Part 2 out of 14
better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson,
their man-servant; he not being in the way, this was not done; but there
was no occasion for any artificial aid for its preservation.
In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every
minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is
interesting. That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may
easily be supposed; for to use his own words in his Life of Sydenham,
'That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his
discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from
his infancy, by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For,
there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely
related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion
of intellectual vigour.'
In all such investigations it is certainly unwise to pay too much
attention to incidents which the credulous relate with eager
satisfaction, and the more scrupulous or witty enquirer considers only
as topicks of ridicule: Yet there is a traditional story of the infant
Hercules of toryism, so curiously characteristick, that I shall not
withhold it. It was communicated to me in a letter from Miss Mary Adye,
[Page 39: Anecdotes of Johnson's childhood.]
'When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three years
old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon
his father's shoulders, listening and gaping at the much celebrated
preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. Johnson how he could possibly think of
bringing such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a croud.
He answered, because it was impossible to keep him at home; for, young
as he was, he believed he had caught the publick spirit and zeal for
Sacheverel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with
Nor can I omit a little instance of that jealous independence of spirit,
and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him. The fact was
acknowledged to me by himself, upon the authority of his mother. One
day, when the servant who used to be sent to school to conduct him home,
had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then so
near-sighted, that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees
to take a view of the kennel before he ventured to step over it. His
school-mistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the
kennel, or be run over by a cart, followed him at some distance. He
happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention
as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat
her, as well as his strength would permit.
Of the power of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a
degree almost incredible, the following early instance was told me in
his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his step-daughter, Mrs. Lucy
Porter, as related to her by his mother.
[Page 40: Johnson's infant precocity. A.D. 1712.]
When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson
one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the
collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.' She
went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached
the second floor, she heard him following her. 'What's the matter?' said
she. 'I can say it,' he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he
could not have read it more than twice.
But there has been another story of his infant precocity generally
circulated, and generally believed, the truth of which I am to refute
upon his own authority. It is told, that, when a child of three years
old, he chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and
killed it; upon which, it is said, he dictated to his mother the
'Here lies good master duck,
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on;
If it had liv'd, it had been _good luck_,
For then we'd had an _odd one_.'
There is surely internal evidence that this little composition combines
in it, what no child of three years old could produce, without an
extension of its faculties by immediate inspiration; yet Mrs. Lucy
Porter, Dr. Johnson's step-daughter, positively maintained to me, in his
presence, that there could be no doubt of the truth of this anecdote,
for she had heard it from his mother. So difficult is it to obtain an
authentick relation of facts, and such authority may there be for
errour; for he assured me, that his father made the verses, and wished
to pass them for his child's. He added, 'my father was a foolish old
man; that is to say, foolish in talking of his children.'
[Page 41: His eyesight.]
[Page 42: The king's evil.]
Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the
scrophula, or king's evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well
formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much, that he did not see at all
with one of his eyes, though its appearance was little different from
that of the other. There is amongst his prayers, one inscribed '_When
my_ EYE _was restored to its use_,' which ascertains a defect that
many of his friends knew he had, though I never perceived it. I
supposed him to be only near-sighted; and indeed I must observe, that in
no other respect could I discern any defect in his vision; on the
contrary, the force of his attention and perceptive quickness made him
see and distinguish all manner of objects, whether of nature or of art,
with a nicety that is rarely to be found. When he and I were travelling
in the Highlands of Scotland, and I pointed out to him a mountain which
I observed resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy, by shewing me,
that it was indeed pointed at the top, but that one side of it was
larger than the other. And the ladies with whom he was acquainted
agree, that no man was more nicely and minutely critical in the elegance
of female dress. When I found that he saw the romantick beauties of
Islam, in Derbyshire, much better than I did, I told him that he
resembled an able performer upon a bad instrument. How false and
contemptible then are all the remarks which have been made to the
prejudice either of his candour or of his philosophy, founded upon a
supposition that he was almost blind. It has been said, that he
contracted this grievous malady from his nurse. His mother yielding
to the superstitious notion, which, it is wonderful to think, prevailed
so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion,
which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such
judgement as Carte could give credit; carried him to London, where he
was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector
informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer,
then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very
frankly; and Mrs. Piozzi has preserved his very picturesque description
of the scene, as it remained upon his fancy. Being asked if he could
remember Queen Anne, 'He had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of
solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood.'
This touch, however, was without any effect. I ventured to say to him,
in allusion to the political principles in which he was educated, and of
which he ever retained some odour, that 'his mother had not carried him
far enough; she should have taken him to ROME.'
[Page 43: Johnson at a dame's school.]
He was first taught to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, who kept
a school for young children in Lichfield. He told me she could read the
black letter, and asked him to borrow for her, from his father, a bible
in that character. When he was going to Oxford, she came to take leave
of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of
gingerbread, and said, he was the best scholar she ever had. He
delighted in mentioning this early compliment: adding, with a smile,
that 'this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive.' His
next instructor in English was a master, whom, when he spoke of him to
me, he familiarly called Tom Brown, who, said he, 'published a
spelling-book, and dedicated it to the UNIVERSE; but, I fear, no copy of
it can now be had.'
[Page 44: Lichfield School.]
He began to learn Latin with Mr. Hawkins, usher, or under-master of
Lichfield school, 'a man (said he) very skilful in his little way.' With
him he continued two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr.
Hunter, the head-master, who, according to his account, 'was very
severe, and wrong-headedly severe. He used (said he) to beat us
unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and
negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as
for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question; and if he did
not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an
opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up
a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not
expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every question,
there would be no need of a master to teach him.'
[Page 45: Johnson's school-fellows.]
It is, however, but justice to the memory of Mr. Hunter to mention, that
though he might err in being too severe, the school of Lichfield was
very respectable in his time. The late Dr. Taylor, Prebendary of
Westminster, who was educated under him, told me, that 'he was an
excellent master, and that his ushers were most of them men of eminence;
that Holbrook, one of the most ingenious men, best scholars, and best
preachers of his age, was usher during the greatest part of the time
that Johnson was at school. Then came Hague, of whom as much might be
said, with the addition that he was an elegant poet. Hague was succeeded
by Green, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, whose character in the learned
world is well known. In the same form with Johnson was Congreve,
who afterwards became chaplain to Archbishop Boulter, and by that
connection obtained good preferment in Ireland. He was a younger son of
the ancient family of Congreve, in Staffordshire, of which the poet was
a branch. His brother sold the estate. There was also Lowe, afterwards
Canon of Windsor.'
[Page 46: Mr. Hunter.]
Indeed Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr.
Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of
Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he
said, 'My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have
done nothing.' He told Mr. Langton, that while Hunter was flogging his
boys unmercifully, he used to say, 'And this I do to save you from the
gallows.' Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of
enforcing instruction by means of the rod. 'I would rather (said he)
have the rod to be the general terrour to all, to make them learn, than
tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than
your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in
itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and
there's an end on't; whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of
superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make
brothers and sisters hate each other.'
When Johnson saw some young ladies in Lincolnshire who were remarkably
well behaved, owing to their mother's strict discipline and severe
correction, he exclaimed, in one of Shakspeare's lines a little
'_Rod_, I will honour thee for this thy duty.'
[Page 47: Johnson a King of men.]
That superiority over his fellows, which he maintained with so much
dignity in his march through life, was not assumed from vanity and
ostentation, but was the natural and constant effect of those
extraordinary powers of mind, of which he could not but be conscious by
comparison; the intellectual difference, which in other cases of
comparison of characters, is often a matter of undecided contest, being
as clear in his case as the superiority of stature in some men above
others. Johnson did not strut or stand on tip-toe: He only did not
stoop. From his earliest years his superiority was perceived and
acknowledged. He was from the beginning [Greek: anax andron], a king
of men. His schoolfellow, Mr. Hector, has obligingly furnished me with
many particulars of his boyish days: and assured me that he never
knew him corrected at school, but for talking and diverting other boys
from their business. He seemed to learn by intuition; for though
indolence and procrastination were inherent in his constitution,
whenever he made an exertion he did more than any one else. In short, he
is a memorable instance of what has been often observed, that the boy is
the man in miniature: and that the distinguishing characteristicks of
each individual are the same, through the whole course of life. His
favourites used to receive very liberal assistance from him; and such
was the submission and deference with which he was treated, such the
desire to obtain his regard, that three of the boys, of whom Mr. Hector
was sometimes one, used to come in the morning as his humble attendants,
and carry him to school. One in the middle stooped, while he sat upon
his back, and one on each side supported him; and thus he was borne
triumphant. Such a proof of the early predominance of intellectual
vigour is very remarkable, and does honour to human nature. Talking to
me once himself of his being much distinguished at school, he told me,
'they never thought to raise me by comparing me to any one; they never
said, Johnson is as good a scholar as such a one; but such a one is as
good a scholar as Johnson; and this was said but of one, but of Lowe;
and I do not think he was as good a scholar.'
[Page 48: Johnson's tenacious memory.]
He discovered a great ambition to excel, which roused him to counteract
his indolence. He was uncommonly inquisitive; and his memory was so
tenacious, that he never forgot any thing that he either heard or read.
Mr. Hector remembers having recited to him eighteen verses, which, after
a little pause, he repeated _verbatim_, varying only one epithet, by
which he improved the line.
He never joined with the other boys in their ordinary diversions: his
only amusement was in winter, when he took a pleasure in being drawn
upon the ice by a boy barefooted, who pulled him along by a garter fixed
round him; no very easy operation, as his size was remarkably large. His
defective sight, indeed, prevented him from enjoying the common sports;
and he once pleasantly remarked to me, 'how wonderfully well he had
contrived to be idle without them.' Lord Chesterfield, however, has
justly observed in one of his letters, when earnestly cautioning a
friend against the pernicious effects of idleness, that active sports
are not to be reckoned idleness in young people; and that the listless
torpor of doing nothing, alone deserves that name. Of this dismal
inertness of disposition, Johnson had all his life too great a share.
Mr. Hector relates, that 'he could not oblige him more than by
sauntering away the hours of vacation in the fields, during which he was
more engaged in talking to himself than to his companion.'
[Page 49: His fondness for romances.]
