Boswell tells us in Volume V of his Life of Johnson that, ‘Dr Erskine and Mr Robert Walker, two very respectable ministers of Edinburgh, supped with us,’ meaning Dr Johnson and himself. This was on Wednesday November 10th, 1773, shortly before Johnson returned to London after his tour of Scotland including the Hebrides, but not forgetting Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Enlightenment.
In his collected works appears the following verse, in French, followed by Johnson’s translations, firstly the ‘considered’ version followed by an impromptu version, already scanning and rhyming.
I like the image of lightly skimming over pleasures, enjoying them for a while, then hasting away from what could be a dangerous abyss for the less wary. Not a bad ideal for Lent or any time.
Translation of the Following Lines, written under a print representing persons skating.
Sur un mince cristal l'hiver conduit leurs pas, Le précipice est sous la glace: Telle est de nos plaisirs la légère surface: Glissez, mortels; n'appuyez pas.
O'er ice the rapid skater flies, With sport above, and death below; Where mischief lurks in gay disguise, Thus lightly touch and quickly go.
Impromptu Translation of the same.
O'er crackling ice, o'er gulfs profound, With nimble glide the skaters play; O'er treach'rous pleasure's flow'ry ground Thus lightly skim, and haste away."
(from Volume 1, The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes)
It’s the eighteenth century, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s tour around the Hebrides has been curtailed by the weather. Boswell had enjoyed more than one glass of his host’s hospitality on Saturday evening, and woke up with a hangover, barely conscious. No minister, so no Sunday service, but conscience was to catch up with him, though he tried to wriggle out of it. But finally he was honest with himself and the reader.
I took my host’s advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson’s room, and taking up Mrs M’Kinnon’s prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.’ Some would have taken this as a divine interposition.
This was another day of wind and rain; but good cheer and good society helped to beguile the time. I felt myself comfortable enough in the afternoon. I then thought that my last night’s riot was no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame; and recollected that some physicians maintained, that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health: so different are our reflections on the same subject, at different periods; and such the excuses with which we palliate what we know to be wrong.
From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.
Another visit to the eighteenth century in the company of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell.
In The Idler, No. II, Johnson shews that ‘an Englishman’s notice of the weather is the natural consequence of changeable skies and uncertain seasons… In our island every man goes to sleep unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning a bright or cloudy atmosphere, whether his rest shall be lulled by a shower, or broken by a tempest. We therefore rejoice mutually at good weather, as at an escape from something that we feared; and mutually complain of bad, as of the loss of something that we hoped.’
Boswell for once is quoting from Johnson’s written words rather than conversation. I found this text on the same day in winter that I took the photograph. My father called the piercing of clouds by sunbeams such as we see here ‘The Gate of Heaven’. A saying worth recording, as Boswell would no doubt have agreed.
I am reminded of the line of Chesterton: ‘The gates of heaven are lightly locked.’ But do we look up to see them? Dare we set a toe over the threshold, pausing even for a moment, to catch a glimpse of glory? What does the voice from the cloud tell us? I found myself hurrying the next moment, as my grandson’s school bell had rung and he would soon be out, scanning the playground for his adults. But the moment stayed with me.
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784” by James Boswell
How are you doing with those New Year’s Resolutions? Read on for some encouragement!
Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are in Skye, made very welcome by a local chief, but unable to move on because the weather was too bad for sailing or rowing, and of course Calmac steamships had not yet appeared. Here is Boswell describing one of their conversations. Doctor Doddridge was a non-conformist minister and hymn writer who died in 1751, 22 years before the friends’ tour of Scotland. More of Boswell’s idiosyncratic spellings.
Dr Dodridge being mentioned, [Johnson] observed that ‘he was author of one of the finest epigrams in the English language. It is in Orton’s Life of him. The subject is his family-motto, Dum vivimus, vivamus*; which, in its primary signification, is, to be sure, not very suitable to a Christian divine; but he paraphrased it thus:
Live, while you live, the EPICURE would say,
And seize the pleasures of the present day.
