This article is about the book written by James Boswell. For the work written by John Hawkins, see Life of Samuel Johnson (1787).
|Original title||The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.|
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) is a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson written by James Boswell. The work was a popular and critical success when first published. It is regarded as an important stage in the development of the modern genre of biography; many have claimed it as the greatest biography written in English, but some modern critics object that the work cannot be considered a proper biography. While Boswell's personal acquaintance with his subject only began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson's life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson's life, as Boswell makes various changes to Johnson's quotations and even censors many comments. Nonetheless, modern biographers have found Boswell's biography an important source of information on Johnson and his times.
On 16 May 1763, Johnson met 22-year-old Boswell, the man who would later become his first major biographer, for the first time in the book shop of Johnson's friend, Tom Davies. They quickly became friends, although Boswell would return to his home in Scotland or travel abroad for months at a time. During his life, Boswell kept a series of journals that detailed the various moments that he felt were important. This journal, when published in the 20th century, filled eighteen volumes, and it was from this large collection of detailed notes that Boswell would base his works on Johnson's life. Johnson, in commenting on Boswell's excessive note taking playfully wrote to Hester Thrale, "One would think the man had been hired to spy upon me".
On 6 August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland, to begin "a journey to the western islands of Scotland", as Johnson's 1775 account of their travels would put it. Boswell's account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), was a preliminary attempt at a biography before his Life of Johnson. With the success of that work, Boswell started working on the "vast treasure of his conversations at different times" that he recorded in his journals. His goal was to recreate Johnson's "life in scenes". However, Boswell suffered the problem of having not met Johnson until Johnson was 53, and this created an imbalance on what portions of Johnson's life were actually discussed. Furthermore, as literary critic Donald Greene has pointed out, Boswell's works only describe 250 days that Boswell could have actually been present with Johnson, the rest of the information having to come from either Johnson himself or from secondary sources recounting various incidents.
Before Boswell could publish his biography of Johnson, there were many other friends of Johnson's who published or were in the middle of publishing their own biographies or collections or anecdotes on Johnson: John Hawkins, Thrale, Frances Burney, Anna Seward, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, and Horace Walpole among many. The last edition Boswell worked on was the third, published in 1799.
There are many biographies and biographers of Samuel Johnson, but James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is the one best known to the general reader. Yet opinion among 20th-century Johnson scholars such as Edmund Wilson and Donald Greene is that Boswell's Life "can hardly be termed a biography at all", being merely "a collection of those entries in Boswell's diaries dealing with the occasions during the last twenty-two years of Johnson's life on which they met ... strung together with only a perfunctory effort to fill the gaps". Furthermore, Greene claims that the work "began with a well-organized press campaign, by Boswell and his friends, of puffing and of denigration of his rivals; and was given a boost by one of Macaulay's most memorable pieces of journalistic claptrap". Instead of being called a "biography", Greene suggests that the work should be called an "Ana", a sort of table talk.
The cause for concern is that Boswell's original Life "corrects" many of Johnson's quotations, censors many of the more vulgar comments, and largely ignores Johnson's early years. In particular, Boswell creates a somewhat mythic version of Johnson, as William Dowling puts it:
In a sense, the Life's portrayal of Johnson as a moral hero begins in myth... As the biographical story unfolds, of course, this image dissolves and there emerges the figure of an infinitely more complex and heroic Johnson whose moral wisdom is won through a constant struggle with despair, whose moral sanity is balanced by personal eccentricities too visible to be ignored, and whose moral penetration derives from his own sense of tragic self-deception. Yet the image never dissolves completely, for in the end we realize there has been an essential truth in the myth all along, that the idealized and disembodied image of Johnson existing in the mind of his public... In this way the myth serves to expand and authenticate the more complex image of Johnson".
Modern biographers have since corrected Boswell's errors. This is not to say that Boswell's work is wrong or of no use: scholars such as Walter Jackson Bate appreciate the "detail" and the "treasury of conversation" that it contains. All of Johnson's biographers, according to Bate, have to go through the same "igloo" of material that Boswell had to deal with: limited information from Johnson's first forty years and an extreme amount for those after. Simply put, "Johnson's life continues to hold attention" and "every scrap of evidence relating to Johnson's life has continued to be examined and many more details have been added" because "it is so close to general human experience in a wide variety of ways".
