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Michael, the father, died December 1731, at the age of seventysix: his mother at eighty-nine, of a gradual decay, in the year 1759. Of the family nothing more can be related worthy of notice. Johnson did not delight in talking of his relations. “ There is little pleasure," he said to Mrs. Piozzi,“ in relating the anecdotes of beggary.”
Johnson derived from his parents, or from an unwholesome nurse, the distemper called the king's evil. The Jacobites at that time believed in the efficacy of the royal touch, and, accordingly, Mrs. Johnson presented her son, when two years old, before queen Anne, who, for the first time, performed that office, and communicated to her young patient all the healing virtue in her power. He was afterwards cut for that scrophulous humour, and the under part of his face was seamed and disfigured by the operation. It is supposed, that this disease deprived him of the sight of his left eye, and also impaired his hearing. At eight years old, he was placed under Mr. Hawkins, at the free school in Lichfield, where he was not remarkable for diligence or regular application. Whatever he read, his tenacious memory made his own. In the fields, with his schoolfellows, he talked more to himself than with his companions. In 1725, when he was about sixteen years old, he went on a visit to his cousin Cornelius Ford, who detained him for some months, and, in the mean time, assisted him in the classics. The general direction for his studies, which he then received, he related to Mrs. Piozzi.
Obtain,” says Ford, “ some general principles of every science: he who can talk only on one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and, perhaps, never wished for; while the man of general knowledge can often benefit, and always please." This advice Johnson seems to have pursued with a good inclination. His reading was always desultory, seldom resting on any particular author, but rambling from one book to another, and, by hasty snatches, hoarding up a variety of knowledge. It may be proper, in this place, to mention another general rule laid down by Ford for Johnson's future conduct: “ You will make your way the more easily in the world, as you are contented to dispute no
© The impression which this interview left on Johnson's fancy, is recorded by Mrs. Piozzi in her anecdotes ; and Johnson's description of it is picturesque and poetical. Being asked if he could remember queen Anne," he had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood.”—Ep.
man's claim to conversation excellence: they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer.” says Mrs. Piozzi, “ the features of peculiarity, which mark a character to all succeeding generations, are slow in coming to their growth.” That ingenious lady adds, with her usual vivacity, “ Can one, on such an occasion, forbear recollecting the predictions of Boileau's father, who said, stroking the head of the young satirist, ' This little man has too much wit, but he will never speak ill of
any one.'” On Johnson's return from Cornelius Ford, Mr. Hunter, then master of the free school at Lichfield, refused to receive him again on that foundation. At this distance of time, what his reasons were, it is vain to inquire; but to refuse assistance to a lad of promising genius must be pronounced harsh and illiberal. It did not, however, stop the progress of the young student's education. He was placed at another school, at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, under the care of Mr. Wentworth. Having gone through the rudiments of classic literature, he returned to his father's house, and was probably intended for the trade of a bookseller. He has been heard to say that he could bind a book. At the end of two years, being then about nineteen, he went to assist the studies of a young gentleman, of the name of Corbet, to the university of Oxford ; and on the 31st of October, 1728, both were entered of Pembroke college; Corbet as a gentleman-commoner, and Johnson as a commoner. The college tutor, Mr. Jordan, was a man of no genius; and Johnson, it seems, shewed an early contempt of mean abilities, in one or two instances behaving with insolence to that gentleman. Of his general conduct at the university there are no particulars that merit attention, except the translation of Pope's Messiah, which was a college exercise imposed upon him as a task by Mr. Jordan. Corbet left the university in about two years, and Johnson's salary ceased. He was, by consequence, straitened in his circumstances; but he still remained at college. Mr. Jordan, the tutor, went off to a living; and was succeeded by Dr. Adams, who afterwards became head of the college, and was esteemed through life for his learning, his talents, and his amiable character. Johnson grew more regular in his attendance. Ethics, theology, and classic literature, were his favourite studies. He discovered, notwithstanding, early symptoms of that wandering disposition of mind, which adhered to him to the end of his life. His reading was by fits and starts, undi
rected to any particular science. General philology, agreeably to
From the university, Johnson returned to Lichfield. His father died soon after, December, 1731 ; and the whole receipt out of his effects, as appeared by a memorandum in the son's handwriting, dated 15th of June, 1732, was no more than twenty poundsd. In this exigence, determined that poverty should neither depress his spirits nor warp his integrity, he became under-master of a grammar school at Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire. That resource, however, did not last long. Disgusted by the pride of sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of that little seminary, he left the place in discontent, and ever after spoke of it with abhorrence. In 1733, he went on a visit to Mr. Hector, who had been his schoolfellow, and was then a surgeon at Birmingham, lodging at the house of Warren, a bookseller. At that place Johnson translated a Voyage to Abyssinia, written by Jerome Lobo, a Portuguese missionary. This was the first literary work from the pen of Dr. Johnson. His friend, Hector, was occasionally his amanuensis. The work was, probably, undertaken at the desire of Warren, the bookseller, and
a The entry of this is remarkable for his early resolution to preserve through life a fair and upright character. “ 1732, Junii 15. Undecim aureos deposui, quo die, quidquid ante matris funus (quod serum sit precor) de paternis bonis sperare licet, viginti scilicet libras, accepi. Usque adeo mihi mea fortuna fingenda est. Interea, ne paupertate vires animi languescant, nec in flagitia egestas abigat, cavendum.”
