Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
Nicholas Hudson, University of British Columbia
One of history’s most famous Londoners, Samuel Johnson first came to the capital in 1737 from Lichfield, Staffordshire, with another famous Londoner, David Garrick. The young Garrick was on his way to a new school while Johnson hoped to find a theatre to stage his tragedy, Mahomet and Irene. Ironically, this play, renamed Irene, would not be staged until Garrick himself undertook it at Covent Garden Theatre in 1749.
Johnson had indeed struggled for much longer than the sociable and talented Garrick, who quickly rose to prominence on the wave of enthusiasm for Shakespeare in the early 1740s. Johnson by contrast was an ungainly classical scholar, hampered by tics and unsightly scars, without a university degree or any kind of useful alliances. On arriving in London, he tried to connect himself with Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, offering Latin poems and translations until finally he made his first breakthrough, an imitation of Juvenal’s tenth Satire, “London.” When the prominent Opposition book-seller Robert Dodsley published this poem in 1738, it powerfully channeled Patriot clamours against the administration of Sir Robert Walpole. With this city poem, filled with images of a corrupt metropolis, Johnson secured his desk at the Gentleman’s Magazine, becoming essentially Cave’s right-hand man. Into the 1740s he wrote numerous reviews, biographies and articles along with a series of Parliamentary reports under the guise of being fictional debates in the senate of Swift’s Lilliput. Of Johnson’s various works in in the 1740s, the masterpiece was his biography of his fellow writer Richard Savage, a ragged Patriot with whom Johnson had wandered the midnight streets before Savage’s early death in 1743. The Life of Savage (1744) was unlike any previous biography. It recounted, with great compassion, the life of a talented if hapless vagabond, a man who wasted every opportunity that he was ever given yet retained a bedraggled dignity and love of virtue. It is the greatest Grub Street biography, earning Johnson the lasting admiration of prominent friends such as the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Johnson himself escaped Grub Street when he was offered a glorious opportunity by a consortium of prominent London booksellers led by Robert Dodsley. Still obscure and without patronage, Johnson seemed an unlikely choice to compose a desideratum of British letters, a new English dictionary. Despite his lack of prominence, he had clearly impressed important people as capable of undertaking a project worth the enormous sum of £1,575. With this money, Johnson rented a large house in Gough Square near Fleet Street and began his own small industry of literary workmen, six amanuenses to aid in finding and organizing material. Though delayed by illness and the death of his beloved wife Tetty, Johnson completed the two heavy volumes of A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Besides its importance in shaping the language, this dictionary is a monument to independent authorship and a historic riposte to the many who had ridiculed authors like Johnson as “Grub Street hacks.” As if to mark this moment, Johnson rejected the last-minute patronage of Lord Chesterfield, luminary of the beau monde, proudly defending himself as a retired scholar and literary professional.
It might well be said, indeed, that Johnson was putting to rest prejudice against professional authorship. In the bi-weekly periodical, The Rambler, which, remarkably, Johnson was publishing at the same time as he was composing the dictionary, he defended “the manufacturers of literature,” London’s workforce of translators and copyists, as worthy though obscure members of the literary profession. In the dictionary, he famously defined “lexicographer” as a “harmless drudge,” for he continued to see himself as primarily a labourer in the mines of literature. Johnson indeed still wrote poetry, publishing another successful imitation of Juvenal, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in 1749. Nevertheless, soon after the dictionary, he took on another large project that required dogged labour rather than creativity, a new edition of the plays of Shakespeare. He got around to this work slowly, not completing it until 1765. The truly distinguishing feature of this edition was its preface in which Johnson advanced a cogent defense of Shakespeare against his neoclassical critics, particularly Voltaire. Shakespeare was clearly a congenial figure for Johnson, for here was another man from the provinces who had come to London and made good against all odds. Yet these two writers also represented two sides of the evolving literary profession. In Johnson’s own view, Shakespeare was helped rather than hindered by his lack of formal learning, for he gleaned his vast knowledge of human nature from observation on the world itself. Johnson, on the contrary, remained a hardworking scholar informed by the world of books. He was the natural critic rather than original writer, an author who sought to explain Shakespeare’s enduring greatness through general principles.
Despite Johnson’s willing embrace of this role of “secondary” author—a writer on writers rather than an original creative genius—he had risen to such prestige that a young Scot, James Boswell, eagerly sought him out in 1763 as the nation’s most famous literary personality. This would become one of the most celebrated relationships in literary history, for Boswell would later bring to life, in his Life of Johnson, the loquacious and eccentric personality behind Johnson’s tomes of scholarship and grave pages of morality. Boswell’ s biography revealed another dimension of the emergent professional writer—the busy worker surrounded by books at his desk, the irrepressible pundit commenting on current literary figures and ideas. Johnson was now in full stride as a social and political commentator. His second set of periodical essays, The Idler (1756–8), eschewed moral teaching in favour of wide-ranging commentary on London people and the mobbish patriotism incited by the war with France. His short novel, Rasselas (1759), which he wrote quickly to pay for his mother’s funeral, exploited a recent fad for oriental romances to imagine an up-to-date world filled with pretentious philosophers and bewildered searchers. Johnson also threw himself into political pamphleteering following the rise of the populist radical John Wilkes in the 1760s. The False Alarm (1770), Thoughts on the Falkland Islands (1771), The Patriot (1774) and Taxation No Tyranny (1775) rose towards a crescendo of mockery against ranting preachers of “liberty” who were really self-interested hypocrites. As he asked in Taxation no Tyranny, his polemic against the American revolutionaries, “how is it that we hear loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Boswell’s portrait of Johnson as a truculent Tory in The Life of Johnson is, to a large extent, accurate: he could be overbearing and intolerant, often preferring witty insults over reasoned debate. On the other hand, we find more complex and nuanced reasoning in much of his published work. Conversation was the medium where Johnson found release from personal demons and from his pained awareness of the real complexities of experience. Johnson’s scholarly obsession with listing, cataloging, indexing, and correcting represents a similar effort to reduce complexity to manageable order. In his finest writing, on the other hand, as in The Life of Savage or Lives of the Poets, Johnson excelled all other eighteenth-century writers in his capacity to see people, problems and books in a kaleidoscope of shades and ambiguities.
Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781) was Johnson’s last and, in Boswell’s opinion, his greatest work. This was another example of Johnson taking on a booksellers’ project and turning it into a masterpiece. Commissioned to provide a series of biographies to accompany John Bell’s edition of The Poets of Great Britain, Johnson produced over fifty critical introductions that were published together as a separate work. Lives of the Poets by no means provides a comprehensive survey of English literature; it contains no women writers and ignores the novel. Nonetheless, his biographies present a roughly chronological overview of the development of authorship from the mid seventeenth century to the third quarter of the eighteenth century, showing how the age of patronage gave way to the emergence of professional writers like Pope and Addison. Although some modern scholars have presented Johnson as practicing an old form of criticism that sought the truth of works in writers’ lives, he was in fact pioneering a textual criticism that attempted to separate the aesthetic quality of texts from extraneous factors such as personal favour, fashion, and politics. Despite his own notorious political views, which hostile readers blamed for skewing his judgments, Johnson was quite able to distinguish the greatness of Paradise Lost from Milton’s regicide Puritanism or the genius of The Seasons from Thomson’s Whiggish enthusiasms. Contrary to an old view of Johnson, moreover, he fully rejected neoclassical rules in favour of judgments that, unbound by rigid precepts, regarded aesthetic pleasure as the true measure of literary quality, however it was achieved.
Partly through the influence Boswell’s biography, “Dr. Johnson” became known to the Victorians as a quaintly retrograde vestige of the past, an opponent to all that seemed new and challenging. In fact, Johnson had championed much that was new—from professional authorship to women intellectuals, from opposition to slavery to love of good novels like Evelina. Johnson established the model for future dictionaries and pioneered a new form of literary criticism. A devoted Londoner who loved the cut-and-thrust and diversity of urban life, Johnson had helped to create the world of modern literature and authorship.
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1709–1784), lexicographer, son of Michael Johnson, bookseller at Lichfield, by his wife Sarah (Ford), was born at Lichfield on 18 Sept. (N.S.) 1709, and was baptised 17 Sept. (i.e. 28 Sept. N.S.), according to the parish register (Gent. Mag. October 1829). The father, born in 1656, remembered the publication of ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ in 1681 (Johnson, Life of Dryden). He transmitted to his son a powerful frame and ‘a vile melancholy.’ Besides keeping his shop (now preserved as a public memorial) at Lichfield he sold books occasionally at Birmingham, at Uttoxeter, and at Ashby-de-la-Zouch (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 33). He was churchwarden in 1688, sheriff of Lichfield (then a county) in 1709, junior bailiff in 1718, and senior bailiff in 1725. As became a bookseller in a cathedral town, he was a high churchman, and something of a Jacobite. Unbusinesslike habits or a speculation in the ‘manufacture of parchment’ brought him into difficulties. His wife, born in 1669 at King's Norton, Worcestershire, is described as ‘descendant of an ancient race of yeomanry in Warwickshire.’ They married on 9 June 1706 (ib. ii. 384), and had, besides Samuel, a son Nathanael, born in 1712, who died in 1737.
Strange stories were told of Samuel's precocity. It is said that before he was three years old he insisted upon going to church to hear Sacheverell preach (Boswell, Life, by Hill, i. 39). His father was foolishly proud of him, and passed off an epitaph on ‘Good Master Duck,’ really written by himself, as Samuel's composition at the age of three. The child suffered from scrofula, which disfigured his face and injured or destroyed the sight of one eye. He was ‘touched’ by Queen Anne, and he retained a vague recollection of a ‘lady in diamonds and a long black hood’ (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 10). He learnt his letters at a dame-school under one Jane Brown, who published a spelling-book, and ‘dedicated it to the Universe,’ which, however, has preserved no copies. He next learnt Latin in Lichfield school. After two years he was under the head-master, Hunter, who was a brutal but efficient teacher. Johnson afterwards valued the birch as a less demoralising incentive than emulation. His force of mind and character already secured respect, and three of his schoolfellows used regularly to carry him to school. One of them, named Hector, survived to give information to Boswell. He was indolent and unwieldy, unable to join in games, and ‘immoderately fond’ of reading the old romances, a taste which he retained through life. In the autumn of 1725 (Hawkins) he visited an uncle, Cornelius Ford, a clergyman, who wasted considerable ability by convivial habits (Johnson, Life of Fenton). Ford was struck by the lad's talents, and kept him till the next Whitsuntide. He was then excluded from the Lichfield school, and sent, by Ford's advice, to a school at Stourbridge under a Mr. Wentworth, whom he is also said to have assisted in teaching. After a year he returned home, and spent two years in ‘lounging.’ It was at this time probably that he refused, out of pride, to attend his father to Uttoxeter market. On the same day some fifty years later he performed penance for this offence by visiting Uttoxeter market and standing bareheaded for an hour in the rain on the site of his father's bookstall (Boswell, iv. 373; R. Warner, Tour through the Northern Counties; for some slight discrepancies in these statements see Notes and Queries, 6th ser. xi. 1, 91, 193). He read a great deal in a desultory fashion, and said afterwards (Boswell, Letters, p. 34) that he knew as much at eighteen as he did at fifty-two. He had written verses, of which Boswell gives specimens (one of them inserted in the Gent. Mag. for 1743, p. 378), and had no doubt made a reputation among his father's customers at Lichfield. A ‘neighbouring gentleman, Mr. Andrew Corbet,’ according to Hawkins (p. 9), offered to send Johnson to Oxford to read with his son, who had entered Pembroke College in 1727. Johnson was entered as a commoner on 31 Oct. 1728. According to Hawkins a disagreement with Corbet followed, and Johnson's supplies from this source were stopped after a time. The dates, however, are confused. Hawkins and Boswell say that Johnson remained three years at Oxford. The college books show him to have resided continuously till 12 Dec. 1729, after which he only resided for a few brief periods, and his name was removed on 8 Oct. 1731 (see appendix to Hill's Dr. Johnson, his Friends and his Critics). Johnson's tutor was a Mr. Jorden. He despised Jorden's lectures, though he respected the kindliness of the lecturer. Johnson seems to have surprised the college authorities by the extent of his reading, and a Latin translation of Pope's ‘Messiah,’ performed as a Christmas exercise, spread his reputation in the university, and was printed in 1731 in an Oxford ‘Miscellany’ brought out by J. Husbands, a fellow of Pembroke. Pope, to whom it was shown by George, son of Dr. Arbuthnot, is said to have paid it a high compliment (Hawkins, p. 13). Johnson was said by William Adams (1706–1789) [q. v.], who succeeded Jorden as tutor, to have been a ‘gay and frolicsome fellow,’ and generally popular at Oxford. Johnson told Boswell, upon hearing this, that he was only ‘mad and violent.’ He was ‘miserably poor,’ meant to ‘fight his way by his literature and wit, and so disregarded all authority.’ He was occasionally insubordinate (Boswell, i. 59, 271), but amenable to kindness. He suffered from hypochondria, of which (ib. p. 63) he had a violent attack at Lichfield during the vacation of 1729. He frequently, says Boswell, walked from Lichfield to Birmingham and back in order to overcome his melancholy by violent exertion. He wrote an account of his case in Latin, and laid it before his godfather, Dr. Swinfen, who was so much struck by its ability that, to Johnson's lasting offence, he showed it to several friends. While at Oxford he took up the ‘Serious Call’ of William Law [q. v.], by which he was profoundly affected. He had previously fallen into indifference to religious matters, and was even ‘a lax talker against religion.’ From this time his religious sentiments were always strong, though he continued to reproach himself with carelessness in practice. His poverty exposed him to vexations. His schoolfellow, John Taylor, afterwards J. Taylor of Ashbourne, proposed to become his companion at Pembroke, but upon Johnson's advice went to Christ Church to be under a Mr. Bateman, regarded as the best tutor at Oxford. Johnson used to get Bateman's lectures from Taylor, till he observed that the Christ Church men laughed at his worn-out shoes. Some one placed a new pair of shoes at his door, when he ‘threw them away with indignation.’ Johnson read Greek and ‘metaphysics’ at Oxford in his usual desultory fashion, and, in spite of his sufferings, retained a warm regard for his college and the university.