Edmund Burke told King George III that the work entertained him more than any other. Robert Anderson, in his Works of the British Poets (1795), wrote: "With some venial exceptions on the score of egotism and indiscriminate admiration, his work exhibits the most copious, interesting, and finished picture of the life and opinions of an eminent man, that was ever executed; and is justly esteemed one of the most instructive and entertaining books in the English language."
Macaulay's critique in the Edinburgh Review was highly influential and established a way of thinking of Boswell and his Life of Johnson which was to prevail for many years. He was damning of Croker's editing: "This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed", and held a mixed opinion of Boswell: "Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London...; such was this man, and such he was content and proud to be". Macaulay also claimed "Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them". Macaulay also criticised (as did Lockhart) what he saw as a lack of discretion in the way the Life reveals Johnson's and others' personal lives, foibles, habits and private conversation; but recognised that it was this that made the Life of Johnson a great biography.
Without all the qualities which made him the jest and the torment of those among whom he lived, without the officiousness, the inquisitiveness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensitivity to all reproof, he could never have produced so excellent a book. He was a slave, proud of his servitude, a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues, an unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.
Macaulay noted that Boswell could only give a detailed account of Johnson in his later years: "We know him [Johnson], not as he was known to men of his own generation, but as he was known to men whose father he might have been" and that long after Johnson's own works had been forgotten, he would be remembered through Boswell's Life.
...that strange figure which is as familiar to us as the figures of those among whom we have been brought up, the gigantic body, the huge massy face, seamed with the scars of disease, the brown coat, the black worsted stockings, the grey wig with the scorched foretop, the dirty hands, the nails bitten and pared to the quick. We see the eyes and mouth moving with convulsive twitches; we see the heavy form rolling; we hear it puffing; and then comes the "Why sir!" and "What then, sir?" and the "No, sir!" and the "You don't see your way through the question, sir!"
What a singular destiny has been that of this remarkable man! To be regarded in his own age as a classic, and in ours as a companion. To receive from his contemporaries that full homage which men of genius have in general received only from posterity! To be more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries! That kind of fame which is commonly the most transient is, in his case, the most durable. The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading; while those peculiarities of manner and that careless table-talk the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe..."
Thomas Carlyle wrote two essays in Fraser's Magazine in 1832 in review of Croker's edition; his essay on 'Biography' in issue 27 was followed by 'Boswell's Life of Johnson' in issue 28. Carlyle wanted more than facts from histories and biographies "The thing I want to see is not Redbook Lists and Court Calendars, and Parliamentary Registers, but the LIFE OF MAN in England: what men did, thought, suffered, enjoyed; the form, especially the spirit, of their terrestrial existence, its outward environment, its inward principle; how and what it was; whence it proceeded, whether it was tending " and this he found in Boswell even (or especially) in the simplest anecdote "Some slight, perhaps mean and even ugly incident if real and well presented, will fix itself in a susceptive memory and lie ennobled there". Consequently, "This Book of Boswell’s will give us more real insight into the History of England during those days that twenty other Books, falsely entitled “Histories” which take to themselves that special aim". "How comes it" he asked "that in England we have simply one good Biography, this Boswell’s Johnson ?" He shared Macaulay's unfavourable verdict on Croker's efforts of Boswell: "there is simply no edition of Boswell to which this last would seem preferable" but not his view of Boswell. For all his faults Boswell (in part " a foolish, inflated creature, swimming in an element of self-conceit") had had the great good sense to admire and attach himself to Dr Johnson (an attachment which had little to offer materially) and the open loving heart which Carlyle thought indispensable for knowing and vividly uttering forth.
Boswell wrote a good Book because he had a heart and an eye to discern Wisdom, and an utterance to render it forth; because of his free insight, his lively talent, above all, of his Love and childlike Open-mindedness. His sneaking sycophancies, his greediness and forwardness, whatever was bestial and earthy in him, are so many blemishes in his Book, which still disturb us in its clearness; wholly hindrances, not helps. Towards Johnson, however, his feeling was not Sycophancy, which is the lowest, but Reverence, which is the highest of human feelings.
