Samuel Johnson (also known as “Dr. Johnson”), born September 18, 1709, and died December 13, 1784, was one of the leading authors of British literature. He was a poet, essayist, biographer, lexicographer, translator, pamphleteer, journalist, editor, moralist, and polygrapher, as well as a noted literary critic.
His commentaries on Shakespeare, in particular, are considered classics. A devout Anglican and staunch Tory, he has been described as “probably the most distinguished man of letters in English history. The first biography devoted to him, The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell, published in 1791, is the “most famous work of biography in all literature. In the United Kingdom, Samuel Johnson is known as “Doctor Johnson” because of the academic title of “Doctor of Laws”, which was granted to him as an honorary degree.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, he attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for a year until his lack of money forced him to leave. After working as a schoolteacher, he came to London where he began to write articles for The Gentleman”s Magazine. His first works were a biography of his friend, the poet Richard Savage, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744), the poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and a tragedy, Irene.
His extreme popularity is due in part to his major work, the Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 after nine years of work, and in part to the biography of him by James Boswell. With the Dictionary, whose impact on modern English is considerable, Johnson single-handedly wrote the equivalent for the English language of the Dictionnaire de l”Académie française. The Dictionary, described by Batte in 1977 as “one of the greatest individual feats of scholarship,” made its author famous and, until the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1928, it was the standard British dictionary. As for James Boswell”s Life of Samuel Johnson, it is a landmark in the field of biography. It is from this monumental work that many of Johnson”s bon mots are drawn, as well as many of his comments and reflections, which have earned Johnson the title of “the most frequently quoted Englishman after Shakespeare.
His last works were essays, an influential annotated edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), and the successful novel Rasselas. In 1763 he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later traveled in Scotland; Johnson described their travels in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Toward the end of his life, he wrote Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a collection of biographies of 17th and 18th century poets.
Johnson was tall and sturdy, but his odd gestures and tics were confusing to some when they first met him. The Life of Samuel Johnson and other biographies of his contemporaries described Johnson”s behavior and tics in such detail that he was later diagnosed as having suffered from Tourette”s syndrome, unknown in the 18th century, for most of his life. After a series of illnesses, he died on the evening of December 13, 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, London. After his death, Johnson began to be recognized as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and indeed as the only great critic of English literature.
There are many biographies of Samuel Johnson, but James Boswell”s The Life of Samuel Johnson is the one that is best known to the general public. In the twentieth century, however, the opinion of Johnson scholars such as Edmund Wilson and Donald Greene was that such a work could hardly be called a biography: “It is merely a collection of what Boswell may have written in his diaries of his encounters with Johnson during the last twenty-two years of Johnson”s life…with only a very careless effort to fill in the gaps.” Donald Greene also assures that Boswell, with the help of his friends, began his work with a well-organized press campaign, with heavy publicity and denigration of his opponents, using one of Macaulay”s most memorable articles as a stimulus, which is nothing more than a reporter”s spin. He also criticizes him for errors and omissions, claiming that the book is more of a memoir than a biography in the strict sense.
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Children and education
Michael Johnson, bookseller in Lichfield, (Staffordshire, England), married in 1706, at the age of 49, Sarah Ford, aged 38. Samuel was born on September 18, 1709, at his parents” home above the bookstore. As Sarah was over forty years old, and the delivery was difficult, the couple called upon a renowned maieutician and surgeon named George Hector. The child does not cry, and doubtful about the health of the newborn, his aunt declares “she would not have picked up such a poor creature in the street”; the family, fearing for the survival of the child, brings the priest of St. Mary”s church, the neighboring church, to baptize him. He was given the name of Sarah”s brother, Samuel Ford, and two godparents were chosen for him: Samuel Swynfen, a doctor who had graduated from Pembroke College, Oxford, and Richard Wakefield, a lawyer and town clerk in Lichfield.
Samuel”s health improved, and Joan Marklew served as his nurse. But he was soon afflicted with scrofula, then called “King”s Sickness,” because it was thought that a king”s touch could cure it. John Floyer, former physician to Charles II of England, suggested that young Johnson should receive the King”s Touch, which Anne of Great Britain granted him on March 30, 1712. The ritual proved ineffective, however, and an operation was performed that left indelible scars on Samuel”s body and face. With the birth of Samuel”s brother, Nathaniel, some time later, Michael is no longer able to pay the debts he has accumulated over the years, and his family is forced to change their lifestyle.
Samuel Johnson was particularly precocious in his intelligence, and his parents were proud to show off, as he later recalled with some disgust, “his newly acquired talents. His education began when he was three years old and his mother made him memorize and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. At age four, he was sent to “Lady” Anne Oliver, who ran a kindergarten in her home, and then, at age six, to a retired shoemaker to continue his education. The following year, Johnson was sent to Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin. It was during this time that he began to exhibit the tics and uncontrolled movements that would later play such a large role in his self-image and that would lead, after his death, to the diagnosis of Tourette”s syndrome. A particularly bright student, he entered high school at age nine. He befriended Edmund Hector, nephew of his midwife George Hector, and John Taylor, with whom he remained in contact throughout his life.
At sixteen, Johnson had the opportunity to spend several months with his mother”s family, the Fords, in Pedmore, Worcestershire. He formed a strong bond with his first cousin Cornelius Ford, who used his knowledge of classical authors to tutor him since he did not attend school. Ford was a brilliant academic, well-connected and socialized with the likes of Alexander Pope, but he was also a notorious alcoholic whose excesses led to his death six years after Johnson”s visit, which affected him deeply.
After spending six months with his cousins, Johnson returned to Lichfield but Mr. Hunter, the principal of the grammar school, who “was annoyed by the impertinence of his long absence,” refused to reinstate him. He was not allowed to attend Lichfield Grammar School, so with the help of Cornelius Ford, Johnson was enrolled at King Edward VI Grammar School in Stourbridge. Because of the school”s proximity to Pedmore, Johnson was able to spend more time with his cousins, and he began to write poetry and translate verse. At Stourbridge Johnson became friends with John Taylor and Edmund Hector and fell in love with Edmund”s younger sister Ann. However, he spent only six months at Stourbridge before returning once again to his parents” home in Lichfield. According to Edmund Hector”s testimony, taken by James Boswell, Johnson left Stourbridge after an argument with the principal, John Wentworth, over Latin grammar.
