Imatges de pÓgina
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

spelling-book, and dedicated it to the UNIVERSE; but I fear no copy of it can now be had.”

[1719. Age 10.) He began to learn Latin with Mr. Haw

[. kins, usher, or under-master, of Lichfield school"ą man,” said he, “very skilful in his little way." With him he continued two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr. Hunter, the head master, who, according to his account, was very severe, and wrongheadedly severe. He used,” said he, “ to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question, and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him in Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, sir, if a boy could answer every question, there would be no need of a master to teach him."

It is, however, but justice to the memory of Mr. Hunter to mention that though he might err in being too severe, the school of Lichfield was very respectable in his time. Indeed, Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr. Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, “My master whipt me very well. Without that, sir, I should have done nothing." He told Mr. Langton that while Hunter was flogging his boys unmercifully, he used to say, “ And this I do to save you from the gallows." Johnson, upon all occasions, expressed his approbation of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. “I would rather," said he, “ have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than

your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end on't: whereas, by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief ; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.”

That superiority over his fellows, which he maintained with so much dignity in his march through life, was not assumed from vanity and ostentation, but was the natural and constant effect of those extraordinary powers of mind, of which he could not but be conscious by comparison ; the intellectual difference, which in

ز

ness.

[ocr errors]

other cases of comparison of characters, is often a matter of undecided contest, being as clear in his case as the superiority of stature in some men above others. Johnson did not strut or stand on tiptoe ; he only did not stoop. From his earliest years, his superiority was perceived and acknowledged. He was from the beginning ávaş åvdpôv, a king of men. His schoolfellow, Mr. Hector, has obligingly furnished me with many particulars of his boyish days; and assured me that he never knew him corrected at school, but for talking and diverting other boys from their busi

He seemed to learn by intuition ; for though indolence and procrastination were inherent in his constitution, whenever he made an exertion he did more than any one else. In short, he is a memorable instance of what has been often observed, that the boy is the man in miniature; and that the distinguishing characteristics of each individual are the same through the whole course of life. His favorites used to receive very liberal assistance from him ; and such was the submission and deference with which he was treated, such the desire to obtain his regard, that three of the boys, of whom Mr. Hector was sometimes one, used to come in the morning as his humble attendants, and carry

him to school. One in the middle stooped while he sat upon his back, and one on each side supported him, and thus he was borne triumphant. Talking to me once himself of his being much distinguished at school, he told me, “ They never thought to raise me by comparing me to any one ; they never said Johnson is as good a scholar as such a one; but such a one is as good a scholar as Johnson; and this was said but of one, but of Lowe: and I do not think he was as good a scholar.”

He discovered a great ambition to excel, which roused him to counteract his indolence. He was uncommonly inquisitive ; and his memory was so tenacious, that he never forgot anything that he either heard or read. Mr. Hector remembers having recited to him eighteen verses, which, after a little pause, he repeated verbatim, varying only one epithet, by which he improved the line.

He never joined with the other boys in their ordinary diversions : his only amusement was in winter, when he took a pleasure in being drawn upon the ice by a boy barefooted, who pulled him along by a garter fixed round him ; no very easy operation, as his size was remarkably large. His defective sight, indeed, prevented him from enjoying the common sports ; and he once pleasantly remarked to me, “how wonderfully well he had contrived to

a

[ocr errors]

be idle without them." Lord Chesterfield, however, has justly

. observed in one of his letters, when earnestly cautioning a friend against the pernicious effects of idleness, that active sports are not to be reckoned idleness in young people ; and that the listless torpor of doing nothing, alone deserves that name. Of this dismal inertness of disposition, Johnson had all his life too great a share. Mr. Hector relates, that “ he could not oblige him more than by sauntering away the hours of vacation in the fields, during which he was more engaged in talking to himself than to his companion.”

Dr. Percy, the Bishop of Dromore, who was long intimately acquainted with him, and has preserved a few anecdotes concerning him, regretting that he was not a more diligent collector, informs me, that “when a boy he was immoderately fond of reading romances of chivalry, and he retained his fondness for them through life; so that,” adds his lordship, “spending part of a summer at my parsonage-house in the country, he chose for his regular reading the old Spanish romance of 'Felixmarte of Hircania,' in folio, which he read quite through. Yet I have heard him attribute to these extraragant fictions that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his ever fixing in any profession."

