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Samuel Johnson
1709 - 1784
 

 

 

Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709 in the country town of Lichfield in Staffordshire, the son of Michael Johnson, aged 50, a bookseller and stationer, and his wife Sara, aged 37. The elder Johnson was prone, as his son would be, to bouts of melancholy, but he was a man of some local repute — at the time of Johnson's birth, he was Sheriff of the city. Johnson, a sickly child, was not expected to live: in 1711, at the age of two, he was taken, nearly blind, partially deaf, suffering from scrofula and a tubercular infection, to be touched for the "King's Evil" by Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts to rule England. No miraculous cure, however, took place.

In 1716 Johnson, sensitive, clumsy, and precocious, entered the Lichfield Grammar School which was headed by the scholarly but brutal John Hunter, who beat his students, as he said, "to save them from the gallows." Later in life Johnson would insist that had he not been beaten he would have done nothing, but under Hunter's tutelage he learned Latin and Greek and began to write poetry. In 1725 at the age of sixteen, a very provincial Johnson came for a six-month visit with his cousin, Cornelius Ford, a sophisticated and somewhat rakish former Cambridge don, and became aware for the first time of the existence of the larger intellectual and literary world represented by Cambridge and London.

In 1726 Johnson left school and went to work in his father's bookshop, which was failing: he spent the next two years were unhappy ones, but during this time he continued — avidly if unsystematically — to study English and classical literature. In 1728, with a small legacy of forty pounds left to his mother upon the death of a relative, he was — very unexpectedly — able to enter Pembroke College at Oxford. At Oxford, however, he was unable to keep himself adequately supplied with food or clothing — a problem which he would have for many years — and though he occasionally displayed considerable erudition symptoms of the melancholia which would haunt him for the remainder of his life were already beginning to manifest themselves. He paid, in consequence, little attention to his studies, and in 1789, extremely depressed and too poor to continue, he left Oxford without taking a degree.

Johnson's Latin translation of Pope's "Messiah," written at Oxford, was published in 1731, but by that time Johnson, poor, in debt, depressed, partially blind, partially deaf, scarred by scrofula and smallpox, found himself (understandably enough) fearing for his sanity. In December of that year his father died, a virtual bankrupt.

In 1732 Johnson found employment as an usher at Market Bosworth Grammar School. On a visit to Birmingham, he made the acquaintance of Henry Porter and his wife Elizabeth. The following year, lying in bed during another lengthy visit to a friend in Birmingham, Johnson dictated an abridged English version of a French translation of a travel book — A Voyage to Abyssinia — which had been written by a seventeenth-century Portuguese Jesuit. It became his first published book, and he earned five guineas by it.

In 1735, aged twenty-five, Johnson married his "Tetty," the by-now-widowed Elizabeth Porter, aged forty-six. With his wife's dowry of 700, Johnson established, in the following year, an ill-fated private academy at Edial, near Lichfield: boarding pupils included David Garrick, who would become the most famous actor of his day, and one of Johnson's closest friends. By 1737 the academy had proved a failure, and Johnson, determined to make his fortune by writing, left for London, accompanied by Garrick.

In 1738, living in London in extreme poverty, Johnson began to write for Edward Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine, and published his "London," an imitation of Juvenal's satire on the decadence of ancient Rome, for which he receives ten guineas. He also made the acquaintance of Richard Savage, another impoverished poet of dubious reputation. A year later, Samuel Johnson, who had never met Johnson but who had admired his "London," attempted to get him an M. A. degree from Trinity College in Dublin so that he could become headmaster at a school: the attempt, however, failed, and Johnson was forced to continue his life of poverty and literary drudgery in (metaphorically speaking) Grub Street.

Between 1740 and 1743 he edited parliamentary debates for the Gentleman's Magazine: when, years later, he was complimented for his impartial approach to his task, he stated, characteristically, that though he "saved appearances tolerably well," he nevertheless "took care that the WHIG DOGS should not have the best of it."

