James Boswell wrote many poems, particular in his younger days. Mostly considered doggerel by reviewers, there are a few gems among them and, and in the words of Jack Werner, Boswell's verses "adds a good deal to the picture of Boswell as we know it, and he emerges from it an altogether more lovable man, more worthy of our understanding and respect."

A Handsel in return for a New Year's Gift

Long title
A Handsel in return for a New Year's Gift
Original text

My able helpmate, say, what laws
Of public or domestic cause
Could justify thy quick retreat,
Rashly to vacate landlord's seat?
Like namesake James, thou'dst hap be prone
To abdicate the British throne.
Thy genius, spirit, learning, wit
Made all confess my choice most fit,
To do the duties of the day,
And act as premier cicisbeo.
But fairy elves at luckless hours
May blast the strongest earthly pow'rs;
Slow went the glass, for half the round,
Then pell mell fast, your toast's the sound.
'A hint', they cried, 'fore all the world';
The gloves were stretch'd, the fans were furl'd.
Again e'er ladies went to tea,
I delegate all pow'r to thee.
Bottles renew'd, I glanc'd the board,
Began to speech my kind landlord.
With meaning nod (a fair one own'd it),
'Our landlord's fled - at least, absconded'.
'Hem! Give us pause, return he may,
If fain he'll rise another day.'
Conjectures various now were sported:
'Sans dire adieu!' and, 'Where resorted?'
A mal assortie assignation
Or visits to some high in station;
The spleen, or colic, pent-up vapour,
From screws or morbific matter.
Intenstine rebels cause disasters
To prince and subject, men and masters.
'Cease female squibs!' a sage cried, smiling,
'For Paoli Boswell's laws compiling;
St. Edward's self, we may assure us,
Made not so wise a Corpus Juris.
A brother lawyer shook his head,
Said: 'Boswell toils at no such trade;
To polish Corsicans he's hard at work,
Dramatic scenes he writes, might tame a Turk.'
'Fie!' cried a lady, 'was't not mean
Thus to forsake the social scene?
At best, you'll grant, he must discern ill
Who grasps the shells and leaves the kernel.
Had he forsook his d-l-s Duchess
Soon he'd been seen limping on crutches;
With spit, or fork, or some such weapon,
Like Butler's Trulla, him she'd leap on.'
They lash'd thee thus, like eastern Tartar.
At last I humbly begg'd for quarter;
I promis'd hence thou'dst be more steady,
Then went to tea and coffee ready.


Probably authored by Boswell ca. 1768, although the known existing copy is not in his handwriting. Jack Werner suggests that it may be in the handwriting of John Lawrie, one of Boswell's law-clerks.

Original sources

The Race

Long title
The Race - An Heoric Ballad. Addressed to the Honourable Company of Scots Hunters.
Original text


Ye frolicsome blades, who thro' life rove along,
Give ear, en passant, to the words of my song,
Which fondly attempts, tho' 'tis only in story,
To make the event once again seem before ye.
                           Derry down, etc.


It chanc'd, then, one day, in Edina's good city,
A jolly assembly of souls bright and witty,
Were happily met o'er a bottle of claret,
That mighty inflamer of humour and spirit!


A nobleman, bless'd with the true Scottish fire,
Was merrily rallying an opulent squire,
That his body, who knew him must readily own,
(Emblem of his estate) was indeed overgrown.


The squire (tho' perhaps he was angry the while)
Rising up, thus replied to my Lord, with a smile:
'Your Lordship to-night is extremely jocose,
Or rather, impertinent, to speak in plain prose.'


So, when in a high court of justice I've been,
The counsel disputing I've frequently seen
With constrain'd complaisance, mix'd with wonderful pother
While Puzzle took this side, and Blunder the other.


But I stray from my subject - for Daniel went on:
'Tho' my weight, like Jack Falstaff's, be many a stone,
Tho' portly my belly, and cheeks blown up are,
Yet with me none for vigour and health can compare.


