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Samuel Johnson's Last Years
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson", by Sir John Hawkins
- 1783 -
About the middle of June 1783, his constitution sustained a severer shock than it had ever before felt: this was a stroke of the palsy, so very sudden and severe, that it awakened him out of a sound sleep, and rendered him, for a short time, speechless. As it had not affected his intellectual powers, he, in that cumbent posture to which he was confined, attempted to repeat, first in English, then in Latin, and afterwards in Greek, the Lord's Prayer, but succeeded in only the last effort, immediately after which, finding himself again bereft of the power of speech, he rang for his servant, and making signs for pen, ink, and paper, wrote and sent the following note to his friend and next-door neighbour, Mr. Allen the printer.
Mr. Allen immediately rose to his assistance, and, in the morning, dispatched a message to Dr. Heberden and Dr. Brocklesby, who immediately came, and, in a few days, so far relieved him, that his speech became, to a good degree, articulate, and, till his organs began to tire, he was able to hold conversation. By the skill and attention of these two worthy persons, he was, at length, restored to such a degree of health that, on the 27th of the same month, he was able to water his garden, and had no remaining symptoms of disease, excepting that his legs were observed to be swoln, and he had some presages of an hydropic affection. These gave him some concern, and induced him to note, more particularly than he had formerly done*, the variations of the state of his health.
But bodily afflictions were not the only trials he had to undergo. He had been a mourner for many friends, and was now in danger of losing one, who had not only cheared him in his solitude, and helped him to pass with comfort those hours which, otherwise, would have been irksome to him, but had relieved him from domestic cares, regulated and watched over the expences of his house, and kept at a distance some of those necessitous visitants, towards whom his bounty, though it seldom wrought any good, had often been exercised.
This person was Mrs. Williams, whose calamitous history is related among the events recorded in the foregoing pages. She had for some months been declining, and during the doctor's late illness was confined to her bed. The restoration of his health made it necessary for him to retire into the country; but, before his departure, he composed and made use of the following energetic prayer.
"Almighty God, who, in thy late visitation, hast shewn mercy to me, and now sendest to my companion disease and decay, grant me grace so to employ the life which thou hast prolonged, and the faculties which thou hast preserved, and so to receive the admonition, which the sickness of my friend, by thy appointment, gives me, that I may be constant in all holy duties, and be received at last to eternal happiness.
"Permit, O Lord, thy unworthy creature to offer up this prayer for Anna Williams, now languishing upon her bed, and about to recommend herself to thy infinite mercy. O God, who desirest not the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon her: forgive her sins, and strengthen her faith. Be merciful, O Father of mercy, to her and to me: guide us by thy holy spirit through the remaining part of life; support us in the hour of death, and pardon us in the day of judgment, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen."
During his absence from London, viz. on the sixth day of September 1783, Mrs. Williams was released from all her cares and troubles by an easy death, for which she was well prepared. The last offices were performed for her by those of her friends who were about her in the time of her illness, and had administered to her all the assistance in their power.
At his return to London, Johnson found himself in a forlorn and helpless condition: his habitual melancholy had now a real subject to work on, and represented his house as a dreary mansion. Solitude was never ungrateful to him, and the want of a companion, with whom he might pass his evening hours, often drove him to seek relief in the conversation of persons in all respects his inferiors. To talk much, and to be well attended to, was, throughout his life, his chief delight: his vein of discourse, which has often enough been described, was calculated to attract the applause, and even admiration, of small circles; to him, therefore, a confraternity of persons, assembled for the purpose of free communication, or, in other words, a club, could not but be a source of pleasure, and he now projected one, which will hereafter be described. In every association of this kind, he was sure, unless by concession, to preside, and, ex cathedra, to discuss the subjects of enquiry and debate.
The death of Mr. Thrale, and Johnson's estrangement from the dwelling and family of his valued friend, have already been mentioned: it remains to say of this event, that it was not followed by a total oblivion, on the part of his relict, of the intimacy that had subsisted between him and her husband, it appearing, that an intercourse by letters was still kept up between them. It was, nevertheless, easy to discover by his conversation, that he no longer looked on himself as a welcome guest at Streatham, and that he did but ill brook the change in his course of life that he now experienced. He had, for near twenty years, participated in most of those enjoyments that make wealth and affluence desirable; had partaken, in common with their owners, of the delights of a villa, and the convenience of an equipage; and had been entertained with a variety of amusements and occupations. In short, during the whole of that period, his life had been as happy as it had been in the power of such persons to make it.
