1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 6:101-02.



The life of this literary dictator of the eighteenth century has been written both by friends and enemies, with such amplitude of remark and minuteness of enquiry, as to leave nothing further to be wished for on the subject.

Samuel Johnson was born at Litchfield, September 7, 1709. His father was a respectable bookseller; but though he contrived to give his son a classical education, on account of the precocity of talents and attachment to learning which he early evinced, it was not in his power to support him long enough at Oxford, where he was entered of Pembroke college, to take a degree; and after distinguishing himself by his Latin verses, and suffering much from the narrowness of his circumstances, he was obliged to leave the University, and to engage himself as an usher in a school at Market Bosworth in Leicestershire, where he spent his time most unpleasantly, till invited by an old school-fellow, Mr. Hector, to Birmingham. Here he translated Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, and wrote some little pieces, which gave those to whom they were communicated presages of his future eminence.

In 1735, Johnson married a Mrs. Porter, relict to a mercer, of whose daughter he had previously been enamoured; and opening an academy at Edial near Litchfield, seems to have entertained no ideas of courting fame or distinction. His ill success, however, obliged him to relinquish this undertaking; and having written Irene, a Tragedy, he came up to London, in company with his pupil Garrick, to seek his fortune. He soon became acquainted with Cave, who conducted the Gentleman's Magazine, and through him with several booksellers and literary characters. The difficulties, however, which he had to encounter in the capacity of an author would have depressed the resolution of almost any other man: he slowly established a reputation, but it was a durable one, which suffered no diminution to the hour of his death.

In this place, we have only to consider Johnson as a poet, and it may be fairly concluded from the specimens he has left us, that had he cultivated this delightful art with more zeal and assiduity, he would have been equally illustrious in poetry as in prose. His London, and the Vanity of Human Wishes, in strength and energy of diction, and in harmony of numbers, stand almost unrivalled and alone.

His great English Dictionary is a stupendous monument of labour, and his Rambler and Idler are so well known, that to praise them would be impertinent. Among other rewards and honours richly earned, Johnson received the degree of Doctor of Laws, and a royal pension of 300 a year. He died December 12, 1784, in the 75th year of his age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His statue is erected in St. Paul's, and his memory will long tee dear to his countrymen, whom he instructed by his writings and reformed by his life.

His learning and knowledge were deep and universal, his conception so clear, and his intellectual stores marshalled with such precision, that his style in common conversation equalled that of his moral essays.

Whatever charge of pedantic stiffness may have been brought against those essays by prejudice, or by personal resentment, they are certainly not less superior to all other English compositions, of that sort, in the happy fertility and efflorescence of imagination, harmony of period, and luminous arrangement of ideas, than they are in strength of expression, and force of argument.

The pride of Dr. Johnson was infinite; yet, amidst all the overbearing arrogance it produced, his heart melted at the sight, or at the representation of disease and poverty; and, in the hours of affluence, his purse was ever open to relieve them. He sometimes discovered much impetuosity of temper, and was too ready to take offence at others; but when concessions were made, he was easily appeased. For those from whom he had received kindness in the earlier part of his life, he seemed ever to retain a particular regard, and manifested much gratitude towards those by whom he had at any time been benefited; in short, whatever were his faults or foibles, they are now descended with him to the grave, while his numerous virtues demand at once our esteem, and imitation.