The Life of Johnson HTML version

1775: AETAT. 66.]--
'Edinburgh, Feb. 2,1775.
'. . . As to Macpherson,' I am anxious to have from yourself a full and pointed account of
what has passed between you and him. It is confidently told here, that before your book
came out he sent to you, to let you know that he understood you meant to deny the
authenticity of Ossian's poems; that the originals were in his possession; that you might
have inspection of them, and might take the evidence of people skilled in the Erse
language; and that he hoped, after this fair offer, you would not be so uncandid as to
assert that he had refused reasonable proof. That you paid no regard to his message, but
published your strong attack upon him; and then he wrote a letter to you, in such terms as
he thought suited to one who had not acted as a man of veracity.' . . .
What words were used by Mr. Macpherson in his letter to the venerable Sage, I have
never heard; but they are generally said to have been of a nature very different from the
language of literary contest. Dr. Johnson's answer appeared in the news-papers of the
day, and has since been frequently re-published; but not with perfect accuracy. I give it as
dictated to me by himself, written down in his presence, and authenticated by a note in
his own handwriting, 'This, I think, is a true copy.'
'MR. JAMES MACPHERSON,--I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any
violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law
shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by
the menaces of a ruffian.
'What would you have me retract? I thought your book an imposture; I think it an
imposture still. For this opinion I have given my reasons to the publick, which I here dare
you to refute. Your rage I defy. Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable;
and what I hear of your morals, inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say, but to
what you shall prove. You may print this if you will.'
Mr. Macpherson little knew the character of Dr. Johnson, if he supposed that he could be
easily intimidated; for no man was ever more remarkable for personal courage. He had,
indeed, an aweful dread of death, or rather, 'of something after death;' and what rational
man, who seriously thinks of quitting all that he has ever known, and going into a new
and unknown state of being, can be without that dread? But his fear was from reflection;
his courage natural. His fear, in that one instance, was the result of philosophical and
religious consideration. He feared death, but he feared nothing else, not even what might