After having resided for some time at the house of his uncle, Cornelius Ford, Johnson was, at the age of fifteen, removed to the school of Stourbridge, in Worcestershire, of which Mr. Wentworth was then master. This step was taken by the advice of his cousin, the Rev. Mr. Ford, a man in whom both talents and good dispositions were disgraced by licentiousness, but who was a very able judge of what was right. At this school he did not receive so much benefit as was expected. It has been said, that he acted in the capacity of an assistant to Mr. Wentworth, in teaching the younger boys. “Mr. Wentworth,” he told

me, was a very able man, but an idle man, and to me very severe ; but I cannot blaine him much. I was then a big boy; he saw I did not reverence him, and that he should get no honor by me.

I had brought enough with me to carry me through ; and all I should get at his school would be ascribed to my own labor, or to my former master. Yet he taught me a great deal.”

He remained at Stourbridge little more than a year, and then he returned home, where he may be said to have loitered, for two years, in a state very unworthy his uncommon abilities. He had

[ocr errors]

already given several proofs of his poetical genius, both in his school exercises and in other occasional compositions.

These two years he passed in what he thought idleness, and was scolded by his father for his want of steady application. He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study; as chance threw books in his way, and inclination directed him through them. He used to mention one curious instance of his casual reading when but a boy. Having imagined that his brother had hid some apples behind a large folio upon an upper shelf in his father's shop, he climbed up to search for them. There were no apples; but the large folio proved to be Petrarch, whom he had seen mentioned in some preface as one of the restorers of learning. His curiosity having been thus excited, he sat down with avidity and read a great part of the book. What he read during these two years, he told me, was not works of mere amusement, “not voyages and travels, but all literature, sir, all ancient writers, all manly: though but little Greek, only some of Anacreon and Hesiod; but in this irregular manner,” added he, “ I had looked into a great many books which were not commonly known at the Universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into their hands by their tutors ; so that when I came to Oxford, Dr. Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there."

That a man in Mr. Michael Johnson's circumstances should think of sending his son to the expensive University of Oxford, at his own charge, seems very improbable. The subject was too delicate to question Johnson upon; but I have been assured by Dr. Taylor that the scheme never would have taken place had not a gentleman of Shropshire, one of his schoolfellows, spontaneously undertaken to support him at Oxford, in the character of his companion ; though, in fact, he never received any assistance whatever from that gentleman. He, however, went to Oxford, and was entered a commoner of Pembroke College, on the 31st of October, 1728, being then in his nineteenth year.

The Reverend Dr. Adams, who afterwards presided over Pembroke College with universal esteem, told me he was present, and gave me some account of what passed on the night of Johnson's arrival at Oxford. On that evening his father, who had anxiously accompanied him, found means to have him introduced to Mr. Jorden, who was to be his tutor. His father seemed very full of the merits of his son, and told the company he was a good scholar and a poet, and wrote Latin verses. His figure and manner appeared strange to them; but he behaved modestly, and sat silent, till upon something which occurred in the course of conversation, he suddenly struck in and quoted Macrobius; and thus he gave the first impression of that more extensive reading in which he had indulged himself.

The “morbid melancholy," which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which at a very early period marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year, as to afflict him in a dreadful manner. When he was at Lichfield, in the college vacation of the year 1729, he felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labors and all his enjoyments were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.

Johnson, upon the first violent attack of this disorder, strove to overcome it by forcible exertions. He frequently walked to Birmingham and back again, and tried many other expedients; but all in vain. His expression concerning it to me was," I did not then know how to manage it." His distress became so intolerable, that he applied to Dr. Swinfen, physician in Lichfield, his godfather, and put into his hands a state of his case, written in Latin. Dr. Swinfen was so much struck with the extraordinary acuteness, research, and eloquence of this paper, that, in his zeal for his godson, he showed it to several people. His daughter, Mrs. Desmoulins, who was many years humanely supported in Dr. Johnson's house in London, told me, that upon his discovering that Dr. Swinfen had communicated his case, he was so much offended that he was never afterwards fully reconciled to him. He indeed had good reason to be offended; for though Dr. Swinfen's motive was good, he inconsiderately betrayed a matter deeply interesting and of great delicacy, which had been intrusted to him in confidence; and exposed a complaint of his young friend and patient, which, in the superficial opinion of the generality of mankind, is attended with contempt and disgrace.

It is a common effect of low spirits or melancholy, to make

« AnteriorContinua »