In 1744 Richard Savage ended a miserable existence in a Bristol jail. Johnson was moved to write a Life of Savage — remarkable for its honest portrayal of the strenghs and weaknesses of his friend's character — which became the first of Johnson's prose works to attract the attention of the reading public.

1745 saw the publication of Johnson's "Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth." The following year he signed a contract with a group of publishers and (alotting himself, intially, three years) undertook the enormous task of compiling an English dictionary which would be analogous to that which had been produced, in French, by the forty members of the French Academy. He addressed his "Plan of a Dictionary" to the Earl of Chesterfield, who would prove to be a most unsatisfactory patron.

In 1748, with six assistants, Johnson moved into a large house in Fleet Street and began work upon his dictionary. In 1749 his great but melancholy "The Vanity of Human Wishes" appeared, and Garrick produced Johnson's tragedy Irene at Drury Lane: though Johnson made a small profit, the play proved unsuccessful.

Between 1750 and 1752, writing two a week, he produced the more than two hundred Rambler essays. In 1752, his wife Tetty died. Two years later Johnson returned to Oxford, where he became acquainted with Thomas Warton, the future Poet Laureate. The following year, with Warton's help, Johnson received an M. A. degree from Oxford. In the same year his great Dictionary of the English Language was finally completed and published, and, though he was still very poor, his literary reputation was finally established. During this period he made new friends of the much younger Joshua Reynolds, Bennet "Lanky" Langton, and Topham Beauclerk.

In 1756 Johnson produced his "Proposals for a New Edition of Shakespeare," which would not, however, appear until 1765, and continued his activities as a journalist, editing, writing prefaces, and contributing articles to journals. Briefly arrested for debt, he was bailed out by Samuel Richardson. Between 1758 and 1760, he wrote another series of essays, The Idler, for a weekly periodical. In 1759 his mother Sarah died, and, in a somber mood, he wrote the moral fable Rasselas to pay, as he said, for her funeral.

In 1762, upon the succession to the throne of George III, Johnson was provided (much to his satisfaction, but much, also, to his embarrassment, for he was an unrepentant old Tory, and, with Whig abuses in mind, had defined "pension" in his dictionary as "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country") with a pension of 300 per year. For the first time in his life he was not forced to scrape for money, and though his personal appearance was still remarkably and unavoidably uncouth he became one of the most prominent literary lions in polite society: when several young ladies, encountering him at a literary soiree, surrounded him "with more wonder than politeness," and contemplated his odd figure "as if he had been some monster from the deserts of Africa," Johnson is said to have remarked "Ladies, I am tame; you may stroke me."

In 1763 he met James Boswell (aged twenty-two) for the first time, and after he got over the fact that Boswell was Scottish (Johnson abhorred the Scots — hence his famous definition, in his dictionary, of "oats": "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people") the two got on very well together. 1764 brought the formation of the Literary Club, whose members included Johnson, Reynolds, and Edmund Burke, as well as (eventually) David Garrick and Boswell.

In 1765 Johnson's edition of Shakespeare's Plays, with its splendid and perceptive preface, was finally published, and he received an honorary LL.D. from Trinity College in Dublin. He also met the wealthy Henry and Hester Thrale, with whom he would spend much of his time during the next sixteen years, talking brilliantly but writing little‹"No one but a blockhead," he once remarked, "writes but for money."

In 1769 Boswell, by now an Edinburgh lawyer, married, and remained in Scotland until 1772. Between 1770 and 1775 Johnson produced a series of fiercely but characteristically opinionated political pamphlets. In August of 1773, though he had always despised Scotland, Johnson undertook his memorable trip to the Hebrides with Boswell. In July of 1774, Johnson went to Wales with the Thrales. During that same year Oliver Goldsmith, one of the few contemporaries whom Johnson genuinely admired, died, and Johnson felt a tremendous sense of loss.

In 1775 Johnson published his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. During the same year he received an honorary LL.D. from Oxford, and visited to France (which he finds worse than Scotland) with the Thrales. He reacted furiously to the American Revolution, characterizing the rebellious colonists as "a race of convicts." In 1776 he travelled with Boswell to Oxford, Ashbourne, and Lichfield, where he stood bareheaded in the rain in the market-place before the stall which had housed his father's bookshop, in order to atone for a "breach of filial piety" committed fifty years before.

