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Boswell and Dictionary Johnson (3)

The third of three entries

Boswell asks Johnson "if he really thought that a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education.”

JOHNSON: “Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be connected with it.”

BOSWELL: “And yet, people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage without learning.”

JOHNSON: “Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Agronauts, who were the first sailors.”

“[Johnson] then called to the boy, ‘what would you give, my lad, to know about the agronauts?’ Sir (said the boy) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”

This exchange takes place as the two take a boat ride down the Thames one afternoon. Later that day, while strolling in a park, Johnson asks Boswell, “Is not this very fine?” Boswell, “having no exquisite relish of the beauties of Nature, and being more delighted with the ‘busy hum of men,’” answers, “Yes, Sir; but not equal to Fleet-street.” JOHNSON: “You are right, Sir.” This is the only part of the book that I could recall from my first reading years ago, and reminds me of one of Cole Porter’s bon mots: “the great indoors.”

Johnson was a great talker, but he would not “say one word, or even pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite, which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating the veins of his forehead swelled, and were generally visible.”

As for eating and drinking, Boswell comments that Johnson, “could refrain, but he could not use moderately.”

Johnson is full of wisdom: he advises Boswell not to try to be serious, or to be merry, but rather simply to follow his inclinations. When Boswell says that it would “terrible” if he were unable to return to London soon to see him, Johnson tells him not “to accustom [himself] to use big words for little matters. It would NOT be TERRIBLE.”

As the book ends, Boswell sets sail for Holland. Johnson sees him off. Boswell, aboard ship: “I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestick frame in the usual manner; and at last I perceived him walk back into town, and he disappeard.”



May 2019



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