Samuel Johnson, Writer
12 December 1784
Next only to William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson is perhaps the most quoted of English writers. The latter part of the eighteenth century is often (in English-speaking countries, of course) called, simply, the Age of Johnson.

Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, in 1709. His mother did not have enough milk for him, and so he was put out to nurse. From his nurse he contracted a tubercular infection called scrofula, which inflamed the lymph glands and spread to the optic and auditory nerves, leaving him deaf in the left ear, almost blind in the left eye, and dim of vision in the right eye. It also left scar tissue which disfigured his face, as did a later childhood bout with small-pox.

Young Johnson responded to his disabilities by a fierce determination to be independent and to accept help and pity from no one. When he was three or four years old, a household servant regularly took him to school and walked him home again. One day the servant was not there in time, and Johnson started for home by himself. Coming to an open ditch across the street, he got down on all fours to peer at it before attempting to cross. His teacher had followed to watch him, and now approached to help. He spied her, and angrily pushed her away. Throughout his life, he feared that ill health would tempt him to self-indulgence and self-pity, and bent over backwards to resist the temptation.

He had an uncle who was a local boxing champion, and who taught him to fight, so that years later he walked without fear in the worst sections of London. Once four robbers attacked him, and he held his own until the watch arrived and arrested them.

Sports where he had to see a ball were out of the question. He turned instead to swimming, leaping, and climbing (and, in season, to sliding on frozen lakes and ponds). In his seventies, revisiting his native Lichfield, he looked for a rail that he used to jump over as a boy, and having found it, he laid aside his hat and wig, and his coat, and leaped over it twice, a feat that left him, as he said, "in a transport of joy".

In middle age, not having swum for years, he went swimming with a friend who warned him of a section of river that was dangerous, where someone had recently drowned. Johnson promptly swam to that section. On another occasion, he was told that a gun was old and dangerous to fire. He promptly loaded it and fired it at a wall.

When he was eight years old, he stopped going to church, and abandoned his religion. A few years later, however, he began to think that it was wrong of him to do so without investigating the matter, and the pangs of guilt he had over not having read theology before rejecting it brought him to the conclusion that there must be a Moral Law (else what is guilt about?) and hence a Lawgiver.

As a youth, he developed a fondness for disputation, and often, as he admits, chose the wrong side of the debate because it would be more challenging.

In October, 1728, having just turned nineteen, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. His mother had inherited a lump sum which was enough to pay for a year at Oxford, and he had a prospect of further aid. But the prospect fell through, and after one year Johnson was forced to drop out of Oxford.

While at Oxford, Johnson read Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, With an Enquiry Into the Origin of Moral Virtue. Mandeville argues (among many other things) that what are commonly called virtues are disguised vices. This made a deep impression on Johnson, and made him watchful for corruption in his own motives.

A more fundamental influence was that of William Law's book Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life. Johnson reports that he "began to read it expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational inquiry."

As his first year at Oxford was ending, his money was running out. He had only one pair of shoes, and his toes showed through the ends. A gentleman, seeing this, placed a new pair of shoes outside Johnson's door at night, and Johnson, finding them in the morning, threw them away in a fit of shame and wounded pride.

In December, 1729, with his fees well in arrears, Johnson was forced to leave Oxford. He wrote a short poem, The Young Author, dealing with the dreams of greatness of someone just starting to write, and the almost certain destruction of those dreams. The moral is: "Do not let yourself hope for much, and you will be the less disappointed."

Out of Oxford, with no hope of the academic career for which his native talents suited him, Johnson sank for two years into a deep depression, a despair and inability to act, wherein, as he later told a friend, he could stare at the town clock and not be able to tell what time it was. He feared that he was falling into insanity, and considered suicide. He developed convulsive tics, jerks, and twitches, that remained with him for the remainder of his life, and often caused observers who did not know him to think him an idiot.

