The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page

Samuel Johnson's Last Years
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson", by Sir John Hawkins
- 1784 -

- Introduction
- 1781
- 1782
- 1783
- 1784
   November 28
   December 5
   December 13
- Johnson's Will
- Hawkins' Postscript
See also:
George Steevens' account of Samuel Johnson's funeral

    I have now brought him to the seventy-fifth year of his age, and the last of his life, in which two remarkable events occurred, the one whereof gave him great uneasiness, and the other, though much talked of, little or none. The time I am speaking of, is the year 1784, by about the middle whereof, he was, to appearance, so well recovered, that both himself and his friends hoped, that he had some years to live. He had recovered from the paralytic stroke of the last year, to such a degree, that, saving a little difficulty in his articulation, he had no remains of it: he had also undergone a slight fit of the gout, and conquered an oppression of his lungs, so as to be able, as himself had told me, to run up the whole stair-case of the Royal Academy, on the day of the annual dinner there. In short, to such a degree of health was he restored, that he forgot all his complaints: he resumed sitting to Opie for his picture, which had been begun the year before, but, I believe, was never finished, and accepted an invitation to the house of a friend, at Ashbourn in Derbyshire, proposing to stay there till towards the end of the summer, and, in his return, to visit Mrs. Porter, his daughter-in-law, and others of his friends, at Lichfield.

    A few weeks before his setting out, he was made uneasy by a report, that the widow of his friend Mr. Thrale was about to dispose of herself in marriage to a foreigner, a singer by profession, and with him to quit the kingdom. Upon this occasion he took the alarm, and to prevent a degradation of herself, and, what as executor of her husband was more his concern, the desertion of her children, wrote to her, she then being at Bath, a letter, a spurious copy whereof, beginning, "If you are not ready ignominiously married," is inserted in the Gentleman's Magazine for December 1784. That this letter is spurious, as to the language, I have Johnson's own authority for saying; but, in respect of the sentiments, he avowed it, in a declaration to me, that not a sentence of it was his, but yet, that it was an adumbration of one that he wrote upon the occasion. It may, therefore, be suspected, that some one who heard him repeat the contents of the letter, had given it to the public in the form in which it appeared.

    What answer was returned to his friendly monition, I know not, but it seems that it was succeeded by a letter of greater length, written, as it afterwards appeared, too late to do any good, in which he expressed an opinion, that the person to whom it was addressed had forfeited her fame. The answer to this I have seen: it is written from Bath, and contains an indignant vindication as well of her conduct as her fame, an inhibition of Johnson from following her to Bath, and a farewell, concluding—"Till you have changed your opinion of ——— let us converse no more."

    In this transaction, Johnson seemed to have forgotten the story of the Ephesian Matron, related by Petronius, but was, by this time, convinced that, in his endeavours to prevent an attachment, which he foresaw would be prejudicial to the interests of his friend's children, and fix an indelible disgrace on their mother, who was about to abandon them and her country, he had been labouring to hedge in the cuckow. From the style of the last mentioned letter, a conclusion was to be drawn, that baffled all the powers of reasoning and persuasion:

One argument she summ'd up all in,
The thing was done, and past recalling;*

which being the case, he contented himself with reflecting on what he had done to prevent that which he thought one of the greatest evils that could befall the progeny of his friend, the alienation of the affections of their mother. He looked upon the desertion of children by their parents, and the withdrawing from them that protection, that mental nutriment which, in their youth they are capable of receiving, the exposing them to the snares and temptations of the world, and the solicitations and deceits of the artful and designing, as most unnatural; and, in a letter on the subject to me, written from Ashbourn, thus delivered his sentiments:

    "Poor Thrale! I thought that either her virtue or her vice," (meaning, as I understood, by the former, the love of her children, and, by the latter, her pride,) "would have restrained her from such a marriage. She is now become a subject for her enemies to exult over, and for her friends, if she has any left, to forget or pity."

    In the mention of the above particulars, it is far from my design to reprehend the conduct of the lady to whom they relate. Being her own mistress, she had a right to dispose of herself, and is unamenable to any known judicature. Johnson, in his relation as executor to her husband, as also in gratitude to his memory, was under an obligation to promote the welfare of his family. It was also his duty, as far as he was able, to avert an evil which threatened their interests. What he endeavoured, for that purpose, is part of his history, and, as such only, I relate it.