was printed at Birmingham; but it appears, in the Literary Magazine, or history of the works of the learned, for March, 1735, that it was published by Bettesworth and Hitch, Paternoster row. It contains a narrative of the endeavours of a company of missionaries to convert the people of Abyssinia to the church of Rome. In the preface to this work, Johnson observes, . “that the Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general view of his countrymen, has amused his readers with no romantick absurdities, or incredible fictions. He appears, by his modest and unaffected narration, to have described things, as he saw them; to have copied nature from the life ; and to have consulted his senses, not his imagination. He meets with no basilisks, that destroy with their eyes ; his crocodiles devour their prey, without tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock, without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants. The reader will here find no regions cursed with irremediable barrenness, or blessed with spontaneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unceasing sunshine ; nor are the nations, here described, either void of all sense of humanity, or consummate in all private and social virtues ; here are no Hottentots without religion, polity or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences; he will discover, what will always be discovered by a diligent and impartial inquirer, that, wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason ; and that the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced, in most countries, their particular inconveniencies, by particular favours." —We have here an early specimen of Johnson's manner ; the vein of thinking, and the frame of the sentences, are manifestly his : we see the infant Hercules. The translation of Lobo's narrative has been reprinted lately in a separate volume, with some ot tracts of Dr. Johnson's, and, therefore, forms no part of this edition ; but a compendious account of so interesting a work, as father Lobo's discovery of the head of the Nile, will not, it is imagined, be unacceptable to the reader.
“Father Lobo, the Portuguese missionary, embarked, in 1622, in the same fleet with the count Vidigueira, who was appointed, by the king of Portugal, viceroy of the Indies. They arrived at Goa; and, in January 1624, father Lobo set out on the mission to Abyssinia. Two of the jesuits, sent on the same commission, were murdered in their attempt to penetrate into that empire.
honour to be so connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss with regret; but regret, he knows, has secret bribes, by which the judgment may be influenced, and partial affection may be carried beyond the bounds of truth. In the present case, however, nothing needs to be disguised, and exaggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an observation of the younger Pliny, in his epistle to his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions require nothing but the truth: “ nam nec historia debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas sufficit." This rule, the present biographer promises, shall guide his pen throughout the following narrative.
It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention ; and, when the press has teemed with anecdotes, apophthegms, essays, and publications of every kind, what occasion now for a new tract on the same threadbare subject? The plain truth shall be the answer. prietors of Johnson's works thought the life, which they prefixed to their former edition, too unwieldy for republication. The prodigious variety of foreign matter, introduced into that performance, seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, and, in the account of his own life, to leave him hardly visible. They wished to have a more concise, and, for that reason, perhaps, a more satisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just picture of the man, and keep him the principal figure in the foreground of his own picture. To comply with that request is the design of this essay, which the writer undertakes with a trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no secret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private conversation, and no new facts, to embellish his work. Every thing has been gleaned. Dr. Johnson said of himself, “ I am not uncandid, nor severe: I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest, and people are apt to think me serious a.” The exercise of that privilege, which is enjoyed by every man in society, has not been allowed to him. His fame has given importance even to trifles ; and the zeal of his friends has brought every thing to light. What should be related, and what should not, has been published without distinction : “ dicenda tacenda locuti!” Every thing that fell from him has been caught with eagerness by his admirers
* Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. ii. p. 465, 4to. edit.