In his depressed state, Johnson met the Porters. Mr. Porter was a prosperous merchant. He and his family valued Johnson's company and conversation, and were not put off by his appearance and mannerisms. Mrs. Porter said to her daughter, after first meeting Johnson, "That is the most sensible man I ever met." From the Porters, Johnson gained renewed self-confidence, and largely emerged from his depressed state. After the death of Henry Porter, his wife Elizabeth ("Tetty", as Johnson came to call her) encouraged Johnson into a closer friendship, and in 1735 they were married. She was 20 years older than he, and brought to the marriage a dowry of over 600 pounds. In those days the interest alone on such a sum would have been almost enough for the couple to live on. There is every indication that it was a love match on both sides. On Tetty's side, the love was reinfoced by the perception of future greatness. On Johnson's side, the love was reinforced by gratitude toward the woman whose approval and acceptance had given him back his sanity and self-respect.

The newly-married Johnson undertook to open a private school, Edial Hall. One of his first students was David Garrick, who became a lifelong friend and was later known as the foremost actor of his day. The school closed a little over a year later, having failed to attract enough pupils. Johnson had invested most of his wife's dowry in it, hoping to multiply her capital. Instead, he lost nearly all of it, leaving them desperately poor. Johnson and Garrick determined to seek their fortune in London. When they arrived, Johnson had twopence halfpenny in his pocket, and Garrick three halfpence. Johnson began to do small writing jobs for Edward Cave, publisher of The Gentleman's Magazine, the first example of a magazine in the modern sense. Looking for a way to earn a little extra money, he noted that the latest fashion in literature was Pope's imitations of the satires of Horace. Johnson determined to write an imitation of the satires of Juvenal. The result was a poem called London. An extract follows:

Here malice, rapine, accident conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
and here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
here falling houses thunder on your head,
and here a female atheist talks you dead....
This mournful truth is everywhere confessed,
Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.

Johnson sold the poem for ten guineas. It was an immediate success, praised by Pope and others. Within a year it was in its fourth edition.

A word here about English money. A guinea is twenty-one shillings, while a pound is twenty shillings; a shilling is twelve pence. In 1945, a pound was worth four Us dollars. It is now worth less than two dollars, but in Johnson's day was worth far more. He tells us that it is possible to live in London for 30 pounds a year and be respectable. One needs ten pounds a year for clothes and laundry. For eighteen pence a week, one can live in a garret. For three pence a day, one can sit several hours in a coffee-house, have breakfast (bread and milk) for a penny, dinner for sixpence, and do without supper. Johnson did not quite take his own advice, for he spent eightpence on his dinner: sixpence for meat, a penny for bread, and a penny for the waiter. He tells us that the tip paid off in that the waiter often managed a better cut of meat for him than for his friends who drank wine but did not tip.

Tetty had joined her husband, but was dismayed at the prospect of life in a garret in central London. Her husband got her rooms nearer the edge of town, where she could be happier, but these cost more than he could well afford, and he lived in central London near his work, in very frugal circumstances, sometimes walking the streets all night when he had no money for lodging.

In the next few years, he wrote articles on demand for the Gentleman's Magazine and other publications. As his biographer Bate puts it, there are "short biographies of men noted in medicine, science, literature, naval exploration, and warfare; poems in both Latin and English; monthly articles... on... political and other current events abroad... and other writings that show his knowledge not only of literature, politics, religion, and ethics, but also agriculture, trade, and practical business; philology, classical scholarship, aesthetics, and metaphysics; medicine and chemistry; travel, exploration, and even Chinese architecture."

Johnson's interests extended to science and technology as well as to literature. When Richard Arkwright invented (or improved) the automatic spinning machine that was to revolutionize the textile industry, he found that Johnson was the only one of his acquaintances that understood the principle at once, without explanation.

In April of 1738, Parliament forbade reporting of Parliamentary debates. The Gentleman's Magazine got around this by printing supposedly fictitious reports of debates in the Parliament of Lilliput, with the names of the Lilliputian speakers being thinly disguised versions of the names of English politicians. Johnson became the chief writer of these speeches. Knowing only the measure that was being debated, and who had spoken on each side, he considered what arguments the speaker was likely to use, and wrote a suitable speech for him. For years, these were assumed by the public to be the speeches that had actually been given in Parliament. No member of Parliament ever complained that he had been misrepresented, presumably because when he read the speeches attributed to him, he thought, "I wish I had said that!" Years later, some of Johnson's work appeared in books about Pitt (Walpole, Chesterfield) as examples of that politician's "Greatest Speeches."