Live, while you live, the sacred PREACHER cries,
And give to God each moment as it flies.
Lord, in my views let both united be;
I live in PLEASURE, when I live to THEE.
(from The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell)
O, GOD, giver and preserver of all life,
by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained,
look down upon me with tenderness and mercy;
grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed;
that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness.
O, LORD, let me not sink into total depravity;
look down upon me, and rescue me at last from the captivity of sin.
Almighty and most merciful Father,
who hast continued my life from year to year,
grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures,
and more careful of eternal happiness.
Let not my years be multiplied to increase my guilt;
but as my age advances, let me become more pure in my thoughts,
more regular in my desires, and more obedient to thy laws.
Forgive, O merciful LORD, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws.
Give me such a sense of my wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance;
so that when I shall be called into another state,
I may be received among the sinners to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon,
for JESUS CHRIST'S sake.
From "Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784" by James Boswell
Boswell acknowledged Johnson as a most pious friend, who was by no means as wicked as the reader might imagine. Johnson was inclined to melancholy and to a deep sense of his own sinfulness, but any of us could make our own the last paragraph of this prayer.
Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder dates from some 20 years after Johnson’s prayer. May they both be received among the sinners who have obtained pardon.
Let’s rejoice in true friendship. On this occasion, Boswell missed Johnson’s company and longed for a letter. Johnson excuses himself with great eloquence! But who would like a letter or email from me – or you?
I set a very high value upon your friendship, and count your kindness as one of the chief felicities of my life. Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write; nor has any man at all times something to say. ‘That distrust which intrudes so often on your mind is a mode of melancholy, which, if it be the business of a wise man to be happy, it is foolish to indulge; and if it be a duty to preserve our faculties entire for their proper use, it is criminal.
Suspicion is very often an useless pain. From that, and all other pains, I wish you free and safe; for I am,
dear Sir, Most affectionately yours,
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
Doctor Johnson had a few thoughts on pilgrimage: In Autumn 1773, he made his way to the Island of Iona (or Icolmkill) in Scotland with James Boswell, who recorded:
When we had landed upon the sacred place, which, as long as I can remember, I had thought on with veneration, Dr. Johnson and I cordially embraced. We had long talked of visiting Icolmkill; and, from the lateness of the season, were at times very doubtful whether we should be able to effect our purpose. To have seen it, even alone, would have given me great satisfaction; but the venerable scene was rendered much more pleasing by the company of my great and pious friend, who was no less affected by it than I was; and who has described the impressions it should make on the mind, with such strength of thought, and energy of language, that I shall quote his words, as conveying my own sensations much more forcibly than I am capable of doing:—
‘We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!’
Johnson says in Rasselas, ch. xi:—’That the supreme being may be more easily propitiated in one place than in another is the dream of idle superstition; but that some places may operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner is an opinion which hourly experience will justify. He who supposes that his vices may be more successfully combated in Palestine will, perhaps, find himself mistaken, yet he may go thither without folly; he who thinks they will be more freely pardoned dishonours at once his reason and religion.’
( both from “Life of Johnson, Volume 5 ” by James Boswell)
Two Hundred and forty six years ago, Dr Johnson and James Boswell were on the Isle of Raasay in the Hebrides, making for Skye and thence for home. No regular Calmac ferry then! Indeed they had waited in the islands for clement weather to allow the rowing boats to set out. Now the conversation grew serious; can one die contented? Johnson’s answer is comprehensive, and reminds me of the old catechism answer: God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next. We rely on his mercy for the latter.
More of Boswell’s idiosyncratick spelling!
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12. It was a beautiful day, and although we did not approve of travelling on Sunday, we resolved to set out, as we were in an island from whence one must take occasion as it serves. Macleod and Talisker sailed in a boat of Rasay’s for Sconser, to take the shortest way to Dunvegan. M’Cruslick went with them to Sconser, from whence he was to go to Slate, and so to the main land. We were resolved to pay a visit at Kingsburgh, and see the celebrated Miss Flora Macdonald, who is married to the present Mr. Macdonald of Kingsburgh; so took that road, though not so near.
