Dr Samuel Johnson 1709 –1784
Samuel Johnson, usually referred to as ‘Dr. Johnson’, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a political commentator, poet, essayist, playwright, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a devout Anglican and a committed Tory party supporter. Johnson was a tall and robust man. His odd gestures and tics, which started when he was at school, were disconcerting to some people when first meeting him. Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’, documented Johnson’s behaviour and mannerisms which later has been analysed as symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome . In the years following his death, Johnson was recognised as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism and he has been claimed by some to be the only truly great critic of English literature.
Samuel Johnson was born on 18 September 1709, to Michael and Sarah Johnson, in the family home above his father’s bookshop in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Sarah was 40 when she gave birth to Samuel, an unusually late pregnancy, so ‘precautions’ were taken to baptise the sickly infant early. The baby’s health soon improved, but some time later, he contracted scrofula and an operation was performed that left him with permanent scars across his face and body.
His brother Nathaniel was born in the same year, 1712.
Samuel Johnson displayed signs of great intelligence as a child. His education began at the age of three and was provided by his mother, who had him memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. When Samuel turned four, he was sent to a nearby school and, at the age of six, he had a private tutor before going to Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin. After transferring to King Edward VI grammar school at Stourbridge he then began to write poems and verse translations. When at the age of 17 he returned home once, Johnson’s future was uncertain because his father was deeply in debt. To earn money, Johnson began to stitch books for his father and so he spent much time in his father’s bookshop reading and building his literary knowledge. A lucky inheritance meant that he could attend university and at 19 years old, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. Johnson made friends, read a great deal and spent the rest of his time studying, even during the Christmas holiday. Though he acknowledged that he was sometimes an idle student, his brilliance showed itself when he was asked by his tutor to produce a Latin translation of Alexander Pope’s ‘Messiah’ as a Christmas exercise. Johnson completed half of the translation in one afternoon and the rest the following morning. After thirteen months, a shortage of funds forced Johnson to leave Oxford without a degree. By 1731 Johnson’s father was deeply in debt, became ill and died in December . Johnson had tried in vain to obtain a teaching post, but without a degree he was unsuccessful.
To earn money, he assisted a publishing friend to start the ‘Birmingham Journal ‘ and completed a number of translations of classical texts for publication.
Johnson had maintained close contact with an intimate friend, Harry Porter during a terminal illness, from which he died on 3 September 1734. Porter’s wife Elizabeth otherwise known as “Tetty”, was now a widow at the age of 45, with three children and a reasonable annual income. Some months later, Johnson began to court her. Johnson was inexperienced in such relationships, but the well-to-do widow encouraged him and promised to provide for him with her substantial savings. They married on 9 July 1735, despite the Porter family’s disapproval. Johnson was 25 and Elizabeth was 46.
After trying for other senior teaching posts Johnson opened his own school in 1735 which included as pupils David and George Garrick, but it soon failed to attract enough pupils, in part due to Johnson’ foreboding looks and his eccentric mannerisms.
Johnson left for London with his former pupil David Garrick, in March 1737, the day Johnson’s brother Nathaniel died. He was penniless and pessimistic about their travel, but Garrick had connections in London, and the two were able to stay with a distant relative. In October 1737 Johnson brought his wife to London and eventually, he found employment as a writer for ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’. His assignments for the magazine and other publishers during this time were almost unparalleled in range and variety and so numerous, so varied and scattered that Johnson himself could not make a complete list. In May 1738 his first major work, the poem ‘London’, was published anonymously, but the following years were filled with poverty and distress. However, in 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with the idea of creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. A contract, worth 1,500 guineas, was signed and Johnson claimed that he could finish the project in three years, though he actually finished it in eight. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, nor was it unique. It was, however, the most commonly used lexicon of the English language as it is in general usage, for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.
For a decade, Johnson’s constant work on the Dictionary disrupted his and Tetty’s living conditions. He had to employ a number of assistants for the copying and mechanical work, which filled the house with incessant noise and clutter. He was always busy, and kept hundreds of books around. Eventually, distracted by Tetty’s increasingly poor health, he moved to 17 Gough Square near his printer, William Strahan, to accommodate both his wife and his work. The Dictionary was finally published in April 1755 and with a title page acknowledging that the University of Oxford had awarded Johnson a Master of Arts degree in anticipation of the work. Authors’ royalties were unknown at the time so Johnson, once his contract to deliver the book was fulfilled, received no further money from its sale.