Before 1748, Johnson published practically nothing under his own name. He wrote extensively -- the Parliamentary Debates, the poem London, numerous articles, a few sermons and other speeches for which the speakers took the credit, and the like. But none of this could be expected to give him a reputation as a writer or scholar, either in his own day or in the eyes of posterity. He made one last effort to obtain permission to practice law even though he had not a degree. It was refused. He began work on a Dictionary of the English Language.

The Italians had a national dictionary, published in 1612, which it had taken their academy 20 years to prepare. The French followed with their dictionary which it took an Academy of forty scholars 55 years (1639-1694) to prepare, and another 18 (1700-1718) to revise. It was agreed that England needed a first-rate dictionary, and Johnson undertook the job. In June 1746 he signed an agreement with a group of publishers. They would pay him 1575 pounds (all expenses to come out of this). With six copyists to help him, he read through numerous books by "standard authors" and marked their use of various words. His copyists then copied out the sentences onto slips of paper, underlining the word being illustrated, marked the slip with a large letter for the initial of the word, and filed it. Johnson then wrote definitions for over 40,000 words, with different shades of meaning, illustrating the meanings with about 114,000 quotations that he had gathered. His work has served as the basis for all English dictionaries since. A comparison of their definitions with his shows obvious borrowing, simply because his definitions are good. Some of them show the "impish" side of Johnson's nature, and these are naturally the ones that are popularly remembered and quoted. ("Patron: One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid with flattery.") But these amount to fewer than one definition in a thousand. The New English Dictionary (now the Oxford English Dictionary), on which literally thousands of scholars collaborated (not all of them full-time), took seventy years to complete. Johnson, in one room with mostly borrowed books and six copyists, completed his task in nine years. The Dictionary was published in 1755. Oxford University rewarded him with a Master of Arts degree, which came in time for him to include it on the title page of the Dictionary. Many doors had previously been closed to him by the absence of a college degree. That problem was now behind him.

Tetty, his wife, had meanwhile deteriorated. She had complained of various illnesses, some of them organic (and Johnson spent much of his income on her doctors' fees) and some of them psychological in origin. She seldom left her bed, and had taken to solitary drinking and extensive use of opium. (Laudanum, or opium dissolved in alcohol, was a widely used medicine at the time. Even today, it is commoner in England than in the United States. When I was touring in England a few years ago, and suffering from digestive disorders, I went to the apothecary and asked for a mixture of kaolin (fuller's earth) and pectin. He gave me a mixture of the above plus paregoric, which is a diluted laudanum. No prescription necessary. I carried the bottle in my pack and got as far as U S Customs with it before realizing my mistake.) In 1751, Tetty grew worse, and he found lodging for her in the country, in the hope that this would be therapeutic. In March of 1752 she died, and his grief was overwhelming. His diary records the following prayer soon after.

Almighty and most merciful Father, who lovest those whom thou Punishest, and turnest away thine anger from the penitent, look down with pity upon my sorrows, and grant that the affliction which it has pleased thee to bring upon me, may awaken my conscience, enforce my resolutions of a better life, and impress upon me such conviction of thy power and goodness, that I may place in thee my only felicity, and endeavor to please thee in all my thoughts, words, and actions. Grant, O Lord, that I may not languish in fruitless and unavailing sorrow, but that I may consider from whose hand all good and evil is received, and may remember that I am punished for my sins, and hope for comfort only by repentance. Grant, O merciful God, that by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit I may repent, and be comforted, obtain that peace which the world cannot give, pass the residue of my life in humble resignation and cheerful obedience; and when it shall please thee to call me from this mortal state, resign myself into thy hands with faith and confidence, and finally obtain mercy and everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In January 1759 his mother died at the age of 89, and the following Easter his diary records the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, look down with pity upon

My sins. I am a sinner, good Lord, but let not my sins burden Me for ever. Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom. Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth; to will and to do what thou hast commanded, grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions; to love and frequent thy worship, to study and understand thy word; to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others.