Johnson”s future was very uncertain at the time, as his father was in great debt. In order to earn some money, he began to stitch books for his father, although it is likely that, because of his poor eyesight, he spent much more time in his father”s bookstore reading a variety of books and expanding his literary knowledge. It was at this time that he met Gilbert Walmesley, the president of the ecclesiastical court, a frequent visitor to his father”s bookstore, who took a liking to him. For two years, they had the opportunity to discuss many literary and intellectual subjects.
The family lived in relative poverty until the death in February 1728 of Elizabeth Harriotts, a cousin of Sarah”s, who left them £40, enough to send Samuel to university. On October 31, 1728, a few weeks after his nineteenth birthday, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as a fellow-commoner. Johnson”s knowledge (he was able to quote Macrobe!) made him accepted without any problem. But the inheritance did not cover all his expenses at Pembroke, so Andrew Corbet, a friend and fellow student, offered to make up the deficit. Unfortunately, he left Pembroke shortly afterwards, and to support his son, Michael Johnson allowed him to borrow a hundred books from his collection, books that he would not recover until years later.
At Pembroke, Johnson made friends and read widely, but skipped many required classes and meetings on poetry. Later, he would tell stories about his idleness. When his teacher, Professor Jorden, asked him to translate Alexander Pope”s Messiah into Latin as an exercise for Christmas, he completed half of it in one afternoon and finished the next morning. Despite the praise he received, Johnson did not reap the material benefit he had hoped for, although Pope had considered the work very good. The poem later appeared in Miscellany of Poems (“Anthology”), edited by John Husbands, a professor at Pembroke. This is the earliest surviving publication of Johnson”s work. Johnson spent all his time studying, even during the Christmas vacations. He drafted a “plan of study” called “Adversaria” which he left unfinished, and took the time to study French while deepening his knowledge of Greek.
After thirteen months, poverty forced Johnson, who had not even enough money to buy shoes, to leave Oxford without a degree, and he returned to Lichfield. Towards the end of his time at Oxford, his teacher, Professor Jorden, left Pembroke and was replaced by William Adams. Johnson liked him very much, but because he had not paid his tuition, he had to return home in December. He left behind many of the books his father had lent him, both because he could not afford the cost of transporting them and as a symbolic gesture: he hoped to return to the university soon.
He finally received a diploma: just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree of Master of Arts. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin and another in 1775 by Oxford University. In 1776, he returned to Pembroke with James Boswell and visited the university with his last master, Professor Adams. He took advantage of this visit to recount his studies at the university, his early career, and to express his attachment to Professor Jorden.
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Beginning of career : 1731 – 1746
Little is known about Johnson”s life between late 1729 and 1731; it is likely that he lived with his parents. He suffered from anxiety attacks and physical pain for years; his tics and uncontrolled movements, linked to Tourette”s syndrome, became increasingly evident and were often commented on. By 1731, his father, deeply in debt, had lost much of his position in Lichfield. Samuel Johnson hoped to obtain a position as an usher at Stourbridge Grammar School, but his degree did not allow him to do so and his application was rejected on September 6, 1731. It was about this time that his father became ill with the “inflammatory fever” that led to his death in December 1731. Johnson eventually found employment as an under-teacher at a school in Market Bosworth run by Sir Wolstan Dixie, who allowed him to teach without a degree. Although he was treated as a servant, and found the activity boring, he enjoyed teaching. But he quarreled with Wolstan Dixie, left the school, and by June 1732 was back home.
Johnson still hopes to be appointed to Lichfield. Rejected at Ashbourne, he went to see his friend Edmund Hector, who lived with the publisher Thomas Warren. The latter has just created the first magazine in Birmingham, the Birmingham Journal (which appears every Thursday), and enlists Johnson”s help. This connection with Warren grew, and Johnson offered to translate the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Jerónimo Lobo”s account of the Abyssinians into English. After reading the French translation by Abbé Joachim le Grand, he felt that a more condensed version would be “useful and profitable. Rather than writing it all himself, he dictates to Hector who then takes the manuscript to the printer and makes some corrections. A Voyage to Abyssinia was published a year later. Johnson returned to Lichfield in February 1734 and prepared an annotated edition of Poliziano”s Latin poems, together with a history of Latin poetry from Petrarch to Poliziano; a Proposal (announcement of the project) was printed, but the project was aborted for lack of funds.
Johnson accompanied his close friend Harry Porter during the last stages of his illness, which took him away on September 3, 1734, leaving a wife Elizabeth Jervis Porter (aka “Tetty”) of 41 years and three children. A few months later, Johnson began courting her. Reverend William Shaw states that “the first advances probably came from her, for her attachment to Johnson went against the advice and wishes of her whole family.” Johnson had no experience in this area, but the wealthy widow encouraged him and promised to provide for him from her comfortable savings. They were married on July 9, 1735 at St. Werburg”s Church in Derby. The Porter family did not approve of this union, partly because Johnson was 25 and Elizabeth 42. She disliked her son Jervis to the point that he cut ties with his mother. However, her daughter Lucy accepted Johnson from the beginning, and her other son, Joseph, would later accept the marriage.
In June 1735, while serving as tutor to Thomas Withby”s children, Johnson applied for the position of principal of Solihull School. Although Gilbert Walmesley supported him, Johnson was turned down because the school”s directors thought he was “a very haughty and disagreeable man” and that he “had such a way of distorting his face that people feared it might affect some of the children. Encouraged by Walmesley, Johnson, convinced of his qualities as a teacher, decided to start his own school. In the fall of 1735, he opened Edial Hall School, a private school, in Edial near Lichfield. But he had only three pupils: Lawrence Offley, George Garrick and the young David Garrick (18 years old) who would become one of the most famous actors of his time. The enterprise was a failure and cost Tetty a large part of his fortune. Giving up on keeping his school in bankruptcy, Johnson began writing his first major work, the historical tragedy Irene. For his biographer Robert De Maria, Tourette”s syndrome rendered Johnson virtually incapable of public activities, such as teaching or higher education; his illness may have led Johnson to “the invisible occupation of writing.”