Dr. Percy, the Bishop of Dromore, who was long intimately acquainted
with him, and has preserved a few anecdotes concerning him, regretting
that he was not a more diligent collector, informs me, that 'when a boy
he was immoderately fond of reading romances of chivalry, and he
retained his fondness for them through life; so that (adds his Lordship)
spending part of a summer at my parsonage-house in the country, he
chose for his regular reading the old Spanish romance of _Felixmarte of
Hircania_, in folio, which he read quite through. Yet I have heard
him attribute to these extravagant fictions that unsettled turn of mind
which prevented his ever fixing in any profession.'
[Page 50: Stourbridge School.]
1725: AETAT. 16.--After having resided for some time at the house of his
uncle, Cornelius Ford, Johnson was, at the age of fifteen, removed to
the school of Stourbridge, in Worcestershire, of which Mr. Wentworth was
then master. This step was taken by the advice of his cousin, the
Reverend Mr. Ford, a man in whom both talents and good dispositions were
disgraced by licentiousness, but who was a very able judge of what
At this school he did not receive so much benefit as was expected. It
has been said, that he acted in the capacity of an assistant to Mr.
Wentworth, in teaching the younger boys. 'Mr. Wentworth (he told me) was
a very able man, but an idle man, and to me very severe; but I cannot
blame him much. I was then a big boy; he saw I did not reverence him;
and that he should get no honour by me. I had brought enough with me, to
carry me through; and all I should get at his school would be ascribed
to my own labour, or to my former master. Yet he taught me a great
He thus discriminated, to Dr. Percy, Bishop of Dromore, his progress at
his two grammar-schools. 'At one, I learnt much in the school, but
little from the master; in the other, I learnt much from the master, but
little in the school.'
The Bishop also informs me, that 'Dr. Johnson's father, before he was
received at Stourbridge, applied to have him admitted as a scholar and
assistant to the Reverend Samuel Lea, M.A., head master of Newport
school, in Shropshire (a very diligent, good teacher, at that time in
high reputation, under whom Mr. Hollis is said, in the Memoirs of his
Life, to have been also educated). This application to Mr. Lea was
not successful; but Johnson had afterwards the gratification to hear
that the old gentleman, who lived to a very advanced age, mentioned it
as one of the most memorable events of his life, that 'he was very near
having that great man for his scholar.'
He remained at Stourbridge little more than a year, and then returned
home, where he may be said to have loitered, for two years, in a state
very unworthy his uncommon abilities. He had already given several
proofs of his poetical genius, both in his school-exercises and in other
occasional compositions. Of these I have obtained a considerable
collection, by the favour of Mr. Wentworth, son of one of his masters,
and of Mr. Hector, his school-fellow and friend; from which I select the
[Page 51: Johnson's youthful compositions.]
_Translation of_ VIRGIL. Pastoral I.
Now, Tityrus, you, supine and careless laid,
Play on your pipe beneath this beechen shade;
While wretched we about the world must roam,
And leave our pleasing fields and native home,
Here at your ease you sing your amorous flame,
And the wood rings with Amarillis' name.
Those blessings, friend, a deity bestow'd,
For I shall never think him less than God;
Oft on his altar shall my firstlings lie,
Their blood the consecrated stones shall dye:
He gave my flocks to graze the flowery meads,
And me to tune at ease th' unequal reeds.
My admiration only I exprest,
(No spark of envy harbours in my breast)
That, when confusion o'er the country reigns,
To you alone this happy state remains.
Here I, though faint myself, must drive my goats,
Far from their ancient fields and humble cots.
This scarce I lead, who left on yonder rock
Two tender kids, the hopes of all the flock.
Had we not been perverse and careless grown,
This dire event by omens was foreshown;
Our trees were blasted by the thunder stroke, )
And left-hand crows, from an old hollow oak, )
Foretold the coming evil by their dismal croak. )
_Translation of_ HORACE. Book I. Ode xxii.
The man, my friend, whose conscious heart
With virtue's sacred ardour glows,
Nor taints with death the envenom'd dart,
Nor needs the guard of Moorish bows:
Though Scythia's icy cliffs he treads,
Or horrid Africk's faithless sands;
Or where the fam'd Hydaspes spreads
His liquid wealth o'er barbarous lands.
For while by Chloe's image charm'd,
Too far in Sabine woods I stray'd;
Me singing, careless and unarm'd,
A grizly wolf surprised, and fled.
No savage more portentous stain'd
Apulia's spacious wilds with gore;
No fiercer Juba's thirsty land,
Dire nurse of raging lions, bore.
Place me where no soft summer gale
Among the quivering branches sighs;
Where clouds condens'd for ever veil
With horrid gloom the frowning skies:
Place me beneath the burning line,
A clime deny'd to human race;
I'll sing of Chloe's charms divine,
Her heav'nly voice, and beauteous face.
_Translation of_ HORACE. Book II. Ode ix.
Clouds do not always veil the skies,
Nor showers immerse the verdant plain;
Nor do the billows always rise,
Or storms afflict the ruffled main.
Nor, Valgius, on th' Armenian shores
Do the chain'd waters always freeze;
Not always furious Boreas roars,
Or bends with violent force the trees.
But you are ever drown'd in tears,
For Mystes dead you ever mourn;
No setting Sol can ease your care,
But finds you sad at his return.
The wise experienc'd Grecian sage
Mourn'd not Antilochus so long;
Nor did King Priam's hoary age
So much lament his slaughter'd son.
Leave off, at length, these woman's sighs,
Augustus' numerous trophies sing;
Repeat that prince's victories,
To whom all nations tribute bring.
Niphates rolls an humbler wave,
At length the undaunted Scythian yields,
Content to live the Roman's slave,
And scarce forsakes his native fields.
_Translation of part of the Dialogue between_ HECTOR _and_
_from the Sixth Book of_ HOMER'S ILIAD.
She ceas'd: then godlike Hector answer'd kind,
(His various plumage sporting in the wind)
That post, and all the rest, shall be my care;
But shall I, then, forsake the unfinished war?
How would the Trojans brand great Hector's name!
And one base action sully all my fame,
Acquired by wounds and battles bravely fought!
Oh! how my soul abhors so mean a thought.
Long since I learn'd to slight this fleeting breath,
And view with cheerful eyes approaching death
The inexorable sisters have decreed
That Priam's house, and Priam's self shall bleed:
The day will come, in which proud Troy shall yield,
And spread its smoking ruins o'er the field.
Yet Hecuba's, nor Priam's hoary age,
Whose blood shall quench some Grecian's thirsty rage,
Nor my brave brothers, that have bit the ground,
Their souls dismiss'd through many a ghastly wound,
Can in my bosom half that grief create,
As the sad thought of your impending fate:
When some proud Grecian dame shall tasks impose,
Mimick your tears, and ridicule your woes;
Beneath Hyperia's waters shall you sweat,
And, fainting, scarce support the liquid weight:
Then shall some Argive loud insulting cry,
Behold the wife of Hector, guard of Troy!
Tears, at my name, shall drown those beauteous eyes,
And that fair bosom heave with rising sighs!
Before that day, by some brave hero's hand
May I lie slain, and spurn the bloody sand.
_To a_ YOUNG LADY _on her_ BIRTH-DAY.
This tributary verse receive my fair,
Warm with an ardent lover's fondest pray'r.
May this returning day for ever find
Thy form more lovely, more adorn'd thy mind;
All pains, all cares, may favouring heav'n remove,
All but the sweet solicitudes of love!
May powerful nature join with grateful art,
To point each glance, and force it to the heart!
O then, when conquered crouds confess thy sway,
When ev'n proud wealth and prouder wit obey,
My fair, be mindful of the mighty trust,
Alas! 'tis hard for beauty to be just.
Those sovereign charms with strictest care employ;
Nor give the generous pain, the worthless joy:
With his own form acquaint the forward fool,
Shewn in the faithful glass of ridicule;
Teach mimick censure her own faults to find, )
No more let coquettes to themselves be blind, )
So shall Belinda's charms improve mankind. )
THE YOUNG AUTHOUR.
When first the peasant, long inclin'd to roam,
Forsakes his rural sports and peaceful home,
Pleas'd with the scene the smiling ocean yields,
He scorns the verdant meads and flow'ry fields:
Then dances jocund o'er the watery way,
While the breeze whispers, and the streamers play:
Unbounded prospects in his bosom roll,
And future millions lift his rising soul;
In blissful dreams he digs the golden mine,
And raptur'd sees the new-found ruby shine.
Joys insincere! thick clouds invade the skies,
Loud roar the billows, high the waves arise;
Sick'ning with fear, he longs to view the shore,
And vows to trust the faithless deep no more.
So the young Authour, panting after fame,
And the long honours of a lasting name,
Entrusts his happiness to human kind,
More false, more cruel, than the seas or wind.
'Toil on, dull croud, in extacies he cries,
For wealth or title, perishable prize;
While I those transitory blessings scorn,
Secure of praise from ages yet unborn.'
This thought once form'd, all council comes too late,
He flies to press, and hurries on his fate;
Swiftly he sees the imagin'd laurels spread,
And feels the unfading wreath surround his head.
Warn'd by another's fate, vain youth be wise,
Those dreams were Settle's once, and Ogilby's:
The pamphlet spreads, incessant hisses rise,
To some retreat the baffled writer flies;
Where no sour criticks snarl, no sneers molest,
Safe from the tart lampoon, and stinging jest;
There begs of heaven a less distinguish'd lot,
Glad to be hid, and proud to be forgot.
EPILOGUE, _intended to have been spoken by a_ LADY _who was to personate
the Ghost of_ HERMIONE.
Ye blooming train, who give despair or joy,
Bless with a smile, or with a frown destroy;
In whose fair cheeks destructive Cupids wait,
And with unerring shafts distribute fate;
Whose snowy breasts, whose animated eyes,
Each youth admires, though each admirer dies;
Whilst you deride their pangs in barb'rous play, }
Unpitying see them weep, and hear them pray, }
And unrelenting sport ten thousand lives away; }
For you, ye fair, I quit the gloomy plains;
Where sable night in all her horrour reigns;
No fragrant bowers, no delightful glades,
Receive the unhappy ghosts of scornful maids.
For kind, for tender nymphs the myrtle blooms,
And weaves her bending boughs in pleasing glooms:
Perennial roses deck each purple vale,
And scents ambrosial breathe in every gale:
Far hence are banish'd vapours, spleen, and tears,
Tea, scandal, ivory teeth, and languid airs:
No pug, nor favourite Cupid there enjoys
The balmy kiss, for which poor Thyrsis dies;
Form'd to delight, they use no foreign arms,
Nor torturing whalebones pinch them into charms;
No conscious blushes there their cheeks inflame,
For those who feel no guilt can know no shame;
Unfaded still their former charms they shew,
Around them pleasures wait, and joys for ever new.
