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THE LIFE AND GENIUS
SAMUEL JOHNSON. LL. D.
When the works of a great writer, who has be- | require nothing but the truth. Nam nec historia queathed to posterity a lasting legacy, are pre- debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas suffisented to the world, it is naturally expected, that cit. This rule the present biographer promises some account of his life should accompany the shall guide his pen throughout the following nar. edition. The reader wishes to know as much as rative. possible of the author. The circumstances that It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept attended him, the features of his private charac- the public mind in agitation beyond all former ter, his conversation, and the means by which example. No literary character ever excited so he rose to eminence, becomes the favourite ob- much attention; and, when the press has teemed jects of inquiry. Curiosity is excited; and the with anecdotes, apophthegms, essays, and publiadmirer of his works is eager to know his pri- cations of every kind, what occasion now for a vate opinions, his course of study, the particu- new tract on the same threadbare subject? The larities of his conduct, and, above all, whether plain truth shall be the answer. The proprie he pursued the wisdom which he recommends, tors of Johnson's Works thought the life, which and practised the virtue which his writings in they prefixed to their
former edition, too unweildy spire. A principle of gratitude is awakened in for republication. The prodigious variety of foevery generous mind. For the entertainment reign matter, introduced into that performance, and instruction which genius and diligence have seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, provided for the world, men of refined and sensi- and in the account of his own life to leave him ble tempers are ready to pay their tribute of hardly visible. They wished to have a more praise, and even to form a posthumous friend concise, and, for that reason, perhaps a more saship with the author.
tisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just In reviewing the life of such a writer, there is, picture of the man, and keep him the principal besides, a rule of justice to which the public have figure in the foreground of his own picture. an undoubted claim. Fond admiration and par- To comply with that request is the design o. tial friendship should not be suffered to represent this essay, which the writer undertakes with a his virtues with exaggeration ; nor should ma- trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no se lignity be allowed, under a specious disguise, to cret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no magnify mere defects, the usual failings of hu- sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private man nature, into vice or gross deformity. The conversation, and no new facts to embellish his lights and 'shades of the character should be work. Every thing has been gleaned. Dr. given ; and, if this be done with a strict regard to Johnson said of himself
, “I am not uncandid truth, a just estimate of Dr. Johnson will afford nor severe: I sometimes say more than I mean, a lesson, perhaps as valuable as the moral doc- in jest, and people are apt to think me serious."* trine that speaks with energy in every page of The exercise of that privilege which is enjoyed his works.
by every man in society, has not been allowed The present writer enjoyed the conversation to him. His fame has given importance even to and friendship of that excellent man more than trifles; and the zeal of his friends has brought thirty years. 'He thought it an honour to be so every thing to light. What should be related, connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss and what should not, has been published withwith regret : but regret, he knows has secret out distinction. Dicenda tacenda locuti! Every bribes, by which the judgment may be influ- thing that fell from him has been caught with enced, and partial affection may be carried be eagerness by his admirers, who, as he says in yond the bounds of truth. In the present case, one of his letters, have acted with the diligence however, nothing needs to be disguised, and ex- of spies upon his conduct. To some of them aggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an ob- the following lines, in Mallet's Poem, on verbal servation of the younger Pliny, in his Epistle to criticism, are not inapplicable : his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions * Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. ii. p. 465, 4to. edit
"Such that grave bird in Northern seas is found, where he was not remarkable for diligence or
Whose name a Dutchman only knows to sound;
regular application. Whatever he read, his teThis humble friend attends from shore to shore;
nacious memory made his own. In the fields
self than with his companions. In 1725, when
he was about sixteen years old, he went on a And is the careful Tibbald of a Whale."
visit to his cousin Cornelius Ford, who detained After so many essays and volumes of Johnsoni- him for some months, and in the mean time asana, what remains for the present writer ? Per- sisted him in the classics. The general direchaps, what has not been attempted; a short, yet tion for his studies, which he then received, he full-a faithful, yet temperate, history of Dr. related to Mrs. Piozzi. "Obtain,” says Ford, Johnson.