On March 2, 1737, the day his brother died, Johnson left for London with his former student David Garrick; penniless, he was pessimistic about their trip, but fortunately Garrick had connections in London and they were able to stay with Richard Norris, a distant relative of the student. Johnson soon moved to Greenwich, near the Golden Hart Tavern, where he finished Irene. On July 12, 1737, he wrote to Edward Cave, offering to translate Paolo Sarpi”s Istoria del Concilio Tridentino (History of the Council of Trent) (1619), which Cave did not accept until months later. He brought his wife to London in October, Cave paying her for her articles for The Gentleman”s Magazine. His work for the magazine and other publishers in Grub Street, that popular street in the City of London where booksellers, small publishers, public writers and poor poets rubbed shoulders, was at that time “almost unprecedented in extent and variety” and “so numerous, so varied” that “Johnson himself could not have made a complete list of them”.It was there that he met George Psalmanazar, the repentant impostor, who worked at the same time as he did as a small-time writer for hire. James Boswell reports that they “used to meet in a tavern in the City” on Old Street. Johnson admires his piety and sees in him “the best man he ever met.
In May 1738, his first major poetic work, London, was published anonymously. Inspired by Juvenal”s Third Satire, it presents a man named Thales going to Wales to escape the troubles of London, described as a place of crime, corruption and abandonment of the poor. Johnson does not expect the poem to reveal its value, although Alexander Pope declares that the author will soon be unearthed, but this will not happen until 15 years later.
In August, because he did not have a Master of Arts degree from Oxford or Cambridge, he was denied a teaching position at Appleby Grammar School. Wishing to put an end to these rejections, Pope asked Lord Gower to use his influence to get Johnson a degree. Lord Gower insisted that Oxford grant Johnson an honorary degree, but was told that it was “too much to ask. He then asked a friend of Jonathan Swift”s to convince Swift to ask Dublin University to grant Johnson a Master”s degree, in the hope that it might help in obtaining a Master of Arts from Oxford, but Swift refused to act on Johnson”s behalf.
Between 1737 and 1739, Johnson became friends with the poet Richard Savage. Feeling guilty about living at Tetty”s expense, Johnson stopped living with her and devoted his time to his friend. They are poor and usually stay in inns or “nightclubs”, except on nights when they wander the streets, lacking money. His friends tried to help Savage by persuading him to leave for Wales, but he failed in Bristol where he got into debt again. Sent to prison, he died there in 1743. A year later, Johnson wrote Life of Mr. Richard Savage, a “moving” work that, according to biographer and critic Walter Jackson Batte, “remains one of the groundbreaking works in the history of biography.
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Dictionary of the English language
In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson with plans to create an authoritative dictionary of the English language; a contract with William Strahan and his associates, worth 1,500 guineas, was signed on the morning of June 18, 1746. Samuel Johnson assured that he could complete the project in three years. By comparison, the forty members of the French Academy took forty years to complete their dictionary, prompting Johnson to say, “That”s the ratio. Let”s see; forty times forty equals sixteen hundred. Three for sixteen-cent is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman. Although he could not finish the work in three years, he did in nine, justifying his boast. According to Walter Batte, the Dictionary “easily counts as one of the greatest feats of scholarship, and is probably the greatest that has been accomplished by any individual, under such conditions and in such a time. By way of comparison, Émile Littré took eighteen years (from 1847 to 1865) to complete his Dictionnaire de la langue française. However, the Dictionary did not escape criticism. For example, Thomas Babington Macaulay considered its author to be a “wretched etymologist”.
Johnson”s dictionary is neither the first nor the only one; but it is the most widely used, the most imitated for 150 years, between its first publication and the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. In the 150 years before Johnson”s dictionary, nearly twenty “English” dictionaries were published, including the Dictionarium Britannicum published in 1721 by Nathan Bailey, which included more words. But these dictionaries left much to be desired. In 1741, David Hume stated in The Elegance and Propriety of Stile, that these two notions “have been much neglected among us. We have no dictionary of our language and scarcely a tolerable grammar. Johnson”s Dictionary provides a glimpse into the eighteenth century and offers “a faithful presentation of the language that was used. More than a simple reference work, it is a true literary work.
For a decade, the work on the Dictionary disrupted the lives of Samuel and his wife Tetty. The physical aspects, such as copying and compiling, require the presence of many assistants, which fills the house with constant noise and clutter. Johnson was constantly caught up in his work and kept hundreds of books on hand. His friend John Hawkins described the scene: “The books he used for this purpose were those of his own collection, large but in a sorry state, as well as all those he could borrow; which, if ever returned to those who had lent them, were so degraded as to be scarcely worth having. Johnson was also concerned about his wife”s health, which was beginning to show symptoms of an incurable disease. To be able to take care of both his wife and his work, he moved to 17 Gough Square, near his printer William Strahan.
During the preparatory phase of his work, in 1747, Johnson wrote a Plan for the Dictionary. Lord Chesterfield, known to be an open supporter of literature, was solicited and seemed interested, as he subscribed for 10 pounds, but did not extend his support. A famous episode pits Johnson against Lord Chesterfield, who has him turned away by his lackeys. Shortly before the publication date, however, Chesterfield wrote two anonymous essays in The World recommending the Dictionary, in which he complained that the English language lacked structure, and presented his arguments in favor of the Dictionary. Johnson did not like the tone of the essay and felt that Chesterfield had not fulfilled his role in supporting the Dictionary. He wrote a letter to express his views on the matter, severely criticizing Chesterfield (including the years-old episode in which he was chased out of the Earl”s house) and defending the literati:
“Is this a protector, my lord, one who looks on indifferently as a man struggles through the water, only to come and embarrass him with his help when he has reached the shore? The interest you have been pleased to show in my work, had it been earlier, would have been kind, but it has been deferred until I am insensible to it and cannot appreciate it; until I am reduced to solitude and cannot share it; until I am known and no longer need it. (Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it).”
Impressed by the style of this letter, Lord Chesterfield keeps it displayed on a table for all to read.
During the development of the dictionary, Johnson launched several subscriptions: subscribers would get a copy of the first edition as soon as it was released as compensation for their support; these appeals lasted until 1752. The Dictionary was finally published in April 1755, its first page informing that Oxford had awarded Johnson an advance diploma for his work. The dictionary is a large work. Its pages are almost 46 cm long (it contains 42,773 entries, to which very few will be added in later editions). It was sold at the then exorbitant price of £4.10.