Johnson's poverty no doubt caused his premature departure. He returned at the end of 1729 to Lichfield, where his father died in December 1731. The father was on the verge of bankruptcy, though not actually bankrupt. Johnson in July 1732 received 20l. from the estate, all that he could expect until his mother's death, and had therefore to ‘make his own fortune’ (Diary, quoted by Boswell, i. 80). He had some friends at Lichfield, especially Dr. Swinfen, Garrick's father, and Gilbert Walmsley, whom he describes with warm gratitude in the ‘Life of Edmund Smith.’ He also was on friendly terms with Miss Hill Boothby [q. v.], to whom he wrote affectionate letters in her last illness (first published in Piozzi's Letters), and with Miss ‘Molly Aston,’ the loveliest creature he ever saw (Boswell, i. 83; Piozzi, Anecd. p. 157). He now tried for some scholastic employment, though the dates are rather confused, and was (probably in the first part of 1732) usher at Market Bosworth school. On 30 Oct. 1731 he describes himself as ‘still unemployed,’ having failed in an application for an ushership at his old school at Stourbridge. On 16 July (apparently 1732) he says that he walked to Market Bosworth (Boswell, i. 84–5), and on 27 July he had recently left the house of Sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of the Bosworth school. He can hardly have been usher, as Hawkins says, under Anthony Blackwall [q. v.], who died 8 April 1730. His life at Bosworth, whatever the date, was miserable. Dixie, to whom he acted as chaplain, treated him harshly, and he always spoke of the monotonous drudgery with ‘the strongest aversion, and even a degree of horror.’ A letter from Addenbrooke, dean of Lichfield, recommending him for a tutorship about this time, is given in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 6th ser. x. 421. He gave up the place after a few months, and went to live with an old schoolfellow, Hector, who was boarding at Birmingham with a Mr. Warren, the chief bookseller of the place and publisher of the ‘Birmingham Journal.’ Johnson is said to have contributed to this paper, besides giving other help to Warren. He translated Lobo's ‘Voyage to Abyssinia,’ for which Warren gave him five guineas. It was published in 1735. About 1734 he returned to Lichfield, and there made proposals for publishing Politian's Latin poems, with notes and a life. He addressed a letter to Edward Cave [q. v.] from Birmingham, dated 25 Nov. 1734, proposing to write a ‘literary article’ for the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’
Johnson had been introduced by Hector to a Henry Porter, a mercer at Birmingham. He was brother-in-law of Johnson's old master, Hunter (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 363). Porter was buried on 3 Aug. 1734, leaving a widow (born 4 Feb. 1688–9), whose maiden name was Jarvis, with a daughter, Lucy (baptised 8 Nov. 1715), and two sons. Miss Seward told Boswell that Johnson had been in love with the daughter, whom she identified as the object of some verses written by him at Stourbridge. Hector emphatically denied this (see controversy in Gent. Mag. vols. liii. and liv., partly reprinted in Nichols's Lit. Illustr. vii. 321–64). After Porter's death Johnson married Mrs. Porter, 9 July 1735. It was, as he told Beauclerk, ‘a love marriage on both sides,’ and, though outsiders mocked, the strength of Johnson's affection was unsurpassable. Though his face was scarred, his ‘huge structure of bones … hideously striking, his head wigless, ‘his gesticulations grotesque,’ Mrs. Porter at once recognised him as the ‘most sensible man’ she had ever seen. She was twenty years his senior. Her appearance is chiefly known from Garrick's comic descriptions to Boswell and Mrs. Piozzi. She was, he told Boswell, fat, with red painted cheeks, fantastic dress, and affected manners. Mrs. Piozzi, however, to whom he described her as a ‘little painted puppet,’ saw a picture of her at Lichfield, ‘very pretty,’ and, according to her daughter, ‘very like.’ The pair rode from Birmingham to be married at St. Werburgh's Church, Derby, and on the way Johnson showed his bride, by refusing to alter his pace at her bidding, that he would not be treated like a dog, which she had learnt from ‘the old romances’ to be the correct mode of behaving to lovers. The author of ‘Memoirs … of Johnson’ (1785) says that she brought him 700l. or 800l., and Mr. Timmins (‘Dr. Johnson in Birmingham,’ from Transactions of Midland Institute, 1876) shows that she had 100l. in the hands of an attorney. Mrs. Johnson's small fortune probably enabled him to take a house at Edial, near Lichfield, where, as an advertisement announced in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1736, ‘young gentlemen are boarded and taught the Greek and Latin languages by Samuel Johnson.’ Johnson's impatience, irregular habits, and uncouth appearance were hardly likely to conciliate either parent or pupils. Objections to these peculiarities prevented him from obtaining the mastership of Solihull school in August 1735, and an ushership at Brewood school in 1736 (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. x. 465; Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iii. 333). According to Boswell his only boys at Edial were ‘David and George Garrick and one other.’ Hawkins says that the number ‘never exceeded eight.’ The school collapsed, and Johnson resolved to try his fortunes in London. He left Lichfield on 3 March 1737, in company with Garrick—Johnson, as he said jokingly, having twopence halfpenny in his pocket, and Garrick three halfpence in his. The pair had also a letter from Walmsley to John Colson [q. v.], then master of a school at Rochester. Walmsley expected that Johnson would turn out ‘a fine tragedy-writer.’ He had written three acts of ‘Irene’ at Edial. Johnson left his wife at Lichfield, lodged at a staymaker's in Exeter Street, Strand, occasionally retiring to Greenwich, and lived with the utmost economy and temperance. A friend told him that he could live for 30l. a year without being contemptible. He found a patron, it seems, in Henry Hervey, third son of the Earl of Bristol, who had been in a regiment quartered at Lichfield. Hervey, as he said to Boswell in his last years, ‘though a vicious man, was very kind to me. If you call a dog Hervey I shall love him.’ Johnson, however, had to gain independence by literary work. The profession of authorship was beginning to be a recognised, though still a very unprofitable, pursuit. Cave's foundation of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ in 1731 had opened new prospects of employment, and Johnson now applied to Cave (12 July) proposing a new translation of the ‘History of the Council of Trent.’ He returned in the summer to Lichfield, where he finished ‘Irene’ (he afterwards gave the manuscript to Langton, who presented it to the King's Library, now in the British Museum), and, after three months' stay, returned with his wife to London, leaving Lucy Porter at Lichfield, and took lodgings in Woodstock Street, Hanover Square, and afterwards in Castle Street, Cavendish Square. Lucy Porter lodged with Johnson's mother at Lichfield till her fortieth year, when the death of a brother improved her means, and she lived at Lichfield till her death, 13 Jan. 1786. Johnson was always indulgent to her, allowed her to scold him ‘like a schoolboy, and kept up constant communications with her till his death’ (Seward, Letters, i. 116). He offered ‘Irene,’ without success, to Fleetwood, patentee of Drury Lane. In March 1738 a Latin ode by him to ‘Sylvanus Urban’ appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and he soon became a regular contributor. He beheld St. John's Gate, the printing-office of the magazine, ‘with reverence.’ He still had illusions about authors. Hawkins (p. 49) tells of his introduction by Cave to an ale-house where he could see the great Mr. Browne smoking a pipe. Malone (Browne, i. 63) gives a similar account of his dining behind a screen at Cave's to hear Walter Harte [q. v.]'s conversation without exposing his shabbiness. If Harte, as is said, praised the life of Savage, this was as late as 1744. Johnson's employment upon the parliamentary debates began about 1738, when they were given, with fictitious names, as debates in the ‘Senate of Lilliput.’ They were written by William Guthrie (1708–1770) [q. v.], and only corrected by Johnson at this period (ib. i. 136). He wrote those published in the ‘Magazine’ from July 1741 to March 1744. The debates were often delayed till some time after the session, in order to avoid a breach of privilege, and the last report by Johnson was of a debate on 22 Feb. 1743. Johnson was never in the gallery himself, but had some assistance from persons employed by Cave. Some of the debates, however, were ‘the mere coinage of his own imagination’ (ib. iv. 409). They evidently bear a very faint resemblance to the real debates, as Mr. Birkbeck Hill shows by a comparison with Secker's notes. In fact it is not conceivable that all the speakers confined themselves to sonorous generalities in the true Johnsonian style. At the time, however, they were often regarded as genuine, and Johnson near his death (ib.) expressed some compunction for the deception. Murphy describes a dinner at Foote's when Johnson claimed a speech attributed to Pitt and compared by the elder Francis to Demosthenes. He took care, he added, that the ‘whig dogs should not have the best of it.’ One debate was translated into French, German, and Spanish, as was stated in the ‘Magazine’ for February 1743; and Johnson's immediate cessation is plausibly regarded by Mr. Hill as a confirmation of his statement to Boswell that he stopped reporting because he ‘would not be accessory to the propagation of falsehood’ (ib. i. 152; see a full discussion by Mr. Birkbeck Hill, Boswell, i. App. A.) In May 1738 Johnson published ‘London,’ in imitation of the third satire of ‘Juvenal.’ It was offered to Cave, who seems to have received it favourably, but was finally published by Dodsley, who gave ten guineas for the copyright. Johnson was determined not to take less than had been given to Paul Whitehead, whom he despised. Though Boswell denies it, the ‘Thales’ of the poem may perhaps refer to Savage (see Mr. Hill's note on Boswell, i. 125). It appeared on the same day as Pope's ‘Epilogue,’ originally called ‘1738,’ and reached a second edition in a week. Though without the consummate polish of the ‘Epilogue,’ one of Pope's most finished pieces, it showed a masculine force of thought, which caused the unknown writer to be welcomed as a worthy follower of the chief poet of the day. Many passages expressed the patriotic sentiment which then stimulated the growing opposition to Walpole, both among tories and malcontent whigs. Pope himself inquired the author's name, and hearing his obscurity said, ‘He will soon be déterré.’ Johnson, however, was still poor enough to apply in 1739 for the mastership of a school at Appleby. The salary was 60l. a year, and it was required that masters should have the degree of M.A. Pope, knowing nothing of Johnson, it is said, but his satire, recommended him to Lord Gower, probably as having interest with the trustees; and Gower wrote to a friend of Swift (1 May 1739) in order to obtain a M.A. degree from Dublin. Johnson, as Gower reported, would rather die upon the road to an examination (if required) ‘than be starved to death in translating for booksellers, which has been his only subsistence for some time past.’ The application failed, and the want of a degree was also fatal to an application made by Johnson for leave to practise as an advocate at Doctors' Commons.
Cave meanwhile had accepted his proposed translation of Father Paul's history, and in 1738–9 he received 49l. 7s. on account of work done upon it; but it fell through in consequence of a project for a translation of the same book by another Samuel Johnson. In the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ of 1739 he wrote a ‘Life of Father Paul,’ and continued to contribute various small articles. A squib against Walpole, called ‘Marmor Norfolciense,’ April 1739, was not very lively, and seems to have failed, though Hawkins tells a story (contradicted by Boswell) that warrants were issued against the author. Pope refers to it as ‘very Humerous’ in a note sent to Richardson the painter, with ‘London,’ in which he says that Johnson's convulsive infirmities made him ‘a sad spectacle.’ In 1742 Johnson was employed by Thomas Osborne, a bookseller, to catalogue the library of Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford [q. v.] Osborne, treating Johnson with insolence, was knocked down for his pains. ‘I have beat many a fellow,’ as Johnson told Mrs. Piozzi, ‘but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues’ (Boswell, i. 154; Piozzi, Anecd. p. 233). A folio Septuagint of 1594 was shown at a bookseller's shop in 1812 as the weapon with which the deed was performed (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 446). Except his contributions to the ‘Magazine,’ and a letter (1 Dec. 1743) in which he takes upon himself a debt owed by his mother, little is preserved about Johnson till in February 1744 his very powerful life of Savage (who died 1 Aug. 1743) was published by one Roberts. The book was written with great rapidity, forty-eight octavo pages at a sitting. It gives a striking account of miseries in which Johnson was himself a sharer. Savage and Johnson had passed nights in roaming the streets without money to pay for a lodging, and on one such occasion passed the time in denouncing Walpole, and resolved to ‘stand by their country.’ It seems possible that for a time Johnson had to part from his wife, who may have found a refuge with friends (Boswell, i. 163; Hawkins, pp. 53 sq.), though Hawkins kindly suggests that Johnson's ‘irregularities’ were the cause of the temporary separation.
A period follows of such obscurity that Croker ventured the absurd hypothesis that Johnson was in some way implicated in the rebellion of 1745. A pamphlet of observations upon ‘Macbeth,’ with remarks upon Hanmer's edition of Shakespeare and proposals for a new edition by himself, was published in 1745. Warburton two years later, in the preface to his own ‘Shakespeare,’ excepted Johnson's remarks from a sweeping condemnation of other critics, as written by a ‘man of parts and genius,’ and Johnson was grateful for praise given ‘when praise was of value.’ Warburton met Johnson once (Boswell, iv. 48), and was so pleased as to ‘pat him.’ He afterwards told Hurd, however, that Johnson's ‘Shakespeare’ showed ‘as much folly as malignity’ (Letters to Hurd, p. 367). Johnson was deterred by Warburton's edition, or diverted by a new undertaking, from attempting ‘Shakespeare’ at present. In 1747 he issued the plan of his dictionary, inscribed to Lord Chesterfield. The inscription, as Johnson said, was the accidental result of his agreeing, at Dodsley's request, to write it in order to have a pretext for delay. The wording implies, however, that some communication had passed between them. The booksellers who undertook the enterprise (including Dodsley, Millar, and the Longmans) agreed to pay 1,575l. for the copyright. The payment included the whole work of preparing for the press; and Johnson lost 20l. on one occasion for a transcription of some leaves which had been written on both sides. He employed six amanuenses, five of whom, as Boswell is glad to record, were Scotsmen. From a letter published by Mr. Hill (Boswell, vi. xxxv) it appears that they received 23s. a week, which he agreed to raise to 2l. 2s., not, it is to be hoped, out of the 1,575l. To all of them he afterwards showed kindness when in distress. He began (Hawkins, p. 175) by having an interleaved copy of the dictionary of Nathan Bailey [q. v.], then the most in use. He read through all the books to be quoted, marked the sentences, and had them transcribed by his clerks on separate slips of paper. After they had been arranged he added definitions and etymologies from Skinner, Junius, and others. The work was done in a house in Gough Square, near the printers, which was visited by Carlyle and described in his article on Johnson. While the dictionary was still in preparation Johnson published his ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’ in January 1749. He received fifteen guineas for the copyright. In this and subsequent agreements he reserved a right to print one edition for himself. This the finest of his poems was profoundly admired by Byron and Sir Walter Scott, and is scarcely rivalled in the language in its peculiar style of grave moral eloquence. He said that he had composed seventy lines of it in one day before writing them down. Garrick had become manager of Drury Lane in 1747, when Johnson contributed the opening prologue. Garrick now offered to bring out his friend's tragedy. Some alterations which he suggested were so resented by the author that Dr. Taylor had to be called in as pacificator. ‘Irene’ was produced on 6 Feb. 1749, with an epilogue by Sir W. Yonge, secretary-at-war under Walpole. It went off tolerably till Irene (Mrs. Pritchard) appeared with the bowstring round her neck, when the audience cried ‘Murder!’ The scene was altered, and Garrick managed to carry the piece through nine nights, when the author's three nights brought him 195l. 17s., and the copyright was sold to Dodsley for 100l. The play, however, was felt to be a failure, and Johnson had the sense to discover that his talents were not those of a dramatic author. The only explanation, indeed, of his rash attempt is that the drama was still the most profitable field of authorship, and Johnson was better paid for his play than for his other writing. When asked how he felt its ill-success he replied, ‘Like the monument.’ He is reported to have appeared in a side-box in a scarlet waistcoat with rich gold lace and a gold-laced hat.
In 1750 Johnson began a more congenial task by writing the ‘Rambler.’ The first number appeared on Tuesday, 20 March 1750, and it came out every Tuesday and Saturday till the last number, published on Saturday, 14 March 1752. Johnson wrote the whole, except No. 10, partly by Mrs. Chapone, No. 30 by Miss Catherine Talbot, No. 97 by Samuel Richardson, and Nos. 44 and 100 by Mrs. Elizabeth Carter. Johnson received two guineas a paper (Murphy, 1806, p. 59). The papers were written in great haste, but carefully revised for the collected editions. Chalmers says, on the authority of Nichols the publisher, that there were six thousand corrections in the second and third editions. The ‘Rambler’ attracted little notice at first, although the author was gratified by his wife's declaration that he had surpassed even her expectations. The sale is said to have rarely exceeded five hundred; the only one which had a ‘prosperous sale’ being Richardson's (Chalmers, British Essayists, xix, xiv, xxvi). As the price was twopence, the profits cannot have been large. When collected, however, the papers acquired a high reputation, and ten editions (1,250 copies each) were published in London during Johnson's lifetime, besides Scottish and Irish editions. James Elphinston [q. v.] superintended the publication at Edinburgh. The ‘Rambler’ had probably a more lasting success than any other imitation of the ‘Spectator,’ though its rare modern readers will generally consider it as a proof of the amazing appetite of Johnson's public for solid sermonising. Omitting its clumsy attempts at occasional levity, it may be granted that in its ponderous sentences lie buried a great mass of strong sense and an impressive and characteristic view of life. From this time Johnson became accepted as an imposing moralist.
In 1750 Johnson wrote a prologue for ‘Comus,’ which was performed on 5 April at Drury Lane for the benefit of Milton's granddaughter. He had written a preface to the pamphlet in which William Lauder (d. 1771) [q. v.] published his forgeries as to Milton's alleged imitations of the moderns, and in it urged a subscription for the benefit of the granddaughter. Upon the exposure of the forgery by Douglas, Johnson dictated a letter of confession to Lauder.
The ‘Rambler’ was hardly finished when Johnson lost his wife, 17 March 1752. He felt the blow with extreme keenness, and ever afterwards cherished her memory with a tenderness which appears from many touching references in his ‘Prayers and Meditations.’ Compunction for little disagreements was no doubt exaggerated by his melancholy temperament. She was buried at Bromley in Kent, and he wrote a sermon to be delivered by Taylor on the occasion. It was not preached, but printed after his death. Taylor is said (Piozzi, Letters, ii. 384) to have declined because the sermon was too complimentary to the deceased.
In 1753–4 Johnson wrote some papers in the ‘Adventurer,’ undertaken by his friend and closest imitator, Hawkesworth, and enlisted Joseph Warton as a contributor. The dictionary was now approaching completion, and produced a famous encounter with Chesterfield. A story told by Hawkins, that the first offence was caused by Chesterfield's reception of Colley Cibber, while Johnson was left in the antechamber, was denied to Boswell by Johnson himself. His only complaint was Chesterfield's continued neglect. Chesterfield now wrote a couple of papers in the ‘World’ (28 Nov. and 5 Dec. 1754), recommending the book, no doubt with a view to a dedication. Johnson wrote a letter, dated 7 Feb. 1755, repelling this advance with singular dignity and energy. He felt bound, it seems, to preserve some reticence in regard to his letter, but ultimately gave copies to Baretti and to Boswell. Boswell deposited both in the British Museum. Johnson says that the notice has been delayed ‘till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am lonely and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.’ Warburton complimented Johnson, through Adams, upon his manly spirit. Chesterfield was wise enough not to reply, but suggested, in conversation with Dodsley, that he had always been ready to receive Johnson, whose pride or shyness was therefore to be blamed for the result. Dr. Birkbeck Hill proves that Chesterfield did not, as Boswell believed, refer to Johnson as the ‘respectable Hottentot’ of his letters (Dr. Johnson, &c., pp. 214–29). Johnson said that he had once received 10l. from Chesterfield, doubtless in recognition of the ‘plan’ inscribed to him, but thought it too trifling a favour to be mentioned in the letter. The letter justifies itself, and no author can fail to sympathise with this declaration of literary independence. Hawkins (p. 191) says that Chesterfield sent Sir Thomas Robinson to apologise, and that Robinson declared that, if he could have afforded it, he would have settled an annuity of 500l. a year upon Johnson. Johnson replied that if the first peer of the realm made such an offer he would show him downstairs.
