by Derek Turner (May 2011)
Doctor Johnson bestrides the eighteenth century – and English literature – like the Colossus of Rhodes. His Dictionary alone would have made him immortal, and when that is combined with the Rambler and Idler, his Rasselas, Lives of the Poets, his annotated Shakespeare and his conversation, recorded so brilliantly by Boswell, you have one of the most considerable figures in English history. With his massive frame, his many eccentricities, his large firmly-planted boots, his magisterial air and his enormous appetite for life, he might epitomise England — dependable, practical, prejudiced against foreigners, commonsensical, sceptical yet also God-fearing, kindly, chivalrous and civilised.
His very name is redolent of Anglo-Saxon stolidity, like “Westminster Abbey” or “Metropolitan Railway”. Less stereotypically English are his reputations as conversationalist and intellectual, and the calibre of his friends and acquaintances – men like Burke, Goldsmith, Beauclerk, Reynolds, Gibbon and Garrick, all remarkable in their own right yet all overshadowed by this kindly Gargantua.
Born in Lichfield in 1709 (on the 7th or 18th of September, according to whether one uses the Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1752), Johnson was the first son of a reputable but failing bookseller and his forty year old wife. Johnson was born “almost dead”, according to Johnson himself, and was sickly as a baby, contracting both smallpox and scrofula, which scarred him permanently. His parents did not have a particularly happy marriage; “my parents” Johnson remarked sadly later in life “had not much joy from one another”.
He early combined intellectual precocity with great physical strength, enjoying swimming, skating and climbing trees as much as construing Latin verbs. He retained his massive strength all his life despite illnesses, which when combined with his intellectual prowess and his constant twitching and fidgeting (probably occasioned by St Vitus’ Dance) made him even more formidable. He was vain about his physical capabilities, and exceptionally modest about his literary capabilities. Even into old age he would often scale walls and trees just to show that his vigour was not diminished. “Johnson” it was said of him late in life, “rides as well as the most unintellectual fellow alive”, which opinion pleased him greatly.
He was the best scholar at Lichfield Grammar School, although he was lazy and only studied what he felt like studying. His classmates not only respected him but also knew that he would help them with their work. He would even hide extra-curricular work he had done so his classmates would not suffer. So popular was he that he was occasionally ceremonially carried to school by some of the other boys. After leaving school, his father could not pay for him to go to college, so he worked grudgingly in his father’s shop for a time, although it was not to his liking – he was often rude to customers or too engrossed in reading the stock to notice customers.
When a relative of his mother bequeathed her £40, she used the money to send her son to Oxford (£40 covered one year), relying on the casually given word of a friend, who had promised to help with further expenses. Johnson’s laziness and lack of application persisted – he would rarely bother doing homework and seldom attended lectures. He was rude to his tutors and domineering towards his fellows: “He would not let us say ‘prodigious’ at college. For even then he was delicate in language and we all feared him” one recalled later. He stayed at Oxford until his trousers were out at the knee then returned defeated to Lichfield.
His father only left £19 to his son when he died in 1731, so Johnson took a job as a teacher at Market Bosworth, but had a stormy relationship with his employer and resigned. He applied but failed to get other teaching jobs and then, in 1733, went to Birmingham, where he published his first work, a translation of French curé Father Lobo’s Voyage to Abyssinia and met his future wife, Elizabeth (“Tetty”), then married to merchant Henry Porter. In 1734 he returned to Lichfield and in 1735 he married Tetty (whose husband had died) in Derby and opened his own ill-fated private school at Edial Hall in Staffordshire. In 1737, Edial closed down and they left Lichfield for London.
In 1738, he began writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine and published his first major poem, London, an exaggerated declamation against metropolitan evils (although he loved living there) and Whiggery, personified by Robert Walpole’s government. The poem’s protagonist longs to escape from London, where
“now a rabble rages, now a fife:
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay.
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey.
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
Prepare for death if by night here you roam
And sign your will before you sup from home”
This was one of his first overtly political comments, although the reports of Parliamentary proceedings he had helped compile for The Gentleman’s Magazine (under the title “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput” to avoid breach of Parliamentary privilege) had been implicitly Tory. He began writing anti-government pamphlets the following year.
In the same year, he befriended Richard Savage, the flawed genius whom he memorialised upon his death in 1743 in his first major prose work, Life of Savage, which won him great renown and ensured that, when he published his plan for a dictionary of the language in 1746, he readily obtained sponsorship from a coterie of booksellers. There had been previous dictionaries, but they had not been done to a scholarly standard. One such dictionary defined “mouse” merely as “an animal well-known”. (1)
Johnson’s Toryism manifested itself in many ways, both subtle and obvious. As one of the last of the so-called “Augustans”, he was instinctively Tory, wary of excitability and fond of self-restraint and social harmony, but it also showed itself in his robust attitude to fleshly pleasures (“A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity”) and in his idealistic support for Jacobitism. The first edition of his Dictionary, which was largely an entirely objective work, nevertheless defined Tory as “One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England”, and Whig as merely “the name of a faction”. The Dictionary was designed “to inculcate wisdom or piety” and he refused to cite any author “whose writings had a tendency to hurt sound religion or morality”.
