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EARLY DAYS MEETS JOHNSO-1763

’Behind yon hills, where Lugar flows.’ Burns.

‘Every Scotchman,’ says Sir Walter Scott, ’has a pedigree. It is a national prerogative, as inalienable as his pride and his poverty. My birth was neither distinguished nor sordid.’ What, however, was but a foible with Scott was a passion in James Boswell, who has on numerous occasions obtruded his genealogical tree in such a manner as to render necessary some acquaintance with his family and lineage. The family of Boswell, or Bosville, dates from the Normans who came with William the Conqueror to Hastings. Entering Scotland in the days of the sore saint, David I., they had spread over Berwickshire and established themselves, at least in one branch, at Balmuto in Fife. A descendant of the family, Thomas Boswell, occupies in the genealogy of the biographer the position of prominence which Wat of Harden holds in the line of the novelist. He obtained a grant of the lands in Ayrshire belonging to the ancient house of Affleck of that ilk, when they had passed by forfeiture into the hands of the king. Pitcairn, in his Collection of Criminal Trials is inclined to regard this ancestor as the chief minstrel in the royal train of James IV.; but, as he fell at Flodden, this may be taken as being at least not proven, nor would the position of this first literary man in the family have been quite pleasing to the pride of race so often shewn by his descendant. A Yorkshire branch of the family, with the spelling of their name as Bosville, was settled at Gunthwait in the West Riding, and its head was hailed as ‘his chief’ by Bozzy, whose gregarious instincts led him to trace and claim relationship in a way even more than is national. By marriage and other ties the family in Scotland was connected with the most ancient and distinguished houses in the land.

The great grandfather of the biographer was the Earl of Kincardine who is mentioned by Gilbert Burnet in his History of His Own Time. He had married a Dutch lady, of the noble house of Sommelsdyck who had once held princely rank in Surinam. With that branch also of the name did Boswell, in later years, establish a relationship at the time of his continental tour, when at the Hague he found the head holding ’an important charge in the Republick, and is as worthy a man as lives, and has honoured me with his correspondence these twenty years.’ From the Earl Boswell boasted ‘the blood of Bruce in my veins,’ a descent which he seizes every opportunity of making known to his readers, and to which we find him alluding in a letter of 10th May, 1786, now before us, to Mickle, the translator of the Lusiad, with a promise to ’tell you what I know about our common ancestor, Robert the Bruce.’ When Johnson, in the autumn of 1773, visited the ancestral seat of his friend, Boswell, ’in the glow of what, I am sensible, will in a commercial age be considered as a genealogical enthusiasm,’ did not forget to remind his illustrious Mentor of his relationship to the Royal Personage, George the Third, ‘whose pension had given Johnson comfort and independence.’ It would have required a much greater antiquarian than Johnson, who could scarcely tell the name of his own grandfather, to have traced the well-nigh twenty generations of connecting links between Bruce and the third of the Guelph dynasty on the throne.

From Veronica Sommelsdyck, the wife of this royal ancestor (whose title is now merged in the earldom of Elgin), was ’introduced into our family the saint’s name,’ born by Boswell’s own eldest daughter, and other consequences of a much graver nature were destined to ensue. ’For this marriage,’ says Ramsay of Ochtertyre, ‘their posterity paid dear,’ for to it was due, increased no doubt as it was through the inter-marriages in close degrees between various scions of the house, the insanity which is now recognised by all students of his writings in Boswell himself, and which made its appearance in the clearest way in the case of his second daughter. His grandfather James adopted the profession of law in which he obtained some distinction, and left three children Alexander, the father of the subject of this sketch, John, who followed the practice of medicine, and a daughter Veronica, married to Montgomerie of Lainshaw, whose daughter became the wife of her cousin Bozzy.

Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, married his cousin Euphemia Erskine. In the writings of the son the father makes a considerable figure, while his mother, ’of the family of Buchan, a woman of almost unexampled piety and goodness,’ as he styles her, is but a dim name in the background, as with John Stuart Mill who has written a copious autobiography, and left it to the logical instincts of his readers to infer that he had a mother. The profession of law was adopted by the father, who, after a residence abroad at Leyden where he graduated, passed as advocate at the Scottish bar in 1729, from which, after a distinguished career, he was appointed to the sheriffdom of Wigton, and ultimately raised to the bench in 1754, with the title of Lord Auchinleck. He possessed, says his son, ‘all the dignified courtesy of an old baron,’ of the school of Cosmo Bradwardine as we may say, and not only was he an excellent scholar, but, from the intimacy he had cultivated with the Gronovii and other literati of Leyden, he was a collector of classical manuscripts and a collator of the texts and editions of Anacreon. His library was rich in curious editions of the classics, and was in some respects not excelled by any private collection in Great Britain, and the reputation of the Auchinleck library was greatly increased by the black-letter tastes and publications of his grandson. A strong Whig and active Presbyterian, he was much esteemed in public and in private life. The son had on his northern tour the pleasure to note, both at Aberdeen and at Inverness, the high regard in which the old judge was held, and to find his name and connection a very serviceable means of introduction to the travellers in their ‘transit over the Caledonian hemisphere.’ Like the father of Scott, who kept the whole bead-roll of cousins and relations and loved a funeral, Lord Auchinleck bequeathed to his eldest son at least one characteristic, the attention to relatives in the remotest degree of kin. On the bench, like the judges in Redgauntlet, Hume, Kames, and others, he affected the racy Doric; and his ’Scots strength of sarcasm, which is peculiar to a North Briton,’ was on many an occasion lamented by his son who felt it, and acknowledged by Johnson on at least one famous occasion. In the Boswelliana are preserved many of old Auchinleck’s stories which Lord Monboddo says he could tell well with wit and gravity stories of the circuit and bar type of Braxfield and Eskgrove, such as Scott used to tell to the wits round the fire of the Parliament House. In his younger days he had been a beau, and his affectation of red heels to his shoes and of red stockings, when brought under the notice of his son by a friend, so affected Bozzy that he could hardly sit on his chair for laughing. A great gardener and planter like others of the race of old Scottish judges he had extended, in the classic style of architecture then in fashion, the family mansion, and had, as Johnson found, ’advanced the value of his lands with great tenderness to his tenants.’ Past the older residence flowed the river Lugar, here of considerable depth, and then bordered with rocks and shaded with wood the old castle whose ‘sullen dignity’ was the nurse of Boswell’s devotion to the feudal principles and ’the grand scheme of subordination,’ of which he lets us hear so much when he touches on ’the romantick groves of my ancestors.’

James Boswell, the immortal biographer of Johnson, was born in Edinburgh on October 29, 1740. The earliest fact which is known about him is one which he himself would have described as ’a whimsical or characteristical’ anecdote, and which he had told to Johnson: ’Boswell in the year 1745 was a fine boy, wore a white cockade, and prayed for King James, till one of his uncles, General Cochrane, gave him a shilling on condition that he would pray for King George, which he accordingly did. So you see that Whigs of all ages are made the same way.’ It may have been these early signs of perversity that led his father to be strict in dealing with him, for we cannot doubt that Boswell in the London Magazine for 1781, is giving us a picture of domestic life when he writes as follows: ’I knew a father who was a violent Whig, and used to upbraid his son with being deficient in “noble sentiments of liberty,” while at the same time he made this son live under his roof in such bondage, that he was not only afraid to stir from home without leave, but durst scarcely open his mouth in his father’s presence.’ For some time he was privately educated under the tuition of the Rev. John Dun, who was presented in 1752 to the living of Auchinleck by the judge, and finally at the High School and the University of Edinburgh. There he met with two friends with whom, to the close of his life, he was destined to have varied and close relations. One was Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, and by “Harry the Ninth” Bozzy, in his ceaseless attempts to secure place and promotion, constantly attempted to steer, while that Pharos of Scotland, as Lord Cockburn calls him, was as constantly inclined to be diffident of the abilities, or at least the vagaries, of his suitor.