But cruel virgins meet severer fates;
Expell'd and exil'd from the blissful seats,
To dismal realms, and regions void of peace,
Where furies ever howl, and serpents hiss.
O'er the sad plains perpetual tempests sigh,
And pois'nous vapours, black'ning all the sky,
With livid hue the fairest face o'ercast,
And every beauty withers at the blast:
Where e'er they fly their lover's ghosts pursue,
Inflicting all those ills which once they knew;
Vexation, Fury, Jealousy, Despair,
Vex ev'ry eye, and every bosom tear;
Their foul deformities by all descry'd,
No maid to flatter, and no paint to hide.
Then melt, ye fair, while crouds around you sigh,
Nor let disdain sit lowring in your eye;
With pity soften every awful grace,
And beauty smile auspicious in each face;
To ease their pains exert your milder power,
So shall you guiltless reign, and all mankind adore.'
[Page 57: His wide reading. AETAT. 19.]
The two years which he spent at home, after his return from Stourbridge,
he passed in what he thought idleness, and was scolded by his father
for his want of steady application. He had no settled plan of life,
nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read
a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as
chance threw books in his way, and inclination directed him through
them. He used to mention one curious instance of his casual reading,
when but a boy. Having imagined that his brother had hid some apples
behind a large folio upon an upper shelf in his father's shop, he
climbed up to search for them. There were no apples; but the large folio
proved to be Petrarch, whom he had seen mentioned in some preface, as
one of the restorers of learning. His curiosity having been thus
excited, he sat down with avidity, and read a great part of the book.
What he read during these two years he told me, was not works of mere
amusement, 'not voyages and travels, but all literature, Sir, all
ancient writers, all manly: though but little Greek, only some of
Anacreon and Hesiod; but in this irregular manner (added he) I had
looked into a great many books, which were not commonly known at the
Universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into
their hands by their tutors; so that when I came to Oxford, Dr. Adams,
now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the
University that he had ever known come there.'
In estimating the progress of his mind during these two years, as well
as in future periods of his life, we must not regard his own hasty
confession of idleness; for we see, when he explains himself, that he
was acquiring various stores; and, indeed he himself concluded the
account with saying, 'I would not have you think I was doing nothing
then.' He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be
doubted whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at
large in the fields of literature than if it had been confined to any
single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the
parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular.
The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher
flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same
difference between men who read as their taste prompts and men who are
confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?
[Page 58: Johnson enters Oxford. A.D. 1728.]
That a man in Mr. Michael Johnson's circumstances should think of
sending his son to the expensive University of Oxford, at his own
charge, seems very improbable. The subject was too delicate to question
Johnson upon. But I have been assured by Dr. Taylor that the scheme
never would have taken place had not a gentleman of Shropshire, one of
his schoolfellows, spontaneously undertaken to support him at Oxford, in
the character of his companion; though, in fact, he never received any
assistance whatever from that gentleman.
He, however, went to Oxford, and was entered a Commoner of Pembroke
College on the 31st of October, 1728, being then in his nineteenth
[Page 59: His first tutor. AETAT. 19.]
The Reverend Dr. Adams, who afterwards presided over Pembroke College
with universal esteem, told me he was present, and gave me some account
of what passed on the night of Johnson's arrival at Oxford. On that
evening, his father, who had anxiously accompanied him, found means to
have him introduced to Mr. Jorden, who was to be his tutor. His being
put under any tutor reminds us of what Wood says of Robert Burton,
authour of the 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' when elected student of Christ
Church: 'for form's sake, _though he wanted not a tutor_, he was put
under the tuition of Dr. John Bancroft, afterwards Bishop of Oxon.'
His father seemed very full of the merits of his son, and told the
company he was a good scholar, and a poet, and wrote Latin verses. His
figure and manner appeared strange to them; but he behaved modestly, and
sat silent, till upon something which occurred in the course of
conversation, he suddenly struck in and quoted Macrobius; and thus he
gave the first impression of that more extensive reading in which he had
His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of
such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of
Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. 'He was a very
worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his
instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after
I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the
sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been
sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much
nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was
wrong or irreverent to my tutor. BOSWELL: 'That, Sir, was great
fortitude of mind.' JOHNSON: 'No, Sir; stark insensibility.'
[Page 60: The fifth of November. A.D. 1728.]
The fifth of November was at that time kept with great solemnity at
Pembroke College, and exercises upon the subject of the day were
required. Johnson neglected to perform his, which is much to be
regretted; for his vivacity of imagination, and force of language, would
probably have produced something sublime upon the gunpowder plot. To
apologise for his neglect, he gave in a short copy of verses, entitled
Somnium, containing a common thought; 'that the Muse had come to him in
his sleep, and whispered, that it did not become him to write on such
subjects as politicks; he should confine himself to humbler themes:' but
the versification was truly Virgilian.
[Page 61: Johnson's version of Pope's Messiah. AETAT. 19.]
He had a love and respect for Jorden, not for his literature, but for
his worth. 'Whenever (said he) a young man becomes Jorden's pupil, he
becomes his son.'
Having given such a specimen of his poetical powers, he was asked by Mr.
Jorden, to translate Pope's Messiah into Latin verse, as a Christmas
exercisc. He performed it with uncommon rapidity, and in so masterly a
manner, that he obtained great applause from it, which ever after kept
him high in the estimation of his College, and, indeed, of all the
It is said, that Mr. Pope expressed himself concerning it in terms of
strong approbation. Dr. Taylor told me, that it was first printed for
old Mr. Johnson, without the knowledge of his son, who was very angry
when he heard of it. A Miscellany of Poems collected by a person of the
name of Husbands, was published at Oxford in 1731. In that Miscellany
Johnson's Translation of the Messiah appeared, with this modest motto
from Scaliger's Poeticks. _Ex alieno ingenio Poeta, ex suo tantum
[Page 62: Mr. Courtenays eulogy. A.D. 1728.]
I am not ignorant that critical objections have been made to this and
other specimens of Johnson's Latin Poetry. I acknowledge myself not
competent to decide on a question of such extreme nicety. But I am
satisfied with the just and discriminative eulogy pronounced upon it by
my friend Mr, Courtenay.
'And with like ease his vivid lines assume
The garb and dignity of ancient Rome.--
Let college _verse-men_ trite conceits express,
Trick'd out in splendid shreds of Virgil's dress;
From playful Ovid cull the tinsel phrase,
And vapid notions hitch in pilfer'd lays:
Then with mosaick art the piece combine,
And boast the glitter of each dulcet line:
Johnson adventur'd boldly to transfuse
His vigorous sense into the Latian muse;
Aspir'd to shine by unreflected light,
And with a Roman's ardour _think_ and write.
He felt the tuneful Nine his breast inspire,
And, like a master, wak'd the soothing lyre:
Horatian strains a grateful heart proclaim,
While Sky's wild rocks resound his Thralia's name.
Hesperia's plant, in some less skilful hands,
To bloom a while, factitious heat demands:
Though glowing Maro a faint warmth supplies,
The sickly blossom in the hot-house dies:
By Johnson's genial culture, art, and toil,
Its root strikes deep, and owns the fost'ring soil;
Imbibes our sun through all its swelling veins,
And grows a native of Britannia's plains.'
[Page 63: Johnson's 'morbid melancholy'. AEtat 19.]
The 'morbid melancholy,' which was lurking in his constitution, and to
which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular
life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such
strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner.
While he was at Lichfield, in the college vacation of the year 1729,
he felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with
perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection,
gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal
malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labours,
and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its baleful
influence. How wonderful, how unsearchable are the ways of GOD!
Johnson, who was blest with all the powers of genius and understanding
in a degree far above the ordinary state of human nature, was at the
same time visited with a disorder so afflictive, that they who know it
by dire experience, will not envy his exalted endowments. That it was,
in some degree, occasioned by a defect in his nervous system, that
inexplicable part of our frame, appears highly probable. He told Mr.
Paradise that he was sometimes so languid and inefficient, that he
could not distinguish the hour upon the town-clock.
[Page 64: Johnson consults Dr. Swinfen. A.D. 1729.]
Johnson, upon the first violent attack of this disorder, strove to
overcome it by forcible exertions. He frequently walked to Birmingham
and back again, and tried many other expedients, but all in vain. His
expression concerning it to me was 'I did not then know how to manage
it.' His distress became so intolerable, that he applied to Dr. Swinfen,
physician in Lichfield, his god-father, and put into his hands a state
of his case, written in Latin. Dr. Swinfen was so much struck with the
extraordinary acuteness, research, and eloquence of this paper, that in
his zeal for his godson he shewed it to several people. His daughter,
Mrs. Desmoulins, who was many years humanely supported in Dr. Johnson's
house in London, told me, that upon his discovering that Dr. Swinfen had
communicated his case, he was so much offended, that he was never
afterwards fully reconciled to him. He indeed had good reason to be
offended; for though Dr. Swinfen's motive was good, he inconsiderately
betrayed a matter deeply interesting and of great delicacy, which had
been entrusted to him in confidence; and exposed a complaint of his
young friend and patient, which, in the superficial opinion of the
generality of mankind, is attended with contempt and disgrace.
[Page 65: Johnson an hypochondriack. AETAT. 20.]
But let not little men triumph upon knowing that Johnson was an
HYPOCHONDRIACK, was subject to what the learned, philosophical, and
pious Dr. Cheyne has so well treated under the title of 'The English
Malady.' Though he suffered severely from it, he was not therefore
degraded. The powers of his great mind might be troubled, and their full
exercise suspended at times; but the mind itself was ever entire. As a
proof of this, it is only necessary to consider, that, when he was at
the very worst, he composed that state of his own case, which shewed an
uncommon vigour, not only of fancy and taste, but of judgement. I am
aware that he himself was too ready to call such a complaint by the name
of _madness_; in conformity with which notion, he has traced its
gradations, with exquisite nicety, in one of the chapters of his
RASSELAS. But there is surely a clear distinction between a disorder
which affects only the imagination and spirits, while the judgement is
sound, and a disorder by which the judgement itself is impaired. This
distinction was made to me by the late Professor Gaubius of Leyden,
physician to the Prince of Orange, in a conversation which I had with
him several years ago, and he expanded it thus: 'If (said he) a man
tells me that he is grievously disturbed, for that he _imagines_ he sees
a ruffian coming against him with a drawn sword, though at the same time
he is _conscious_ it is a delusion, I pronounce him to have a disordered
imagination; but if a man tells me that he sees this, and in
consternation calls to me to look at it, I pronounce him to be _mad_.'
