Printer Friendly

Chapter LXVIII: Johnson--Days Of Struggle 


SAMUEL JOHNSON was the son of a country bookseller, and he was born at Lichfield in 1709. He was a big, strong boy, but he suffered from a dreadful disease, known then as the King's Evil. It left scars upon his good-looking face, and nearly robbed him of his eyesight. In those days people still believed that this dreadful disease would be cured if the person suffering from it was touched by a royal hand. So when he was two, little Samuel was taken to London by his father and mother, and there he was "touched" by Queen Anne. Samuel had a wonderful memory, and although he had been so young at the time, all his life after he kept a kind of awed remembrance of a stately lady who wore a long black hood and sparkling diamonds. The touch of the Queen's soft white hand did the poor little sick child no good, and it is quaint to remember that the great learned doctor thought it might be because he had been touched by the wrong royal hand. He might have been cured perhaps had he been taken to Rome and touched by the hand of a Stuart. For Johnson was a Tory, and all his life he remained at heart a Jacobite.

At school Samuel learned easily and read greedily all kinds of books. He loved poetry most, and read Shakespeare when he was so young that he was frightened at finding himself alone while reading about the ghost in Hamlet. Yet he was idle at his tasks and had not altogether an easy time, for when asked long years after how he became such a splendid Latin scholar, he replied, "My master whipt me very well, without that, sir, I should have done nothing."

Samuel learned so easily that, though he was idle, he knew more than any of the other boys. He ruled them too. Three of them used to come every morning to carry their stout comrade to school. Johnson mounted on the back of one, and the other two supported him, one on each side. In winter when he was too lazy to skate or slide himself they pulled him about on the ice by a garter tied round his waist. Thus early did Johnson show his power over his fellows.

At sixteen Samuel left school, and for two years idled about his father's shop, reading everything that came in his way. He devoured books. He did not read them carefully, but quickly, tearing the heart out of them. He cared for nothing else but reading, and once when his father was ill and unable to attend to his bookstall, he asked his son to do it for him. Samuel refused. But the memory of his disobedience and unkindliness stayed with him, and more than fifty years after, as an old and worn man, he stood bare-headed in the wind and rain for an hour in the market-place, upon the spot where his father's stall had stood. This he did as a penance for that one act of disobedience.

Johnson's father was a bookworm, like his son, rather than a tradesman. He knew and loved his books, but he made little money by them. A student himself, he was proud of his studious boy, and wanted to send him to college. But he was miserably poor and could not afford it. A well-off friend, however, offered to help, and so at eighteen Samuel went to Oxford.

Here he remained three years. Those years were not altogether happy ones, for Johnson's huge ungainly figure, and shabby, patched clothes were matters for laughter among his fellow- students. He became a sloven in his dress. His gown was tattered and his linen dirty, and his toes showed through his boots. Yet when some one, meaning no doubt to be kind, placed a new pair at his door, he kicked them away in anger. He would not stoop to accept charity. But in spite of his poverty and shabby clothes, he was a leader at college as he had been at school, and might often be seen at his college gates with a crowd of young men round him, "entertaining them with wit and keeping them from their studies."*

*Boswell.

After remaining about three years at college, Johnson left without taking a degree. Perhaps poverty had something to do with that. At any rate, with a great deal of strange, unordered learning and no degree, and with his fortune still to make, Samuel returned to his poverty-stricken home. There in a few months the father died, leaving to his son an inheritance of forty pounds.

With forty pounds not much is to be done, and Samuel became an usher, or under-master in a school. He was little fitted to teach, and the months which followed were to him a torture, and all his life after he looked back on them with something of horror.

After a few months, he left the school where he had been so unhappy, and went to Birmingham to be near an old schoolfellow. Here he managed to live somehow, doing odd bits of writing, and here he met the lady who became his wife.

Johnson was now twenty-five and a strange-looking figure. He was tall and lank, and his huge bones seemed to start out of his lean body. His face was deeply marked with scars, and although he was very near-sighted, his gray eyes were bright and wild, so wild at times that they frightened those upon whom they were turned. He wore his own hair, which was coarse and straight, and in an age when every man wore a wig this made him look absurd. He had a trick of making queer gestures with hands and feet. He would shake his head and roll himself about, and would mutter to himself until strangers though that he was an idiot.

And this queer genius fell in love with a widow lady more than twenty years older than himself. She, we are told, was coarse, fat, and unlovely, but she was not without brains, for she saw beneath the strange outside of her young lover. "This is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life," she said, after talking with him. So this strange couple married. "Sir," said Johnson afterwards, "It was a love-marriage on both sides." And there can be no doubt that Samuel loved his wife devotedly while she lived, and treasured her memory tenderly after her death.

Mrs. Johnson had a little money, and so Samuel returned to his native town and there opened a school. An advertisement appeared in the papers, "At Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young gentlemen are boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages, by Samuel Johnson." But Johnson was quite unfitted to be a teacher, and the school did not prosper. "His schoolroom," says another writer, "must have resembled an ogre's den," and only two or three boys came to it. Among them was David Garrick, who afterwards became a famous actor and amused the world by imitating his friend and old schoolmaster, the great Sam, as well as his elderly wife.

After struggling with his school for more than a year, Johnson resolved to give it up and go to London, there to seek his fortune. Leaving his wife at Lichfield, he set off with his friend and pupil David Garrick, as he afterwards said, "With twopence halfpenny in my pocket, and thou, Davy, with three halfpence in thine."

