Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Johnsons Interview with the King
By James Boswell (17401795)
From Life of Johnson
HIS Majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent, Mr. Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King was, and, in obedience to his Majestys commands, mentioned that Dr. Johnson was then in the library. His Majesty said he was at leisure, and would go to him; upon which Mr. Barnard took one of the candles that stood on the Kings table, and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his Majesty had the key. Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered him Sir, here is the King. Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.
His Majesty began by observing, that he understood he came sometimes to the library; and then mentioned his having heard that the Doctor had been lately at Oxford, and asked him if he was not fond of going thither. To which Johnson answered, that he was indeed fond of going to Oxford sometimes, but was likewise glad to come back again. The King then asked him what they were doing at Oxford. Johnson answered, he could not much commend their diligence, but that in some respects they were mended, for they had put their press under better regulations, and were at that time printing Polybius. He was then asked whether there were better libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. He answered, he believed the Bodleian was larger than any they had at Cambridge; at the same time adding, I hope, whether we have more books or not than they have at Cambridge, we shall make as good use of them as they do. Being asked whether All Souls or Christ Church library was the largest, he answered, All Souls library is the largest we have, except the Bodleian. Ay, said the King, that is the public library.
His Majesty inquired if he was then writing anything. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said, I do not think you borrow much from any body. Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer. I should have thought so too, said the King, if you had not written so well.Johnson observed to me, upon this, that No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a king to pay. It was decisive. When asked by another friend, at Sir Joshua Reynoldss, whether he made any reply to this high compliment, he answered, No, sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign. Perhaps no man who had spent his whole life in courts could have shown a more nice and dignified sense of true politeness, than Johnson did in this instance.
His Majesty having observed to him that he supposed he must have read a great deal; Johnson answered, that he thought more than he read; that he had read a great deal in the early part of his life, but having fallen into ill health, he had not been able to read much, compared with others: for instance, he said he had not read much, compared with Dr. Warburton. Upon which the King said, that he heard Dr. Warburton was a man of such general knowledge, that you could scarce talk with him on any subject on which he was not qualified to speak; and that his learning resembled Garricks acting, in its universality. His Majesty then talked of the controversy between Warburton and Lowth, which he seemed to have read, and asked Johnson what he thought of it. Johnson answered, Warburton has most general, most scholastic learning; Lowth is the more correct scholar. I do not know which of them calls names best. The King was pleased to say he was of the same opinion; adding, You do not think then, Dr. Johnson, that there was much argument in the case. Johnson said, he did not think there was. Why, truly, said the King, when once it comes to calling names, argument is pretty well at an end.
His Majesty then asked him what he thought of Lord Lytteltons history, which was then published. Johnson said, he thought his style pretty good, but that he had blamed Henry the Second rather too much. Why, said the King, they seldom do these things by halves. No, sir, answered Johnson, not to kings. But fearing to be misunderstood, he proceeded to explain himself, and immediately subjoined: That for those who spoke worse of Kings than they deserved, he could find no excuse, but that he could more easily conceive how some might speak better of them than they deserved, without any ill intention; for, as kings had much in their power to give, those who were favoured by them would frequently, from gratitude, exaggerate their praises; and as this proceeded from a good motive, it was certainly excusable, as far as error could be excusable.
The King then asked him what he thought of Dr. Hill. Johnson answered, that he was an ingenious man, but had no veracity; and immediately mentioned, as an instance of it, an assertion of that writer, that he had seen objects magnified to a much greater degree by using three or four microscopes at a time than by using one. Now, added Johnson, every one acquainted with microscopes knows, that the more of them he looks through, the less the object will appear. Why, replied the King, this is not only telling an untruth, but telling it clumsily; for, if that be the case, every one who can look through a microscope will be able to detect him.
I now, said Johnson to his friends, when relating what had passed, began to consider that I was depreciating this man in the estimation of his Sovereign, and thought it was time for me to say something that might be more favourable. He added, therefore, that Dr. Hill was, notwithstanding, a very curious observer; and if he would have been contented to tell the world no more than he knew, he might have been a very considerable man, and needed not to have recourse to such mean expedients to raise his reputation.
The King then talked of literary journals, mentioned particularly the Journal des Savans, and asked Johnson if it was well done. Johnson said, it was formerly very well done, and gave some account of the persons who began it, and carried it on for some years: enlarging at the same time on the nature and use of such works. The King asked him if it was well done now. Johnson answered, he had no reason to think that it was. The King then asked him if there were any other literary journals published in this kingdom, except the Monthly and Critical Reviews; and on being answered there was no other, his Majesty asked which of them was the best: Johnson answered, that the Monthly Review was done with most care, the Critical upon the best principles; adding that the authors of the Monthly Review were enemies to the Church. This the King said he was sorry to hear.
The conversation next turned on the Philosophical Transactions, when Johnson observed that they had now a better method of arranging their materials than formerly. Ay, said the King, they are obliged to Dr. Johnson for that; for his Majesty had heard and remembered the circumstance, which Johnson himself had forgot.
His Majesty expressed a desire to have the literary biography of this country ably executed, and proposed to Dr. Johnson to undertake it. Johnson signified his readiness to comply with his Majestys wishes.
During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. After the King withdrew, Johnson showed himself highly pleased with his Majestys conversation, and gracious behaviour. He said to Mr. Barnard, Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen. And he afterward observed to Mr. Langton, Sir, his manners are those of as fine a gentleman as we may suppose Lewis the Fourteenth or Charles the Second.