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The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
by James Boswell
The original, squashed down to read in about 35 minutes

(London, 1788)

Samuel Johnson was one of the wonders of his age, a journalist, historian, friend and advisor to the mighty and lowly alike. But his companion Boswell was an odd sort of biographer - a frivolous Scottish aristocrat, lawyer and hearty supporter of the slave trade. Yet this is often said to be the greatest biography ever written, huge, detailed and full of far more personal and human detail than any such work before.
Abridged: JH/GH

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

I. Parentage and Education

Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, in Staffordshire, on September 18,1709, and was baptised on the day of his birth. His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire. They were well advanced in years when they were married, and never had more than two children, both sons - Samuel, their first born, whose various excellences I am to endeavour to record, and Nathaniel, who died in his twenty-fifth year.

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. Yet, when he and I were travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, and I pointed out to him a mountain, which, I observed, resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy by showing me that it was indeed pointed at the top, but that one side of it was larger than the other. And the ladies with whom he was acquainted agree that no man was more nicely and minutely critical in the elegance of female dress.

He was first taught to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, who kept a school for young children in Lichfield. From his earliest years Johnson's superiority was perceived and acknowledged. He was from the beginning a king of men. His schoolfellow, Mr. Hector, has assured me that he never knew him corrected at school but for talking and diverting other boys from their business. 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.

At the age of fifteen, he was removed to the school of Stourbridge, in Worcestershire, of which Mr. Wentworth was then master. He had no settled plan of life, and though he read a great deal in a desultory manner, he read only as chance and inclination directed him. "What I read," he told me, "were not voyages and travels, but all literature, sir. I had looked into many books which were not 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."

II Marriage and Settlement in London

Johnson left Pembroke College in the autumn of 1731, without taking a degree, having been a member of it little more than three years. In December of this year his father died.

In this forlorn state of his circumstances, he accepted an offer to be employed as usher in the school of Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire. But relinquished after a few months a situation which all his life afterwards he recollected with the strongest aversion and even a degree of horror. Among the acquaintances he made at this period was Mr. Porter, a mercer at Birmingham, whose widow he afterwards married. Though Mrs. Porter, now a widow, was double the age of Johnson, and her person and manner, as described to me by the late Mr. Garrick, were by no means pleasing to others, she must have had a superiority of understanding and talents, as she certainly inspired him with a more than ordinary passion. The marriage took place at Derby, on July 9, 1736.

He now set up a private academy, for which purpose he hired a large house well situated near his native city. In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for 1736 there is the following advertisement:

"At Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young gentlemen are boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages, by SAMUEL JOHNSON."

But the only pupils that were put under his care were the celebrated David Garrick, his brother George, and a Mr. Offely, a young gentleman of fortune, who died early.

III. Poverty Stricken in London

Johnson's first performance in the "Gentleman's Magazine," which for many years was his principal source of employment and support, was a copy of Latin verses, in March, 1738, addressed to the editor. Thus was Johnson employed during some of the best years of his life.

Johnson felt the hardships of writing for bread. He was therefore willing to resume the office of a schoolmaster, and, an offer being made to him of the mastership of a school, provided he could obtain the degree of Master of Arts, Dr. Adams was applied to by a common friend to know whether that could be granted to him as a favour from the university of Oxford. But it was then thought too great a favour to be asked.

During the next five years, 1739-1743, Johnson wrote largely for the "Gentleman's Magazine," and supplied the account of the Parliamentary Debates from 1740, to 1743. It does not appear that he wrote anything of importance for the magazine in 1744. But he produced one work this year, fully sufficient to maintain the high reputation which he had acquired. This was "The Life of Richard Savage," a man of whom it is difficult to speak impartially without wondering that he was for some time the intimate companion of Johnson; for his character was marked by profligacy, insolence, and ingratitude; yet, he undoubtedly had a warm and vigorous, though unregulated mind.

IV. Preparation of the "Dictionary"

The year 1747 is distinguished as the epoch when Johnson's arduous and important work, his "Dictionary of the English Language," was announced to the world, by the publication of its "Plan or Prospectus."

The "Plan" was addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, then one of his majesty's principal secretaries of state, a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction, and who, upon being informed of the design, had expressed himself in terms very favourable to its success. The plan had been put before him in manuscript For the mechanical part of the work Johnson employed, as he told me, six amanuenses.