The other friend was William Johnson Temple, son of a Northumberland gentleman of good family, and grandfather of the present Archbishop of Canterbury. Temple was a little older than Boswell, who for upwards of thirty-seven years maintained an uninterrupted correspondence with him. As he is the Atticus of Boswell, we insert here a detailed account of him in order to avoid isolated references and allusions in the course of the narrative. On leaving Edinburgh he entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge; after taking the usual degrees, he was presented by Lord Lisburne to the living of Mamhead in Devon, which was followed by that of St Gluvias in Cornwall. Strangely enough for one who was an intimate friend of Boswell, he was no admirer of Johnson (whose name, by a curious coincidence, was a part of his own), and a strong Whig and water-drinker, ‘a bill which,’ says Bozzy humorously, ’was ever one which meets with a determined resistance and opposition in my lower house.’ As the friend of Gray and of Mason, he must have been possessed of some share of ability, yet over his moral character the admirers and critics of Boswell are divided. To some he appears as the true and faithful Atticus to the Cicero of his friend, the Mentor and honest adviser in all times of danger and trial. To others he seems but to have possessed, in a minor degree, all the failings of Boswell himself, and it would appear the most natural inference to believe that, had Temple been endowed with greater force of mental or moral character, the results would have been seen in many ways upon the actions of his friend. In his wife he was unfortunate, and, at one time at least, he attempted to secure a colonial chaplaincy in order to effect a separation. He was the writer of an Essay on the Clergy; their Studies and Recreations, 1774; Historical and Political Memoirs, 1777; Abuse of Unrestrained Power, 1778; all of which have completely passed from the memory of man. But he lives with a fair claim to fame, as the correspondent of Boswell, who calls him ‘best of friends’ to ’a weak distemper’d soul that swells in sudden gusts, and sinks again in calms.’ A chance memorandum by Temple, on the death of Gray, displaying considerable felicity of phrase and insight, was sent by Boswell to the London Magazine of March 1772, from which it was copied by Mason in his Life of Gray, and in an adapted form it was used by Johnson himself in his sketch of the poet’s work, in his Lives of the Poets. The discovery of the Letters to Temple is one of the happiest accidents in literature, and without them the true life of Boswell could not be written. To neither Macaulay nor Carlyle were they known for use in their famous reviews. On the death of Temple in 1796, one year after the decease of his friend, his papers passed into the possession of his son-in-law, who retired to France, where he died. Some fifty years ago, a gentleman making purchases in a shop at Boulogne, observed that the wrapper was a scrap of a letter, which formed part of a bundle bought shortly before from a travelling hawker. On investigation, the letters were found to be the correspondence of Boswell with Temple, and all doubts as to their genuineness were conclusively set at rest by their bearing the London and Devon post marks, and the franks of well known names. But the internal evidence alone, as we shall see, would be sufficient to establish their authenticity. Published in 1857 by Bentley, under the careful editorship of Mr Francis, they constitute, along with the no less happy discovery in 1854, behind an old press in Sydney, of Campbell’s Diary of a Visit to England though Professor Jowett was inclined to doubt the authenticity of the latter the most valuable accession of evidence to the Johnsonian circle of interest, and they shed on Boswell and his method a light which otherwise would leave much in darkness, or, at least, but ensure a general acceptance of the harsher features in the criticism by Macaulay. From the remark by Boswell to Temple ’remember and put my letters into a book neatly; see which of us does it first,’ it has been inferred that he meditated, in some sort of altered appearance, their republication. That Temple entertained the same idea on his part we know from his own words, and from the title under which Boswell suggested their issue Remarks on Various Authors, in a Series of Letters to James Boswell, Esq. But that Boswell himself ever did intend the publication of his own must be pronounced, by all that know what lies behind their printed form, a moral impossibility.

The first preserved letter is dated from Edinburgh, July 29, 1758. It reveals at once the historic Boswell, such as he remained to the close, the cheerful self-confidence, the gregarious instincts, the pleasing air of moralizing, and the easy flow of style. ’Some days ago I was introduced to your friend Mr Hume; he is a most discreet affable man as ever I met with, and has really a great deal of learning, a choice collection of books ... we talk a good deal of genius, fine learning, improving our style, etc., but I am afraid solid learning is much worn out. Mr Hume is, I think, a very proper person for a young man to cultivate an acquaintance with.’ Then he digresses to ’my passion for Miss W t,’ of whom, he assures his friend, he is ’excessively fond, so don’t be surprised if your grave, sedate, philosophic friend who used to carry it so high, and talk with such a composed indifference of the beauteous sex, should all at once commence Don Quixote for his adorable Dulcinea.’ We catch sight of him, at eighteen, going on the northern circuit with his father and Lord Hailes. There, by the advice of an Edinburgh acquaintance, Love, an old actor at Drury Lane, but then a teacher of elocution in the town, he began ‘an exact journal,’ and on that journey it was that Hailes made Boswell aware of the fact that was to henceforward colour the entire tide of his life, the existence of Dr Johnson as a great writer in London, ’which grew up in my fancy into a kind of mysterious veneration, by figuring to myself a state of solemn elevated abstraction, in which I supposed him to live in the immense metropolis of London.’ Such were the links, the advice of this obscure player to keep a journal, and the report given to the youth by the judge in their postchaise. As early as December 1758 we hear of his having ’published now and then the production of a leisure hour in the magazines,’ and of his life in Edinburgh he writes, ’from nine to ten I attend the law class; from ten to eleven study at home, and from one to two attend a class on Roman Antiquities; the afternoon and evening I always spend in study. I never walk except on Saturdays.’ A full allowance, surely, all this for one who regrets his sad impotence in study, and writes the letters to Lord Hailes which we shall quote later.

