Perhaps no distinguished character, ancient or modern, has been so fortunate in a biographer as Johnson; nor does there exist in any language so complete a picture of the mind and habits of an illustrious scholar: "Etiam mortuus loquitur," says Cumberland, "every man who can buy a book, has bought a Boswell." It will suffice, then, on the present occasion to detail a few dates and facts, without attempting a history of his literary progress.
SAMUEL JOHNSON was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller at Litchfield, and was born there on the seventh of September, 1709, He was the eldest of two sons; his brother Nathaniel succeeded his father in his business, and died in his twenty-fifth year, in 1737. Johnson inherited from his father that morbid melancholy which occasionally depressed him, and which his mighty mind could not always overcome. He was also unfortunate enough to imbibe, from his nurse, the disease called the king's evil; and his parents, who were stanch jacobites, presented him to Queen Anne for the royal touch; but, notwithstanding this potent remedy, an operation became necessary, the scars of which disfigured the lower part of his face; by this disease, his hearing and the sight of his left eye were impaired.
He received the rudiments of education at the free grammar school of his native town, and made rapid progress in his classical studies. Mr. Hunter, the master of the school, though an excellent teacher, was a strict disciplinarian; and Johnson smarted under his lash; but confessed in after life that it was not without reason. Restraint sat uneasy upon him, he could not conquer his aversion to slated tasks, but when he chose to apply himself he could do more than other boys in much shorter time; and his ambition, which prompted him to be the captain of the school, overcame his constitutional indolence. He rarely mingled in the common sports of the boys, but amused himself with sauntering in the fields, and at times talking aloud to himself.
When he was fifteen years old, he spent some months in a visit to his cousin the eccentric Cornelius Ford, from whose advice and assistance he profited in the prosecution of his studies. On his return to Litchfield, the master of the school refused to receive him again on the foundation, and he was therefore placed in a school at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, where he remained above a year, and then returned home.
Even in his youth, Johnson was a true "helluo librorum;" his reading was multifarious and without system, but yet very extraordinary for a boy; "I read (says he) all literature, all ancient writers;" and Dr. Percy has recorded his passion for romances at this time. When on a visit at his parsonage he chose for his regular reading the ponderous folio romance of Felixmarte d'Hercania, in Spanish, which he read quite through. He retained his partiality for this species of fiction in advanced years, and sometimes attributed to its influence that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his ever fixing in any profession.
He passed two years at home in this excursive kind of desultory reading, and made translations in verse from Homer, Virgil, and Horace, specimens of which have been preserved by his assiduous friend and biographer Boswell: none of them are very remarkable for their excellence, even though the age at which they were performed be considered. In 1728, when he was about nineteen, he went to Oxford, and was entered commoner of Pembroke College. His father's circumstances would not have allowed him to think of a college education, had he not been selected by Mr. Corbet, a Shropshire gentleman, to accompany his son (who had been Johnson's schoolfellow) to the university, in the character of companion, with a promise of supporting him there; but it appears that he never received any pecuniary assistance, and was left to struggle his way, as well as he could, in poverty; which must have vexed his proud and independent spirit. His tutor at college was Mr. Jorden, a worthy man, but not gifted with a mind or acquirements to fit him for a director of Johnson's studies; who, though he respected his kind heartedness, held his scholarship in contempt. His studies were here as desultory as they had been at home: he read without method; but told Mr. Boswell that "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 metaphysics, but he had not read much even in that way."
Dr. Percy relates "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." Yet he found time to lay up a store of varied and useful knowledge during his three years stay at the university, and acquired a high reputation for the harmony of his Latin verse. Mathematics and Physic had no attractions for him. Philosophy, Ethics, and Theology engaged much of his attention; he himself has related that Law's serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which he had taken up at this time with great prejudice against it, first made him think seriously of religion; and from this period piety was one of his most distinguishing characteristics, though he seems never to have attained the tranquility and assurance, in his practice of the Christian duties, which are so earnestly to be desired. The terrors and not the healing influence of his creed predominated.
It was about this period, during a vacation, when he was only in his twentieth year, that he was visited while at Litchfield, with one of those dreadful attacks of hypochondria, which border upon mental alienation: a malady which in after life returned at intervals upon him, and embittered many hours of his existence. He never could conquer his dread of approaching insanity, yet in his worst paroxysms his mental powers were exerted with astonishing vigour. On this first attack he drew up a statement of his case in Latin with much judgment and perspicuity, which he placed in the hands of Dr. Swinfen of Litchfleld, his godfather; who incurred his displeasure by inconsiderately showing it to his friends, as an extraordinary instance of sagacity and research.