    While Dr. Johnson was in the country, his friends in town were labouring for his benefit. Mr. Thrale, a short time before his death, had meditated a journey to Italy, and formed a party, in which Johnson was included, but the design never took effect. It was now conceived, by Johnson's friends, that a foreign air would contribute to the restoration of his health; and his inclination concurring with their sentiments, a plan was formed for his visiting the continent, attended with a male-servant; which was become so well known, that, as a lady then resident at Rome afterwards informed me, his arrival was anxiously expected throughout Italy. The only obstacle to the journey was, an apprehension, that the expense of it would be greater than his income would bear; and, to get over this difficulty, Sir Joshua Reynolds undertook to solicit an addition of £500*. This generous offer Johnson thought proper to decline by a letter, of which the following is an authentic copy, being taken from his own draft now in my hands.

My Lord,

After a long and not inattentive observation of mankind, the generosity of your lordship's offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude.  Bounty, so liberally bestowed, I should gladly receive, if my condition made it necessary, for, to such a mind, who would not be proud to own his obligations? But it has pleased God to restore me to so great a measure of health, that if I should now appropriate so much of a fortune destined to do good, I could not escape from myself the charge of advancing a false claim.  My journey to the continent, though I once thought it necessary, was never much encouraged by my physicians; and I was very desirous that your lordship should be told of it by Sir Joshua Reynolds, as an event very uncertain, for, if I grew much better, I should not be willing, if much worse, I should not be able, to migrate.—Your lordship was first solicited without my knowledge; but when I was told, that you were pleased to honour me with your patronage, I did not expect to hear of a refusal; yet, as I have had no long time to brood hope, and have not rioted in imaginary opulence, this cold reception has been scarce a disappointment; and, from your lordship's kindness, I have received a benefit, which only men like you are able to bestow. I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit.

I am, my lord,
 Your lordship's most obliged,
  Most grateful,
   And most humble servant,

Sept. 1784

    An incorrect copy of the above letter, though of a private nature, found its way into the public papers * in this manner. It was given to Sir Joshua Reynolds, unsealed, to be delivered to lord Thurlow. Sir Joshua, looking upon it as a handsome testimony of gratitude, and, as it related to a transaction in which he had concerned himself, took a copy of it, and shewed it to a few of his friends. Among these was a lady of quality, who, having heard it red [sic], the next day desired to be gratified with the perusal of it at home: the use she made of this favour was, the copying and sending it to one of the news-papers, whence it was taken and inserted in others, as also in the Gentleman's and many other Magazines. Johnson, upon being told that it was in print, exclaimed in my hearing—'I am betrayed,'—but soon after forgot, as he was ever ready to do all real or supposed injuries, the error that made the publication possible.

    Dr. Brocklesby was one of those physicians who would not encourage Johnson in a wish to visit the continent; nevertheless, to console him for his late disappointment, and that the supposed narrowness of his circumstances might be no hindrance to such a design, he made him a voluntary offer of £100 a year, payable quarterly, towards his support abroad, but could not prevail on him to accept it *.

    His excursion to Ashbourn was less beneficial than he hoped it would be: his disorders began to return, and he wanted company and amusement. During his stay there, he composed sundry prayers, adapted to the state of his body and mind, and translated from Horace, lib. IV. the ode, 'Diffugêre nives, redeunt, jam gramma campis,' in the words following:

'The snow, dissolv'd, no more is seen;
The fields and woods, behold, are green;
The changing year renews the plain;
The rivers know their banks again;
The sprightly nymph and naked grace
The mazy dance together trace:
The changing year's successive plan,
Proclaims mortality to Man.
Rough winter's clasts to spring give way;
Spring yields to summer's sovereign ray;
Then summer sinks in autumns's reign;
And winter chills the world again;
Her losses soon the moon supplies,
But wretched Man, when once he lies
Where Priam and his sons are laid,
Is nought but ashes and a shade.
Who knows if Jove, who counts our score,
Will rouse us in a morning more?
What with your friend you nobly share,
At least you rescue from your heir.
Not you, Torquatus, boast of Rome,
When Milos once has fix'd your doom,
Or eloquence, or splendid birth,
Or virtue shall replace on earth:
Hippolytus unjustly slain,
Diana calls to life in vain;
Nor can the might of Theseus rend
The chains of hell that hold his friend.'

