Samuel Johnson


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Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), oft-quoted biographer, poet and lexicographer wrote A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), published in two folio volumes. In his time it was the most comprehensive English language dictionary ever compiled and remained the standard reference for over a century. The first edition included a “Grammar and History of the English Language” and thousands of quotations from such authors as John Dryden, William Shakespeare and John Milton to illustrate the use of the over 42,000 words it contained—many more were added in subsequent editions. At a time when literacy rates were improving and the realm of print media was expanding at a rapid pace, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines were becoming available at a reasonable cost. So, standard spellings, uses and meanings of words such as ‘Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff’ was required among printing houses. Johnson was hired by a group of London booksellers and paid a little over £1500 to create this ambitious work. Having outlined his A Plan of an English Dictionary in 1747 Johnson, not without his sense of humour added several bon mots to the dictionary including ‘Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.’ The undertaking took almost nine years to complete.

I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise. (A Dictionary, Preface)

By the time it was completed, Johnson was tired of it all and felt snubbed and forgotten. As well as the few advances from the publishing group, Lord Chesterfield patronised him with the paltry sum of £10 for his efforts. However, when the publication date was nearing Chesterfield publicly praised it hoping for a dedication. This resulted in Johnson’s scathing letter, positing many questions including ‘Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?’ Johnson’s bitterness is noted in several of his definitions including that of Patron: ‘One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.’

While often plagued by the ‘black dog’ of melancholia, anxiety and loneliness, financial difficulties and self-doubt, Johnson found his voice in the written word—little did he know it would still be heard over two centuries later. From humble beginnings as the son of a bookseller, Johnson became one of the most widely respected 18th century scholars. Like his father he was a High Churchman and showed tolerance to those outside of his faith. From Oxford University he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1755 and a Doctor of Laws degree in 1775; Trinity College, Dublin bestowed upon him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1765. He wrote fiction and non—his works covering subjects as varied as theatre, biography, politics, religion, and travel as well as French, Latin, Greek, and Italian translations. Upon the successful publication of his Dictionary Johnson enjoyed the esteem of London’s literary circle and became great friends with many other prominent men of the time including Adam Smith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith with whom he founded the “Club”, later known as the Literary Club. During the course of their friendship, Scottish lawyer and author James Boswell (1740-1795) wrote the definitive biography of his friend titled The Life of Johnson (1791).

As I had the honour and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of twenty years....I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him....and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends.... I trust, I shall not be accused of affectation, when I declare, that I find myself unable to express all that I felt upon the loss of such a ‘Guide, Philosopher, and Friend.’ I shall, therefore, not say one word of my own, but adopt those of an eminent friend, which he uttered with an abrupt felicity, superior to all studied compositions:—He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best:—there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson. (ibid.)

Doctor Samuel Johnson LL.D. was born on 18 September 1709 at the home his father built (now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum) which also housed his father’s bookshop. It stands at the corner of Breadmarket Street and Market Square in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. Samuel was the first son born to Sarah Ford (1699-1759) and Michael Johnson (1657-1731). His brother Nathaniel was born in 1712 (d.1737). The early years for young Samuel and his family were difficult—his father, a well-read and respected businessman also served as Magistrate of Lichfield for a time but suffered financial woes and Samuel had been born a rather sickly child. After being sent to a wet nurse he suffered a bout of scrophula or tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, then later smallpox, which caused physical disfigurements. Sarah, who believed as so many others did at the time that the royal touch had healing powers, brought her son to London to be touched by Queen Anne. However, off and on for the rest of his life various ailments including tics, poor hearing and eyesight, and depression plagued Johnson. He often went on long walks or went swimming or horseback riding to alleviate his gloomy moods.

Johnson found much enjoyment reading the numerous books lining the shelves of his father’s store, and his interest in literature further developed whilst attending the Lichfield and Stourbridge grammar schools where he studied the classics. At the age of nineteen he entered Pembroke College at Oxford to study languages and law but had to leave in 1731 due to financial constraints. After his father Michael’s death the same year, Johnson continued to seek his place in the world; impoverished and with no completed formal training, he listlessly travelled about trying to obtain a position as teacher. While he did do some teaching and tutoring none of his positions held long-term. He could be an impatient man with occasional angry outbursts, but overall he was known for being kind to those less fortunate than he, sometimes to his great expense. Residing in Birmingham in the West Midlands with this friend Edmund Hector, Johnson turned his hand to writing. A Voyage to Abyssinia, his translation from the Portuguese of Jesuit Father Jerome Lobo’s travels was published in 1735.

On 9 July 1735 at St. Werburgh’s Church in Derby, East Midlands, Johnson married the widowed Elizabeth ‘Tetty’ Jervis née Porter (1689-1752), twenty years his senior. Although the couple did not have children Elizabeth had three from her previous marriage. Boswell notes that Johnson ‘became the fervent admirer of Mrs. Porter, after her first husband’s death’ and relates Miss [Lucy, Elizabeth's daughter] Porter’s first impression of him;

....his appearance was very forbidding: he was then lean and lank, so that his immense structure of bones was hideously striking to the eye, and the scars of the scrophula were deeply visible. He also wore his hair, which was straight and stiff, and separated behind: and he often had, seemingly, convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which tended to excite at once surprize and ridicule. (The Life of Johnson)

Boswell goes on to say;

Mrs. Porter was so much engaged by his conversation that she overlooked all these external disadvantages, and said to her daughter, ‘this is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life.’(ibid.)

