The Life of Johnson
1781: AETAT. 72.]--In 1781 Johnson at last completed his Lives of the Poets, of which
he gives this account: 'Some time in March I finished the Lives of the Poets, which I
wrote in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour
and haste.' In a memorandum previous to this, he says of them: 'Written, I hope, in such a
manner as may tend to the promotion of piety.'
The booksellers, justly sensible of the great additional value of the copy-right, presented
him with another hundred pounds, over and above two hundred, for which his agreement
was to furnish such prefaces as he thought fit.
As he was so good as to make me a present of the greatest part of the original and indeed
only manuscript of this admirable work, I have an opportunity of observing with wonder,
the correctness with which he rapidly struck off such glowing composition.
The Life of COWLEY he himself considered as the best of the whole, on account of the
dissertation which it contains on the Metaphysical Poets.
While the world in general was filled with admiration of Johnson's Lives of the Poets,
there were narrow circles in which prejudice and resentment were fostered, and from
which attacks of different sorts issued against him. By some violent Whigs he was
arraigned of injustice to Milton; by some Cambridge men of depreciating Gray; and his
expressing with a dignified freedom what he really thought of George, Lord Lyttelton,
gave offence to some of the friends of that nobleman, and particularly produced a
declaration of war against him from Mrs. Montagu, the ingenious Essayist on
Shakspeare, between whom and his Lordship a commerce of reciprocal compliments had
long been carried on. In this war the smaller powers in alliance with him were of course
led to engage, at least on the defensive, and thus I for one was excluded from the
enjoyment of 'A Feast of Reason,' such as Mr. Cumberland has described, with a keen,
yet just and delicate pen, in his Observer. These minute inconveniences gave not the least
disturbance to Johnson. He nobly said, when I talked to him of the feeble, though shrill
outcry which had been raised, 'Sir, I considered myself as entrusted with a certain portion
of truth. I have given my opinion sincerely; let them shew where they think me wrong.'
I wrote to him in February, complaining of having been troubled by a recurrence of the
perplexing question of Liberty and Necessity;-- and mentioning that I hoped soon to meet
him again in London.
'To James Boswell, Esq.
'DEAR SIR,--I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy of misery. What have you to
do with Liberty and Necessity? Or what more than to hold your tongue about it? Do not
doubt but I shall be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part about
you but your affectation of distress.