Forgive me, O Lord, whatever my Mother has suffered by my

Fault, whatever I have done amiss, and whatever duty I have Neglected. Let me not sink into useless dejection; but so sanctify my affliction, O Lord, that I may be converted and healed; and that, by the help of thy Holy Spirit, I may obtain everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And O Lord, so far as it may be lawful, I commend unto thy

Fatherly goodness my father, brother, wife, and mother,
Beseeching thee to make them happy for Jesus Christ's sake.

In the fall of 1748, while working on the Dictionary, he wrote a 368-line poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, which he sold for fifteen guineas. It is the first work that he published under his own name. Its theme is the complete inability of this world to offer lasting satisfaction and peace, and the consequent necessity of seeking the heart's desire elsewhere. He continued writing as a moralist, but in the form of prose essays. From March of 1750 to March of 1752, for two years, he published every Tuesday and Saturday a periodical he called the Rambler, each issue consisting of an essay by himself, 208 essays in all (four essays and parts of three others are by other writers). Some topics are:

2: The necessity and danger of looking into futurity.

4: The modern form of romances preferable to the ancient.

8: The thoughts to be brought under regulation.

  13: The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets.
  28: The various arts of self-delusion.
  64: The requisites to true friendship.
  76: The arts by which bad men are reconciled to themselves.
  79: A suspicious man justly suspected.
  90: The pauses in English poetry adjusted.
134: Idleness an anxious and miserable state.
156: The laws of writing not always indisputable.
159: The nature and remedies of bashfulness.
183: The influence of envy and interest compared.
207: The folly of continuing too long upon the stage.

Some short extracts from the essays are:

We are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.

The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.

Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.

The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment.

Merit rather enforces respect than attracts fondness.

Many need no other provocation to enmity than that they find themselves excelled.

The vanity of being known to be entrusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it.

Among other pleasing errors of young minds is the opinion of their own importance. He that has not yet remarked, how little attention his contemporaries can spare from themselves, conceives all eyes turned upon himself, and imagines everyone that approaches him to be an enemy or a follower, an admirer or a spy.

The cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative.

Whatever is proposed, it is much easier to find reasons for rejecting than embracing.

Ease, a neutral state between pain and pleasure...if it is not rising into pleasure will be falling towards pain.

Almost every man has some real or imaginary connection with a celebrated character.

Discord generally operates in little things; it is contrariety of taste oftener than principles.

So willing is every man to flatter himself, that the difference between approving laws, and obeying them, is frequently forgotten; he that acknowledges the obligations of morality and pleases his vanity with enforcing them to others, concludes himself zealous in the cause of virtue.

We have less reason to be surprised or offended when we find others differ from us in opinion, because we very often differ from ourselves.

All censure of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to show how much he can spare. It has all the invidiousness of self-praise, and all the reproach of falsehood.

Such is our desire of abstraction from ourselves, that very few are satisfied with the quantity of stupefaction which the needs of the body force upon the mind. Alexander himself added intemperance to sleep, and solaced with the fumes of wine the sovereignty of the world. And almost every man has some art, by which he steals his thought away from his present state.

I would injure no man, and should provoke no resentment. I would relieve every distress, and should enjoy the benedictions of gratitude. I would choose my friends among the wise and my wife among the virtuous, and therefore should be in no danger from treachery or unkindness. My children should by my care be learned and pious, and would repay to my age what their childhood had received.

The admirer of Johnson, wishing to show what a great writer he was, is tempted to quote him at length. But he may remember what Johnson said about someone who tries to show what a Shakespeare play is like by quoting a few good lines: that he "will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house for sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen."