In 1778 he made the acquaintance of Fanny Burney, aged twenty-four, and soon to be the sucessful authoress of Evelina. In the following year David Garrick, Johnson's old pupil and close friend, died, and he was again shaken. In 1781, after Johnson's The Lives of the English Poets had been published, Henry Thrale died. Johnson consoled his widow and, though he ought perhaps to have known better, contemplated marrying her.

In 1783, however, his health began to fail, and he suffered a stroke. The following year, partially recovered, he broke with Mrs. Thrale when she announced her intention of marrying Gabriele Piozzi. Johnson, frail and troubled by gout, asthma, dropsy, and a tumour, found that his his life-long fear of death had begun to preoccupy him, but he faced it bravely, as he had faced all adversities. On December 13 he died, aged seventy-five: he was buried in Westminster Abbey, with approriate ceremony, on December 20.
 


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The writings of the English author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson express a profound reverence for the past modified by an energetic independence of mind. The mid-18th century in England is often called the Age of Johnson.

Samuel Johnson was born in Litchfield, Staffordshire, on Sept. 18, 1709. His father was a bookseller - first successful, later a failure - and Johnson, whom Adam Smith described as the best-read man he had ever known, owed much of his education to the fact that he grew up in a bookstore. Though he lived to old age, from infancy Johnson was plagued by illness. He was afflicted with scrofula, smallpox, and partial deafness and blindness. One of his first memories was of being taken to London, where he was touched by Queen Anne, the touch of the sovereign then thought to be a cure for scrofula.

Johnson was educated at the Litchfield Grammar School, where he learned Latin and Greek under the threat of the rod. He later studied with a clergyman in a nearby village from whom he learned a lesson always central to his thinking - that, if one is to master any subject, one must first discover its general principles, or, as Johnson put it, "but grasp the Trunk hard only, and you will shake all the Branches." In 1728-1729 Johnson spent 14 months at Pembroke College, Oxford. He was poor, embarrassed by his poverty, and he could not complete the work for a degree. While at Oxford, Johnson became confirmed in his belief in Christianity and the Anglican Church, a belief to which he held throughout a life often troubled by religious doubts. His father died in 1731, and Johnson halfheartedly supported himself with academic odd jobs. In 1735 he married Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, a widow some 20 years older than he. Though Johnson's references to his "Tetty" were affectionate, the 17 years of their childless marriage were probably not very happy. Still casting about for a way to make a living, Johnson opened a boarding school. He had only three pupils, one of them being David Garrick - eventually to become the greatest actor of his day. In 1737 Johnson went to London to make a career as a man of letters.


Making His Name

Once in London, Johnson began to work for Edward Cave, the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament did not then permit stenographic reports of its debates, and Cave published a column called "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput" - the name is taken, of course, from the first book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels - for which Johnson, among others, wrote re-creations of actual parliamentary speeches. Years later, when someone quoted to him from a speech by William Pitt the Elder, Johnson remarked, "That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street."

Johnson worked at a variety of other literary tasks. He published two "imitations" of the Roman satirist Juvenal, London, a Poem (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), transposing the language and situations of the classical originals into those of his own day. In 1744 Johnson published a biography of his friend Richard Savage. A neurotic liar and sponger and a failed writer, Savage had been one of Johnson's friends when they were both down and out, and to such early friends Johnson was always loyal. The Life of Savage is a sympathetic study of a complex and initially unsympathetic man. In 1749 Johnson completed his rather lifeless tragedy in blank verse Irene; it was produced by Garrick and earned Johnson 300.

In the early 1750s Johnson, writing usually at the rate of two essays a week, published two series of periodical essays - The Rambler (1750-1752) and The Adventurer (1753-1754). The essays take various forms - allegories, sketches of representative human types, literary criticism, lay sermons. Johnson constantly lived in the presence of the literature of the past, and his essays refer to the classics as if they were the work of his contemporaries. He has a satirist's eye for discrepancies and contradictions in human life, yet he is always in search of the central and universal, for whatever is unchanging in man's experience. His prose is elaborate and richly orchestrated, and he seems to have tried to enlarge the language of moral philosophy by using scientific and technical terms.