That loose-flowing, careless-looking Work of his is as a picture by one of Nature's own Artists; the best possible resemblance of a Reality; like the very image thereof in a clear mirror. Which indeed it was: let but the mirror be clear, this is the great point; the picture must and will be genuine. How the babbling Bozzy, inspired only by love, and the recognition and vision which love can lend, epitomises nightly the words of Wisdom, the deeds and aspects of Wisdom, and so, by little and little, unconsciously works together for us a whole Johnsoniad; a more free, perfect, sunlit and spirit-speaking likeness than for many centuries had been drawn by man of man!
More recent critics have been mostly positive. Frederick Pottle calls it "the crowning achievement of an artist who for more than twenty five years had been deliberately disciplining himself for such a task." W. K. Wimsatt argues, "the correct response to Boswell is to value the man through the artist, the artist in the man". Leopold Damrosch claims that the work is of a type that "do not lend themselves very easily to the usual categories by which the critic explains and justifies his admiration". Walter Jackson Bate emphasised the uniqueness of the work when he says "nothing comparable to it had existed. Nor has anything comparable been written since, because that special union of talents, opportunities, and subject matter has never been duplicated."
However, Leopold Damrosch sees problems with Boswell's Life if viewed as a conventional biography: "[T]he usual claim that it is the world's greatest biography seems to me seriously misleading. In the first place, it has real defects of organization and structure; in the second place (and more importantly) it leaves much to be desired as the comprehensive interpretation of a life." Similarly, although Donald Greene thought that Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides a "splendid performance", he felt that the Life was inadequate and Johnson's later years deserved a more accurate biography.
The first edition of Boswell's work appeared on May 16, 1791, in two quarto volumes, with 1,750 copies printed. Once this was exhausted, a second edition in three octavo volumes was published in July 1793. This second edition was augmented by "many valuable additions," which were appended to the 1791 text; according to Boswell's own "Advertisement," "These have I ordered to be printed separately in quarto, for the accommodation of the purchasers of the first edition." The third edition, appearing in 1799 after Boswell's death, was the responsibility of Edmond Malone, who had been instrumental in the preparation of the previous editions. Malone inserted the additions in their appropriate places in the text, adding some (suitably bracketed and credited) notes by himself and other contributors, including Boswell's son James. This third edition has been regarded as definitive by many editors. Malone brought out further editions in 1804, 1807, and 1811.
In 1831, John Wilson Croker produced a new edition which was swiftly condemned in reviews by Thomas Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle. The weakness of Croker's notes, criticized by both reviewers, is acknowledged by George Birkbeck Hill: "His remarks and criticisms far too often deserve the contempt that Macaulay so liberally poured on them. Without being deeply versed in books, he was shallow in himself." More objectionably, Croker interpolated into his Boswell text from the contemporaneous rival biographies of Johnson. Carlyle colorfully reviews and denounces the editor's procedure as follows:
Four Books Mr. C. had by him, wherefrom to gather light for the fifth, which was Boswell's. What does he do but now, in the placidest manner,—slit the whole five into slips, and sew these together into a sextum quid, exactly at his own convenience; giving Boswell the credit of the whole! By what art-magic, our readers ask, has he united them? By the simplest of all: by Brackets. Never before was the full virtue of the Bracket made manifest. You begin a sentence under Boswell's guidance, thinking to be carried happily through it by the same: but no; in the middle, perhaps after your semicolon, and some consequent 'for,'—starts up one of these Bracket-ligatures, and stitches you in from half a page to twenty or thirty pages of a Hawkins, Tyers, Murphy, Piozzi; so that often one must make the old sad reflection, Where we are, we know; whither we are going, no man knoweth!
A new edition by George Birkbeck Hill was published in 1887 and returned to the standard of the third edition text. In the 20th century, the noted scholar R.W. Chapman also produced an edition which as of 2017 remains in print, published by Oxford University Press.
In 1917, Charles Grosvenor Osgood (1871-1964) published an abridged edition, which is available via Project Gutenberg. 
