« PreviousContinue »
Lord Marchmont's offer to supply information for the Life of Pope:
"Elated with the success of my spontaneous exertion to procure material and respectable aid to Johnson for his very favourite work, the Lives of the Poets,' I hastened down to Mr. Thrale's, at Streatham, where he now was, that I might insure his being at home next day; and after dinner, when I thought he would receive the good news in the best humour, I announced it eagerly: 'I have been at work for you to-day, Sir. I have been with Lord Marchmont. He bade me tell you he has a great respect for you, and will call on you to-morrow at one o'clock, and communicate all he knows about Pope.' Johnson. 'I shall not be in town to-morrow. I don't care to know about Pope.' Mrs. Thrale (surprised, as I was, and a little angry). I suppose, Sir, Mr. Boswell thought that as you are to write Pope's Life, you would wish to know about him.' Johnson. 'Wish! why yes. If it rained knowledge, I'd hold out my hand; but I would not give myself the trouble to go in quest of it.' There was no arguing with him at the moment. Sometime afterwards he said, 'Lord Marchmont will call upon me, and then I shall call on Lord Marchmont.' Mrs. Thrale was uneasy at this unaccountable caprice; and told me, that if I did not take care to bring about a meeting between Lord Marchmont and him, it would never take place, which would be a great pity."
The ensuing conversation is a good sample of the freedom and variety of "talk" in which Johnson luxu
riated, and shows how important a part Mrs. Thrale played in it:
"Mrs. Thrale told us, that a curious clergyman of our acquaintance (Dr. Lort is named in the margin) had discovered a licentious stanza, which Pope had originally in his 'Universal Prayer,' before the stanza,— "What conscience dictates to be done, Or warns us not to do,' &c.
It was this:
"Can sins of moment claim the rod
Of everlasting fires?
And that offend great Nature's God
and that Dr. Johnson observed, it had been borrowed from Guarini. There are, indeed, in Pastor Fido, many such flimsy superficial reasonings as that in the last two lines of this stanza.
“Boswell. In that stanza of Pope's, "rod of fires" is certainly a bad metaphor.' Mrs. Thrale. And "sins of moment" is a faulty expression; for its true import is momentous, which cannot be intended.' Johnson. 'It must have been written " of moments." Of moment, is momentous; of moments, momentary. I warrant you, however, Pope wrote this stanza, and some friend struck it out.'
"Talking of divorces, I asked if Othello's doctrine was not plausible: —
"He that is robb'd, not wanting what is stolen,
Let him not know't, and he's not robb'd at all.'
Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale joined against this.. Johnson. Ask any man if he'd wish not to know of such an injury.' Boswell. Would you tell your friend to make him unhappy?' Johnson. Perhaps, Sir, I should not but that would be from prudence on my own account. A man would tell his father.' Boswell. 'Yes; because he would not have spurious children to get any share of the family inheritance.' Mrs. Thrale. 'Or he would tell his brother.' Boswell. Certainly his elder brother. Would you tell Mr. -?' (naming a gentleman who assuredly was not in the least danger of so miserable a disgrace, though married to a fine woman). Johnson. No, Sir: because it would do no good; he is so sluggish, he'd never go to Parliament and get through a divorce."" Marginal Note: "Langton."
There is every reason to believe that her behaviour to Johnson was uniformly marked by good-breeding and delicacy. She treated him with a degree of consideration and respect which he did not always receive from other friends and admirers. A foolish rumour having got into the newspapers that he had been learning to dance of Vestris, it was agreed that Lord Charlemont should ask him if it was true, and his lordship with (it is shrewdly observed) the characteristic spirit of a general of Irish volunteers, actually put the question, which provoked a passing feeling of irritation. Opposite Boswell's account of this incident she has written, "Was he not right in hating to be so treated? and would he not have been right to have
loved me better than any of them, because I never did make a Lyon of him?"
One great charm of her companionship to cultivated men was her familiarity with the learned languages, as well as with French, Italian, and Spanish. The author of "Piozziana" says: "She not only read and wrote Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, but had for sixty years constantly and ardently studied the Scriptures and the works of commentators in the original languages." She did not know Greek, and he probably over-estimated her other acquirements, which Boswell certainly underestimates when he speaks slightingly of them on the strength of Johnson's having said: "It is a great mistake to suppose that she is above him (Thrale) in literary attainments. She is more flippant, but he has ten times her learning: he is a regular scholar; but her learning is that of a school-boy in one of the lower forms." If this were so, it is strange that Thrale should cut so poor a figure, should seem little better than a nonentity, whilst every imaginable topic was under animated discussion at his table; for Boswell was more ready to report the husband's sayings than the wife's. In a marginal note on one of the printed letters she says: "Mr. Thrale was a very merry talking man in 1760; but the distress of 1772, which affected his health, his hopes, and his whole soul, affected his temper too. Perkins called it being planet struck, and I am not sure he was ever completely the same man again.” The notes of his conversation during the antecedent
period are equally meagre.* He is described by Madame D'Arblay as taking a singular amusement in hearing, instigating, and provoking a war of words, alternating triumph and overthrow, between clever and ambitious colloquial combatants.
No one would have expected to find her as much at home in Greek and Latin authors as a man of fair ability who had received and profited by an University education, but she could appreciate a classical allusion or quotation, and translate off-hand a Latin epigram.
"Mary Aston," said Johnson, "was a beauty and a scholar, and a wit and a whig; and she talked all in praise of liberty; and so I made this epigram upon her. She was the loveliest creature I ever saw !
"Liber ut esse velim, suasisti, pulchra Maria,
Ut maneam liber, pulchra Maria, vale!'
"Will it do this way in English, Sir? (said Mrs. Thrale)
"Persuasions to freedom fall oddly from you,
If freedom we seek, fair Maria, adieu.'
"You wish me, fair Maria, to be free,
Then, fair Maria, I must fly from thee.'
Boswell also has tried his hand at it; and a corres
"Pray, Doctor, said a gentleman to Johnson, is Mr. Thrale a man of conversation, or is he only wise and silent?' 'Why, Sir, his conversation does not show the minute hand; but he generally strikes the hour very correctly.'”—Johnsoniana,