Besides working on the Dictionary, Johnson also wrote numerous essays, sermons, and poems.
In 1749, Garrick made good on his promise that he would produce Johnsons play ‘Irene’. Its title was altered to ‘Mahomet and Irene’ to make it ‘fit for the stage’, but the show only ran for nine nights.
Tetty Johnson was ill during most of her time in London, and in 1752 she decided to return to the countryside while Johnson was busy working on his Dictionary. She died on 17 March 1752.
Johnson’s feelings of loss and despair after the death of his wife continued until his own death. He considered that she was his primary motivation and her death hindered his ability to complete his work.
To occupy himself, Johnson began to work on ‘The Literary Magazine’, or ‘Universal Review’, the first issue of which was printed in March 1756. Johnson’s work on the plays of William Shakespeare took up most of his time and June 1756, Johnson published his ‘Proposals for the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare’. Although it took him another seven years to finish, Johnson completed a few volumes of his Shakespeare to prove his commitment to the project.
In 1758, Johnson began to write a weekly series, ‘The Idler’, which ran for two years. Since this did not occupy all Johnson’s time, he was able to publish his philosophical novella ‘Rasselas’ in 1759. Rasselas was written in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral and settle her debts. It became so popular that there was a new English edition of the work almost every year and it was immediately translated into five languages (French, Dutch, German, Russian and Italian), and later into nine others.
Johnson had gained notoriety for his dilatoriness in writing, but in July, 1762 King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 in appreciation for the Dictionary. While the pension did not make Johnson wealthy, it did allow him a modest yet comfortable independence for the remaining 22 years of his life.
16 May 1763, Johnson first met 22-year-old James Boswell—who would later become Johnson’s first major biographer
Around the spring of 1763, Johnson formed “The Club”, a social group that included his friends Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and later Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. They decided to meet every Monday at 7:00 pm at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street, Soho and these meetings continued until long after the deaths of the original members.
1765, Johnson met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and MP and his wife Hester. They struck up an instant friendship and Johnson stayed with the Thrales for 17 years until Henry’s death in 1781, sometimes living in rooms at Thrale’s Anchor Brewery in Southwark.
Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare was finally published in late 1765 as The ‘Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes … to which are added notes by Sam. Johnson in a printing of one thousand copies’. The first edition quickly sold out and a second was soon printed. The plays themselves were in a version that Johnson felt was closest to the original, based on his analysis of the manuscript editions.
In the 1770s, Johnson, who had tended to be an opponent of the government early in life, published a series of pamphlets in favour of various government policies including strong opposition to the American colonists receiving a representative vote in the British Parliament.
In August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland and began “a journey to the western islands of Scotland”, in Johnson’s 1775 account of their travels. Boswell’s account of their journey, ‘The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’ (1786), was a preliminary step toward his later biography, ‘Life of Johnson’. Included were various quotations and descriptions of events, including anecdotes such as Johnson swinging a broadsword while wearing Scottish garb, or dancing a Highland jig.
In 1777 his publishers asked Johnson to create a final major work, the ‘Lives of the English Poets’, for which he asked the price of only 200 guineas. ‘The Lives’, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet’s work. The work was finished in March 1781 and the whole collection was published in six volumes. When it came to biography, Johnson believed in portraying the biographical subjects accurately and including any negative aspects of their lives- a new departure for the time which had previously considered such works as encomiums.
Johnson was unable to enjoy this success as life changed quickly when Henry Thrale, his dear, supportive friend died in 1781 and Hester Thrale married an Italian singing teacher. Also around this time, a number of Johnson’s close friends died which plunged him into gloom and impaired his health.
In June 1783, Johnson’s poor circulation resulted in a stroke. Two doctors were brought in to aid Johnson and he regained his ability to speak two days later though he was confined to his room from four months.
His health began to improve by May 1784, and he travelled to Oxford with Boswell, but with so many friends now deceased and no one to visit, Johnson expressed a desire to die in London and arrived there in November 1784. His final days were filled with mental anguish and delusions. He did not want to see the few people who visited him and on 13 December 1784, he fell into a coma, and died at 7:00 p.m.
He is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.