The days of the later Stuarts and the first of the Georges were the great days of patronage. When a writer of genius appeared, noblemen and others, who were powerful and wealthy, were eager to become his patron, and have his books dedicated to them. So although the dunces among writers remained terribly poor, almost every man of genius was sure of a comfortable life. But although he gained this by his writing, it was not because the people liked his books, but because one man liked them or was eager to have his name upon them, and therefore became his patron. The patron, then, either himself helped his pet writer, or got for him some government employment. After a time this fashion ceased, and instead of taking his book to a patron, a writer took it to a bookseller, and sold it to him for as much money as he could. And so began the modern way of publishing books.

But when Johnson came to London to try his fortune as a writer, it was just the time between. The patron had not quite vanished, the bookseller had not yet taken his place. Never had writing been more badly paid, never had it been more difficult to make a living by it. "The trade of author was at about one of its lowest ebbs when Johnson embarked on it."*

*Carlyle.

Johnson had brought with him to London a tragedy more than half written, but when he took it to the booksellers they showed no eagerness to publish it, or indeed anything else that he might write. Looking at him they saw no genius, but only a huge and uncouth country youth. One bookseller, seeing his great body, advised him rather to try his luck as a porter than as a writer. But, in spite of rebuffs and disappointments, Johnson would not give in. When he had money enough he lived in mean lodgings, when he had none, hungry, ragged, and cold, he roamed about the streets, making friends with other strange, forlorn men of genius, and sharing their miseries.

But if Johnson starved he never cringed, and once when a bookseller spoke rudely to him he knocked him down with one of his own books. A beggar or not, Johnson demanded the respect due to a man. At school and college he had dominated his fellows, he dominated now. But the need of fighting for respect made him rough. And ever after his manner with friend and foe alike was rude and brusque.

The misery of this time was such that long years after Johnson burst into tears at the memory of it. But it did not conquer him, he conquered it. He got work to do at last, and became one of the first newspaper reporters.

Nowadays, during the debates in Parliament there are numbers of newspaper reporters who take down all that is said in shorthand, and who afterwards write out the debates for their various newspapers. In Johnson's day no such thing had been thought of. He did not hear the debates, but wrote his accounts of them from a few notes given to him by some one who had heard them. The speeches which appeared in the paper were thus really Johnson's, and had very little resemblance to what had been said in the House. And being a Tory, Johnson took good care, as he afterwards confessed, "that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it." After a time, however, Johnson began to think this so-called reporting was not quite honest, and gave it up. He found other literary work to do, and soon, although he was still poor, he had enough money to make it possible for his wife to join him in London.

Among other things he wrote one or two poems and the life of Richard Savage, a strange, wild genius with whom he had wandered the streets in the days of his worst poverty. The tragedy called Irene which Johnson had brought with him to London was at length after twelve years produced by Garrick, who had by that time become a famous actor. Johnson had, however, no dramatic genius. "When Johnson writes tragedy," said Garrick, "'declamation roars and passion sleeps':* when Shakespeare wrote, he dipped the pen in his own heart." Garrick did what he could with the play, but it was a failure, and although Johnson continued to believe that it was good, he wrote no more tragedies.

*Garrick is here quoting from one of Johnson's own poems in which he describes the decline of the drama at the Restoration.

The story of Irene is one of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After Mahomet had taken Constantinople he fell in love with a fair Greek maiden whose name was Irene. The Sultan begged her to become a Mohammedan so that he might marry her. To this Irene consented, but when his soldiers heard of it they were so angry that they formed a conspiracy to dethrone their ruler.

Hearing of this Mahomet resolved to make an end of the conspiracy and rescue his throne from danger. Calling all his nobles together he bade Irene appear before him. Then catching her by the hair with one hand and drawing his sword with the other he at one blow struck off her head. This deed filled all who saw it with terror and wonder. But turning to his nobles Mahomet cried, "Now by this, judge if your Emperor is able to bridle his affections or not."

It seems as if there were here a story which might be made to stir our hearts, but Johnson makes it merely dull. In his long words and fine-sounding sentences we catch no thrill of real life. The play is artificial and cold, and moves us neither to wonder nor sorrow.

Johnson's play was a failure, but by that time he had begun the great work which was to name him and single him out from the rest of the world as Dictionary Johnson. To make a complete dictionary of a language is a tremendous work. Johnson thought that it would take three years. It took, instead, seven.

But during these seven years he also wrote other things and steadily added to his fame. He started a paper after the model of the Spectator, called the Rambler. This paper was continued for about two years, Johnson writing all but five of the essays. After that he wrote many essays in a paper called the Adventurer, and, later still, for two years he wrote for another paper a series of articles called the Idler.

But none of these can we compare with the Spectator. Johnson never for a moment loses sight of "a grand moral end." There is in his essays much sound common sense, but they are lumbering and heavy. We get from them no such picture of the times as we get from the Spectator, and, although they are not altogether without humor, it is a humor that not seldom reminds us of the dancing of an elephant. This is partly because, as Johnson said himself, he is inclined to "use too big words and too many of them."

In the days when Johnson wrote, this style was greatly admired, but now we have come back to thinking that the simplest words are best, or, at least, that we must suit our words to our subject. And if we tell a fairy tale (as Johnson once did) we must not use words of five syllables when words of two will better give the feeling of the tale. Yet there are many pleasant half-hours to be spent in dipping here and there into the volumes of the Rambler or the Idler. I will give you in the next chapter, as a specimen of Johnson's prose, part of one of the essays from the Idler. It is the story of a man who sets forth upon a very ordinary journey and who makes as great a tale of it as he had been upon a voyage of discovery in some untraveled land.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters