1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 685-86.



SAMUEL JOHNSON, a writer of great eminence, was born in 1709 at Litchfield, in which city his father was a petty bookseller. After a desultory course of school-education, it was proposed to him, by Dr. Corbet, a neighbouring gentleman, that he could accompany his own son to Oxford as his companion; accordingly, in his nineteenth year, he was elected a commoner of Pembroke college. From young Corbet's departure, he was left to struggle with penury till he had completed a residence of three years, when he quitted Oxford without taking a degree. His father died, in very narrow circumstances, soon after his return from the university; and for some time he attempted to gain a maintenance by some literary projects. At length, in 1735, he thought proper to marry a widow twice his own age, and far from attractive, either in her person or manners. By the aid of her fortune he was enabled to set up a school for instruction in Latin and Greek, but the plan did not succeed; and after a year's experiment, he resolved to try his fortune in the great metropolis. Garrick, afterwards the celebrated actor, had been one of his pupils, accompanied by whom he arrived in London; Johnson having in his pocket his unfinished tragedy of Irene.

The first notice which he drew from the judges of literary merit, was by the publication of London, a Poem, in imitation of Juvenal's third satire. The manly vigour, and strong painting of this performance, placed it high among works of its kind, though it must be allowed, that its censure is coarse and exaggerated, and that it ranks rather as a party, than as a moral poem. It was published in 1738. For some years Johnson is chiefly to be traced in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine, then conducted by Cave; and it was for this work that he gratified the public with some extraordinary pieces of eloquence which he composed under the disguise of debates in the senate of Lilliput, meaning the British parliament. He likewise wrote various biographical articles for the same miscellany, of which the principal and most admired was The Life of Savage.

The plan of his English Dictionary was laid before the public in a letter addressed to Lord Chesterfield in 1747. In the same year he furnished Garrick with a prologue on the opening of Drury-lane theatre, which in sense and poetry has not a competitor among compositions of this class, excepting Pope's prologue to Cato. Another imitation of Juvenal, entitled The Vanity of Human Wishes, was printed in 1749, and may be said to reach the sublime of ethical poetry, and to stand at the head of classical imitations. The same year, under the auspices of Garrick, brought on the stage of Drury-lane his tragedy of Irene. It ran thirteen nights, but has never since appeared in the theatre: Johnson, in fact, found that he was not formed to excel on the stage, and made no further trials.

His periodical paper, entitled The Rambler, appeared in March 1750, and was continued till March 1752. The solemnity of this paper prevented it at first from attaining an extensive circulation; but after it was collected into volumes, it continually rose in the public esteem, and the author had the satisfaction of seeing a tenth edition. The Adventurer, conducted by Dr. Hawkesworth, succeeded the Rambler, and Johnson contributed several papers of his own writing. In 1755, the first edition of his Dictionary made its appearance. It was received by the public with general applause, and its author was ranked among the greatest benefactors of his native tongue. Modern accuracy, however, has given an insight into its defects, and though it still stands as the capital work of the kind in the language, its authority as a standard is somewhat depreciated. Upon the last illness of his aged mother, in 1759, for the purpose of paying her a visit, and defraying the expense of her funeral, he wrote his romance of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, one of his most splendid performances, elegant in language, rich in imagery, and weighty in sentiment. Its views of human life are, indeed, deeply tinged with the gloom that overshadowed the author's mind; nor can it be praised for moral effect.

Soon after the accession of the late king, a grant of a pension of 300 per annum was made him by His Majesty during the ministry of Lord Bute. A short struggle of repugnance to accept a favour from the House of Hanover was overcome by a sense of the honour and substantial benefit conferred by it, and he became that character, a pensioner, on which he had bestowed a sarcastic definition in his Dictionary. Much obloquy attended this circumstance of his life, which was enhanced when he published in several of his productions, arguments which seemed directly to oppose the rising spirit of liberty.

A long-promised edition of Shakspeare appeared in 1765, but though ushered in by a preface written with all the powers of his masterly pen, the edition itself disappointed those who expected much from his ability to elucidate the obscurities of the great dramatist. A tour to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1773 in which he was attended by his enthusiastic admirer and obsequious friend, James Boswell Esq. was a remarkable incident of his life, considering that a strong antipathy to the natives of that country bad long been conspicuous in his conversation. But when, two years afterwards, he published the account of the tour, under the title of A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, more candour and impartiality were found in it, than had been expected. In 1775, he was gratified, through the interest of Lord North, with the degree of Doctor of Laws, from the University of Oxford. He had some years before received the same honour from Dublin, but did not then choose to assume the title. His last literary undertaking was the consequence of a request from the London booksellers, who had engaged in an edition of the principal English poets, and wished to prefix to each a biographical and critical preface from his hand. This he undertook; and though he will generally be thought to have laboured under strong prejudices in composing the work, its style will be found, in great measure, free from the stiffness and turgidity which marked his earlier compositions.

The concluding portion of Dr. Johnson's life was saddened by a progressive decline of health, and by the prospect of approaching death, which neither his religion nor his philosophy had taught him to bear with even decent composure. A paralytic stroke first gave the alarm; asthma, and dropsical symptoms, followed; and such was the tenacity with which he clung to life, that be expressed a great desire to seek for amendment in the climate of Italy. Still unable to reconcile himself to the thought of dying, he said to the surgeon who was making slight scarifications in his swollen legs, "Deeper! deeper! I want length of life, and you are afraid of giving me pain, which I do not value." The closing scene took place on December 13, 1785, in the 76th year of his age. His remains, attended by a respectable concourse of friends, were interred in Westminster Abbey; and a monumental statue has since been placed to his memory in St. Paul's cathedral. His works were published collectively in eleven volumes, 8vo., with a copious life of the author, by Sir John Hawkins. A new edition, in twelve volumes, with a life, was given by Arthur Murphy. Of the conversations, and oral dictates of Johnson, a most copious collection has been published in the very entertaining volumes of Mr. Boswell. Upon the whole, it may be said, that at the time of his death, he was undoubtedly the most conspicuous literary character of his country.