In 1730, Mr. Corbet left the university, and his father declining to contribute to Johnson's support, he was left in the most straitened circumstances. His remittances from Litchfield were so slender as to be quite unequal to supply him with the means of decent external appearance; and he was even constrained to wear shoes so much torn that they no longer concealed his feet. Some one commiserating his condition placed a new pair at his door, but he flung them away with indignation. Oppressed by want, he preserved a cheerful and even a gay exterior. "Ah, sir (said he to Mr. Boswell), I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic. 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." He struggled through another year, and had some intention of applying himself to either the civil or common law; but his debts and difficulties increased, his pittance from Litchfield could no longer be remitted, his father became insolvent, and he was compelled to leave his college in the autumn of 1731, not having taken a degree.
He returned to Litchfield without any plan of life for his future support; but his own merits and the respectable character of his parents gained him access to the best society of his native town. Soon after this his father died; and, when he had made a slender provision for his mother, Johnson's share of his effects was not more than £20. Under these circumstances it became necessary for him to adopt some plan for immediate subsistence; he therefore accepted the employment of under master of the school of Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire, and went thither on foot in July, 1732. The pride and insolence of Sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of the school, in whose house Johnson resided as a kind of domestic chaplain, rendered his situation so irksome that he relinquished it in a few months, and never remembered it but with a degree of horror.
Again thrown upon the world without means of support, he accepted an invitation from his school fellow, Mr. Hector, to pass some time with him at Birmingham, at the house of Mr. Warren, a bookseller, with whom he lodged. Mr. Warren paid some attentions to Johnson, who requited him by furnishing occasional essays for a newspaper of which he was the proprietor.
After residing six mouths with his friend Hector, wishing still to enjoy his society, he took lodgings in the house of Mr. Jarvis, in another part of the town; and at his desire he translated Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, from the French. For this work he received only the small sum of five guineas. It is remarkable as the first prose work of Johnson; the translation is not marked by the characteristics of his style, but the preface and dedication give indications of that structure of sentence and mode of expression which he afterwards adopted.
In February, 1734, he returned to Litchfield; and, in August following, published proposals for printing by subscription the Latin Poems of Politian, with his Life and Notes: but the design was relinquished for want of sufficient encouragement, though the book was to have been a bulky octavo, and was offered at the moderate price of five shillings.
On the failure of this project Johnson returned to Birmingham, and addressed from thence a letter to Mr. Cave, the proprietor of the Gentleman's Magazine, under the fictitious name of Smith, offering to supply him with "poems, inscriptions, and short literary dissertations in Latin or English, critical remarks on authors ancient or modern," &c. Mr. Cave returned him an answer, gladly accepting his proffered assistance; the remuneration was probably so trifling which Cave could then afford that Johnson found it necessary to seek another engagement in a school: he offered his services to Mr. Budworth, master of the school at Brerewood, in Staffordshire, but they were declined.
Though not formed by nature for a lover, Johnson was highly susceptible of amatory impressions; even at school he became enamoured of a young Quaker, named Olivia Lloyd, to whom he addressed some verses. He was afterwards smitten with the charms of Miss Lucy Porter, of Litchfield; and now he became the fervent admirer of her mother! She was the widow of a mercer at Birmingham, and her age was double that of her lover; and, if Garrick's account of her charms may be believed, Johnson's attachment could not have been inspired by the Graces: "she was fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance. Her swelled cheeks were of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastic in her dress, and affected in her speech and general behaviour;" but she had in her possession about eight hundred pounds, and though merely prudential reasons do not seem to have influenced Johnson, it must have been an important consideration to him under his present circumstances. It is evident that his defective vision made him an imperfect judge of the beautiful in art or nature: he thought her beautiful, and has recorded her as such in his prayers and meditations, and in the epitaph to her memory.
They were married at Derby on the ninth of July, 1736. To employ his wife's money to the best advantage, he took a large house at Edial, near Litchfield, and opened an Academy for classical education. He was patronized by his friend Mr. Walmsley, and took the usual modes of giving publicity to his establishment, yet he obtained but three pupils; one of them the celebrated Garrick, his brother George, and Mr. Offley, a young gentleman of good fortune, who died young. His leisure was now considerable, and he employed it in the composition of his Irene, and in reading. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was his favourite lounging book, and he declared "it was the only book that ever took him out of his bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise."
