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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

Savage, however, is but a single case, in relation to which Dr. Johnson stood in a special position, that diseased his judgment. But look at Pope’s life, at Swift’s, at Young’s–at all the lives of men contemporary with himself: they are overrun with defamatory stories, or traits of that order which would most have stung them, had they returned to life. But it was an accident most beneficial to Dr. Johnson that nearly all these men left no near relatives behind to call him to account. The public were amused, as they always are by exhibitions of infirmity or folly in one whom otherwise they were compelled to admire; that was a sort of revenge for them to set off against a painful perpetuity of homage. Thus far the libels served only as jests, and, fortunately for Dr. Johnson, there arose no after-reckoning. One period, in fact, of thirty years had intervened between the last of these men and the publication of the Lives; it was amongst the latest works of Dr. Johnson: thus, and because most of them left no descendants, he escaped. Had the ordinary proportion of these men been married, the result would have been different; and whatever might have been thought of any individual case amongst the complaints, most undoubtedly, from the great number to which the Doctor had exposed himself, amongst which many were not of a nature to be evaded by any vouchers whatsoever, a fatal effect would have settled on the Doctor’s moral reputation. He would have been passed down to posterity as a dealer in wholesale scandal, who cared nothing for the wounded feelings of relatives. It is a trifle after that to add that he would frequently have been cudgelled.

This public judgment upon Dr. Johnson and these cudgellings would have been too severe a chastisement for the offences, which, after all, argued no heavier delinquency than a levity in examining his chance authorities, and a constitutional credulity. Dr. Johnson’s easiness of faith for the supernatural, the grossness of his superstition in relation to such miserable impostures as the Cock Lane ghost, and its scratchings on the wall, flowed from the same source; and his conversation furnishes many proofs that he had no principle of resistance in his mind, no reasonable scepticism, when any disparaging anecdote was told about his nearest friends. Who but he would have believed the monstrous tale: that Garrick, so used to addressing large audiences extempore, so quick and lively in his apprehensions, had absolutely been dismissed from a court of justice as an idiot–as a man incapable of giving the court information even upon a question of his own profession? As to his credulity with respect to the somewhat harmless forgeries of Psalmanazer, and with respect to the villainous imposture of Lander, we imagine that other causes co-operated to those errors beyond mere facility of assenting. In the latter case we fear that jealousy of Milton as a scholar, a feeling from which he never cleansed himself, had been the chief cause of his so readily delivering himself a dupe to allegations not specious, backed by forgeries that were anything but ingenious. Dr. Johnson had a narrow escape on that occasion. Had Dr. Douglas fastened upon him as the collusive abettor of Lander, as the man whose sanction had ever won even a momentary credit for the obscure libeller, and as the one beyond all others of the age whose critical occupation ought most to have secured him against such a delusion, the character of Johnson would have suffered seriously. Luckily, Dr. Douglas spared him; and Johnson, seeing the infamy of the hoax, and the precipice near which he stood, hastened to separate himself from Lander, and to offer such reparation as he could, by dictating that unhappy letter of recantation. Lander must have consented to this step from hopes of patronage; and perhaps the obscure place of slave-driver in the West Indies, in which he died (after recanting his recantation), might be the unsatisfactory bait of his needy ambition. But assuredly Lander could have made out a better case for himself than that which, under his name, the Doctor addressed to the Bishop; it was a dark spot in Dr. Johnson’s life. A Scotsman, said he, must be a strange one who would not tell a falsehood in a case where Scotland was concerned; and we fear that any fable of defamation must have been gross indeed which Dr. Johnson would not have countenanced against Milton. His ‘Life of Milton,’ as it now stands, contains some of the grossest calumnies against that mighty poet which have ever been hazarded; and some of the deepest misrepresentations are coloured, to the unsuspecting reader, by an affectation of merriment. But in his ‘heart of hearts’ Dr. Johnson detested Milton. Gray, even though, as being little of a meddler with politics, he furnished no handle to the Doctor for wrath so unrelenting, was a subject of deep jealousy from his reputed scholarship. Never did the spite of the Doctor more emblazon itself than in his review of Gray’s lyrical compositions; the very affectation of prefacing his review by calling the two chief odes ‘the wonderful wonder of wonders’ betrays a female spite; and never did the arrogance of Dr. Johnson’s nature flame out so conspicuously as in some of the phrases used on this occasion. Perhaps it is an instance of self-inflation absolutely unique where he says, ‘My kindness for a man of letters’; this, it seems, caused him to feel pain at seeing Gray descending to what he, the Doctor (as a one-sided opinion of his own), held to be a fantastic foppery. The question we point at is not this supposed foppery–was it such or not? Milton’s having cherished that ‘foppery’ was a sufficient argument for detesting it. What we fix the reader’s eye upon is, the unparalleled arrogance of applying to Gray this extreme language of condescending patronage. He really had ‘a kindness’ for the little man, and was not ashamed, as some people would be, to own it; so that it shocked him more than else it would have done, to see the man disgracing himself in this way.