Nov. 1784

    In his return to London, he stopped at Lichfield, and from thence wrote to me several letters, that served but to prepare me for meeting him in a worse state of health than I had ever seen him in. The concluding paragraph of the last of them is as follows: 'I am relapsing into the dropsy very fast, and shall make such haste to town that it will be useless to write to me; but when I come, let me have the benefit of your advice, and the consolation of your company.' [dated Nov. 7, 1784.] After about a fortnight's stay there, he took his leave of that city, and Mrs. Porter, whom he never afterwards saw, and arrived in town on the sixteenth day of November.

    After the declaration he had made of his intention to provide for his servant Frank, and before his going into the country, I had frequently pressed him to make a will, and had gone so far as to make a draft of one, with blanks for the names of the executors and residuary legatee, and directing in what manner it was to be executed and attested; but he was exceedingly averse to this business; and, while he was in Derbyshire, I repeated my solicitations, for this purpose, by letters. When he arrived in town he had done nothing in it, and, to what I formerly said, I now added, that he had never mentioned to me the disposal of the residue of his estate, which, after the purchase of an annuity for Frank, I found would be something considerable, and that he would do well 'to bequeath it to his relations.' His answer was, 'I care not what becomes of the residue.'—A few days after, it appeared that he had executed the draft, the blanks remaining, with all the solemnities of a real will. I could get him no farther, and thus, for some time, the matter rested.

    He had scarce arrived in town, before it was found to be true, that he was relapsing into a dropsy; and farther, that he was at times grievously afflicted with an asthma. Under an apprehension that his end was approaching, he enquired of Dr. Brocklesby, with great earnestness indeed, how long he might probably live, but could obtain no other than unsatisfactory answers: and, at the same time, if I remember right, under a seeming great pressure of mind, he thus addressed him, in the words of Shakespeare:

'Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas'd;
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the full bosom of that perilous stuff,
Which weighs upon the heart?'—

To which the doctor, who was nearly as well red [sic] in the above author as himself, readily replied,

'——Therein the patient
Must minister unto himself.'

Upon which Johnson exclaimed —'Well applied:—that's more than poetically true.'

    He had, from the month of July in this year, marked the progress of his diseases, in a journal which he intitled 'Ægri Ephemeris,' noting therein his many sleepless nights by the words, Nox insomis. This he often contemplated, and, finding very little ground for hope that he had much longer to live, he set himself to prepare for his dissolution, and betook himself to private prayer and the reading of Erasmus on the New Testament, Dr. Clarke's sermons, and such other books as had a tendency to calm and comfort him.

    In this state of his body and mind, he seemed to be very anxious in the discharge of two offices that he had hitherto neglected to perform: one was, the communicating to the world the names of the persons concerned in the compilation of the Universal History; the other was, the rescuing from oblivion the memory of his father and mother, and also, of his brother: the former of these he discharged, by delivering to Mr. Nichols the printer, in my presence, a paper containing the information above-mentioned, and directions to deposit it in the British museum. The other, by composing a memorial of his deceased parents and his brother, intended for their tomb-stone, which, whether it was ever inscribed thereon or not, is extant in the Gentleman's Magazine for January 1785. The note ascertaining the names of the compilers of the Universal History, is inserted in the Magazine for the preceding month. The monumental inscription is as follows:


H. S. E.

  Vir impavidus, constans, animosus, periculorum immemor, laborum patientissimus; fiduciâ christianâ, fortis, fervidusque, pater-familias apprimè strenuus; bibliopola admodum peritus; mente et librus et negotiis exculta; animo ita firmo, ut, rebus adversis diu conflictatus, nec sibi nec suis desuerit: lingua sic temperata, ut ei nihil quod aures, vel pias, vel castas læsisset, aut dolor, vel voluptas unquam expresserit.
  Natus Cublieiæ, in agro Derbiensi, anno MDCLVI; obiit MDCCXXXI.

  Apposita est S A R A, conjux, Antiqua F O R D O R U M gente oriunda; quam domi sedulam, soris paucis notam; nulli molestam, mentis acumine et judicii subtilitate præcellentem; aliis multum, sibi parum indulgentem: Æternitati semper attentam, omne sere virtutis nomen commendavit.
  Nata Nortionæ Regis, in agro Varvicensi, anno MDCLXIX; obit MDCCLIX.

Cum N A T H A N A E L E   illorum filio, qui natus MDCCXII, cum vires, et animi, et corporis multa pollicerentur, anno MDCCXXXVII, vitam brevem piâ morte sinivit.