The essays in the Rambler, although many of them are explicitly moralistic, are almost never explicitly Christian, or even religious. Yet there is no doubt that Johnson intended them to serve a Christian purpose. Before writing them, he offered the following prayer:

Almighty God... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech Thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the Salvation both of myself and others.

Why, then, did he not write openly about Christ in the Rambler, or for that matter in the Vanity? For the Vanity, a short answer is that he wrote his poem as an "imitation" of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, and that he is constrained thereby to follow the form of that Satire. More generally, we may say that he considers his work to be, not the preaching of the Gospel, but the preparing of men for hearing the Gospel preached by another. A man who has been persuaded that without Divine Help he cannot be virtuous, and that without virtue he cannot be truly happy, is ready to hear the offer of Divine Help when it is preached. The Law, says the Apostle Paul, is a pedagogue to bring us to Christ. Johnson thought of himself in these writings as such a pedagogue.

Why did he choose the role of pedagogue rather than evangelist? One reason is an overwhelming dread of having others examine his character and actions to see whether he practiced what he preached. He knew that a minister of the Gospel who preaches, "Blessed are the poor," and lives like a millionaire, or one who preaches chastity and is discovered in adultery, brings the Faith into contempt, and he was dreadfully afraid of bringing the Faith into contempt. He was innocent of adultery and of living luxuriously, but he could not write moral advice without being reminded of his own shortcomings. What some critics have called "one of the finest short discussions in English of idleness and procrastination" (Rambler, Number 134) was written by Johnson in great haste while the printer's boy waited to snatch up the copy and speed it to the press. He would therefore write Christian sermons, but only if he could do so anonymously.

Johnson wrote a series of sermons for his friend John Taylor. One of them deals with trust in God. Trust in God is en essential part of the Christian life. But suppose that a man does not feel trust. Ought he to try to deceive himself into thinking that he does feel it? Ought he to try to manufacture feelings of trust by sheer will-power? Johnson's answer is that he ought to behave as if he did trust God, and that means obeying God. He who obeys will find sooner or later that he does trust.

"This constant and devout practice is both the effect, and Cause, of confidence in God. Trust in God is to be obtained only by repentance, obedience, and supplication, not by nourishing in our hearts a confused idea of the goodness of God, or a firm persuasion that we are in a state of grace."

A problem for Johnson was that, although he had no trouble seeing that his attitude toward God ought to be one of trust and dependency, his constant struggle since infancy with his physical disabilities had instilled in him a strong habit of self-reliance and rejection of help from others. Habit and theory were thus at constant war.

He also found it difficult to participate in public worship, especially when it involved sermons, since he often knew more about the sermon subject than the preacher, and had to resist the impulse to contradict him. Public prayer was less of a difficulty, and private prayer still less. The followin is taken from his diary. (It should perhaps be explained that "scruples" is sometimes used to refer to a state of mind in which one feels incapacitating guilt over matters that it is not in one's power to alter. Being free of scruples in this sense does not mean being a scoundrel.)

O Lord, who wouldst that all men should be saved, and who Knowest that without thy grace we can do nothing acceptable to thee, have mercy upon me. Enable me to break the chain of my sins, to reject sensuality in word and thought, and to overcome and suppress vain scruples; and to use such diligence in lawful employment as may enable me to support myself and do good to others. O Lord, forgive me the time lost in idleness; pardon the sins which I have committed, and grant that I may redeem the time misspent, and be reconciled to thee by true repentance, that I may live and die in peace, and be received to everlasting happiness. Take not from me, O Lord, thy Holy Spirit, but let me have support and comfort for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

Meanwhile, he wrote Essays for the Rambler about human motives, about self-deception, the "treachery of the human heart," the ways in which we evade the knowledge of what we ought to do, and about some specific duties that we need to be reminded of.

In 1756, after finishing the Dictionary, he was asked to supervise a new periodical, the Literary Magazine. In the first year, he wrote reviews of Sir Isaac Newton's proofs of God, Francis Home's Experiments On Bleaching, Jonas Hanway on tea, Hoadley and Wilson's Observations On a Series of Electrical Experiments, of works on beekeeping, distilling sea water, Ben Jonson, the court of the Emperor Augustus, dealings with the Mohawk Indians, and the national debt. The magazine did not last, partly because the publishers were not willing to allow Johnson to say what he thought about the government's policy of imperial and commercial extension of power.

