Part 12. The Mitre Tavern

Image: A Scene at the Mitre: Dr Johnson, Boswell, Goldsmith (1857). Painting by Eyre Crowe. © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Enter Boswell, in the street.

BOSWELL (To the audience as he stretches his arms and legs) Well, I went to Edinburgh and did some work and now I’m back in London! And I’m stiff from hours in the stagecoach.  Cooped up and thrown about!  Edinburgh to London by road!  And what a road!  In places it’s like a ploughed field.  In places it is a ploughed field!  Anyway, I am back! (He looks around.)  On holiday, so to speak.

Now I’m sure it was here we arranged to meet, right on this corner.  He’s late.  Then we’re going to the Mitre Tavern.  I’d better see if he’s coming.

(He walks off a little to the right.  Johnson comes hurrying in from the left.) 

JOHNSON Where is he?  Late as usual!  Why can’t he be punctual like me?  (He sees Boswell.)  There you are Sir.  Welcome back!  Come on now.  Stop dawdling.  To the Mitre! 

(Boswell stands to one side to let Johnson pass.)

Not that way.  Down here, Bozzy!  The old back doubles!  I could walk from St Pauls to the Abbey in half the time you take, just by using the back doubles!  London is full of them. They say a true Londoner must be born within the sound of Bow Bells.  That’s rubbish, Bozzy! No. A true Londoner is the man who knows all the back doubles around Fleet Street and The Strand. (Boswell takes out a pencil and paper.) For heaven’s sake don’t write that down!  Get on!  Get on!

(They cross and re-cross the stage and Johnson becomes more and more lost.)

Now, the Mitre Tavern.  Where is it? Just a moment.  And here it is!  (He points to the right, then turns a semi-circle and finds it on the left.)  Ah, well, more or less!

(They go in and sit at a table.)

The Mitre Tavern, Boswell.  The Mitre off Fleet Street.  These walls have heard far more sense, real sense, Bozzy, than all your university common rooms. There is too much thinking and not enough doing at our universities.  There is life here, Bozzy, and life is more important than books.  Now, how was Scotland?

BOSWELL I want to take you there, Sir.  Just to prove to you that we are civilised.  You would love Scotland.

JOHNSON  I do already, Bozzy, ( whispering to Boswell) but I daren’t admit it!  But I will go.  You deal with the horses and the inns and all the little things, Bozzy, and we’ll go.

BOSWELL You love travel, Sir.

JOHNSON Of course, I love travel!  If I had no duties, I would spend my whole life driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.

BOSWELL There’s a confession! (He notes it down in his notebook.)

JOHNSON It’s common sense, Bozzy.  Travelling and the sight of a pretty girl are two things that lull you into thinking that life is a happy business after all.  Travelling is a sort of opium.  It takes you away from the weight of the day to day. 

BOSWELL And the pretty girl?

JOHNSON The pretty girl is a … a stimulation.  But she must be clever too.

BOSWELL You would have everything, Sir.

JOHNSON Every man would have everything, Bozzy, if only he would admit it!

BOSWELL (With his notebook in his hand) You mentioned the university, Sir. Do you regret not teaching in a university?

JOHNSON I would have been comfortable, but that sort of comfort would have been the kiss of death.  I would have vegetated, Bozzy.  I would not have seen life!  I wouldn’t have seen you!  I wouldn’t have walked the streets of London with poor Richard Savage, God bless him!

BOSWELL The poet, Savage?  You wrote his life!

JOHNSON That’s right.  I wrote his life.  And a sad life it was.  He lost all his money, and he lost all his friends, through his own fault, of course, but he had talent.  Yes, he could write. He was poor, and I was poor then too.  When you are poor, you live intensely, though I do not recommend it.  Being poor is good when it’s over and done with, like so many things. 

BOSWELL (With notebook at the ready.) You have written many great works, Sir.  Do you write for the love of instructing your fellow men?

JOHNSON Don’t be pompous, Bozzy.  No one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money!

(They are served two large pewter tankards of beer.)

The great end of life is to seek happiness, Bozzy.  A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity.  Whenever I enter an inn, I leave my cares at the door.  Here we’re all equals.  Here we’re all cheerful.  We are at home.  Here we talk, and argue, and I love it. 

BOSWELL You find a tavern a reflection of the world outside. 

