Boswell, James

, the friend and biographer of Dr. Johnson, was the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, lord Auchinleck, one of the judges in the supreme courts of session and justiciary in Scotland. He was born at Edinburgh, Oct. 29, 1740, and received the first rudiments of education in that city. He afterwards studied civil law in the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. During his residence in these cities, he acquired by the society of the English gentlemen who were students in the Scotch colleges, that remarkable predilection for their manners, which neither the force of education, or national prejudice, could ever eradicate. But his most intimate acquaintance at this period was the rev. Mr. Temple, a worthy, learned, and pious divine, whose well-written character of Gray has been adopted both by Dr. Johnson and Mason in the life of that poet. Mr. Boswell imbibed early the ambition of distinguishing himself by his literary talents, and had the good fortune to obtain the patronage of the late lord Somerville. This pobleman treated him with the most | flattering kindness; and Mr. Bosvvell ever remembered with gratitude the friendship he so long enjoyed with this worthy peer. Having always entertained an exalted idea of the felicity of London, in the year 1760 he visited that capital; in the manners and amusements of which he found so much that was congenial to his own taste and feelings, that it hecanie ever after his favourite residence, whither he always returned from his estate in Scotland, and from his various rambles in different parts of Europe, with increasing eagerness and delight; and we find him, nearly twenty years afterwards, condemning Scotland as too narrow a sphere, and wishing to make his chief residence in London, which he calls the great scene of ambition and instruction. He was, doubtless, confirmed in this attachment to the metropolis by the strong predilection entertained towards it by his friend Dr. Johnson, whose sentiments on this subject Mr. Boswell details in various parts of his life of that great man, and which are corroborated by every one in pursuit of literary and intellectual attainments.

The politeness, affability, and insinuating urbanity of manners, which distinguished Mr. Boswell, introduced him into the company of many eminent and learned men, whose acquaintance and friendship he cultivated with the greatest assiduity. In truth, the esteem and approbation of learned men seem to have been one chief object of his literary ambition; and we find him so successful in pursuing his end, that he enumerated some of the greatest men in Scotland among his friends even before he left it for the first time. Notwithstanding Mr. Boswell by his education was intended for the bar, yet he was himself earnestly bent at this period upon obtaining a commission in the guards, and solicited lord Auchinleck’s acquiescence; but returned, however, by his desire, into Scotland, where he received a regular course of instruction in the law, and passed his trials as a civilian at Edinburgh. Still, however, ambitious of displaying himself as one of the “manly hearts who guard the fair,” he visited London a second time in 1762; and, various occurrences delating the purchase of a commission, he was at length persuaded by lord Auchinleck to relinquish his pursuit, and become an advocate at the Scotch bar. In compliance, therefore, with his father’s wishes, he consented to go to Utrecht the ensuing winter, to hear the lectures of an excellent civilian in that university; after which he had permission to make his grand tour of Europe. | The year 1763 may be considered the most important epocha in Mr. Boswell’s life, as he had, what he thought a singular felicity, an introduction to Dr. Johnson. This event, so auspicious for Mr. Boswel!, and eventually so fortunate for the public, happened on May 16, 1763. Having continued one winter at Utrecht, during which time he visited several parts of the Netherlands, he commenced his projected travels. Passing from Utrecht into Germany, he pursued his route through Switzerland to Geneva; whence he crossed the Alps into Italy, having visited on his journey Voltaire at Ferney, and Rousseau in the wilds of Neufchatel. Mr. Bosweli continued some time in Italy, where he met and associated with lord Mountstuart, to whom he afterwards dedicated his Theses Juridicae. Having visited the most remarkable cities in Italy, Mr. Bosweli sailed to Corsica, travelled over every part of that island, and obtained the friendship of the illustrious Pasquale de Paoli, in whose palace he resided during his stay at Corsica. He afterwards went to Paris, whence he returned to Scotland in 1766, and soon after became an advocate at the Scotch bar. The celebrated Douglas cause was at that time a subject of general discussion. Mr. Boswell published the “Essence of the Douglas cause;” a pamphlet which contributed to procure Mr. Douglas the popularity which he at that time possessed. In 1768 Mr. Bosweli published his “Account of Corsica, with memoirs of General Paoli.” Of this printed performance Dr. Johnson thus expresses himself: “Your journal is curious and delightful. I know not whether I could name any narrative by which curiosity is better excited or better gratified.” This book has been translated into the German, Dutch, Italian, and French languages; and was received with extraordinary approbation. In the following winter, the theatre-royal at Edinburgh, hitherto restrained by party -spirit, was opened. On this occasion Mr. Bosweli was solicited by David Ross, esq. to write a prologue.‘ The effect of this prologue upon the audience was highly flattering to the author, and beneficial to the manager; as it secured to the latter, by the annihilation of the opposition which had been till that time too successfully’exerted against him, the uninterrupted possession of his patent, which he enjoyed till his death, which happened in September 1790. Mr. Bosweli attended his funeral as chief mourner, and paid the last honours to a man with whom he had spent many a pleasant hour. | In 1769, was celebrated at Stratford on Avon the jubilee in honour of Shakspeare. Mr. Boswell. an enthusiastic admirer of the writings of our immortal bard, a. id ever ready to join the festive throng, repaired thither, and appeared at the masquerade ay an armed Corsican chief; a character he was eminently qualified to support. This year he married miss Margaret Montgomery, a lady who, to the advantages of a polite education, united admirable good sense and a brilliant understanding. She was daughter of David Montgomery, esq. related to the illustrious family of Eglintoune, and representative of the antient peerage of Lyle. The death of this amiable woman happened in June 1790. Mr. Boswell has honoured her memory with an affectionate tribute. She left him two sons and three daughters; who, to use Mr. Boswell‘ s own words, “if they inherit her good qualities, will have no reason to complain of their lot. Dos magna parentum virtus.” In 1782 lord Auchinleck died. In 1783, Mr. Boswell published his celebrated Letter to the People of Scotland; which is thus praised by Johnson in a letter to the author; “I am very much of your opinion your paper contains very considerable knowledge of history and the constitution, very properly produced and applied.” Mr. Boswell communicated the pamphlet to Mr. Pitt, who naturally gave it his approbation. This first letter was followed by a second, in which I.Ii. Bosweil displayed his usual energy and political abilities. In 1785, Mr. Boswell published “A journal of a tour to the Hebrides” with Dr. Johnson; which met a success similar to his entertaining account of Corsica, and to which we owe his life of that illustrious character. This year Mr. Boswell removed to London, and was soon after called to the English bar, but his professional business was interrupted by preparing his most celebrated work, “The life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D.” which was published in 1790, and was received by the world with extraordinary avidity. It is a faithful history of Johnson’s life; and exhibits a most interesting picture of the character of that illustrious mom list, delineated with a masterly hand. The preparation of a second edition of this work was the last literary performance of Mr. Boswell. Mr. Boswell undoubtedly possessed considerable intellectual powers; as he could never have displayed his collection of the witticisms of his friend in so lively a manner as he has done, without having a picturesque imagination, | and a turn for poetry as well as humour. He had a considerable share of melancholy in his temperament; and, though the general tenor of his life was gay and active, he frequently experienced an unaccountable depression of spirits. In one of these gloomy moods he wrote a series of essays under the title of “The Hypochondriac,” which appeared in the London Magazine, and end with No. 63 in 1732. These he had thoughts of collecting into a volume, but they would have added little to his reputation, being in general very trifling. Soon after his return from a visit to Auchinleck, he was seized with a disorder which put an end to his life, at his house in Portland-street, on the 19th of June 1795, in the 55th year of his age. Of his own character he gives the following account in his journal of the tour to the Hebrides: “I have given a sketch of Dr. Johnson. His readers may wish to know a little of his fellow-traveller. Think, then, of a gentleman of ancient blood; the pride of which was his predominant passion. He was then in his 33d year, and had been about four years happily married: his inclination was to be a soldier; but his father, a respectable judge, had pressed him into the profession of the law. He had travelled a good deal, and seen many varieties of human life. He had thought more than any body supposed, and had a pretty good stock of general learning and knowledge. He had all Dr. Johnson’s principles, with some degree of relaxation. He had rather too little than too much prudence; and, his imagination being lively, he often said things of which the effect was very different from the intention. He resembled sometimes * The best good maH, with the worstnatured muse.‘ He cannot deny himself the vanity of finishing with the encomium of Dr. Johnson, whose friendly partiality to the companion of this tour represents him as one ’ whose acuteness would help my enquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation, and civility of manners, are sufficient to counteract the inconveniencies of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed’.

