Page images

It was in the eighth year of their acquaintance that Johnson solaced his fatigue in the Hebrides by writing a Latin ode to her. “ About fourteen years since,” wrote Sir Walter Scott, in 1829, “I landed in Sky with a party of friends, and had the curiosity to ask what was the first idea on every one's mind at landing. All answered separately that it was this ode.” Thinking Miss Cornelia Knight's version too diffuse, I asked Mr. Milnes for a translation or paraphrase, and he kindly complied by producing these spirited stanzas :

Where constant mist enshrouds the rocks,
Shattered in earth's primeval shocks,
And niggard Nature ever mocks

The laborer's toil,

“ I roam through clans of savage men,

Untamed by arts, untaught by pen;
Or cower within some squalid den

O'er reeking soil.

“Through paths that halt from stone to stone,

Amid the din of tongues unknown,
One image haunts my soul alone,

Thine, gentle Thrale !

“ Soothes she, I ask, her spouse's care?

Does mother-love its charge prepare?
Stores she her mind with knowledge rare,

Or lively tale?

“ Forget me not! thy faith I claim,
Holding a faith that cannot die,
That fills with thy benignant name

These shores of Sky."

“On another occasion," says Mrs. Thrale, in the “ Anecdotes," “ I can boast verses from Dr. Johnson. As I went into his room the morning of my birthday once and said to bim, ' Nobody sends me any verses now, because I am five-and-thirty years old ; and Stella was fed with them till forty-six, I remember.' My being just recovered from illness and confinement will account for the manner in which he burst out suddenly, for so he did without the least previous hesitation whatsoever, and without having entertained the smallest intention towards it half a minute before :

". Oft in danger, yet alive,
We are come to thirty-five;
Long may better years arrive,
Better years than thirty-five.
Could philosophers contrive
Life to stop at thirty-five,
Time his hours should never drive
O'er the bounds of thirty-five.
High to soar, and deep to dive,
Nature gives at thirty-five.
Ladies, stock and tend your hive,
Trifle not at thirty-five;
For howe'er we boast and strive,
Life declines from thirty-five:
He that ever hopes to thrive
Must begin by thirty-five;
And all who wisely wish to wive
Must look on Thrale at thirty-five.'

666 And now,' said he, as I was writing them down, you may see what it is to come for poetry to a dictionary-maker; you may observe that the rhymes run in alphabetical order exactly. And so they do."

Byron's estimate of life at the same age, is somewhat different:

“ Too old for youth — too young, at thirty-five

To herd with boys, or hoard with good threescore,
I wonder people should be left alive.

But since they are, that epoch is a bore."

Lady Aldborough, whose best witticisms unluckily lie under the same merited ban as Rochester's best verses, resolved not to pass twenty-five, and had her passport made out accordingly till her death at eighty-five. She used to boast that, whenever a foreign official objected, she never failed to silence him by the remark, that he was the first gentleman of his country who ever told a lady she was older than she said she was. Actuated probably by a similar feeling, and in the hope of securing to herself the benefit of the doubt, Mrs. Thrale omitted in the “ Anecdotes” the year when these verses were addressed to her, and a sharp controversy has been raised as to the respective ages of herself and Dr. Johnson at the time. It is thus summed up by one of the combatants:

“In one place Mr. Croker says that at the commencement of the intimacy between Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale, in 1765, the lady was twenty-five years old. In other places he says that Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson's seventieth. Johnson was born in 1709. If, therefore, Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth year coincided with Johnson's seventieth, she could have been only twenty-one years old in 1765. This is not all. Mr. Croker, in another place, assigns the year 1777 as the date of the complimentary lines which Johnson made on Mrs. Thrale's thirty-fifth birthday. If this date be correct Mrs. Thrale must have been born in 1742, and could have been only twenty-three when her acquaintance commenced. Mr. Croker, therefore, gives us three different statements as to her age. Two of the three must be incorrect. We will not decide between them.” *

" At the time of my first edition,” rejoins Mr. Croker, “I was unable to ascertain precisely Mrs. Piozzi's age, but a subsequent publication, named · Piozziana,' fixes her birth, on her own authority, to the 16th January, 1740; yet even that is not quite conclusive, for she calls it 1740 old style, that is 1741. I must now, of course, adopt, though not without some doubt, the lady's reckoning.” The difficulty, such as it is, arises from ber not particularizing the style. In a letter to the author of “ Piozziana,” dated January 15th, 1817, she writes: “I am not well ; nor, I fear, going to be well directly ; but, be it as it may, tomorrow is my seventy-sixth anniversary, and I ought to be happy and thankful.” The author's comment is : “In this letter she marks her birthday and her advanced age, seventy-seven ; and much about that time, I recollect her showing me a valuable china bowl, in the inside of which was pasted a slip of paper, and on it written, With this bowl Hester Lynch Salusbury was baptized, 1740. She was born on the 16th, or, as according to the change of style, we should now reckon the 27th, of January, 1741."

