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THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON.
We feel considerable trepidation in beginning a life of Johnson, not so much on account of the magnitude of the manfor in Milton, and one or two others, we have already met his match-but on account of the fact that the field has been so thoroughly exhausted by former writers. It is in the shadow of Boswell
, the best of all biographers, and not in that of Johnson, that we feel ourselves at present cowering. Yet we must try to give a rapid account of the leading incidents in Johnson's life, as well as a short estimate of his vast, rugged genius.
SAMUEL JOHNSON was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on the 18th of September 1709, and was baptized the same day. His father was Michael Johnson, a bookseller and stationer, and his mother, Sarah Ford. Samuel was the first-born of the family. Nathaniel, who died in his twenty-fifth year, was the second and the last. Johnson very early began to manifest both his peculiar prejudices and his peculiar powers. When a mere child, we see him in Lichfield Cathedral, perched on his father's shoulders, gazing at Sacheverel, the famous Tory preacher. We hear him, about the same time, roaring to his mother, who had given him, a minute before, a collect in the Common Prayer-Book to get by heart as his day's task,—"Mother, I can say it already!” His first teacher, Dame Oliver, a widow, thought him, as she well might, the best scholar she ever had. From her he passed into the hands of one Tom Brown, an original, who once published a spelling-book, and dedicated it “ to the Universe!" —without permission, we presume. He began to learn Latin first with a Mr Hawkins, and then with a Mr Hunter, headmaster of Lichfield,-a petty tyrant, although a good scholar, under whom, to use Gay's language, Johnson was
“Lash'd into Latin by the tingling rod.”
At the age of fifteen, he was transferred to Stourbridge school, and to the care of a Mr Wentworth, who “taught him a great deal.” There he remained twelve months, at the close of which he returned home, and for two years lived in his father's house, in comparative idleness, loitering in the fields, and reading much, but desultorily. In 1728, being flattered with some promises of aid from a Shropshire gentleman, named Corbet, which were never fulfilled, he went to Oxford, and was entered as a commoner in Pembroke College. His father accompanied and introduced him to Dr Adams, and to Jorden, who became his tutor, recommending his son as a good scholar and a poet. Under Jorden's care, however, he did little except translate Pope's “Messiah" into Latin verse,
-a task which he performed with great rapidity, and so well, that Pope warmly commended it when he saw it printed in a miscellany of poems. About this time, the hypochondriac affection, which rendered Johnson's long life a long disease, began to manifest itself. In the vacation of 1729, he was seized with the darkest despondency, which he tried to alleviate by violent exercise and other means, but in vain. It seems to have left him during a fit of indignation at Dr Swinfen (a physician at Lichfield, who, struck by the elegant Latinity of an account of his malady, which the sufferer had put into his hands, showed it in all directions), but continued to recur at frequent intervals till the close of his life. His malady was undoubtedly of a maniacal cast, resembling Cowper's, but subdued by superior strength of will—a Bucephalus, which it required all the power of a Johnson to back and bridle. In his early days, he had been piously inclined, but after his ninth
year, fell into a state of indifference to religion. This continued till he met, at Oxford, Law's “Serious Call,” which, he says, “overmatched” and compelled him to consider the subject with earnestness. And whatever, in after years, were the errors of his life, he never, from that hour, ceased to have a solemn sense of the verities of the Christian religion.
At Oxford, he paid little attention to his regular tasks, but read, or rather devoured, all the books he could lay his hands on, and began to display his unrivalled conversational powers, being often seen “ lounging about the college gates, with a circle of young students around him, whom he was entertaining with wit, keeping from their studies, and sometimes rousing to rebellion against the college discipline.” He was, at this time, so miserably poor, that his shoes were worn to tatters, and his feet appeared through them, to the scandal of the Christ-Church men, when he occasionally visited their college. Some compassionate individual laid a new pair at his door, which he tossed away with indignation. At last,his debts increasing, his supplies diminishing, and his father becoming bankrupt,-he was, in autumn 1731, compelled to leave college without a degree. In the December of the same year his father died.