'Besides, my dear Lord, I will venture to say,
And, what's more, will a purse of twice ten guineas lay,
That - nay, laugh not, no time now for jest or for cunning -
That I'll easily beat your good Lordship at running.


'And that my strength, as well as speed, may be tried,
Upon my broad shoulders brisk Wattie shall ride;
But, to make matters equal, your course must be double,
As my burthen will probably give me some trouble.


'Tomorrow at ten, in the park - if too soon,
I shall not be against our delaying 't till noon.'
Young D[ou]gl[a]s agreed to the terms as propos'd,
And the ev'ning in social debauchery was clos'd.


This astonishing match reach'd the ears of the Town,
Who, next day, to the park in great numbers rush'd down;
Some heartily laughing, some with a sour face,
Declaring that - really, 'twould be a disgrace.


For my part, believe me, I soon did begin to
Remember the man who the bottle jump'd into;
But Dame Curiosity told me 'twas best
That I e'en should be made such a fool as the rest.


The Gentlemen Hunters had mark'd out the ground,
And with the fair ladies gallanting were found;
While, eager the rabble at distance to keep,
'Shins! shins!' cries bold R[e]nt[o]n, and smacks his smart whip.


Nor must I neglect handsome Seaton to paint,
Tho' I'm sure that my colours are vastly too faint;
Yet, rather than pass so distinguish'd a man,
I would beg leave to sketch him as well as I can.


So fine was his figure, so taking his face,
In so pleasing a taste was his elegant dress,
That Scotia's sweet beauties (to tell the plain truth)
Seem'd fond of admiring the delicate youth.


He touch'd with so killing an air his neat hat,
Gently smiling to this, and soft chatting to that,
What maid could resist such profusion of charms,
Or help longing to hold him enclasp'd in her arms?


The jovial Triumvirate quickly appear'd,
And all by their sev'ral companions were cheer'd.
Poor Wattie, ascending, seem'd greatly afraid,
As dreading to be by his horse overlaid.


They started at last, and (so fortune ordain'd)
The vict'ry by huge Quinbus Flestrin was gain'd,
Who, 'midst a tumultuours mob's loud'ning huzzas,
Carried off all that was to be had of applause.


Tho' some nicer judges will strongly aver
That to run twice the ground was unequal by far,
And that the Man Mountain was as sure to have won
As th' enough-cautious Teague who contended, alone.


As I think ev'ry man should excel in his station,
I leave to good Matthew to make calculation,
Who, if I mistake not, will tell to a hair,
What proportion the one to the other should bear.


My province was slyly to leand a sharp ear
The different comical sayings to hear,
Which (like brother Bayes) I shall slapdash set down,
And so, by transprosing, shall make 'em my own.


A Tory exclaim'd, without any preamble,
'By the King, I rejoice to see S[tewar]t ride C[ampbell].'
And Dick Idle affirm'd, 'As grim death it as sure is,
That nothing's so ponderous as Corpus Juris.'


A wag, who had gather'd a circle around him,
Whose faces were brimful of joy to have found him,
Remov'd a small way from the din and confusion,
Was dealing about his jokes in great profusion.


To realte ev'ry single quirk, quibble, and pun,
Would require at least more than a course of the sun;
Take one, then, than which I have scarce heard a better:
'This lawyer', he cried, 'is become commentator.


'For', said the old fellow, with countenance grave,
'As the English their Coke upon Littleton have,
So Scotland, a wise head - nay, wiser - has found,
For S[tewar]t on S - - - d shall still be renown'd.'


Written by James Boswell ca. 1761 and originally published in Alexander Donaldson's "A Collection of Original Poems by Scotch Gentlemen, 1762".

Original sources

There once was a buck...

Long title
There once was a buck who in London [did] reign
Original text

There once was a buck who in London [did]reign,
Of watchmen the curse and of waiters the bane.
At last, 'stead of ranging 'mongst thousands of beauties,
He brought himself into [a] quand'ry of duties.