"some general principles of every science: he
who can talk only on one subject, or act only in Samuel Johnson was born at Litchfield, Sep- one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps tember 7, 1709, 0. S.* His father Michael never wished for; while the man of general Johnson was a bookseller in that city; a man knowledge can often benefit, and always please.” of large athletic make, and violent passions, This advice Johnson seems to have pursued with wrong-headed, positive, and at times afflicted a good inclination. His reading was always dewith a degree of melancholy, little short of mad- sultory, seldom resting on any particular author, ness. His mother was sister to Dr. Ford, a but rambling from one book to another, and, by practising physician, and father of Cornelius hasty snatches, hoarding up a variety of knowFord, generally known by the name of Parson ledge. It may be proper in this place to menFord, the same who is represented near the tion another general rule laid down by Ford for punch-bowl in Hogarth's Midnight Modern Johnson's future conduct: “You will make your Conversation. In the life of Fenton, Johnson way the more easily in the world, as you are consays, that “his abilities, instead of furnishing tented to dispute no man's claim to conversation convivial merriment to the voluptuous and disso- excellence: they will, therefore, more willingly lute, might have enabled him to excel among the allow your pretensions as a writer.” “But," virtuous and the wise." Being chaplain to the says Mrs. Piozzi, “the features of peculiarity, Earl of Chesterfield, he wished to attend that which mark a character to all succeeding genenobleman on his embassy to the Hague. Col rations, are slow in coming to their growth.” ley Cibber has recorded the anecdote. “You That ingenious lady adds, with her usual vivashould go,” said the witty peer, “if to your many city, “Can one, on such an occasion, forbear revices you would add one more,” “Pray, my collecting the predictions of Boileau's father, Lord, what is that?” “Hypocrisy, my dear Doc- who said, stroking the head of the young satirist, tor.” Johnson had a younger brother named this little man has too much wit, but he will neNathaniel, who died at the age of twenty-seven ver speak ill of any one ??". or twenty-eight. Michael Johnson, the father, On Johnson's return from Cornelius Ford, was chosen in the year 1718, under bailiff of Mr. Hunter, then master of the Free-school at Litchfield; and in the year 1725 he served the Litchfield, refused to receive him again on that office of the senior bailiff
. He had a brother of foundation. At this distance of time, what his the name of Andrew, who, for some years, kept reasons were, it is vain to inquire; but to refuse the ring at Smithfield, appropriated to wrestlers assistance to a lad of promising genius must be and boxers. Our author used to say, that he was pronounced harsh and illiberal. It did not, hownever thrown or conquered. Michael
, the fa- ever stop the progress of the young student's ther, died December 1731, at the age of seventy-education. He was placed at another school, six; his mother at eighty-nine, of a gradual de- at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, under the cay, in the year 1759. Of the family nothing care of Mr. Wentworth. Having gone through more can be related worthy of notice. Johnson the rudiments of classic literature, he returned did not delight in talking of his relations. to his father's house, and was probably intended “There is little pleasure,” he said to Mrs. Piozzi, for the trade of a book seller. He has been heard "in relating the anecdotes of beggary."
to say that he could bind a book. At the end Johnson derived from his parents, or from an of two years, being then about nineteen, he went unwholesome nurse, the distemper called the to assist the studies of a young gentleman of the king's evil. The jacobites at that time believed name of Corbett, to the University of Oxford; in the efficacy of the royal touch; and accord- and on the 31st of October, 1728, both were eningly Mrs. Johnson presented her son, when two tered of Pembroke College; Corbett, as a gentleyears old, before Queen Anne, who, for the first man-commoner, and Johnson as a commoner. time, performed that office, and communicated The college tutor, Mr. Jordan, was a man of no to her young patient all the healing virtue in her genius; and Johnson, it seems, showed an early power. He was afterwards cut for that scrophu- contempt of mean abilities, in one or two inlous humour, and the under part of his face was
stances behaving with insolence to that gentleseamed and disfigured by the operation. It is man. Of his general conduct at the university supposed that this disease deprived him of the there are no particulars that merit attention, exsight of his left eye, and also impaired his hear-cept the translation of Pope's Messiah, which ing. At eight years old he was placed under was a college exercise imposed upon him as a Mr. Hawkins, at the Free-school in Litchfield, task, by Mr. Jordan. Corbett left the university
in about two years, and Johnson's salary ceased. * This appears in a note to Johnson's Diary, prefixed to
He was by consequence straitened in his circumthe first of his prayers. After the alteration of the style, stances: but he still remained at college. Mr. he kept his birth-day on the 18th of September, and it is Jordan the tutor, went off to a living; and was accordingly marked September, 7-18.
