“When I consider Life, ’tis all a cheat;
Yet, fool’d with hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on, and think to morrow will repay:
To morrow’s falser than the former day;
Lies worse; and while it says we shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possest.
Strange couzenage! none would live past years again,
Yet all hope pleasure in what yet remain;
And, from the dregs of Life, think to receive
What the first sprightly running could not give.”
Boswell quotes Dryden’s sobering speech while recounting Dr. Johnson’s visit to the home of the Rev. William Adams on June 12, 1784. Johnson shocks another guest by saying he is “much oppressed by the fear of death.” (Johnson, already desperately ill, died six months later at age seventy-five.) Adams replies that God is infinitely good, and Boswell reports the subsequent exchange:
JOHNSON: “That he is infinitely good, as far as the perfection of his nature will allow, I certainly believe; but it is necessary for good upon the whole, that individuals should be punished. As to an individual therefore, he is not infinitely good; and as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.”
“(looking dismally)” DR. ADAMS: “"What do you mean by damned?"
"(passionately and loudly)" JOHNSON: “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.”
The exchange continues and grows heated. Clearly, Johnson speaks not of theological abstractions but of his imminent mortality. Boswell makes a less-than-graceful segue: “From the subject of death we passed to discourse of life, whether it was upon the whole more happy or miserable. Johnson was decidedly for the balance of misery . . .”
Recounting that conversation, Boswell observes that “there is a deceitful hope that the next part of life will be free from the pains, and anxieties, and sorrows which we have already felt. We are for wise purposes ‘Condemn’d to Hope’s delusive mine,’ as Johnson finely says.” Boswell is quoting the opening line of Johnson’s “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,” followed by the Dryden lines quoted above.
It’s remarkable what passed for tea-time conversation in London in the eighteenth century.