Defeated in his attempts at deriving a subsistence from his school, he determined to try his fortunes in the great city, and accordingly set out for London, March 2, 1737, accompanied by David Garrick, who went thither with the intention of following the profession of the law. They had a letter of recommendation from Mr. Walmsley to Mr. Colson, master of the mathematical school at Rochester, in which he says, "Johnson is to try his fate with a tragedy, and to see to get himself employed in some translation, either from the Latin or French." Three acts only of the tragedy were written, and Johnson's slender finances, even with the rigid economy which he found it necessary to practise, must soon have been exhausted. He learned "the art of living in London" from an Irish painter, the real prototype of his Ofellus. How he was employed at first is not known; but in July he addressed a letter to Mr. Cave, proposing to translate Sarpi's History of the Council of Trent, from the French of be Courayer. He had not yet been introduced to Cave, but addresses him in his own name. The offer was accepted; but other plans arose, and this was deferred till August in the next year, and, after about twelve sheets were printed, was finally abandoned on account of a rival translation. Johnson had received of Cave nearly fifty pounds when the design was dropped.
Soon after his letter to Cave, in July, 1737, he returned to Litchfield, for the purpose of seeing his wife. In three months of painful elaboration ho there finished his tragedy, and then removed with Mrs. Johnson to London; his heart beating high with expectations of dramatic success, which were at once blasted by the refusal of Fleetwood, the manager, to accept his play.
His thoughts now again reverted to his old correspondent Cave, and he was engaged as a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. His first known composition in that miscellany is a Latin ode "Ad Urbanum," in March, 1738. It was in his frequent visits to Cave's, at St. John's Gate, that be became acquainted with Savage: this acquaintance soon ripened into intimacy and friendship; they were drawn together by fellow feeling; both were writers for bread, and both were oppressed with extreme poverty.
Johnson appears to have been captivated by Savage's elegant manners; and they were for some time inseparable companions. Such was at times their extreme indigence that they were constrained to wander whole nights together in the streets, for want of the means to procure a lodging; one night in particular they walked round St. James's Square for many hours, not knowing where to hide their heads; yet they were not depressed by their situation, but in high spirits; and, brimful of patriotism, inveighed against the minister, and resolved to stand by their country.
It is melancholy to think of his situation at this period: he often felt the pressing calls of hunger without the means of diminishing its pangs — "to reflect that his vast trunk and stimulating appetite were to be supported by what will barely feed the weaned infant — he subsisted himself for a considerable space of time upon the scanty pittance of fourpence halfpenny per day."
His London, written in imitation of the third satire of Juvenal, was published in 1738. It is said that he offered it to several booksellers, none of whom would purchase it; and that Mr. Cave procured him ten pounds for the copyright from Dodsley. It soon acquired notice, and Pope was so much struck with its merit that he sought to discover the author, and prophesied his future fame. This poem laid the foundation of his great literary reputation, and may be considered the best of his poetical productions. He has adapted the severity of the Roman poet, his allusions and imagery, to the manners and vices of London with great judgment, and in many instances with singular felicity; and when he takes leave of his original, and draws flow his own resources, he displays such richness and depth of thought as evince that he needed not the foreign aid of his prototype. It is a splendid and spirited invective against oppression and tyranny, and full of the most virtuous indignation against ill acquired wealth; that admirable line, "Slow rises worth by poverty oppress'd," must have been inspired by his own bitter experience: he knew well
—what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret, and the gaol.
He made more than one effort to free himself from precarious dependence upon the trade or authorship. An offer was made him of becoming undermaster of the free school at Appleby, the salary of which as sixty pounds a year; but the degree of Master of Arts was a necessary qualification, and this he failed to procure, notwithstanding Pope's interference in his favour. He then endeavoured to be introduced to the bar at Doctors' Commons, but here again the want of a doctor's degree in civil law was an insuperable obstruction, he was therefore driven to continue his course of literary drudgery, and contributed largely and frequently to the Gentleman's Magazine for many years. The history of his literary productions has been traced with much minuteness by Mr. Boswell; and I must again take leave to refer the reader to his most interesting book: the space which can be allotted here will barely suffice for the enumeration of the principal events of his life.
