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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Samuel Johnson


Samuel Johnson was born on September 18, 1709 to Michael Johnson, a poor bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford. He spent his early tears in an old house, above his father’s bookshop in Market Square, Lichfield, Staffordshire. It is now a museum.

At the age of three he suffered from scofula, a tubercular swelling of the glands.

Samuel was an avid reader with a photographic memory and a nervous tic. He grew into a nervous, twitchy youth.

On October 31, 1728, a few weeks after he turned 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford.

After thirteen months, a shortage of funds forced Johnson to leave Oxford without a degree, and he returned to Lichfield.


Large and powerfully built, Johnson had poor eyesight and was hard of hearing. His face was deeply scarred from his childhood scrofula.

At the age of 26, Johnson married a 46-year-old widow, Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter. They tied the knot at St Werburgh Church, Derby on July 9, 1735.

They were devoted to each other even though according to some of Johnson's contemporaries, Tetty was a drowsy, fat drunkard, who was renowned for her girlish levity and disgusting affection. She died on March 17, 1752.

Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter

After losing Tetty, Johnson met a pious, well-born woman, Miss Boothby, but his marriage hopes were dashed when she died. His middle years were sad ones due to the deaths of these two loved ones.

Johnson had a good many friends including some of the most celebrated wits of his time.  A depressive, he tended to seek out company to ward off his black moods.

James Boswell was a close friend. They first met in a London bookshop on May 16, 1763, when Johnson was 53 and Boswell a mere 21. Their friendship inspired one of the greatest biographies ever written

Mrs Boswell, James' wife, was scornful of her husband’s devotion to this lumbering, ungainly man whose manners displeased her. She said of Johnson "I have seen many a bear led by a man, but I never before saw a man led by a bear."

Around the same time, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith.

A literary party, 1781, of Johnson (second from left) and other members of "The Club".

In 1765, Johnson met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and member of Parliament, and his wife Hester Thrale. They quickly became friends, and soon Johnson became a member of the family. He stayed with the Thrales for fifteen years until Henry's death in 1781.


After leaving Oxford, Johnson did no work for a few years.

In 1732 he wrote some essays for the Birmingham Journal and translated from French a Portuguese Jesuit's travels in Abysinnia.

In the autumn of 1735, Johnson opened Edial Hall School as a private academy at Edial, near Lichfield. He had only three pupils: Lawrence Offley, George Garrick, and the 18-year-old David Garrick, who later became one of the most famous actors of his day. Due to his twitches and spasms Johnson was a failure as a schoolmaster.

Johnson left for London with his former pupil David Garrick on March 2, 1737 to make their fortunes. They had four pence between them and took turns to ride their one horse.

Johnson found employment with Edward Cave, writing for The Gentleman's Magazine. For the next three decades, Johnson wrote biographies, poetry, essays, pamphlets, and even for a time was a House of Commons reporter.

Despite being the doyen of London Literary Society and having been given an advance of 1500 guineas, six months after compiling and writing his dictionary in 1755, Johnson was arrested for debt for £5 and 18 shillings. He was saved from prison by a gift from the successful novelist, Samuel Richardson.

In 1762, Johnson was awarded a crown pension of £300 a year, largely through the efforts of Thomas Sheridan and the Earl of Bute, after which  he devoted himself to conversation.


It is his prowess as a talker for which Johnson is mainly remembered today but in his time he was considered the most brilliant literary man of his age.

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was published in London on April 15, 1755. Johnson’s dictionary was the first work to try to include all English words with definitions and examples.
Title page from the second edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

His patron, Chesterfield, to whom the dictionary is dedicated, was not a very good one. Johnson completed his dictionary without any help from Chesterfield and only later on recognized it.

Johnson's entry under "patron" obviously refers to this: A patron is defined as "commonly a wretch who suffers with insolence & is paid with flattery."

When two old ladies complimented Johnson on the omission of coarse words from his dictionary, his reaction was "What! My Dears! Then you have been looking for them!"

Although his dictionary was widely praised and enormously influential, Johnson did not profit from it much financially, He thought his dictionary would take three years to complete, bit it eventually took nine years.and he had to bear the expenses of its long composition.

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, was Johnson's only novel. A satirical book in which  he romanticized what is now Ethiopia, he wrote it in a week in 1759 to pay for his mother's funeral.

In 1775 Dr Samuel Johnson published his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, which recorded his visit with his friend James Boswell to Scotland.

First published a year after the death of Samuel Johnson, Prayers and Meditations is a devotional classic.


Johnson said of Italy, "Sir, a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority. The grand object is to see the shores of the Mediterranean."

Johnson had a low opinion of Scotland. On one occasion when Boswell admitted he came from Scotland but " I cannot help it", Johnson responded, "That sir, I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."

As an adult would often return to Lichfield, staying with Boswell at the Three Crowns Inn two doors away from his birthplace.


