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INTRODUCTION

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SAMUEL JOHNSON was born on the 18th September (N.S.) 1709 to Michael Johnson, a bookseller in Lichfield, from whom he inherited 'a vile melancholy' and a constitution tainted with disease, yet vigorous enough to survive many years of hardship and privation, and to withstand a long series of amateur physicking. He had none of the “unpleasing and unsocial qualities of a valetudinary man.' Johnson was educated at Lichfield and Stourbridge, but he owed it at least as much to a naturally retentive memory and a fixed habit of desultory reading as to any of his schoolmasters that, upon proceeding to Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1728 he was the best qualified for the University' that Dr. Adams had ever known come there. He left Oxford after only fourteen months' residence, and earned a subsistence (for his patrimony was no more than twenty pounds) first as an usher in a school, and next as a bookseller's hack at Birmingham, where in 1735 he married a mercer's widow near double his own age. 'Sir,' he told Beauclerk with much gravity, 'it was a love marriage on both sides.' Three pupils being insufficient to ensure the success of a private boarding-school which he opened soon after his marriage, he repaired to London in 1737, and, as he says of Savage, 'having no profession, became by necessity an author.' During the next five-and-twenty years, writing dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work and working with vigour and haste, he wrote, besides much that was purely ephemeral, London, 1739; The Life of Richard Savage, 1744; The Vanity of Human Wishes, 1749; The Rambler, 1750-52 (in which latter year he lost his

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wife); The Idler, 1758-60; and Rasselas, 1759. His tragedy of Irene, which had been ready for the stage for some time, was produced by his old pupil, David Garrick, in 1749, and ran for nine nights; while the great Dictionary was announced in 1747 and completed in 1755.

With his manner of living throughout this period himself has made us sufficiently familiar, nor does it call for any better illustration than is afforded by the scheme of existence in London upon thirty pounds a year which was expounded to him by an Irish painter: a man, he maintained, of a great deal of knowledge of the world, fresh from life, not strained through books.' So late as 1759 Johnson wrote Rasselas in the evenings of a single week to pay for his mother's funeral and to discharge her debts, nor do matters seem to have been substantially mending with him, though perhaps we are a little too apt to dwell rather on Malone's picture of the ragged reporter eating behind the screen in Cave's dining-room, than on the glimpse we get of the same man frequently meeting ‘genteel company' at Mr. Hervey's; a little too apt to think rather of Richard Savage, or George Psalmanazar and the metaphysical tailor,' with their club in Old Street, than of Langton, Beauclerk, and Reynolds.

In 1762 Johnson came to the turning of the lane, when the King conferred upon him a pension of three hundred pounds a year: not, Lord Bute assured him, 'for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.' Thus for the remainder of his days the sage was independent of the precarious wages of literature, while he reigned in undisputed supremacy over the English world of letters in general, and in particular over one of the choicest and most agreeable societies ever known. In his biographer's happy phrase, he enjoyed a superiority of wisdom among the wise, and of learning among the learned ; and flashed his wit upon minds bright enough to reflect it.

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Each year, too, brought its jaunt' from London (the most memorable being the tour to the Hebrides in 1773), and each jaunt brought its 'accession of new ideas. Yet he spent but a small proportion of his income upon himself, devoting the larger share to the support of a singularly constituted household. Of the womankind, at all events, of his extraordinary establishment it may be confidently asserted that they subsisted at the expense of his comfort as well as of his pocket. But poverty and misfortune, as Goldsmith remarked, were sufficient recommendations to Johnson.

In 1763 Davies the bookseller brought Johnson acquainted with James Boswell, from whom we thenceforward possess an account of the other's life conceived on such a scale and executed with so thorough a command of the biographer's art -such fidelity, such spirit, and such an eye for effect-as have since only once been rivalled and never excelled. The attempt in this place to condense that masterpiece were vain. It must suffice to note that Johnson undertook The Lives of the Poetsthe only work of capital importance which the last twenty years of his life produced-at the instigation of the London booksellers, who sent a deputation to wait upon him on Easter Eve 1777; that the remuneration which he proposed and they agreed to was two hundred guineas, to which were afterwards added two further sums of one hundred guineas each (" he had, I believe,' says Boswell, « less attention to profit from his labours than any man to whom literature has been a profession'); that the work outgrew the original design, and became much more than a set of little lives and little prefaces to a little edition of the English poets; that the first four volumes appeared in 1779 and the remaining six in 1781; and that the Lives were soon reprinted as a separate and substantive work. Not for long did Johnson survive the completion of his great task. Age and infirmity pressed hard upon him; yet to the

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end he was distinguished by the same ardour for literature, the same constant piety, the same kindness for his friends, and the same vivacity both in conversation and writing. He died on the 13th December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey

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* An elegant collection of the best biography and criticism of which our language can boast.' Such is Boswell's commentary upon the Lives.

Later writers have, no doubt, hesitated to concur in this simple and sweeping expression of opinion, and the public has long desisted from conspiring to squander praise' on Johnson. Yet it is very generally admitted that this work is the finest of his performances; and though it has been frequently misjudged and frequently misunderstood, it cannot be said that the decision of posterity has been other than generous; kindly in intention, if sometimes less than intelligent in application. This is the more creditable to the candour of recent critics that the Lives are conspicuously and lamentably deficient in a particular wherein the present age has covered itself with glory. The modern literary historian will spend years in discovering the date of anybody's birth, and will exalt with the name of biography two swelling volumes composed in equal parts of parish register, Stationers' Hall, charter chest, and Somerset House. Johnson, on the contrary, owns that he engaged in his undertaking with less provision of material than longer premeditation might have accumulated, and frankly confesses that to adjust the minute events of literary history is tedious and troublesome.' Nay, he makes bold to add that to do so requires no great force of understanding. He, for one, was not to run, like Boswell, half over London to verify a date. Hence a considerable number of trivial errors, which the diligence of annotators has corrected. Yet most people, perhaps, will prefer Johnson

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wrong before Peter Cunningham right, and had rather know what Johnson learned from some old catalogue, or heard from

my father, an old bookseller,' or from Mr. Savage, or from old Mr. Cibber, than peruse a file of the Gazette, or dig in a shapeless mass of raw material from the Public Record Office.

The chief quarrel, to be sure, of later writers with Dr. Johnson has been on the score of certain defects of taste, certain eccentricities of judgment, which it were vain to extenuate or deny. To us, assuredly, the Epistle to Abelard scarce seems 'one of the most happy productions of human wit’; we are reluctant to admit Akenside to be superior in the fabrication of his lines to any other writer of blank verse'; and most of us think that, given the mass of English poetry to choose from, we can hit upon more 'poetical paragraphs' than the well-known passage from The Mourning Bride. What, too, we immediately ask, is to be said of the critical faculty of one who made interest for the inclusion in the English poets of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret and Yalden, and who excluded, or, at least, acquiesced in the exclusion of, every writer of prior date to Waller? Or what of the insensibility which spurned at Chevy Chase? (Though, in truth, to praise that ballad as Addison praised it is to the full as wrong-headed as to find in it nought but chill and lifeless imbecility') To expatiate on what seem to us mistaken views were superfluous. Nor need we long dwell with the indulgence of superior discernment on the unhappy prediction that, after Pope, 'to attempt any further improvement of versification will be dangerous. Art and diligence have now done their best, and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity.' We all know how the prophecy has been falsified. We all see that the resources of art were not then, nor are they now, exhausted. But to twit the sage with his palpable discomfiture

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