In 1754 Johnson visited Oxford for the first time since he had ceased to reside, in order to consult some books for the dictionary, although he seems to have in fact collected nothing, and stayed five weeks at Kettel Hall, near Trinity College. His chief companion was Thomas Warton, then resident at Trinity, in whose company he renewed his acquaintance with the university. Warton also helped to obtain for him the M.A. degree. It was thought desirable that these letters should appear on the title-page of the dictionary for the credit both of himself and the university. The official letter from the chancellor referred to the ‘Rambler’ and to the forthcoming work. The diploma is dated 20 Feb. 1755. The dictionary appeared, in 2 vols. folio, on 15 April 1755, and at once took its place as the standard authority. It was a great advance upon its predecessors. The general excellence of its definitions and the judicious selection of illustrative passages make it (as often observed) entertaining as well as useful for reference. Its most obvious defect arises from Johnson's ignorance of the early forms of the language and from the conception then natural of the purpose of a dictionary. Johnson (see his preface) had sensibly abandoned his first impression that he might be able to ‘fix the language,’ as he came to see that every living language must grow. He did not aim, however, at tracing the growth historically, but simply at defining the actual senses of words as employed by the ‘best authors.’ He held that the language had reached almost its fullest development in the days of Shakespeare, Hooker, Bacon, and Spenser, and thought it needless to go further back than Sidney. He also, as a rule, omitted living authors. The dictionary, therefore, was of no philological value, although it has been the groundwork upon which many later philologists have worked. Taking for granted the contemporary view of the true end of a dictionary, it was a surprising achievement, and made an epoch in the study of the language.
Johnson's labours during the preparation of the dictionary must have been enormous, especially while he was also publishing the ‘Rambler.’ He never afterwards overcame his constitutional indolence for so strenuous and prolonged an effort. He was already attracting many friends, and no man ever had a more numerous or distinguished circle, or was more faithful to all who had ever done him a kindness. He took an early delight in the tavern clubs characteristic of the time. The first mentioned appears to be a club in Old Street, at which he met Psalmanazar, and the ‘Metaphysical Tailor,’ an uncle of John Hoole [q. v.] In the winter of 1749 he formed a club which met weekly at ‘a famous beefsteak-house,’ the King's Head, Ivy Lane. Among the members were Richard Bathurst [q. v.], the ‘good hater,’ who was a ‘man after his own heart,’ John Hawkesworth [q. v.], his special imitator, Samuel Dyer [q. v.], and (Sir) John Hawkins [q. v.], his biographer. Johnson already made it a rule to talk his best, and thus acquired his conversational supremacy (Hawkins, pp. 219–59, gives a long account of this club; see Boswell, i. 190–1, with Mr. Hill's note). Among other friends acquired at this period was Bennet Langton [q. v.], who had been attracted to him by reading the ‘Rambler.’ Through Langton he became known to Topham Beauclerk [q. v.], and with the pair had his famous night's frisk to Billingsgate (Boswell, i. 251). He made the acquaintance of Reynolds at the house of their common friends, two daughters of Admiral Cotterell, who had been neighbours of Johnson in 1738. Reynolds, it seems, had been induced by the life of Savage to cultivate Johnson's acquaintance. Charles Burney (1726–1814) [q. v.] had been impressed by the ‘Rambler,’ and in 1755 wrote to Johnson from Lynn Regis offering to take some copies of the dictionary. Their first interview seems to have been in 1758 (ib. i. 328). Johnson made Goldsmith's acquaintance in 1761, and must have become known to Burke by the same time. He constantly added friends to his circle, and declared late in life that he thought a day lost in which he did not make a new acquaintance. ‘A man,’ he said, ‘should keep his friendship in constant repair,’ and he scarcely lost a friend, except by death. Some time after the loss of his wife he received into his house Miss Anna Williams, daughter of a Welsh physician, Zachariah Williams, who died 12 July 1755. Miss Williams had come to London, for an operation upon her eyes, during Mrs. Johnson's life. She afterwards became totally blind, and had a permanent apartment in Johnson's house. Her father had invented a method for determining the longitude by means of the variation of the compass, of which Johnson wrote an account in 1755 (published, with an Italian translation, by Baretti; a copy, presented by Johnson, is in the Bodleian Library). Miss Williams was well-educated and intelligent. Johnson took pleasure in her conversation, took her advice, and always treated her with high respect, in spite of her growing ‘peevishness’ in later years. She seems to have had some small means. Lady Knight (see Croker's Johnsoniana) says that she was never dependent on Johnson, and that each drew freely on the other's purse. Garrick, however, gave her a benefit, at Johnson's desire, by which she made 200l. (Boswell, i. 393), and Mrs. Montagu gave her a small annuity in 1775. Another inmate of Johnson's house from an early period was Robert Levett, who had been waiter in a French coffee-house, picked up a knowledge of physic, and practised among the poor. Johnson had known him from about 1746. He was grotesque, stiff, and silent, according to Boswell (i. 24), and always waited upon Johnson at breakfast. Johnson, however, never treated him as a dependent, and upon his death, 20 Jan. 1782, wrote the most pathetic of his poems. In 1777 or 1778 Johnson took into his house Mrs. Desmoulins (to whom he allowed half a guinea a week), widow of a writing-master and daughter of his godfather, Dr. Swinfen, and a Miss Carmichael, of whom little is known (ib. iv. 222). The party was not harmonious. Williams, said Johnson, ‘hates everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll [Miss Carmichael] loves none of them.’ Johnson sometimes feared to go home on account of their complaints, says Mrs. Piozzi (Anecdotes, p. 213); but if any one reproached them, he always defended them. His charity to the unprotected was unbounded through life, according to the testimony of Boswell, Mrs. Piozzi, Murphy, and even Hawkins (see Mr. Hill's appendix to Boswell, vol. iii.). Johnson had also a black servant, Francis Barber, born in Jamaica as a slave of Colonel Bathurst, father of Richard Bathurst. He was freed by the colonel's will, and about 1752 entered Johnson's service. Johnson sent him to school, and Barber left him to go to sea in 1759. Johnson applied to Smollett, who applied to Wilkes, who obtained Barber's discharge by his influence with one of the lords of the admiralty. From this time till Johnson's death Barber continued in his service (ib. i. 238, 348).
The sum due for the dictionary had been advanced, and apparently 100l. more (Murphy, p. 78), before the task was completed. Johnson's poverty is shown by a note addressed to Richardson on 16 March 1756, stating that he had been arrested for 5l. 13s. and asking for a loan (ib. p. 86). Richardson sent him six guineas. He undertook to edit the ‘Literary Magazine, or Universal Review,’ of which the first number appeared in May 1756, and contributed a good many essays. A review of Jonas Hanway provoked a retort from the author, and Johnson made the only reply to which he ever condescended. He was defending his favourite tea, of which his potations were enormous. Cumberland's report of his having drunk twenty-five cups at a sitting seems to mark the maximum. Another remarkable article was his attack on Soame Jenyns's ‘Inquiry into the Origin of Evil,’ which gave an occasion for some characteristic utterances. The magazine expired in 1758, Johnson having ceased to write in it. He now took up again, in 1756, his proposed edition of Shakespeare, but dawdled over it unconscionably. On 15 April 1758 appeared the first number of his ‘Idler,’ published on Saturdays in Newbery's ‘Universal Chronicle.’ The last appeared on 5 April 1760. Twelve of the 103 numbers were contributed by friends, including Langton, Thomas Warton, and Reynolds. They were written hastily and were less impressive than the ‘Rambler.’ The first collected edition in 2 vols. appeared in October 1761, and Johnson's two-thirds of the profits produced 84l. 2s. 4d.
In January 1759 (about the 20th) Johnson's mother died at the age of ninety. Johnson had been unable to see her for some years, though he had helped her with money and wrote some very touching letters to her on her deathbed. In order to raise a small sum to meet the expense of her illness and death and to discharge some small debts he wrote ‘Rasselas’ in the evenings of one week (Boswell, i. 341, 512–16). He received 100l. for the copyright, and had a present of 25l. more on a second edition. This powerful though ponderous work was apparently the most popular of his writings. It reached a fifth edition in 1775, and has been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Bengalee, Hungarian, Polish, modern Greek, and Spanish (J. Macaulay, Bibliography of Rasselas). Johnson himself remarked the curious coincidence with Voltaire's ‘Candide.’ On 20 Jan. Johnson promised to deliver ‘Rasselas’ to the printers on Monday (the 25th), and it appeared about the end of March (Boswell, i. 516, vi. xxviii). ‘Candide’ is mentioned by Grimm on 1 April as having just appeared. Each is a powerful assault upon the fashionable optimism of the day, though Voltaire's wit has saved ‘Candide’ from the partial oblivion which has overtaken ‘Rasselas.’ About this time Johnson ‘found it necessary to retrench his expenses.’ He gave up his house in Gough Square; Miss Williams went into lodgings in Bolt Court, Fleet Street; and he took chambers at No. 1 Inner Temple Lane, where he lived in indolent poverty (Murphy, p. 90). Though most of Johnson's literary services to friends were gratuitous, he occasionally received money for such work. Thomas Hervey [q. v.] gave him 50l. for a pamphlet (never published) written in his defence (Boswell, ii. 33), and he received 10l. 10s. from Dr. Madden for correcting his ‘Boulter's Monument.’ Occasional windfalls of this kind must have been of some importance to his finances. Johnson took tea with Miss Williams every night (as Boswell mentions in 1763) before going home, however late he might be. Beyond helping his friends with a few dedications and articles and writing an introduction to the proceedings of a committee for clothing French prisoners (1760), he did little unless he worked at his Shakespeare. On 1 Feb. 1762 he took part in examining into the ridiculous Cock Lane ghost story, and published an account of the detection of the cheat in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (xxxii. 81).
After the accession of George III a few pensions were given to literary persons, chiefly, it seems, to hangers-on of the Bute ministry. Thomas Sheridan and Murphy, who were common friends of Johnson and Wedderburne (afterwards Lord Loughborough), suggested to Wedderburne to apply to Bute on behalf of Johnson. Other friends appear to have concurred in the application, and a pension of 300l. a year was granted in July 1762. Johnson, who had said in his dictionary that a pension in England was ‘generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country,’ hesitated as to the propriety of accepting the offer. Reynolds, whom he consulted, told him, of course, that the definition would not apply to him; and the scruple was probably of the slightest. Bute assured Johnson emphatically that the grant was solely for what he had done, not for anything that he was to do. There is no reason for doubting either Bute's sincerity or Johnson's. The opposition writers naturally made a little fun out of the pension. Johnson laughed at the noise, and wished that his pension were twice as large and the noise twice as great (Boswell, i. 429). Johnson was requested to write pamphlets by ministers, and received materials from the ministry for writing upon the Falkland Islands. It is probable that he felt some obligations as a pensioner, in spite of the assurances given him at the time; but the pamphlets clearly expressed his settled convictions. The first was not written for seven years after this time, and he received nothing for them except from the booksellers (ib. ii. 147). No imputation can be made upon his independence, though the impulse to write would hardly have come to him had it not been for his connection with the government.
The pamphlets thus written were ‘The False Alarm’ (1770), upon the expulsion of Wilkes and the seating of his opponent Luttrell; ‘Thoughts on the late Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands’ (1771), in answer to the Junius letter of 30 Jan. 1771 (Junius took no notice of the attack); ‘The Patriot’ (1774), written on behalf of Thrale, then candidate for Southwark at the general election (ib. ii. 286); and ‘Taxation no Tyranny’ (1775), in answer to the address of the American congress. The first edition of the Falkland Islands pamphlet was stopped by Lord North, after some copies had been sold, in order to suppress a sneer at George Grenville (‘if he could have got the money’ [the Manilla ransom] ‘he could have counted it’) (see Boswell, ii. 136; and Junius' Letters, 1812, ii. 199). The ministry cut out at least one insulting passage from the American pamphlet (Boswell, ii. 313). The pamphlets are written forcibly and with less than the usual mannerism; but they have in general the natural defect of amateur political writing. They are interesting as expressions of Johnson's sturdy toryism, his conviction of the necessity of subordination and of the frivolity of popular commonplaces about liberty. He hated whigs, not so much because they had different principles of government as because he held that ‘whiggism was a negation of all principle’ (ib. i. 431). The attack upon the Americans is arrogant and offensive. Although Mr. Hill truly points out (vol. ii. App. B) that Johnson's dislike to America was associated with his righteous hatred of slavery and consequent prejudice against the planters, it is equally true that he states the English claims in the most illiberal and irritating fashion.
The pension unfortunately led to a quarrel with Thomas Sheridan, who had helped to procure it. Sheridan also received a pension of 200l. a year, and a petulant remark of Johnson's (‘that it is time for me to give up mine’) was repeated to Sheridan and caused a lasting alienation, the only case recorded of the loss of a friend of Johnson's by his rough remarks. Johnson was willing in this case to be reconciled, and Reynolds observes that, after he had given offence by his rudeness, he was always the first to seek for reconciliation (Taylor, Reynolds, ii. 457).
Beauclerk hoped that Johnson would now ‘purge and live cleanly like a gentleman,’ and for the rest of his life Johnson was free from pecuniary troubles. He paid off old debts and made loans to friends. He was enabled to indulge his constitutional indolence and to write comparatively little. ‘No man but a blockhead,’ he said, ‘ever wrote except for money’ (ib. iii. 19). His spreading reputation at the same time increased his opportunities for social relaxation. According to Dr. Maxwell, who knew him from 1754, he was often in bed till twelve o'clock or ‘declaiming over his tea.’ Literary people looked in about that time, and, after talking all the morning, he dined at a tavern, stayed late, and afterwards loitered long at some friend's house, though he seldom took supper. He never refused an invitation to a tavern, often amused himself at Ranelagh, and, according to Maxwell, must have read and written at night (ib. ii. 119). It was on 16 May 1763 that he made the acquaintance of Boswell [see under Boswell, James], and thus became visible to posterity. One famous field for conversational display was opened by the foundation of the Club, probably in the winter of 1763–4. Sir Joshua Reynolds suggested it to Johnson, and the other original members were Burke, Dr. Nugent (Burke's father-in-law), Beauclerk, Langton, Goldsmith, Anthony Chamier [q. v.], and Hawkins. It began by a weekly supper in the Turk's Head, Gerrard Street, Soho, where it was held till 1783. In 1772 the supper was changed to a fortnightly dinner during the meeting of parliament. Boswell was elected, owing chiefly to Johnson's influence, on 30 April 1773, and the numbers were gradually increased till in 1780 there were thirty-five members. Among the chief members elected in Johnson's lifetime were Bishop Percy, G. Colman, Garrick, Sir W. Jones, C. J. Fox, Gibbon, Adam Smith, R. B. Sheridan, Dunning, Lord Stowell, Bishop Shipley, Thomas and Joseph Warton, and Charles Burney (see list of Club in Croker, Boswell, ii. App. 1). Johnson was annoyed by Garrick's assumption in saying ‘I'll be of you,’ but welcomed his election in 1773, and upon his death declared that the Club should keep a year's widowhood. Johnson did not attend very regularly after the first years; but the Club no doubt extended the conversational empire of the man whom Smollett had called in 1759 the ‘great Cham of literature.’
The connection with the Thrales, formed about this time, was of more importance to Johnson's happiness. Henry Thrale was a prosperous brewer, who was member for Southwark (1768–80). He had a house at Streatham, called Streatham Park, a large white house in a park of about a hundred acres on the south side of the lower common. It was pulled down in May 1863 (Thorne, Environs of London, p. 590). His wife, Hesther Lynch Salisbury, afterwards Mrs. Piozzi [q. v.], was a very bright little woman of literary tastes. Murphy, who was intimate with the Thrales, introduced them to Johnson in 1764 (Piozzi, Anecd. p. 125). He dined with them frequently and followed them to Brighton in the autumn of 1765. Johnson appears to have had a serious illness about this time, and in February 1766 Boswell found that he had been obliged to give up the use of wine. His constitutional melancholy seems to have been developed, although he was now free from money troubles and had settled in a comfortable house in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, with Miss Williams and Levett. The Thrales tried to soothe him, and on one occasion found him in such despair, apparently fearing that his melancholy would lead to insanity, that they prevailed upon him to leave the close London court for Streatham. He stayed there from midsummer to October 1766 (Boswell, ii. 25; see Mr. Hill's Appendix F to vol. ii. for a discussion of dates).
He soon became almost a member of the family. He had a room at Streatham, where he generally spent some months in the summer, coming up to town from Saturday to Monday to see that his dependents got three good dinners in the week (Piozzi, Anecd. p. 85). He had also a room in their town houses, first in Southwark, and, for a short time before Thrale's death, in Grosvenor Square. Thrale was a sensible man, with some scholarship as well as knowledge of business, and a delight, according to Madame d'Arblay (Memoirs of Burney, ii. 104), in ‘provoking a war of words,’ which Johnson frequently gratified. He was, however, rather given to foolish speculations, and in his last years, when his mind was probably weakened, became troublesome to his wife. Johnson learned to drop some of his roughness and irregular habits at the house. His presence naturally attracted literary society, and Mrs. Thrale was flattered by her power over the literary dictator. Johnson, who called her ‘my mistress’ and Thrale ‘my master,’ was alternately a wise monitor and a tolerably daring flatterer, while Thrale invariably treated him with profound respect. They soothed, as he said long afterwards, ‘twenty years of a life radically wretched.’