An important innovation in English lexicography is the use of literary quotations to illustrate the meaning of words. There are about 114,000 of these. The most quoted authors are Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden; Johnson”s Dictionary, as it was later called, did not become profitable for the publisher until years later. As for Johnson, there was no such thing as royalties, so once he had fulfilled his contract, he received nothing from sales. Years later, many of his quotations were included in various editions of Webster”s Dictionary and the New English Dictionary.
Along with his work on the Dictionary, Johnson wrote various essays, sermons, and poems during these nine years. He decided to publish a series of essays under the title The Rambler, appearing every Tuesday and Saturday for two pence each. Explaining the title years later, he told his friend, the painter Joshua Reynolds, “Finding the title was embarrassing. I sat up one night on my bed, determined not to go to bed until I had found it. The Rambler seemed to be the best of those available, and I chose it. These essays, often with moral or religious subject matter, tend to be more serious than the title of the publication might suggest; his first remarks in The Rambler ask:
” que dans cette entreprise, ton Esprit-Saint ne me soit pas refusé, mais que je puisse promouvoir ta gloire, et mon salut et celui des autres. “
The Rambler”s popularity exploded once the issues were combined into one volume; they were reprinted nine times during Johnson”s lifetime. Writer and printer Samuel Richardson, who greatly appreciated the essays, asked the publisher for the identity of their author; only he and a few of Johnson”s friends knew who he was. A friend, the novelist Charlotte Lennox, supports The Rambler in 1752, in her novel The Female Quixote. Specifically, she has her character Mr. Glanville say, “You may submit the productions of a Young, Richardson, or Johnson to judgment. Rant against The Rambler with premeditated malice; and for the absence of errors, turn his inimitable beauties into ridicule” (Book VI, Chapter XI). Later, she asserts that Johnson is “the greatest genius of the present age.
However, his work is not limited to The Rambler. His most highly regarded poem The Vanity of Human Wishes is written with such “extraordinary speed” that Boswell asserts that Johnson “should have been a poet perpetually.” It is an imitation of Juvenal”s Satire X, which states that “the antidote to futile human wishes are non-futile spiritual wishes.” Specifically, Johnson emphasizes “the helpless vulnerability of the individual to the social context” and “the inevitable blindness by which human beings are misled.” The poem, though critically acclaimed, was not a popular success and sold less well than London. In 1749, Garrick kept his promise to stage Irene, but the title was changed to Mahomet and Irene to make it “suitable for the theater”. The play finally ran for nine performances.
Tetty Johnson was ill for most of her time in London and in 1752 she decided to return to the country while her husband was busy with his Dictionary. She died on March 17, 1752, and when he learned of her death, Johnson wrote a letter to his old friend Taylor that he said “expressed grief in the deepest way he had ever read. He wrote a eulogy for his wife”s funeral, but Taylor refused to read it for reasons that remain unknown. This only accentuates Johnson”s sense of loss and despair over his wife”s death; the funeral is to be attended by John Hawkesworth. Johnson feels guilty about the poverty in which he thinks he has forced Tetty to live, and blames himself for having abandoned her. He is openly grief-stricken, and his diary is filled with prayers and lamentations about Elizabeth”s death and even his own. Since she was his main motivation, her death greatly hinders the progress of his work.
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Quarry from 1756 to the end of the 1760s
On March 16, 1756, Johnson was arrested for an unpaid debt of £5 and 18s. Unable to reach anyone else, he wrote to the writer and publisher Samuel Richardson, who had lent him money in the past. Richardson sent him six guineas (that is, £6 and 6s, slightly more than the amount of the debt) to show his benevolence, and they became friends. Soon after, Johnson met the painter Joshua Reynolds and the two became friends. The man so impressed Johnson that he declared him “almost the only man I would call a friend. Reynolds” younger sister Frances remarked that when they went to Twickenham Meadows, his gesticulations were so strange that “men, women and children surrounded him, laughing at his gestures and gesticulations. In addition to Reynolds, Johnson was very close to Bennet Langton and Arthur Murphy; the former was a scholar and admirer of Johnson, who decided on his path after a meeting with Johnson, which led to their long friendship. Johnson met the latter in the summer of 1754, when he came to see him about the accidental republication of the 190th volume of The Rambler, and the two became friends. About this time, Anna Williams came to live with Johnson; she was a minor poet, poor and nearly blind. Johnson tries to help her by housing her and paying for a cataract operation that fails. Anna Williams, in return, becomes his housekeeper.
To keep himself busy, Johnson began working on The Literary Magazine or Universal Review, whose first issue appeared on March 19, 1756. Disputes about the subjects covered arose when the Seven Years” War began and Johnson wrote polemical essays against the war. After the war began, the Magazine contained many reviews, at least 34 of which were written by Johnson. When not working for the Magazine, Johnson wrote forewords for other authors, such as Giuseppe Baretti, William Payne and Charlotte Lennox. During these years, Johnson”s literary relationship with Charlotte Lennox was particularly close, and she relied on him so much that he became “the most important single fact in Mrs. Lennox”s literary life. Later, he tried to have a new edition of her works published, but even with her support they could not get enough interest to complete the undertaking. Since Johnson was very busy with his various projects and could not perform domestic duties, Richard Bathurst, a physician and member of Johnson”s club, urged him to take on a freed slave, Francis Barber, as a servant. Barber later became Johnson”s legatee.
However, it was on The plays of William Shakespeare that Johnson spent most of his time. On June 8, 1756, he published his Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, the Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare, which argued that previous editions of Shakespeare were full of errors and that corrections were needed. However, Johnson”s work progressed more and more slowly and in December 1757 he told musicologist Charles Burney that his work would not be finished until the following March. But he was arrested again in February 1758 for a debt of £40. The debt was quickly paid by Jacob Tonson, who had contracted with Johnson to publish his Shakespeare, which encouraged Johnson to finish his work as a thank you. It would take him seven more years to finish everything, but Johnson completed a few volumes of Shakespeare to show his commitment to the project.
