07 September 2009

Dr Johnson: a literary giant with a unique Irish connection

Quonian’s Lane beside Dame Oliver’s School looks almost unchanged since Samuel Johnson was a schoolboy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Lichfield, my favourite cathedral city in England, a few times this year. Last month, everyone was excited about the plans to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson (right) this month.

Dr Johnson, as he is popularly known throughout the world, was born in Lichfield 300 years ago in 1709. A key figure in shaping the English language as we use it today, Johnson has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history” and is the subject of “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.”

Although he began his literary career as a Grub Street journalist, he made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Throughout his life he was a devout Anglican, and while he was a failed teacher who never completed his degree at Oxford, this important literary figure is known and loved universally as Doctor Johnson because of the honorary doctorate he received from Trinity College Dublin.

A child prodigy

Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Samuel Johnson was born on 18 September 1709 in the family home above his father’s bookshop in Breadmarket Street – a corner house in Lichfield, opposite Saint Mary’s, the civic parish church, and within sight of the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral.

Samuel Johnson was born within sight of the spires of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Because his mother Sarah was 40 at the time of his birth, George Hector, a “man-midwife” and surgeon, was brought in to help. The family feared the baby might die and the Vicar of Saint Mary’s was called in to baptise him at home. The sickly child later contracted scrofula, known then as the “King’s Evil” because it was thought royalty could cure it, and he received the “royal touch” from Queen Anne in 1712.

Samuel Johnson first went to school at Dame Oliver’s School in Dam Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

His education began at the age of three, when his mother taught him to memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. At the age of four, he was sent to a nearby school in Dam Street run by Dame Oliver, and at seven was sent to Lichfield Grammar School (now King Edward VI School), where he excelled in Latin and was promoted to the upper school at the age of nine.

At 16, Johnson spent six months with his cousins, the Fords, in Pedmore, Worcestershire, where Cornelius Ford tutored Johnson in the classics. When Johnson returned to Lichfield, an angry headmaster refused to allow him to continue at the grammar school. Later, Johnson began working for his father, stitching and binding books. The work gave him time to read widely and to deepen his literary knowledge.

Disappointment at Oxford

In October 1728, at the age of 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. However, poverty brought about by his father’s failing business meant Johnson could not pay his fees. After 13 months, he left Oxford without a degree and returned to Lichfield, leaving behind many books he had borrowed from his father but could not afford to transport home.

After his failure to get a job as a teacher at Stourbridge Grammar School and an unhappy experience at a school in Market Bosworth, Johnson returned home to Lichfield in 1732. While he was still hoping to get work as a teacher, he started writing for the Birmingham Journal, and after proposing a translation of Jeronimo Lobo’s account of the Abyssinians, he went on to publish A Voyage to Abyssinia.

The widowed Elizabeth (“Tetty”) Jervis Porter married Samuel Johnson in 1735 – when he was then 25 and she was 46 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Back in Lichfield in 1734, he befriended the widowed Elizabeth (“Tetty”) Jervis Porter, a 45-year-old widow and mother of three who was 21 years older than him. Despite opposition from her family, they were married in Derby in 1735 – he was then 25 and she was 46. In the following autumn, Johnson opened Edial Hall School as a private academy near Lichfield. He had only three pupils – including the 18-year-old David Garrick, who later became one of the most famous actors of his day. But the school was a failure, costing Tetty a substantial portion of her fortune.

Move to London

Instead of trying to keep the failing school going, Johnson began to write his first major work, the historical tragedy Irene. He left Lichfield for London with Garrick on 2 March 1737. He completed Irene in London, and Tetty joined him there at the end of the year. He soon found work with The Gentleman’s Magazine, working as a journalist on Grub Street.

In his first major literary work, the poem London, published anonymously in May 1738, he portrays London as a place of crime, corruption, and neglect of the poor. Other early works in London included the biography The Life of Richard Savage and the poem The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Johnson still hoped to work as a teacher, but all efforts to secure a post in grammar schools were rejected because he did not have an MA from Oxford or Cambridge. Alexander Pope persuaded Lord Gower to petition Oxford for an honorary degree for him, but was told that it was “too much to be asked.” Gower then asked a friend of Jonathan Swift to have an MA awarded by Trinity College Dublin in the hope that this could be used to gain an MA from Oxford. But Dean Swift refused to act on Johnson’s behalf.

