VII. RELEASE: 1781-84

There is a secret pride in surviving our contemporaries, but we are punished with loneliness. The death of Henry Thrale (April 4, 1781) was the beginning of the end for Johnson. He served as one of four executors of the brewer’s will, but thereafter his visits to the Thrale family lessened. Long before her husband’s death Mrs. Thrale had begun to weary of the strains put upon her by Johnson’s need for attentions and attentive ears. Thrale had kept his captive bear in reasonably good behavior, but (the widow complained), “when there was nobody to restrain his [Johnson’s] dislikes it was extremely difficult to find anybody with whom he could converse without living always on the verge of a quarrel. … Such accidents occurred too often, and I was forced … to retire to Bath, where I knew Mr. Johnson would not follow me.”152

The Morning Post made matters worse by announcing that a treaty of marriage between Johnson and Mrs. Thrale was “on tap.”153 Boswell composed a burlesque “Ode by Samuel Johnson to Mrs. Thrale upon Their Supposed Approaching Nuptials.”154 But in 1782 Johnson was seventy-three and Mrs. Thrale was forty-one. It was not of her own will that she had married Thrale; he had often neglected her, and she had never learned to love him. Now she claimed a right to love and be loved, and to find a mate for the second half of her life. She was at an age when a woman urgently longs for some physical and understanding companionship. Even before her husband’s death she had developed a fondness for Gabriel Prozzi, who was giving music lessons to her daughters. Born in Italy, he had taken up residence in England in 1776, and was now about forty-two years old. When she first met him, at a party given by Dr. Burney, she mimicked his mannerisms as he performed at the piano. But his elegant manners, his amiable temper, and his musical accomplishments made him a relieving contrast to Johnson. Now that she was free she abandoned herself to romance. She confessed to her four surviving daughters her desire for remarriage. They were alarmed; remarriage would affect their financial expectations; marriage to a musician—worse yet, a Roman Catholic—would hurt their social standing. They pleaded with their mother to reconsider; she tried and failed. Piozzi behaved like a gentleman: he went off to Italy (April, 1783), and stayed away almost a year. When he returned (March, 1784) and found Mrs. Thrale still eager, he yielded. The daughters refused their consent, and moved to Brighton.

On June 30 Mrs. Thrale sent Johnson an announcement that she and Piozzi were to be married. He replied (July 2, 1784):


If I interpret your letter aright, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame [reputation] and your country, may your folly do no further mischief. If the last act is yet to do, I, who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of womankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you.

I was, I once was, Madam, most truly yours,


Mrs. Thrale resented the word “ignominious’’ as a slur on her fiancé. She answered Johnson on July 4: “Till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi let us converse no more.” She married Piozzi on July 23. All London agreed with Johnson in condemning her. On November 11 Johnson told Fanny Burney, “I never speak of her, and I desire never to hear of her more.”156

These events must have taken a toll of Johnson’s failing vitality. He found it increasingly difficult to sleep, and resorted to opium to ease his pains and quiet his nerves. On January 16, 1782, his “doctor in ordinary,” Robert Levett, died; whose turn would it be next? Johnson had always feared death; now this and his belief in hell made his final years a mixture of heavy dinners and theological terrors. “I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned,” he told Dr. William Adams, master of Pembroke College; and when Adams asked what he meant by “damned” he cried out, “Sent to hell, sir, and punished everlastingly.”157 Boswell could not help contrasting the calm with which the unbelieving Hume had approached his end.158

On June 17, 1783, Johnson suffered a mild stroke—“a confusion and indistinctness in my head, which lasted, I suppose, half a minute. … My speech was taken from me. I had no pain.”159 A week later he was well enough to dine at the Club, and in July he astonished his intimates by making excursions to Rochester and Salisbury. “What a man am I,” he exclaimed to Hawkins, “who have got the better of three diseases—the palsy, the gout, and the asthma—and can now enjoy the conversation of my friends!”160 But on September 6 Mrs. Williams died, and his loneliness became intolerable. Finding the Club insufficient—for several of the old members (Goldsmith, Garrick, Beauclerk) were dead, and some of the new ones were distasteful to him—he founded (December, 1783) the “Evening Club,” which met at an alehouse in Essex Street; there any decent person, by paying threepence, might come in and hear him talk, three nights a week. He invited Reynolds to join; Sir Joshua refused. Hawkins and others thought the new club a “degradation of those powers which had given delight” to more august persons.161

On June 3, 1784, he was well enough to journey with Boswell to Lichfield and Oxford. Returning to London, Boswell persuaded Reynolds and other friends to ask the Chancellor to provide money whereby Johnson might be enabled to take a trip to Italy for his health; Johnson said he would prefer a doubling of his pension. The Chancellor refused. On July 2 Boswell left for Scotland. He never saw Johnson again.

The asthma that had been overcome returned, and dropsy was added. “My breath is very short,” he wrote to Boswell in November, 1784, “and the water is now increasing upon me.”162 Reynolds, Burke, Langton, Fanny Burney, and others came to bid him a last goodbye. He wrote his will; he left £ 2,000, of which £ 1,500 were bequeathed to his Negro servant.163 Several doctors treated him, refusing any fee. He begged them to lance his legs more deeply; they would not; when they were gone he plunged lancets or scissors deep into his calves, hoping to release more water and reduce the painful swelling; some water came, but also ten ounces of blood. That evening, December 13, 1784, he died. A week later he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

He was the strangest figure in literary history, stranger even than Scarron or Pope. It is at first acquaintance hard to like him; he covered his tenderness with brutality, and the coarseness of his manners rivaled the propriety of his books. No one received so much adulation and gave so little praise. But the older we become, the more wisdom we find in his words. He surrounded his wisdom with platitudes, but he elevated platitudes to epigrams by the force or color of his speech. We might compare him with Socrates, who also talked at the slightest provocation, and is remembered for his spoken words. Both were stimulating gadflies, but Socrates asked questions and gave no answers, Johnson asked no questions and answered all. Socrates was certain about nothing, Johnson was certain about everything. Both appealed to science to leave the stars alone and study man. Socrates faced death like a philosopher and with a smile; Johnson faced it with religious tremors rivaling his enervating pains.

No one now idealizes him. We can understand why the English aristocracy—excepting Langton and Beauclerk—avoided him and ignored his pontificate. We realize what a John Bull he would have been in the china shop of the nobility, or amid the precious bric-a-brac of Strawberry Hill. He was not designed for beauty, but he served to frighten some of us out of cant, hypocrisy, and gush, and to make us look at ourselves with fewer delusions about the nature of man or the ecstasies of freedom. There must have beensomething lovable in a man to whom Reynolds and Burke and Goldsmith could listen through a thousand and one nights, and something fascinating in one who could inspire a great biography, and fill its twelve hundred pages with enduring life.

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