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On Boswell And His Miracle Post by :autococker1987 Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2562

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On Boswell And His Miracle

As I passed along Great Queen Street the other evening, I saw that Boswell's house, so long threatened, is at last falling a victim to the housebreaker. The fact is one of the by-products of the war. While the Huns are abroad in Belgium the Vandals are busy at home. You may see them at work on every hand. The few precious remains we have of the past are vanishing like snows before the south wind.

In the Strand there is a great heap of rubbish where, when the war began, stood two fine old houses of Charles II.'s London. Their disappearance would, in normal times, have set all the Press in revolt. But they have gone without a murmur, so preoccupied are we with more urgent matters. And so with the Elizabethan houses in Cloth Fair. They have been demolished without a word of protest. And what devastation is afoot in Lincoln's Inn among those fine reposeful dwellings, hardly one of which is without some historic or literary interest!

In the midst of all this vandalism it was too much perhaps to hope that Boswell's house would escape. Bozzy was not an Englishman; his residence in London was casual, and, what is more to the point, he has only a reflected greatness. Macaulay's judgment of him is now felt to be too harsh, but even his warmest advocate must admit that his picture of himself is not engaging. He was gross in his habits, full of little malevolences (observe the spitefulness of his references to Goldsmith), and his worship of Johnson was abject to the point of nausea.

He made himself a sort of doormat for his hero, and treasured the dirt that came from the great man's heavy boots. No insult levelled at him was too outrageous to be recorded with pride. "You were drunk last night, you dog," says Johnson to him one morning during the tour in the Hebrides, and down goes the remark as if he has received the most gracious of good mornings. "Have you no better manners?" says Johnson on another occasion. "There is your want." And Boswell goes home and writes down the snub together with his apologies. And so when he has been expressing his emotions on hearing music. "Sir," said Johnson, "I should never hear it if it made me such a fool."

Once indeed he rebelled. It was when they were dining with a company at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. Johnson attacked him, he says, with such rudeness that he kept away from him for a week. His story of the reconciliation is one of the most delightful things in that astonishing book:

"After dinner, when Mr. Langton was called out of the room and we were by ourselves, he drew his chair near to mine and said, in a tone of conciliatory courtesy, 'Well, how have you done?' Boswell: 'Sir, you have made me very uneasy by your behaviour to me when we were last at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. You know, my dear sir, no man has a greater respect or affection for you, or would sooner go to the end of the world to serve you. Now, to treat me so--' He insisted that I had interrupted him, which I assured him was not the case; and proceeded, 'But why treat me so before people who neither love you nor me?' Johnson: 'Well I am sorry for it. I'll make it up to you in twenty different ways, as you please.' Boswell: 'I said to-day to Sir Joshua, when he observed that you tossed me sometimes, I don't care how often or how high he tosses me when only friends are present, for then I fall upon soft ground; but I do not like falling upon stones, which is the case when enemies are present. I think this is a pretty good image, sir.' Johnson: 'Sir, it is one of the happiest I ever have heard.'"

Is there anything more delicious outside Falstaff and Bardolph, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Indeed, Bardolph's immortal "Would I were with him wheresoe'er he be, whether in heaven or in hell," is in the very spirit of Boswell's devotion to his hero.

It was his failings as much as his talents that enabled him to work the miracle. His lack of self-respect and humour, his childish egotism, his love of gossip, his naive bathos, and his vulgarities contributed as much to the making of his immortal book as his industry, his wonderful verbal memory, and his doglike fidelity. I have said that his greatness is only reflected. But that is hardly just. It might even be more true to say that Johnson owes his immortality to Boswell. What of him would remain to-day but for the man who took his scourgings so humbly and repaid them by licking the boot that kicked him? Who now reads London, or The Vanity of Human Wishes, or The Rambler? I once read Rasselas, and found it pompous and dull. And I have read The Lives of the Poets, and though they are not pompous and dull, they are often singularly poor criticism, and the essay on Milton is, in some respects, as mean a piece of work as ever came out of Grub Street.

But The Life! What in all the world of books is there like it? I have been reading it off and on for more than thirty years, and still find it inexhaustible. It ripens with the years. It is so intimate that it seems to be a record of my own experiences. I have dined so often with Johnson at the Mitre and Sir Joshua's and Langton's and the rest that I know him far better than the shadows I meet in daily life. I seem to have been present when he was talking to the King, and when Goldsmith sulked because he had not shared the honour; when he met Wilkes, and when he insulted Sir Joshua and for once got silenced; when he "downed" Robertson, and when, for want of a lodging, he and Savage walked all night round St. James's Square, full of high spirits and patriotism, inveighing against the Minister and resolving that "they would stand by their country."

And at the end of it all I feel very much like Mr. Birrell, who, when asked what he would do when the Government went out of office, replied, "I shall retire to the country, and really read Boswell." Not "finish Boswell," you observe. No one could ever finish Boswell. No one would ever want to finish Boswell. Like a sensible man he will just go on reading him and reading him, and reading him until the light fails and there is no more reading to be done.

What an achievement for this uncouth Scotch lawyer to have accomplished! He knew he had done a great thing; but even he did not know how great a thing. Had he known he might have answered as proudly as Dryden answered when some one said to him that his Ode to St. Cecilia was the finest that had ever been written. "Or ever will be," said the poet. Dryden's ode has been eclipsed more than once since it was written; but Boswell's book has never been approached. It is not only the best thing of its sort in literature: there is nothing with which one can compare it.

Boswell's house is falling to dust. No matter! His memorial will last as long as the English speech is spoken and as long as men love the immortal things of which it is the vehicle.


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Boswell And His Miracle

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