4 September 2010
Dr Johnson’s Patron
With much pleasure I am re-reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and am reminded not only of Dr Johnson’s wit and good sense, but also of his superhuman command of the language. Who today could deliver an insult as smooth and studied as that comprised in his letter to Lord Chesterfield?
In seeking a patron for his Dictionary – a work which laid the foundation for all subsequent English dictionaries and which he completed alone but for the assistance of six clerks – he addressed “Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, then one of his Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State; a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction, and who, upon being informed of the design, had expressed himself in terms very favourable to its success.”
Boswell goes on: “Johnson told me, that there never was any particular incident which produced a quarrel between Lord Chesterfield and him; but that his Lordship’s continued neglect was the reason why he resolved to have no connection with him. When the Dictionary was upon the eve of publication, Lord Chesterfield, who, it is said, had flattered himself with expectations that Johnson would dedicate the work to him, attempted, in a courtly manner, to sooth, and insinuate himself with the Sage, conscious, as it should seem, of the cold indifference with which he had treated its learned authour; and further attempted to conciliate him, by writing two papers in The World, in recommendation of the work. ...
“This courtly device failed of its effect. Johnson, who thought that ‘all was false and hollow’, despised the honeyed words, and was even indignant that Lord Chesterfield should, for a moment, imagine that he could be the dupe of such an artifice. His expression to me concerning Lord Chesterfield, upon this occasion, was, ‘Sir, after making great professions, he had, for many years, taken no notice of me; but when my Dictionary was coming out, he fell a scribbling in The World about it. Upon which, I wrote him a letter expressed in civil terms, but such as might shew him that I did not mind what he said or wrote, and that I had done with him.’”
Boswell secured a copy.
“TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE THE EARL OF CHESTERFIELD
“February 7, 1755.
“MY LORD, I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the publick, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is an honour, which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.
“When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address; and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre; – that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in publick, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.
“Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.
“The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.
“Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.
“Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my Lord, your Lordship’s most humble, most obedient servant,
Boswell adds: “There is a curious minute circumstance which struck me, in comparing the various editions of Johnson’s imitations of Juvenal. In the tenth Satire, one of the couplets upon the vanity of wishes even for literary distinction stood thus:
“‘Yet think what ills the scholar’s life assail,
“‘Pride, envy, want, the GARRET, and the jail.”
“But after experiencing the uneasiness which Lord Chesterfield’s fallacious patronage made him feel, he dismissed the word garret from the sad group, and in all the subsequent editions the line stands
“‘Pride, envy, want, the PATRON, and the jail.”’