In 1758, Johnson began writing The Idler, a weekly series that ran from April 15, 1758 to April 5, 1760. This series was shorter than The Rambler and lacked many of the qualities of that work. Unlike The Rambler, which appeared independently, The Idler was published in The Universal Chronicle, a new weekly publication supported by John Payne, John Newberry, Robert Stevens and William Faden. Since writing The Idler did not take up all of Johnson”s time, he was also able to publish his short philosophical novel Rasselas (which he described as a “little book of history”) on April 19, 1759, which described the life of Prince Rasselas and his sister Nekayah, who were kept in a place called Happy Valley in Abyssinia. The Valley is a place free of all problems where the slightest desire is satisfied on the spot. Constant pleasure, however, does not lead to satisfaction; and with the help of the philosopher Imlac, Rasselas escapes and explores the world to witness how all aspects of society and life in the outside world are plagued by suffering. He decides to return to Abyssinia but does not wish to return to the situation of constant and superabundant pleasure he experienced in the Valley. Johnson wrote Rasselas in a week to pay for his mother”s funeral and debts, and it was so successful that a reprint in English was published almost every year. References to this work can be found in many later novels, such as Jane Eyre, Cranford and The House of the Seven Gables. Rasselas”s fame is not limited to the English-speaking nations: the work is immediately translated into French, Dutch, German, Russian and Italian, and later into nine other languages.
By 1762, however, Johnson had acquired a reputation for slowness; the poet Charles Churchill teased him about the publishing delays of his long-promised Shakespeare:
“For subscribers, he baits his hook – and takes your money – , but where is the book?”
These comments soon spurred Johnson to finish his Shakespeare and, after receiving the first installment of a state pension on July 20, 1762, he was able to devote more time to the task: from that July on, and thanks to Thomas Sheridan and Lord Bute (1713 – 1792), the prime minister, the young King George III, then 24 years old, allocated him an annual pension of £300 in recognition of the Dictionary. Although the pension did not make him rich, it gave Johnson a modest and fairly comfortable independence for the remaining 22 years of his life. When Johnson asked if he should, in return, defend or support government policy, Lord Bute told him that the pension “is not given to you for anything you have to do, but for what you have done.
On May 16, 1763, in the bookstore of his friend Tom Davies, Johnson met for the first time James Boswell, who was then 22 years old. Boswell would later become Johnson”s first major biographer. The two men became fast friends, although Boswell would return home to Scotland or travel abroad for months at a time. In the spring of 1763, he and his friend Joshua Reynolds founded the Literary Club, a society that included his friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and others who came later such as Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. They decided to meet every Monday at 7 p.m. at the Turk”s Head in Gerrard Street, Soho, and these meetings would continue long after the death of the founding members.
On January 9, 1765, Murphy introduced Johnson to Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and member of Parliament, and his wife Hester. They became fast friends and Johnson was treated like a member of the family. This motivated him to work on his Shakespeare. Eventually Johnson stayed with the Thrales for 17 years, until Henry”s death in 1781, sometimes visiting Anchor Brewery, the Thrale brewery in Southwark. Hester Thrale”s correspondence and her journal Thraliana (en) became an important source of information about Johnson after his death.
Johnson”s Shakespeare was finally published on October 10, 1765 as The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes… To which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson (“The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes… To which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson”): the thousand copies of the first edition were quickly sold out, and a second was printed. The text of the plays follows the version that Johnson, who analyzed the manuscript editions, considers the closest to the original. His innovative idea was to add a set of notes to help readers understand the meaning of certain complicated passages in the plays, or others that had been mistranscribed over time. Among the notes are attacks on rival publishers of Shakespeare”s work, and their editions. Years later, Edmond Malone, a leading Shakespeare scholar and friend of Johnson”s, claimed that his “vigorous and wide-ranging understanding has thrown more light on the author than any of his predecessors ever did.”
In February 1767, Johnson was granted an audience by King George III in the library of the Queen”s Household; the meeting was arranged by Barnard (en), the King”s librarian: the King, having learned that Johnson was going to visit the library, asked Barnard to introduce him to Johnson. After the brief meeting, Johnson is both impressed by the King himself and by their conversation.
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On August 6, 1773, eleven years after his first meeting with Boswell, Johnson went to visit his friend in Scotland to begin a “journey to the western islands of Scotland,” as his account in 1775 indicates. The work was intended to discuss social problems and conflicts affecting the Scottish people, but also to praise many unique facets of Scottish society such as a school for the deaf and dumb in Edinburgh. Johnson also uses this work to engage in a discussion about the authenticity of Ossian”s poems translated by James Macpherson: in his view, they cannot be translations of early Scottish literature because “in those days nothing had been written in Gàidhlig. The exchanges between the two men were explosive, and according to a letter from Johnson, MacPherson threatened him with physical violence. Boswell”s account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (which includes quotes and descriptions, anecdotes such as Johnson dancing around a sword, wearing a suit, or dancing a Highland jig.
In the 1770s Johnson, who had been rather hostile to government earlier in his life, published a series of pamphlets in support of various government policies. In 1770 he wrote The False Alarm, a political pamphlet attacking John Wilkes. In 1771, Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland”s Islands warned against war with Spain. He had The Patriot, a critique of what he called “false patriotism”, printed in 1774, and on the evening of April 7, 1775, he made the famous statement: “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. He is not talking here, contrary to a widespread idea, about patriotism in general, but about John Stuart”s abuse of language (Johnson opposes “self-proclaimed patriots” in general, but values what he considers “true” patriotism.
The last of these pamphlets, Taxation No Tyranny (1775), supported the Intolerable Acts and responded to the Bill of Rights of the First Continental Congress, which protested against “taxation without representation” (“no taxation without representation” was a slogan then used by British colonists in America, who objected to the lack of representation in the Parliament of Great Britain and thus refused to be subject to taxation from Britain). Johnson stated that by emigrating to America, the colonists “voluntarily gave up the right to vote,” but that they nevertheless had “virtual representation” in Parliament. In a parody of the Bill of Rights, Johnson wrote that Americans had no more right to govern than the people of Cornwall. If Americans wanted to participate in Parliament, he said, they should move to England. Johnson publicly accused English supporters of American separatists of being “traitors to this country” and hoped the matter would be settled peacefully, but wanted it to end with “English superiority and American obedience. Years earlier, Johnson had said of the English and French that they were “two thieves” who stole their land from the natives and that neither deserved to live there. After the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed, marking American independence, Johnson was “deeply disturbed” by the “state of this kingdom.”
