« AnteriorContinua »
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 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. 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