A list has been preserved of no less than thirty-nine literary projects which he had formed in the course of his studies; but, from want of proper encouragement, or from versatility of disposition, not one of them was ever realized. His engagements were multifarious; and he was at one time employed by Thomas Osborne, the bookseller, to write for him the preface to the Catalogue of the Harleian Library, as well as to assist in its compilation, and in the selection of pamphlets called the Harleian Miscellany. This overbearing vulgar man was insolent to his dependent man of letters, and he in turn made him feel the weight of his athletic arm.
That admirable piece of biography, the Life of Savage, was first published in 1743; it was written with much rapidity, and came warm from the heart. He had previously given proofs of his talent as a biographer in the several lives of Paul Sarpi, Boerhaave, Sir Francis Drake, Admiral Blake, Philip Barretier, Burman, and Sydenham; most of which he contributed to the Gentleman's Magazine. His Life of Savage was received with the approbation it so highly merits.
He was fond of this species of composition, to which his acquirements and the bent of his mind peculiarly fitted him, when his prejudices did not interfere. A darling project of the kind with him was the Life of Alfred; but this he now relinquished, to undertake a work which forms not only a memorable epoch in his life, but in the history of English literature: he engaged with the booksellers for the compilation of an English Dictionary. To enable him to complete this vast undertaking, he hired a house in Gough Square, Fleet Street, and fitted up one of the rooms for the purpose, in which he employed six amanuenses. The plan of the work was published in 1747, addressed to Lord Chesterfield, and the Dictionary was completed and published in 1753. For this stupendous labour Johnson received the sum of £1575, a very inadequate price, when we consider the space of time it occupied, and the expenses which he incurred in its prosecution. Its merits and defects it is not my province here to discuss.
During the period that he was engaged upon his Dictionary he relaxed from the dry pursuits of lexicography, by occasional compositions of a more imaginative kind. The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe, a beautiful allegory of the life of man, which he himself thought the best of his writings, was published in Dodsley's Preceptor, in 1748. The Vanity of Human Wishes, being the tenth satire of Juvenal imitated, was published in 1749. "It breathes a strain of calm and dignified philosophy more pleasing to the mind than the party exaggeration of the prior satire." His adaptation of the poem to modern times and manners is happy and judicious, his selection of characters and examples peculiarly so; that of Charles of Sweden, for terseness and vigour of thought and elegance of expression, stands unrivaled. The conclusion of the poem is in a noble strain of moral pathos.
In the same year Garrick kindly offered to produce his tragedy of Irene on the stage, and after some alterations, unwillingly permitted by the author, it appeared; but was received with no great favour by the public, lingered a few nights, and was then withdrawn. Johnson's genius was by no means of a dramatic character. Irene is rather a series of moral dialogues than a tragedy; the plot is uninteresting, the incidents such as scarcely command attention in the closet; and he who could point out in Cato and the tragedies of the French school how "Declamation roar'd while Passion slept," knew not how to avoid the same defect: his own lines are remarkably applicable:
Yet still did Virtue deign the stage to tread,
Philosophy remain'd though Nature fled.
There are fine philosophical sentiments in his tragedy; but the versification has not a natural and harmonious flow, and it is even a frigid dramatic poem.
The Rambler was commenced on the twentieth of March, 1750, and continued every Tuesday and Saturday for two years. It was not very successful at first, but gradually gained ground in public estimation; and he had the satisfaction of living to see ten large editions dispersed in England alone, besides those printed in Ireland and Scotland. No more striking proof of the energy and fertility of Johnson's mind can be required than the recollection that this admirable work was written in the intervals snatched from his lexicographical labours, at a time too when he was afflicted by ill health and other impediments to mental exertion.
Soon after the termination of this paper he sustained a loss which overwhelmed him with the most poignant grief. His wife died in March, 1752. He had manifested the most sincere affection for her upon all occasions, and of the defects of her person or of her conduct he does not seem to have been sensible. She is said to have been unworthy of his sincere attachment: "she by no means treated him with that complacency which is the most engaging quality of a wife; was negligent of economy in her domestic affairs, and indulged in country air and nice living, at an unsuitable expense, while her husband was drudging in the smoke of London." It has been justly remarked, that "love is not a subject of reasoning, but of feeling." It is believed that Johnson married her for love, the impression which her imaginary beauty had originally made upon his imagination had not been effaced, and he had a high opinion of her understanding. At her death he was agonized, and cherished her image as the companion of his most solemn moments. The world is sufficiently acquainted with the singularity of his prayers for Tetty, as he endearingly called her, from that time to the end of his life. A childless widower, a prey to sorrow in a solitary home, Johnson sought a remedy for his deprivation, abroad, in the society of his extensive circle of acquaintance. One adventure, which contrasts agreeably with his more habitual gloomy view of life, has been recorded, which may serve to show that his conduct was not always so solemn as his essays.