In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for May, 1748, he-wrote a "Life of Roscommon," with notes, which he afterwards much improved and inserted amongst his "Lives of the English Poets." And this same year he formed a club in Ivy Lane, Paternoster Row, with a view to enjoy literary discussion.

In January, 1749, he published "Vanity of Human Wishes, being the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated"; and on February 6 Garrick brought out a tragedy of his at Drury Lane. Dr. Adams was present at the first night of "Irene," and gave me the following account. "Before the curtain drew up, there were catcalls and whistling, which alarmed Johnson's friends. The prologue, which was 'written by himself in a manly strain, soothed the audience, and the play went off tolerably till it came to the conclusion, when Mrs. Pritchard, the heroine of the piece, was to be strangled on the stage, and was to speak two lines with the bow-string around her neck. The audience cried out 'Murder! Murder!' She several times attempted to speak, but in vain. At last she was obliged to go off the stage alive." This passage was afterwards struck out, and she was carried off to be put to death behind the scenes, as the play now has it.

On occasion of his play being brought upon the stage, Johnson had a fancy that as a dramatic author his dress should be more gay than he ordinarily wore; he therefore appeared behind the scenes, and even in one of the side boxes, in a scarlet waistcoat, with rich gold lace and a gold laced hat.

V. "The Rambler" and New Acquaintance

In 1750 Johnson came forth in the character for which he was eminently qualified, a majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom. The vehicle he chose was that of a periodical paper, which he knew had, upon former occasions - those of the "Tattler," "Spectator," and "Guardian" - been employed with great success.

The first paper of "The Rambler" was published on Tuesday, March 20, 1750, and its author was enabled to continue it without interruption, every Tuesday and Friday, till Saturday, March 17, 1752, on which day it closed. During all this time he received assistance on four occasions only.

Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moments pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed. Such was his peculiar promptitude of mind. He was wont to say, "A man may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it."

The circle of Johnson's friends, indeed, at this time was extensive and various. To trace his acquaintance with each particular person were unprofitable. But exceptions are to be made, one of which must be a friend so eminent as Sir Joshua Reynolds, with whom he maintained an uninterrupted intimacy to the last hour of his life.

VI. Lord Chesterfield and the "Dictionary"

In 1753 and 1754 Johnson relieved the drudgery of his "Dictionary" by taking an active part in the composition of "The Adventurer," a new periodical paper which his friends Dr. Hawkesworth and Dr. Bathurst had commenced.

Towards the end of the latter year, when the "Dictionary" was on the eve of publication, Lord Chesterfield, who, ever since the plan of this great work had been addressed to him, had treated its author with cold indifference, attempted to conciliate him by writing to papers in "The World" in recommendation of the undertaking. This courtly device failed of its effect, and Johnson, indignant that Lord Chesterfield should, for a moment, imagine that he could be the dupe of such an artifice, wrote him that famous letter, dated February 7, 1755, which I have already given to the public. I will quote one paragraph.

"Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it."

Thinking it desirable that the two letters intimating possession of the master's degree should, for the credit both of Oxford and of Johnson, appear after his name on the title page of his "Dictionary," his friends obtained for him from his university this mark of distinction by diploma; and the "Dictionary" was published on April 15 in two volumes folio.

It won him much honour at home and abroad; the Academy of Florence sent him their "Vocabulario," and the French Academy their "Dictionnaire." But it had not set him above the necessity of "making provision for the day that was passing over him," for he had spent during the progress of the work all the money which it had brought him.

He was compelled, therefore, to contribute to the monthly periodicals, and during 1756 he wrote a few essays for "The Universal Visitor," and superintended and contributed largely to another publication entitled "The Literary Magazine, or Universal Review."

His defence of tea was indeed made con amore. I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf than Johnson. The quantities which he drank of it at all hours were so great that his nerves must have been uncommonly strong not to have been extremely relaxed by such an intemperate use of it.

On April 15, 1758, he began a new periodical paper entitled "The Idler," which came out every Saturday in a weekly newspaper called "The Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette." In 1759, in the month of January, Johnson's mother died, at the great age of ninety, an event which deeply affected him, for his reverential affection for her was not abated by years. Soon after, he wrote his "Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia," in order that with the profits he might defray the expenses of her funeral, and pay some little debts which she had left.