Johnson's intellectual activity henceforward found its chief outlet in conversation. To the inimitable reports of Boswell may be added the sayings reported by Mrs. Piozzi (though obviously not very accurate), the excellent descriptions in Mme. d'Arblay's ‘Diary,’ and a variety of detached sayings scattered through works to which a reference is given below. His interview with George III, especially valued by Boswell, took place in February 1767 (Boswell, ii. 33–43); that with Wilkes, which showed Boswell's diplomatic powers at their highest, on 15 May 1776 (ib. iii. 69–78); and that in which the quaker Mrs. Knowles claimed to have confuted him in an argument about a convert to her faith, on 15 April 1778 (ib. iii. 284–98). Mrs. Knowles published a counter-version of this in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for June 1791 (reprinted in ‘Johnsoniana’), and Miss Seward gave a third account (Letters, i. 97). The quaintest proof of Johnson's dictatorship is the ‘round-robin’ presented to him in 1776 to request him to write Goldsmith's epitaph in English (facsimile in Boswell, iii. 83), written by Burke, presented by Reynolds, and signed (among others) by Gibbon. Nearly every distinguished man of letters of the period came more or less into contact with Johnson, except David Hume, to whom he would hardly have consented to speak, and Gray, whose acquaintance in town was limited to the Walpole circle. Walpole speaks of Johnson with aversion, and doubtless expressed the prejudices of ‘good society.’ ‘Great lords and ladies,’ said Johnson (Boswell, iv. 116), ‘don't love to have their mouths stopped.’ Their curiosity was therefore soon satisfied, and, in spite of his reverence for rank, he saw little of the leaders in society or politics.
In October 1765 Johnson had at last brought out his Shakespeare, which he describes as at press in 1757. A sneer in Churchill's ‘Ghost’ (1763) is supposed to have hastened the appearance:
He for subscribers baits his hook,
And takes their cash—but where's the book?
(bk. iii. ll. 801–2). The commentary may perhaps be said to be better than could have been expected from a man whose strong intellect, unprovided with the necessary knowledge of contemporary authors, was steeped in the narrow conceptions of poetry most unlike Shakespeare's, and too indolent for minute study. He received 375l. for the first and 100l. for the second edition (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. v. 597). After this, besides occasionally helping friends and writing his ‘Tour to the Hebrides’ (see below), he did little until he wrote the most permanently valuable of his books. On 29 May 1777 he agreed with the booksellers to write prefaces for a proposed collection of the English poets. They judiciously asked him to name his own price. He suggested two hundred guineas, though, according to Malone, they would have given one thousand or fifteen hundred (Boswell, iii. 114). Another 100l. was given afterwards, and a further 100l. on the publication of a separate edition of the lives (ib. iv. 35). The poets were selected by the booksellers, though Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret, and Yalden were added on Johnson's advice. The first four volumes appeared in 1779, the last six in 1781. They include a reprint of the life of Savage and a life of Young by Sir Herbert Croft (1751–1816) [q. v.] Johnson's mannerism had become less marked; and the book, except in the matter of antiquarian research, is a model of its kind. Of all his writings this falls least behind his conversation in excellence, and is admirable within the limits of his critical perception.
Johnson's pension enabled him to indulge in frequent excursions from London. Though constantly expressing his passion for London (e.g. ‘when a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford’) (ib. iii. 178), he often showed interest in travel. His journeys consisted chiefly of visits to Oxford and Lichfield, and to Dr. Taylor at Ashbourne, where he discussed his old friend's bulls and bulldogs. He enjoyed the motion, and said that he should like to spend his life ‘driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman’ (ib. iii. 162). His chief performance, however, was his journey with Boswell in 1773. Leaving Edinburgh on 18 Aug. they travelled by St. Andrews and the east coast to Inverness, crossed to Skye, and spent some time in visiting the neighbouring islands. They returned by Inverary to Glasgow, and by Auchinleck, where he had a smart encounter with the elder Boswell, to Edinburgh.
The account of his journey was published in 1775, and, if it shows little taste for the picturesque, proved a keen interest in the social condition of the natives. It was commended by Burke and others, much to Johnson's pleasure (ib. iii. 137); but its dignified disquisition is less amusing than Boswell's graphic account of the same journey, in which Johnson is himself the chief figure. An expression of disbelief in the authenticity of Ossian's poems, chiefly on the ground that MacPherson had appealed to original manuscripts which were never produced, caused MacPherson to write an angry letter to Johnson. Johnson replied in a contemptuous letter saying that he ‘would not be deterred from detecting what he thought a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian’ (original sold in 1875 for 50l.). The letter implies that MacPherson had threatened violence (see Academy, 19 Oct. 1878, for MacPherson's letters), which Johnson despised. Boswell relates that when Foote threatened to mimic him on the stage he sent for a stout oak stick to administer punishment. Foote judiciously gave up the plan (Boswell, ii. 299).
In 1774 Johnson made a Welsh tour with the Thrales, and in 1775 accompanied them to Paris. His brief diaries give little of the impressions made upon him. In France he persisted in talking Latin, and saw nothing of the literary society which had welcomed Hume. His name was probably little known, and it was as well for the credit of English good manners that his hosts should not hear his opinion of them. Although Johnson had talked of a visit to Ireland in early days, and after his Scottish tour wanted Boswell to go up the Baltic with him, he never left England except on his French tour. An intended journey to Italy with the Thrales in 1776 was abandoned in consequence of the death of Thrale's only son (see Mr. Hill's list of Johnson's travels, Boswell, iii. App. B).
In his later years Johnson's health gradually declined. He suffered much from asthma and gout. The comforts of Streatham and Mrs. Thrale's attentions were the more valuable as he became more of an invalid. On 4 April 1781 Thrale, who had had an apoplectic attack in 1779, died of another fit, to Johnson's profound sorrow. ‘I looked,’ he said, ‘for the last time upon the face that for fifteen years had never been turned upon me but with respect and benignity.’ Johnson was appointed executor with a legacy of 200l., and enjoyed a taste of practical business, observing at the sale of the brewery that ‘we are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice’ (Boswell, iv. 87). According to Mrs. Piozzi he took a simple-minded pleasure in discharging his duties as executor and signing cheques for large sums.
For some time the loss of Thrale did not affect Johnson's position in the family. In the autumn he made his usual visit to Lichfield, where he was depressed by the growing infirmities of his friends, especially Miss Aston and his stepdaughter Lucy Porter. In the beginning of 1782 he was seriously ill; and his household was made desolate by the death of Levett (17 Jan.) and the decline of Miss Williams, who, however, lingered till 1 Sept. 1783 (Piozzi, Letters, ii. 309).
The comforts of Streatham were therefore more valuable than ever; but in the autumn of 1782 this resource failed. Mrs. Piozzi in her ‘Anecdotes’ (1785) gave an account of the circumstances, which was an implicit apology for her own conduct. She says that she had only been able to bear Johnson's ‘yoke’ while she had the support of her ‘coadjutor’ Thrale; that, after Thrale's death, Johnson's roughness and demands upon her time became intolerable; and that she ‘took advantage of a lost lawsuit’ to abandon London and Streatham on the plea of economy, and retire to Bath, where she could be free. Johnson's health, she adds, no longer needed her attention, as he suffered from nothing but ‘old age and infirmity,’ and had abundance of medical advice and attendance. This statement, accepted by her biographer, Hayward, has helped to support the accusations of brutality made against Johnson. The documents, however, which he publishes show that it is incomplete and misleading. During Thrale's illness of two years, and for a year or so after his death, Johnson's ‘yoke’ had been a most valued support. She had attended him affectionately during his illness in 1781–2, and in her diary had spoken even passionately of his value. ‘If I lose him,’ she says 1 Feb. 1782, ‘I am more than undone’ (Hayward, Piozzi, i. 164, 167). A sudden change appears when she made up her mind to travel in Italy in order to economise. She felt that it was impossible to take Johnson, and yet that it would be ‘shocking’ to leave him. A temporary improvement in his health encouraged her (22 Aug.) to reveal her plan to him. To her annoyance he approved of it, and told her daughter that he should stay at home. She at once decided that his connection with her (though not his connection with Thrale) was interested, and that he cared less for her conversation than for her ‘roast beef and plumb pudden, which he now devours too dirtily for endurance’ (ib. p. 171). The habits which she had borne for sixteen years became suddenly intolerable.
The explanation of this change, naturally passed over in the ‘Anecdotes,’ is obvious. She was already (ib.) contemplating marriage with Piozzi, an Italian musician whom she had first met in 1780. To visit Italy under his guidance ‘had long been her dearest wish.’ Johnson had already, in 1781, written of Piozzi (Piozzi, Letters, ii. 227, 229) in terms which, though civil, imply some jealousy of his influence. Mrs. Thrale knew that the marriage to a poor popish foreigner would (however unreasonably) disgust all her friends, and especially her daughters, now growing up. It led to sharp quarrels with them, and she condemns their heartlessness as vigorously as Johnson's. That Johnson would be furious if he suspected was certain, and he could hardly be without suspicions. Mme. d'Arblay declared in her memoirs of her father (1832) that Mrs. Thrale had become petulant, that she neglected and slighted Johnson, and that he resented the change. Although this statement, written many years later, contains some palpable and important inaccuracies, it gives a highly probable account of the relations between Johnson and Mrs. Thrale at the time.
Mrs. Thrale resolved to give up Streatham. On 6 Oct. 1782 Johnson took a solemn leave of the library and the church, recording also in Latin the composition of his last dinner (possibly for medical reasons). He accompanied the Thrales to Brighton, where, according to Mme. d'Arblay's ‘Diary’ (ii. 177), he was in his worst humour and made himself generally disagreeable. Mrs. Thrale had given up the Italian journey, and was now induced by her daughter's remonstrances to break with Piozzi for a time. Johnson was still on apparently friendly terms with her during her stay in London in the winter. She went to Bath in April 1783 and corresponded with Johnson. Their letters, however, show a marked want of cordiality and frequent irritation on both sides. Johnson complains of the now desolate state of his house, and gives details of his growing infirmities. On 17 June he had a paralytic stroke. He recovered for the time, and in July spent a fortnight with Langton at Rochester. Mrs. Thrale finally obtained her daughters' consent and married Piozzi in June 1784. Upon her announcing the marriage to Johnson he replied in a letter of unjustifiable fury, to which she made a dignified reply. He admitted that he had exceeded his right, thanked her for her kindness, and took leave with sad forebodings. She states that she replied affectionately; but they never again met, as she was abroad until his death.
Johnson, deprived of his old asylum, endeavoured to find solace in his old resources. In 1781 his friend John Hoole had formed a city club for him at the Queen's Arms, St. Paul's Churchyard. In the winter of 1783–1784 he collected a few survivors of the old Ivy Lane Club, who held some rather melancholy meetings. At the end of 1783 he formed another club at the Essex Head in Essex Street, kept by an old servant of Thrale's. Among the members were Daines Barrington [q. v.], Dr. Brocklesby [q. v.], Arthur Murphy [q. v.], Samuel Horsley [q. v.] (afterwards bishop of St. Asaph), and William Windham, who was strongly attached to him in his later years (a list of members is given in Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iv. 553). His infirmities, however, were now becoming oppressive, and his letters give painful details of his suffering. His spirits occasionally revived. He visited Oxford in June 1784 with Boswell, staying with his old friend Adams, the master of Pembroke College, where he gave characteristic utterance to his fears of death. He dined for the last time at the Literary Club on 22 June. Boswell thought that some benefit to Johnson's health might be derived from a winter in Italy. After consulting Reynolds he applied to Thurlow, lord chancellor, for a grant which would enable Johnson to bear the expense. Thurlow made a favourable answer, which was communicated to Johnson by Reynolds and Boswell. Johnson was much affected, and mentioned that Brocklesby had offered to settle upon him an annuity of 100l. For some reason which does not appear, Thurlow's application was unsuccessful. He proposed, however, that Johnson should draw upon him for 500l. or 600l., and to lessen the obligation suggested a mortgage on the pension. Johnson declined the offer in a grateful letter, saying that his health had improved so far that by accepting he would be now ‘advancing a false claim.’ In the autumn he made his last visit to Lichfield and Ashbourne, returning to London on 16 Nov. In December he sent directions to Lichfield for epitaphs to be placed over his father, mother, and brother in St. Michael's Church, Lichfield.
He now rapidly failed. He was attended by Brocklesby, Heberden, Cruikshank, and others, who refused fees; and his friends Burke, Langton, Reynolds, Windham, Miss Burney, and others, attended him affectionately. An account of his last illness (10 Nov. to 13 Dec.) was drawn up by Hoole. He begged Reynolds to forgive him a debt of 30l.; to read his bible, and never to paint on a Sunday; and gave pious admonitions to many friends. He submitted courageously to operations for the relief of his dropsy, and called to his surgeon to cut deeper. He made his will on 8 and 9 Dec., became composed after some agitation, and died quietly on 13 Dec. 1784. He was buried on 20 Dec. in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of many members of the Literary Club, Taylor reading the funeral service. Complaints were made of the absence of any special cathedral service; Hawkins, as executor, not considering himself justified in paying the fees, which the cathedral authorities did not offer to remit (Twining, in Country Clergymen of the Eighteenth Century, p. 129; Steevens and Parr in Johnsoniana). A subscription opened by the Literary Club provided the monument by John Bacon [q. v.], with an epitaph by Dr. Parr, erected in St. Paul's in 1785 at a cost of eleven hundred guineas. From an account of a post-mortem examination, published by G. T. Squibb, it appears that Johnson suffered from gout, emphysema of the lungs, and granular disease of the kidneys. A plate of an emphysematous lung in Baillie's ‘Morbid Anatomy’ represents one of Johnson's.
In his will Johnson describes his property, which amounted to about 2,300l. He left 200l. to the representatives of Thomas Innys, bookseller, in gratitude for help formerly given to his father; 100l. to a female servant; while the rest was to be applied to a provision for his negro servant Barber. In a codicil he left some sums to obscure relations, and a number of books to various friends. Boswell and others were omitted, probably from mere inadvertence. Langton, in consideration of 750l. left in his hands, was to pay an annuity of 70l. to Barber, who was also made residuary legatee. Barber settled at Lichfield.
Johnson gave Boswell a list of his lodgings in London (Boswell, iii. 407). After leaving Castle Street (now East) about 1738, he lived successively in the Strand, Boswell Court, the Strand, Holborn, Fetter Lane, Holborn, Gough Square (1749–59), Staple Inn, Gray's Inn, 1 Inner Temple Lane (present site of Johnson Buildings), 7 Johnson's Court, and 8 Bolt Court (the house in Bolt Court was burnt in 1819, Notes and Queries, 1st ser. v. 232). Johnson's house at Lichfield was sold in 1785 for 235l. It was bought in 1887 for 800l. by Mr. G. H. Johnson of Southport (no relation), who preserves it without alteration. A statue by T. C. Lucas was erected at Lichfield in 1838, and a monument at Uttoxeter (commemorative of his penance there) in 1878 (Notes and Queries, 7th ser. iv. 402).
Johnson received the degree of LL.D. from Dublin in 1765, and from Oxford in 1775; but scarcely ever himself used the familiar title of ‘Dr. Johnson’ (Boswell, ii. 332). His library was sold after his death by James Christie the elder [q. v.] for 242l. 9s. A sale-catalogue is in the Bodleian Library.
A miniature of Johnson by an unknown painter before 1752 was engraved for Croker's edition. Reynolds painted him: (1) In 1756 (Boswell's picture, often engraved, given in Hill's Boswell, vol. i. opposite p. 392); (2) in 1770 for Lucy Porter, arms raised with characteristic gesture; replica at Knole Park, shown at Guelph Exhibition, 1891; (3) in 1773 for Beauclerk, afterwards Langton's, replica at Streatham, afterwards Sir Robert Peel's, now in National Gallery; frontispiece to Hill's ‘Boswell,’ vol. iii.; (4) in 1778 for Malone; the picture which made Johnson say that he would not be ‘blinking Sam’ (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 248; Leslie and Taylor, Life of Reynolds, i. 147, 357, ii. 143, 221). He was painted by Barry about 1781; for Kearsley, by S. C. Trotter, in 1782, an ‘ugly fellow, like the original,’ according to Johnson (Life of, 1785, published by Kearsley); by Miss Reynolds in 1783, called by the original ‘Johnson's grimly ghost’ (Piozzi, Letters, ii. 302); and by Opie, who never finished the picture, according to Hawkins, p. 569. A fine mezzotint from this by Townley is in the common-room of University College; given in Hill's ‘Boswell,’ frontispiece to vol. iii. 245. Nollekens in 1777 made a bust in clay, never put into marble. There is a drawing of it by Wivell reproduced in Hill's ‘Boswell’ (frontispiece to vol. ii.)
