idle, and some of them worthless persons, were never unwelcome to him; and though they interrupted him in his studies and meditations, yet, as they gave him opportunities of discourse, and furnished him with intelligence, he strove rather to protract than shorten or discountenance them; and, when abroad, such was the laxity of his mind, that he consented to the doing of many things, otherwise indifferent, for the avowed reason that they would drive on time.
Of his visitors at this time myself was one, and having known the state of his mind at different periods, and his habitual dread of insanity, I was greatly desirous of calming his mind, and rendering him susceptible of the many enjoyments of which I thought him then in possession, namely, a permanent income, tolerable health, a high degree of reputation for his moral qualities and literary exertions, by which latter he had made a whole country sensible of its obligation to him, and, lastly, that he had as few enemies as a man of his eminence could expect. On one day in particular, when I was suggesting to him these and the like reflections, he gave thanks to Almighty God, but added, that notwithstanding all the above benefits, the prospect of death, which was now at no great distance form him, was become terrible, and that he could not think of it but with great pain and trouble of mind.
I was very much surprised and shocked at such a declaration from such a man, and told him, that from my long acquaintance with him, I conceived his life to have been an uniform course of virtue, that he had ever shewn a deep sense of, and zeal for, religion, and that, both by his example and his writings, he had recommended the practice of it: that he had not rested, as many do, in the exercise of common honesty, avoiding the grosser enormities, yet rejecting those advantages that result from the belief of divine revelation, but that he had, by prayer, and other exercises of devotion, cultivated in his mind the seeds of goodness, and was become habitually pious. These suggestions made little impression on him: he lamented the indolence in which he had spent his life, talked of secret transgressions, and seemed desirous of telling me more to that purpose than I was willing to hear.
From these perturbations of his mind, he had, however, at times, relief. Upon a visit, that I made him some months after, I found him much altered in his sentiments. He said that, having reflected on the transactions in his life, and acknowledged his sins before God, he felt within himself a confidence in his mercy, and that, trusting to the merits of his Redeemer, his mind was now in a state of perfect tranquillity.
In these discourses, he would frequently mention, with great energy and encomiums, the penitence of the man who assumed the name, and by that I must call him, of George Psalmanaazar, a Frenchman, but who pretended to be a native of the island of Formosa, and a convert from paganism to Christianity, and, as such, received baptism. By the help of his great learning and endowments, he eluded all attempts to detect his impostures, but, in his more advanced age, became a sincere penitent, and, without any other motive than a sense of his sin, published a confession of them, and begged the pardon of mankind in terms the most humble and affecting. The remainder of his life was exemplary, and he died in 1763. The habitation of this person was in Ironmonger row, Old street, Middlesex, in the neighborhood whereof he was so well known and esteemed, that, as Dr. Hawkesworth once told me, scarce any person, even children, passed him without shewing him the usual signs of respect. He was one of the writers of the Universal History, and, by his intercourse with the booksellers it was, as I conceive, that Johnson became acquainted with him*.
I mention the above particulars, as well to corroborate those testimonies of Johnson's piety already extant, as to refute the objections of many infidels, who, desirous of having him thought to be of their own party, endeavoured to make it believed, that he was a mere moralist, and that, when writing on religious subjects, he accommodated himself to the notions of the vulgar: and also, because a certain female skeptic, of his acquaintance, was once heard to say, that she was sure Dr. Johnson was too great a philosopher to be a believer.
From this digression, which I mean as an introduction to certain particulars to his behaviour in his last illness, hereafter related, I proceed to the future events of his life. In the year 1781*, death put an end to the friendship that, for some years, had subsisted between him and Mr. Thrale, but gave birth to a relation that seemed to be but a continuation of it, viz. that of an executor, the duties of which office involved in it the management of an immense trade, the disposal of a large fortune, and the interests of children rising to maturity. For the trouble it might create him, Mr. Thrale bequeathed to him, as he did to each of his other executors, a legacy of two hundred pounds.
Dr. Johnson was not enough a man of the world to be capable alone of so important a trust. Indeed, it required, for the execution of it, somewhat like a board, a kind of standing council, adapted, by the several qualifications of the individuals that composed it, to all emergencies. Mr. Thrale wisely foresaw this, and associated with Johnson three other persons, men of great experience in business, and of approved worth and integrity. It was easy to see, as Johnson was unskilled in both money and commercial transactions, that Mr. Thrale's view, in constituting him one of his executors, could only be, that, by his philosophical prudence and sagacity, of which himself had, in some instances, found the benefit*, he might give a general direction to the motions of so vast a machine as they had to conduct. Perhaps he might also think, that the celebrity of Johnson's character would give a lustre to that constellation, in which he had thought proper to place him. This may be called vanity, but it seems to be of the same kind with that which induced Mr. Pope to appoint Mr. Murray, now earl of Mansfield, one of the executors of his will.