Early in 1762, having been represented to the king as a very learned and good person, without any certain provision, his majesty was pleased to grant him a pension of £300 a year.

VII. Boswell's First Meeting with Johnson

It was Mr. Thomas Davies, the actor, turned bookseller, who introduced me to Johnson. On Monday, May 16, 1763. I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back parlour at 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, when Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated at my long-wished-for introduction to the sage, and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, "Don't tell where I come from - - " "From Scotland!" cried Davies roguishly. "Mr. Johnson," said I, "I do, indeed, come from Scotland, but I cannot help it". But with that quickness of wit for which he was so known he remarked, "That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." This stroke, and another check which I subsequently received, stunned me a good deal; but eight days later I boldly repaired to his chambers on the first floor of No. 1, Inner Temple Lane, and he received me very courteously. His morning dress was sufficiently uncouth; his brown suit of clothes looked very rusty. He had on a little, old, shrivelled, unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill-drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.

VIII. Tours in the Hebrides and in Wales

His friend, the Rev. Dr. Maxwell, speaks as follows on Johnson's general mode of life: "About twelve o'clock I commonly visited him, and frequently found him in bed, or declaiming over his tea, which he drank very plentifully. He generally had a levée of morning visitors, chiefly men of letters - Hawkesworth, Goldsmith, Murphy, etc., etc., and sometimes learned ladies, particularly I remember a French lady of wit and fashion doing him the honour of a visit. He seemed to me to be considered as a kind of public oracle, whom everybody thought they had a right to visit and to consult; and doubtless they were well rewarded."

On April 23, 1773, I was nominated by Johnson for membership of the Literary Club, and a week later I was elected to the society. There I saw for the first time Mr. Edmund Burke, whose splendid talents had made me ardently wish for his acquaintance.

This same year Johnson made, in my company, his visit to Scotland, which lasted from August 14, on which day he arrived, till November 22, when he set out on his return to London; and I believe one hundred days were never passed by any men in a more vigorous exertion. His various adventures, and the force and vivacity of his mind, as exercised during this peregrination, upon innumerable topics, have been faithfully, and to the best of my ability, displayed in my "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides."

On his return to London his humane, forgiving dispositions were put to a pretty strong test by a liberty which Mr. Thomas Davies had taken, which was to publish two volumes, entitled "Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces," which he advertised in the newspapers, "By the Author of the Rambler." In some of these Johnson had no concern whatever. He was at first very angry, but, upon consideration of his poor friend's narrow circumstances, and that he meant no harm, he soon relented.

This year, too, my great friend again came out as a politician, for parliament having been dissolved in September, and Johnson published a short political pamphlet, entitled "The Patriot," addressed to the electors of Great Britain. It was written with energetic vivacity; and except those passages in which it endeavours to vindicate the glaring outrage of the House of Commons in the case of the Middlesex election and to justify the attempt to reduce our fellow-subjects in America to unconditional submission, it contained an admirable display of the properties of a real patriot, in the original and genuine sense.

IX. Johnson's Courage and Fear of Death

The "Rambler's" own account of our tour in the Hebrides was published in 1775 under the title of "A journey to the Western Islands of Scotland," and soon involved its author, who had expressed his disbelief in the authenticity of Ossian's poems, in a controversy with Mr. Macpherson. Johnson called for the production of the old manuscripts from which Mr. Macpherson said that he had copied the poems. Mr. Macpherson, exasperated by this scepticism, replied in words that are generally said to have been of a nature very different from the language of literary contest.

Mr. Macpherson knew little the character of Dr. Johnson if he supposed that he could be easily intimidated, for no man was ever more remarkable for personal courage. He had, indeed, an awful dread of death, or, rather, "of something after death"; and he once said to me, "The fear of death is so much natural to man that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it," and confessed that "he had never had a moment in which death was not terrible to him." But his fear was from reflection, his courage natural. Many instances of his resolution may be mentioned. One day, at Mr. Beauclerk's house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them and beat them till they separated.