Johnson had a tall, well-formed, and massive figure, indicative of great physical strength, but made grotesque by a strange infirmity. Madame d'Arblay speaks of his ‘vast body in constant agitation, swaying backwards and forwards;’ Miss Reynolds (Johnsoniana, p. 222) describes his apparently unconscious ‘antics,’ especially when he crossed a threshold. Sometimes when he was reading a book in the fields a mob would gather to stare at his strange gestures. Reynolds mentioned that he could constrain them when he pleased (Boswell, i. 144), though Boswell called them St. Vitus's dance. He had queer tricks of touching posts and carefully counting steps, even when on horseback (ib. i. 484, v. 306; Whyte, Miscellanea Nova, pp. 49, 50). He was constantly talking or muttering prayers to himself. His face, according to Campbell (Diary, p. 337), had ‘the aspect of an idiot.’ He remained in silent abstraction till roused, or, as Tyers said (Boswell, v. 73), was like a ghost, who never speaks till he is spoken to. In spite of his infirmities he occasionally indulged in athletic performances. Mrs. Piozzi says that he sometimes hunted with Thrale. He understood boxing, and regretted the decline of prize-fighting, jumped, rowed, and shot, in a ‘strange and unwieldy’ way, to show that he was not tired after a ‘fifty miles' chase,’ and, according to Miss Reynolds, swarmed up a tree and beat a young lady in a foot-race when over fifty. Langton described to Best how at the age of fifty-five he had solemnly rolled down a hill. His courage was remarkable; he separated savage dogs, swam into dangerous pools, fired off an overloaded gun, and defended himself against four robbers single-handed (ib. ii. 299). His physical infirmities were partly accountable for roughness of manner. He suffered from deafness and was shortsighted to an extreme degree, although by minute attention he could often perceive objects with an accuracy which surprised his friends (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 287; Miss Reynolds in Johnsoniana; Madame d'Arblay, Diary, i. 85, ii. 174; Boswell, i. 41, &c.) He was thus often unable to observe the failings of his companions. Manners learnt in Grub Street were not delicate; his mode of gratifying a voracious appetite was even disgusting (Boswell, i. 468); while his dress was slovenly, and he had ‘no passion for clean linen’ (ib. i. 397). He piqued himself, indeed, upon his courtesy; and, when not provoked by opposition, or unable to perceive the failings of others, was both dignified and polite. Nobody could pay more graceful compliments, especially to ladies, and he was always the first to make advances after a quarrel. His friends never ceased to love him; and their testimony to the singular tenderness which underlay his roughness is unanimous. He loved children, and was even too indulgent to them; he rejoiced greatly when he persuaded Dr. Sumner to abolish holiday tasks (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 21), and was most attentive to the wants of his servants. He was kind to animals, and bought oysters himself for his cat Hodge, that his servants might not be prejudiced against it (Boswell, iv. 178). He loved the poor, as Mrs. Piozzi says, as she never saw any one else do; and tended to be indiscriminate in his charity. He never spent, he says, more than 70l. or 80l. of his pension upon himself. Miss Reynolds was first attracted by hearing that he used to put pennies into the hands of outcast children sleeping in the streets, that they might be able to buy a breakfast. Boswell (iv. 321) tells of his carrying home a poor outcast woman from the streets and doing his best to restore her to an honest life. His services to poor friends by lending his pen or collecting money from the rich were innumerable. His constantly expressed contempt for ‘sentimental’ grievances was not, as frequently happens, a mask for want of sympathy, though it was often so interpreted. He not only felt for all genuine suffering, from death, poverty, and sickness to the wounded vanity of his friends, but did his utmost to alleviate it.
This depth of tender feeling was, in fact, the foundation of Johnson's character. His massive and keenly logical, but narrow and rigid intellect, was the servant of strong passions, of prejudices imbibed through early association, and of the constitutional melancholy which made him a determined pessimist. He feared madness, and constantly expressed his dread of the next world, and his conviction of the misery of this. His toryism and high-churchmanship had become part of his nature. He looked leniently upon superstitions, such as ghosts and second-sight, which appeared to fall in with his religious beliefs, while his strong common sense often made him even absurdly sceptical in ordinary matters. According to Mrs. Piozzi (Anecdotes, pp. 138, 141) he would not believe in the earthquake at Lisbon for six months, and ridiculed the statement that red-hot balls had been used at the siege of Gibraltar. His profound respect for truth, emphasised by all his friends, had made him impatient of loose talk, and a rigid sifter of evidence. His melancholy, as often happens, was combined with a strong sense of humour. Hawkins (p. 258), Murphy (p. 139), and Mrs. Piozzi (Anecdotes, pp. 205, 298) agree that he was admirable at sheer buffonery, and Madame d'Arblay describes his powers of mimicry. No man could laugh more heartily; like a rhinoceros, said Tom Davies (Boswell, ii. 378); or as Boswell describes it, so as to be heard from Temple Bar to Fleet Ditch (ii. 268). The faculty shows itself little in his earlier writings. His sesquipedalian style appears in his early efforts, and seems to have been partly caught from the seventeenth-century writers, such as Sir Thomas Browne, whom he studied and admired; and in whose high-built latinised phraseology there was something congenial. The simplicity and clearness of the style accepted in his youth affected his taste, and he acquired the ponderosity without out the finer qualities of his model. His love of talk diminished his mannerism in later years; and, at his worst, his phrases are not mere verbiage, but an awkward embodiment of very keen dialectical power. The strong sense, shrewd and humorous observations which appear in his ‘Lives of the Poets’ give him the very first rank among all the talkers of whom we have any adequate report. Carlyle calls him the last of the tories. He was the typical embodiment of the strength and weakness, the common sense masked by grotesque prejudice, and the genuine sentiment underlying a rough outside, which characterise the ‘true-born Englishman of the eighteenth century.’ He was the first author who, living by his pen alone, preserved absolute independence of character, and was as much respected for his high morality as for his intellectual power.
A full list of Johnson's works, drawn up by Boswell, is in Hill's ‘Boswell,’ i. 16–24. The works, published separately, are: 1. Abridgment and translation of Lobo's ‘Voyage to Abyssinia,’ 1735. 2. ‘London,’ 1738. 3. ‘Marmor Norfolciense; or an Essay on an Ancient Prophetical Inscription in Monkish Rhyme, lately discovered near Lynne in Norfolk by Probus Britannicus,’ 1739 (also in Gent. Mag.) 4. ‘Proposals for Publishing “Bibliotheca Harleiana,” a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford’ (also in Gent. Mag., and prefixed to first volume of Catalogue), 1742. 5. ‘Life of Richard Savage,’ 1744. 6. ‘Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, with Remarks on Sir T[homas] H[armer's] Edition of Shakespeare, and Proposals for a New Edition of that Poet,’ 1745. 7. ‘Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language, addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield,’ 1747. 8. ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes, being the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated,’ 1749. 9. ‘Irene,’ 1749; 2nd edit. 1754. 10. The ‘Rambler,’ 1750–2 (see above). 11. Papers in the ‘Adventurer,’ 1753 (see above). 12. ‘A Dictionary, with a Grammar and History of the English Language,’ 1755. Five editions appeared during his lifetime; the eleventh in 1816. A verbatim reprint of the author's last edition was published by Bohn in 1854. An abridgment by Johnson appeared in 1756 and was several times reprinted. Supplements, abridgments, and editions by other authors have also appeared. 13. ‘Account of an Attempt to ascertain the Longitude at Sea …’ (for Z. Williams), 1755 (see above). 14. ‘Life of Sir Thomas Browne,’ prefixed to new edition of ‘Christian Morals,’ 1756. 15. ‘The Idler,’ 1758–1760 (see above). 16. ‘Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,’ 1759; a facsimile of the first edition, with a bibliography by James Macaulay, was published in 1884. 17. ‘Life of Ascham,’ prefixed to ‘Ascham's English Works,’ by Bennet, 1763. 18. ‘Plays of William Shakespeare, with Notes,’ 8 vols. 1765. 19. ‘The False Alarm,’ 1770. 20. ‘Thoughts on the late Transactions respecting Falkland Islands,’ 1771. 21. ‘The Patriot,’ 1774. 22. ‘A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland,’ 1775. 23. ‘Taxation no Tyranny,’ 1775. 24. ‘Prefaces Biographical and Critical to the Works of the most Eminent English Poets,’ 1779 and 1781. Published separately as ‘Lives of the English Poets’ in many editions. The edition by Peter Cunningham appeared in 1854; and one by Mrs. Napier in 1890. An edition of the six chief lives, with preface by Matthew Arnold, appeared in 1878.
Johnson's ‘Prayers and Meditations,’ edited by G. Strahan, appeared in 1785; and his ‘Letters’ to Madame Piozzi in 1788. ‘Sermons left for Publication,’ by John Taylor, which appeared in 1788 and passed through several editions, have also been attributed to him. ‘An Account of the Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson from his Birth to his Eleventh Year, written by Himself’ (1805), was a fragment saved from some papers burnt by him before his death, and not seen by Boswell. Johnson also contributed many articles to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ from 1738 to 1748; some to the ‘Universal Visitor’ in 1756; and some to the ‘Literary Magazine’ of the same year. He wrote many prefaces, dedications, and other trifles for his friends.
His collected works were edited by Hawkins in 1787 in 11 vols., to which two, edited by Stockdale, were added. Murphy edited them in 11 vols. in 1796. The Oxford edition of 1825 was edited by Francis Pearson Walesby, fellow of Lincoln College, and professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. This contains the works in 9 vols., and the ‘Parliamentary Debates’ (also published separately, 2 vols. 1787) in 2 vols.
[The life of Johnson by Boswell is noticed under BOSWELL, JAMES. The edition by Dr. G. Birkbeck Hill (Clarendon Press) in 6 vols. 8vo, 1887, is by far the best. Vol. v. contains Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, and vol. vi. a most elaborate index. The notes throughout are of the highest utility. A collection of Johnson's Letters, other than those printed by Boswell, has been also edited by Dr. Birkbeck Hill in 2 vols. 8vo (Clarendon Press), 1892. Many passages from other writers and from magazines of the time, with some new documents, were printed in Croker's edition of Boswell, and published separately in 1836 as Johnsoniana. They form vols. ix. and x. of Wright's edition of Croker. A different collection of Johnsoniana, including the diaries of Thomas Campbell (first published in 1854; see Edinburgh Review, October 1859, and Hill's Boswell, ii. 338) and Murphy's Essay, forms a supplementary volume to Napier's Boswell. A catchpenny collection of jests—sometimes indecent—also called Johnsoniana, appeared in 1776. Croker's collection of gave extracts from most of the following sources. Life printed for G. Kearsley, 1785 (author unknown); Memoirs, &c., printed for J. G. Walker, 1785, written or partly inspired by William Shaw, who took Johnson's side in the Ossian controversy, of which it gives a full account, see Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. v. 377). Biographical Sketch by Thomas Tyers, 1785 (reprinted with corrections from Gent. Mag. 1785, ii. 899–912); Life by Robert Anderson, in collection of British Poets, 1792–5 and published separately in 1795 (3rd edit. 1815); Life by Sir John Hawkins, 1787; Essay on Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy, 1792, prefixed to Works (cited from edition of 1806); Anecdotes by Madame Piozzi, 1785, and her Autobiography, ed. Hayward, 2 vols. 1861; Diary and Letters of Madame d'Arblay (7 vols. 1841), and her Memoirs of Dr. Burney, 1832; Memoirs of R. Cumberland, 2 vols. 1807; Memoirs of Joseph Cradock, 4 vols. 1828; Life and Correspondence of Hannah More, 4 vols. 1834; Diary of W. Windham, 1866; Life of Reynolds by James Northcote, 1815, and by Leslie and Taylor, 1865; Memoirs of Percival Stockdale, 1809, ii. 60–4, 170–200; Memoirs, &c., of Miss Hawkins, 1824; Letters of Miss Seward, 6 vols. 1811; see Carlyle's and Macaulay's reviews of Boswell, and Macaulay's art. in Encycl. Brit., reprinted in Miscellaneous Writings; Birkbeck Hill's Dr. Johnson, his Friends, and his Critics, 1878.]
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1709–1784), English writer and lexicographer, was the son of Michael Johnson (1656–1731), bookseller and magistrate of Lichfield, who married in 1706 Sarah Ford (1669–1759). Michael’s abilities and attainments seem to have been considerable. He was so well acquainted with the contents of the volumes which he exposed for sale that the country rectors of Staffordshire and Worcestershire thought him an oracle on points of learning. Between him and the clergy, indeed, there was a strong religious and political sympathy. He was a zealous churchman, and, though he had qualified himself for municipal office by taking the oaths to the sovereigns in possession, was to the last a Jacobite in heart. The social position of Samuel’s paternal grandfather, William Johnson, remains obscure; his mother was the daughter of Cornelius Ford, “a little Warwickshire Gent.”
At a house (now the Johnson Museum) in the Market Square, Lichfield, Samuel Johnson was born on the 18th of September 1709 and baptized on the same day at St Mary’s, Lichfield. In the child the physical, intellectual and moral peculiarities which afterwards distinguished the man were plainly discernible: great muscular strength accompanied by much awkwardness and many infirmities; great quickness of parts, with a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination; a kind and generous heart, with a gloomy and irritable temper. He had inherited from his ancestors a scrofulous taint, and his parents were weak enough to believe that the royal touch would cure him. In his third year he was taken up to London, inspected by the court surgeon, prayed over by the court chaplains and stroked and presented with a piece of gold by Queen Anne. Her hand was applied in vain. The boy’s features, which were originally noble and not irregular, were distorted by his malady. His cheeks were deeply scarred. He lost for a time the sight of one eye; and he saw but very imperfectly with the other. But the force of his mind overcame every impediment. Indolent as he was, he acquired knowledge with such ease and rapidity that at every school (such as those at Lichfield and Stourbridge) to which he was sent he was soon the best scholar. From sixteen to eighteen he resided at home, and was left to his own devices. He learned much at this time, though his studies were without guidance and without plan. He ransacked his father’s shelves, dipped into a multitude of books, read what was interesting, and passed over what was dull. An ordinary lad would have acquired little or no useful knowledge in such a way; but much that was dull to ordinary lads was interesting to Samuel. He read little Greek; for his proficiency in that language was not such that he could take much pleasure in the masters of Attic poetry and eloquence. But he had left school a good Latinist, and he soon acquired an extensive knowledge of Latin literature. He was peculiarly attracted by the works of the great restorers of learning. Once, while searching for some apples, he found a huge folio volume of Petrarch’s works. The name excited his curiosity, and he eagerly devoured hundreds of pages. Indeed, the diction and versification of his own Latin compositions show that he had paid at least as much attention to modern copies from the antique as to the original models.
While he was thus irregularly educating himself, his family was sinking into hopeless poverty. Old Michael Johnson was much better qualified to pore over books, and to talk about them, than to trade in them. His business declined; his debts increased; it was with difficulty that the daily expenses of his household were defrayed. It was out of his power to support his son at either university; but a wealthy neighbour offered assistance; and, in reliance on promises which proved to be of very little value, Samuel was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford. When the young scholar presented himself to the rulers of that society, they were amazed not more by his ungainly figure and eccentric manners than by the quantity of extensive and curious information which he had picked up during many months of desultory but not unprofitable study. On the first day of his residence he surprised his teachers by quoting Macrobius; and one of the most learned among them declared that he had never known a freshman of equal attainments.
At Oxford Johnson resided barely over two years, possibly less. He was poor, even to raggedness; and his appearance excited a mirth and a pity which were equally intolerable to his haughty spirit. He was driven from the quadrangle of Christ Church by the sneering looks which the members of that aristocratical society cast at the holes in his shoes. Some charitable person placed a new pair at his door; but he spurned them away in a fury. Distress made him, not servile, but reckless and ungovernable. No opulent gentleman commoner, panting for one-and-twenty, could have treated the academical authorities with more gross disrespect. The needy scholar was generally to be seen under the gate of Pembroke, a gate now adorned with his effigy, haranguing a circle of lads, over whom, in spite of his tattered gown and dirty linen, his wit and audacity gave him an undisputed ascendancy. In every mutiny against the discipline of the college he was the ringleader. Much was pardoned, however, to a youth so highly distinguished by abilities and acquirements. He had early made himself known by turning Pope’s “Messiah” into Latin verse. The style and rhythm, indeed, were not exactly Virgilian; but the translation found many admirers, and was read with pleasure by Pope himself.
The time drew near at which Johnson would, in the ordinary course of things, have become a Bachelor of Arts; but he was at the end of his resources. Those promises of support on which he had relied had not been kept. His family could do nothing for him. His debts to Oxford tradesmen were small indeed, yet larger than he could pay. In the autumn of 1731 he was under the necessity of quitting the university without a degree. In the following winter his father died. The old man left but a pittance; and of that pittance almost the whole was appropriated to the support of his widow. The property to which Samuel succeeded amounted to no more than twenty pounds.
His life, during the thirty years which followed, was one hard struggle with poverty. The misery of that struggle needed no aggravation, but was aggravated by the sufferings of an unsound body and an unsound mind. Before the young man left the university, his hereditary malady had broken forth in a singularly cruel form. He had become an incurable hypochondriac. He said long after that he had been mad all his life, or at least not perfectly sane; and, in truth, eccentricities less strange than his have often been thought ground sufficient for absolving felons and for setting aside wills. His grimaces, his gestures, his mutterings, sometimes diverted and sometimes terrified people who did not know him. At a dinner table he would, in a fit of absence, stoop down and twitch off a lady’s shoe. He would amaze a drawing-room by suddenly ejaculating a clause of the Lord’s Prayer. He would conceive an unintelligible aversion to a particular alley, and perform a great circuit rather than see the hateful place. He would set his heart on touching every post in the streets through which he walked. If by any chance he missed a post, he would go back a hundred yards and repair the omission. Under the influence of his disease, his senses became morbidly torpid, and his imagination morbidly active. At one time he would stand poring on the town clock without being able to tell the hour. At another he would distinctly hear his mother, who was many miles off, calling him by his name. But this was not the worst. A deep melancholy took possession of him, and gave a dark tinge to all his views of human nature and of human destiny. Such wretchedness as he endured has driven many men to shoot themselves or drown themselves. But he was under no temptation to commit suicide. He was sick of life; but he was afraid of death; and he shuddered at every sight or sound which reminded him of the inevitable hour. In religion he found but little comfort during his long and frequent fits of dejection; for his religion partook of his own character. The light from heaven shone on him indeed, but not in a direct line, or with its own pure splendour. The rays had to struggle through a disturbing medium; they reached him refracted, dulled and discoloured by the thick gloom which had settled on his soul, and, though they might be sufficiently clear to guide him, were too dim to cheer him.