Even at this period he betrays the fatal defect which remains with him through life, the indulgence in ‘the luxury of noble sentiments,’ and the easy and irritating Micawber-like genteel roll with which he turns off a moral platitude or finely vague sentiment, in the belief that good principles constitute good character. ’As our minds improve in knowledge,’ he writes, ’may the sacred flame still increase until at last we reach the glorious world above when we shall never be separated, but enjoy an everlasting society of bliss.... I hope by Divine assistance, you shall still preserve your amiable character amidst all the deceitful blandishments of vice and folly.’ While still at Edinburgh he produced The Coquettes, or the Gallant in the Closet, by Lady Houston, but it was ruined on the third night, and found to be merely a translation of one of the feeblest plays of Thomas Corneille. This play was long believed to be by Boswell, but his part was merely the providing the translator with a prologue, nor was the fact revealed till long after by the lady herself.

In November 1759 he entered the class of moral philosophy under Adam Smith at Glasgow. Perhaps his father had thought that in the more sedate capital of the West, and in close propinquity to Auchinleck, there would be less scope for the long career of eccentricities upon which he was now to enter. If such, however, had been the intention, it was destined to a rude awakening. All his life Bozzy affected the company of players, among whom he professed to find ’an animation and a relish of existence,’ and at this period he tells us he was flattered by being held forth as a patron of literature. In the course of his assiduous visits to the local theatre he met with an old stage-struck army officer from Ireland, Francis Gentleman, who had sold his commission to risk his chances on the boards. By this worthy an edition of Southern’s Oroonoko was dedicated to Boswell, and in the epistle are found some of his qualities:

’But when with honest pleasure she can find Sense, taste, religion, and good nature join’d, There gladly will she raise her feeble Voice Nor fear to tell that Boswell is her Choice.’

Thus early had the youthful patron of the drama blossomed into notoriety, and having also commenced attendance at the Roman Catholic Chapel he had now resolved to become a priest, though curiously enough he began this career by eloping, as we are assured by Ramsay of Ochtertyre, with a Roman Catholic actress. His father followed the pair to London, and there, it would seem, prevailed on the erratic neophyte to abandon his fair partner, whose existence would certainly have been a fatal barrier to the proposed priesthood. At least, like his friend Gibbon of later days, if he sighed as a lover, he obeyed as a son, and a compromise by which he was to enter on the profession of arms was effected. His father called on Archibald, Duke of Argyll, an old campaigner with Marlborough. ‘My Lord,’ said the Duke, ’I like your son; this boy must not be shot at for three shillings and sixpence a day.’ This scene reads like a pre-arranged affair calculated to flatter the erratic Bozzy out of his warlike schemes, for which it is clear he was never fitted. Indeed, the true aim was really, as he confesses to Temple, a wish to be ’about court, enjoying the happiness of the beau monde and the company of men of genius.’ Temple had come forward with an offer of a thousand pounds to obtain a commission for him in the Guards, and Boswell assures us repeatedly, ’I had from earliest years a love for the military life.’ Yet we can with equal difficulty figure ‘our Bozzy’ as priest or soldier. Like Hogg who hankered after the post of militia ensign with ‘nerves not,’ as Lockhart says, ’heroically strung,’ Boswell in his own Letter to the People of Scotland confesses himself ’not blest with high heroic blood, but rather I think troubled with a natural timidity of personal danger, which it costs me some philosophy to overcome.’ Nor was his devotion to charmer or chapel likely to weather the dissipated life he led in London. In later life he may have had thoughts of his own feelings when he proposed to publish, from the manuscript in his possession, the life of Sir Robert Sibbald. That antiquary had been pressed by the Duke of Perth to come over to the Papists, and for some time embraced the ancient religion, until the rigid fasting led him to reconsider the controversy and he returned to Protestantism. Bozzy thought the remark of his friend, that as ladies love to see themselves in a glass, so a man likes to see and review himself in his journal, ‘a very pretty allusion,’ and we may be sure, in spite of his reticence, that his own case was present at the time to his mind. His distressed father enlisted the interest of Lord Hailes, who requested Dr Jortin, Prebendary of St Paul’s, to take in hand the flighty youth, and to persuade him to renounce the errors of the Church of Rome for those of the Church of England, for it was plain that Boswell had broken loose from his old moorings, and some middle course might, it was hoped, prove to be possible. ‘Your young gentleman,’ writes Jortin to Hailes, ’called at my house. I was gone out for the day; he then left your letter and a note with it for me, promising to be with me on Saturday morning. But from that time to this I have heard nothing of him. He began, I suppose, to suspect some design upon him, and his new friends may have represented me to him as a heretic and an infidel, whom he ought to avoid as he would the plague.’ More likely the Catholic fit had passed away. But what a light does this phase, erratic even among his countless vagaries, shed on his relation to Johnson! Never, we may rest assured, did he tell the sage of this hidden passage in his life; yet how often do we find him putting leading questions to his friend and Mentor on all points of Catholic doctrine and casuistry, purgatory, and the invocation of the saints, confession, and the mass! There can be no doubt that this wrench left a deep impress on the confused religious views of Boswell, and this is the clue which explains the opening conversation with Johnson at the beginning of their intimacy. ‘I acknowledged,’ he writes, ’that though educated strictly in the principles of religion, I had for some time been misled into a certain degree of infidelity; but I was now come to a better way of thinking, and was fully satisfied of the truth of the Christian revelation, though I was not clear as to every point considered to be orthodox.’ Never in any way does he refer to this episode of his life, but the Life of Johnson is, as we shall have occasion to show, the life in many ways also of its author, who says of himself that, ’from a certain peculiarly frank, open, and ostentatious disposition which he avows, his history, like that of the old Seigneur Michael de Montaigne, is to be traced in his writings.’