[Page 66: Johnson's dread of insanity. A.D. 1729.]
It is a common effect of low spirits or melancholy, to make those who
are afflicted with it imagine that they are actually suffering those
evils which happen to be most strongly presented to their minds. Some
have fancied themselves to be deprived of the use of their limbs, some
to labour under acute diseases, others to be in extreme poverty; when,
in truth, there was not the least reality in any of the suppositions; so
that when the vapours were dispelled, they were convinced of the
delusion. To Johnson, whose supreme enjoyment was the exercise of his
reason, the disturbance or obscuration of that faculty was the evil most
to be dreaded. Insanity, therefore, was the object of his most dismal
apprehension; and he fancied himself seized by it, or approaching to
it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary
soundness and vigour of judgement. That his own diseased imagination
should have so far deceived him, is strange; but it is stranger still
that some of his friends should have given credit to his groundless
opinion, when they had such undoubted proofs that it was totally
fallacious; though it is by no means surprising that those who wish to
depreciate him, should, since his death, have laid hold of this
circumstance, and insisted upon it with very unfair aggravation.
Amidst the oppression and distraction of a disease which very few have
felt in its full extent, but many have experienced in a slighter degree,
Johnson, in his writings, and in his conversation, never failed to
display all the varieties of intellectual excellence. In his march
through this world to a better, his mind still appeared grand and
brilliant, and impressed all around him with the truth of Virgil's noble
'_Igneus est ollis vigor et coelestis origo_.'
[Page 67: His reluctance to go to church. AEtat 20.]
The history of his mind as to religion is an important article. I have
mentioned the early impressions made upon his tender imagination by his
mother, who continued her pious care with assiduity, but, in his
opinion, not with judgement. 'Sunday (said he) was a heavy day to me
when I was a boy. My mother confined me on that day, and made me read
"The Whole Duty of Man," from a great part of which I could derive no
instruction. When, for instance, I had read the chapter on theft, which
from my infancy I had been taught was wrong, I was no more convinced
that theft was wrong than before; so there was no accession of
knowledge. A boy should be introduced to such books, by having his
attention directed to the arrangement, to the style, and other
excellencies of composition; that the mind being thus engaged by an
amusing variety of objects, may not grow weary.'
[Page 68: Law's Serious Call. A.D. 1729.]
[Page 69: Johnson grounded in religion. AEtat 20.]
He communicated to me the following particulars upon the subject of his
religious progress. 'I fell into an inattention to religion, or an
indifference about it, in my ninth year. The church at Lichfield, in
which we had a seat, wanted reparation, so I was to go and find a
seat in other churches; and having bad eyes, and being awkward about
this, I used to go and read in the fields on Sunday. This habit
continued till my fourteenth year; and still I find a great reluctance
to go to church. I then became a sort of lax _talker_ against
religion, for I did not much _think_ against it; and this lasted till I
went to Oxford, where it would not be _suffered_. When at Oxford, I
took up 'Law's _Serious Call to a Holy Life_,' '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.' From this time forward religion was the
predominant object of his thoughts; though, with the just sentiments
of a conscientious Christian, he lamented that his practice of its
duties fell far short of what it ought to be.
This instance of a mind such as that of Johnson being first disposed, by
an unexpected incident, to think with anxiety of the momentous concerns
of eternity, and of 'what he should do to be saved,' may for ever be
produced in opposition to the superficial and sometimes profane contempt
that has been thrown upon, those occasional impressions which it is
certain many Christians have experienced; though it must be acknowledged
that weak minds, from an erroneous supposition that no man is in a state
of grace who has not felt a particular conversion, have, in some cases,
brought a degree of ridicule upon them; a ridicule of which it is
inconsiderate or unfair to make a general application.
[Page 70: Johnson's studies at Oxford. A.D. 1729.]
How seriously Johnson was impressed with a sense of religion, even in
the vigour of his youth, appears from the following passage in his
minutes kept by way of diary: Sept. 7, 1736. I have this day entered
upon my twenty-eighth year. 'Mayest thou, O God, enable me, for JESUS
CHRIST'S sake, to spend this in such a manner that I may receive comfort
from it at the hour of death, and in the day of judgement! Amen.'
[Page 71: His rapid reading and composition. AEtat 20.]
The particular course of his reading while at Oxford, and during the
time of vacation which he passed at home, cannot be traced. Enough has
been said of his irregular mode of study. He told me that from his
earliest years he loved to read poetry, but hardly ever read any poem to
an end; that he read Shakspeare at a period so early, that the speech of
the ghost in Hamlet terrified him when he was alone; that Horace's
Odes were the compositions in which he took most delight, and it was
long before he liked his Epistles and Satires. He told me what he read
_solidly_ at Oxford was Greek; not the Grecian historians, but Homer
and Euripides, and now and then a little Epigram; that the study of
which he was the most fond was Metaphysicks, but he had not read much,
even in that way. I always thought that he did himself injustice in his
account of what he had read, and that he must have been speaking with
reference to the vast portion of study which is possible, and to which a
few scholars in the whole history of literature have attained; for when
I once asked him whether a person, whose name I have now forgotten,
studied hard, he answered 'No, Sir; I do not believe he studied hard. I
never knew a man who studied hard. I conclude, indeed, from the effects,
that some men have studied hard, as Bentley and Clarke.' Trying him by
that criterion upon which he formed his judgement of others, we may be
absolutely certain, both from his writings and his conversation, that
his reading was very extensive. Dr. Adam Smith, than whom few were
better judges on this subject, once observed to me that 'Johnson knew
more books than any man alive.' He had a peculiar facility in seizing at
once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of
perusing it from beginning to end. He had, from the irritability of
his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either
read or wrote. A certain apprehension, arising from novelty, made him
write his first exercise at College twice over; but he never took
that trouble with any other composition; and we shall see that his most
excellent works were struck off at a heat, with rapid exertion.
[Page 72: Johnson's rooms in College. A.D. 1729.]
Yet he appears, from his early notes or memorandums in my possession, to
have at various times attempted, or at least planned, a methodical
course of study, according to computation, of which he was all his life
fond, as it fixed his attention steadily upon something without, and
prevented his mind from preying upon itself. Thus I find in his
hand-writing the number of lines in each of two of Euripides' Tragedies,
of the Georgicks of Virgil, of the first six books of the AEneid, of
Horace's Art of Poetry, of three of the books of Ovid's Metamorphosis,
of some parts of Theocritus, and of the tenth Satire of Juvenal; and a
table, shewing at the rate of various numbers a day (I suppose verses to
be read), what would be, in each case, the total amount in a week,
month, and year.
No man had a more ardent love of literature, or a higher respect for it
than Johnson. His apartment in Pembroke College was that upon the second
floor, over the gateway. The enthusiasts of learning will ever
contemplate it with veneration. One day, while he was sitting in it
quite alone, Dr. Panting, then master of the College, whom he called
'a fine Jacobite fellow,' overheard him uttering this soliloquy in
his strong, emphatick voice: 'Well, I have a mind to see what is done in
other places of learning. I'll go and visit the Universities abroad.
I'll go to France and Italy. I'll go to Padua.--And I'll mind my
business. For an _Athenian_ blockhead is the worst of all
[Page 73: Johnson a frolicksome fellow. AEtat 20.]
Dr. Adams told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, 'was
caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome
fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.' But this is a
striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us
know of the real internal state even of those whom we see most
frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and
irritated by diseasc. When I mentioned to him this account as given me
by Dr. Adams, he said, 'Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was
bitterness which they mistook for frolick. I was miserably poor, and
I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded
all power and all authority.'
[Page 74: Dr. Adams. A.D. 1730.]
The Bishop of Dromore observes in a letter to me,
'The pleasure he took in vexing the tutors and fellows has been often
mentioned. But I have heard him say, what ought to be recorded to the
honour of the present venerable master of that College, the Reverend
William Adams, D.D., who was then very young, and one of the junior
fellows; that the mild but judicious expostulations of this worthy man,
whose virtue awed him, and whose learning he revered, made him really
ashamed of himself, "though I fear (said he) I was too proud to own it."
'I have heard from some of his cotemporaries that he was generally seen
lounging at the College gate, with a circle of young students round him,
whom he was entertaining with wit, and keeping from their studies, if
not spiriting them up to rebellion against the College discipline, which
in his maturer years he so much extolled.'
He very early began to attempt keeping notes or memorandums, by way of a
diary of his life. I find, in a parcel of loose leaves, the following
spirited resolution to contend against his natural indolence:
'_Oct. 1729. Desidiae valedixi; syrenis istius cantibus surdam posthac
aurem obversurus_.--I bid farewell to Sloth, being resolved henceforth
not to listen to her syren strains.'
I have also in my possession a few leaves of another _Libellus_, or
little book, entitled ANNALES, in which some of the early particulars of
his history are registered in Latin.
[Page 75: A nest of singing-birds. AEtat 21.]
I do not find that he formed any close intimacies with his
fellow-collegians. But Dr. Adams told me that he contracted a love and
regard for Pembroke College, which he retained to the last. A short time
before his death he sent to that College a present of all his works, to
be deposited in their library; and he had thoughts of leaving to it
his house at Lichfield; but his friends who were about him very properly
dissuaded him from it, and he bequeathed it to some poor relations.
He took a pleasure in boasting of the many eminent men who had been
educated at Pembroke. In this list are found the names of Mr. Hawkins
the Poetry Professor, Mr. Shenstone, Sir William Blackstone, and
others; not forgetting the celebrated popular preacher, Mr. George
Whitefield, of whom, though Dr. Johnson did not think very highly, it
must be acknowledged that his eloquence was powerful, his views pious
and charitable, his assiduity almost incredible; and, that since his
death, the integrity of his character has been fully vindicated. Being
himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of
the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive
triumph, 'Sir, we are a nest of singing birds.'
[Page 76: Dr. Taylor at Christ Church. A.D. 1730.]
[Page 77: Johnson's worn-out shoes. AEtat 21.]
