Page images
PDF
EPUB

he repeated this sally to Garrick, and wondered to find his sensibility as a writer not a little irritated by it; on which Mrs. Thrale remarks, “ How odd to go and tell the man!”

The independent tone she took when she deemed the Doctor unreasonable, is also proved by Boswell in his report of what took place at Streatham in reference to 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 favorite work, “The Lives of the Poets,'I hastened down to Mr. Thrales, 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 humor, 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 tomorrow. 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. Some time afterwards he said, “ Lord Marchmont will call on 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 luxuriated, 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

Which Nature's self inspires ?'

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 momentis 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 robbed, not wanting what is stolen,

Let him not know't, and he's not robbed 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.”

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.” He probably over-estimated her acquirements, which Boswell certainly under-estimates 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 merrytalking 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.

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 a university education, but she could appreciate a classical allusion or quotation, and translate off-hand a Latin epigram into idiomatic English.

“ 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 ne 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.'"

Mr. Croker's version is :

“ 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 correspondent

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors][ocr errors]

of the “ Gentleman's Magazine” suggests that Johnson had in
his mind an epigram on a young lady who appeared at a mas-
querade in Paris, habited as a Jesuit, during the height of the
contention between the Jansenists and Molinists concerning
free-will:-

" On s'étonne ici que Calviniste
Eût pris l'habit de Moliniste,
Puisque que cette jeune beauté
Ote à chacun sa liberté,

N'est ce pas une Janseniste.” *
Mrs. Thrale took the lead even when her husband might be
expected to strike in, as when Johnson was declaiming paradox-
ically against action in oratory : “Action can have no effect on
reasonable minds. It may augment noise, but it never can en-
force argument.” Mrs. Thrale. “ What then, Sir, becomes of
Demosthenes’ saying, Action, action, action ?” Johnson. “De-
mosthenes, Madam, spoke to an assembly of brutes, to a bar-
barous people.” “ The polished Athenians !” is her marginal
protest, and a most conclusive one.

In English literature she was rarely at fault. In reference to the flattery lavished on Garrick by Lord Mansfield and Lord Chatham, Johnson had said, “When he whom everybody else flatters, flatters me, then I am truly happy.” Mrs. Thrale. “ The sentiment is in Congreve, I think.” Johnson. “ Yes, Madam, in “The Way of the World.'

1. If there's delight in love, 't is when I see

The heart that others bleed for, bleed for me.'”. The laudari a laudato viro is nearer the mark.

It would be easy to heap proof upon proof of the value and variety of Mrs. Thrale's contributions to the colloquial treasures accumulated by Boswell and other members of the set; and

* " Menagiana,” Vol. III. p. 376. Edition of 1716. Equally happy were Lord Chesterfield's lines to a young lady who appeared at a Dublin ball, with an orange breastknot:

“Pretty Tory, where's the jest

To wear that riband on thy breast,
When that same breast betraying shows

The whiteness of the rebel rose ?
White was adopted by the malcontent Irish of the period as the French emblem.

Johnson's deliberate testimony to her good qualities of head and heart will far more than counterbalance any passing expressions of disapproval or reproof which her mistimed vivacity, or alleged disregard of scrupulous accuracy in narrative, may have called forth. No two people ever lived much together for a series of years without many fretful, complaining, dissatisfied, uncongenial moments, — without letting drop captious or unkind expressions utterly at variance with their habitual feelings and their matured judgments of each other. The hasty word, the passing sarcasm, the sly hit at an acknowledged foible, should count for nothing in the estimate when contrasted with earnest and deliberate assurances, proceeding from one who was always too proud to flatter, and in no mood for idle compliment when he wrote:

“ Never (he writes in 1773) imagine that your letters are long; they are always too short for my curiosity. I do not know that I was ever content with a single perusal. ..... My nights are grown again very uneasy and troublesome. I know not that the country will mend them; but I hope your company will mend my days. Though I cannot now expect much attention, and would not wish for more than can be spared from the poor dear lady (her mother), yet I shall see you and hear you every now and then; and to see and hear you, is always to hear wit and to see virtue.”

He would not suffer her to be lightly spoken of in his presence, nor permit his name to be coupled jocularly with hers. “I yesterday told him," says Boswell, when they were traversing the Highlands, “I was thinking of writing a poetical letter to him, on his return from Scotland, in the style of Swift's humorous epistle in the character of Mary Gulliver to her husband, Captain Lemuel Gulliver, on his return to England from the country of the Houyhnhnms:

". At early morn I to the market haste,

Studious in ev'rything to please thy taste.
A curious fowl and sparagrass I chose;
(For I remember you were fond of those :)
Three shillings cost the first, the last seven groats;
Sullen you turn from both, and call for Oats.'

He laughed, and asked in whose name I would write it. I said

« PreviousContinue »