Left to himself and the guidance of the writer Derrick, ’my first tutor in the ways of London, who shewed me the town in all its variety of departments, both literary and sportive,’ he was now busily spelling through the pages of the Gull’s Hornbook. From this course of idle dissipation he was saved by the interposition of an Ayrshire neighbour of the family, the Earl of Eglintoun, though were we to credit the account of the waif himself the Earl ’insisted that young Boswell should have an apartment in his house.’ Certain it is that by his lordship he was taken to Newmarket and introduced to the members of the Jockey Club. He would appear to have fancied himself a regularly elected member, for here his eccentricity broke forth into a yet more violent form. Calling for pen and paper, while the sporting fraternity gathered round, he produced the Cub at Newmarket, which he printed and dedicated to the Duke of York in a characteristically Boswellian strain. In doggerel which defies rhyme or reason he tells how his patron

’By chance a curious cub has got On Scotia’s mountains newly caught;’

and then the first of his many portraits drawn by himself, and prophetic of the lover of hospitable boards and good cheer as we know him in his works he describes the writer as

’Not of the iron race Which sometimes Caledonia grace; Though he to combat should advance, Plumpness shone in his countenance; And belly prominent declared That he for beef and pudding cared; He had a large and ponderous head, That seemed to be composed of lead; From which hung down such stiff, lank hair, As might the crows in autumn scare.’

At this time it is likely took place the escapade with which he must have convulsed the gravity of the Edinburgh literati invited to meet Johnson on their return from the Hebrides. ’I told, when Dr Hugh Blair was sitting with me in the pit of Drury Lane, in a wild freak of youthful extravagance I entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow. I was so successful in this boyish frolic that the universal cry of the galleries was “encore the cow.” In the pride of my heart I attempted imitations of other animals, but with very inferior effect.’ Blair’s advice was, says Scott, ’Stick to the coo, man,’ in his peculiar burr, but we can imagine how this unforeseen reminiscence must have confused the divine. After an ineffectual effort to enter himself at the Inner Temple, the ‘cub’ had to return in April 1761 to Edinburgh.

Old Edinburgh was nothing if not convivial. Writing to Temple and confessing that his London life had ’not been entirely as it ought to be,’ he appeals to him for pity in his present surroundings. Imagine ’a young fellow,’ he cries, ’whose happiness was always centred in London, hauled away to the town of Edinburgh, obliged to conform to every Scottish custom, or be laughed at “Will ye hae some jeel? Oh fie, oh fie!” his flighty imagination quite cramped, and be obliged to study Corpus Juris Civilis and live in his father’s strict family; is there any wonder, sir, that the unlucky dog should be somewhat fretful? Yoke a Newmarket courser to a dung cart, and I’ll lay my life on’t he’ll either caper or kick most confoundedly, or be as stupid and restive as an old battered post-horse.’ Among the many clubs of the time Boswell instituted a jovial society called the Soaping Club which met weekly in a tavern. The motto of the members was ’Every man soap his own beard,’ a rather recondite witticism which their founder declares equivalent to the reigning phrase of ‘Every man in his humour.’ It may be suggested here that in this company of feeble Bacchanalians Boswell had copied the Rabelaisian fay ce que vous voudras of the Franciscans of Medmenham Abbey with Sandwich, Wilkes, and others. At any rate, as their self-constituted laureate, he produced the following extraordinary song, which can be paralleled for inanity only by the stave he sang before Pitt in the Guildhall of London, as a means of attracting the notice of the Premier with a view to Parliament. The song is characteristically Boswellian.

’Boswell of Soapers the King On Tuesdays at Tom’s does appear, And when he does talk or does sing, To him ne’er a one can come near. For he talks with such ease and such grace, That all charm’d to attention we sit, And he sings with so comic a face That our sides are just ready to split.

Boswell is modest enough, Himself not quite Phoebus he thinks, He never does flourish with snuff, And hock is the liquor he drinks. And he owns that Ned Colquet the priest May to something of honour pretend, And he swears that he is not in jest, When he calls this same Colquet his friend.