My revered friend had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. As early as 1769 he had said to them: "Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging." He had recently published, at the desire of those in power, a pamphlet entitled "Taxation no Tyranny; an Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress." Of this performance I avoided to talk with him, having formed a clear and settled opinion against the doctrine of its title.

In the autumn Dr. Johnson went to Ashbourne to France with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale and Mr. Baretti, which lasted about two months. But he did not get into any higher acquaintance; and Foote, who was at Paris at the time with him, used to give a description of my friend while there and of French astonishment at his figure, manner, and dress, which was abundantly ludicrous. He was now a Doctor of Laws of Oxford, his university having conferred that degree on him by diploma in the spring.

X. Johnson's "Seraglio"

A circumstance which could not fail to be very pleasing to Johnson occurred in 1777. The tragedy of "Sir Thomas Overbury," written by his early companion in London, Richard Savage, was brought out, with alterations, at Covent Garden Theatre; and the prologue to it, written by Mr. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, introduced an elegant compliment to Johnson on his "Dictionary." Johnson was pleased with young Mr. Sheridan's liberality of sentiment, and willing to show that though estranged from the father he could acknowledge the brilliant merit of the son, he proposed him, and secured his election, as a member of the Literary Club.

In the autumn Dr. Johnson went to Ashbourne to stop with his friend, the Rev. Dr. Taylor, and I joined him there. During this visit he put into my hands the whole series of his writings in behalf of the Rev. Dr. William Dodd, who, having been chaplain-in-ordinary to his majesty, and celebrated as a very popular preacher, was this year convicted and executed for forging a bond on his former pupil, the young Earl of Chesterfield. Johnson certainly made extraordinary exertions to save Dodd. He wrote several petitions and letters on the subject, and composed for the unhappy man his "Speech to the Recorder of London," at the Old Bailey, when sentence of death was about to be pronounced upon him.

In 1778, I arrived in London on March 18, and next day met Dr. Johnson at his old friend's, in Dean's Yard, for Dr. Taylor was a prebendary of Westminster. On Friday, March 2d, I found him at his own house, sitting with Mrs. Williams, and was informed that the room allotted to me three years previously was now appropriated to a charitable purpose, Mrs. Desmoulins, daughter of Johnson's godfather Dr. Swinfen, and, I think, her daughter, and a Miss Carmichael, being all lodged in it. Such was his humanity, and such his generosity, that Mrs. Desmoulins herself told me he allowed her half-a-guinea a week. Unfortunately his "Seraglio," as he sometimes suffered me to call his group of females, were perpetually jarring with one another. He thus mentions them, "Williams hates everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams - Desmoulins hates them both; Poll (Miss Carmichael) loves none of them."

On January 20, 1779, Johnson lost his old friend Garrick, and this same year he gave the world a luminous proof that the vigour of his mind in all its faculties, whether memory, judgement, and imagination, was not in the least abated, by publishing the first four volumes of his "Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Most Eminent of the English Poets." The remaining volumes came out in 1781.

In 1780 the world was kept in impatience for the completion of his "Lives of the Poets," upon which he was employed so far as his indolence allowed him to labour.

This year - on March 11 - Johnson lost another old friend in Mr. Topham Beauclerk, of whom he said: "No man ever was so free when he was going to say a good thing, from a look that expressed that it was coming; or, when he had said it, from a look that expressed that it had come."

XI. Johnson's Humanity.

I was disappointed in my hopes of seeing Johnson in 1780, but I was able to come to London in the spring of 1781, and on Tuesday, March 20, I met him in Fleet Street, walking, or, rather, indeed, moving along - for his peculiar march is thus correctly described in a short life of him published very soon after his death: "When he walked the streets, what with the constant roll of his head, and the concomitant motion of his body, he appeared to make his way by that motion, independent of his feet." That he was often much stared at while he advanced in this manner may easily be believed, but it was not safe to make sport of one so robust as he was.

I waited on him next evening, and he gave me a great portion of his original manuscript of his "Lives of the Poets," which he had preserved for me.

I found on visiting his friend, Mr. Thrale, that he was now very ill, and had removed - I suppose by the solicitation of Mrs. Thrale - to a house in Grosvenor Square. I was sorry to see him sadly changed in his appearance. He died shortly after.

