The New International Encyclopædia/Johnson, Samuel (lexicographer)

761541The New International Encyclopædia — Johnson, Samuel (lexicographer)

JOHNSON, Samuel (1709-84). An English lexicographer, essayist, and critic. He was born at Lichfield, September 18, 1709, the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller. He was sent to a dame-school, from which he passed to the Lichfield grammar school, where he learned Latin, and then attended for a few months a school at Stourbridge. The years 1727-29 he spent at home in ‘lounging.’ Though indolent and desultory, he read widely and wrote some verse. In 1728 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where he became known for his various knowledge and a Latin translation of Pope's Messiah. At Oxford he learned Greek and read metaphysics. Melancholy by nature, he became a hypochondriac under the pressure of poverty. In October, 1731, he left O.xford without a degree, and two months later his father died, leaving him only £20. In 1732 he was usher in a school at Market Bosworth, a position for which he was particularly unsuited, owing to his extreme nervousness, which manifested itself in facial contortions. Aware of his failure and detesting the employment, he gave up school-teaching, and went to live with a school friend in Birmingham. He probably contributed to the Birmingliam Journal, for the publisher of which he made an abridged translation (1735) of Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia. On July 9, 1735, he married the widow of a Birmingham mercer, his senior by twenty years. His wife's small fortune, about £800, enabled him to open a boarding school for young gentlemen at Edial Hall, near Lichfield. Few pupils attended, but among them was David Garrick. .Johnson had for some time been thinking of London, as may be inferred from a letter he sent in 1734 to Edward Cave, proprietor of the Gentleman's Magazine, proposing to become a contributor. On March 3, 1737, he and Garrick, eacli having a few pence in his pocket, went to London. Later in the same year Johnson returned to Birmingham and brought his wife to London. Poor as Johnson had been hitherto, he had now to pass through a severe ordeal. For a period he went about ill clothed and ill fed, and, it is said, sometimes walked the streets with his friend Savage ‘for want of a lodging.’ In 1738 he became a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine. At first he was employed to edit for Cave the Parliamentary debates reported by William Guthrie, and then from November, 1740, to February, 1743, he wrote them himself, sometimes from notes furnished him and at other times from only the names of the speakers, always taking care that the ‘Whig dogs should not have the best of it.’ In the meantime he had published London (1738), an adaptation to London life of Juvenal's third satire. It was immediately successful and placed Johnson among the best followers of Pope. In 1744 appeared his Life of Richard Savage, which, in depicting the terrible career of this unfortunate poet, throws indirectly much light on Johnson's own hardships. In 1749 he published another adaptation of Juvenal, The Vanity of Human Wishes, the finest of his poems. Johnson had long before written a tragedy called Irene. In February, 1749, Garrick brought it out at Drury Lane. Though Johnson received from the author's three nights and the copyright nearly £300, it was only a moderate success. The next year he began — writing most of the essays himself — the Rambler, a semi-weekly in imitation of the Spectator, which ran for two years (March 20, 1750, to March 14, 1752). To Johnson, already known as a poet, this periodical gave rank as an impressive moralist. Three days after the last issue of the Rambler Johnson's wife died. At this time Johnson was in the midst of his labors on a new Dictionary of the English Language. The Plan for it, published in 1747, was inscribed to Lord Chesterfield, evidently with a view to that nobleman's patronage. Chesterfield, however, approved of the work in no public manner until December, 1754, when it was near completion. In a memorable letter, Johnson then spurned the overtures of the noble lord (February 7, 1775). In the following April the Dictionary appeared. For this undertaking Johnson was not fully equipped. He had no knowledge of the English language and literature in its earlier periods; consequently the dictionary was untrustworthy in its etymologies. On the other hand, he had read widely in the seventeenth century, and was thus able to illustrate the use of words by admirable quotations. He at once became known as the great lexicographer. His splendid struggle with adversity, however, was not quite over. The next year he was arrested for debt. In 1758 he began a series of essays called the Idler, not so good as the Rambler, which he carried on for two years. Now occurred one of the most touching episodes in his heroic life, the writing of Rasselas (1759), ‘in the evenings of a week,’ to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral. It is hardly a novel, but rather a magnificent moral tract, into which is compressed The Vanity of Human Wishes and the best of the Rambler. In 1762 he accepted, after some hesitancy, a Government pension of £300. Hereafter his life was passed in comparative ease. He was one of the original members of the Literary Club (1764), which included Burke, Goldsmith, and Reynolds. The year before he had made the acquaintance of James Boswell, his future biographer; and in 1765 he began his intimacy with the Thrales, who received him into their home at Southwark and took him with them to Streatham for the summer months. For sixteen years they ministered to his comfort. Composition now becoming very onerous for him, he found an outlet for his thoughts in brilliant conversation. To this period, however, belongs some notable work. In 1765 he brought out an edition of Shakespeare, proposals for which had been issued eight years before. The record of a visit to Scotland and the Hebrides with Boswell in 1773 he published under the title A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775). His literary career closed with the Lives of the Poets (1779-81), the most admirable of his essays both in thought and in style. He died in London December 13, 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The degree of LL.D. he had received both from Dublin (1765) and from Oxford (1775), but he himself rarely used the title. Johnson was the central figure in English literature for a quarter of a century. Time, however, has taken away much of his prestige. As a critic he is narrow; and his style is ponderous. On the other hand, his opinions show independent and robust thinking; and his style, even in the Rambler, has at times a delightful rhythm. Of the charm of his conversations there can never be any question. Of him as a man the record is complete. Though Boswell noted his sayings and doings in a great variety of situations, nothing was ever said or done to lessen one's respect for Johnson's noble qualities of mind and heart. Consult his Works, ed. by Walesby (11 vols., Oxford, 1825); Lives of the Poets, with notes and introduction by Waugh (6 vols., London, 1896); Johnson Club Papers (London, 1899); Hill, Boswell's Life of Johnson (6 vols., Oxford, 1887); id., Dr. Johnson, Bis Friends and His Critics (London, 1878); Letters (London, 1892); and Johnsonian Miscellanies (New York, 1897); the lives of Johnson by Stephen, in “English Men of Letters Series” (London, 1878); and Grant, in “Great Writers Series” (London, 1887), which contains a bibliography; and the famous essays by Macaulay and Carlyle. See also, Boswell, James; and Piozzi, Mrs..