He was often vehement about Whiggism. “The first Whig was the Devil”, he is reported to have said when more than usually excited, and, on another occasion, “Whiggism is the negation of all principle”. He was not, however, dogmatic and could get along extremely well with individual Whigs, like his Lichfield friend Gilbert Walmsley, of whom he remarked “After his death I felt my Toryism much abated”, or Edmund Burke, whom Johnson considered one of the most remarkable men in England.
He often argued for subordination: “Sir, I am a friend to subordination as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed”, Boswell recorded him saying in 1763. He also often argued against equality: “So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other”.
In 1773, he opined “[M]ankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination. Were they to be in this pretty state of equality, they would soon degenerate into brutes… their tails would grow”. Three years later, upon leaving St Clement Danes church after a service, Boswell “supposed there was no civilised country in the world where the misery of want in the lowest classes was prevented”, to which Johnson replied “I believe, Sir, there is not; but it is better that some should be unhappy, than that none should be happy, which would be the case in a general state of equality.” He delighted in showing up the hypocrisy of those who ostensibly believed in equality, and liked to recall how once, when visiting a noted republican hostess, he had put on “a grave countenance”, said that he had been converted to her principles and then suggested that she permit her footman to sit down and dine with them. “She has never liked me since” he would add twinklingly.
He was suspicious of grand schemes: “Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvements are very laughable things” and “…an indulgence of fantastic delights more dangerous… I have frequently endeavoured to image the possibility of a perfect government” (2) or “We are not to blow up half a dozen palaces, because one cottage is burning”. The central theme of his hugely successful 1759 novel Rasselas was about the impossibility of earthy perfection, and the dangers inherent in romanticism, reveries and science. (3)
Johnson was not one of those he attacked in the Rambler, “who rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions, and their virtue in their talk than in their actions”. One reason he disliked America was because he found slavery objectionable. “Why is it”, he asked with asperity “that the loudest yelps for liberty are heard from the drivers of Negroes?” He was impossibly generous to those around him and would often borrow money from the people he was with in order to relieve beggars they passed. He once attacked a woman who had said that the poor should not be given money, because many spent the money on gin and tobacco: “It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure”. “A decent provision for the poor” he told Boswell, “is the true test of any civilization”.
Everywhere he lived there were people living on his bounty and in his house, some for years, like Anna Williams, the blind daughter of a Welsh doctor who moved in with him in 1752 and stayed until her death in 1783, with whom Johnson drank tea almost every night, putting up with her peevishness. He wrote a two-part Rambler essay, called “Misella Debauched”, very advanced for its time, which was written from the point of view of a prostitute, explaining how she had become one. He was intensely loyal to his friends; although often critical of his long-standing friend David Garrick, he treated him, as Joshua Reynolds observed, “as if he were his property”and would not allow anyone else to attack him.
Johnson was an intensely religious man, and often composed prayers and sermons. Boswell described “the dreadful earnestness” with which Johnson recited the Lord’s Prayer. Johnson was terrified of death, and was worried that he might not get to heaven, always concerned about his many “sins” – which included getting out of bed late, not reading Scripture every day, forgetting to say his prayers or not keeping his books in order. He made frequent resolutions to do all these things, which never lasted longer than a few weeks. It was after one such resolution that Boswell reports him tidying up his books, wearing great gloves “such as hedgers use”, reminding Boswell of the description his uncle had given of Johnson – “a robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries”. It is pleasing to record that Johnson seemed easier in his mind in the last few weeks before he died, on 13 December, 1784 – “his mind became calm, he felt a sense of forgiveness and of reconciliation…he seemed to be passing from this world with no terrors about the world to come.” (4)
Johnson has certainly achieved lasting temporal immortality, as an intellectual, a plain speaker, a conversationalist, an exemplary Tory, a bon vivant and a good man. So long as there are Britons who value commonsense, respect the past, and enjoy good conversation and cheer, there will always be a racial memory of Johnson, an ethnic energumen hovering benevolently above, speaking clearly to us in his broad Staffordshire accent. As he said “Self-dependent power can time defy / As rocks resist the billows and the sky.” (5)
All quotations are from the Life, except those indicated in the text and
1. Universal Etymological English Dictionary compiled by Nathan Bailey, 1721
3. Ironically, Rasselas appeared almost simultaneously with Voltaire’s novel Candide, its polar opposite in style and sensibility
4. Johnson on Johnson, edited by John Wain, J M Dent and Sons, 1976
5. From the lines he wrote for Goldsmith's The Deserted Village.
1731 Latin translation of Pope’s Messiah
1733 Voyage to Abyssinia
1739 Marmor Nolfolscience and A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage
1744 Life of Savage
1749 Vanity of Human Wishes
1750 Commences Rambler
1752 Concludes Rambler
1754 Life of Cave
1757 A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil
1758 Commences Idler
1765 Annotated Shakespeare
1770 The False Alarm and concluding lines to Goldsmith's The Deserted Village
1771 Thoughts on Falkland's Islands
1774 The Patriot
1775 A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Taxation No Tyranny
1775 Commences Lives of the Poets
1781 Concludes Lives of the Poets
(Derek Turner is the editor of Quarterly Review.)
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