With such infirmities of body and of mind, he was left, at two-and-twenty, to fight his way through the world. He remained during about five years in the midland counties. At Lichfield, his birthplace and his early home, he had inherited some friends and acquired others. He was kindly noticed by Henry Hervey, a gay officer of noble family, who happened to be quartered there. Gilbert Walmesley, registrar of the ecclesiastical court of the diocese, a man of distinguished parts, learning and knowledge of the world, did himself honour by patronizing the young adventurer, whose repulsive person, unpolished manners and squalid garb moved many of the petty aristocracy of the neighbourhood to laughter or disgust. At Lichfield, however, Johnson could find no way of earning a livelihood. He became usher of a grammar school in Leicestershire; he resided as a humble companion in the house of a country gentleman; but a life of dependence was insupportable to his haughty spirit. He repaired to Birmingham, and there earned a few guineas by literary drudgery. In that town he printed a translation, little noticed at the time, and long forgotten, of a Latin book about Abyssinia. He then put forth proposals for publishing by subscription the poems of Politian, with notes containing a history of modern Latin verse; but subscriptions did not come in, and the volume never appeared.
While leading this vagrant and miserable life, Johnson fell in love. The object of his passion was Mrs Elizabeth Porter (1688–1752), widow of Harry Porter (d. 1734), whose daughter Lucy was born only six years after Johnson himself. To ordinary spectators the lady appeared to be a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces which were not exactly those of the Queensberrys and Lepels. To Johnson, however, whose passions were strong, whose eyesight was too weak to distinguish rouge from natural bloom, and who had seldom or never been in the same room with a woman of real fashion, his Tetty, as he called her, was the most beautiful, graceful and accomplished of her sex. That his admiration was unfeigned cannot be doubted; she had, however, a jointure of £600 and perhaps a little more; she came of a good family, and her son Jervis (d. 1763) commanded H.M.S. “Hercules.” The marriage, in spite of occasional wranglings, proved happier than might have been expected. The lover continued to be under the illusions of the wedding-day (July 9, 1735) till the lady died in her sixty-fourth year. On her monument at Bromley he placed an inscription extolling the charms of her person and of her manners; and when, long after her decease, he had occasion to mention her, he exclaimed with a tenderness half ludicrous, half pathetic, “Pretty creature!”
His marriage made it necessary for him to exert himself more strenuously than he had hitherto done. He took a house at Edial near Lichfield and advertised for pupils. But eighteen months passed away, and only three pupils came to his academy. The “faces” that Johnson habitually made (probably nervous contortions due to his disorder) may well have alarmed parents. Good scholar though he was, these twitchings had lost him usherships in 1735 and 1736. David Garrick, who was one of the pupils, used, many years later, to throw the best company of London into convulsions of laughter by mimicking the master and his lady.
At length Johnson, in the twenty-eighth year of his age, determined to seek his fortune in London as a literary adventurer. He set out with a few guineas, three acts of his tragedy of Irene in manuscript, and two or three letters of introduction from his friend Walmesley. Never since literature became a calling in England had it been a less gainful calling than at the time when Johnson took up his residence in London. In the preceding generation a writer of eminent merit was sure to be munificently rewarded by the Government. The least that he could expect was a pension or a sinecure place; and, if he showed any aptitude for politics, he might hope to be a member of parliament, a lord of the treasury, an ambassador, a secretary of state. But literature had ceased to flourish under the patronage of the great, and had not yet begun to flourish under the patronage of the public. One man of letters, indeed, Pope, had acquired by his pen what was then considered as a handsome fortune, and lived on a footing of equality with nobles and ministers of state. But this was a solitary exception. Even an author whose reputation was established, and whose works were popular—such an author as Thomson, whose Seasons was in every library, such an author as Fielding, whose Pasquin had had a greater run than any drama since The Beggar’s Opera—was sometimes glad to obtain, by pawning his best coat, the means of dining on tripe at a cookshop underground, where he could wipe his hands, after his greasy meal, on the back of a Newfoundland dog. It is easy, therefore, to imagine what humiliations and privations must have awaited the novice who had still to earn a name. One of the publishers to whom Johnson applied for employment measured with a scornful eye that athletic though uncouth frame, and exclaimed, “You had better get a porter’s knot and carry trunks.” Nor was the advice bad, for a porter was likely to be as plentifully fed, and as comfortably lodged, as a poet.
Some time appears to have elapsed before Johnson was able to form any literary connexion from which he could expect more than bread for the day which was passing over him. He never forgot the generosity with which Hervey, who was now residing in London, relieved his wants during this time of trial. “Harry Hervey,” said Johnson many years later, “was a vicious man; but he was very kind to me. If you call a dog Hervey, I shall love him.” At Hervey’s table Johnson sometimes enjoyed feasts which were made more agreeable by contrast. But in general he dined, and thought that he dined well, on sixpennyworth of meat and a pennyworth of bread at an alehouse near Drury Lane.
The effect of the privations and sufferings which he endured at this time was discernible to the last in his temper and his deportment. His manners had never been courtly. They now became almost savage. Being frequently under the necessity of wearing shabby coats and dirty shirts, he became a confirmed sloven. Being often very hungry when he sat down to his meals, he contracted a habit of eating with ravenous greediness. Even to the end of his life, and even at the tables of the great, the sight of food affected him as it affects wild beasts and birds of prey. His taste in cookery, formed in subterranean ordinaries and à la mode beef shops, was far from delicate. Whenever he was so fortunate as to have near him a hare that had been kept too long, or a meat pie made with rancid butter, he gorged himself with such violence that his veins swelled and the moisture broke out on his forehead. The affronts which his poverty emboldened stupid and low-minded men to offer to him would have broken a mean spirit into sycophancy, but made him rude even to ferocity. Unhappily the insolence which, while it was defensive, was pardonable, and in some sense respectable, accompanied him into societies where he was treated with courtesy and kindness. He was repeatedly provoked into striking those who had taken liberties with him. All the sufferers, however, were wise enough to abstain from talking about their beatings, except Osborne, the most rapacious and brutal of booksellers, who proclaimed everywhere that he had been knocked down by the huge fellow whom he had hired to puff the Harleian Library.
About a year after Johnson had begun to reside in London he was fortunate enough to obtain regular employment from Edward Cave (q.v.) on the Gentleman’s Magazine. That periodical, just entering on the ninth year of its long existence, was the only one in the kingdom which then had what would now be called a large circulation. Johnson was engaged to write the speeches in the “Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput” (see Reporting), under which thin disguise the proceedings of parliament were published. He was generally furnished with notes, meagre indeed and inaccurate, of what had been said; but sometimes he had to find arguments and eloquence both for the ministry and for the opposition. He was himself a Tory, not from rational conviction—for his serious opinion was that one form of government was just as good or as bad as another—but from mere passion, such as inflamed the Capulets against the Montagues, or the Blues of the Roman circus against the Greens. In his infancy he had heard so much talk about the villainies of the Whigs, and the dangers of the Church, that he had become a furious partisan when he could scarcely speak. Before he was three he had insisted on being taken to hear Sacheverel preach at Lichfield Cathedral, and had listened to the sermon with as much respect and probably with as much intelligence, as any Staffordshire squire in the congregation. The work which had been begun in the nursery had been completed by the university. Oxford, when Johnson resided there, was the most Jacobitical place in England; and Pembroke was one of the most Jacobitical colleges in Oxford. The prejudices which he brought up to London were scarcely less absurd than those of his own Tom Tempest. Charles II. and James II. were two of the best kings that ever reigned. Laud was a prodigy of parts and learning over whose tomb Art and Genius still continued to weep. Hampden deserved no more honourable name than that of the “zealot of rebellion.” Even the ship-money Johnson would not pronounce to have been an unconstitutional impost. Under a government which allowed to the people an unprecedented liberty of speech and action, he fancied that he was a slave. He hated Dissenters and stock-jobbers, the excise and the army, septennial parliaments, and Continental connexions. He long had an aversion to the Scots, an aversion of which he could not remember the commencement, but which, he owned, had probably originated in his abhorrence of the conduct of the nation during the Great Rebellion. It is easy to guess in what manner debates on great party questions were likely to be reported by a man whose judgment was so much disordered by party spirit. A show of fairness was indeed necessary to the prosperity of the Magazine. But Johnson long afterwards owned that, though he had saved appearances, he had taken care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it; and, in fact, every passage which has lived, every passage which bears the marks of his higher faculties, is put into the mouth of some member of the opposition.
A few weeks after Johnson had entered on these obscure labours, he published a work which at once placed him high among the writers of his age. It is probable that what he had suffered during his first year in London had often reminded him of some parts of the satire in which Juvenal had described the misery and degradation of a needy man of letters, lodged among the pigeons’ nests in the tottering garrets which overhung the streets of Rome. Pope’s admirable imitations of Horace’s Satires and Epistles had recently appeared, were in every hand, and were by many readers thought superior to the originals. What Pope had done for Horace, Johnson aspired to do for Juvenal.
Johnson’s London appeared without his name in May 1738. He received only ten guineas for this stately and vigorous poem; but the sale was rapid and the success complete. A second edition was required within a week. Those small critics who are always desirous to lower established reputations ran about proclaiming that the anonymous satirist was superior to Pope in Pope’s own peculiar department of literature. It ought to be remembered, to the honour of Pope, that he joined heartily in the applause with which the appearance of a rival genius was welcomed. He made inquiries about the author of London. Such a man, he said, could not long be concealed. The name was soon discovered; and Pope, with great kindness, exerted himself to obtain an academical degree and the mastership of a grammar school for the poor young poet. The attempt failed, and Johnson remained a bookseller’s hack.
It does not appear that these two men, the most eminent writer of the generation which was going out, and the most eminent writer of the generation which was coming in, ever saw each other. They lived in very different circles, one surrounded by dukes and earls, the other by starving pamphleteers and index-makers. Among Johnson’s associates at this time may be mentioned Boyse, who, when his shirts were pledged, scrawled Latin verses sitting up in bed with his arms through two holes in his blanket, who composed very respectable sacred poetry when he was sober, and who was at last run over by a hackney coach when he was drunk; Hoole, surnamed the metaphysical tailor, who, instead of attending to his measures, used to trace geometrical diagrams on the board where he sat cross-legged; and the penitent impostor, George Psalmanazar, who, after poring all day, in a humble lodging, on the folios of Jewish rabbis and Christian fathers, indulged himself at night with literary and theological conversation at an alehouse in the City. But the most remarkable of the persons with whom at this time Johnson consorted was Richard Savage, an earl’s son, a shoemaker’s apprentice, who had seen life in all its forms, who had feasted among blue ribands in St James’s Square, and had lain with fifty pounds weight of irons on his legs in the condemned ward of Newgate. This man had, after many vicissitudes of fortune, sunk at last into abject and hopeless poverty. His pen had failed him. His patrons had been taken away by death, or estranged by the riotous profusion with which he squandered their bounty, and the ungrateful insolence with which he rejected their advice. He now lived by begging. He dined on venison and champagne whenever he had been so fortunate as to borrow a guinea. If his questing had been unsuccessful, he appeased the rage of hunger with some scraps of broken meat, and lay down to rest under the piazza of Covent Garden in warm weather, and, in cold weather, as near as he could get to the furnace of a glass house. Yet in his misery he was still an agreeable companion. He had an inexhaustible store of anecdotes about that gay and brilliant world from which he was now an outcast. He had observed the great men of both parties in hours of careless relaxation, had seen the leaders of opposition without the mask of patriotism, and had heard the prime minister roar with laughter and tell stories not over-decent. During some months Savage lived in the closest familiarity with Johnson; and then the friends parted, not without tears. Johnson remained in London to drudge for Cave. Savage went to the west of England, lived there as he had lived everywhere, and in 1743 died, penniless and heartbroken, in Bristol Gaol.
Soon after his death, while the public curiosity was strongly excited about his extraordinary character and his not less extraordinary adventures, a life of him appeared widely different from the catchpenny lives of eminent men which were then a staple article of manufacture in Grub Street. The style was indeed deficient in ease and variety; and the writer was evidently too partial to the Latin element of our language. But the little work, with all its faults, was a masterpiece. No finer specimen of literary biography existed in any language, living or dead; and a discerning critic might have confidently predicted that the author was destined to be the founder of a new school of English eloquence.
The Life of Savage was anonymous; but it was well known in literary circles that Johnson was the writer. During the three years which followed, he produced no important work; but he was not, and indeed could not be, idle. The fame of his abilities and learning continued to grow. Warburton pronounced him a man of parts and genius; and the praise of Warburton was then no light thing. Such was Johnson’s reputation that, in 1747, several eminent booksellers combined to employ him in the arduous work of preparing a Dictionary of the English Language, in two folio volumes. The sum which they agreed to pay him was only fifteen hundred guineas; and out of this sum he had to pay several poor men of letters who assisted him in the humbler parts of his task.
The prospectus of the Dictionary he addressed to the earl of Chesterfield. Chesterfield had long been celebrated for the politeness of his manners, the brilliancy of his wit, and the delicacy of his taste. He was acknowledged to be the finest speaker in the House of Lords. He had recently governed Ireland, at a momentous conjuncture, with eminent firmness, wisdom and humanity; and he had since become secretary of state. He received Johnson’s homage with the most winning affability, and requited it with a few guineas, bestowed doubtless in a very graceful manner, but was by no means desirous to see all his carpets blackened with the London mud, and his soups and wines thrown to right and left over the gowns of fine ladies and the waistcoats of fine gentlemen, by an absent, awkward scholar, who gave strange starts and uttered strange growls, who dressed like a scarecrow and ate like a cormorant. During some time Johnson continued to call on his patron, but, after being repeatedly told by the porter that his lordship was not at home, took the hint, and ceased to present himself at the inhospitable door.
Johnson had flattered himself that he should have completed his Dictionary by the end of 1750; but it was not till 1755 that he at length gave his huge volumes to the world. During the seven years which he passed in the drudgery of penning definitions and marking quotations for transcription, he sought for relaxation in literary labour of a more agreeable kind. In January 1749 he published The Vanity of Human Wishes, an excellent imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal, for which he received fifteen guineas.
A few days after the publication of this poem, his tragedy of Irene, begun many years before, was brought on the stage by his old pupil, David Garrick, now manager of Drury Lane Theatre. The relation between him and his old preceptor was of a very singular kind. They repelled each other strongly, and yet attracted each other strongly. Nature had made them of very different clay; and circumstances had fully brought out the natural peculiarities of both. Sudden prosperity had turned Garrick’s head. Continued adversity had soured Johnson’s temper. Johnson saw with more envy than became so great a man the villa, the plate, the china, the Brussels carpet, which the little mimic had got by repeating, with grimaces and gesticulations, what wiser men had written; and the exquisitely sensitive vanity of Garrick was galled by the thought that, while all the rest of the world was applauding him, he could obtain from one morose cynic, whose opinion it was impossible to despise, scarcely any compliment not acidulated with scorn. Yet the two Lichfield men had so many early recollections in common, and sympathized with each other on so many points on which they sympathized with nobody else in the vast population of the capital, that, though the master was often provoked by the monkey-like impertinence of the pupil, and the pupil by the bearish rudeness of the master, they remained friends till they were parted by death. Garrick now brought Irene out, with alterations sufficient to displease the author, yet not sufficient to make the piece pleasing to the audience. After nine representations the play was withdrawn. The poet however cleared by his benefit nights, and by the sale of the copyright of his tragedy, about three hundred pounds, then a great sum in his estimation.
About a year after the representation of Irene, he began to publish a series of short essays on morals, manners and literature. This species of composition had been brought into fashion by the success of the Tatler, and by the still more brilliant success of the Spectator. A crowd of small writers had vainly attempted to rival Addison. The Lay Monastery, the Censor, the Freethinker, the Plain Dealer, the Champion, and other works of the same kind had had their short day. At length Johnson undertook the adventure in which so many aspirants had failed. In the thirty-sixth year after the appearance of the last number of the Spectator appeared the first number of the Rambler. From March 1750 to March 1752 this paper continued to come out every Tuesday and Saturday.
From the first the Rambler was enthusiastically admired by a few eminent men. Richardson, when only five numbers had appeared, pronounced it equal if not superior to the Spectator. Young and Hartley expressed their approbation not less warmly. In consequence probably of the good offices of Bubb Dodington, who was then the confidential adviser of Prince Frederick, two of his royal highness’s gentlemen carried a gracious message to the printing office, and ordered seven copies for Leicester House. But Johnson had had enough of the patronage of the great to last him all his life, and was not disposed to haunt any other door as he had haunted the door of Chesterfield.
By the public the Rambler was at first very coldly received. Though the price of a number was only twopence, the sale did not amount to five hundred. The profits were therefore very small. But as soon as the flying leaves were collected and reprinted they became popular. The author lived to see thirteen thousand copies spread over England alone. Separate editions were published for the Scotch and Irish markets. A large party pronounced the style perfect, so absolutely perfect that in some essays it would be impossible for the writer himself to alter a single word for the better. Another party, not less numerous, vehemently accused him of having corrupted the purity of the English tongue. The best critics admitted that his diction was too monotonous, too obviously artificial, and now and then turgid even to absurdity. But they did justice to the acuteness of his observations on morals and manners, to the constant precision and frequent brilliancy of his language, to the weighty and magnificent eloquence of many serious passages, and to the solemn yet pleasing humour of some of the lighter papers.