In a letter to Mrs. Thrale of August 14th, 1780, Johnson writes: “If you try to plague me, I shall tell you that, according to Galen, life begins to decline at thirty-five.” This gives Mr.

* Macaulay's Essays.

old stvlmas baptized us lingering.

Croker a pretext for returning to the topic: “Mrs. Piozzi at her last birthday must have been forty, so that Johnson must have alluded to the sprightly verses in which he had celebrated Mrs. Thrale at thirty-five (see ante, p. 170, n. 3, and p. 471, n. 3 *); but since these notes were written I have found evidence under her own hand that my suspicion was just, and that she was born in 1740, new style.” He does not state where or in what shape this evidence was found. It coincides with her letter of January 15th, 1817; but is irreconcilable with the slip of paper in the bowl, which we learn from her letters was pasted in by herself after her second marriage.

“This bowl,” writes Mr. Salusbury, “is now in my possession. The slip of paper now in it is in my father's handwriting, and copied, I have heard him say, from the original slip, which was worn out by age and fingering. The exact words are, 'In this bason was baptized Hester Lynch Salusbury, 16th Jan. 1740–41 old style, at Bodville in Carnarvonshire.'”

The incident of the verses is thus narrated in “Thraliana”: “ And this year, 1777, when I told him that it was my birthday, and that I was then thirty-five years old, he repeated me these verses, which I wrote down from his mouth as he made them.” If she was born in 1740-41, she must have been thirty-six in 1777; and there is no perfectly satisfactory settlement of the controversy, which many will think derives its sole importance from the two chief controversialists, for it is eminently characteristic of both of them.

The highest authorities differ equally about her looks. “My readers,” says Boswell, “ will naturally wish for some representation of the figures of this couple. Mr. Thrale was tall, wellproportioned, and stately. As for Madam, or My Mistress, by which epithets Johnson used to mention Mrs. Thrale, she was short, plump, and brisk.” “ He should have added,” observes Mr. Croker, “ that she was very pretty." This was not her own opinion, nor that of her contemporaries, although her face was attractive from animation and expression, and her personal appearance pleasing on the whole. Sometimes, when visiting the

* The references are to the handsome and complete edition of Boswell's “Life of Johnson," in one volume, royal octavo, published by Mr. Murray in 1860.


author of “ Piozziana," * she used to look at her little self, as she called it, and spoke drolly of what she once was, as if speaking of some one else ; and one day, turning to him, she exclaimed: “No, I never was handsome: I had always too many strong points in my face for beauty.” On his expressing a doubt of this, and hinting that Dr. Johnson was certainly an admirer of her personal charms, she replied that his devotion was at least as warm towards the table and the table-cloth at Streatham.

One day when he was ill, exceedingly low-spirited, and persuaded that death was not far distant, she appeared before him in a dark-colored gown, which his bad sight, and worse apprehensions, made him mistake for an iron-gray. “Why do you delight,' said he,'thus to thicken the gloom of misery that surrounds me? is not here sufficient accumulation of horror without anticipated mourning?' — “This is not mourning, Sir!' said I, drawing the curtain, that the light might fall upon the silk, and show it was a purple mixed with green. — “Well, well!' replied he, changing his voice ; ‘you little creatures should never wear those sort of clothes, however; they are unsuitable in every way. What ! have not all insects gay colors ?'

According to the author of " Piozziana," who became acquainted with her late in life, “She was short, and though well-proportioned, broad, and deep-chested. Her hands were muscular and almost coarse, but her writing was, even in her eightieth year, exquisitely beautiful; and one day, while conversing with her on the subject of education, she observed that “all Misses, now-adays, wrote so like each other, that it was provoking;'adding, • I love to see individuality of character, and abhor sameness, especially in what is feeble and flimsy. Then, spreading her hand, she said, 'I believe I owe what you are pleased to call my good writing, to the shape of this hand, for my uncle, Sir Robert Cotton, thought it was too manly to be employed in writing like a boarding-school girl ; and so I came by my vigorous, black manuscript.'”

" Piozziana ; or Recollections of the late Mrs. Piozzi, with Remarks. By a Friend.” Moxon. 1833. These reminiscences, unluckily limited to the last eight or ten years of her life at Bath, contain much curious information, and leave a highly favorable impression of Mrs. Piozzi.

« PreviousContinue »