Boswell is pleasant and gay, For frolic by nature design’d; He heedlessly rattles away When the company is to his mind. “This maxim,” he says, “you may see, We never can have corn without chaff;” So not a bent sixpence cares he, Whether with him or at him you laugh.

Boswell does women adore, And never once means to deceive, He’s in love with at least half a score; If they’re serious he smiles in his sleeve. He has all the bright fancy of youth, With the judgment of forty and five; In short, to declare the plain truth, There is no better fellow alive.’

This, it must be confessed, is sad stuff even for a laureate of twenty, and is jesting with difficulty. Every man, says Johnson, has at one time or other of his life an ambition to set up for a wag, but that a man who had completed the Life of Johnson should in after years complacently refer to this character of himself and ’traits in it which time has not yet altered, that egotism and self-applause which he is still displaying, yet it would seem with a conscious smile,’ is scarcely credible were it not out-distanced by graver weaknesses.

For about this date he published An Elegy upon the Death of an Amiable Young Lady, flanked by three puffing epistles from himself and his friends, Erskine and Dempster. In the same year appeared his Ode to Tragedy by a Gentleman of Scotland, with a dedication to James Boswell, Esq.! ’for your particular kindness to me, and chiefly for the profound respect with which you have always treated me.’ We hear of his ‘old hock’ humour, a favourite phrase with him for his Bacchanalian tastes, and we find the author limning himself as possessing

’A soul by nature formed to feel Grief sharper than the tyrant’s steel, And bosom big with swelling thought From ancient lore’s remembrance brought.’

In 1760 had appeared a Collection of Original Poems, published by Donaldson in Edinburgh on the model of Dodsley’s Miscellanies. It comprised poems by Blacklock, Beattie, and others, and a second volume was issued by Erskine as editor in 1762. To it Boswell contributed nearly thirty pieces along with Home, the author of Douglas, Macpherson of Ossian fame or notoriety, John Maclaurin and others. The merits of the volume are beneath notice, and Boswell’s contributions of Odes, Epigrams, Letters, Epistles, are of the traditional character; but An Epistle from a London Buck to his Friend must have been read by his father with regret, and by his mother of ’almost unexampled piety and goodness’ with shame. There is only one poem that calls for attention, the Evening Walk in the Abbey Church of Holyrood House, the original, perhaps, of Fergusson’s lament on the state of neglect of the then deserted mansion of royalty, where

’the thistle springs In domicile of ancient Kings, Without a patriot to regret Our palace and our ancient state.’

A third volume was announced for publication ’about eighteen months hence,’ but the public had enough of this coagulated jargon as Carlyle would have styled it, and critics and readers are spared the task of its consideration.

Yet all this time he was in the enjoyment of the best company that Edinburgh could afford; he was admitted a member of the Select Society, and his circle embraced such men as Lord Somerville, Lord Hailes, Dr Blair, Kames, Robertson, Hume, Home, Jupiter Carlyle and others. ’Lord Auchinleck,’ he quaintly adds, ’took the trouble himself to give him a regular course of instruction in law, a circumstance of singular benefit, and of which Mr Boswell has ever expressed a strong and grateful sense.’ But his sense was not such as to restrain him from a mock-heroic correspondence with Andrew Erskine, brother of the Earl of Kellie. Erskine must have been possessed of some parts, for he was the correspondent of Burns and was intimate with George Thomson the composer, yet we can fancy the consternation of the old judge when this farrago of the new humour was published in London in 1763. Writing from his father’s house, he thus begins: ’Dear Erskine, no ceremony I beseech you! Give me your hand. How is my honest Captain Andrew? How goes it with the elegant Lady A ? the lovely, sighing Lady J ? and how, oh how, does that glorious luminary Lady B do? you see I retain my usual volatility. The Boswells, you know, came over from Normandy with William the Conqueror; and some of us possess the spirit of our ancestors, the French. I do, for one. A pleasant spirit it is. Vive la bagatelle is the maxim. A light heart may bid defiance to fortune.’ Again the old man would find ’Allow me a few more words. I live here in a remote corner of an old ruinous house, where my ancestors have been very jovial. What a solemn idea rushes on my mind! They are all gone: I must follow. Well, and what then? Let me shift about to another subject. The best I can think of is a sound sleep; so good-night.’ In fact, like Sir Fretful Plagiary in the Critic, Bozzy was so covetous of popularity that he would rather be abused than be not mentioned at all. Little augury, too, of success at the bar could his father find in the following portrait of his son: ’the author of the Ode to Tragedy is a most excellent man; he is of an ancient family in the west of Scotland, upon which he values himself not a little. At his nativity there appeared omens of his future greatness; his parts are bright, and his education has been good; he has travelled in post-chaises miles without number; he is fond of seeing much of the world; he eats of every good dish, especially apple pie; he drinks old hock; he has a very fine temper; he is somewhat of a humourist, and a little tinctured with pride; he has a good, manly countenance, and he owns himself to be amorous; he has infinite vivacity; yet is at times observed to have a melancholy cast.’

