Thackeray's Barry Lyndon Speaks of Dr. Johnson

The wit and wisdom of William Makepeace Thackeray is exceedingly dry. In the following passage from his masterpiece, Barry Lyndon, he comments on education, and in the process takes a left-handed swipe at the famous Dr. Johnson, who is remembered not so much for his own writing, but for the superlative biography written about him by Boswell. Johnson, who lived in the mid-1700s is still remembered for his repartee and bon mots.

So six weeks was all the schooling I ever got. And I say this to let parents know the value of it; for though I have met more learned book-worms in the world, especially a great hulking, clumsy, blear-eyed old doctor, whom they call Johnson, and who lived in a court off Fleet Street, in London, yet I pretty soon silenced him in an argument (at 'Buttons Coffeehouse'); and in that, and in poetry, and what I call natural philosophy, or the science of life, and in riding, music, leaping, the small-sword, the knowledge of a horse, or a main of cocks, and the manners of an accomplished gentleman and a man of fashion, I may say for myself that Redmond Barry has seldom found his equal. 'Sir," said I to Mr. Johnson, on the occasion I allude to--he was accompanied by a Mr. Boswell of Scotland, and I was presented to the club by a Mr. Goldsmith, a countryman of my own--'Sir,' said I, in reply to the schoolmaster's great thundering quotation in Greek, 'you fancy you know a great deal more than me, because you quote your Aristotle and your Pluto (sic); but can you tell me which horse will win at Epsom Downs next week?--Can you run six miles without breathing?--Can you shoot the ace of spades ten times without missing? If so, talk about Aristotle and Pluto to me.'

'D'ye knaw who ye're speaking to?' reared out the Scotch gentleman, Mr. Boswell, at this.

'Hold your tongue, Mr. Boswell,' said the old schoolmaster. 'I had no right to brag of my Greek to the gentleman, and he has answered me very well.'

'Doctor,' says I, looking waggishly at him, 'do you know ever a rhyme for ArisTOTLE?'

'Port, if you plaise,' says Mr. Goldsmith, laughing. And we had SIX RHYMES FOR ARISTOTLE before we left the coffee-house that evening...

This was somewhat of a diversion for Thackeray. Novels of the 1800s would frequently indulge in such minor but entertaining deviations. Nevertheless, it did go to illustrate that gentlemen of the age often did disdain the benefits of education. Even, perhaps, the learned Dr. Johnson.

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Interesting Fact:

Literature has a long tradition of fictional characters meeting historical ones. George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series is entirely built upon it.


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