He was not, however, blind to what he thought the defects of his own
College; and I have, from the information of Dr. Taylor, a very strong
instance of that rigid honesty which he ever inflexibly preserved.
Taylor had obtained his father's consent to be entered of Pembroke, that
he might be with his schoolfellow Johnson, with whom, though some years
older than himself, he was very intimate. This would have been a great
comfort to Johnson. But he fairly told Taylor that he could not, in
conscience, suffer him to enter where he knew he could not have an able
tutor. He then made inquiry all round the University, and having found
that Mr. Bateman, of Christ Church, was the tutor of highest reputation,
Taylor was entered of that College. Mr. Bateman's lectures were so
excellent, that Johnson used to come and get them at second-hand from
Taylor, till his poverty being so extreme that his shoes were worn out,
and his feet appeared through them, he saw that this humiliating
circumstance was perceived by the Christ Church men, and he came no
more. He was too proud to accept of money, and somebody having set a
pair of new shoes at his door, he threw them away with indignation.
How must we feel when we read such an anecdote of Samuel Johnson!
His spirited refusal of an eleemosynary supply of shoes, arose, no
doubt, from a proper pride. But, considering his ascetick disposition at
times, as acknowledged by himself in his 'Meditations,' and the
exaggeration with which some have treated the peculiarities of his
character, I should not wonder to hear it ascribed to a principle of
superstitious mortification; as we are told by Tursellinus, in his Life
of St. Ignatius Loyola, that this intrepid founder of the order of
Jesuits, when he arrived at Goa, after having made a severe pilgrimage
through the Eastern deserts persisted in wearing his miserable shattered
shoes, and when new ones were offered him rejected them as an unsuitable
[Page 78: Johnson leaves Oxford. A.D. 1731.]
The _res angusta domi_ prevented him from having the advantage of a
complete academical education. The friend to whom he had trusted for
support had deceived him. His debts in College, though not great, were
increasing; and his scanty remittances from Lichfield, which had all
along been made with great difficulty, could be supplied no longer, his
father having fallen into a state of insolvency. Compelled, therefore,
by irresistible necessity, he left the College in autumn, 1731, without
a degree, having been a member of it little more than three years.
[Page 79: His destitute state. AEtat 22.]
Dr. Adams, the worthy and respectable master of Pembroke College, has
generally had the reputation of being Johnson's tutor. The fact,
however, is, that in 1731 Mr. Jorden quitted the College, and his pupils
were transferred to Dr. Adams; so that had Johnson returned, Dr. Adams
_would have been his tutor_. It is to be wished, that this connection
had taken place. His equal temper, mild disposition, and politeness of
manners, might have insensibly softened the harshness of Johnson, and
infused into him those more delicate charities, those _petites morales_,
in which, it must be confessed, our great moralist was more deficient
than his best friends could fully justify. Dr. Adams paid Johnson this
high compliment. He said to me at Oxford, in 1776, 'I was his nominal
tutor; but he was above my mark.' When I repeated it to Johnson, his
eyes flashed with grateful satisfaction, and he exclaimed, 'That was
liberal and noble.'
[Page 80: Michael Johnson's death. A.D. 1731.]
And now (I had almost said _poor_) Samuel Johnson returned to his native
city, destitute, and not knowing how he should gain even a decent
livelihood. His father's misfortunes in trade rendered him unable to
support his son; and for some time there appeared no means by which
he could maintain himself. In the December of this year his father died.
The state of poverty in which he died, appears from a note in one of
Johnson's little diaries of the following year, which strongly displays
his spirit and virtuous dignity of mind.
'1732, _Julii_ 15. _Undecim aureos deposui, quo die quicquid ante matris
funus (quod serum sit precor) de paternis bonis sperari licet, viginti
scilicet libras, accepi. Usque adeo mihi fortuna fingenda est. Interea,
ne paupertate vires animi languescant, nee in flagilia egestas abigat,
cavendum_.--I layed by eleven guineas on this day, when I received
twenty pounds, being all that I have reason to hope for out of my
father's effects, previous to the death of my mother; an event which I
pray GOD may be very remote. I now therefore see that I must make my own
fortune. Meanwhile, let me take care that the powers of my mind may not
be debilitated by poverty, and that indigence do not force me into any
Johnson was so far fortunate, that the respectable character of his
parents, and his own merit, had, from his earliest years, secured him a
kind reception in the best families at Lichfield. Among these I can
mention Mr. Howard, Dr. Swinfen, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Levett, Captain
Garrick, father of the great ornament of the British stage; but above
all, Mr. Gilbert Walmsley, Register of the Prerogative Court of
Lichfield, whose character, long after his decease, Dr. Johnson has, in
his Life of Edmund Smith, thus drawn in the glowing colours of
[Page 81: Gilbert Walmsley. AEtat 22.]
'Of Gilbert Walmsley, thus presented to my mind, let me indulge
myself in the remembrance. I knew him very early; he was one of the
first friends that literature procured me, and I hope that, at least, my
gratitude made me worthy of his notice.
'He was of an advanced age, and I was only not a boy, yet he never
received my notions with contempt. He was a whig, with all the virulence
and malevolence of his party; yet difference of opinion did not keep us
apart. I honoured him and he endured me.
'He had mingled with the gay world without exemption from its vices or
its follies; but had never neglected the cultivation of his mind. His
belief of revelation was unshaken; his learning preserved his
principles; he grew first regular, and then pious.
'His studies had been so various, that I am not able to name a man of
equal knowledge. His acquaintance with books was great, and what he did
not immediately know, he could, at least, tell where to find. Such was
his amplitude of learning, and such his copiousness of communication,
that it may be doubted whether a day now passes, in which I have not
some advantage from his friendship.
'At this man's table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with
companions, such as are not often found--with one who has lengthened,
and one who has gladdened life; with Dr. James, whose skill in
physick will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to
have gratified with this character of our common friend. But what are
the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has
eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the publick stock of
[Page 82: Lichfield society. A.D. 1732.]
In these families he passed much time in his early years. In most of
them, he was in the company of ladies, particularly at Mr. Walmsley's,
whose wife and sisters-in-law, of the name of Aston, and daughters of a
Baronet, were remarkable for good breeding; so that the notion which has
been industriously circulated and believed, that he never was in good
company till late in life, and, consequently had been confirmed in
coarse and ferocious manners by long habits, is wholly without
foundation. Some of the ladies have assured me, they recollected him
well when a young man, as distinguished for his complaisance.
And that this politeness was not merely occasional and temporary, or
confined to the circles of Lichfield, is ascertained by the testimony of
a lady, who, in a paper with which I have been favoured by a daughter of
his intimate friend and physician, Dr. Lawrence, thus describes Dr.
Johnson some years afterwards:
'As the particulars of the former part of Dr. Johnson's life do not seem
to be very accurately known, a lady hopes that the following information
may not be unacceptable.
[Page 83: Molly Aston. AEtat 23.]
'She remembers Dr. Johnson on a visit to Dr. Taylor, at Ashbourn, some
time between the end of the year 37, and the middle of the year 40; she
rather thinks it to have been after he and his wife were removed to
London. During his stay at Ashbourn, he made frequent visits to Mr.
Meynell, at Bradley, where his company was much desired by the ladies
of the family, who were, perhaps, in point of elegance and
accomplishments, inferiour to few of those with whom he was afterwards
acquainted. Mr. Meynell's eldest daughter was afterwards married to Mr.
Fitzherbert, father to Mr. Alleyne Fitzherbert, lately minister to
the court of Russia. Of her, Dr. Johnson said, in Dr. Lawrence's study,
that she had the best understanding he ever met with in any human
being. At Mr. Meynell's he also commenced that friendship with Mrs.
Hill Boothby, sister to the present Sir Brook Boothby, which
continued till her death. _The young woman whom he used to call Molly
Aston_, was sister to Sir Thomas Aston, and daughter to a Baronet;
she was also sister to the wife of his friend Mr. Gilbert Walmsley.
Besides his intimacy with the above-mentioned persons, who were surely
people of rank and education, while he was yet at Lichfield he used to
be frequently at the house of Dr. Swinfen, a gentleman of a very ancient
family in Staffordshire, from which, after the death of his elder
brother, he inherited a good estate. He was, besides, a physician of
very extensive practice; but for want of due attention to the management
of his domestick concerns, left a very large family in indigence. One of
his daughters, Mrs. Desmoulins, afterwards found an asylum in the house
of her old friend, whose doors were always open to the unfortunate, and
who well observed the precept of the Gospel, for he "was kind to the
unthankful and to the evil."'
[Page 84: Johnson an usher. A.D. 1732.]
In the forlorn state of his circumstances, he accepted of an offer to be
employed as usher in the school of Market-Bosworth, in Leicestershire,
to which it appears, from one of his little fragments of a diary, that
he went on foot, on the 16th of July.--'_Julii 16. Bosvortiam pedes
petii_.' But it is not true, as has been erroneously related, that he
was assistant to the famous Anthony Blackwall, whose merit has been
honoured by the testimony of Bishop Hurd, who was his scholar; for
Mr. Blackwall died on the 8th of April, 1730, more than a year before
Johnson left the University.
This employment was very irksome to him in every respect, and he
complained grievously of it in his letters to his friend Mr. Hector, who
was now settled as a surgeon at Birmingham. The letters are lost; but
Mr. Hector recollects his writing 'that the poet had described the dull
sameness of his existence in these words, "_Vitam continet una dies_"
(one day contains the whole of my life); that it was unvaried as the
note of the cuckow; and that he did not know whether it was more
disagreeable for him to teach, or the boys to learn, the grammar rules.'
His general aversion to this painful drudgery was greatly enhanced by a
disagreement between him and Sir Wolstan Dixey, the patron of the
school, in whose house, I have been told, he officiated as a kind of
domestick chaplain, so far, at least, as to say grace at table, but was
treated with what he represented as intolerable harshness; and, after
suffering for a few months such complicated misery, he relinquished a
situation which all his life afterwards he recollected with the
strongest aversion, and even a degree of horrour. But it is probable
that at this period, whatever uneasiness he may have endured, he laid
the foundation of much future eminence by application to his studies.
[Page 85: His life in Birmingham. AEtat 23.]
Being now again totally unoccupied, he was invited by Mr. Hector to pass
some time with him at Birmingham, as his guest, at the house of Mr.
