Biography of Samuel Johnson
I. LIFE OF DR. JOHNSON
Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, on September 18, 1709. His father was a provincial bookseller; it was through browsing in his shop that the boy acquired much of remarkable knowledge. Physically handicapped, with bad eyesight and facial disfigurements, he later developed a pronounced neurotic tic’. Showing early emotional instability, he was ever afterwards subject to long fits of lassitude and depression.
In the grammar schools of Lichfield and Stourbridge, and for some thirteen months at Oxford, he was well grounded in the classics, but because of financial difficulties left the university in 1729 without a degree. During the next few years all attempts to find a permanent post as a teacher failed. Then in 1735 he married a widow over twenty years his senior, with whose small fortune he set up his own school. When this, too, proved unsuccessful, he and his wife late in 1737 moved to London. There followed a decade of poverty and distress in the city, as Johnson eked out a meagre livelihood as translator and hack writer. He aided Edward Cave in editing the Gentleman’s Magazine providing fictionalized accounts of the proceedings in parliament, and short biographies, essays and poems. Independently, he was involved in other large projects, and wrote a revealing life of his erratic friend in misery, Richard Savage. The Life of Richard Savage is now recognized as an important milestone in the development of the art of biography.
In 1746, he signed a contract with a group of booksellers to produce a dictionary of the English language, but it was not until 1755 that the work, in two large folio volumes, finally appeared. Meanwhile he had written two imitations of Juvenal in sonorous couplets, London in 1738 and The Vanity of Human Wishes in 1749, called by T.S. Eliot “among the greatest verse satires of the English or any other language.’ His blank verse tragedy Irene was produced at Drury Lane in February 1749, with meagre success. Early in the 1750’s he wrote some two hundred periodical essays entitle The Rambler.
With the publication of the Dictionary his reputation was established, but fame brought little immediate financial return. So in June 1756, he issued proposals for a new edition of Shakespeare, and in the same year was largely responsible for a new periodical, The Literary Magazine or Universal Review. For two years, from April 1758 to April 1760, he contributed a weekly essay under the title of The Idler to a newspaper, The Universal Chronicle. Depressed by the fatal illness of his mother, whom he had not seen for almost twenty years, and needing money for her funeral expenses, he dashed off in the evenings of a single week what is perhaps his most characteristic work, the philosophical tale now known as Rasselas.
After the death in 1752 of his beloved wife, Johnson more and more sought diversion and companionship in the coffee houses and taverns, gradually drawing around him a brilliant circle including some of the most eminent men of his age, among them Edmund Burke, Sr. Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick. As the years passed, his fame as a talker and sage equated that of Writer.
In 1762, his financial difficulties were alleviated by a royal pension of 300 pounds a year, and for the rest of his life he wrote only what he wished. There now began the period so brilliantly chronicled by the Young Scot, James Boswell, whom he met in May 1763. In January 1765, he met the brewer Henry Thrale and his talkative wife, in whose comfortable home he spent much time during the next eighteen years. Of his late published works the most notable were a series of political pamphlets hurriedly written in the early 1770’s, an account of his journey with Boswell to the western islands of Scotland, and a series of biographical and critical prefaces to p extensive edition of the English poets of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At last, a prey to asthma, dropsy, and other ailments, he died in pious resignation on December 13, 1784 at London.
II. THE CHARACTER AND PERSONALITY OF DR. JOHNSON
Introduction. Dr. Samuel Johnson was one of the towering figures in English literature and he had a profound impact on the writers and the readers of the eighteenth century. His early life was miserable and wretched but it mounded him into a man of rich experience and strong character. Somewhat dictatorial and egoistic, he was a staunch Tory and a writer whose mind and judgement were strikingly independent. A deep humanity was another feature of his life which is evident also in his writings. Most often Johnson is cited as a typical Englishman, with virtues and prejudices which are characteristic of the English. In fact Dr. Johnson has become something of a national institution in England.
Given to melancholic moods. Although Dr. Johnson was a man of fun and jokes, he often seemed to be contemplative and melancholic. He had a morbid fear of insanity. His fear of death led him to turn his attention towards those lines of Shakespeare’s plays where the poet renders a terrible picture of the decomposition which overtakes the human body in the grave. His fear had a metaphysical aspect too, for he was, by nature, a devout Christian, and the excesses of his life pricked his mind very often. This aspect is more clear in his prayers and meditations. In the last few years of his life, when many of his friends were already dead, Dr. Johnson was frequently a prey to extreme melancholy. To make matters worse, he also suffered from ill-health. Boswell has recorded Johnson’s saying that he was never in possession of a free and easy use of his limbs and that he was compelled to walk as if he were wearing fetters like a prisoner. He had some nervous disease causing attacks of convulsions. But Johnson did not let ill-health deter his work. He utilized his energy to the maximum and never complained about his ill-health.
