Johnson, Samuel

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Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784): English, Poet, Critic, Lexicographer, Essayist, Biographer, Editor, Travel Writer, Dramatist, and Novelist.

Samuel Johnson, born in Staffordshire, was the son of a bookseller. He became the leading literary figure of his age. In 1712, when he contracted scrofula, his father took him to London to be touched by Queen Anne, for it was believed that only the touch of a member of the royalty could cure the disease. Because of his reputation as a leading literary figure of the age, Prime Minister Lord Bute in 1762 awarded him an annual royal pension of £300. Johnson attended Pembroke College (Oxford) for a short time (1728-1729) but left because of financial problems. His lack of a degree prevented him from obtaining teaching positions, so he opened his own school but only attracted three students--one of them being David Garrick--and was forced to close. In 1737, he left for London with Garrick. After his success as a writer, Johnson received honorary degrees from Trinity College in Dublin in 1765 and from Oxford in 1775.

Upon his death in 1784, Johnson was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The many genres in which Samuel Johnson wrote demonstrate unequivocally the diversity of his talents. Because of his superb reputation as a writer and because of his witty conversation, many writers and other personalities of the age (including Goldsmith, Oliver, Reynolds, Sir Joshua, and Burke, Edmund) came to visit him and enjoy his company. One such person was Boswell, James, who later wrote the exhaustive and superb biography, Life of Johnson; this significant book provides a wealth of information concerning Johnson, Boswell, and the Enlightenment in general. The book describes Johnson’s moral stances (he, for instance, dissuades Boswell from hiring prostitutes), his attitude toward women (Johnson used to say that a woman who acts as a preacher is like a dog that walks on its hind legs--it cannot be done well, but one is amazed that it can be done at all), and his attitude regarding various authors such as Oliver Goldsmith, Richardson, Samuel, and Fielding, Henry.

Johnson wrote one tragedy, Irene (1749) that he revised for more than a decade. The play tells the love story of the Greek prisoner Irene and her captor, the sultan Mahomet, subsequent to the Battle of Constantinople. Mahomet is captivated by the deceptive and manipulative Irene, who schemes against him, ultimately resulting in her death. A significant change that Johnson made from his source is the transformation of the innocent Irene into a calculating and devious woman. Mahomet is blinded by his lust for her, which distracts him from his military purposes, manifesting Johnson’s warning about the danger of excessive passion. The play, staged by Garrick, ran for nine performances.

Johnson’s greatest poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” (1749) imitates the tenth satire of Juvenal. In this moralistic and didactic poem, Johnson portrays the dangers of unbridled pride and ambition and proposes that the answer to these sins is to turn to God for salvation. He emphasizes that because of human weakness, material wealth, which many would consider a blessing, could actually destroy someone in part because many people tend to preoccupy themselves with money rather than seeking eternal and spiritual rewards.

From March 1750 until March 1752, Johnson worked on a new publication The Rambler. This periodical, which the author modeled after Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays and Addison, Joseph and Steele, Richard’s Spectator, proved to be a huge success; The Rambler was immensely popular and the 500 copies published twice a week sold rapidly. In the essays, Johnson wrote about a variety of topics, including moral issues, and he contributed some outstanding pieces of literary criticism. Johnson later composed The Idler from 1758-1760.

Johnson spent nine years creating his Dictionary of the English Language: in which the Words are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers (1755). The dictionary was needed partly because other European countries, unlike England, possessed established and notable dictionaries. This work displays Johnson’s sharp wit, as in his definition of the word “patron” meant to ridicule Charles Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield. The mockery derives from Chesterfield’s attempt to take credit for Johnson’s patronage upon the publication of the dictionary, even though he clearly failed the author as a patron. Johnson’s anger also caused him to write the classic letter to Chesterfield on February 7, 1755 in which he castigates the Earl for his behavior; the letter is considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest letters ever written.

Johnson’s short novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) tells the story of the restless prince Rasselas who is discontent in the Edenic Happy Valley and thus embarks on a quest, along with his sister Nekayah, to seek his choice of life. He encounters people of various professions and learns from the philosopher Imlac. The novel provides the author with the opportunity to moralize about various aspects of society and to come to terms with his own feelings of idleness. Despite his many accomplishments, Johnson felt that he should have achieved more. His many conversations with literary figures, which he considered pleasant but idle times inspired him and provided him with the ideas that he employed in various writings, particularly his moral essays. Obviously, Johnson did work very hard; he wrote Rasselas within one week, in order to pay for his mother’s funeral. At the novel concludes, nothing, ironically, is concluded--a melancholy end to the book.

Johnson published his edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1765. One of his hardest tasks in this endeavor was re-reading King Lear, because he found it emotionally difficult to read the part in which Cordelia dies. From August through November of 1773, he traveled with his friend Boswell to Scotland and later published his travel book, with descriptions of the journey and observations of the culture, entitled Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). In 1779, he published the first four volumes of his prefaces of Lives of the Poets, with the remaining six volumes appearing in 1781.

Johnson’s works, perhaps more than those of any other writer of the eighteenth century, represent the ideologies and preoccupations of the Augustan age. Rasselas, for instance, suggests that the use of the imagination can lead to melancholy, for it causes people to long for the unattainable. The imagination conflicted with reason, which writers living in the Age of Reason obviously championed. Johnson’s view of the imagination, typical of his era, clashed with the cherishing of the imagination by Romantic poets. Johnson’s works are also known for their moralistic, didactic bent.

Further Reading:

Greg Clingham, Editor, The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, 1997.

Philip Davis, A Study of Johnson the Rambler, 1989.

Robert DeMaria, Jr., The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography, 1993.


Eric Sterling


Auburn Montgomery University

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