Warren, with whom Mr. Hector lodged and boarded. Mr. Warren was the
first established bookseller in Birmingham, and was very attentive to
Johnson, who he soon found could be of much service to him in his trade,
by his knowledge of literature; and he even obtained the assistance of
his pen in furnishing some numbers of a periodical Essay printed in the
news-paper, of which Warren was proprietor. After very diligent
inquiry, I have not been able to recover those early specimens of that
particular mode of writing by which Johnson afterwards so greatly
[Page 86: Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia. A.D. 1733.]
He continued to live as Mr. Hector's guest for about six months, and
then hired lodgings in another part of the town, finding himself as
well situated at Birmingham as he supposed he could be any where,
while he had no settled plan of life, and very scanty means of
subsistence. He made some valuable acquaintances there, amongst whom
were Mr. Porter, a mercer, whose widow he afterwards married, and Mr.
Taylor, who by his ingenuity in mechanical inventions, and his
success in trade, acquired an immense fortune. But the comfort of being
near Mr. Hector, his old school-fellow and intimate friend, was
Johnson's chief inducement to continue here.
In what manner he employed his pen at this period, or whether he derived
from it any pecuniary advantage, I have not been able to ascertain. He
probably got a little money from Mr. Warren; and we are certain, that he
executed here one piece of literary labour, of which Mr. Hector has
favoured me with a minute account. Having mentioned that he had read at
Pembroke College a Voyage to Abyssinia, by Lobo, a Portuguese Jesuit,
and that he thought an abridgment and translation of it from the French
into English might be an useful and profitable publication, Mr. Warren
and Mr. Hector joined in urging him to undertake it. He accordingly
agreed; and the book not being to be found in Birmingham, he borrowed it
of Pembroke College. A part of the work being very soon done, one
Osborn, who was Mr. Warren's printer, was set to work with what was
ready, and Johnson engaged to supply the press with copy as it should be
wanted; but his constitutional indolence soon prevailed, and the work
was at a stand. Mr. Hector, who knew that a motive of humanity would be
the most prevailing argument with his friend, went to Johnson, and
represented to him, that the printer could have no other employment till
this undertaking was finished, and that the poor man and his family were
suffering. Johnson upon this exerted the powers of his mind, though his
body was relaxed. He lay in bed with the book, which was a quarto,
before him, and dictated while Hector wrote. Mr. Hector carried the
sheets to the press, and corrected almost all the proof sheets, very few
of which were even seen by Johnson. In this manner, with the aid of Mr.
Hector's active friendship, the book was completed, and was published in
1735, with LONDON upon the title-page, though it was in reality printed
at Birmingham, a device too common with provincial publishers. For this
work he had from Mr. Warren only the sum of five guineas.
This being the first prose work of Johnson, it is a curious object of
inquiry how much may be traced in it of that style which marks his
subsequent writings with such peculiar excellence; with so happy an
union of force, vivacity, and perspicuity. I have perused the book with
this view, and have found that here, as I believe in every other
translation, there is in the work itself no vestige of the translator's
own style; for the language of translation being adapted to the thoughts
of another person, insensibly follows their cast, and, as it were, runs
into a mould that is ready prepared.
Thus, for instance, taking the first sentence that occurs at the opening
of the book, p. 4.
'I lived here above a year, and completed my studies in divinity; in
which time some letters were received from the fathers of Ethiopia, with
an account that Sultan Segned, Emperour of Abyssinia, was converted
to the church of Rome; that many of his subjects had followed his
example, and that there was a great want of missionaries to improve
these prosperous beginnings. Every body was very desirous of seconding
the zeal of our fathers, and of sending them the assistance they
requested; to which we were the more encouraged, because the Emperour's
letter informed our Provincial, that we might easily enter his dominions
by the way of Dancala; but, unhappily, the secretary wrote Geila for
Dancala, which cost two of our fathers their lives.'
Every one acquainted with Johnson's manner will be sensible that there
is nothing of it here; but that this sentence might have been composed
by any other man.
But, in the Preface, the Johnsonian style begins to appear; and though
use had not yet taught his wing a permanent and equable flight, there
are parts of it which exhibit his best manner in full vigour. I had once
the pleasure of examining it with Mr. Edmund Burke, who confirmed me in
this opinion, by his superiour critical sagacity, and was, I remember,
much delighted with the following specimen:
'The Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general vein of his
countrymen, has amused his reader with no romantick absurdity, or
incredible fictions; whatever he relates, whether true or not, is at
least probable; and he who tells nothing exceeding the bounds of
probability, has a right to demand that they should believe him who
cannot contradict him.
'He appears, by his modest and unaffected narration, to have described
things as he saw them, to have copied nature from the life, and to have
consulted his senses, not his imagination. He meets with no basilisks
that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without
tears, and his cataracts fall from the rocks without deafening the
'The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable
barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom,
or unceasing sunshine; nor are the nations here described either devoid
of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private or social
virtues. Here are no Hottentots without religious polity or articulate
language; no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all
sciences; he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent
and impartial enquirer, that wherever human nature is to be found, there
is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason; and
that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has
balanced, in most countries, their particular inconveniencies by
Here we have an early example of that brilliant and energetick
expression, which, upon innumerable occasions in his subsequent life,
justly impressed the world with the highest admiration.
Nor can any one, conversant with the writings of Johnson, fail to
discern his hand in this passage of the Dedication to John Warren, Esq.
of Pembrokeshire, though it is ascribed to Warren the bookseller:
'A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly
than an eminent degree of curiosity; nor is that curiosity ever more
agreeably or usefully employed, than in examining the laws and customs
of foreign nations. I hope, therefore, the present I now presume to
make, will not be thought improper; which, however, it is not my
business as a dedicator to commend, nor as a bookseller to depreciate.'
It is reasonable to suppose, that his having been thus accidentally led
to a particular study of the history and manners of Abyssinia, was the
remote occasion of his writing, many years afterwards, his admirable
philosophical tale, the principal scene of which is laid in that
[Page 90: Proposals to print Politian. A.D. 1734.]
Johnson returned to Lichfield early in 1734, and in August that year
he made an attempt to procure some little subsistence by his pen; for he
published proposals for printing by subscription the Latin Poems of
Politian: '_Angeli Politiani Poemata Latina, quibus, Notas cum
historia Latinae poeseos, a Petrarchae aevo ad Politiani tempora deducta,
et vita Politiani fusius quam antehac enarrata, addidit_ SAM.
It appears that his brother Nathanael had taken up his father's
trade; for it is mentioned that 'subscriptions are taken in by the
Editor, or N. Johnson, bookseller, of Lichfield.' Notwithstanding the
merit of Johnson, and the cheap price at which this book was offered,
there were not subscribers enough to insure a sufficient sale; so the
work never appeared, and probably, never was executed.
[Page 91: First letter to Edward Cave. AEtat 25.]
We find him again this year at Birmingham, and there is preserved the
following letter from him to Mr. Edward Cave, the original compiler
and editor of the _Gentleman's Magazine_:
TO MR. CAVE.
_Nov_. 25, 1734.
'As you appear no less sensible than your readers of the defects of your
poetical article, you will not be displeased, if, in order to the
improvement of it, I communicate to you the sentiments of a person, who
will undertake, on reasonable terms, sometimes to fill a column.
'His opinion is, that the publick would not give you a bad reception,
if, beside the current wit of the month, which a critical examination
would generally reduce to a narrow compass, you admitted not only poems,
inscriptions, &c. never printed before, which he will sometimes supply
you with; but likewise short literary dissertations in Latin or English,
critical remarks on authours ancient or modern, forgotten poems that
deserve revival, or loose pieces, like Floyer's, worth preserving. By
this method, your literary article, for so it might be called, will, he
thinks, be better recommended to the publick than by low jests, awkward
buffoonery, or the dull scurrilities of either party.
'If such a correspondence will be agreeable to you, be pleased to inform
me in two posts, what the conditions are on which you shall expect it.
Your late offer gives me no reason to distrust your generosity. If
you engage in any literary projects besides this paper, I have other
designs to impart, if I could be secure from having others reap the
advantage of what I should hint.
[Page 92: Verses on a sprig of myrtle. A.D. 1734.]
'Your letter by being directed to _S. Smith_, to be left at the Castle
in Birmingham, Warwickshire, will reach
'Your humble servant.'
Mr. Cave has put a note on this letter, 'Answered Dec. 2.' But whether
any thing was done in consequence of it we are not informed.
Johnson had, from his early youth, been sensible to the influence of
female charms. When at Stourbridge school, he was much enamoured of
Olivia Lloyd, a young quaker, to whom he wrote a copy of verses, which I
have not been able to recover; but with what facility and elegance he
could warble the amorous lay, will appear from the following lines which
he wrote for his friend Mr. Edmund Hector.
[Page 93: Boswell's controversy with Miss Seward. AEtat 25.]
VERSES _to a_ LADY, _on receiving from her a_ SPRIG of MYRTLE.
'What hopes, what terrours does thy gift create,
Ambiguous emblem of uncertain fate:
The myrtle, ensign of supreme command,
Consign'd by Venus to Melissa's hand;
Not less capricious than a reigning fair,
Now grants, and now rejects a lover's prayer.
In myrtle shades oft sings the happy swain,
In myrtle shades despairing ghosts complain;
The myrtle crowns the happy lovers' heads,
The unhappy lovers' grave the myrtle spreads:
O then the meaning of thy gift impart,
And ease the throbbings of an anxious heart!
Soon must this bough, as you shall fix his doom,
Adorn Philander's head, or grace his tomb.'
[Page 94: Johnson's personal appearance. A.D. 1734.]
His juvenile attachments to the fair sex were, however, very transient;
and it is certain that he formed no criminal connection whatsoever. Mr.
Hector, who lived with him in his younger days in the utmost intimacy
and social freedom, has assured me, that even at that ardent season his
conduct was strictly virtuous in that respect; and that though he
loved to exhilarate himself with wine, he never knew him intoxicated but
[Page 95: Mrs. Porter. AEtat 25.]
In a man whom religious education has secured from licentious
indulgences, the passion of love, when once it has seized him, is
exceedingly strong; being unimpaired by dissipation, and totally
concentrated in one object. This was experienced by Johnson, when he
became the fervent admirer of Mrs. Porter, after her first husband's
death. Miss Porter told me, that when he was first introduced to her
mother, his appearance was very forbidding: he was then lean and lank,
so that his immense structure of bones was hideously striking to the
eye, and the scars of the scrophula were deeply visible. He also wore
his hair, which was straight and stiff, and separated behind: and he
often had, seemingly, convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which
tended to excite at once surprize and ridicule. Mrs. Porter was so
much engaged by his conversation that she overlooked all these external
disadvantages, and said to her daughter, 'this is the most sensible man
that I ever saw in my life.'