Boswell also tells us of David Garrick’s (1717-1779) not so flattering impressions of Tetty. Whether she was of florid and coarse appearance and provincial airs or not, Samuel said ‘it was a love marriage on both sides.’ (ibid.) Tetty was plump and outgoing, ‘fantastick in her dress’ (ibid.) and tended to the ‘liberal use of cordials.’ (ibid.) Samuel loved her for her beauty, patience and devotion to him. She was supportive of him in his pursuits, emotionally and financially, as in when he attempted to establish a school at Edial, just outside of Lichfield where the Johnsons had settled. The undertaking lasted just over a year. Garrick was one of the three pupils who had enrolled and would become a famous actor and friend to Johnson. With the schools closure Samuel was again faced with the need to make a major decision in his life regarding occupation. Leaving Elizabeth behind temporarily and with the intention of furthering his education and studying law, he travelled to London. He had little money in his pocket but with the encouragement of friends and making the acquaintance of genteel company he gathered his resources to establish himself. He wrote to Gentlemen’s Magazine publisher Edward Cave hoping to garner interest in his writing, for while he was working on his play Irene (1737) [which Garrick produced in 1749] Johnson had also started to write theatre and book reviews, essays, and news items. When he was hired by Cave in 1738 as a journalist he also turned his pen to politics. Included in the many subjects he wrote of were America, censorship, taxation, and slavery. With notes from a collaborator who attended the debates, Johnson evokes Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) Gulliver’s Travels in his series of Parliamentary Reports disguised as from “The Senate of Lilliput”. The debates were kept under secrecy from the public at the time and it was illegal to reproduce them in print, hence it was a true test of Johnson’s ability to craft imaginative and satiric works. Other magazines he contributed to were The Adventurer (between the years 1752 and 1754) and The Idler (from 1758-1760).

After a time Elizabeth joined him in London where they both lived for the rest of their lives although they maintained a house in Lichfield. Johnson’s “London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal”—‘Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest, Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest’ was printed in Gentlemen’s Magazine in May of 1738. He was paid ten guineas and it earned him notable recognition from fellow writers including he ‘who then filled the poetical throne without a rival’ (Life of Johnson) Alexander Pope. Although he was now earning a fairly regular income from Gentlemen’s money was still tight at times and he never forgot the financial straits and degradations he went through just a few years earlier. His biography of fellow writer and friend Richard Savage (c.1697-1743) Life of Savage was published in 1744 and illuminates the desperate struggle and oftentimes disappointing life of a writer in London. Other works written during this period include A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage (1739) and The Life of Admiral Blake (1740).

In 1748 and now living comfortably with their servant Mr. Francis Barber (c.1735-1801) at 17 Gough Square just off of Fleet Street (now known as the Dr. Johnson’s House Museum), Johnson set to the formidable task of compiling his Dictionary. While it took much of his time, probably to take a break from the mundane aspect of it he worked on other writing projects and assisted other writers. The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal was published in 1749, The Life of Edward Cave in 1752. He also produced a number of essays published in his own periodical The Rambler between the years 1850-1852. On 28 March 1752 his beloved Tetty died; she now rests at the Bromley Parish Church cemetery in Kent County. Near the end of his life Johnson had her gravestone inscribed thus; ‘Hic conduntur reliquiæ Elizabethæ antiquâ Jarvisiorum gente, Peatlingæ apud Leicestrienses ortæ, formosæ, cultæ, ingeniosæ, piæ, uxoris primis nuptiis Henrici Porter, secundis Samuelis Johnson, qui multúm amatam diuque defletam hoc lapide contexit. Obiit Londini, mense Mart. A. D. 1753.’ (Dr. Johnson’s Works: Life, Poems, and Tales, Volume 1) Johnson’s grief was profound yet he could not bear to attend her funeral; for the rest of his life he kept her wedding ring close at hand in a special wooden box.

In 1759 Johnson’s mother Sarah died, the same year his satirical Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia was published. Other works to follow were The Life of Ascham (1761), Notes to Shakespeare (1765) and The Fountains: A Fairy Tale (1766). In 1762 he was granted an annual government pension of £300. Around the time Johnson met Boswell he also made the acquaintance of Henry and Hester Thrale who became good friends and support to the now widowed Johnson. Throughout the 70’s he continued writing on politics including The False Alarm (1770), Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands (1771), The Patriot (1774), and Taxation No Tyranny (1775). Based on his travels in Scotland with Boswell, Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1773). Prayers and Meditations was published in 1785. His series Lives of the Poets published in 3 volumes between 1779 and 1781 earned much acclaim. Included are biographies of William Congreve, Sir John Denham, John Dryden, David Mallet, John Milton, Thomas Otway, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope.

Samuel Johnson died on 13 December 1784 and now rests in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, London, England.

“This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from an opinion, that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by modes of spelling fanciful and erroneous: I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.” (from his Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language)

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.


The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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Dr Johnson's House

I recently had the pleasure to visit Dr Johnson's house while in London. It lays in the part of London called "The City" a district now occupied with financial offices and international companies, tucked away in a courtyard off the main road is Gough Square (Dr. Johnson spelled it G-o-f-f). Gough Square is a plain place unadorned by the brilliant architecture that is present in London, but indicative of the more business minded area The City. The walls of office buildings loom on either side and...


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