The Death of Dr. Johnson

by Edwin Watts Chubb

By common consent Boswell's Life of Johnson takes first place as a biography. Some critics go so far as to say that the excellence of the biography is to be accounted for by the deficiency in the character of Boswell; that Boswell was such a blind and whole-souled worshiper of Johnson that he exposed the faults of his subject with the same zeal with which he published the virtues. This may be true. Whether true or not, it is not an altogether bad quality. Many of us think that the biographies of our modern men of letters would have more vivacity and lifelikeness were they to contain an occasional glimpse of the hero when he is not on the parade ground. The biography of Tennyson by his son, Lord Hallam, would be far more convincing had the son given us occasional pictures of the poet when he was not at his best. But, perhaps, it is too much to hope that a reverent and admiring son can give the world a vital, impartial, and comprehensive life of his father.

Boswell has given us a full account of Johnson's last days. The gruff old lexicographer had lived a robust life; he had faced many temptations, and had not always retired from the conflict victorious. On the whole, however, he had lived an exemplary life, but like many another good man he had a dread of dying; he feared he might not meet the last foe as worthily as a man of his character and reputation should. But this was a groundless fear. For when the last illness was upon him, he asked his physician to tell him plainly whether there was any hope of his recovery. The doctor first asked his patient whether he could hear the whole truth, whatever it might be. Upon hearing an affirmative reply, the physician declared that in his opinion nothing short of a miracle would restore health.

"Then," said Johnson, "I will take no more physic, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul unclouded."

A brother of Boswell's wrote the following letter concerning the last hours of Johnson:

"The Doctor, from the time that he was certain his death was near, appeared to be perfectly resigned, was seldom or never fretful or out of temper, and often said to his faithful servant, who gave me this account, 'Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of greatest importance:' he also explained to him passages in the Scripture, and seemed to have pleasure in talking upon religious subjects.

"On Monday, the 13th of December, the day on which he died, a Miss Morris, daughter to a particular friend of his, called, and said to Francis, that she begged to be permitted to see the doctor, that she might earnestly request him to give her his blessing. Francis went into the room, followed by the young lady, and delivered the message. The doctor turned himself in the bed, and said, 'God bless you, my dear!' These were the last words he spoke. His difficulty of breathing increased till about seven o'clock in the evening, when Mr. Barber and Mrs. Desmoulins, who were sitting in the room, observed that the noise he made in breathing had ceased, went to the bed, and found he was dead."

This account, together with several others given by various friends, assures us that the death of Johnson was trustful and tranquil. It is another illustration of that beautiful dispensation of nature which, as a rule, makes death a mere slipping away, a falling asleep. The Francis who is mentioned in the letter is the faithful negro servant whom Johnson so generously provided for in his will. In making his will the doctor had asked a friend how much of an annuity gentlemen usually gave to a favorite servant, and was told that in the case of a nobleman fifty pounds a year was considered an adequate reward for many years of faithful service:

"Then," said Johnson, "shall I be nobilissimus, for I mean to leave Frank seventy pounds a year, and I desire you to tell him so."

This generosity was too much for the equanimity of Sir John Hawkins, one of the executors of the will, who, when he found that this negro servant would receive about fifteen hundred pounds, including an annuity of seventy pounds a year, grumbled and muttered "a caveat against ostentatious bounty and favor to negroes." But however much the Sir Johns may grumble, we cannot think the less of Johnson for his kindness in remembering a faithful and deserving servant.

Johnson's refusal to take either wine or opiates recalls that in an age in which the use of alcoholic drinks was very common he was an uncompromising foe to wine, and that he was, in his latter years, loud in his praise of water. "As we drove back to Ashbourne," says Boswell, "Dr. Johnson recommended to me, as he had often done, to drink water only. 'For,' said he, 'you are then sure not to get drunk; whereas if you drink wine, you are never sure.'" And this was not the only matter in which he was in advance of his contemporaries, and of most of ours too. Johnson liked satisfying food, such as a leg of pork, or veal pie well stuffed, with plum pie and sugar, and he devoured enormous quantities of fruit, especially peaches. His inordinate love of tea has almost passed into a proverb,—he has actually been credited with twenty-five cups at a sitting, and he would keep Mrs. Thrale brewing it for him till four o'clock in the morning. The following impromptu, spoken to Miss Reynolds, points its own moral:

For hear, alas, the dreadful truth,
Nor hear it with a frown:
Thou can'st not make the tea so fast
As I can gulp it down.