But The Life! What in all the world of books is there like it? I have been reading it off and on for more than thirty years, and still find it inexhaustible. It ripens with the years. It is so intimate that it seems to be a record of my own experiences. I have dined so often with Johnson at the Mitre and Sir Joshua’s and Langton’s and the rest that I know him far better than the shadows I meet in daily life. I seem to have been present when he was talking to the King, and when Goldsmith sulked because he had not shared the honour; when he met Wilkes, and when he insulted Sir Joshua and for once got silenced; when he “downed” Robertson, and when, for want of a lodging, he and Savage walked all night round St. James’s Square, full of high spirits and patriotism, inveighing against the Minister and resolving that “they would stand by their country.”
And at the end of it all I feel very much like Mr. Birrell, who, when asked what he would do when the Government went out of office, replied, “I shall retire to the country, and really read Boswell.” Not “finish Boswell,” you observe. No one could ever finish Boswell. No one would ever want to finish Boswell. Like a sensible man he will just go on reading him and reading him, and reading him until the light fails and there is no more reading to be done.
What an achievement for this uncouth Scotch lawyer to have accomplished! He knew he had done a great thing; but even he did not know how great a thing. Had he known he might have answered as proudly as Dryden answered when some one said to him that his Ode to St. Cecilia was the finest that had ever been written. “Or ever will be,” said the poet. Dryden’s ode has been eclipsed more than once since it was written; but Boswell’s book has never been approached. It is not only the best thing of its sort in literature: there is nothing with which one can compare it.
Boswell’s house is falling to dust. No matter! His memorial will last as long as the English speech is spoken and as long as men love the immortal things of which it is the vehicle.
A friend of mine who is intimate enough with me to guess my secrets, said to me quizzingly the other day: “Do you know ‘Alpha of the Plough?’”
“I have never seen the man,” I said promptly and unblushingly. He laughed and I laughed.
“What, never?” he said.
“Never,” I said. “What’s more, I never shall see him.”
“What, not in the looking-glass?” said he.
“That’s not ‘Alpha of the Plough,’” I answered. “That is only his counterfeit. It may be a good counterfeit, but it’s not the man. The man I shall never see. I can see bits of him—his hands, his feet, his arms, and so on. By shutting one eye I can see something of the shape of his nose. By thrusting out the upper lip I can see that the fellow wears a moustache. But his face, as a whole, is hidden from me. I cannot tell you even with the help of the counterfeit what impression he makes on the beholder. Now,” I continued, pausing and taking stock of my friend, “I know what you are like. I take you all in at one glance. You can take me in at a glance. The only person we can none of us take in at a glance is the person we should most like to see.”