Johnson's interest in specialized vocabularies can be easily explained. In 1746 he had, with the help of six assistants, begun work on a dictionary of the English language. The project was finally completed in 1755. Johnson had originally tried to interest Lord Chesterfield in becoming patron for this vast project, but he did little to help Johnson until help was no longer needed. Johnson wrote Chesterfield a public letter in which he declared the author's independence of noble patronage. Johnson's Dictionary is probably the most personal work of its kind that will ever be compiled; though Johnson received help from others, it was not the work of a committee. His own definition of lexicographer was a "writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," yet the work bears his personal stamp: it is notable for the precision of its definitions, for its appreciation of the paramount importance of metaphor in use of language, and for its examples, which draw on Johnson's reading in 200 years of English literature.

Johnson's Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia appeared in 1759, the year of the publication of Voltaire's Candide, a work which it somewhat resembles. Both are moral fables concerned with an innocent young man's search for the secret of happiness. The young Prince Rasselas, accompanied by his sister and the philosopher Imlac, leaves his home in the Happy Valley and interviews men of different kinds in the hope of discovering how life may best be lived. Disillusioned at last, Rasselas returns to his old home. Though Johnson was given to fits of idleness, he could at other times work with great facility; he wrote Rasselasin the evenings of one week to pay for the expenses of his mother's funeral. The work was immediately successful; six editions appeared during Johnson's lifetime and also a number of translations.


Years of Success and Fame

In 1762 Johnson, though he had been anti-Hanoverian in his politics, accepted a pension of 300 a year from George III. A year later he met James Boswell, the 22-year-old son of a Scottish judge. Boswell became Johnson's devoted companion; he observed him closely, made notes on his conversation, and eventually wrote the great biography of his hero. Boswell's Johnson is a formidable and yet endearing figure: bulky, personally untidy, given to many eccentricities and compulsions, in conversation often contentious and even pugnacious, a man of great kindness who delighted in society but was also the victim of frequent black moods and periods of religious disquiet. In 1773 Boswell persuaded Johnson, who pretended a stronger dislike of the Scots than he actually felt, to join him in a tour of Scotland, and there are records of the trip made by both men - Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) and Boswell's journal.

In 1764 Johnson and the painter Joshua Reynolds founded a club whose members eventually numbered some of the most eminent men of the time; they included the writer Oliver Goldsmith, Johnson's old pupil David Garrick, the economist Adam Smith, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the politicians Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. In 1765 Johnson met Mr. and Mrs. Henry Thrale. He was a well-to-do brewer, and in the Thrales' home Johnson found a refuge from the solitude which had oppressed him since his wife's death in 1752. In 1765 Johnson published an eight-volume edition of the works of Shakespeare; in his "Preface" Johnson praises Shakespeare for his fidelity to nature and defends him against the charge that his failure to observe the three classical unities was a limitation on his achievement.


Last Years

Johnson's last great literary enterprise, a work in 10 volumes, was completed in his seventy-second year; it is the Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, better known as the Lives of the Poets. Itisa series of biographical and critical studies of 52 English poets, the earliest being Abraham Cowley; it is a magisterial revaluation of the course of English poetry from the early 17th century until his own time by a man whose taste had been formed by the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope and who was thus in varying degrees out of sympathy with the metaphysicals and John Milton, as he was with the more "advanced" writers of his own time. Even when he deals with writers whom he does not much like, Johnson shows his genius for precise definition and for laying down fairly the terms of a critical argument.

Johnson's last years were saddened by the death of his old friend Dr. Robert Levett (to whom he addressed a beautiful short elegy), by the death of Thrale, and by a quarrel with Mrs. Thrale, who had remarried with what seemed to Johnson indecorous haste. In his last illness Johnson, always an amateur physician, made notes on the progress of his own disease. He died on Dec. 13, 1784, in his house in London, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008