The last Rambler was written in a sad and gloomy hour. Mrs Johnson had been given over by the physicians. Three days later she died. She left her husband almost broken-hearted. Many people had been surprised to see a man of his genius and learning stooping to every drudgery, and denying himself almost every comfort, for the purpose of supplying a silly, affected old woman with superfluities, which she accepted with but little gratitude. But all his affection had been concentrated on her. He had neither brother nor sister, neither son nor daughter. Her opinion of his writings was more important to him than the voice of the pit of Drury Lane Theatre, or the judgment of the Monthly Review. The chief support which had sustained him through the most arduous labour of his life was the hope that she would enjoy the fame and the profit which he anticipated from his Dictionary. She was gone; and in that vast labyrinth of streets, peopled by eight hundred thousand human beings, he was alone. Yet it was necessary for him to set himself, as he expressed it, doggedly to work. After three more laborious years, the Dictionary was at length complete.
It had been generally supposed that this great work would be dedicated to the eloquent and accomplished nobleman to whom the prospectus had been addressed. Lord Chesterfield well knew the value of such a compliment; and therefore, when the day of publication drew near, he exerted himself to soothe, by a show of zealous and at the same time of delicate and judicious kindness, the pride which he had so cruelly wounded. Since the Rambler had ceased to appear, the town had been entertained by a journal called the World, to which many men of high rank and fashion contributed. In two successive numbers of the World, the Dictionary was, to use the modern phrase, puffed with wonderful skill. The writings of Johnson were warmly praised. It was proposed that he should be invested with the authority of a dictator, nay, of a pope, over our language, and that his decisions about the meaning and the spelling of words should be received as final. His two folios, it was said, would of course be bought by everybody who could afford to buy them. It was soon known that these papers were written by Chesterfield. But the just resentment of Johnson was not to be so appeased. In a letter written with singular energy and dignity of thought and language, he repelled the tardy advances of his patron. The Dictionary came forth without a dedication. In the Preface the author truly declared that he owed nothing to the great, and described the difficulties with which he had been left to struggle so forcibly and pathetically that the ablest and most malevolent of all the enemies of his fame, Horne Tooke, never could read that passage without tears.
Johnson’s Dictionary was hailed with an enthusiasm such as no similar work has ever excited. It was indeed the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure. The definitions show so much acuteness of thought and command of language, and the passages quoted from poets, divines and philosophers are so skilfully selected, that a leisure hour may always be very agreeably spent in turning over the pages. The faults of the book resolve themselves, for the most part, into one great fault. Johnson was a wretched etymologist. He knew little or nothing of any Teutonic language except English, which indeed, as he wrote it, was scarcely a Teutonic language; and thus he was absolutely at the mercy of Junius and Skinner.
The Dictionary, though it raised Johnson’s fame, added nothing to his pecuniary means. The fifteen hundred guineas which the booksellers had agreed to pay him had been advanced and spent before the last sheets issued from the press. It is painful to relate that twice in the course of the year which followed the publication of this great work he was arrested and carried to sponging-houses, and that he was twice indebted for his liberty to his excellent friend Richardson. It was still necessary for the man who had been formerly saluted by the highest authority as dictator of the English language to supply his wants by constant toil. He abridged his Dictionary. He proposed to bring out an edition of Shakespeare by subscription, and many subscribers sent in their names and laid down their money; but he soon found the task so little to his taste that he turned to more attractive employments. He contributed many papers to a new monthly journal, which was called the Literary Magazine. Few of these papers have much interest; but among them was one of the best things that he ever wrote, a masterpiece both of reasoning and of satirical pleasantry, the review of Jenyns’ Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil.
In the spring of 1758 Johnson put forth the first of a series of essays, entitled the Idler. During two years these essays continued to appear weekly. They were eagerly read, widely circulated, and indeed impudently pirated, while they were still in the original form, and had a large sale when collected into volumes. The Idler may be described as a second part of the Rambler, somewhat livelier and somewhat weaker than the first part.
While Johnson was busied with his Idlers, his mother, who had accomplished her ninetieth year, died at Lichfield. It was long since he had seen her, but he had not failed to contribute largely out of his small means to her comfort. In order to defray the charges of her funeral, and to pay some debts which she had left, he wrote a little book in a single week, and sent off the sheets to the press without reading them over. A hundred pounds were paid him for the copyright, and the purchasers had great cause to be pleased with their bargain, for the book was Rasselas, and it had a great success.
The plan of Rasselas might, however, have seemed to invite severe criticism. Johnson has frequently blamed Shakespeare for neglecting the proprieties of time and place, and for ascribing to one age or nation the manners and opinions of another. Yet Shakespeare has not sinned in this way more grievously than Johnson. Rasselas and Imlac, Nekayah and Pekuah, are evidently meant to be Abyssinians of the 18th century; for the Europe which Imlac describes is the Europe of the 18th century, and the inmates of the Happy Valley talk familiarly of that law of gravitation which Newton discovered and which was not fully received even at Cambridge till the 18th century. Johnson, not content with turning filthy savages, ignorant of their letters, and gorged with raw steaks cut from living cows, into philosophers as eloquent and enlightened as himself or his friend Burke, and into ladies as highly accomplished as Mrs Lennox or Mrs Sheridan, transferred the whole domestic system of England to Egypt. Into a land of harems, a land of polygamy, a land where women are married without ever being seen, he introduced the flirtations and jealousies of our ball-rooms. In a land where there is boundless liberty of divorce, wedlock is described as the indissoluble compact. “A youth and maiden meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of each other. Such,” says Rasselas, “is the common process of marriage.” A writer who was guilty of such improprieties had little right to blame the poet who made Hector quote Aristotle, and represented Julio Romano as flourishing in the days of the Oracle of Delphi.
By such exertions as have been described Johnson supported himself till the year 1762. In that year a great change in his circumstances took place. He had from a child been an enemy of the reigning dynasty. His Jacobite prejudices had been exhibited with little disguise both in his works and in his conversation. Even in his massy and elaborate Dictionary he had, with a strange want of taste and judgment, inserted bitter and contumelious reflexions on the Whig party. The excise, which was a favourite resource of Whig financiers, he had designated as a hateful tax. He had railed against the commissioners of excise in language so coarse that they had seriously thought of prosecuting him. He had with difficulty been prevented from holding up the lord privy seal by name as an example of the meaning of the word “renegade.” A pension he had defined as pay given to a state hireling to betray his country; a pensioner as a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey a master. It seemed unlikely that the author of these definitions would himself be pensioned. But that was a time of wonders. George III. had ascended the throne, and had, in the course of a few months, disgusted many of the old friends, and conciliated many of the old enemies of his house. The city was becoming mutinous; Oxford was becoming loyal. Cavendishes and Bentincks were murmuring; Somersets and Wyndhams were hastening to kiss hands. The head of the treasury was now Lord Bute, who was a Tory, and could have no objection to Johnson’s Toryism. Bute wished to be thought a patron of men of letters; and Johnson was one of the most eminent and one of the most needy men of letters in Europe. A pension of three hundred a year was graciously offered, and with very little hesitation accepted.
This event produced a change in Johnson’s whole way of life. For the first time since his boyhood he no longer felt the daily goad urging him to the daily toil. He was at liberty, after thirty years of anxiety and drudgery, to indulge his constitutional indolence, to lie in bed till two in the afternoon, and to sit up talking till four in the morning, without fearing either the printer’s devil or the sheriff’s officer.
One laborious task indeed he had bound himself to perform. He had received large subscriptions for his promised edition of Shakespeare; he had lived on those subscriptions during some years; and he could not without disgrace omit to perform his part of the contract. His friends repeatedly exhorted him to make an effort, and he repeatedly resolved to do so. But, notwithstanding their exhortations and his resolutions, month followed month, year followed year, and nothing was done. He prayed fervently against his idleness; he determined, as often as he received the sacrament, that he would no longer doze away and trifle away his time; but the spell under which he lay resisted prayer and sacrament. Happily for his honour, the charm which held him captive was at length broken by no gentle or friendly hand. He had been weak enough to pay serious attention to a story about a ghost which haunted a house in Cock Lane, and had actually gone himself, with some of his friends, at one in the morning, to St John’s Church, Clerkenwell, in the hope of receiving a communication from the perturbed spirit. But the spirit, though adjured with all solemnity, remained obstinately silent; and it soon appeared that a naughty girl of eleven had been amusing herself by making fools of so many philosophers. Churchill, who, confident in his powers, drunk with popularity, and burning with party spirit, was looking for some man of established fame and Tory politics to insult, celebrated the Cock Lane ghost in three cantos, nicknamed Johnson Pomposo, asked where the book was which had been so long promised and so liberally paid for, and directly accused the great moralist of cheating. This terrible word proved effectual, and in October 1765 appeared, after a delay of nine years, the new edition of Shakespeare.
This publication saved Johnson’s character for honesty, but added nothing to the fame of his abilities and learning. The Preface, though it contains some good passages, is not in his best manner. The most valuable notes are those in which he had an opportunity of showing how attentively he had during many years observed human life and human nature. The best specimen is the note on the character of Polonius. Nothing so good is to be found even in Wilhelm Meister’s admirable examination of Hamlet. But here praise must end. It would be difficult to name a more slovenly, a more worthless edition of any great classic. Johnson had, in his prospectus, told the world that he was peculiarly fitted for the task which he had undertaken, because he had, as a lexicographer, been under the necessity of taking a wider view of the English language than any of his predecessors. But, unfortunately, he had altogether neglected that very part of our literature with which it is especially desirable that an editor of Shakespeare should be conversant. In the two folio volumes of the English Dictionary there is not a single passage quoted from any dramatist of the Elizabethan age except Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. Even from Ben the quotations are few. Johnson might easily in a few months have made himself well acquainted with every old play that was extant. But it never seems to have occurred to him that this was a necessary preparation for the work which he had undertaken. He would doubtless have admitted that it would be the height of absurdity in a man who was not familiar with the works of Aeschylus and Euripides to publish an edition of Sophocles. Yet he ventured to publish an edition of Shakespeare, without having ever in his life, as far as can be discovered, read a single scene of Massinger, Ford, Dekker, Webster, Marlow, Beaumont or Fletcher. His detractors were noisy and scurrilous. He had, however, acquitted himself of a debt which had long lain heavy on his conscience and he sank back into the repose from which the sting of satire had roused him. He long continued to live upon the fame which he had already won. He was honoured by the university of Oxford with a doctor’s degree, by the Royal Academy with a professorship, and by the king with an interview, in which his majesty most graciously expressed a hope that so excellent a writer would not cease to write. In the interval between 1765 and 1775 Johnson published only two or three political tracts.
But, though his pen was now idle, his tongue was active. The influence exercised by his conversation, directly upon those with whom he lived, and indirectly on the whole literary world, was altogether without a parallel. His colloquial talents were indeed of the highest order. He had strong sense, quick discernment, wit, humour, immense knowledge of literature and of life, and an infinite store of curious anecdotes. As respected style, he spoke far better than he wrote. Every sentence which dropped from his lips was as correct in structure as the most nicely balanced period of the Rambler. But in his talk there were no pompous triads, and little more than a fair proportion of words in - osity and -ation. All was simplicity, ease and vigour. He uttered his short, weighty, and pointed sentences with a power of voice, and a justness and energy of emphasis, of which the effect was rather increased than diminished by the rollings of his huge form, and by the asthmatic gaspings and puffings in which the peals of his eloquence generally ended. Nor did the laziness which made him unwilling to sit down to his desk prevent him from giving instruction or entertainment orally. To discuss questions of taste, of learning, of casuistry, in language so exact and so forcible that it might have been printed without the alteration of a word, was to him no exertion, but a pleasure. He loved, as he said, to fold his legs and have his talk out. He was ready to bestow the overflowings of his full mind on anybody who would start a subject: on a fellow-passenger in a stage coach, or on the person who sat at the same table with him in an eating-house. But his conversation was nowhere so brilliant and striking as when he was surrounded by a few friends, whose abilities and knowledge enabled them, as he once expressed it, to send him back every ball that he threw. Some of these, in 1764, formed themselves into a club, which gradually became a formidable power in the commonwealth of letters. The verdicts pronounced by this conclave on new books were speedily known over all London, and were sufficient to sell off a whole edition in a day, or to condemn the sheets to the service of the trunkmaker and the pastrycook. Goldsmith was the representative of poetry and light literature, Reynolds of the arts, Burke of political eloquence and political philosophy. There, too, were Gibbon the greatest historian and Sir William Jones the greatest linguist of the age. Garrick brought to the meetings his inexhaustible pleasantry, his incomparable mimicry, and his consummate knowledge of stage effect. Among the most constant attendants were two high-born and high-bred gentlemen, closely bound together by friendship, but of widely different characters and habits—Bennet Langton, distinguished by his skill in Greek literature, by the orthodoxy of his opinions, and by the sanctity of his life, and Topham Beauclerk, renowned for his amours, his knowledge of the gay world, his fastidious taste and his sarcastic wit.
Among the members of this celebrated body was one to whom it has owed the greater part of its celebrity, yet who was regarded with little respect by his brethren, and had not without difficulty obtained a seat among them. This was James Boswell (q.v.), a young Scots lawyer, heir to an honourable name and a fair estate. That he was a coxcomb and a bore, weak, vain, pushing, curious, garrulous, was obvious to all who were acquainted with him.
To a man of Johnson’s strong understanding and irritable temper, the silly egotism and adulation of Boswell must have been as teasing as the constant buzz of a fly. Johnson hated to be questioned; and Boswell was eternally catechizing him on all kinds of subjects, and sometimes propounded such questions as, “What would you do, sir, if you were locked up in a tower with a baby?” Johnson was a water-drinker and Boswell was a winebibber, and indeed little better than an habitual sot. It was impossible that there should be perfect harmony between two such companions. Indeed, the great man was sometimes provoked into fits of passion, in which he said things which the small man, during a few hours, seriously resented. Every quarrel, however, was soon made up. During twenty years the disciple continued to worship the master; the master continued to scold the disciple, to sneer at him, and to love him. The two friends ordinarily resided at a great distance from each other. Boswell practised in the Parliament House of Edinburgh, and could pay only occasional visits to London. During those visits his chief business was to watch Johnson, to discover all Johnson’s habits, to turn the conversation to subjects about which Johnson was likely to say something remarkable, and to fill quarto notebooks with minutes of what Johnson had said. In this way were gathered the materials out of which was afterwards constructed the most interesting biographical work in the world.
Soon after the club began to exist, Johnson formed a connexion less important indeed to his fame, but much more important to his happiness, than his connexion with Boswell. Henry Thrale, one of the most opulent brewers in the kingdom, a man of sound and cultivated understanding, rigid principles, and liberal spirit, was married to one of those clever, kind-hearted, engaging, vain, pert young women who are perpetually doing or saying what is not exactly right, but who, do or say what they may, are always agreeable. In 1765 the Thrales became acquainted with Johnson, and the acquaintance ripened fast into friendship. They were astonished and delighted by the brilliancy of his conversation. They were flattered by finding that a man so widely celebrated preferred their house to any other in London. Johnson soon had an apartment at the brewery in Southwark, and a still more pleasant apartment at the villa of his friends on Streatham Common. A large part of every year he passed in those abodes, which must have seemed magnificent and luxurious indeed, when compared with the dens in which he had generally been lodged. But his chief pleasures were derived from what the astronomer of his Abyssinian tale called “the endearing elegance of female friendship.” Mrs Thrale rallied him, soothed him, coaxed him, and if she sometimes provoked him by her flippancy, made ample amends by listening to his reproofs with angelic sweetness of temper. When he was diseased in body and in mind, she was the most tender of nurses. No comfort that wealth could purchase, no contrivance that womanly ingenuity, set to work by womanly compassion, could devise, was wanting to his sick room. It would seem that a full half of Johnson’s life during about sixteen years was passed under the roof of the Thrales. He accompanied the family sometimes to Bath, and sometimes to Brighton, once to Wales and once to Paris. But he had at the same time a house in one of the narrow and gloomy courts on the north of Fleet Street. In the garrets was his library, a large and miscellaneous collection of books, falling to pieces and begrimed with dust. On a lower floor he sometimes, but very rarely, regaled a friend with a plain dinner—a veal pie, or a leg of lamb and spinach, and a rice pudding. Nor was the dwelling uninhabited during his long absences. It was the home of the most extraordinary assemblage of inmates that ever was brought together. At the head of the establishment Johnson had placed an old lady named Williams, whose chief recommendations were her blindness and her poverty. But, in spite of her murmurs and reproaches, he gave an asylum to another lady who was as poor as herself, Mrs Desmoulins, whose family he had known many years before in Staffordshire. Room was found for the daughter of Mrs Desmoulins, and for another destitute damsel, who was generally addressed as Miss Carmichael, but whom her generous host called Polly. An old quack doctor named Levett, who had a wide practice, but among the very poorest class, poured out Johnson’s tea in the morning and completed this strange menagerie. All these poor creatures were at constant war with each other, and with Johnson’s negro servant Frank. Sometimes, indeed, they transferred their hostilities from the servant to the master, complained that a better table was not kept for them, and railed or maundered till their benefactor was glad to make his escape to Streatham or to the Mitre Tavern. And yet he, who was generally the haughtiest and most irritable of mankind, who was but too prompt to resent anything which looked like a slight on the part of a purse-proud bookseller, or of a noble and powerful patron, bore patiently from mendicants, who, but for his bounty, must have gone to the workhouse, insults more provoking than those for which he had knocked down Osborne and bidden defiance to Chesterfield. Year after year Mrs Williams and Mrs Desmoulins, Polly and Levett, continued to torment him and to live upon him.