He reckoned among his more intimate companions two young men of elegant manners, who had conceived the most sincere esteem for him, Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerk. "They had supped one night at a tavern, and sat till about three o'clock in the morning, when it came into their heads to go and knock up Johnson, and see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble. They rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple, till, at last, he appeared in his shirt, with his little black wig on the top of his head, instead of a night cap, and a poker in his hand; imagining, probably, that some ruffians were coming to attack him. When he discovered who they were, and was told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal. 'What! is it you, ye dogs! I'll have a frisk with you.' He was soon dressed; and they sallied forth together into Covent Garden, where the green grocers and fruiterers were beginning to arrange their hampers. Johnson made some attempts to help them; but the honest gardeners stared so at his figure and manner, and odd interference, that he soon saw his services were not relished. They then repaired to one of the neighbouring taverns, and made a bowl of that liquor called bishop, which Johnson had always liked; white in joyous contempt of sleep, from which he had been roused, he repeated the festive lines,
Short, oh, short then be thy reign,
And give us to the world again.
They did not stay long, but walked down to the Thames, took a boat and rowed to Billingsgate. Beauclerk and Johnson were so well pleased with their amusement that they resolved to persevere in dissipation for the rest of the day; but Langton deserted them, being engaged to breakfast with some young ladies. Johnson scolded him for leaving his social friends, to go and sit with a set of wretched 'un-idea'd girls!'"
Among his acquaintance was one for whom he had conceived a singular predilection, and who now became so necessary to him that be was hardly able to live without him. Robert Levet was an apothecary, whose practice lay among the lower order of people, Johnson held his abilities in such estimation as to consult him in all that related to his health. This humble friend he now drew into a closer intimacy, and gave him an apartment in his house, where he continued to reside during the remainder of his life. He waited upon him every morning at breakfast, and was frequently seen no more by him till midnight. Levet was a man of strange grotesque appearance, stiff and formal in his manner, and seldom said a word while any company was present. He requited the friendship of Johnson by repeated proofs of tenderness and affection. On his death Johnson paid a just tribute to his memory in some lines which are well known, and which do no less honour to his own feeling heart than to the subject of his panegyric. They are above all praise.
When the time for publishing the Dictionary drew near, Chesterfield, who had treated Johnson with unpardonable neglect, courted a reconciliation, in hopes of figuring in a dedication. He therefore wrote in praise of the undertaking in the periodical paper called The World, and made other overtures; but Johnson rejected his advances and spurned his patronage, in a letter which he addressed to him; and which is justly considered as a model of courtly sarcasm and manly reprehension, couched in respectful but cutting terms. The University of Oxford, at the solicitation of Thomas Warton, conferred upon Johnson the degree of M.A. which was considered as an honour of considerable importance at this juncture, in order to grace the title page of the Dictionary. The sum which he was to receive for this laborious work had been expended during the course of its compilation, and at its completion he found himself obliged to use unremitted exertions to provide for his immediate necessities. An edition of Shakspeare, with notes, was announced by subscription; this, and the profits arising from his miscellaneous essays, were his only sources, and they did not suffice to keep him out of embarrassment; for he was under arrest for the small sum of five pounds eighteen shillings in March, 1756; and applied to Richardson, the printer, for a loan to that amount to set him free, which was immediately sent to him.
He was at this time a contributor to The Universal Visitor, and The Literary Magazine, two periodical publications, for which he wrote many essays and articles of criticism. He also wrote the Life of Sir Thomas Browne, which was prefixed to an edition of the Christian Morals of that interesting and original writer, whose works had long been a favourite study with Johnson.
He had been offered a living of considerable value by the father of his friend Mr. Langton, but he did not think proper to take orders. In April, 1758, he began The Idler, which was published every Saturday, in a newspaper called The Universal Chronicle. This paper was also continued two years, the number of essays being one hundred and three, all of which, excepting twelve communicated by various friends, were the composition of Johnson. The Idler is considered not at all inferior to The Rambler; it has more variety of real life, displays more humour, and a greater facility of style.
