Boswell's Correspondence with the Honourable Andrew Erskine, and His Journal of a Tour to Corsica

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Excerpt PREFACE. Boswell did not bring out his "Life of Johnson" till he was past his fiftieth year. His "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" had appeared more than five years earlier. While it is on these two books that his fame rests, yet to the men of his generation he was chiefly known for his work on Corsica and for his friendship with Paoli. His admiration for Johnson he had certainly proclaimed far and wide. He had long been off, in the words of his father, "wi' the land-louping scoundrel of a Corsican, and had pinned himself to a dominie—an auld dominie who keeped a schule and cau'd it an acaadamy." Nevertheless it was to Corsica and its heroic chief that he owed the position that he undoubtedly held among men of letters. He was Corsica Boswell and Paoli Boswell long before he became famous as Johnson Boswell. It has been shown elsewhere what a spirited thing it was in this young Scotchman to make his way into an island, the interior of which no traveller from this country had ever before visited. The Mediterranean still swarmed with Turkish corsairs, while Corsica itself was in a very unsettled condition. It had been computed that, till Paoli took the rule and held it with a firm hand, the state had lost no less than 800 subjects every year by assassination. Boswell, as he tells us in his Journal, had been warned by an officer of rank in the British Navy, who had visited several of the ports, of the risk he ran to his life in going among these "barbarians." Moreover a state of hostility existed between the Corsicans and the Republic of Genoa—which, the year before Boswell's visit, had obtained the assistance of France. The interior of the island was still held by Paoli, but many of the seaport towns were garrisoned by the French and the Genoese. At the time of Boswell's visit war was not being actively carried on, for the French commander had been instructed merely to secure these points, and not to undertake offensive operations against the natives. From the Journal that Boswell gives, we see that when once he had landed he ran no risks; but it is not every young man who, when out on his travels, leaves the safe and beaten round to go into a country that is almost unknown, and to prove to others that there also safety is to be found. With good reason did Johnson write to him—"Come home and expect such welcome as is due to him whom a wise and noble curiosity has led where perhaps no native of this country ever was before." With scarcely less reason did Paoli say, "A man come from Corsica will be like a man come from the Antipodes." How strongly his journey and his narrative touched the hearts of people at home may still be read in Mrs. Barbauld's fine lines on Corsica:— "Such were the working thoughts which swelled the breastOf generous Boswell; when with nobler aimAnd views beyond the narrow beaten trackBy trivial fancy trod, he turned his courseFrom polished Gallia's soft delicious vales,From the grey reliques of imperial Rome,From her long galleries of laureled stone,Her chiseled heroes and her marble gods,Whose dumb majestic pomp yet awes the world,To animated forms of patriot zeal;Warm in the living majesty of virtue;Elate with fearless spirit; firm; resolved;By fortune nor subdued; nor awed by power."Gray was moved greatly by the account given of Paoli. "He is a man," he wrote, "born two thousand years after his time." Horace Walpole had written to beg him to read the book. "What relates to Paoli," he said, "will amuse you much." What merely amused Walpole "moved" Gray "strangely." It moved others besides him. Subscriptions were raised for the Corsicans, and money and arms were sent to them from this country. Boswell writes to tell his friend Temple—"I have hopes that our Government will interfere. In the meantime, by a private subscription in Scotland, I am sending this week £700 worth of ordnance." Other subscriptions were forwarded which Paoli, as is told in a letter from him published in the "Gentleman's Magazine," "applied to the support of the families of those patriots who, abhorring a foreign yoke, have abandoned their houses and estates in that part of the country held by the enemy, and have retired to join our army." Boswell's work met with a rapid sale....
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