On May 3, 1777, while trying to save the Reverend William Dodd (who was to be hanged at Tyburn for blacksmithing), Johnson wrote to Boswell that he was busy preparing a biography and “small prefaces, for a small edition of the English poets.” Tom Davies, William Strahan, and Thomas Cadell asked Johnson to tackle his final major work, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, for which he asked for 200 guineas: far less than he could have asked. This work, with critical as well as biographical studies, presents the work of each poet and is ultimately more complete than originally planned. Johnson completed his work in March 1781 and the whole was published in six volumes. Johnson, in announcing his work, said that his purpose “was only to assign to each poet an announcement, as one sees in French anthologies, containing some dates and describing a temperament.
Johnson was not able to enjoy his success, however, because Henry Thrale, the close friend with whom he lived, died on April 4, 1781. Johnson was forced to change his lifestyle quickly when Hester Thrale began to take an interest in the Italian Gabriel Mario Piozzi. He returns home and then travels for a while, after which he learns that his tenant and friend Robert Levet has died on January 17, 1782. Johnson was shocked by this news, as Levet had been living with him in London since 1762. Shortly thereafter, Johnson caught a cold that worsened into bronchitis; he endured the illness for months. He “felt lonely and unhappy” because of Levet”s death, the death of Thomas Lawrence, a friend, and then the death of his housekeeper Williams, all of which made life harder for him.
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End of life
Although he had recovered his health since August, he experienced an emotional shock when he learned that Hester Thrale wanted to sell the residence in which he and his family had lived, and more than anything, he was distressed at the thought that he would not see it as he had before. On October 6, 1782, Johnson went to the parish church for the last time to bid farewell to his former residence and life. The walk to the church exhausted him, but he managed to make the journey alone. At the church, he writes a prayer for the Thrale family:
“To Your fatherly protection, O Lord, I entrust this family. Bless, guide and defend them, that they may pass through this world and finally experience eternal happiness in Your presence, for Jesus Christ”s sake. Amen.”
Hester did not abandon Johnson completely, and offered to accompany the family on a trip to Brighton. He accepted and stayed with them from October 7 to November 20, 1782. When he returned, his health began to deteriorate, and he remained alone until Boswell arrived on May 29, 1783 to accompany him to Scotland.
On June 17, 1783, Johnson suffered a stroke due to poor circulation and wrote to Edmund Allen, his neighbor, that he had lost the use of speech. Two doctors were called in to help Johnson and he spoke again two days later. Fearing that his death was near, he wrote:
“I still hope to resist the black dog, and in time drive it away, although I am deprived of almost everyone who used to help me. The neighborhood has grown poorer. I had at one time Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My home has lost Levet, a man who was interested in everything and therefore conversational. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can no longer serve as a companion. When I get up, I have my breakfast, solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues to bark, except when Dr. Brocklesby keeps him at bay for a while. To dine with a sick woman, one may venture to guess, is not much better than alone. After dinner, what is there to do but watch the minutes pass and wait for that sleep which I can hardly hope for. Night comes at last, and a few hours of impatience and confusion bring me to another day of solitude. What will make the black dog leave such a dwelling?”
Johnson was by this time plagued by gout; he underwent surgery to treat it and his remaining friends, including the novelist Fanny Burney (Charles Burney”s daughter), came to keep him company. He was confined to his room from December 14, 1783 to April 21, 1784.
His health begins to improve in May 1784, and he travels to Oxford with Boswell on May 5. By July, most of his friends are dead or gone, and he himself is in Scotland while Hester is engaged to Piozzi. With no one in particular to go to, Johnson vowed to die in London and went there on November 16, 1784. He is welcomed at George Strahan”s house in Islington. In his last moments, he was distressed and had hallucinations. When the physician Thomas Warren visited him and asked if he was better, he exclaimed: “No, sir; you cannot conceive how quickly I am approaching death.
Many visitors come to visit Johnson while he is bedridden, ill; nevertheless, he still prefers Langton”s company alone. Fanny Burney, Windham, Strahan, Hoole, Cruikshank, Des Moulins, and Barber awaited news of Johnson. On December 13, 1784, Johnson received two more people: Miss Morris, a young woman whom Johnson blessed, and Francesco Sastres, an Italian teacher who heard some of Johnson”s last words: I am Moriturus. Shortly thereafter, he falls into a coma and dies at 7 a.m.
Langton waited until 11 a.m. to inform the others of his death; John Hawkins turned pale and suffered “agony of mind,” while Seward and Hoole described Johnson”s death as “the most awful sight. Boswell remarks, “my feeling was only a great expanse of stupor…I could not believe it. My imagination was not convinced. William Gerard Hamilton enters and says, “He has created an abyss, which not only nothing can fill, but nothing tends to fill. – Johnson is dead. – Let”s go to the next best thing: there is no one; no one can be said to remind one of Johnson.
He was buried on December 20, 1784 in Westminster Abbey and his tombstone reads:
Johnson”s work, and especially his Lives of the Poets, exhibit the various characteristics of an excellent style. He believed that the best poems used contemporary language, and he disapproved of the use of ornamental or deliberately archaic language. In particular, he was suspicious of Milton”s poetic language, whose blank (unrhymed) lines he thought could inspire poor imitations. Johnson was also critical of the poetic language of his contemporary Thomas Gray. Above all, he was bothered by the overuse of obscure allusions of the kind found in Milton”s Lycidas; he preferred poetry that could be easily read and understood. Complementing his remarks on language, Johnson believed that a good poem should have unique and original images.
In his shorter poems, Johnson used short verse and imbued his work with a sense of empathy, which may have influenced Housman”s poetic style. In London, his first imitation of Juvenal, Johnson uses poetic form to express his political views and, as young writers often do, has a playful, almost joyful approach to the subject. His second imitation, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is completely different: while the language remains simple, the poem is more complicated and difficult to read, as Johnson attempts to describe complex Christian morality. The Christian values described here are not only found in this poem, but recur in many of Johnson”s other works. In particular, he emphasizes the infinite love of God and shows that happiness can be achieved through virtuous acts.