That this celebrated friendship subsisted so long as it did, was a subject of wonder to most of Johnson's intimates, for such were his habits of living, that he was by no means a desirable inmate. His unmanly thirst for tea made him very troublesome. At Streatham, he would suffer the mistress of the house to sit up and make it for him, till two or three hours after midnight. When retired to rest, he indulged himself in the dangerous practice of reading in bed. It was a very hard matter to get him decently dressed by dinner-time, even when select companies were invited; and no one could be sure, that in his table-conversation with strangers, he would not, by contradiction, or the general asperity of his behavior, offend them.
These irregularities were not only borne with by Mr. Thrale, but he seemed to think them amply atoned for by the honour he derived from such a guest as no table in the three kingdoms could produce; but, he dying, it was not likely that the same sentiments and opinions should descend to those of his family who were left behind. Such a friendly connection and correspondence as I have just mentioned, continued, however, between Johnson and the widow, till it was interrupted by an event that will shortly be related.
I have in his diary met with sundry notes, signifying that, while he was at Streatham, he endeavoured, by reading, to acquire a knowledge of the Dutch language, but that his progress in the study thereof was very slow.
It has already been related that, being seized with a paralysis about the month of June 1783, he was so far recovered therefrom, as to entertain a hope, that he had nearly worn out all his disorders. "What a man am I!" said he to me, in the month of November following, "who have got the better of three diseases, the palsy, the gout, and the asthma, and can now enjoy the conversations of my friends, without the interruptions of weakness or pain!"—To these flattering testimonies I must add, that in this seeming spring-tide of his health and spirits, he wrote me the following note:
Our intended meeting was prevented by a circumstance, which the following note will explain:
With this invitation I chearfully complied, and met, at the time and place appointed, all who could be mustered of our society, namely, Johnson, Mr. Ryland, and Mr. Payne of the bank. When we were collected, the thought that we were so few, occasioned some melancholy reflections, and I could not but compare our meeting, at such an advanced period of life as it was to us all, to that of the four old men of the 'Senile Colloquium' of Erasmus. We dined, and in the evening regaled with coffee. At ten, we broke up, much to the regret of Johnson, who proposed staying; but finding us inclined to separate, he left us with a sigh that seemed to come from his heart, lamenting that he was retiring to solitude and chearless meditation.
Johnson had proposed a meeting, like this, once a month, and we had one more; but, the time approaching for a third, he began to feel a return of some of his complaints, and signified a wish, that we would dine with him at his own house; and, accordingly, we met there, and were very chearfully entertained by him.
A few days after, he sent for me, and informed me, that he had discovered in himself the symptoms of a dropsy, and, indeed, his very much increased bulk, and the swoln appearance of his legs, seemed to indicate no less. He told me, that he was desirous of making a will, and requested me to be one of his executors: upon my consenting to take on me the office, he gave me to understand, that he meant to make a provision for his servant Frank, of about £70 a year for life, and concerted with me a plan for investing a sum sufficient for the purpose: at the same time he opened to me the state of his circumstances, and the amount of what he had to dispose of.
In a visit, which I made him in a few days, in consequence of a very pressing request to see me, I found him labouring under great dejection of mind. He bade me draw near him, and said, he wanted to enter into a serious conversation with me; and, upon my expressing a willingness to join in it, he, with a look that cut me to the heart, told me, that he had the prospect of death before him, and that he dreaded to meet his Saviour*. I could not but be astonished at such a declaration, and advised him, as I had done once before, to reflect on the course of his life, and the services he had rendered to the causes of religion and virtue, as well as by his example, as his writings; to which he answered, that he had written as a philosopher, but had not lived like one. In the estimation of his offences, he reasoned thus—'Every man knows his own sins, and also, what grace he has resisted. But, to those of others, and the circumstances under which they were committed, he is a stranger; he is, therefore to look on himself as the greatest sinner that he knows of.'* At the conclusion of this argument, which he strongly enforced, he uttered this passionate exclamation,—'Shall I, who have been a teacher of others, myself be a castaway?'
