Category Archives: Commonplace Book

Cures for Depression: Confront the Pain of Being Human

This concludes the series on Samuel Johnson and depression. This quote does not come from Boswell, or even my Zotero “note cards” of Johnsoniana, but from Jack Lynch’s great The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page. Originally it was recorded in the “Anecdotes of the Revd. Percival Stockdale”, which was then collected and included in Johnsonian Miscellanies, edited by G.B. Hill.

I called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea-table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill-founded, and does great injustice to animals — “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

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Cures for Depression: Maintain Intergenerational Friendships

One night when [Topham] Beauclerk and [Bennet] Langton had supped at a tavern in London, and sat till about three in the morning, it came into their heads to go and knock up Johnson, and see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble. They rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple, till at last he appeared in his shirt

Topham Beauclark: "having, in some particulars, a resemblance to Charles the Second"

Topham Beauclark: “having, in some particulars, a resemblance to Charles the Second”

, with his little black wig on the top of his head, instead of a nightcap, and a poker in his hand, imagining, probably, that some ruffians were coming to attack him. When he discovered who they were, and was told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal: ‘What, is it you, you dogs! I’ll have a frisk with you.’ He was soon drest, and they sallied forth together into Covent-Garden, where the greengrocers and fruiterers were beginning to arrange their hampers, just come in from the country. Johnson made some attempts to help them; but the honest gardeners stared so at his figure and manner, and odd interference, that he soon saw his services were not relished. They then repaired to one of the neighbouring taverns, and made a bowl of that liquor called Bishop, which Johnson had always liked; while in joyous contempt of sleep, from which he had been roused, he repeated the festive lines,

‘Short, O short then be thy reign,
And give us to the world again!’

They did not stay long, but walked down to the Thames, took a boat, and rowed to Billingsgate. Beauclerk and Johnson were so well pleased with their amusement, that they resolved to persevere in dissipation for the rest of the day: but Langton deserted them, being engaged to breakfast with some young Ladies. Johnson scolded him for ‘leaving his social friends, to go and sit with a set of wretched UN-IDEA’D girls.’ Garrick being told of this ramble, said to him smartly, ‘I heard of your frolick t’other night. You’ll be in the Chronicle.’ Upon which Johnson afterwards observed, ‘HE durst not do such a thing. His WIFE would not LET him!’

Boswell: Life

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March 7, 2013 · 4:17 pm

Cures for Depression: While Writing a Dictionary, Write Two Essays a Week

The first paper of the Rambler was published on Tuesday the 20th of March, 1750; and its authour was enabled to continue it, without interruption, every Tuesday and Friday, till Saturday the 17th of March, 1752, on which day it closed. This is a strong confirmation of the truth of a remark of his, which I have had occasion to quote elsewhere, that ‘a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it;’ for, notwithstanding his constitutional indolence, his depression of spirits, and his labour in carrying on his Dictionary, he answered the stated calls of the press twice a week from the stores of his mind, during all that time…

James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

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Cures for Depression: While Writing a Dictionary, Start a Club

[Johnson was] engaged in a steady continued course of occupation, sufficient to employ all his time for some years; and which was the best preventive of that constitutional melancholy which was ever lurking about him, ready to trouble his quiet. But his enlarged and lively mind could not be satisfied without more diversity of employment, and the pleasure of animated relaxation. He therefore not only exerted his talents in occasional composition very different from Lexicography, but formed a club in Ivy-lane, Paternoster-row, with a view to enjoy literary discussion, and amuse his evening hours.

Boswell: Life

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Cures for Depression: Writing a Dictionary

[Johnson was] engaged in a steady continued course of occupation, sufficient to employ all his time for some years; and which was the best preventive of that constitutional melancholy which was ever lurking about him, ready to trouble his quiet. But his enlarged and lively mind could not be satisfied without more diversity of employment, and the pleasure of animated relaxation. He therefore not only exerted his talents in occasional composition very different from Lexicography, but formed a club in Ivy-lane, Paternoster-row, with a view to enjoy literary discussion, and amuse his evening hours.