Perhaps there was not now in broad Britain a person apparently more helpless and hopeless than this tall, half-blind, halfmad, and wholly miserable lad, with ragged shoes, and no degree, left suddenly fatherless in Lichfield. But he had a number of warm friends in his native place, such as Captain Garrick, father of the actor, and Gilbert Walmsley, Registrar of the Ecclesiastical Court, who would not suffer him to starve outright. He had learning and genius; and he had, moreover, under all his indolence and all his melancholy, an indomitable resolution, which needed only to be roused to make all obstacles melt before it. He knew that he was great and strong, and would yet struggle into recognition. At first, however, nothing offered save the post of usher in a school at MarketBosworth, which he occupied long enough to learn to loathe the occupation with all his heart and soul, and mind and strength, but which he soon resigned, and was again idle.
He was invited next to spend some time with Mr Hector, an early friend, who was residing in Birmingham. Here he became acquainted with one Porter, a mercer, whose widow he afterwards married. Here, too, he executed his first literary work,-a translation of Lobo's “ Voyage to Abyssinia," which was published in 1735, and for which he received the munificent sum of five guineas ! He had previously, without success, issued proposals for an edition of the Latin poems of Politian ; and, with a similar result, offered the service of his pen to Edward Cave, the editor and publisher of the Gentleman's Magazine, to which he afterwards became a leading contributor.
Shortly after this, Porter dying, Johnson married the widow-a lady more distinguished for sense, and particularly for the sense to appreciate his talents, than for personal charms, and who was twice her husband's age. It does not seem to have been a very happy match, although, probably, both parties loved each other better than they imagined. He was now assisted by his wife's portion, which amounted to £800, and opened a private academy at Echal, near Lichfield, but obtained only three pupils,—a MrOffely, who died early, the celebrated David Garrick, and his brother George. At the end of a year and a half, disgusted alike with the duties of the office, and with his want of success in their discharge, Johnson left for London, with David Garrick for his companion, and reached it with one letter of introduction from Gilbert Walmsley, three acts of the tragedy of “ Irene," and (according to his fellow-traveller) threepence-halfpenny in his pocket!
To London he had probably looked as to the great mart of genius, but at first he met with mortifying disappointment. He made one influential friend, however, in an officer named Henry Hervey, of whom he said, “He was a vicious man,
but very kind to me; were you to call a dog Hervey, I shall love him." In summer he came back to Lichfield, where he stayed three months, and finished his tragedy. He returned to London in autumn, along with his wife, and tried, but in vain, to get " Irene” presented on the stage. This did not
happen till 1749, when his old pupil David Garrick had become manager of Drury Lane Theatre.
In March 1738, he began to contribute to the Gentleman's Magazine, a magazine he had long admired, and the original printing-place of which-St John's Gate-he “beheld with
when he first passed it. Amidst the variety of his contributions, the most remarkable were his “ Debates in the Senate of Lilliput”-vigorous paraphrases of the parliamentary discussions of which Johnson finding the mere skeleton given him by the reporters, was at the pains of clothing it with the flesh and blood of his own powerful diction. In May of the same year appeared his noble imitation of Juvenal, “ London,” which at once made him famous. After it had been rejected by several publishers, it was bought by Dodsley for ten guineas. It came out the same morning with Pope's satire, entitled “1738,” and excited a much greater sensation. The buzzing question ran, "What great unknown genius can this be?” The poem went to a second edition in a week; and Pope himself, who had read it with pleasure, when told that its author was an obscure man named Johnson, replied, "He will soon be déterré.”
Famous as he had now become, he continued poor; and tired to death of slaving for the booksellers, he applied, through the influence of Pope and Lord Gower, to procure a degree from Dublin, that it might aid him in his application for a school at Appleby, in Leicestershire. In this, however, he failed, and had to persevere for many years more in the ill-paid drudgery of authorship-meditating a translation of "Father Paul's History,” which was never executed—writing in the Gentleman's Magazine lives of Böerhaave and Father Paul, &c., &c., &c.—and published separately “ Marmor Norfolciense,” a disguised invective against Sir Robert Walpole, the obnoxious premier of the day. About this time he became intimate with the notorious Richard Savage, and with him spent too many of his private hours. Both were poor, both proud, both patriotic, both at that time lovers of pleasure, and they became for a season inseparable ; often perambulating the streets all night, engaged now, we fear, in low revels, and now