Nothing but the most obtuse vanity could ever have induced Bozzy to publish all this. ‘Curiosity,’ he declares in the preface, ’is the most prevalent of all our passions, and the curiosity for reading letters is the most prevalent of all kinds of curiosity. Had any man in the three kingdoms found the following letters directed, sealed, and addressed, with post-marks provided he could have done so honestly he would have read every one of them.’ There is the true Boswell in this characteristic confession, the Boswell that read in the private diaries of Johnson, and, with an eye to biographical materials, had admitted an impulse to carry them off, and never see him more. ‘Why, sir,’ said the doctor, ‘I do not think you could have helped it.’

After this it was no wonder that his father was induced to allow his return to London, ’Where a man may soap his own beard, and enjoy whatever is to be had in this transitory state of things, and every agreeable whim may be indulged without censure.’ The Duke of Queensbery, the patron of Gay, was one of those to whom he was recommended now that he inclined to ’persist in his fondness for the Guards, or rather, in truth, for the metropolis,’ but he suspected some arrangement between his father and the Duke by which the commission was delayed. For some months he spent a random life as the occupier of Temple’s chambers in the vicinity of Johnson. Little could be expected of the friend of Churchill and Wilkes, yet Boswell now was at the turning point of his career.

‘This is to me,’ he writes in his great work, ’a memorable year; for in it I had the happiness to obtain the acquaintance of that extraordinary man whose memoirs I am now writing; an acquaintance which I shall ever esteem as one of the most fortunate circumstances of my life.’ We have seen how Lord Hailes, had on the 1758 circuit, mentioned to him the name of Johnson; how in Glasgow Gentleman had given him a representation of ‘dictionary Johnson;’ how Derrick in 1760, during his first visit to London, had promised to introduce this youth of twenty to the great dictator of literature; and Sheridan, the father of the dramatist, when in Edinburgh in 1761, giving public lectures on elocution, had made a similar promise. But on his return to London at the end of 1762, Boswell had found that Sheridan had quarrelled with Johnson, and Derrick had retired to Bath as master of the ceremonies in succession to Beau Nash. Luckily Derrick had before introduced his friend to Davies, the bookseller in Covent Garden, who as ’one of the best imitators of Johnson’s voice and manner’ only increased the ardour of Boswell for the meeting. Now the hour was come and the man. Yet surely never could there have been a more apparently unpropitious time chosen. Number 45 of the North Briton denouncing Bute and his Scotch favourites had appeared on April 23rd. The minister had bowed to the storm and resigned, while the writer of the libel had been arrested under a general warrant and discharged on the 30th of the month under appeal, either to be hanged, thought Adam Smith, or to get Bute impeached in six months. Alexander Cruden, of Concordance fame, was rambling over London in his lucid interval like an inverted Old Mortality, busy with a sponge obliterating every hated ‘45’ scrawled over the walls and every conceivable spot in the city against his country. Yet at such an hour it was that the famous meeting of Johnson and his biographer took place.

‘At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr Davies’ back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr Davies having perceived him through the glass door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my lord, it comes.” I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson’s figure, from the portrait of him painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.... Mr Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, “Don’t tell where I come from.” “From Scotland,” cried Davies roguishly. “Mr Johnson,” said I, “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” ... “That, sir, I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” This stroke stunned me a good deal; and when we had sat down, I felt myself not a little embarrassed, and apprehensive of what might come next.... Eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him, I ventured to say, “Oh, sir, I cannot think Mr Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you.” “Sir,” said he, with a stern look, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.” Perhaps I deserved this check,’ etc., etc.

