Saturday, June 05, 2021

'The Wits Have Had Their Laugh'

“Having read both [Sir John] Hawkins and Boswell, I now think myself as much a master of Johnson’s character as if I had known him personally, and cannot but regret that our bards of other times found no such biographers as these. They have both been ridiculed, and the wits have had their laugh; but such a history of Milton or Shakspeare [sic] as they have given of Johnson—O how desirable!” 

One shares with William Cowper the illusion that we know Dr. Johnson better than we know family and friends. If we have read him across a lifetime, and read his first two biographers and dozens of subsequent lives and studies, perhaps we do. We can largely thank Boswell and his prolonged intimacy with Johnson for this. Dead these 237 years, Johnson seems fixed like a bug in amber. He is less likely to change than your brother-in-law. Still, he is human and by definition a mystery, as I am and you are, and we tend to overstate our understanding of others. Cowper continues in his letter of June 20, 1789, to his friend Samuel Rose:


“I do not much wish you to take a tour to the Hebrides. The passage from island to island seems dangerous, and it does not appear from anything Boswel [sic] says, that there is aught to be seen that may not be much better imagined than visited; as to a curiosity to see uncivilized life, perhaps it somewhat resembles a curiosity to thrust one’s nose into an ill smell.”


Johnson had died five years earlier. Cowper has read Hawkins’ Life (1789) and Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785), though the latter’s Life of Johnson wouldn’t be published until 1791. Cowper shares with many Englishmen of his day a conviction that the Scots, the islanders in particular, were peasants, a primitive race. One can understand a distaste for slumming that masquerades as tourism. Two weeks earlier, on June 5, Cowper had written to Rose:


“I return you many thanks for Boswel’s Tour. I read it to Mrs. Unwin after supper, and we find it amusing. There is much trash in it, as there must always be in every narrative that relates indiscriminately all that passed. But now and then the Doctor speaks like an Oracle, and that makes amends for all. Sir John [Hawkins] was a coxcomb, and Boswell is not less a coxcomb, though of another kind. I fancy Johnson made coxcombs of all his friends, and they in return made Him a coxcomb; for, with reverence be it spoken, such he certainly was, and flatter’d as he was, he was sure to be so.”


A coxcomb in Cowper’s day was “a vain and conceited man” (OED). That’s not as damning as it sounds, as we are all coxcombs.

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