When Johnson in politics is called a Tory, as contrasted with a Whig, later associations with these terms may be misleading. The Whigs were the party of laissez-faire economics, the party of the great landowners and the merchants, while the Tories were the party of the small landholders and the country parsons. Johnson distrusted the drive to become wealthy, and he detested slavery. He wrote that the wars of the English and the French over their possessions in the New World were the quarrels of two robbers over the booty they had taken from a victim, and that the French were in general to be favored, because they tended to treat the Indians better than did the English. Commenting on the American cry of "Taxation without representation is tyranny!" and "Give me liberty or give me death!" he asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" At a party, his toast was, "Here's to the next insurrection of negroes in the West Indies." His chronicler, Boswell, was horrified.

In the spring of 1759 he wrote a short novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia. It is the story of a prince who has led a sheltered life, and who goes out to explore the world and learn the meaning of life and the secret of happiness. It has been compared with Voltaire's Candide, which was published almost simultaneously. It has been translated into at least 14 other languages, and continues to be read with pleasure (and, presumably, profit) by many. It sums up his career as a moralistic writer.

When visiting Oxford just before turning fifty, he spent some time with a thirty-year-old acquaintance, a fellow of All Souls, and in the course of the evening challenged him to climb over the wall with him into All Souls College. The challenge was declined.

In 1762, Johnson received a message that his friend Oliver Goldsmith was in trouble. At Goldsmith's home, he found that Goldsmith had been arrested on complaint of his landlady for failure to pay his rent. Johnson calmed him, and asked him about his financial prospects. Goldsmith had a novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, ready for the press. Johnson read a bit of it, and then went out and persuaded a publisher to buy it for sixty pounds. This helped Goldsmith, but left the publisher uneasy, since he feared that the book would not sell. Johnson then went back to Goldsmith, who had a poem, The Traveller. Johnson helped him revise it for publication, and rewrote part of it himself. The poem, when published, was a success, and established a market for the novel. Only then did the publisher venture to print the Vicar, which turned out to be a sensational best-seller.

In July of 1762 the Prime Minister awarded Johnson a pension for life of 300 pounds a year. This was potentially awkward. Johnson's Dictionary had given the definition, "Pension: An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." Johnson consulted a friend, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, who assured him that there was no impropriety in his taking the money, since he was not about to do the Prime Minister or his party any favors in return, and no one supposed that he was. The money was a reward for his honorable service to his country in producing the Dictionary, not a bribe for future questionable acts. So Johnson took the pension, which gave him a financial security he had never had before.

When Johnson was at a country house in the summer of 1762, a young lady said that she could outrun anyone there. Johnson accepted the challenge, they raced on the lawn, and Johnson won, to his unconcealed delight.

On Monday 16 May 1763, Johnson met James Boswell for the first time, at the bookshop of one Tom Davies, friend to them both. Boswell was an admirer of Johnson's writing and had long desired the meeting. Ten years later, Boswell decided to write a life of Johnson, a "life in Scenes," one that would feature eyewitness accounts (mostly by Boswell) of conversations with Johnson and events in the life of Johnson. The book naturally concentrates on years during which Boswell knew Johnson, and in reporting his conversation, concentrates on short, memorable, pithy sayings -- "punch lines." In that sense, it gives a one-sided view of Johnson. However, it shows that one side superbly, with the result that Boswell's Life of Johnson has been recognized ever since as The outstanding English biography. Two short typical extracts follow, which will help to convey the flavor of the work.