Though Mrs. Porter was double the age of Johnson, and her person and
manner, as described to me by the late Mr. Garrick, were by no means
pleasing to others, she must have had a superiority of understanding and
talents, as she certainly inspired him with a more than ordinary
passion; and she having signified her willingness to accept of his hand,
he went to Lichfield to ask his mother's consent to the marriage, which
he could not but be conscious was a very imprudent scheme, both on
account of their disparity of years, and her want of fortune. But
Mrs. Johnson knew too well the ardour of her son's temper, and was too
tender a parent to oppose his inclinations.
[Page 96: Johnson's marriage. A.D. 1736.]
I know not for what reason the marriage ceremony was not performed at
Birmingham; but a resolution was taken that it should be at Derby, for
which place the bride and bridegroom set out on horseback, I suppose in
very good humour. But though Mr. Topham Beauclerk used archly to mention
Johnson's having told him, with much gravity, 'Sir, it was a love
marriage on both sides,' I have had from my illustrious friend the
following curious account of their journey to church upon the nuptial
9th July:--'Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into her
head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her lover
like a dog. So, Sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and she
could not keep up with me; and, when I rode a little slower, she passed
me, and complained that I lagged behind. I was not to be made the slave
of caprice; and I resolved to begin as I meant to end. I therefore
pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight. The road lay
between two hedges, so I was sure she could not miss it; and I contrived
that she should soon come up with me. When she did, I observed her to be
This, it must be allowed, was a singular beginning of connubial
felicity; but there is no doubt that Johnson, though he thus shewed a
manly firmness, proved a most affectionate and indulgent husband to the
last moment of Mrs. Johnson's life: and in his _Prayers and
Meditations_, we find very remarkable evidence that his regard and
fondness for her never ceased, even after her death.
[Page 97: His School at Edial. AEtat 27.]
He now set up a private academy, for which purpose he hired a large
house, well situated near his native city. In the _Gentleman's Magazine_
for 1736, there is the following advertisement:
'At Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young gentlemen are
boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages, by SAMUEL JOHNSON.'
But the only pupils that were put under his care were the celebrated
David Garrick and his brother George, and a Mr. Offely, a young
gentleman of good fortune who died early. As yet, his name had nothing
of that celebrity which afterwards commanded the highest attention and
respect of mankind. Had such an advertisement appeared after the
publication of his _London_, or his _Rambler_, or his _Dictionary_, how
would it have burst upon the world! with what eagerness would the great
and the wealthy have embraced an opportunity of putting their sons under
the learned tuition of SAMUEL JOHNSON. The truth, however, is, that he
was not so well qualified for being a teacher of elements, and a
conductor in learning by regular gradations, as men of inferiour powers
of mind. His own acquisitions had been made by fits and starts, by
violent irruptions into the regions of knowledge; and it could not be
expected that his impatience would be subdued, and his impetuosity
restrained, so as to fit him for a quiet guide to novices. The art of
communicating instruction, of whatever kind, is much to be valued; and I
have ever thought that those who devote themselves to this employment,
and do their duty with diligence and success, are entitled to very high
respect from the community, as Johnson himself often maintained. Yet
I am of opinion that the greatest abilities are not only not required
for this office, but render a man less fit for it.
[Page 98: Garrick Johnson's pupil. A.D. 1736.]
While we acknowledge the justness of Thomson's beautiful remark,
'Delightful task! to rear the tender thought,
And teach the young idea how to shoot!'
we must consider that this delight is perceptible only by 'a mind at
ease,' a mind at once calm and clear; but that a mind gloomy and
impetuous like that of Johnson, cannot be fixed for any length of time
in minute attention, and must be so frequently irritated by unavoidable
slowness and errour in the advances of scholars, as to perform the duty,
with little pleasure to the teacher, and no great advantage to the
pupils. Good temper is a most essential requisite in a Preceptor.
Horace paints the character as _bland_:
'... _Ut pueris olim dant crustula blandi
Doctores, elementa velint ut discere_.'
[Page 99: Mrs. Johnson. AEtat 27.]
Johnson was not more satisfied with his situation as the master of an
academy, than with that of the usher of a school; we need not wonder,
therefore, that he did not keep his academy above a year and a half.
From Mr. Garrick's account he did not appear to have been profoundly
reverenced by his pupils. His oddities of manner, and uncouth
gesticulations, could not but be the subject of merriment to them; and,
in particular, the young rogues used to listen at the door of his
bed-chamber, and peep through the key-hole, that they might turn into
ridicule his tumultuous and awkward fondness for Mrs. Johnson, whom he
used to name by the familiar appellation of _Tetty_ or _Tetsey_, which,
like _Betty_ or _Betsey_, is provincially used as a contraction for
_Elisabeth_, her Christian name, but which to us seems ludicrous, when
applied to a woman of her age and appearance. Mr. Garrick described her
to me as very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with
swelled cheeks of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and
increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastick in her
dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour. I have
seen Garrick exhibit her, by his exquisite talent of mimickry, so as to
excite the heartiest bursts of laughter; but he, probably, as is the
case in all such representations, considerably aggravated the
That Johnson well knew the most proper course to be pursued in the
instruction of youth, is authentically ascertained by the following
paper in his own hand-writing, given about this period to a relation,
and now in the possession of Mr. John Nichols:
'SCHEME _for the_ CLASSES _of a_ GRAMMAR SCHOOL.
'When the introduction, or formation of nouns and verbs, is perfectly
mastered, let them learn:
'Corderius by Mr. Clarke, beginning at the same time to translate out of
the introduction, that by this means they may learn the syntax. Then let
them proceed to:
'Erasmus, with an English translation, by the same authour.
'Class II. Learns Eutropius and Cornelius Nepos, or Justin, with the
'N.B. The first class gets for their part every morning the rules which
they have learned before, and in the afternoon learns the Latin rules of
the nouns and verbs.
[Page 100: A scheme of study. A.D. 1736.]
'They are examined in the rules which they have learned every Thursday
'The second class does the same whilst they are in Eutropius; afterwards
their part is in the irregular nouns and verbs, and in the rules for
making and scanning verses. They are examined as the first.
'Class III. Ovid's Metamorphoses in the morning, and Caesar's
Commentaries in the afternoon.
'Practise in the Latin rules till they are perfect in them; afterwards
in Mr. Leeds's Greek Grammar. Examined as before.
'Afterwards they proceed to Virgil, beginning at the same time to write
themes and verses, and to learn Greek; from thence passing on to Horace,
&c. as shall seem most proper.
'I know not well what books to direct you to, because you have not
informed me what study you will apply yourself to. I believe it will be
most for your advantage to apply yourself wholly to the languages, till
you go to the University. The Greek authours I think it best for you to
read are these:
'Lucian by Leeds. } Attick.
'Euripides. Attick and Dorick.
'Thus you will be tolerably skilled in all the dialects, beginning with
the Attick, to which the rest must be referred.
'In the study of Latin, it is proper not to read the latter authours,
till you are well versed in those of the purest ages; as Terence, Tully,
Caesar, Sallust, Nepos, Velleius Paterculus, Virgil, Horace, Phaedrus.
'The greatest and most necessary task still remains, to attain a habit
of expression, without which knowledge is of little usc. This is
necessary in Latin, and more necessary in English; and can only be
acquired by a daily imitation of the best and correctest authours.
While Johnson kept his academy, there can be no doubt that he was
insensibly furnishing his mind with various knowledge; but I have not
discovered that he wrote any thing except a great part of his tragedy of
_Irene_. Mr. Peter Garrick, the elder brother of David, told me that he
remembered Johnson's borrowing the _Turkish History_ of him, in order
to form his play from it. When he had finished some part of it, he read
what he had done to Mr. Walmsley, who objected to his having already
brought his heroine into great distress, and asked him, 'how can you
possibly contrive to plunge her into deeper calamity?' Johnson, in sly
allusion to the supposed oppressive proceedings of the court of which
Mr. Walmsley was register, replied, 'Sir, I can put her into the
[Page 101: Johnson tries his fortune in London. AEtat 27.]
Mr. Walmsley, however, was well pleased with this proof of Johnson's
abilities as a dramatick writer, and advised him to finish the tragedy,
and produce it on the stage.
Johnson now thought of trying his fortune in London, the great field of
genius and exertion, where talents of every kind have the fullest scope,
and the highest encouragement. It is a memorable circumstance that his
pupil David Garrick went thither at the same time, with intention to
complete his education, and follow the profession of the law, from which
he was soon diverted by his decided preference for the stage.
This joint expedition of those two eminent men to the metropolis, was
many years afterwards noticed in an allegorical poem on Shakspeare's
Mulberry Tree, by Mr. Lovibond, the ingenious authour of _The Tears of
They were recommended to Mr. Colson, an eminent mathematician and
master of an academy, by the following letter from Mr. Walmsley:
[Page 102: Mr. Walmsley's Letter. A.D. 1737.]
'To THE REVEREND MR. COLSON.
'Lichfield, March 2, 1737.
'I had the favour of yours, and am extremely obliged to you; but I
cannot say I had a greater affection for you upon it than I had before,
being long since so much endeared to you, as well by an early
friendship, as by your many excellent and valuable qualifications; and,
had I a son of my own, it would be my ambition, instead of sending him
to the University, to dispose of him as this young gentleman is.
'He, and another neighbour of mine, one Mr. Samuel Johnson, set out this
morning for London together. Davy Garrick is to be with you early the
next week, and Mr. Johnson to try his fate with a tragedy, and to see to
get himself employed in some translation, either from the Latin or the
French. Johnson is a very good scholar and poet, and I have great hopes
will turn out a fine tragedy-writer. If it should any way lie in your
way, doubt not but you would be ready to recommend and assist your
[Page 103: Like in London. AEtat 28.]
How he employed himself upon his first coming to London is not
particularly known. I never heard that he found any protection or
encouragement by the means of Mr. Colson, to whose academy David Garrick
went. Mrs. Lucy Porter told me, that Mr. Walmsley gave him a letter of
introduction to Lintot his bookseller, and that Johnson wrote some
things for him; but I imagine this to be a mistake, for I have
discovered no trace of it, and I am pretty sure he told me that Mr. Cave
was the first publisher by whom his pen was engaged in London.