JOHNSON The opposite, Sir, the very opposite!  Where else can a general and a gardener, a blacksmith and a peer of the realm all sit down together? Every man who pays for his beer and holds it well is welcome.  An inn is the only sensible vision of society.  We are all masters here and we are all guests.

BOSWELL Writing, I believe, depends upon inspiration. I wait for those glorious moments of creative power and then pour forth my soul on paper.

JOHNSON Then you will wait a long time.  Any man can write if he sets himself doggedly to it.  You can write from eight to one thirty every morning if you decide to.  Inspiration is a long time coming, Bozzy.  Inspiration is very coquettish. Ignore her, start without her and then she’ll come to you.

BOSWELL It must be wonderful to be a great writer, sir.

JOHNSON You’re leading me on tonight, Bozzy, but tonight I will be patient with you!  I’ve missed you, I must admit. I don’t know much about greatness but to write at all is to be one step out of hell.  I wish I had been a painter like Sir Joshua or a composer like Herr Mozart.  Surely a painting springs from less anguish than words do.  Surely music comes with less agony than writing.  There is too much thought behind words.  Music is feeling.   Mozart must have been happy when he wrote his music.  Or perhaps he wasn’t.  Perhaps he wasn’t.

I suppose I have a way with words, Bozzy.  That is my one talent, and I must use it well.  We must all use our one talent well. Even you, Bozzy! Perhaps one day you will write a book that is really worthwhile. Perhaps!

BOSWELL But it must be a joy to create a poem.

JOHNSON There you go again, leading me on!  There is some joy in weaving the first thoughts but there is the sweat of getting it right, and it is never perfect, and then come the days of frustration of not writing anything, and the hardest thing of all, Bozzy, is the burden of having a poet’s mind.

BOSWELL A poet’s mind?

JOHNSON A poet’s mind.  A mind that is unhinged enough to create great poems is unhinged enough to go off in all directions.  If poets think much or think long, they think sad thoughts, Bozzy.

People say “Oh that poet wrote some good stuff, but then he led an odd life and went a little crazy.”   Think of poor Christopher Smart! It was the same mind that produced the poems and the life!  They are linked, Bozzy.  They work together, the good and the bad.

BOSWELL I never know how to tackle life.  I can never bring myself to make sensible plans for the future.  I’m always taking the wrong decisions.   I think I’m learning something, and then I make the same mistakes again and again.  But with age, Sir, life must be easier to live.

JOHNSON Life never gets easier, Bozzy.  Look at the old people hour by hour sitting at home by the fireplace.  They repeat the same sentence all morning and turn over in their minds some eternal worry they can never resolve.  Does life leave them in peace for their final days? No, they are still fighting some old battles from years before when they were lucid.  Old age can be very unkind to us, Bozzy.  Very unkind.

As for me, I am more in a muddle than ever I was!  The last time I had things straight was when I was a child.  A child learns everything, and it is all clear. We were happy then, but we didn’t know it at the time. Then comes youth and then everything becomes less clear. From youth through to age there are no certainties.  All is in doubt.  I remember a verse of our old school song:

“Childhood will change to youth,

Manhood come soon.

Life’s morning mists will melt

Into clear noon.”

We used to sing it often and it has stayed with me ever since.  But it is wrong, Bozzy, completely wrong. We start out clearly but then comes manhood, and that’s when the mists come too!

We never get things straight.  There’s always another hill to climb.

Don’t save yourself for the future, Bozzy.  That sort of future never comes.  And that reminds me, plan our trip to your country, Bozzy.  I long to go to Scotland! Organize it now.

BOSWELL I intend to, Sir.

JOHNSON The way to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Do it today, Bozzy.  Do it today.

BOSWELL I will Sir.


BOSWELL  You write, Sir, to promote good behaviour.

JOHNSON Don’t be pompous.  I write to live.  If anyone reads what I write, it is because they find it interesting.  The wisest book in the world is useless if it’s not read. Think how many books are up on the shelf gathering dust with their pages going brown year after year!  Don’t write one of those books, Bozzy!  Write a book that people read.

Be honest with yourself.  Don’t pose.  Don’t use the latest phrase of the day just to prove you’re up to date.  It’s empty, Bozzy. It’s all empty.  Don’t pretend! You’ll always be found out sooner or later.  “Esto quod es!”  That’s a good motto.  “Be what you are.” Look, Bozzy!  Look at these drinkers.  Here in the Mitre they are honest.  When they are sober and on their best behaviour, be careful of them.  At least we are honest when we are enjoying ourselves.  No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.