    He would also have written, in Latin verse, an epitaph for Mr. Garrick, but found himself, unequal to the task of original composition in that language.

    Nevertheless, he succeeded in an attempt to render into Latin metre, from the Greek Anthologia, sundry of the epigrams therein contained, that had been omitted by other translators, alledging as a reason, which he had found in Fabricus, that Henry Stephens, Buchanan, Grotius, and others, had paid a like tribute to literature.* The performance of this task was the employment of his sleepless nights, and, as he informed me, it afforded him great relief.

    His complaints still increasing, I continued pressing him to make a will, but he still procrastinated that business. On the twenty-seventh of November, in the morning, I went to his house, with a purpose still farther to urge him not to give occasion, by dying intestate, for litigation among his relations; but finding that he was gone to pass the day with the Reverend Mr. Strahan, at Islington, I followed him thither, and found there our old friend Mr. Ryland, and Mr. Hoole. Upon my sitting down, he said, that the prospect of the change he was about to undergo, and the thought of meeting his Saviour, troubled him, but that he had hope that he would not reject him. I then began to discourse with him about his will, and the provision for Frank, till he grew angry. He told me, that he had signed and sealed the paper I left him;——but that, said I, had blanks in it, which, as it seems, you have not filled up with the names of the executors.——'You should have filled them up yourself,' answered he.——I replied, that such an act would have looked as if I meant to prevent his choice of a fitter person.——'Sir,' said he, 'these minor virtues are not to be exercised in matters of importance such as this.'——At length, he said, that on his return home, he would send for a clerk, and dictate a will to him.——You will then, said I, be inops consilii; rather do it now. With Mr. Strahan's permission, I will be his guest at dinner; and, if Mr. Hoole will please to hold the pen, I will, in a few words, make such a disposition of your estate as you shall direct.——To this he assented; but such a paroxysm of the asthma seized him, as prevented our going on. As the fire burned up, he found himself relieved, and grew chearful. 'The fit,' said he, 'was very sharp, but I am now easy.' After I had dictated a few lines, I told him, that he being a man of eminence for learning and parts, it would afford an illustrious example, and well become him, to make such an explicit declaration of his belief, as might obviate all suspicions that he was any other than a Christian.* He thanked me for that hint, and, calling for paper, wrote on a slip, that I had in my hand and gave him, the following words: 'I humbly commit to the infinite and eternal goodness of Almighty God, my soul polluted with many sins; but, as I hope, purified by repentance, and redeemed, as I trust, by the death of Jesus Christ;' and, returning it to me, said, 'This I commit to your custody.'

    Upon my calling on him for directions to proceed, he told me, that his father, in the course of his trade of a bookseller, had become bankrupt, and that Mr. William Innys has assisted him with money or credit to continue his business ——'This,' said he, 'I consider as an obligation on me to be grateful to his descendants, and I therefore mean to give £200 to his representative.'—He then meditated a devise of his house at Lichfield to the corporation of that city for a charitable use; but, it being freehold, he said ——'I cannot live a twelve-month, and the last statute of mortmain * stands in the way: I must, therefore, think of some other disposition of it.'——His next consideration was, a provision for Frank, concerning the amount whereof I found he had been consulting Dr. Brocklesby, to whom he had put this question —'What would be a proper annuity to bequeath to a favourite servant?'—The doctor answered, that the circumstances of the matter were the truest measure, and that, in the case of a nobleman, £50 a year was deemed an adequate reward for many years' faithful service.——'Then shall I,' said Johnson, 'be nobilissimus; for I mean to leave Frank £70 a year, and I desire you to tell him so.'—And now, at the making of the will, a devise, equivalent to such provision, was therein inserted. The residue of his estate and effects, which took in, though he intended it not, the house at Lichfield, he bequeathed to his executors, in trust for a religious association, which it is needless to describe.

    Having executed the will with the necessary formalities, he would have come home, but being pressed by Mr. And Mrs. Strahan to stay, he consented, and we all dined together. Towards the evening, he grew chearful, and I having promised to take him in my coach, Mr. Strahan and Mr. Ryland would accompany him to Boult-court. In the way thither he appeared much at ease, and told stories. At eight I sat him down, and Mr. Strahan and Mr. Ryland betook themselves to their respective homes.

