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THE LIFE OF
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
Birth and Infancy of Johnson-Account of his parents-Anecdotes of his Childhood-
Taken to London to receive the Royal Touch for Scrofula--School Days at Lichfield
AMUEL JOHNSON was born at Lichfield in Staffordshire,
on the 18th of September, N. S. 1709; and his initiation
Mr. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body,
the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness. From him then his son inherited, with some other qualities, “a vile melancholy,” which in his too strong expression of any disturbance of the mind,“ made him mad all his life, at least not sober.” Michael was, however, forced by the narrowness of his circumstances to be very diligent in business, not only in his shop, but by occasionally resorting to several towns in the neighborhood, some of which were a considerable distance from Lichfield. At that time booksellers' shops in the provincial towns of England were very rare; so that there was not one even in Birmingham, in which town old Mr. Johnson used to open a shop every market-day. He was a pretty good Latin scholar, and a citizen so creditable as to be made one of the magistrates of Lichfield ; and being a man of good sense, and skill in his trade, he acquired a considerable share of wealth, of which, however, he afterwards lost the greatest part by engaging unsuccessfully in a manufacture of parchment. He was a zealous high-churchman and royalist, and retained his attachment to the unfortunate house of Stuart, though he reconciled himself, by casuistical arguments of expediency and necessity, to take the oaths imposed by the prevailing power.
There is a circumstance in his life somewhat romantic, but so well authenticated, that I shall not omit it. A young woman of Leek, in Staffordshire, while he served his apprenticeship there, conceived a violent passion for him; and though it met with no favorable return, followed him to Lichfield, where she took lodgings opposite to the house in which he lived, and indulged her hopeless flame.
When he was informed that it so preyed upon her mind that her life was in danger, he with a generous humanity went to her and offered to marry her, but it was then too late : her vital power was exhausted ; and she actually exhibited one of the very rare instances of dying for love. She was buried in the cathedral of Lichfield; and he, with a tender regard, placed a stone over her grave with this inscription:
Here lies the body of
She departed this Life
20th of September, 1694. Johnson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I asked his old schoolfellow, Mr. Hector, surgeon, of Birmingham, if she was not vain of her son. He said, “she had too Hell, “
much good sense to be vain, but she knew her son's value.” Her piety was not inferior to her understanding ; and to her must be
; ascribed those early impressions of religion upon the mind of her son, from which the world afterwards derived so much benefit. He told me that he remembered distinctly having had the first notion of Heaven, “a place to which good people went," and
a place to which bad people went,” communicated to him by her, when a little child in bed with her; and that it might be the better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson, their man-servant.
There is a traditional story of the infant Hercules of toryism, so curiously characteristic, that I shall not withhold it. It was communicated to me in a letter from Miss Mary Adye, of Lichfield.
“ When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three years old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon his father's shoulders, listening and gaping at the much-celebrated preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. Johnson how he could possibly think of bringing such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a crowd. He answered, because it was impossible to keep him at home; for, young as he was, he believed he had caught the public spirit and zeal for Sacheverel, and would have stayed for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him.”
Nor can I omit a little instance of that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook bim. The fact was acknowledged to me by himself, upon the authority of his mother. One day when the servant who used to be sent to school to conduct him home, had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then so near-sighted that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees to take a view of the kennel, before he ventured to step over it. His schoolmistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the kennel, or be run over by a cart, followed him at some distance. He happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat her, as well as his strength would permit.
Of the power of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following early instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his stepdaughter, Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by his mother. When he was a child in petticoats, and had learned to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the Common Prayer Book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, “Sam, you must get this by heart.” She went up stairs, leaving him to study it; but by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. What's the matter ?” said she. “I can say it," he replied ; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.
Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the scrofula, or king's evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much, that he did not see at all with one of his eyes, though its appearance was little different from that of the other. There is amongst his prayers one inscribed “When my EYE was restored to its use," which ascertains a defect that many of his friends knew he had, though I never perceived it. I supposed him to be only near-sighted: and, indeed, I must observe, that in no other respect could I discern any defect in his vision ; on the contrary, the force of his . attention and perceptive quickness made him see and distinguish all manner of objects, whether of nature or of art, with a nicety that is rarely to be found. It has been said, that he contracted this grievous malady from his nurse. His mother yielding to the superstitious notion, which it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion which our king encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such judgment as Carte could give credit ; carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson, indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer, then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly. Being asked if he could remember Queen Anne,—"He had,” he said, “a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood.” This touch, however, was without any effect.
He was first taught to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, who kept a school for young children in Lichfield. He told me she could read the black letter, and asked him to borrow for her, from his father, a Bible in that character. When he was going to Oxford, she came to take leave of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of gingerbread, and said he was the best scholar she ever had. He delighted in mentioning this early compliment : adding, with a smile, that “this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive.” His next instructor in English was a master, whom, when he spoke of him to me, he familiarly called Tom Brown, who, said he, "published a