Much to the same purpose passed between us in this and other conversations that I had with him, in all which I could not but wonder, as much at the freedom with which he opened his mind, and the compunction he seemed to feel for the errors of his past life, as I did, at his making choice of me for his confessor, knowing full well how meanly qualified I was for such an office.
It was on a Thursday that I had this conversation with him; and here, let not the supercilious lip of scorn protrude itself, while I relate that, in the course thereof, he declared his intention to employ the whole of the next day in fasting, humiliation, and such other devotional exercises, as became a man in his situation. On the Saturday following, I made him a visit, and, upon entering his room, observed in his countenance such a serenity, as indicated that some remarkable crisis of his disorder had produced a change in his feelings. He told me, that, pursuant to the resolution he had mentioned to me, he had spent the preceding day in an abstraction from all worldly concerns; that, to prevent interruption, he had, in the morning, ordered Frank not to admit any one to him, and, the better to enforce the charge, had added these awful words, 'For your master is preparing himself to die.' He then mentioned to me, that, in the course of this exercise, he found himself relieved from that disorder which had been growing on him, and was becoming very oppressing, the dropsy, by a gradual evacuation of water to the amount of twenty pints, a like instance whereof he had never before experienced, and asked me what I thought of it.
I was well aware of the lengths that superstition and enthusiasm will lead men, and how ready some are to attribute favourable events to supernatural causes, and said, that it might favour of presumption to say that, in this instance, God had wrought a miracle; yet, as divines recognize certain dispensations of his providence, recorded in the Scripture by the denomination of returns of prayer, and his omnipotence, is now the same as ever, I thought it would be little less than criminal, to ascribe his late relief to causes merely natural, and, that the safer opinion was, that he had not in vain humbled himself before his Maker. He seemed to acquiesce in all that I said on this important subject, and, several times, while I was discoursing with him, cried out, 'It is wonderful, very wonderful!'
His zeal for religion, as manifested in his writings and conversation, and the accounts extant that attest his piety, have induced the enemies to his memory to tax him with superstition. To that charge, I oppose his behaviour on this occasion, and leave it to the judgment of sober and rational persons, whether such an unexpected event, as that above- mentioned, would not have prompted a really superstitious man, to some more passionate exclamation, than that it was wonderful.*
He had no sooner experienced the ease and comfort which followed from the remarkable event above- mentioned, than he began to entertain a hope, that he had got the better of that disease which most oppressed him, and that the length of days might yet be his portion; he, therefore, sought for a relief from that solitude, to which the loss of Mrs. Williams and others of his domestic companions, seemed to have doomed him; and, in the same spirit that induced him to attempt the revival of the Ivy lane club, set about the establishment of another. I was not made privy to this his intention, but, all circumstances considered, it was no matter of surprise to me when I heard, as I did from a friend of mine, that the great Dr. Johnson had, in the month of December 1783, formed a six-penny club, at an ale-house in Essex-street, and that, though some of the member thereof were persons of note, strangers, under restrictions, for three pence each night, might, three nights in a week, hear him talk, and partake of his conversation. I soon afterwards learned from the doctor, the nature of, as also the motives to this institution, which, as to him, was novel, in this respect, that, as the presidency passed in rotation, he was oftener excluded from, than entitled to enjoy, that pre-eminence which, and in all convivial assemblies, was considered as his right.
The more intimate of Johnson's friends looked on this establishment, both as a sorry expedient to kill time, and a degradation of those powers which had administered delight to circles, composed of persons, of both sexes, distinguished as well by their rank, as by their talents for polite conversation. It was a mortification to them, to associate in idea the clink of the tankard, with moral disquisition and literary investigation; and many of them were led to question whether that pleasure would be very great, which he had rendered for so cheap: they, however, concealed their sentiments, and, from motives of mere compassion, suffered him to enjoy a comfort, which was now become almost the only one of which he was capable; and this he did for the short space of about ten months, when the increase of his complaints obliged him to forego it.
Johnson's Will | Hawkins' Postscript
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.," by Sir John Hawkins, Knt. 2nd edition, 1787, London. (Pages 541-594)
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