In 1759 he lost his mother, who died at the advanced age of ninety; this event deeply affected him: he reproached himself with not having visited her for some years; but he had long contributed liberally to her support. Soon alter this event he produced Rasselas, that with the profit he might defray the expense of his mother's funeral. He told Sir Joshua Reynolds, that he composed it in the evenings of one week, sent it to press in portions as it was written, and had never since read it over. He received one hundred pounds for the copyright, and twenty-five pounds when it came to a second edition.
During this year he carried on his Idler, and was proceeding leisurely with his Shakspeare. He had previously quitted his house in Gough Square, and lived in Gray's Inn. He now removed to chambers in the Inner Temple Lane, "where he lived (says Mr. Murphy) in poverty, and total idleness, and the pride of literature. 'Magni stat nominis umbra.'" Mr. Fitzherbert paid him a visit one morning, intending to write a letter from his chambers; but found him without pen, ink, or paper!
At length Fortune smiled upon him: be had long struggled for a precarious subsistence, which even his great talents, and now confirmed reputation, did not always insure him; but in the month of July, 1762, the king conferred upon him a pension of three hundred pounds per annum; he obtained it by the interference of Lord Bute, upon the suggestion of Mr. Wedderburn (afterwards Lord Loughborough), at the instance of Sheridan and Murphy. Johnson had reviled pensioners and Scotchmen; and now, having accepted a pension at the hands of two Scotch ministers, laid himself open to the shafts of satire and envious malice. He was a Tory and a Jacobite, and Wilkes fulminated against the ministers for rewarding him; Churchill satirized him with poignant severity. It is true that his pension was granted unconditionally: it was rather a reward for his moral writings than a stipulation for political services.
To enlarge his social circle, and to find opportunities for colloquial intercourse, of which he was very fond, Johnson formed a club, which was afterwards known by the title of the LITERARY CLUB. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith, and other persons of eminence were members. They met every Monday evening at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street.
About this time he was visited with another attack of hypochondria, and was so severely affected as to be entirely averse to society, one of the most fatal symptoms of that disorder; and his friends were seriously alarmed for the consequences both to his bodily and mental health.
In 1765 he was introduced to Mr. Thrale, by Mr. Murphy. He was so much pleased with his reception both by Mr. and Mrs. Thrale, and they were so much delighted with his conversation, that his visits were gradually more and more frequent, until at length, in 1766, he became one of the family, having an apartment appropriated to him both at their town and country house. Nothing could be more fortunate for Johnson than this connexion, which contributed much to his happiness, by diverting his melancholy, and lessening his irregular habits. Mr. Thrale was a good scholar, and had a sound understanding, with the manners of a plain independent country gentleman. Mrs. Thrale was a lively well bred woman, with a sufficient tincture of letters; and the society which was occasionally assembled at their table embraced almost all that were eminent for talent at the time. Johnson found here a constant succession of that which gave him the highest enjoyment.
In this year he was complimented by the University of Dublin with the degree of Doctor of Laws, and at length gave to the world his long expected edition of Shakspeare. It cannot be doubted that "his vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on his author than all his predecessors had done," but his track of reading did not quite qualify him for the task; he does not appear to have made sufficient use of the works of, contemporary and preceding writers, from whence such a copious harvest of explanatory notes has since been reaped; nor did he use all the diligence which seemed necessary in the collation of the early editions. But his noble preface will ever be read with interest and delight.
He removed from the Inner Temple to a good house in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, in 1766. Miss Williams, a woman of considerable talents and literature, had before been an inmate in his house, while undergoing an operation for a cataract in both her eyes, which ended in total blindness; and he now allotted her an apartment in his new establishment: while his humble friend, Levet, took up his usual post in the garret.
In the early part of the next year Johnson was honoured by a private conversation with the king, in the library at Buckingham House, "which much gratified his monarchic enthusiasm."
He now turned his attention to politics, and published two pamphlets in vindication of the ministry; The False Alarm, in 1770, and Falkiand's Island, in 1771. In the zenith of his political celebrity, Mr. Strahan, the king's printer, made an attempt to bring him into parliament; but the overture made to government was unsuccessful.
