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"A robust genius"
by Derek Turner
Dr Samuel 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 the Idler, his Rasselas, his Lives of the Poets, his annotated Shakespeare and his spirited
conversation, recorded so faithfully 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 God-fearing, chivalrous and civilised.
His very name is redolent of forthrightness and stolidity, like ‘Bradford’ or ‘Metropolitan
Railway’. Less stereotypically English are his reputations as conversationalist and intellectual, his piety
and the calibre of his friends and acquaintances - men such as Burke, Goldsmith, Beauclerk, Reynolds,
Gibbon and Garrick, all remarkable in their own right, yet all overshadowed by this intimidating, yet
Born in Lichfield in 1709 (on the 7th or 18th September, according to whether one uses the
Gregorian calendar, adopted in 1752, but which Johnson himself did not begin to use until 1753),
Johnson was the first son of a reputable but failing bookseller, Michael, and his forty year old wife,
Sarah. Johnson was born “almost dead”, according to his own account 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
As he grew up he early combined intellectual precociousness with great physical strength,
enjoying swimming, skating and climbing trees as much as construing Latin verbs. Despite the illnesses
he retained his massive strength all his life, which, when combined with his intellectual prowess and
his constant twitching and fidgeting (probably occasioned by St Vitus’s Dance), made him appear even
more formidable than he would otherwise have been. He was vain about his physical capabilities,
whilst being exceptionally modest about his literary gifts. Even into old age he would often scale walls
and trees just to show that his vigour was not diminished. “Johnson”, it was once said of him late in
life, “rides as well as the most unintellectual fellow alive”, a compliment which pleased him greatly.
He was the best scholar at Lichfield Grammar School, although he was lazy and only studied the
things that he felt like studying. Despite this, he was popular with his classmates, who not only feared
him, but knew that he would help them with their work and that he would hide extracurricular work
that he had done so that 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 died, leaving £40, Sarah used the money to send him to Oxford
(£40 just 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 remained - he would rarely bother
doing homework and seldom attended lectures. He was rude to his tutors and domineering to his
fellows: “He would not let us say ‘prodigious’ at college. For even then he was delicate in language and
we all feared him” recalled one later. He stayed at Oxford until his trousers were out at the knee. Then,
defeated, he returned to Lichfield.
His father left only £19 to Sam when he died in 1731. Johnson took a job as a teacher at Market
Bosworth School, but had a stormy relationship with his patron and resigned. He then applied for but
failed to get other teaching jobs until, in 1733, went to Birmingham, where he published his first work,
a translation of a French priest, 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 the meanwhile) in Derby and opened his own ill-fated
private school at Edial Hall in Staffordshire. In 1737 Edial closed down and they left Lichfield to live in
In 1738 he began writing for The Gentlemen’s Magazine and published his first major poem,
London, an exaggerated declaration against the evils of London (although he loved living there) and
Whiggery, personified by Robert Walpole’s Government. The hero of the poem, Thales, longs to
escape from London, where:
“Now a rabble rages, now a fire:
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey,
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead.
Prepare for death if by night here you roam
And sign your will before you sup from home.”
This is very different from the style that we expect from Johnson. It was one of his first overtly
political comments, although the reports of Parliamentary proceedings that he had helped compile for
The Gentlemen’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
In the same year he met and befriended Richard Savage, the flawed genius who was to be
immortalised upon his death in 1743 by Johnson’s 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. Previous dictionaries there had been, but
they had not been done to the sort of standard that Johnson would have liked. (One such dictionary
defined ‘mouse’ as “an animal well-known”.(1))
Johnson’s Toryism manifested itself in many ways, 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 food and drink. (“A tavern chair is the
throne of human felicity”) and in his idealistic support for Jacobitism. The first edition of his
Dictionary, which should really have been an objective work, defined Tory as “One who adheres to the
ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolic hierarchy of the Church of England”, whereas Whig
was merely “the name of a faction”. The Dictionary itself was written “to inculcate wisdom or piety”
while “refining the language to grammatical purity”; while he refused to cite any author “...whose
writings had a tendency to hurt sound religion or morality” - Tory aims, if ever there were. 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 such as his
Lichfield friend Gilbert Walmsley, of whom Johnson remarked “After his death I felt my Toryism
much abated”, or Edmund Burke, whom Johnson considered one of the most remarkable men in
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 “...mankind 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 remarked that he “...supposed there was no civilised country in the world where the
misery of want in the lowest classes was prevented”. 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”, told
her that he had been converted to her principles and then suggested that she should permit her footman
to sit down and dine with them. “She has never liked me since”, he would add. 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”.
Although Johnson’s sentiments may be thought harsh by many modern readers, Johnson was
deeply religious and extremely charitable in private, with a well-developed moral sense. He was not
one of those whom he attacked in the Rambler, “who rate themselves by the goodness of their opinions,
and forget how much more easily men may show their virtue in their talk than in their actions…” One
of the reasons why he disliked so many Americans was because he found slavery objectionable. “Why
is it”, he asked once 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 whom 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...” Furthermore: “A decent
provision for the poor” he said to Boswell, “is the true test of any civilisation.”
Everywhere that 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 would drink tea almost every single night, putting
up with her customary 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 fallen to that state. He
was intensely loyal to his friends; although jealous and 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’s religiosity often led him to compose 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’ such as getting
out of bed late, not reading some 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 that 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 the 13th 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.”(3)
Johnson has certainly achieved a measure of immortality as an intellectual of lasting
significance, as a chivalrous, plain speaking Englishman, as a conversationalist, as an exemplary Tory,
as 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. After
“...self-dependent power can time defy
As rocks resist the billows and the sky.”(4)
All the quotations are taken from Boswell’s Life, except for those indicated in the text and
1.Universal Etymological English Dictionary compiled by Nathan Bailey, published 1721.
3. Johnson on Johnson, edited by John Wain, J M Dent and Sons, 1976.
4. From the lines which he wrote for Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village.
Johnson’s major works
1731 Latin translation of Pope’s Messiah.
1733 Voyage to Abyssinia.
1739 Mamor 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.
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