succeeded by Dr. Adams, who afterwards be
came head of the college, and was esteemed | tion. He appears, by his modest and unaffected through life for his learning, his talents, and his narration, to have described things as he saw amiable character. Johnson grew more regular them; to have copied nature from the life; and in his attendance. Ethics, theology, and classic to have consulted his senses, not his imagination. literature, were his favourite studies. He disco- He meets with no basilisks, that destroy with vered, notwithstanding, early symptoms of that their eyes; his crocodiles devour their prey, withwandering disposition of mind, which adhered out tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock, to him to the end of his life. His reading was without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants. by fits and starts, undirected to any particular The reader will here find no regions cursed with science. General philology, agreeably to his irremediable barrenness, or blessed with sponcousin Ford's advice, was the object of his am- taneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unbition. He received, at that time, an early im- ceasing sunshine: nor are the nations, here depression of piety, and a taste for the best authors, scribed, either void of all sense of humanity, or ancient and modern. It may, notwithstanding, consummate in all private and social virtues : be questioned whether, except his Bible, he ever here are no Hottentots without religion, polity, read a book entirely through. Late in life, if any or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly poman praised a book in his presence, he was sure lite, and completely skilled in all sciences: he to ask, “Did you read it through ?" If the answer will discover, what will always be discovered by was in the affirmative, he did not seem willing to a diligent and impartial inquirer, that, wherever believe it. He continued at the university till the human nature is to be found, there is a mixture want of pecuniary supplies obliged him to quit of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reathe place. He obtained, however, the assistance son; and that the Creator doth not appear partial of a friend, and returning in a short time, was in his distributions, but has balanced, in most able to complete a residence of three years. The countries, their particular inconveniences by parhistory of his exploits, at Oxford, he used to say, ticular favours." -We have here an early spewas best known to Dr. Taylor and Dr. Adams. cimen of Johnson's manner; the vein of thinkWonders are told of his memory, and, indeed, ing and the frame of the sentences are maniall who knew him late in life, can witness that festly his: we see the infant Hercules. The he retained that faculty in the greatest vigour. translation of Lobo's Narrative has been re
From the university, Johnson returned to printed lately in a separate volume, with some Litchfield. His father died soon after, Decem-other tracts of Dr. Johnson's, and therefore ber 1731; and the whole receipt out of his ef- forms no part of this edition; but a compendious fects, as appeared by a memorandum in the son's account of so interesting a work as Father Lohand-writing, dated 15th June, 1732, was no bo's discovery of the head of the Nile will not, it more than twenty pounds.* In this exigence, is imagined, be unacceptable to the reader. determined that poverty should neither depress Father Lobo, the Portuguese Missionary, emhis spirit nor warp his integrity, he became un- barked, in 1622, in the same fleet with the der-master of a grammar-school at Market-Bos- Count Vidigueira, who was appointed, by the worth in Leicestershire. That resource, how- king of Portugal, Viceroy of the Indies. They ever, did not last long. Disgusted by the pride arrived at Goa; and, in January 1624, Father of Sir Wolatan Dixie, the patron of that little Lobo set out on the mission to Abyssinia. Two seminary, he left the place in discontent, and of the Jesuits, sent on the same commission, were ever after spoke of it with abhorrence. In 1733 murdered in their attempt to penetrate into that he went on a visit to Mr. Hector, who had been empire. Lobo had better success; he surhis school-fellow, and was then a surgeon at mounted all difficulties, and made his way into Birmingham, lodging at the house of Warren, a the heart of the country. Then follows a debookseller. At that place Johnson translated a scription of Abyssinia, formerly the largest emvoyage to Abyssinia, written by Jerome Lobo, pire of which we have an account in history. It a Portuguese missionary. This was the first extended from the Red Sea to the kingdom of literary work from the pen of Dr. Johnson. His Congo, and from Egypt to the Indian Sea, confriend Hector was occasionally his amanuensis. taining no less than forty provinces. At the The work was, probably, undertaken at the de- time of Lobo's mission, it was not much larger sire of Warren, ihe bookseller, and was printed than Spain, consisting then but of five kingdoms, at Birmingham; but it appears in the Literary of which part was entirely subject to the EmMagazine, or History of the Works of the peror, and part paid him a tribute, as an acLearned, for March 1735, that it was published knowledgment. The provinces were inhabited by Bettesworth and Hitch, Paternoster-row. It by Moors, Pagans, Jews, and Christians. The contains a narrative of the endeavours of a com- last was, in Lobo's time, the established and pany of missionaries to convert the people of reigning religion. The diversity of people and Abyssinia to the Church of Rome. In the pre- religion is the reason why the kingdom was unface to this work Johnson observes, “that the der different forms of government, with laws Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general and customs extremely various. Some of the view of his countrymen, has amused his readers people neither sowed their lands, nor improved with no romantic absurdities, or incredible fic- them by any kind of culture, living upon milk
and flesh, and, like the Arabs, encamping with
out any settled habitation. In some places •The entry of this is remarkable, for his early resolution to preserve through life a fair and upright character. they practised no rites of worship, though they **1732, Junii 15. Undecim aureos deposui, quo die
, believed that, in the regions above, there dwells quidquid ante matris funus (quod serum sit precor) de a Being that governs the world.
This Deity paternis bonis sperare licet, viginti scilicet libras, accepi. they call in their language Oul. The Christipaupertate vires animi languescant, ne in flagitia egestas anity professed by the people in some parts, is adigat, cavendum."
corrupted with superstitious errors, and here