Whereas for Plutarch, biographies should be eulogistic and have a moral significance, for Johnson their aim was to describe as accurately as possible the life of the person concerned, without dismissing the negative aspects. This quest for accuracy was almost revolutionary at the time, and he had to fight against a society that would not accept biographical material that might tarnish a reputation; he made this problem the subject of the sixtieth volume of The Rambler. In addition, Johnson believed that biographies should not be limited to famous people and that the lives of lesser-known individuals were also important; thus, in Lives of the Poets, both major and minor poets are described. He insisted on including details that would have seemed most trivial to others in order to describe the authors” lives with the greatest accuracy. For Johnson, autobiographies and diaries – including his own – were of great value and at least as important as other genres; in The Idler 64, he explains how the author of an autobiography is best able to tell the story of his own life.
Johnson”s idea of biography and poetry is linked to his conception of what good criticism is. Each of his books is a vehicle for literary criticism; indeed, he says of his Dictionary, “I have recently published a Dictionary like those made by the Italian and French Academies, for the use of those who aspire to accuracy of criticism or elegance of style.” Although an abridged edition of his Dictionary became the standard household dictionary, the work was originally intended to be an academic tool examining the way words were used, particularly in literature. To achieve his goal, Johnson used quotations from Francis Bacon, Richard Hooker, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and other authors who covered the literary fields he held to be essential: natural science, philosophy, poetry, and theology. All these quotations were compared and carefully studied in the Dictionary, so that the reader could understand the meaning of the words in the context of the literary works in which they were used.
Not being a theorist, Johnson did not want to create a school of theory for analyzing the aesthetics of literature. Rather, he used his criticism for the practical purpose of helping to better read and understand literature. In studying Shakespeare”s plays, Johnson emphasizes the importance of the reader in understanding the language: “If Shakespeare has more difficulty than other writers, it is to be attributed to the nature of his work, which called for the use of colloquial language, and consequently of allusive, elliptical, and proverbial phrases, such as are uttered and heard at all times without paying attention.”
His work on Shakespeare was not limited to that author, but extended to literature in general; in his Preface to Shakespeare, he rejects the Rules of Classical Drama and argues that drama should be true to reality. But Johnson did not merely defend Shakespeare: he examined his faults, such as his lack of morality, his vulgarity, his carelessness in creating his plots, and, on occasion, his distraction in choosing words or their order. Johnson argued that it was important to produce a text that reflected what the author had written: Shakespeare”s plays, for example, went through many editions, each of which contained errors that occurred during printing. This problem was compounded by unscrupulous editors who considered complicated words they found to be incorrect, and changed them in subsequent editions. Johnson believes that an editor should not alter a text in this way.
Samuel Johnson is sometimes criticized for popularizing, in his work A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), the idea that the Gaels were a “barbarous” people who spoke a “coarse” language that had “never been written before the translation of the first missals. This view was not his own. In fact, in this work, he affirmed his total ignorance of the “earse” language and merely repeated what he had been told. It is very likely that the words he reports were spoken by speakers of Scots, another Scottish language but one that was spoken in the Lowlands. It is not his intention to denigrate the Gaelic language, but it is astonishing that he thought it necessary to report such nonsense when, at the time, specialists were already aware of works such as the Leabhar Deathan Lios Mòir.
His tall, sturdy figure and strange gesticulations were puzzling to those who met Johnson for the first time. When William Hogarth first saw Johnson near a window at Samuel Richardson”s house, “shaking his head and rolling on the floor in a strange and ridiculous manner,” he believed Johnson to be a “fool whose relations have committed him to Mr. Richardson”s care.” Hogarth was surprised when “this figure came forward to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting, and suddenly resumed the discussion…such eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him in astonishment, and imagined that this idiot had been inspired at the time. Not everyone was fooled by Johnson”s appearance: Adam Smith claimed that “Johnson knew more books than anyone else” and Edmund Burke thought that if Johnson were to become a member of Parliament, he “would certainly have been the finest talker who ever went there. Johnson relied on a single form of rhetoric, and his “refutation” of George Berkeley”s immaterialism is famous: Berkeley claimed that matter did not exist but only seemed to exist; during a discussion of this with Boswell, Johnson forcefully stamps a large stone with his foot and declares, “This is how I refute it.
Johnson was a devout and conservative Anglican; he was compassionate and helped those of his friends who could not afford housing by sheltering them in his home, even when he himself was in financial difficulty. Johnson”s work is imbued with his Christian morality; he wrote on ethical subjects with such ease, and his authority in the field is such that Walter Jackson Batte said that “no other moralist in history surpasses him or comes close to him.” His writings, however, do not, as Donald Greene puts it, dictate a “predetermined pattern of ”good conduct,”” although Johnson did point to certain behaviors. He was not blinded by his faith and did not judge people hastily; he had respect for those of other faiths as long as they showed a commitment to the teachings of Christ. Although he respected the poetry of John Milton, he could not abide his Puritan and republican beliefs, believing them to be values contrary to those of England and Christianity. He condemned slavery and once proposed a toast to the “coming rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies. In addition to his beliefs about humanity, Johnson was also very fond of cats, especially his own: Hodge and Lily. Boswell wrote, “I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat.
Although he was known to be an ardent Conservative, Johnson was in his youth a Jacobite sympathizer; during the reign of George III, however, he accepted the Act of Settlement. Boswell was largely responsible for Johnson”s reputation as a staunch Tory and determined how he was perceived for years to come. He was not, however, present during the two key periods of Johnson”s political activity: Walpole”s control of Parliament and the Seven Years” War; and although he was often present with him during the 1770s and described four of Johnson”s major pamphlets, he does not bother to discuss them, being more interested in their travels in Scotland. Moreover, disagreeing with Johnson in two of these pamphlets, The False Alarme and Taxation No Tyranny, Boswell criticizes Johnson”s views in his biography.
In his Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell refers to him so often as “Dr. Johnson” that the nickname stuck for years, much to Johnson”s chagrin. The description of Johnson”s last years is of an old man visiting taverns, but this description is pathetic. Although Boswell, of Scottish descent, had been a close companion and friend of Johnson”s during important periods of the latter”s life, Johnson, like many other Englishmen of the time, had a reputation for despising Scotland and its people. Even as they travelled together in Scotland, Johnson “showed prejudice and narrow nationalism. Hester Thrale noted of his nationalism and prejudice against the Scots: “We all know how much he enjoyed abusing the Scots, and being abused by them in return.