- ^ abcdBate 1977, p. 360
- ^Johnson 1952 "Johnson's letter to Mrs Thrale 11 June 1775" p. 42
- ^Bate 1977, p. 463
- ^Bate 1977, p. 468
- ^ abcBate 1977, p. 364
- ^Damrosch 1973 p. 494
- ^Greene 1979 p. 129
- ^Brady 1972 p. 548
- ^Boswell 1986, p. 17
- ^ abcBoswell 1986, p. 7
- ^ abGreene 1979 p. 130
- ^Boswell 1986, p. 25
- ^Dowling 1980 pp. 478–479
- ^Boswell 1986, p. 26
- ^ abBate 1977, p. xx
- ^Bate 1977, p. 3
- ^"James Boswell to Edmund Burke 16 July 1791", Alfred Cobban and Robert A. Smith (eds.), The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Volume VI: July 1789 – December 1791 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. 297–298
- ^Anderson 1795 p. 780
- ^ abcdefgMacaulay's Review of Croker's Boswell, Edinburgh Review, September 1831. A slightly revised version can be found in Macaulay's collected Critical and Historical Essays, 2nd vol. of the Everyman edition (Dent & Sons, London, 1907) from which these quotes are taken.
- ^ abcdApril 1832 issue of Fraser's – quotes from version in Carlyle, Thomas (1915). English and Other Critical Essays (Everyman ed.). London: J M Dent. pp. 65–79. Retrieved 10 July 2014. ("no 704 of Everyman's Library")
- ^ abcdefgMay 1832 issue of Fraser's – quotes from version in Carlyle, Thomas (1915). English and Other Critical Essays (Everyman ed.). London: J M Dent. pp. 1–64. Retrieved 10 July 2014. ("no 704 of Everyman's Library")
- ^Pottle 1929 p. xxi
- ^Wimsatt 1965 p. 183
- ^Damrosch 1973 p. 486
- ^Damrosch 1973 pp. 493–494
- ^Rogers, Pat, "Introduction," in Boswell, James, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman. NY: Oxford UP, 1998. ISBN 0192835319. Pp. xxvii-xxviii.
- ^"Advertisement to the Second Edition," in Boswell, James (1998). Life of Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. p. 6. ISBN 0192835319.
- ^Malone, Edmund, "Advertisement to the Third Edition," in Boswell, James (1998). Life of Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. p. 9. ISBN 0192835319.
- ^Rogers, Pat, "Introduction," in Boswell, James, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman. NY: Oxford UP, 1998. ISBN 0192835319. Pp. xxviii.
- ^ abcHill, George Birkbeck, ed. Boswell's Life of Johnson. NY and London: Harper & Brothers, . Vol. 1, p. xxii-xxiii.
- ^"Select Bibliography," in Boswell, James, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman. NY: Oxford UP, 1998. ISBN 0192835319. Pp. xxxv.
- ^Macaulay, Thomas. "Macaulay's Review of Croker's Boswell".
- ^Carlyle, Thomas (n.d.). Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Corrected and Republished (First Time, 1839; Final, 1869). Vol. IV. London: Chapman and Hall. pp. 67–131.
- ^According to the anthology Nineteenth Century English Prose (ed. Thomas H. Dickinson & Frederick W. Roe), NY: American Book Co., 1908, p. 484, this Latin phrase means "Sixth something."
- ^Carlyle, Thomas (n.d.). Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Corrected and Republished (First Time, 1839; Final, 1869). Vol. IV. London: Chapman and Hall. pp. 71–72.
- ^"Boswell's Life of Johnson, Vol. 1". Google Books.
- ^""Life of Johnson" by Boswell, edited by R.W. Chapman".
- ^"Osgood, Charles Grosvenor".
- ^"Boswell's Life of Johnson, Abridged & Edited by Charles Grosvenor Osgood". Google Books.
- Anderson, Robert ed. Works of the British Poets. Vol XI London, 1795. XI
- Bate, Walter Jackson (1977), Samuel Johnson, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0-15-179260-7 .
- Boswell, James (1986), Hibbert, Christopher, ed., The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-043116-0 .
- Brady, Frank. "Boswell's Self-Presentation and His Critics." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 12, No. 3, (Summer, 1972), pp. 545–555
- Burke, Edmund. Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Vol. VI ed. Alfred Cobban and R. A. Smith. Chicago, 1958–1968.