[November 28] [Skip ahead to December 5 or December 13; Back To Top]

    Sunday 28th. I saw him about noon; he was dozing; but waking, he found himself in a circle of his friends. Upon opening his eyes, he said, that the prospect of his dissolution was very terrible to him, and addressed himself to us all, in nearly these words: 'You see the state in which I am; conflicting with bodily pain and mental distraction: while you are in health and strength, labour to do good, and avoid evil, if ever you hope to escape the distress that now oppresses me.'——A little while after,—'I had, very early in my life, the seeds of goodness in me: I had a love of virtue, and a reverence for religion; and these, I trust, have brought forth in me fruits meet for repentance; and, if I have repented as I ought, I am forgiven. I have, at times, entertained a loathing of sin and of myself, particularly at the beginning of this year, when I had the prospect of death before me; and this has not abated when my fears of death have been less; and, at these times, I have had such rays of hope shot into my soul, as have almost persuaded me, that I am in a state of reconciliation with God.'

    29th. Mr. Langton, who had spent the evening with him, reported, that his hopes were increased, and that he was much cheared upon being reminded of the general tendency of his writings, and of his example.

    30th. I saw him in the evening, and found him chearful. Was informed, that he had, for his dinner, eaten heartily of a French duck pie and a pheasant.

    Dec. 1. He was busied in destroying papers.—Gave to Mr. Langton and another person, to fair copy, some translations of the Greek epigrams, which he had made in the preceding nights, and transcribed the next morning, and they began to work on them.

    3d. Finding his legs continue to swell, he signified to his physicians a strong desire to have them scarified, but they, unwilling to put him to pain, and fearing a mortification, declined advising it. He afterwards consulted his surgeon, and he performed the operation on one leg.

    4th. I visited him; the scarification, made yesterday in his leg, appeared to have little effect.—He said to me, that he was much easier in his mind, and as fit to die at that instant, as he could be a year hence.—He requested me to receive the sacrament with him on Sunday, the next day. Complained of great weakness, and of phantoms that haunted his imagination.

[December 5] [Skip ahead to December 13; Back To Top]

    5th. Being Sunday, I communicated with him and Mr. Langton, and other of his friends, as many as nearly filled the room. Mr. Strahan, who was constant in his attendance on him throughout his illness, performed the office. Previous to reading the exhortation, Johnson knelt, and with a degree of fervour that I had never been witness to before, uttered the following most eloquent and energetic prayer:

    'Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and in thy mercy: forgive and accept my late conversion; make this commemoration of him available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy son Jesus effectual to my redemption. Have mercy upon me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends, have mercy upon all men. Support me by the grace of thy holy spirit in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death, and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ.—Amen.'

    Upon rising from his knees, after the office was concluded, he said, that he dreaded to meet God in a state of idiocy, or with opium in his head; and, that having now communicated with the effects of a dose upon him, he doubted if his exertions were the genuine operations of his mind, and repeated from bishop Taylor this sentiment, 'That little, that has been omitted in health, can be done to any purpose in sickness.*'

    While he was dressing and preparing for this solemnity, an accident happened which went very near to disarrange his mind. He had mislaid, and was very anxious to find a paper that contained private instructions to his executors; and myself, Mr. Strahan, Mr. Langton, Mr. Hoole, Frank, and I believe some others that were about him, went into his bed-chamber to seek it. In our search, I laid my hands on a parchment-covered book, into which I imagined it might have been slipped. Upon opening the book, I found it to have been meditations and reflections, in Johnson's own hand-writing; and having been told a day or two before by Frank, that a person formerly intimately connected with his master, a joint proprietor of a newspaper, well known among the booksellers, and of whom Mrs. Williams once told me she had often cautioned him to beware; I say, having been told that this person had lately been very importunate to get access to him, indeed to such a degree as that, when he was told that the doctor was not to be seen, he would push his way up stairs; and having stronger reasons than I need here mention, to suspect that this man might find and make an ill use of the book, I put it, and a less of the same kind, into my pocket; at the same time telling those around me, and particularly Mr. Langton and Mr. Strahan, that I had got both, with my reasons for thus securing them. After the ceremony was over, Johnson took me aside, and told me that I had a book of his in my pocket; I answered that I had two, and that to prevent their falling into the hands of a person who had attempted to force his way into the house, I had done as I conceived a friendly act, but not without telling his friends of it, and also my reasons. He then asked me what ground I had for my suspicion of the man I mentioned: I told him his great importunity to get admittance; and farther, that immediately after a visit which he made me, in the year 1775, I missed a paper of a public nature, and of great importance; and that a day or two after, and before it could be put to its intended use, I saw it in the newspapers *.