He told me I might now have the pleasure to see Dr. Johnson drink wine again, for he had lately returned to it. When I mentioned this to Johnson, he said: "I drink it now sometimes, but not socially." The first evening that I was with him at Thrale's, I observed he poured a large quantity of it into a glass, and swallowed it greedily. Everything about his character and manners was forcible and violent; there never was any moderation; many a day did he fast, many a year did he refrain from wine; but when he did eat, it was voraciously; when he did drink wine, it was copiously. He could practice abstinence, but not temperance.

"I am not a severe man," Johnson once said; "as I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly."

This kind indulgence - extended towards myself when overcome by wine - had once or twice a pretty difficult trial, but on my making an apology, I always found Johnson behave to me with the most friendly gentleness. In fact, Johnson was not severe, but he was pugnacious, and this pugnacity and roughness he displayed most conspicuously in conversation. He could not brook appearing to be worsted in argument, even when, to show the force and dexterity of his talents, he had taken the wrong side. When, therefore, he perceived that his opponent gained ground, he had recourse to some sudden mode of robust sophistry. Once when I was pressing upon him with visible advantage, he stopped me thus: "My dear Boswell, let's have no more of this. You'll make nothing of it. I'd rather have you whistle a Scotch tune."

Goldsmith used to say, in the witty words of one of Cibber's comedies, "There is no arguing with Johnson, for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it."

His love of little children, which he discovered upon all occasions, calling them "pretty dears," and giving them sweetmeats, was an undoubted proof of the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition. His uncommon kindness to his servants, and serious concern, not only for their comfort in this world, but their happiness in the next, was another unquestionable evidence of what all who were intimately acquainted with him knew to be true. Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness that he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat, for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants, having that trouble, should take a dislike to the poor creature.

XII. The Last Year

In April, 1783, Johnson had a paralytic stroke, which deprived him, for a time, of the powers of speech. But he recovered so quickly that in July he was able to make a visit to Mr. Langton, at Rochester, where he passed about a fortnight, and made little excursions as easily as at any time of his life. In August he went as far as the neighbourhood of Salisbury, to Heale, the seat of William Bowles, Esq.; and it was while he was here that he had a letter from his physician, Dr. Brocklesby, acquainting him of the death of Mrs. Williams, which affected him a good deal.

In the end of 1783, in addition to his gout and his catarrhous cough, he was seized with a spasmodic asthma of such violence that he was confined to the house in great pain, being sometimes obliged to sit all night in his chair, a recumbent posture being so hurtful to his respiration that he could not endure lying in bed; and there came upon him at the same time that oppressive and fatal disease of dropsy. His cough he used to cure by taking laudanum and syrup of poppies, and he was a great believer in the advantages of being bled. But this year the very severe winter aggravated his complaints, and the asthma confined him to the house for more than three months; though he got almost complete relief from the dropsy by natural evacuation in February.

On Wednesday, May 5, 1784 - the last year of Dr. Johnson's life - I arrived in London for my spring visit; and next morning I had the pleasure to find him greatly recovered. He had now a great desire to go to Oxford, as his first jaunt after his illness; we talked of it for some days, and on June 3 the Oxford post-coach took us up at Bolt Court, and we spent an agreeable fortnight with Dr. Adams at Pembroke College.

The anxiety of his friends to preserve so estimable a life made them plan for him a retreat from the severity of a British winter to the mild climate of Italy; and, after consulting with Sir Joshua Reynolds, I wrote to Lord Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor, for such an addition to Johnson's income as would enable him to bear the expense. Lord Thurlow at first made a very favourable reply; but eventually he had to confess that his application had been unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, June 30, I dined with him, for the last time, at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, no other company being present; and on July 2 I left London for Scotland.

On December 8 and 9 he made his will; and on Monday, December 13, he expired about seven o'clock in the evening, with so little apparent pain that his attendants hardly perceived when his dissolution took place. A week later he was buried in Westminster Abbey, his old schoolfellow, Dr. Taylor, reading the service.

I trust I shall not be accused of affectation when I declare that I find myself unable to express all that I felt upon the loss of such a "Guide, Philosopher, and Friend." I shall, therefore, not say one word of my own, but adopt those of an eminent friend, which he uttered with an abrupt felicity: "He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best: there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."

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