All the family, but Lady Rasay, walked down to the shore to see us depart. Rasay himself went with us in a large boat, with eight oars, built in his island; as did Mr. Malcolm M’Cleod, Mr. Donald M’Queen, Dr. Macleod, and some others. We had a most pleasant sail between Rasay and Sky; and passed by a cave, where Martin says fowls were caught by lighting fire in the mouth of it. Malcolm remembers this. But it is not now practised, as few fowls come into it.
We spoke of Death. Dr. Johnson on this subject observed, that the boastings of some men, as to dying easily, were idle talk, proceeding from partial views. I mentioned Hawthornden’s Cypress-grove, where it is said that the world is a mere show; and that it is unreasonable for a man to wish to continue in the show-room, after he has seen it. Let him go cheerfully out, and give place to other spectators.
JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, if he is sure he is to be well, after he goes out of it. But if he is to grow blind after he goes out of the show-room, and never to see any thing again; or if he does not know whither he is to go next, a man will not go cheerfully out of a show-room. No wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to go into a state of punishment. Nay, no wise man will be contented to die, if he thinks he is to fall into annihilation: for however unhappy any man’s existence may be, he yet would rather have it, than not exist at all. No; there is no rational principle by which a man can die contented, but a trust in the mercy of GOD, through the merits of Jesus Christ.’
This short sermon, delivered with an earnest tone, in a boat upon the sea, which was perfectly calm, on a day appropriated to religious worship, while every one listened with an air of satisfaction, had a most pleasing effect upon my mind.
From “Life of Johnson, Vol 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773)” by James Boswell.
‘In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.’
On this day in 1773, James Boswell was conducting Dr Johnson around Scotland en route to the Western Isles. They have come as far as Nairn, some 20 miles East of Inverness, ‘a miserable place’, according to Boswell, but today ‘Scotland’s Highland playground’ according to the Tourist Board.
Here they came upon a Presbyterian response to a modern phenomenon: how to deal with scandalous behaviour among the Christian flock. Boswell and Johnson waited for hours while the minister, Mr Kenneth McAuley, was distributing tokens to parishioners.
Over to Boswell:
In Scotland, there is a great deal of preparation before administering the sacrament. The minister of the parish examines the people as to their fitness, and to those of whom he approves gives little pieces of tin, stamped with the name of the parish as tokens, which they must produce before receiving it. This is a species of priestly power, and sometimes may be abused. I remember a lawsuit brought by a person against his parish minister, for refusing him admission to that sacred ordinance.
(from Life of Johnson, Volume 5 Tour to the Hebrides (1773) by James Boswell)
This does not sound like the ministry of Alistair Maclean!
One might ask, is the Sacrament, the Eucharist, a reward for good behaviour or food for the journey? Can we ever eat and drink worthily? Not by our own efforts! Does the grace of the Sacrament reach in to where we hardly know ourselves, but God knows? Did the use of tokens enhance or debase the Sacrament? Does denying it to anyone serve to bring the sinner to repentance, or lead to split or unity in the church?
Stamped tokens from post Great War Germany, when the currency was greatly debased due to inflation.
About the time the Quakers were migrating to North America, many other people were doing the same, in the case of Hebridean Islanders, it was poverty in the aftermath of the 1745 civil war that drove them away. Dr Johnson and James Boswell visited the Isle of Skye in 1773, soon after the process started; they were made welcome, but part of the entertainment was a sobering reminder of this. Here is Boswell (with his sometimes antique spellings):
In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.
Mrs. M’Kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off, they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country.
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 5, by James Boswell, via Kindle.
And a mortal sign for any country today whose more enterprising citizens feel the need to leave all they have known for a perilous journey to a land where they may not be as welcome as they might hope. War still drives people from their homes.
Let’s pray for peace in our time and for the casualties of war.