Boswell: Life

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Cures for Depression: Contriving Retreats for the Mind

Talking of constitutional melancholy, he observed, “A man so afflicted, Sir, must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them.” Boswell: “May not he think them down, Sir?” Johnson: “No, Sir. To attempt to think them down is madness. He should have a lamp constantly burning in his bed chamber during the night, and if wakefully disturbed, take a book, and read, and compose himself to rest. To have the management of the mind is a great art, and it may be attained in a considerable degree by experience and habitual exercise..” Boswell: “Should not he provide amusements for himself? Would it not, for instance, be right for him to take a course of chymistry?” Johnson: “Let him take a course of chymistry, or a course of rope-dancing, or a course of any thing to which he is inclined at the time. Let him contrive to have as many retreats for his mind as he can, as many things to which it can fly from itself.”


Boswell: Life

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The Proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman

In 1746, a group of London booksellers commissioned Samuel Johnson to write a dictionary of the English language. Johnson claimed, at the time, that it would take him only three years to compile the dictionary. In fact, he did not finish until 1755.

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued.

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published a collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

Boswell: Life

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Dr. Johnson and the Case of the Untoward Actions

Throughout his life, Samuel Johnson was a remarkable and eccentric figure not least because of the strange gestures and articulations that he would make.  Many, like William Hogarth, when first meeting Johnson were convinced that he was insane. Moderns, with our fondness for retrospective diagnosis, might think that he had Parkinson’s, or Tourette’s Syndrome.  Johnson himself thought that these “untoward actions” stemmed from his often severe attacks of depression.

[Johnson] could sit motionless, when he was told so to do, as well as any other man; my opinion is that it proceeded from a habit which he had indulged himself in, of accompanying his thoughts with certain untoward actions, and those actions always appeared to me as if they were meant to reprobate some part of his past conduct. Whenever he was not engaged in conversation, such thoughts were sure to rush into his mind; and, for this reason, any company, any employment whatever, he preferred to being alone. The great business of his life (he said) was to escape from himself; this disposition he considered as the disease of his mind, which nothing cured but company.

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Mr. Hogarth and Mr. Johnson

Hogarth and Johnson–two figures so closely associated with the culture of mid-eighteenth century Britain, that the era was variously titled by earlier historians and essayists “the Age of Hogarth” and the “Age of Johnson”…or, “the Age of Johnson” and the “Age of Hogarth.”  William Hogarth was about ten years older than Johnson, and was recognized a genius while Johnson was still casting about in search of his vocation.  They eventually met at the home of the novelist Samuel Richardson (an only slightly less eminent cultural luminary of the age). Boswell describes their meeting thus, shortly after the unsuccessful Scottish uprising of 1745-6:

Mr. Hogarth came one day to see Richardson, soon after the execution of Dr. Cameron, for having taken arms for the house of Stuart in 1745-6; and being a warm partisan of George the Second, he observed to Richardson, that certainly there must have been some very unfavourable circumstances lately discovered in this particular case, which had induced the King to approve of an execution for rebellion so long after the time when it was committed, as this had the appearance of putting a man to death in cold blood, and was very unlike his Majesty’s usual clemency. While he was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head, and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an ideot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprize, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting, and all at once took up the argument, and burst out into an invective against George the Second, as one, who, upon all occasions, was unrelenting and barbarous; mentioning many instances, particularly, that when an officer of high rank had been acquitted by a Court Martial, George the Second had with his own hand, struck his name off the list. In short, he displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this ideot had been at the moment inspired. Neither Hogarth nor Johnson were made known to each other at this interview…

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Going to the Theater in the Eighteenth Century…

…was a much more rough and tumble activity than it is now.  Here Boswell records the premier of Samuel Johnson’s play Irene:

Dr. Adams was present the first night of the representation of Irene, and gave me the following account: ‘Before the curtain drew up, there were catcalls whistling, which alarmed Johnson’s friends. The Prologue, which was written by himself in a manly strain, soothed the audience, and the play went off tolerably, till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled upon the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bow-string round her neck. The audience cried out “Murder! Murder!” She several times attempted to speak; but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive.’ This passage was afterwards struck out…

James Boswell, Life of Johnson

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