[Johnson is speaking of a young man who has impulsively joined
The Royal Navy, and come to regret it.]
"No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get
himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail,
with the chance of being drowned.... A man in a jail has more
room, better food, and commonly better company."
Finding him still persevering in his abstinence from wine, I Ventured to speak to him of it. Johnson. "Sir, I have no objection to a man's drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation. I found myself apt to go to excess in it, and therefore, after having been for some time without it on account of illness, I thought it better not to return to it. Every man is to judge for himself, according to the effects which he experiences. One of the fathers tells us, he found fasting made him so peevish that he did not practice it."
Though he often enlarged upon the evil of intoxication, he Was by no means harsh and unforgiving to those who indulged in occasional excess in wine. One of his friends, I well remember, came to sup at a tavern with him and some other gentlemen, and too plainly discovered that he had drunk too much at dinner. When one who loved mischief, thinking to provoke a severe censure, asked Johnson, a few days afterwards, "Well, Sir, what did your friend say to you, as an apology for being in such a situation?" Johnson answered, "Sir, he said all that a man Should say: he said he was sorry for it."
Johnson expressed his disapprobation of ornamental Architecture, such as magnificent columns supporting a portico, or expensive pilasters supporting merely their own capitals, "because it consumes labor disproportionate to its utility."

In 1764 Johnson visited his friend Bennet Langton at the Langton home in Lincolnshire. Johnson and the Langtons walked to the top of a steep hill, and Johnson decided that he would like to roll down it. He said that he had not had a roll for a long time. Emptying his pockets, he lay down and rolled all the way to the bottom.

At Easter of 1764 he wrote in his diary:

Almighty and most merciful Father, who hast created and Preserved me, have pity on my weakness and corruption. Let me not be created to misery, nor preserved only to multiply sin. Deliver me from habitual wickedness, and idleness, enable me to purify my thoughts, to use the faculties which thou hast given me with honest diligence, and to regulate my life by thy holy word.
Grant me, O Lord, good purposes and steady resolution, That I may repent my sins, and amend my life. Deliver me from the distreses of vain terror and enable me by thy Grace to will and to do what may please thee, that when I shall be called away from this present state I may obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In 1756, just after the completion of the Dictionary, Johnson was encouraged to undertake a new edition of the works of Shakespeare, with (a) explanatory notes, (b) an analysis and commentary on each play, and (c) an attempt at establishing a standard text by comparing the variations in early copies of the plays and determining wherever possible the correct original reading. Johnson agreed to produce the work in eighteen months. Presumably he hoped that a very short deadline would stave off writer's block. It didn't. The work took nine years, and was published in 1765. It contains some bad judgements about Shakespeare. (David Garrick had rewritten King Lear with a happy ending, and this was the only production of the play that most Londoners had seen. Johnson approved.) It also contains some very good judgements. Above all, there is the Preface, an overall discussion of Shakespeare and his work. A quotation follows:

The work of a correct and regular writer is a garden accurately Formed and diligently planted, varied with shades and scented with flowers; the composition of Shakespeare is a forest, in which oaks extend their branches, and pines tower in the air, interspersed sometimes with weeds and brambles, and sometimes giving shelter to myrtles and to roses; filling the eye with awful pomp, and gratifying the mind with endless diversity.

In 1764, with the Shakespeare almost completed, Johnson began to fall again into a depression, an inner paralysis that made it difficult for him to accomplish anything. He was tormented by renewed fears that he had inherited from his father a tendency to madness. It is a credit to his character that he was able to press on and finish the work.

In 1766, Henry Thrale and his wife Hester, friends of Johnson, visited him and found him most agitated, with his depression in an acute form. They resolved to bring him to their country home, where they thoroughly pampered him, and in effect made him one of the family. Their treatment of him brought him out of his depression and may have saved his sanity.

Mrs Thrale wrote of him, He loved the poor as I never yet saw anyone else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy. What signifies, says someone, giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin or tobacco. "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence (says Johnson)? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance." ... and so he nursed whole nests of people in his house, where the lame, the blind, the sick, and the sorrowful found a sure retreat from all the evils whence his little income could secure them.

And just as he would give all the silver in his pocket to the poor who watched him as he left the house, so, on returning late at night, he for years had been putting pennies into the hands of children lying asleep on thresholds so that they could buy breakfast in the morning.