No sooner had this trust devolved on him, than he applied to me for advice. He had never been an executor before, and was a loss in the steps to be taken. I told him the first was proving the will, a term that he understood not. I explained it to him, faithfully to execute it, to administer the testator's effects according to law, and to render a true account thereof when required. I told him that in this act he would be joined by the other executors, whom, as they were all men of business, he would do well to follow.
Johnson had all his life long been used to lead, to direct, and instruct, and did not much relish the thoughts of following men, who, in all the situations he could conceive, would have looked up to him: he therefore, as he afterwards confessed to me, began to form theories and visionary projects, adapted as well to the continuation and extension of the trade, which, be it remembered, was brewing, as the disposal of it; but in this, as he also acknowledged, he found himself at a loss. The other executors, after reflecting on the difficulty of conducting so large an undertaking, the disagreeableness of an office that would render them, in effect, tax-gatherers, as all of that trade are, and place them in a situation between the public and the revenue, determined to make sale of the whole, and blew up Johnson's schemes for their commencing brewers, into the air. In the carrying this resolution into act, the executors had a great difficulty to encounter: Mr. Thrale's trade had been improving for two generations, and was become of such an enormous magnitude, as nothing but an aggregate of several fortunes was equal to; a circumstance, which could not but affect the intrinsic value of the object, and increase the difficulty of finding purchasers: of things indivisible exposed to sale, an estimate may be formed, till their value rises to a certain amount; but, after that, a considerable abatement from their intrinsic worth must be made, to meet the circumstance of a paucity of purchasers. This was the case in the sale of Pitt's diamond, which, in the ratio by which jewels are valued, was computed to be worth 225,000l. but, because only a very few persons were able to purchase it, was sold to the last king of France for little more than 67,000l.
This difficulty, great as it was, Mr. Thrale's executors found the way to surmount: they commenced a negociation which some persons of worth and character, which, being conducted on both sides with fairness and candour, terminated in a conveyance of the trade, with all its appendages, for which the consideration was, an hundred and thirty-five thousand pounds. Of this arduous transaction, Johnson was little more than a spectator, and, when called upon to ratify it, he readily acquiesced. There only remained for him to do justice to the memory of him, whom he could not but consider as both his friend and benefactor, and this he did, by an exercise of his talent, and this he did, by an exercise of his talent, in the following monumental inscription:
Hic conditur quod reliquum est
The death of Mr. Thrale dissolved the friendship between him and Johnson; but it abated not in the latter, that care for the interests of those whom his friend had left behind him, which he thought himself bound to cherish, as a living principle of gratitude. The favours he had received from Mr. Thrale, were to be repaid by the exercise of kind offices towards his relict and her children, and these, circumstanced as Johnson was, could only be prudent councils, friendly admonition to the one, and preceptive instruction to the others, both which he was ever ready to interpose. Nevertheless, it was observed by myself, and other of Johnson's friends, that, soon after the decease of Mr. Thrale, his visits to Streatham became less and less frequent, and that he studiously avoided the mention of the place or family*.
Having now no calls, and, as I believe, very little temptation, to become a sojourner, or even a guest, in the habitation of his departed friend, he had leisure to indulge himself, in excursions to the city of his nativity, as also to Oxford; for both which places he ever entertained an enthusiastic affection. In the former, he was kindly received, and respectfully treated, by Mrs. Lucy Porter, the daughter, by her former, husband, of his deceased wife, and in the latter, by the reverend Dr. Adams, who had been his tutor at Pembroke college, and is now the head of that seminary. While he was thus resident in the university, he received daily proofs of the high estimation in which he was there held, by such members of that body as were of the greatest eminence for learning, or were any way distinguished for their natural or acquired abilities.
Besides the places above-mentioned, Johnson had other summer-retreats, to which he was ever welcome, the seats of his friends in the country. At one of these, in the year 1782, he was alarmed by a tumour, by surgeons termed a sarcocele, that, as it increased, gave him great pain, and, at length, hurried him to town, with a resolution to submit, if it should be thought necessary, to a dreadful chirurgical operation; but, on his arrival, one less severe restored him to a state of perfect ease in the part affected. But he had disorders of another kind to struggle with: he had frequent fits of pain which indicated the passage of a gall-stone, and he now felt the pressure of an asthma, a constitutional disease with him, from which he had formerly been relieved by copious bleedings, but his advanced age forbade the repetition of them.
Johnson's Will | Hawkins' Postscript
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.," by Sir John Hawkins, Knt. 2nd edition, 1787, London. (Pages 541-594)
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