The course of life which has been described was interrupted in Johnson’s sixty-fourth year by an important event. He had early read an account of the Hebrides, and had been much interested by learning that there was so near him a land peopled by a race which was still as rude and simple as in the Middle Ages. A wish to become intimately acquainted with a state of society so utterly unlike all that he had ever seen frequently crossed his mind. But it is not probable that his curiosity would have overcome his habitual sluggishness, and his love of the smoke, the mud, and the cries of London, had not Boswell importuned him to attempt the adventure, and offered to be his squire. At length, in August 1773, Johnson crossed the Highland line, and plunged courageously into what was then considered, by most Englishmen, as a dreary and perilous wilderness. After wandering about two months through the Celtic region, sometimes in rude boats which did not protect him from the rain, and sometimes on small shaggy ponies which could hardly bear his weight, he returned to his old haunts with a mind full of new images and new theories. During the following year he employed himself in recording his adventures. About the beginning of 1775 his Journey to the Hebrides was published, and was, during some weeks, the chief subject of conversation in all circles in which any attention was paid to literature. His prejudice against the Scots had at length become little more than matter of jest; and whatever remained of the old feeling had been effectually removed by the kind and respectful hospitality with which he had been received in every part of Scotland. It was, of course, not to be expected that an Oxonian Tory should praise the Presbyterian polity and ritual, or that an eye accustomed to the hedgerows and parks of England should not be struck by the bareness of Berwickshire and East Lothian. But even in censure Johnson’s tone is not unfriendly. The most enlightened Scotsmen, with Lord Mansfield at their head, were well pleased. But some foolish and ignorant Scotsmen were moved to anger by a little unpalatable truth which was mingled with much eulogy, and assailed him whom they chose to consider as the enemy of their country with libels much more dishonourable to their country than anything that he had ever said or written. They published paragraphs in the newspapers, articles in the magazines, sixpenny pamphlets, five-shilling books. One scribbler abused Johnson for being blear-eyed, another for being a pensioner; a third informed the world that one of the doctor’s uncles had been convicted of felony in Scotland, and had found that there was in that country one tree capable of supporting the weight of an Englishman. Macpherson, whose Fingal had been treated in the Journey as an impudent forgery, threatened to take vengeance with a cane. The only effect of this threat was that Johnson reiterated the charge of forgery in the most contemptuous terms, and walked about, during some time, with a cudgel.
Of other assailants Johnson took no notice whatever. He had early resolved never to be drawn into controversy; and he adhered to his resolution with a steadfastness which is the more extraordinary because he was, both intellectually and morally, of the stuff of which controversialists are made. In conversation he was a singularly eager, acute and pertinacious disputant. When at a loss for good reasons, he had recourse to sophistry; and when heated by altercation, he made unsparing use of sarcasm and invective. But when he took his pen in his hand, his whole character seemed to be changed. A hundred bad writers misrepresented him and reviled him; but not one of the hundred could boast of having been thought by him worthy of a refutation, or even of a retort. One Scotsman, bent on vindicating the fame of Scots learning, defied him to the combat in a detestable Latin hexameter:—
“Maxime, si tu vis, cupio contendere tecum.”
But Johnson took no notice of the challenge. He always maintained that fame was a shuttlecock which could be kept up only by being beaten back as well as beaten forward, and which would soon fall if there were only one battledore. No saying was oftener in his mouth than that fine apophthegm of Bentley, that no man was ever written down but by himself.
Unhappily, a few months after the appearance of the Journey to the Hebrides, Johnson did what none of his envious assailants could have done, and to a certain extent succeeded in writing himself down. The disputes between England and her American colonies had reached a point at which no amicable adjustment was possible. War was evidently impending; and the ministers seem to have thought that the eloquence of Johnson might with advantage be employed to inflame the nation against the opposition at home, and against the rebels beyond the Atlantic. He had already written two or three tracts in defence of the foreign and domestic policy of the government; and those tracts, though hardly worthy of him, were much superior to the crowd of pamphlets which lay on the counters of Almon and Stockdale. But his Taxation no Tyranny was a pitiable failure. Even Boswell was forced to own that in this unfortunate piece he could detect no trace of his master’s powers. The general opinion was that the strong faculties which had produced the Dictionary and the Rambler were beginning to feel the effect of time and of disease, and that the old man would best consult his credit by writing no more. But this was a great mistake. Johnson had failed, not because his mind was less vigorous than when he wrote Rasselas in the evenings of a week, but because he had foolishly chosen, or suffered others to choose for him, a subject such as he would at no time have been competent to treat. He was in no sense a statesman. He never willingly read or thought or talked about affairs of state. He loved biography, literary history, the history of manners; but political history was positively distasteful to him. The question at issue between the colonies and the mother country was a question about which he had really nothing to say. Happily, Johnson soon had an opportunity of proving most signally that his failure was not to be ascribed to intellectual decay.
On Easter Eve 1777 some persons, deputed by a meeting which consisted of forty of the first booksellers in London, called upon him. Though he had some scruples about doing business at that season, he received his visitors with much civility. They came to inform him that a new edition of the English poets, from Cowley downwards, was in contemplation, and to ask him to furnish short biographical prefaces. He readily undertook the task for which he was pre-eminently qualified. His knowledge of the literary history of England since the Restoration was unrivalled. That knowledge he had derived partly from books, and partly from sources which had long been closed: from old Grub Street traditions; from the talk of forgotten poetasters and pamphleteers, who had long been lying in parish vaults; from the recollections of such men as Gilbert Walmesley, who had conversed with the wits of Button, Cibber, who had mutilated the plays of two generations of dramatists, Orrery, who had been admitted to the society of Swift and Savage, who had rendered services of no very honourable kind to Pope. The biographer therefore sat down to his task with a mind full of matter. He had at first intended to give only a paragraph to every minor poet, and only four or five pages to the greatest name. But the flood of anecdote and criticism overflowed the narrow channel. The work, which was originally meant to consist only of a few sheets, swelled into ten volumes—small volumes, it is true, and not closely printed. The first four appeared in 1779, the remaining six in 1781.
The Lives of the Poets are, on the whole, the best of Johnson’s works. The narratives are as entertaining as any novel. The remarks on life and on human nature are eminently shrewd and profound. The criticisms are often excellent, and, even when grossly and provokingly unjust, well deserve to be studied. Savage’s Life Johnson reprinted nearly as it had appeared in 1744. Whoever, after reading that life, will turn to the other lives will be struck by the difference of style. Since Johnson had been at ease in his circumstances he had written little and had talked much. When therefore he, after the lapse of years, resumed his pen, the mannerism which he had contracted while he was in the constant habit of elaborate composition was less perceptible than formerly, and his diction frequently had a colloquial ease which it had formerly wanted. The improvement may be discerned by a skilful critic in the Journey to the Hebrides, and in the Lives of the Poets is so obvious that it cannot escape the notice of the most careless reader. Among the Lives the best are perhaps those of Cowley, Dryden and Pope. The very worst is, beyond all doubt, that of Gray; the most controverted that of Milton.
This great work at once became popular. There was, indeed, much just and much unjust censure; but even those who were loudest in blame were attracted by the book in spite of themselves. Malone computed the gains of the publishers at five or six thousand pounds. But the writer was very poorly remunerated. Intending at first to write very short prefaces, he had stipulated for only two hundred guineas. The booksellers, when they saw how far his performance had surpassed his promise, added only another hundred. Indeed Johnson, though he did not despise or affect to despise money, and though his strong sense and long experience ought to have qualified him to protect his own interests, seems to have been singularly unskilful and unlucky in his literary bargains. He was generally reputed the first English writer of his time. Yet several writers of his time sold their copyrights for sums such as he never ventured to ask. To give a single instance, Robertson received £4500 for the History of Charles V.
Johnson was now in his seventy-second year. The infirmities of age were coming fast upon him. That inevitable event of which he never thought without horror was brought near to him; and his whole life was darkened by the shadow of death. The strange dependants to whom he had given shelter, and to whom, in spite of their faults, he was strongly attached by habit, dropped off one by one; and, in the silence of his home, he regretted even the noise of their scolding matches. The kind and generous Thrale was no more; and it was soon plain that the old Streatham intimacy could not be maintained upon the same footing. Mrs Thrale herself confessed that without her husband’s assistance she did not feel able to entertain Johnson as a constant inmate of her house. Free from the yoke of the brewer, she fell in love with a music master, high in his profession, from Brescia, named Gabriel Piozzi, in whom nobody but herself could discover anything to admire. The secret of this attachment was soon discovered by Fanny Burney, but Johnson at most only suspected it.
In September 1782 the place at Streatham was from motives of economy let to Lord Shelburne, and Mrs Thrale took a house at Brighton, whither Johnson accompanied her; they remained for six weeks on the old familiar footing. In March 1783 Boswell was glad to discover Johnson well looked after and staying with Mrs Thrale in Argyll Street, but in a bad state of health. Impatience of Johnson’s criticisms and infirmities had been steadily growing with Mrs Thrale since 1774. She now went to Bath with her daughters, partly to escape his supervision. Johnson was very ill in his lodgings during the summer, but he still corresponded affectionately with his “mistress” and received many favours from her. He retained the full use of his senses during the paralytic attack, and in July he was sufficiently recovered to renew his old club life and to meditate further journeys. In June 1784 he went with Boswell to Oxford for the last time. In September he was in Lichfield. On his return his health was rather worse; but he would submit to no dietary régime. His asthma tormented him day and night, and dropsical symptoms made their appearance. His wrath was excited in no measured terms against the re-marriage of his old friend Mrs Thrale, the news of which he heard this summer. The whole dispute seems, to-day, entirely uncalled-for, but the marriage aroused some of Johnson’s strongest prejudices. He wrote inconsiderately on the subject, but we must remember that he was at the time afflicted in body and mentally haunted by dread of impending change. Throughout all his troubles he had clung vehemently to life. The feeling described in that fine but gloomy paper which closes the series of his Idlers seemed to grow stronger in him as his last hour drew near. He fancied that he should be able to draw his breath more easily in a southern climate, and would probably have set out for Rome and Naples but for his fear of the expense of the journey. That expense, indeed, he had the means of defraying; for he had laid up about two thousand pounds, the fruit of labours which had made the fortune of several publishers. But he was unwilling to break in upon this hoard, and he seems to have wished even to keep its existence a secret. Some of his friends hoped that the Government might be induced to increase his pension to six hundred pounds a year, but this hope was disappointed, and he resolved to stand one English winter more.
That winter was his last. His legs grew weaker; his breath grew shorter; the fatal water gathered fast, in spite of incisions which he, courageous against pain but timid against death, urged his surgeons to make deeper and deeper. Though the tender care which had mitigated his sufferings during months of sickness at Streatham was withdrawn, and though Boswell was absent, he was not left desolate. The ablest physicians and surgeons attended him, and refused to accept fees from him. Burke parted from him with deep emotion. Windham sat much in the sick-room. Frances Burney, whom the old man had cherished with fatherly kindness, stood weeping at the door; while Langton, whose piety eminently qualified him to be an adviser and comforter at such a time, received the last pressure of his friend’s hand within. When at length the moment, dreaded through so many years, came close, the dark cloud passed away from Johnson’s mind. Windham’s servant, who sat up with him during his last night, declared that “no man could appear more collected, more devout or less terrified at the thoughts of the approaching minute.” At hour intervals, often of much pain, he was moved in bed and addressed himself vehemently to prayer. In the morning he was still able to give his blessing, but in the afternoon he became drowsy, and at a quarter past seven in the evening on the 13th of December 1784, in his seventy-sixth year, he passed away. He was laid, a week later, in Westminster Abbey, among the eminent men of whom he had been the historian—Cowley and Denham, Dryden and Congreve, Gay, Prior and Addison. (M.)
Bibliography.—The splendid example of his style which Macaulay contributed in the article on Johnson to the 8th edition of this encyclopaedia has become classic, and has therefore been retained above with a few trifling modifications in those places in which his invincible love of the picturesque has drawn him demonstrably aside from the dull line of veracity. Macaulay, it must be noted, exaggerated persistently the poverty of Johnson’s pedigree, the squalor of his early married life, the grotesqueness of his entourage in Fleet Street, the decline and fall from complete virtue of Mrs Thrale, the novelty and success of the Dictionary, the complete failure of the Shakespeare and the political tracts. Yet this contribution is far more mellow than the article contributed on Johnson twenty-five years before to the Edinburgh Review in correction of Croker. Matthew Arnold, who edited six selected Lives of the poets, regarded it as one of Macaulay’s happiest and ripest efforts. It was written out of friendship for Adam Black, and “payment was not so much as mentioned.” The big reviews, especially the quarterlies, have always been the natural home of Johnsonian study. Sir Walter Scott, Croker, Hayward, Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle (whose famous Fraser article was reprinted in 1853) and Whitwell Elwin have done as much as anybody perhaps to sustain the zest for Johnsonian studies. Macaulay’s prediction that the interest in the man would supersede that in his “Works” seemed and seems likely enough to justify itself; but his theory that the man alone mattered and that a portrait painted by the hand of an inspired idiot was a true measure of the man has not worn better than the common run of literary propositions. Johnson’s prose is not extensively read. But the same is true of nearly all the great prose masters of the 18th century. As in the case of all great men, Johnson has suffered a good deal at the hands of his imitators and admirers. His prose, though not nearly so uniformly monotonous or polysyllabic as the parodists would have us believe, was at one time greatly overpraised. From the “Life of Savage” to the “Life of Pope” it developed a great deal, and in the main improved. To the last he sacrificed expression rather too much to style, and he was perhaps over conscious of the balanced epithet. But he contributed both dignity and dialectical force to the prose movement of his period.
The best edition of his works is still the Oxford edition of 1825 in 9 vols. At the present day, however, his periodical writings are neglected, and all that can be said to excite interest are, first the Lives of the Poets (best edition by Birkbeck Hill and H. S. Scott, 3 vols., 1905), and then the Letters, the Prayers and Meditations, and the Poems, to which may doubtfully be added the once idolized Rasselas. The Poems and Rasselas have been reprinted times without number. The others have been re-edited with scrupulous care for the Oxford University Press by the pious diligence of that most enthusiastic of all Johnsonians, Dr Birkbeck Hill. But the tendency at the present day is undoubtedly to prize Johnson’s personality and sayings more than any of his works. These are preserved to us in a body of biographical writing, the efficiency of which is unequalled in the whole range of literature. The chief constituents are Johnson’s own Letters and Account of his Life from his Birth to his Eleventh Year (1805), a fragment saved from papers burned in 1784 and not seen by Boswell; the life by his old but not very sympathetic friend and club-fellow, Sir John Hawkins (1787); Mrs Thrale-Piozzi’s Anecdotes (1785) and Letters; the Diary and Letters of Fanny Burney (D’Arblay) (1841); the shorter Lives of Arthur Murphy, T. Tyers, &c.; far above all, of course, the unique Life by James Boswell, first published in 1791, and subsequently encrusted with vast masses of Johnsoniana in the successive editions of Malone, Croker, Napier, Fitzgerald, Mowbray Morris (Globe), Birrell, Ingpen (copiously illustrated) and Dr Birkbeck Hill (the most exhaustive).
The sayings and Johnsoniana have been reprinted in very many and various forms. Valuable work has been done in Johnsonian genealogy and topography by Aleyn Lyell Reade in his Johnsonian Gleanings, &c., and in the Memorials of Old Staffordshire (ed. W. Beresford). The most excellent short Lives are those by F. Grant (Eng. Writers) and Sir Leslie Stephen (Eng. Men of Letters). Professor W. Raleigh’s essay (Stephen Lecture), Lord Rosebery’s estimate (1909), and Sir Leslie Stephen’s article in the Dictionary of National Biography, with bibliography and list of portraits, should be consulted. Johnson’s “Club” (“The Club”) still exists, and has contained ever since his time a large proportion of the public celebrities of its day. A “Johnson Club,” which has included many Johnson scholars and has published papers, was founded in 1885. Lichfield has taken an active part in the commemoration of Johnson since 1887, when Johnson’s birthplace was secured as a municipal museum, and Lichfield was the chief scene of the Bicentenary Celebrations of September 1909 (fully described in A. M. Broadley’s Dr Johnson and Mrs Thrale, 1909), containing, together with new materials and portraits, an essay dealing with Macaulay’s treatment of the Johnson-Thrale episodes by T. Seccombe). Statues both of Johnson and Boswell are in the market-place at Lichfield. A statue was erected in St Paul’s in 1825, and there are commemorative tablets in Lichfield Cathedral, St Nicholas (Brighton), Uttoxeter, St Clement Danes (London), Gwaynynog and elsewhere. (T. Se.)
- This famous dictum of Macaulay, though endorsed by Lord Rosebery, has been energetically rebutted by Professor W. Raleigh and others, who recognize both sagacity and scholarship in Johnson’s Preface and Notes. Johnson’s wide grasp of the discourse and knowledge of human nature enable him in a hundred entangled passages to go straight to the dramatist’s meaning.—(T. Se.)