In 1777 a group of booksellers decided to publish a series of volumes of recent (since 1660) English poets. They asked Johnson to write a biographical sketch of each poet (a list of 47 names, later expanded to 52) for inclusion in the volumes. He agreed to do so for 200 guineas. They were envisioning perhaps two or three pages on each poet. He gave them about 370,000 words in all, simply because, once he got started, he enjoyed the work, and thought it worth while. The project took four years, being completed in 1781.

Noting that Gray's Elegy was widely admired and loved by the General public, Johnson writes: "I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices... must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours."

On 17 June 1783, Johnson found on awaking that he was suffering a stroke. He could not rise from bed. He tried to speak, and found that, although he could think the words, he could not say them. He reports: "I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good." He managed to summon help, and as time passed he slowly recovered the power of speech. But now various ailments were converging upon him: circulatory problems; bronchitis and emphysema; congestive heart failure; and progressive rheumatoid arthritis.

He accepted invitations to travel and to visit a few friends, and kept active into November 1784, but finally was unable to leave his bed. His doctors prescribed opium for his pain, but (perhaps influenced by having observed its effects on Tetty), he distrusted the drug, and would take only one-sixth the amount prescribed. Finally, he asked his doctor whether he was likely to live out the month, and on being told that he was not, he refused all further opium and other pain-killers, saying that he desired to meet his Maker with an unclouded mind. He died quietly on the evening of Monday 13 December 1784. His friend William Gerard Hamilton, member of Parliament, said: "He has made a chasm which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.--Johnson is dead.--Let us go to the next best:--There is nobody;--no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."

Suggestions For Reading

Samuel Johnson, Selected Writings, ed. Patrick Cruttwell, Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-043033-4, $11p

Samuel Johnson, Selected Essays From the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, ed. W J Bate, Yale U Press, ISBN 0-300-00016-2 $16p

The Quotable Johnson, a Topical Compilation, ed. Stephen C Dankert, Ignatius Press, ISBN 0-89870-415-5,

James Boswell, Life of Johnson

    New American Library  (NAL)    0-452-00752-6   $4p
    Penguin                        0-14-043116-0   $7p
    Oxford U Press                 0-19-281537-7  $16p
  (I suspect that the NAL may be an abridgement, but I haven't seen
Any of these. On the other hand, some beginners may prefer an Abridgement. Penguin should be complete. Oxford either has copious notes or is overpriced.)

Maurice J Quinlan, Samuel Johnson, a Layman's Religion, U Wisconsin Press, 1963, 0-299-03030-X $20h

W Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, ISBN 0-15-179260-7, $20h. Most of the above bio is taken from Bate. He also wrote The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, 1955.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has a nine-page article on Johnson.

PRAYER (traditional language):

Grant unto us, O God, that in all time of our testing we may Know thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servant Samuel Johnson, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what thou givest us to do, and endure what thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Almighty God, who hast blessed thy Church with the singular Learning and holiness of thy servant Samuel Johnson: mercifully grant that, following his example, we may love knowledge and seek the truth; that in accordance with our several vocations we may be diligent and tireless in scholarship and research, that we may face our physical disabilities and afflictions with courage, that we may make use of the abilities and gifts which thou dost give us, that we may be loving and generous in our dealings with the poor and afflicted of this world, and may at our life's end yield up our spirits to thee in confidence, trusting in the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

Grant, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know your Presence and obey your will; that, following the example of your servant Samuel Johnson, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what you give us to do, and endure what you give us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Almighty God, who have blessed your Church with the singular Learning and holiness of your servant Samuel Johnson: mercifully grant that, following his example, we may love knowledge and seek the truth; that in accordance with our several vocations we may be diligent and tireless in scholarship and research, that we may face our physical disabilities and afflictions with courage, that we may make use of the abilities and gifts which you give us, that we may be loving and generous in our dealings with the poor and afflicted of this world, and may at our life's end yield up our spirits to you in confidence, trusting in the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.