Dr Johnson was keen on his lie-ins, often sleeping in until noon.

Dr Johnson was often slovenly dressed. He wore an uncombed, un-powdered, ill-fitting wig wrinkled stockings and a rusty waistcoat.

Dr Samuel Johnson had no great feeling for music. He once complained "All animated nature loves music except myself.”  His impression of a celebrated violinist's performance was "difficult do you call it sir? I wish it were impossible."

Johnson did confess on his trip to the Hebrides to a liking to the bagpipe and also that "Had I learnt to fiddle, I should have done nothing else."

Dr Johnson was a cat lover, a favorite being Hodge for whom he bought oysters. He once said of Hodge "I have had cats whom I liked better than this…but he is a very fine cat."

In 1748 he moved into Gough House, 17 Gough Square, just off Fleet Street, London. Johnson compiled his dictionary in the attic there.

Johnson often felt obliged to do a jig before entering his home.


At the age of three young Samuel Johnson suffered from scrofula and he was taken as was the custom, to Queen Anne to be touched. It was a wonder to everyone that he survived, though he grew up half blind.

As a result of his childhood illness, Johnson was afflicted with nervous tics and compulsive head waggings which intensely embarrassed him.

Reynolds' 1769 portrait depicting Johnson's "odd gesticulations"

Johnson suffered from "a vile melancholy and a horrible hypochondria." After leaving Oxford University, he became almost permanently depressed due to his lack of prospects.

He was prone to lyssophobia (a fear of insanity). Johnson often begged his wife to lock him in his room and shackle his legs as he was convinced he was going mad.

According to his friend James Boswell, Johnson suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder. The Doctor had "an anxious care to go out or in at a door or passage by a certain number of steps from a certain point."


A generous man, Johnson was often seen putting pennies into the hands of homeless children sleeping in the streets.

Johnson hated the slave trade. He would raise his glass to toast "The next rebellion of the slaves in the West Indies." This shocked Boswell.

He kept a much loved black man servant at home, a freed slave called Francis Barber.

Dr Johnson was a traditional Anglican churchman; William Law's religious book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life was inspirational for the young Samuel and made him think about Christianity seriously for the first time. He was against enthusiasms but also opposed the intellectual and moral weakness of the church.

Johnson had regular private devotions and insisted that prayer is as natural as exercise, so that we pray first and discuss the theology of prayer afterwards.

The curmudgeonly Samuel Johnson had mixed feelings about the Wesleys, the founders of Methodism. He knew John at Oxford, and said of him, "John Wesley's conversation is good, but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do."

Johnson later applauded Oxford's expulsion of six Methodist students, which could hardly have endeared him to the movement's founding family. Yet at the end of his life, he wanted to invite John's brilliant but financially restricted sister Martha to live at his house. Unfortunately, Johnson died before his wish could be carried out.


A lover of good food, but not cucumbers, Johnson claimed whilst in the Hebrides, "A cucumber should be well sliced and dressed with pepper and vinegar and then thrown out, as good for nothing."

He disliked fish as due to his poor eyesight Johnson had to eat them with his fingers in order to locate the bones.

Johnson's favorite dish, which he took at the Cheshire Cheese inn off Fleet Street, was a vast pudding containing beefsteaks, kidneys, mushrooms, oysters and larks. He once claimed "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."

Dr Johnson once drank 36 glasses of port without moving from his seat, which is remarkable in more ways than one.

He once claimed "Claret is the liquor for boys: port for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy."

On the whole, Johnson preferred tea to alcohol. He consumed large quantities of mainly Twinings tea, from tiny teacups.


Johnson confided to Boswell that he hoped his cemetery slab would be placed at a sufficient height from his coffin so as to avoid damage to his body. He wanted his body intact to meet his maker.

In 1783 Dr Johnson had a stroke which resulted in loss of speech. The scared doctor prayed in Latin verse that God would spare his understanding. On realizing he could pray aloud in Latin verse he recognized his prayers had been answered.

When ill with his last illness, Johnson asked his doctor to tell him honestly if he would recover. The doctor said he could not without a miracle, to which Johnson responded: "I will take no more physic; not even opiates, for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.”

Johnson's last words were addressed to a Miss Morris, "God Bless you my dear." he mumbled. He died on December 13, 1784 and was buried seven days later at Westminster Abbey.

"Here lies poor Johnson. Reader! have a care
Tread lightly, lest you rouse a sleeping bear
Religios, moral, gen'rous and humane
He was, but self conceited, rude and vain
Ill-bred and overbearing in dispute,
A scholar and a Christian, yet a brute
Would you know all his wisdom & his folly,
His actions, sayings, mirth & melancholy,
Boswell and Thrale, retailers of his wit
Will tell you how he wrote and talk'd and 'spit." Soame Jenyns 1704-87

Source Food For Thought by Ed Pearce

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