(A man weaves in from the right, very drunk, his hat over his face, carrying a mug of beer in one hand and a bar stool in the other.)

Look, look at him!  Another sip and he will fall to the ground.  He’s no hypocrite at the moment, but the man praying next to you at church very well may be.  Of course, he may be a saint, too.

(The man trips and falls insensible at Johnson’s feet.  Johnson bends and removes his hat.)

JOHNSON Aah!  It’s Levet! He’ll never be a saint.  Though, I don’t know, he may be halfway there already.  Leave him!  Leave him!  He’s safe enough here with us.  (He pats Levet on the head and replaces his hat.)

BOSWELL I nearly forgot.  Here’s a work by a young man.  He begs you to look at it and give your opinion.

(He gives Johnson a rather crumpled piece of paper.)

JOHNSON Umph!  (He reluctantly takes the paper and begins to read.)

BOSWELL (Looking up.) Oh, my goodness, that barmaid.  She’s new, isn’t she?  There is beauty for you!  That sort of woman would keep you awake at night.

JOHNSON (Looking up from the paper he is reading.) She has some softness indeed. (Then, firmly)  But then so has a pillow!  Now, to business.

(Boswell is still gazing at the barmaid.  Johnson speaks louder.)

To business!

BOSWELL Yes.  Yes, of course.

LEVET       (Still lying on the floor, he raises his head.) A fine figure of a lady, yes.  Fine legs. Cheers!

JOHNSON (He points at the paper and looks at Boswell) 

It’s not yours, is it, Bozzy?

BOSWELL (Laughing) No, it’s not mine.

JOHNSON Are you sure?

BOSWELL Of course, I am sure.

JOHNSON (Mumbling rhythmically as he reads.) 

Da, da, de, da, de, da.  So, so.  Yes.  Da, de, da.

BOSWELL I’ll write your opinion, Sir, here at the bottom of the paper.

JOHNSON (Giving the paper to Boswell.) Then write “Your work is both original and good”.

BOSWELL (Writing happily) Well now, that is generous, very generous!

JOHNSON (Loudly)   Comma.  

BOSWELL  Comma. (He looks expectantly at Johnson)

JOHNSON  “But the part that is original is not good, and the part that is good …

BOSWELL (Crestfallen) …is not original!”

JOHNSON Precisely!

BOSWELL Oh dear.

JOHNSON Are you sure it wasn’t yours, Bozzy?

BOSWELL (Hesitantly)  Well…

JOHNSON I thought so. Leave the poetry alone, Bozzy.  Stick to prose.  That’s what you’re good at.  Stick to prose. It’s just as hard to write good prose as good poetry.

BOSWELL (Tearing up the paper ruefully) I will never write another poem in my life!

And as regards my prose, Sir, how can I improve?

JOHNSON Don’t paint too clear a picture, Bozzy.  Don’t do the readers’ work.  Just give them a suggestion.  Give them the scent and when they arrive, they’ll think they got there all by themselves.  That’s the art of writing well. Don’t say too much. Just keep quiet!

BOSWELL It’s very hard for me to keep quiet!  (He clenches his fist resolutely.)  But I’ll do my best!

Now, another drink, Sir.  May I suggest some claret?

JOHNSON You may suggest claret, Bozzy, but I will not drink it.  Claret is the liquor for boys, port is for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy!

BOSWELL Two brandies, then?

JOHNSON Two brandies.

LEVET       (Indistinctly, from the floor)  Make that three!

BOSWELL (Shouting to the pretty barmaid)  Two…(Levet tugs at his leg and grunts loudly)  We’ll have three brandies!

So, I’ll see you in Scotland, Sir?

JOHNSON Me on a pony?  Gadding about the Highlands? Imagine that! But I’ll come, Bozzy.  You arrange it all and then send for me. I’ll not let you down.  Get that pony ready and make sure it’s a strong one. Feed it up well, Bozzy.  Give it plenty of oats!  That is, if there are any left over after the people have had a go at them!

(The barmaid brings the drinks.)

BOSWELL Three brandies for three heroes!

JOHNSON (Raising his glass.)  And here’s to Scotland!

BOSWELL   (Raising his glass.) To Scotland!

LEVET (From the floor.  He raises his glass with some difficulty.)

 And to Yorkshire! (He drinks.)