    At the mention of this circumstance Johnson paused; but recovering himself, said, 'You should not have laid hands on the book; for had I missed it, and not known you had it, I should have roared for my book, as Othello did for his handkerchief, and probably have run mad.'

    I gave him time, till the next day, to compose himself, and then wrote him a letter, apologizing, and assigning at large the reasons for my conduct; and received a verbal answer by Mr. Langton, which, were I to repeat it, would render me suspected of inexcusable vanity; it concluded with these words, 'If I was not satisfied with this, I must be a savage.'

    7th. I again visited him. Before my departure, Dr. Brocklesby came in, and, taking him by the wrist, Johnson gave him a look of great contempt, and ridiculed the judging of his disorder by the pulse. He complained, that the sarcocele had again made its appearance, and asked, if a puncture would not relieve him, as it had done the year before: the doctor answered, that it might, but that his surgeon was the best judge of the effect of such an operation. Johnson, upon this, said, 'How many men in a year die through the timidity of those whom they consult for health! I want length of life, and you fear giving me pain, which I care not for.'

    8th. I visited him with Mr. Langton, and found him dictating to Mr. Strahan another will, the former being, as he had said at the time of making it, a temporary one. On our entering the room, he said, 'God bless you both.' I arrived just time enough to direct the execution, and also the attestation of it. After he had published it, he desired Mr. Strahan to say the Lord's prayer, which he did, all of us joining. Johnson, after it, uttered, extempore, a few pious ejaculations.

    9th. I saw him in the evening, and found him dictating, to Mr. Strahan, a codicil to the will he had made the evening before. I assisted them in it, and received from the testator a direction, to insert a devise to his executors of the house at Lichfield, to be sold for the benefit of certain of his relations, a bequest of sundry pecuniary and specific legacies, a provision for the annuity of 70l. for Francis, and, after all, a devise of all the rest, residue, and remainder of the estate and effects, to his executors, in trust for the said Francis Barber, his executors and administrators; and, having dictated accordingly, Johnson executed and published it as a codicil to his will.*

    He was now so weak as to be unable to kneel, and lamented, that he must pray sitting, but, with an effort, he placed himself on his knees, while Mr. Strahan repeated the Lord's Prayer. During the whole of the evening, he was much composed and resigned. Being become very weak and helpless, it was thought necessary that a man should watch with him all night; and one was found in the neighbourhood, who, for half a crown a night, undertook to sit up with, and assist him. When the man had left the room, he, in the presence and hearing of Mr. Strahan and Mr. Langton, asked me, where I meant to bury him. I answered, doubtless, in Westminster abbey: 'If,' said he, 'my executors think it proper to mark the spot of my internment by a stone, let it be so placed as to protect my body from injury.' I assured him it would be done. Before my departure, he desired Mr. Langton to put into my hands, money to the amount of upwards 100l. with a direction to keep it till called for.

    10th. This day at noon I saw him again. He said to me, that the male nurse to whose care I had committed him, was unfit for the office. 'He is,' said he, 'an idiot, as aukward as a turnspit just put into the wheel, and as sleepy as a dormouse.' Mr. Cruikshank came into the room, and, looking on his scarified leg, saw no sign of a mortification.

    11th. At noon, I found him dozing, and would not disturb him.

    12th. Saw him again; found him very weak, and, as he said, unable to pray.

[December 13] [Back To Top]

    13th. At noon, I called at his house, but went not into his room, being told, that he was dozing. I was further informed by the servants, that his appetite was totally gone, and that he could take no sustenance. At eight in the evening, of the same day, word was brought me by Mr. Sastres, to whom, in his last moments, he uttered these words "Iam moriturus,' that, at a quarter past seven, he had, without a groan, or the least sign of pain or uneasiness, yielded his last breath.

    At eleven, the same evening, Mr. Langton came to me, and, in an agony of mind, gave me to understand, that our friend had wounded himself in several parts of the body. I was shocked at the news; but, upon being told that he had not touched any vital part, was easily able to account for an action, which would else have given us the deepest concern. The fact was, that conceiving himself to be full of water, he had done that, which he had often solicited his medical assistants to do, made two or three incisions in his lower limbs, vainly hoping for some relief from the flux that might follow.