'And what was the matter?' you'll certainly say;
Why, truly the blockhead gets married one day.
I was told by the parson who snapp'd up the dues
For tying his collar in sad, galling noose.

His duties he laugh'd at, his contract he broke,
But dreamt not his spouse would continue to joke
Till he found real horns sprouting forth from his skull,
And so from a buck was transform'd to a bull! 


By James Boswell, ca. 1761

Original sources

Eager to use his prattling tongue

Long title
Eager to use his prattling tongue
Original text

Eager to use his prattling tongue,
Fineer, whose pigtail dangling hung,
An empty son of Mars, one day
Was heedless strutting by the way
Where Bedlam stands, when with surprise
Mad Tom he at the casement spies:
Tom Thunder, who had been a good,
A jovial, and a gallant blood.
'So ho! my dear, what! - in this place,
In Bedlam! Bless me! What's the case?'
'Upon my honour, soul and word,
For the same cause you wear a sword.
Let all the world astonish'd hear!
'Twas my own friends that brought me here'
(His redd'ning eyeballs darting fury),
'Not my own merit, I assure ye.'


This verse was discovered in the manuscript "Poems on Several Occasions" written out by Boswell with a view to publication ca. 1761.

Original sources

The Cit and his Daughter

Long title
The Cit and his Daughter
Original text

 Thus Gripe bespoke his daughter Sue;
'My girl, you have the choice of two.
There's old Sir Francis with wise pate,
And (mark me, child) a large estate;
'Tis true the gout oft takes his feet.
There's Jack, too, in the neighb'ring street,
Not half so rich as the good knight.
Come, then, determine which, tonight.
Indeed, 'tis scarce worth while to ask,
Where't not the parents' proper task;
I read Sir Francis in your face.'
 'Nay, truly, Sir, that's not the case;
He may have gold enough in store,
But handsome Jack I like much more.'
 'What says the hussy? Do I hear? -
I must have got a trech'rous ear.'
 'I really blush to say't again,
But sure, Papa, the reason's plain:
'Tis better far a man to wed
Than take ten thousand to one's bed.'


This is the first of a number of poems in a manuscript collection entitled 'Poems on Several Occasions', which was written out by Boswell, ca. 1761, with special neatness and unwonted correctness of spelling and punctuation, with a view to publication.

Original sources

Advice to a Wife

Long title
Advice to a Wife
Original text

When Goodman comes home at night
 And complains that he is weary,
Make him drink the liquor bright,
 Call him Love and Charming Dearie.

Throw your arms about his neck,
 Kiss his mouth and pat his cheeks
And if you still he should neglect,
 Scourge him heartily with leaks.


Attributed to James Boswell (1740-1795). Year unknown.

Original sources

Ladies and Gentlemen, your most devoted!

Long title
Ladies and Gentlemen, your most devoted!
Original text

Ladies and Gentlemen, your most devoted!
Since beards have wisdom evermore denoted,
I now ambitious to obtain esteem
Have fall'n upon this useful stratagem.
Behold me, then, a man not light or airy,
You view a most profound apothecary.

But hark! - I Hear a formidable groan;
Some dreadful critic with a surly tone
Exclaims: 'What can the idiot mean by this?
'Tis sure his own poor stuff - come, let us hiss;
For one thing's sure - I have said nought amiss.
Well, thank my stars - 'tis lucky - I'll go on;
I beg you'll hear me out, I'll soon be done.
All I intended, then, to say - d'ye see? -
Was only this: t'inform the house that we
Propose tonight, by comical narration,
To strike your tympanums with such vibration
That ev'ry gloomy count'nance shall be mended,
While ev'ry feature is with mirth distended.
Pardon the formal chillness of my story -
Indeed, I'm quite abash'd t'appear before ye.
How cam I hither? Pox upon these feet!
I wish I saw the door - I'd soon retreat.
O, here it is! I go de tout mon cæur.
Ladies and Gentlemen, votre serviteur!


Probably written by James Boswell ca. 1760 as an address to the Soaping Club of which he was a founding member.

Original sources