His character in all its lights and shades is, however, best delineated in his life of Dr. Johnson, a work of uncommon merit and of still increasing popularity. An anonymous biographer has justly said of it, that it was “found to exhibit an inimitably faithful picture of the mingled genius and weakness, of the virtues and the vices, the sound sense and the pedantry, the benignity and the | passionate harshness, of the great and excellent, although not consummately perfect man, the train of whose life it endeavoured to untold. It appeared to be filled with a rich store of his genuine dictates, so eloquent and vvise^ that they need hardly shun comparison with the most elaborate of those works which he himself published. Johnson was seen in it^ not as a solitary figure, but associated with those groupes of his distinguished contemporaries with which it was his good fortune, in all the latter and more illustrious years of his life, often to meet and to converse. It displayed many fine specimens of that proportion, in which, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, literature and philosophical wisdom were liable to be carelessly intermingled in the ordinary conversation of the best company in Britain. It preserved a thousand precious anecdotical memorials of the state of arts, manners, and policy among us during this period, such as must be invaluable to the philosophers and antiquaries of a future age. It gave, in the most pleasing mode of institution, and in many different points of view, almost all the elementary practical principles both of taste and of moral science. It showed the colloquial tattle of Boswell duly chastened by the grave and rounded eloquence of Johnson. It presented a collection of a number of the most elaborate of Johnson’s smaller occasional compositions, which might otherwise perhaps have been entirely lost to future times. Shewing Boswell’s skill in literary composition, his general acquaintance with learning and science, his knowledge of the manners, the fortunes, and the actuating principles of mankind, to have been greatly extended and improved since the time when he wrote his account of Corsica, it exalted the character of his talents in the estimation of the world; and was reckoned to be such a master-piece in its particular species, as perhaps the literature of no other nation, ancient or modern, could boast. It did not indeed present its author to the world in another light than as a genius of the second class; yet it seemed to rank him nearer to the first than to the third. This estimation of the character of Boswell’s life of Johnson, formed by the best critics soon after its publication, seems to have been since fully confirmed.1


Gentleman’s, European, and Monthly Magazines, passim.