The Temptation of Dr Johnson

Party Lines overhears the latest debate about what not to tell the children

Literature Wine

Samuel Johnson’s was a life of conflict, and many of the conflicts by which it was animated were with people or things or ideas for which he seems secretly to have nursed an affinity, or even a craving. One of these was wine. The friend of Johnson’s youth, the Birmingham surgeon Edmond Hector “who lived with him in his younger days in the utmost intimacy and social freedom,” told Boswell that Johnson “loved to exhilarate himself with wine”.  On his “arrival in London in 1737, however, Johnson abstained entirely from fermented liquors: a practice to which he rigidly conformed for many years together, at different periods of his life.” Meeting his old acquaintance Oliver Edwards in 1778, Johnson spoke frankly about his fitful use of alcohol: “I now drink no wine, Sir. Early in life I drank wine: for many years I drank none. I then for some years drank a great deal.” By March 1781, however, Johnson was drinking once more, as Boswell discovered when he went to dinner at the Thrales:

He [Thrale] told me I might now have the pleasure to see Dr Johnson drink wine again, for he had lately returned to it. When I mentioned this to Johnson, he said, “I drink it now sometimes, but not socially.” The first evening that I was with him at Thrale’s, I observed he poured a quantity of it into a large glass, and swallowed it greedily. Every thing about his character and manners was forcible and violent; there never was any moderation; many a day did he fast, many a year did he refrain from wine; but when he did eat, it was voraciously; when he did drink wine, it was copiously. He could practise abstinence, but not temperance.

The inability to be moderate meant that Johnson might reel from extremity to extremity — in this case, from abstinence to bingeing — and part of the justification for the episodes of surrender was that they made possible another act of resistance.  That Johnson had a strong appetite for alcohol seems clear: “I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this.” That he took a secret pleasure in the effects of alcohol, while fearing that weakening of conscious rational control which intoxication brings in its wake, and fearing also to let those effects be publicly visible, is also suggested by his intermittent habits of solitary drinking.

Johnson’s passionate but divided relation to wine was vividly revealed in a conversation with Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the solicitor John Spottiswoode on April 28, 1778. It began with an uncompromising statement from Johnson: “I require wine, only when I am alone. I have then often wished for it, and often taken it.” To Spottiswoode’s innocent question as to whether this was to enjoy wine “by way of a companion”, Johnson replied vigorously in the negative. On the contrary: he drank “to get rid of myself, to send myself away”. The conversation was then launched down the track of the question whether wine was a solitary or a sociable pleasure. Boswell and Reynolds spoke up for the sociableness of taking wine in company.  Boswell posed a hypothetical example to illustrate how the offering of wine might be a gesture of esteem and affection: “For instance, a good worthy man asks you to taste his wine, which he has had twenty years in his cellar.” Johnson responded with scorn, saying that “they don’t care a farthing whether he drinks wine or not”, and refusing to believe that most people don’t lie about the quality and age of the wine they serve.  

Undiscouraged by Johnson’s vehemence, Reynolds then tried to revive the case for benevolence in the giving and taking of wine, confessing that “at first the taste of wine was disagreeable to me; but I brought myself to drink it, that I might be like other people.  The pleasure of drinking wine is so connected with pleasing your company, that altogether there is something of social goodness in it.” But again Johnson would have nothing of it, repressing Reynolds with a typical piece of ad hominem bluntness by suggesting that he was drunk: “You are too far gone.”

Why was Johnson so unprepared to concede anything to those who maintained that there could be sociableness in the drinking of wine? The answer lies, I think, in that avidity for wine revealed in that apparently innocent choice of word, “require”: “I require wine […]”. The crucial remark comes when Johnson-who at this point was in a phase of abstinence-proposes a general principle which reflects back sharply on his own life: “After a man has brought himself to relinquish the great personal pleasure which arises from drinking wine, any other consideration is a trifle.” This was surely Johnson’s own situation. His need for and susceptibility to wine made it a source of both great pleasure and great peril: “When I drank wine, I scorned to drink it when in company. I have drunk many a bottle by myself; in the first place, because I had need of it to raise my spirits; in the second place, because I would have nobody to witness its effects upon me.” It was this consciousness of dependency on something which had the potential to shame him which Johnson found intolerable: “It is so much better for a man to be sure that he is never to be intoxicated, never to lose the power over himself.” It made drinking for him not the sociable relaxation it evidently was (or became) for Reynolds, but an activity which required prudence and art: “Drinking may be practised with great prudence; a man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated, has not the art of getting drunk; […] I used to slink home, when I had drunk too much.” 

That word “slink” draws attention to itself. In his Dictionary Johnson defined “to slink” as “to sneak; to steal out of the way”, and he illustrated it by means of quotations from Paradise Lost, describing Satan leaving Eve after he has tempted her to eat the apple, and from a speech Swift wrote for an executed criminal, Ebenezer Elliston, in which he confesses that “a wise Man would easily find us to be Rogues by our Faces, we have such a suspicious, fearful and constrained Countenance, often turning back, and slinking through narrow Lanes and Alleys.” These quotations evoke well the connotations of furtive guilt which, for Johnson, hung around the word he chose to describe himself after taking wine.

The physical pleasure of drinking wine was so strong for Johnson that, once he had for the time being conquered it, he armoured his mind against entertaining any argument which might undermine his resolve to abstain. Hence the agitated brutality of his dismissal of the milder thoughts of Reynolds and Boswell, who made the drinking of wine seem like, not the lonely duel between the resolved and created pleasure which it appears so often to have been for Johnson, but rather an innocent ritual which strengthened the bonds of society.