- Carlyle, Thomas. "Boswell's Life of Johnson", in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays Vol. IV, ed. Thomas Carlyle. London, 1869.
- Damrosch, Leopold. "The Life of Johnson: An Anti-Theory." Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, (Summer, 1973), pp. 486–505
- Dowling, William. "Biographer, Hero, and Audience in Boswell's Life of Johnson." Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1980), pp. 475–491
- Greene, Donald. "Do We Need a Biography of Johnson's "Boswell" Years?" Modern Language Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, (Autumn 1979), pp. 128–136
- Johnson, Samuel. Letters of Samuel Johnson Vol II, ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.
- Lustig, Irma S. "Boswell's Literary Criticism in the Life of Johnson" Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 Vol 6, No 3 (Summer 1966) pp. 529–541
- Pottle, Frederick. The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esquire. Oxford, 1929.
- Sisman, Adam (2001), Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, ISBN 0-374-11561-3
- Tankard, Paul, ed. "The Lives of Johnson." Facts and Inventions: Selections from the Journalism of James Boswell. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-300-14126-9
- Wimsatt, W. K. "The Fact Imagined: James Boswell, in Hateful Contraries, ed. William K Wimsatt. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965
Nulla recordanti lux est ingrata, gravisque:
Nulla subit cujus non meminisse velit.
Ampliat ætatis spatium sibi vir bonus: hoc est
Vivere bis, vitâ posse priore frui.
Mart. lib. x. Epig. 23.
No day’s remembrance shall the good regret,
Nor wish one bitter moment to forget:
They stretch the limits of this narrow span;
And, by enjoying, live past life again.
So few of the hours of life are filled up with objects adequate to the mind of man, and so frequently are we in want of present pleasure or employment, that we are forced to have recourse every moment to the past and future for supplemental satisfactions, and relieve the vacuities of our being, by recollection of former passages, or anticipation of events to come.
I cannot but consider this necessity of searching on every side for matter on which the attention may be employed, as a strong proof of the superior and celestial nature of the soul of man. We have no reason to believe that other creatures have higher faculties, or more extensive capacities, than the preservation of themselves, or their species, requires; they seem always to be fully employed, or to be completely at ease without employment, to feel few intellectual miseries or pleasures, and to have no exuberance of understanding to lay out upon curiosity or caprice, but to have their minds exactly adapted to their bodies, with few other ideas than such as corporal pain or pleasure impresses upon them.
Of memory, which makes so large a part of the excellence of the human soul, and which has so much influence upon all its other powers, but a small portion has been allotted to the animal world. We do not find the grief with which the dams lament the loss of their young, proportionate to the tenderness with which they caress, the assiduity with which they feed, or the vehemence with which they defend them. Their regard for their offspring, when it is before their eyes, is not, in appearance, less than that of a human parent; but when it is taken away, it is very soon forgotten, and, after a short absence, if brought again, wholly disregarded.
That they have very little remembrance of any thing once out of the reach of their senses, and scarce any power of comparing the present with the past, and regulating their conclusions from experience, may be gathered from this, that their intellects are produced in their full perfection. The sparrow that was hatched last spring makes her first nest the ensuing season, of the same materials, and with the same art, as in any following year; and the hen conducts and shelters her first brood of chickens with all the prudence that she ever attains.
It has been asked by men who love to perplex any thing that is plain to common understandings, how reason differs from instinct; and Prior has with no great propriety made Solomon himself declare, that to distinguish them is the fool’s ignorance, and the pedant’s pride. To give an accurate answer to a question, of which the terms are not completely understood, is impossible; we do not know in what either reason or instinct consists, and therefore cannot tell with exactness how they differ; but surely he that contemplates a ship and a bird’s nest, will not be long without finding out, that the idea of the one was impressed at once, and continued through all the progressive descents of the species, without variation or improvement; and that the other is the result of experiments, compared with experiments, has grown, by accumulated observation, from less to greater excellence, and exhibits the collective knowledge of different ages and various professions.
Memory is the purveyor of reason, the power which places those images before the mind upon which the judgment is to be exercised, and which treasures up the determinations that are once passed, as the rules of future action, or grounds of subsequent conclusions.