Although Johnson was probably as healthy as others of his generation, he was plagued by various illnesses and problems throughout his life. As a child, he suffered from scabies, gout, testicular cancer, and a stroke late in life left him unable to speak for two days. Autopsies revealed lung disease and heart failure, probably due to hypertension (a problem that was unknown at the time). Finally, he was depressed and had Tourette”s disease.
There are many accounts of Johnson”s bouts of depression and what he thought was madness. As Walter Jackson Bate says, “One of the ironies of literary history is that its most compelling and authoritative symbol of sanity – of the grand and imaginative understanding of concrete reality – would have begun his adult life, at the age of twenty, in such a state of anxiety and despair that, from his own point of view at least, it seemed to be the beginning of true madness. To overcome these feelings, Johnson tried to keep himself busy with various activities, but it didn”t help. Taylor said that Johnson “at one time strongly contemplated suicide”; Boswell said that Johnson “felt overwhelmed by a horrible melancholy”, was always irritated and “impatient; and a dejection, sadness and despair that made his existence a misery”.
Early in his life, when Johnson was no longer able to pay his debts, he worked with professional writers and identified his situation with theirs. Johnson witnessed Christopher Smart”s fall into “destitution and the madhouse” and feared he would share his fate. Hester Thrale stated, in a discussion about Smart”s mental state, that Johnson was “his friend who feared an apple would poison him. She said that what distinguished Johnson from those who were placed in asylums because of their insanity (like Christopher Smart) was his ability to keep his emotions and concerns to himself.
Two centuries after Johnson”s death, the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette”s Disease is widely accepted. Tourette”s disease was not known in Johnson”s day (Gilles de la Tourette published an account of nine of his affected patients in 1885), but Boswell described Johnson exhibiting symptoms, such as tics and other involuntary movements. According to Boswell, “he often held his head to one side…moving his body back and forth, rubbing his left knee in the same direction with the palm of his hand…making various noises” such as “half a whistle” or “as if clucking like a hen,” and “all this was sometimes accompanied by a thoughtful look, but more frequently by a smile.” When Johnson was upset, “he blew like a whale”. Johnson was also said to make those peculiar gesticulations at the doorstep, and when a little girl asked him why he made those funny gesticulations and strange noises, he told her it was a “bad habit. Tourette”s Disease was first diagnosed in 1967, and Tourette”s researcher Arthur K. Shapiro, who specializes in the disease, has been working on the diagnosis ever since. Shapiro, who specializes in the disease, described Johnson as “the most notable example of a successful adaptation to life despite the handicap of Tourette”s disease. The details provided by the writings of Boswell and Hester Thrale, in particular, support researchers in the diagnosis; Pearce wrote that:
“also showed many of the obsessive-compulsive traits and rituals associated with this syndrome…. It may be thought that without this disease, Dr. Johnson”s literary exploits, the great dictionary, his philosophical deliberations and conversations would never have come into existence; and Boswell, author of the greatest of biographies, would never have been known.”
According to Steven Lynn, Johnson was “more than a famous writer and scholar”; he was a celebrity. In his last days, Johnson”s every move and condition was constantly reported in newspapers, and when nothing of note was to be said, something was made up. According to Bate, “Johnson loved biography” and “he changed the course of biography in the modern world. The greatest of the biography books at the time was Boswell”s Life of Johnson, and many other similar memoirs and biographies appeared after Johnson”s death. Among all these biographies may be cited A Biographical Sketch of Dr. Samuel Johnson (Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, by Hester Thrale, partly from his diary, Thraliana; Life of Samuel Johnson (and, in 1792, An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson by Arthur Murphy, which replaces Hawkins” work as an introduction to a collection of Johnson”s work. Another important source of information was Fanny Burney, who described Johnson as “the literary brain of this realm” and kept a diary containing details absent from other biographies. Of all these sources, however, Boswell remains the best known to readers; and although critics such as Donald Greene have debated its status as a biography, Life of Samuel Johnson met with great success, especially since Boswell and his friends publicized the work at the expense of the many other works on Johnson”s life.
Although his influence as a critic continued after his death, Johnson was not universally appreciated. Macaulay considered him a scholarly fool (the Romantic poets rejected his presentation of poetry and literature, especially with regard to John Milton. But he also had his admirers: Stendhal, in Racine and Shakespeare, relied partly on his presentation of Shakespeare, and he influenced Jane Austen”s style and philosophical thinking. Matthew Arnold, in Six Chief Lives from Johnson”s “Lives of the Poets”, considered the Lives of Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift and Gray as fundamental references “by returning to which we can always find our way again”.
Johnson was not really recognized as a great critic until more than a century after his death, by literary critics like G. Birkbeck Hill or T. S. Eliot. They began to study his work with a growing interest in the critical analysis contained in his edition of Shakespeare and Lives of the Poets. According to Yvor Winters (20th century American poet and literary critic), “a great critic is the rarest of all literary geniuses; perhaps the only English critic who deserves this epithet is Samuel Johnson,” an opinion shared by F. R. Leavis, who says: “When one reads him one knows, without any equivocation, that one is before a powerful and distinguished mind operating in the forefront of literature. And one can say with great conviction: this is true criticism”. For Edmund Wilson “Lives of the Poets and his prefaces and commentaries on Shakespeare are among the most brilliant and penetrating documents in all English criticism. His insistence on the need to study language in literature gradually made this method predominant in literary theory during the 20th century.
In his film Paths of Glory, (1957), Stanley Kubrick, has Kirk Douglas, who plays Colonel Dax, say a quote from Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
On the bicentenary of Johnson”s death in 1984, Oxford University held a week-long colloquium featuring 50 papers, the Arts Council of Great Britain held an exhibition of “Portraits of Johnson and Other Memorabilia”, and The Time and Punch published parodies of Johnson”s style for the occasion. In 1999, the BBC Four created the Samuel Johnson Award.
A number of his manuscripts, first editions of his works, half of his remaining correspondence, as well as paintings and other objects relating to him, which belong to the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection, have been housed since 2003 at Harvard, in the Early Modern Books and Manuscripts Department of the Houghton Library.
Quotes: “Theory is opposed to the principle of free will; experience is in its favor.”
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