Feeling guilty about living on Tetty’s money, Johnson stopped living with her. Instead, he stayed in taverns or slept in “night-cellars,” and on some nights he was left roaming the streets.

Commission for Dictionary

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language remained the standard English dictionary for 150 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Johnson’s fortunes took a dramatic turn in 1746 when a publisher commissioned him to compile a dictionary of the English language – a contract that was worth 1,500 guineas. Johnson claimed he could finish the project in three years. In comparison, the Académie Française had 40 scholars who would spend 40 years completing its French dictionary. Eventually, he took nine years to complete his Dictionary of the English Language.

His Dictionary was not the first, nor was it unique, but it remained the standard English dictionary for 150 years until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928. His Dictionary offers insights into the 18th century, providing “a faithful record of the language people used.” It has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” As a work of literature it has had a far-reaching impact on modern English.

The first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary is a huge book. The pages are almost 18 inches tall, and the book is 20 inches wide when opened. It contains 42,773 entries, and sold for £4 10s, the equivalent of about £350 today. An important innovation was his use of around 114,000 literary quotations to illustrate meanings. The authors most frequently cited include Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden.

As his Dictionary was going to publication, Johnson eventually received the degree he had long desired – Oxford University made him a Master of Arts in 1755.

Meanwhile, Tetty Johnson, who had been ill for most of her time in London, decided to return to the countryside while he was busy working on his Dictionary and she died on 17 March 1752. Johnson blamed himself for her death, and seems never to have forgiven himself.

Literary productivity

Besides working on the Dictionary, he also wrote essays, sermons, and poems during these nine years. His widely-read novel Rasselas (1759) is a “little story book,” as he described it, telling the life of Prince Rasselas and his sister Nekayah, who are kept in a place called the Happy Valley in the land of Abyssinia.

Rasselas was written in a week to pay for his mother’s funeral and to settle her debts. It was so popular that a new edition was published almost every year, and was soon translated into 14 other languages.

In 1763, Johnson befriended James Boswell, who later became his biographer. Together they travelled to Scotland, and Johnson recorded their experiences in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. His long-awaited edition of Shakespeare was published in eight volumes in 1765. Towards the end of his life, he produced his influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

Irish honours and friends

A wall mural in Lichfield commemorates the cathedral city’s favourite son (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Trinity College Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate (LL.D.) in 1765. Later, in his Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell referred so often to him as Dr Johnson that he has been known as Dr Johnson ever since. When he returned to Oxford, he was accompanied by Boswell and toured Pembroke College with the Master, the Revd Dr William Adams, who had once been his tutor.

Johnson formed “The Club,” whose members included the painter Joshua Reynolds and the actor David Garrick, the Irish politician Edmund Burke and the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith. Reynolds said Johnson was “almost the only man whom I call a friend.” Burke thought that if Johnson were elected to Parliament he “certainly would have been the greatest speaker that ever was there.” His other friends in London included the Irish actor Arthur Murphy.

Johnson relied on a unique form of rhetoric, and is known for his “refutation” of George Berkeley’s immaterialism and the Irish bishop’s claim that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to exist. In a conversation with Boswell, Johnson powerfully stomped on a nearby stone and proclaimed of Berkeley’s theory: “I refute it thus!”

Johnson was a devout Anglican whose works are permeated with his morality. He respected Milton’s poetry, but could not tolerate Milton’s Puritan and Republican beliefs. A compassionate man, he was an opponent of slavery and once proposed a toast to the “next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies.”

The statue of Samuel Johnson in the Market Square, Lichfield, seen from his house in Breadmarket Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Dying prayers

On his last visit to church, he wrote a prayer for his friends, the Thrale family: “To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may pass through this world, as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”

As he lay dying, Johnson’s final words were: “Iam Moriturus” (“I who am about to die”). He fell into a coma and died at 7 p.m. on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey a week later.

The house where he was born is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and is the focus of next month’s celebrations. These include a civic reception at Lichfield Guildhall for the Johnson Society, a themed book fair, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Johnson statue in the Market Square, followed by the cutting of a birthday cake at the birthplace, a Georgian supper at the Guildhall, a spectacular light and sound show arranged by the City Council and the Museum, with artists Peter Walker, Andy McKeown and David Harper, and a special Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral with the Bishop of London.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the Church Review(Dublin and Glenalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in September 2009

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