It is, indeed, the faculty of remembrance, which may be said to place us in the class of moral agents. If we were to act only in consequence of some immediate impulse, and receive no direction from internal motives of choice, we should be pushed forward by an invincible fatality, without power or reason for the most part to prefer one thing to another, because we could make no comparison but of objects which might both happen to be present.
We owe to memory not only the increase of our knowledge, and our progress in rational inquiries, but many other intellectual pleasures. Indeed, almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well perceived, and is only known to have existed by the effects which it leaves behind. The greatest part of our ideas arises, therefore, from the view before or behind us, and we are happy or miserable, according as we are affected by the survey of our life, or our prospect of future existence.
With regard to futurity, when events are at such a distance from us that we cannot take the whole concatenation into our view, we have generally power enough over our imagination to turn it upon pleasing scenes, and can promise ourselves riches, honours, and delights, without intermingling those vexations and anxieties, with which all human enjoyments are polluted. If fear breaks in on one side, and alarms us with dangers and disappointments, we can call in hope on the other, to solace us with rewards, and escapes, and victories; so that we are seldom without means of palliating remote evils, and can generally sooth ourselves to tranquillity, whenever any troublesome presage happens to attack us.
It is, therefore, I believe, much more common for the solitary and thoughtful to amuse themselves with schemes of the future, than reviews of the past. For the future is pliant and ductile, and will be easily moulded by a strong fancy into any form. But the images which memory presents are of a stubborn and untractable nature, the objects of remembrance have already existed, and left their signature behind them impressed upon the mind, so as to defy all attempts of rasure or of change.
As the satisfactions, therefore, arising from memory are less arbitrary, they are more solid, and are, indeed, the only joys which we can call our own. Whatever we have once reposited, as Dryden expresses it, in the sacred treasure of the past, is out of the reach of accident, or violence, nor can be lost either by our own weakness, or another’s malice:
——Non tamen irritum
Quodcunque retro est, efficiet; neque
Diffinget, infectumque reddet,
Quod fugiens semel hora vexit.
Hor. lib. iii. Ode 29. 43.
Be fair or foul, or rain or shine,
The joys I have possess’d in spite of fate are mine.
Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r,
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.
There is certainly no greater happiness than to be able to look back on a life usefully and virtuously employed, to trace our own progress in existence, by such tokens as excite neither shame nor sorrow. Life, in which nothing has been done or suffered to distinguish one day from another, is to him that has passed it, as if it had never been, except that he is conscious how ill he has husbanded the great deposit of his Creator. Life, made memorable by crimes, and diversified through its several periods by wickedness, is indeed easily reviewed, but reviewed only with horrour and remorse.
The great consideration which ought to influence us in the use of the present moment, is to arise from the effect, which, as well or ill applied, it must have upon the time to come; for though its actual existence be inconceivably short, yet its effects are unlimited; and there is not the smallest point of time but may extend its consequences, either to our hurt or our advantage, through all eternity, and give us reason to remember it for ever, with anguish or exultation.
The time of life, in which memory seems particularly to claim predominance over the other faculties of the mind, is our declining age. It has been remarked by former writers, that old men are generally narrative, and fall easily into recitals of past transactions, and accounts of persons known to them in their youth. When we approach the verge of the grave it is more eminently true;
Vitæ summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam.
Hor. lib. i. Ode 4. 15.
Life’s span forbids thee to extend thy cares,
And stretch thy hopes beyond thy years.
We have no longer any possibility of great vicissitudes in our favour; the changes which are to happen in the world will come too late for our accommodation; and those who have no hope before them, and to whom their present state is painful and irksome, must of necessity turn their thoughts back to try what retrospect will afford. It ought, therefore, to be the care of those who wish to pass the last hours with comfort, to lay up such a treasure of pleasing ideas, as shall support the expenses of that time, which is to depend wholly upon the fund already acquired.
——Petite hinc, juvenesque senesque
Finem animo certum, miserisque viatica curis.
Seek here, ye young, the anchor of your mind;
Here, suff’ring age, a bless’d provision find.
In youth, however unhappy, we solace ourselves with the hope of better fortune, and however vicious, appease our consciences with intentions of repentance; but the time comes at last, in which life has no more to promise, in which happiness can be drawn only from recollection, and virtue will be all that we can recollect with pleasure.