In 1773 he made a journey to the Hebrides, in company with Mr. Boswell, the results of which are before the public in his own account, and in the entertaining journal of his companion. He published two more political pamphlets; The Patriot, in 1774, and Taxation no Tyranny, in 1775. In the month of March, in this year, he was gratified by the University of Oxford conferring on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, at the solicitation of Lord North. He visited France, in company with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale, in October of this year. Foote happened to be in Paris at the time, and said the French were perfectly astonished at his figure and manner, his brown clothes, black stockings, and plain shirt, He kept a journal of the occurrences in this tour, probably with a view to writing an account of it; but he never put his intention into practice.
He removed from Johnson's Court, to a larger house in Bolt Court, in 1776, where he had a garden which be took delight in watering. Beside his inmates, Miss Williams and Levet, he now appropriated an apartment to Mrs. Desmoulins (daughter of his godfather, Dr. Swinfen, and widow of a writing master), together with her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael. His benevolence to the unfortunate, at all periods of his life, was exemplary; he allowed Mrs. Desmoulins, who had been left destitute, half-a-guinea a week, which was above a twelfth part of his income. Mrs. Piozzi relates, that "his inmates made his life miserable, from the impossibility he found of making theirs happy. He was oftentimes afraid of going home, because he was sure to be met at the door with numberless complaints." Another trait of his feeling and benevolent disposition was the strenuous exertion he made by appeals from his eloquent pen in favour of the unhappy Dr. Dodd.
In the year 1777 he entered into an engagement to write the Lives of the English Poets. His intention was only in the first instance an advertisement, containing a few dates and general character of each poet; an undertaking which he thought not very tedious or difficult, and for which he was to have two hundred guineas. "The honest desire of giving useful pleasure" led him beyond his first intention; he was so much pleased with his task that he entered more fully into biographical and critical details; the result was the admirable series of Lives of the Poets, the last of his literary labours, and with all their defects not one of the least valuable. So sensible were the proprietors of the value of his extension of the first plan that they presented him with an additional hundred pounds. The first four volumes were published in 1779, and the remaining five in 1781.
Johnson's unfortunate prejudices, political and literary, have deformed many of these lives. Who can think with patience of his attempts to lower, not only the poetical but the moral character of Milton! his detestation of blank verse, his political prejudices, his incapacity to estimate the value of lyrical poetry, to which he does not conceal his dislike? the injustice of his strictures upon Collins, Gray, and Akenside? His total want of relish for the pastoral and descriptive beauties of Shenstone and Dyer have been often noted. That an antidote should accompany the poison; it is incumbent upon those who adopt the Lives of Johnson, in the popular editions of the British Poets, to accompany these parts with corrective notes, that the young and the uninformed may not be misled by the sanction of his authority. The Life of Cowley appears to be one of the most valuable of the series; his eloquent parallel of Pope and Dryden is in his happiest manner; "the acuteness of criticism, the vigour of expression, the knowledge of life which is displayed throughout, and the pure morality inculcated in these lives will always make them be held in high estimation."
This last of Johnson's literary labours, completed in his seventy-first year, manifests no diminution in the vigour of his mental faculties; but the malady, which had persecuted him through life, now renewed its attacks with redoubled force. His constitution seemed broken, and his mind partook of the general decay. He confessed that "he never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him," and he contemplated its near approach with extreme terror.
He lost his friend Thrale in May, 1781, and with him he lost many of the chief comforts of his life. He became a less welcome visitor at Streatham every day, and at length he took his final leave of Mrs. Thrale. He received another shock in 1782, by the sudden death of his old and faithful domestic companion, Levet, whom, in the declining state of his health, he could ill spare.
From this time the narrative of his life is little more than a recital of the pressure of melancholy and disease; he sought relief in change of scene, and took numberless excursions to divert his anxious distress of mind; but he could not fly from his infirmities, he was now doomed to feel all those calamities which he had so eloquently enumerated in his Vanity of Human Wishes:
Enlarge my life with multitude of days!
In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays:
Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
That life protracted is protracted woe.
He was visited by a paralytic stroke in June, 1783, which for some time deprived him of speech; from this he gradually recovered, and made several excursions into the country with tolerable ease. He had all this year been afflicted with gout, as well as with a sarcocele, and bore his ills with tolerable firmness. In the beginning of 1784 he was seized with a spasmodic asthma, which was soon attended by some degree of dropsy; but he was relieved from the latter, in a great degree, by a course of medicine.