Next day Boswell called on Davies, who assured him that the doctor would not take it amiss if he were to visit him; and so, a week later, ’after being entertained by the witty sallies of Messieurs Thornton, Wilkes, Churchill and Lloyd,’ from whom he would hear plenty of vigorous abuse of his country, and whose names we may take it as certain were not mentioned to his new friend, Boswell boldly repaired to Johnson. Nothing is more striking than the contrast between the hitherto reckless Bozzy and the easy assurance and composure with which he faces Johnson, sits up with the sage, sups at the Mitre, leads the conversation, and apparently holds his own in the discussions. Doubtless, the ’facility of manners’ which Adam Smith has said was a feature of the man, was here of service to him, and no less so would have been the flattering way in which he managed to inform Johnson of his reputation over the Border. Boswell was not slow to write to Lord Hailes, knowing full well how the report of such an acquaintance and friendship would be welcome at Auchinleck as the signs of an approaching reformation. Goldsmith, whom he met shortly after, he entertained at the Mitre with a party of friends, among whom was the Rev. Dr John Ogilvie, the author of some portentous and completely forgotten epics, but who is not yet quite lost to sight as the writer of the sixty-second paraphrase of Scripture, ’Lo! in the last of days behold.’ A subsequent ‘evening by ourselves’ he describes to Lord Hailes in the wariest manner, so as to secure his father’s consent to a plan of travel. The old judge had wished his son to follow the profession of law which had now in their family become quite hereditary, and had coupled this with a scheme of study at Utrecht, after the plan he had himself followed at Leyden. A compromise had, in fact, been arranged by which this was to be pursued, and the career of arms dropped. Nothing can be more adroit than the way in which the young hopeful about to embark on the grand tour manages in his despatch to his lordship, with an eye to the Home Office, to suggest the furtherance of his own ideas under the supposed guise of Johnson’s approval. ’He advises me to combat idleness as a distemper, to read five hours every day, but to let inclination direct me what to read. He is a great enemy to a stated plan of study. He advises me when abroad to go to places where there is most to be seen and learned. He is not very fond of the notion of spending a whole winter in a Dutch town. He thinks I may do much more by private study than by attending lectures. He would have me to perambulate (a word in his own style) Spain, also to visit the northern kingdoms, where more that is new is to be seen than in France or Italy, but he is not against me seeing these warmer regions.’

Here, in fact, is the germ of the tour to the Baltic they had hoped when at Dunvegan one day to carry out, for which Johnson, when in his sixty-eighth year was still ready, and which Boswell thought would have made them acquainted with the King of Sweden, and the Empress of Russia. On a later day of the month he asked his friend to the Mitre to meet his uncle Dr John, ’an elegant scholar and a physician bred in the School of Boerhaave,’ and George Dempster, M.P. for the Forfar Burghs. As the latter was infected with the sceptical views of Hume, there would seem to have been a scene, for in the Life Johnson is made to say, ’I have not met with any man for a long time who has given me such general displeasure,’ but Boswell, ever with an eye for copy, writes to Temple, ’it was a very fertile evening, and my journal is stored with its fruits.’ Then to Lord Hailes he writes: ’Entre nous of Dempster, Johnson had seen a pupil of Hume and Rousseau totally unsettled as to principles. I had infinite satisfaction in hearing solid truth confuting vain subtilty. I thank God that I have got acquainted with Mr Johnson. He has done me infinite service. He has assisted me to obtain peace of mind; he has assisted me to become a rational Christian; I hope I shall ever remain so.’ Pleasantly all this would sound at home. There would be less now heard of his father’s threat in May to disinherit him, and of the son’s appeal to Lord Hailes to intercede with him ’to have patience with me for a year or two, and I may be what he pleases.’ On July 15th he has had a long letter from his father, full of affection and good counsel. ‘Honest man,’ he writes to Temple, ’he is now happy. He insists on having my solemn promise. The only question is, how much I am to promise.’ Then on the 25th he has his letters of credit and his introductions to people in Holland. ’They have been sent open for me to seal, so I have been amused to see the different modes of treating that favourite subject myself.’ He is to be allowed L240 a year, but he is determined not to be straitened, nor to encourage the least narrowness, but to draw on his father when necessary. Wilkes had gone to France, but had let him have some franks ’to astonish a few North Britons.’ Parting for a time with Temple, whose family was now in straitened circumstances, he assures him that their friendship should be ‘an exalted comfort’ to him in his distress, and concludes characteristically enough with advice to Temple’s younger brother in the army for his establishment in ‘solid notions of religion and morality.’

Before he bids his native land good-night, there is a final letter to Hailes with his father, Jortin, and the actress all well in his mind’s eye. ‘My scepticism,’ he says, ’was not owing to thinking wrong, but to not thinking at all. It is a matter of great moment to keep a sense of religion constantly impressed upon our minds. If that divine guest does not occupy part of the space, vain intruders will,’ the fine old roll of Micawber to the close. Johnson on the 5th August started with him for Harwich in the stage coach, half in hopes of visiting Holland in the summer, and accompanying Bozzy in a tour through the Netherlands. ’I must see thee out of England,’ said the old man kindly. On the beach they parted, and ’as the vessel put out to sea, I kept my eyes upon him for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; and at last I perceived him walk back into the town and he disappeared.’ Boswell’s attendance upon his new friend had not escaped the notice of the doctor’s circle. ‘Who,’ asked one, ’is this Scotch cur at Johnson’s heels?’ ‘Not a cur, but a bur,’ was Goldsmith’s reply, ‘and he has the faculty of sticking.’ With what effect the world was to know.