He had a little money when he came to town, and he knew how he could
live in the cheapest manner. His first lodgings were at the house of Mr.
Norris, a staymaker, in Exeter-street, adjoining Catharine-street, in
the Strand. 'I dined (said he) very well for eight-pence, with very good
company, at the Pine Apple in New-street, just by. Several of them had
travelled. They expected to meet every day; but did not know one
another's names. It used to cost the rest a shilling, for they drank
wine; but I had a cut of meat for six-pence, and bread for a penny, and
gave the waiter a penny; so that I was quite well served, nay, better
than the rest, for they gave the waiter nothing.'
[Page 104: Abstinence from wine. A.D. 1737.]
He at this time, I believe, abstained entirely from fermented liquors: a
practice to which he rigidly conformed for many years together, at
different periods of his life.
[Page 105: An Irish Ofellus. AEtat 28.]
His Ofellus in the _Art of Living in London_, I have heard him relate,
was an Irish painter, whom he knew at Birmingham, and who had practised
his own precepts of oeconomy for several years in the British
capital. He assured Johnson, who, I suppose, was then meditating to
try his fortune in London, but was apprehensive of the expence, 'that
thirty pounds a year was enough to enable a man to live there without
being contemptible. He allowed ten pounds for clothes and linen. He said
a man might live in a garret at eighteen-pence a week; few people would
inquire where he lodged; and if they did, it was easy to say, 'Sir, I am
to be found at such a place.' By spending three-pence in a coffee-house,
he might be for some hours every day in very good company; he might dine
for six-pence, breakfast on bread and milk for a penny, and do without
supper. On _clean-shirt-day_ he went abroad, and paid visits.' I have
heard him more than once talk of this frugal friend, whom he recollected
with esteem and kindness, and did not like to have one smile at the
recital. 'This man (said he, gravely) was a very sensible man, who
perfectly understood common affairs: a man of a great deal of knowledge
of the world, fresh from life, not strained through books. He
borrowed a horse and ten pounds at Birmingham. Finding himself master of
so much money, he set off for West Chester, in order to get to
Ireland. He returned the horse, and probably the ten pounds too, after
he got home.'
[Page 106: Mr. Henry Hervey. A.D. 1737.]
Considering Johnson's narrow circumstances in the early part of his
life, and particularly at the interesting aera of his launching into the
ocean of London, it is not to be wondered at, that an actual instance,
proved by experience of the possibility of enjoying the intellectual
luxury of social life, upon a very small income, should deeply engage
his attention, and be ever recollected by him as a circumstance of much
importance. He amused himself, I remember, by computing how much more
expence was absolutely necessary to live upon the same scale with that
which his friend described, when the value of money was diminished by
the progress of commerce. It maybe estimated that double the money might
now with difficulty be sufficient.
Amidst this cold obscurity, there was one brilliant circumstance to
cheer him; he was well acquainted with Mr. Henry Hervey, one of the
branches of the noble family of that name, who had been quartered at
Lichfield as an officer of the army, and had at this time a house in
London, where Johnson was frequently entertained, and had an opportunity
of meeting genteel company. Not very long before his death, he mentioned
this, among other particulars of his life, which he was kindly
communicating to me; and he described this early friend, 'Harry Hervey,'
thus: 'He was a vicious man, but very kind to me. If you call a dog
HERVEY, I shall love him.'
He told me he had now written only three acts of his _Irene_, and that
he retired for some time to lodgings at Greenwich, where he proceeded in
it somewhat further, and used to compose, walking in the Park; but
did not stay long enough at that place to finish it.
At this period we find the following letter from him to Mr. Edward Cave,
which, as a link in the chain of his literary history, it is proper to
[Page 107: Johnson returns to Lichfield. AEtat 28.]
'To MR. CAVE.
'Greenwich, next door to the Golden Heart,
'Church-street, July 12, 1737.
'Having observed in your papers very uncommon offers of encouragement to
men of letters, I have chosen, being a stranger in London, to
communicate to you the following design, which, I hope, if you join in
it, will be of advantage to both of us.
'The History of the Council of Trent having been lately translated into
French, and published with large Notes by Dr. Le Courayer, the
reputation of that book is so much revived in England, that, it is
presumed, a new translation of it from the Italian, together with Le
Courayer's Notes from the French, could not fail of a favourable
'If it be answered, that the History is already in English, it must be
remembered, that there was the same objection against Le Courayer's
undertaking, with this disadvantage, that the French had a version by
one of their best translators, whereas you cannot read three pages of
the English History without discovering that the style is capable of
great improvements; but whether those improvements are to be expected
from the attempt, you must judge from the specimen, which, if you
approve the proposal, I shall submit to your examination.
'Suppose the merit of the versions equal, we may hope that the addition
of the Notes will turn the balance in our favour, considering the
reputation of the Annotator.
'Be pleased to favour me with a speedy answer, if you are not willing to
engage in this scheme; and appoint me a day to wait upon you, if you
'I am, Sir,
'Your humble servant,
It should seem from this letter, though subscribed with his own name,
that he had not yet been introduced to Mr. Cave. We shall presently see
what was done in consequence of the proposal which it contains.
[Page 108: Irene. A.D. 1737.]
In the course of the summer he returned to Lichfield, where he had left
Mrs. Johnson, and there he at last finished his tragedy, which was not
executed with his rapidity of composition upon other occasions, but was
slowly and painfully elaborated. A few days before his death, while
burning a great mass of papers, he picked out from among them the
original unformed sketch of this tragedy, in his own hand-writing, and
gave it to Mr. Langton, by whose favour a copy of it is now in my
possession. It contains fragments of the intended plot, and speeches for
the different persons of the drama, partly in the raw materials of
prose, partly worked up into verse; as also a variety of hints for
illustration, borrowed from the Greek, Roman, and modern writers. The
hand-writing is very difficult to be read, even by those who were best
acquainted with Johnson's mode of penmanship, which at all times was
very particular. The King having graciously accepted of this manuscript
as a literary curiosity, Mr. Langton made a fair and distinct copy of
it, which he ordered to be bound up with the original and the printed
tragedy; and the volume is deposited in the King's library. His
Majesty was pleased to permit Mr. Langton to take a copy of it for
The whole of it is rich in thought and imagery, and happy expressions;
and of the _disjecta membra_ scattered throughout, and as yet
unarranged, a good dramatick poet might avail himself with considerable
advantage. I shall give my readers some specimens of different kinds,
distinguishing them by the Italick character.
'Nor think to say, here will I stop,
Here will I fix the limits of transgression,
Nor farther tempt the avenging rage of heaven.
When guilt like this once harbours in the breast,
Those holy beings, whose unseen direction
Guides through the maze of life the steps of man,
Fly the detested mansions of impiety,
And quit their charge to horrour and to ruin.'
A small part only of this interesting admonition is preserved in the
play, and is varied, I think, not to advantage:
'The soul once tainted with so foul a crime,
No more shall glow with friendship's hallow'd ardour,
Those holy beings whose superior care
Guides erring mortals to the paths of virtue,
Affrighted at impiety like thine,
Resign their charge to baseness and to ruin.'
'_I feel the soft infection
Flush in my cheek, and wander in my veins.
Teach me the Grecian arts of soft persuasion.'
'Sure this is love, which heretofore I conceived the dream of idle
maids, and wanton poets.'
'Though no comets or prodigies foretold the ruin of Greece, signs which
heaven must by another miracle enable us to understand, yet might it be
foreshewn, by tokens no less certain, by the vices which always bring it
This last passage is worked up in the tragedy itself, as follows:
'----That power that kindly spreads
The clouds, a signal of impending showers,
To warn the wand'ring linnet to the shade,
Beheld, without concern, expiring Greece,
And not one prodigy foretold our fate.
'A thousand horrid prodigies foretold it;
A feeble government, eluded laws,
A factious populace, luxurious nobles,
And all the maladies of sinking States.
When publick villainy, too strong for justice,
Shows his bold front, the harbinger of ruin,
Can brave Leontius call for airy wonders,
Which cheats interpret, and which fools regard?
When some neglected fabrick nods beneath
The weight of years, and totters to the tempest,
Must heaven despatch the messengers of light,
Or wake the dead, to warn us of its fall?'
MAHOMET (to IRENE). 'I have tried thee, and joy to find that thou
deservest to be loved by Mahomet,--with a mind great as his own. Sure,
thou art an errour of nature, and an exception to the rest of thy sex,
and art immortal; for sentiments like thine were never to sink into
nothing. I thought all the thoughts of the fair had been to select the
graces of the day, dispose the colours of the flaunting (flowing) robe,
tune the voice and roll the eye, place the gem, choose the dress, and
add new roses to the fading cheek, but--sparkling.'
[Page 110: Johnson settles in London. A.D. 1737.]
Thus in the tragedy:
'Illustrious maid, new wonders fix me thine;
Thy soul completes the triumphs of thy face:
I thought, forgive my fair, the noblest aim,
The strongest effort of a female soul
Was but to choose the graces of the day,
To tune the tongue, to teach the eyes to roll,
Dispose the colours of the flowing robe,
And add new roses to the faded cheek.'
I shall select one other passage, on account of the doctrine which it
illustrates. IRENE observes,
'That the Supreme Being will accept of virtue, whatever outward
circumstances it may be accompanied with, and may be delighted with
varieties of worship: _but is answered_, that variety cannot affect that
Being, who, infinitely happy in his own perfections, wants no external
gratifications; nor can infinite truth be delighted with falsehood; that
though he may guide or pity those he leaves in darkness, he abandons
those who shut their eyes against the beams of day.'
Johnson's residence at Lichfield, on his return to it at this time, was
only for three months; and as he had as yet seen but a small part of the
wonders of the Metropolis, he had little to tell his townsmen. He
related to me the following minute anecdote of this period: 'In the last
age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people,
those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the
quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London,
my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or
those who took it. _Now_ it is fixed that every man keeps to the right;
or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a
He now removed to London with Mrs. Johnson; but her daughter, who had
lived with them at Edial, was left with her relations in the country.
His lodgings were for some time in Woodstock-street, near
Hanover-square, and afterwards in Castle-street, near Cavendish-square.
As there is something pleasingly interesting, to many, in tracing so
great a man through all his different habitations, I shall, before this