Religious and political beliefs. Johnson was stubborn conservative in his religious as well as political views. He distrusted theories. He did not believe inequality, but held that distinctions of rank were basic to English society. He firmly believed that the Church dignitaries were entitled to the deepest homage from true Christians. But he was not a Puritan. He followed austerities like fasting but was, in fact, opposed to an austere life. According to him, religion should not be based on hard and fast rules. In his life, Johnson, seemed to have experienced a palpable fear of divine wrath, but this was allied to a sincere desire in him to lead a better life. The whole of Christianity was an intense reality to him though it was more often a source of fear than of solace. Carlyle says that Johnson, living in the period of Voltaire, was yet able to purge and strengthen his soul and hold real communication with God, which, to Carlyle, was a wonderful achievement. Johnson hated dissenters and radicals. He used to refer to the Devil as a typical Whig because he believed that Whiggism stood for rebellion against established institutions, Johnson was severely critical of those whom he took to be the enemies of King and Church.
Johnson preferred life in town and lived in the Whig stronghold of London; so there is a considerable strength of character implied in his onslaughts on those political opponents. Johnson could provide a sort of theoretical basis for his intense Toryism. He is said to have been fond of producing utter consternation in the fold of the Whigs by ridiculing them most pitilessly. Once he told a staunch Whig that Whiggism was worse than Jacobitism, for it was a negation of all principles. His attacks on Presbyterians and Dissenters were equally fierce. Johnson had a bitter contempt for Scotland too, but his comments in this regard are humorous and amusing. Johnson’s witty statements and conversational genius are world-famous. Boswell relates many of comes to deal with Milton, Gray and Swift he denounces and finds Fault with them.
Miscellaneous works. Johnson’s miscellaneous works include Journey to the Western islands of Scotland and The False Alarm.Most of those are unpopular. Johnson was a powerful writer of letters.
One of his letters—the one in which he rejects Chesterfield’s delayed offer of patronage—is quite well known.
IV. THE STYLE OF DR. JOHNSON’S PROSE
Introduction. It is a mistake to think that Johnson’s prose style is essentially pedantic and bombastic. Being a prolific writer, Johnson made use of a number of styles, and often he adopts a particular style in a particular context. The style he adopts depends upon the nature of the work and its seriousness. He could put his ideas in the simplest of styles as is evident from his conversations with Boswell. When the subject is of a sober nature, he makes use of a style which is unparalleled in its beauty and rhythm. In such a context his competence in balancing the ideas as well as the parts of a sentence is unquestioned.
Echo of his times. Johnson’s prose style has some historical affinities. It has an invariable echo of the style that was in vogue when Johnson entered the scene. Thus the oratorial style of Johnson’s prose is a reflection of the fashion of the century. He praised Dryden’s prose style but did not think it worth following. To him it was too unsettled. On the other hand, Johnson lauded the style of Addison as familiar, lucid and stately but not pompous.
Johnson’s diction. Johnson’s diction is of course not the same everywhere, but it has some striking characteristics. Johnson shows a tendency to use more words of Latin Derivation than of Anglo-Saxon origin. This imparts a learned quality to his style which is deliberate and in keeping with the tenor of the content. But the Latinised diction does not affect his style adversely because he is equally capable of using the simplest of words with remarkable effect. Johnson seems fond of using a noun construction where an adjectival construction would be sufficient to make the meaning explicit. Johnson was weary of metaphors but whenever he comes to employ one he does it vividly. He criticizes the diction of Shakespeare to be very mean and unsophisticated at many places. Elsewhere he writes “There was before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar or too remote defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly stranger whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they transmit to things. This may help us to understand Johnson’s attitude towards poetic diction.
In the prose of Johnson we find many sentences which are simple and brief; but he seems to have had an inordinate preference for complex, balanced clauses arranged either in parallel or in contrast. But it is to be noted that his style never slips into monotony. On the other hand, many of his balanced clauses reveal a rare genius for apt and impressive expression.
Oratorial tone. Again, in keeping with the nature of the subject he deals with, Johnson expresses his ideas oratorially. In such contexts his prose becomes grandiloquent and extraordinarily exquisite. But it is a mistake to call these passages pompous and gaudy. Even where he uses learned words or expresses himself in a seemingly pompous manner, there is nothing in his sentences to which one may take exception as superfluous or insignificant. The manner and matter are harmoniously matched and interconnected.
Conclusion. The shortcomings of Johnson’s prose style are fewer than have been supposed. Perhaps the only really indefensible feature is his use of extremely uncommon words such as acidulous, absconded, indiscerptible, fugacity, lexicographical and oppugner, which are rarely, if ever, to be met any where else. But Johnson’s contribution in making the English language a stately, vigorous and powerful language is not to be overlooked.