    Early next morning, Frank came to me; and, being desirous of knowing all the particulars of this transaction, I interrogated him very strictly concerning it, and received from him answers to the following effect:

    That, at eight in the morning of the preceding day, upon going into the bedchamber, his master, being in bed, ordered him to open a cabinet, and give him a drawer in it; that he did so, and that out of it his master took a case of lancets, and choosing one of them, would have conveyed it into the bed, which Frank, and a young man that sat up with him, seeing, they seized his hand, and intreated him not to do a rash action: he said he would not; but drawing his hand under the bed- clothes, they saw his arm move. Upon this they turned down the clothes, and saw a great effusion of blood, which soon stopped — That soon after, he got at a pair of scissars that lay in a drawer by him, and plunged them deep in the calf of each leg — That immediately they sent for Mr. Cruikshank, and the apothecary, and they, or one of them, dressed the wounds — That he then fell into that dozing which carried him off. — That it was conjectured he lost eight or ten ounces of blood; and that this effusion brought on the dozing, though his pulse continued firm till three o'clock.

    That this act was not done to hasten his end, but to discharge the water that he conceived to be in him, I have not the least doubt. A dropsy was his disease; he looked upon himself as a bloated carcase; and, to attain the power of easy respiration, would have undergone any degree of temporary pain. He dreaded neither punctures nor incisions, and, indeed, defied the trochar and the lancet: he had often reproached his physicians and surgeon with cowardice; and, when Mr. Cruikshank scarified his leg, he cried out — 'Deeper, deeper;—I will abide the consequence: you are afraid of your reputation, but that is nothing to me.'——To those about him, he said,—'You all pretend to love me, but you do not love me so well as I myself do.'

    I have been thus minute in recording the particulars of his last moments, because I wished to attract attention to the conduct of this great man, under the most trying circumstances human nature is subject to. Many persons have appeared possessed of more serenity of mind in this awful scene; some have remained unmoved at the dissolution of the vital union; and, it may be deemed a discouragement from the severe practice of religion, that Dr. Johnson, whose whole life was a preparation for his death, and a conflict with natural infirmity, was disturbed with terror at the prospect of the grave. Let not this relax the circumspection of any one. It is true, that natural firmness of spirit, or the confidence of hope, may buoy up the mind to the last; but, however heroic an undaunted death may appear, it is not what we should pray for. As Johnson lived the life of the righteous, his end was that of a Christian: he strictly fulfilled the injunction of the apostle, to work out his salvation with fear and trembling; and, though his doubts and scruples were certainly very distressing to himself, they give his friends a pious hope, that he, who added to almost all the virtues of Christianity, that religious humility which its great Teacher inculcated, will, in the fulness of time, receive the reward promised to a patient continuance in well-doing.

    A few days after his departure, Dr. Brocklesby and Mr. Cruikshank, who, with great assiduity and humanity, (and I must add, generosity, for neither they, nor Dr. Heberden, Dr. Warren, nor Dr. Butter, would accept any fees) had attended him, signified a wish, that his body might be opened. This was done, and the report made was to this effect:

    Two of the valves of the aorta were ossified.
    The air-cells of the lungs unusually distended.
    One of the kidneys destroyed by the pressure of the water.
    The liver schirrous.
    A stone in the gall-bladder, of the size of a common gooseberry.

    On Monday the 20th of December, his funeral was celebrated and honoured by a numerous attendance of his friends, and among them, by particular invitation, of as many of the literary club as were then in town, and not prevented by engagements. The dean of Westminster, upon my application, would gladly have performed the ceremony of his interment, but, at the time, was much indisposed in his health; the office, therefore, devolved upon the senior prebendary, Dr. Taylor, who performed it with becoming gravity and seriousness. All the prebendaries, except such as were absent in the country, attended in their surplices and hoods: they met the corpse at the west door of their church, and performed, in the most respectful manner, all the honours due to the memory of so great a man.

    His body, enclosed in a leaden coffin, is deposited in the south transept of the abbey, near the foot of Shakespeare's monument, and close to the coffin of his friend Garrick. Agreeable to his request, a stone of black marble covers his grave, thus inscribed:

Obiit XIII die Decembris,
Anno Domini
Ætatis suæ LXXV.

Introduction | 1781 | 1782 | 1783
1784: November 28 | December 5 | December 13
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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