Enjoying a flattering kind of convalescence during the summer, it excited in him a desire to visit Italy; his friends, not deeming his pension adequate to support the expenses of the journey, had made an unsuccessful application to the minister for an augmentation of two hundred pounds. Lord Thurlow and Dr. Brocklesby offered their assistance; the first by a present, under the denomination of a loan, of five hundred pounds; the latter by the offer of one hundred pounds per annum during his residence abroad: but he gratefully declined both these offers, he was now, however, approaching fast to a state in which money could be of no avail.
In July he set out on a visit to Dr. Taylor, at Ashbourn, in Derbyshire, but his complaints continued without any alleviation. From thence he went to Litchfield, to take a long and last farewell of his native city, visiting Birmingham and Oxford in his return to London, where he arrived in November.
Soon after his return the symptoms of asthma and dropsy became again violent and distressing; the near approach of his dissolution filled his mind with awful perturbations, which his friends endeavoured to repress, by awakening in him the comfortable reflexions of a well spent useful life, and by joining with him in fervent prayer. He had for some time kept a journal of his illness, but discontinued it on the eighth of November.
He experienced during his illness the kind and steady attention of a numerous circle of friends, and was attended by the most eminent of the faculty without fees. He now prepared for death by many little acts of retribution, and by destroying most of his MS. papers, among which were two quarto volumes, containing a full and most particular account of his own life; the loss of which cannot sufficiently be regretted.
His last days seem to have been unclouded by those gloomy apprehensions which had so long oppressed him. He was resigned, calm, and full of Christian hope and faith. He died on the thirteenth of December, 1785, in the seventy-fifth year of his age, and was interred in Westminster Abbey; his funeral was attended by a large and respectable body of men of distinction, who had honoured him with their friendship. A monument has since been erected to his memory, by subscription, in St. Paul's Cathedral.
The fame of Dr. Johnson would not have been less widely diffused if the few poetical productions contained in the following pages had never been written; and yet the two Satires, and the Prologue for the Opening of Drury Lane Theatre, are noble productions; and would have been sufficient to throw no mean lustre on the reputation of an ordinary writer. He, like Pope, chose to be the poet of reason; not because he was deficient in imagination, for his Oriental fictions contain much of the elements of the most fanciful poetry, but his mind was so constituted that "he contemned all that had not a direct practical tendency." That he knew how to appreciate the creative faculty of the poet is evident from the character he has drawn of Shakspeare; and he would have done justice to Milton, if his prejudices against the man had not blinded his judgment to the merits of the poet. He had diligently studied the works of Dryden and Pope, and has caught the spirit, vigour, and terseness of his great models. I have already mentioned the exquisitely pathetic Verses on the Death of Levett. "The wonderful powers of Johnson (says Dr. Drake) were never shown to greater advantage than on this occasion, where the subject, from its obscurity and mediocrity, seemed to bid defiance to poetical efforts; it is in fact warm from the heart, and is the only poem from the pen of Johnson that has been bathed with tears."
Of his lyric effusions much cannot be said: they want the enthusiasm and feeling which is the soul of such compositions. When we recollect the imperfection of two of the senses, sight and hearing, in Johnson, we shall not be surprised that he had not a keen perception of the beauties of nature, or of the powers of harmony; his want of relish for descriptive poetry, and pastoral, cannot therefore be wondered at; nor his want of success in his Odes on the Seasons. He does not paint from nature, but from books.
With a rough exterior, overbearing manners, and many odd peculiarities and habits, Johnson possessed almost all the virtues which grace and dignify human nature. He was humane, charitable, affectionate, and generous; and even his sallies of temper were the effect of a morbid irritability of system. Goldsmith used to say that "he had nothing of the bear but his skin." To a strong and steady judgment he united a vigorous and excursive imagination, his apprehension was remarkably quick and acute, his memory extraordinarily tenacious. With some early prejudices his reason struggled in vain, and the habitual weaknesses of his mind form a singular contrast to the vigour of his understanding. He was superstitious, and credulous in no slight degree; and these aberrations from mental rectitude can only be accounted for by recollecting the influence of his melancholic temperament, which had ever a tendency to insanity. As a philologer, a critic, a biographer, and a moralist, his works have had such a beneficial effect upon the literature of his country that his life and writings must ever form a principal feature in the literary history of the last century.