Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ... a portrait by Joshua Reynolds
Today [13 December] is Saint Lucy’s Day, which was commonly thought to be the shortest day of the year. John Donne wrote a poem, “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucie’s Day, being the shortest day” (1627), which begins: “Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s.”
Saint Lucy (283–304) of Syracuse was a wealthy young martyr who is commemorated on this day in the calendars of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and in many Anglican and Lutheran Churches too. Her name is derived from the Latin Lux, Lucis (“Light”), and so she has become the patron saint of people who are blind. Her feast day is popular among Lutherans throughout Scandinavia.
Samuel Johnson’s birthplace in Breadmarket Street, now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum ... Johnson was born here in 1709, and his father ran a bookshop from the house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who died on this day in 1784, is also commemorated on 13 December in the calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England as “Samuel Johnson, Moralist,” and in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church.
Samuel Johnson is best known as a writer of dictionaries and a literary editor. The 300th anniversary of the birth of Dr Johnson, as he is still known, was celebrated in Lichfield three years ago in 2009. But, apart from his Lichfield connections, I suppose I also like him because he too began his career as a journalist, working on Grub Street – a term for hack journalism which he immortalised in his Dictionary.
Yet in his lifetime he was renowned for his religious beliefs and as a firm supporter of the traditions of the Church of England. He had been deeply influenced to Christianity as young man by reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and his support of the High Church party was unstinting for the rest of his life.
His essays entitled ‘The Rambler,’ which appeared twice-weekly between 1750 and 1752, earned him the nickname ‘The Great Moralist,’ then a term of affection and honour.
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 his biography by his friend James Boswell has been described as “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
Samuel Johnson was born within sight of the spires of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Samuel Johnson was born within sight of the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral on 18 September 1709 in the family home above his father’s bookshop in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield – a house on the corner of the Market Square, opposite Saint Mary’s, the guild and civic parish church. A number of Reformation martyrs had been burned at the stake the Market Square in front of the Johnson family home.
Because his mother Sarah was 40 at the time of his birth, George Hector, a “man-midwife” and surgeon, was brought in to help with the birth. 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 only the touch of 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)
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. This work gave him time to read widely and to deepen his literary knowledge.
Christmas at Oxford ... and disappointment
Lichfield’s Market Square and Johnson’s statue viewed from Johnson’s house in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In October 1728, at the age of 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. Two months later, as a Christmas exercise, he was asked by his tutor to produce a Latin translation of a Latin poem Messiah by Alexander Pope (1688-1744). This was 13 years before Handel composed his Messiah in 1741, and 14 years before its first performance, in Dublin in 1742. So Pope and Johnson were original in their choice of a title for this work. Johnson’s translation was one of my choices of Christmas poems last year.
Although Johnson thought that prayer was too high and holy for poetry, he completed half of his translation of Messiah in one afternoon and the rest the following morning. The poem was finished quickly because Johnson was hoping for patronage that would help him overcome the financial difficulties he was suffering as an undergraduate at Pembroke.
After he finished the poem, it was sent to his home in Lichfield, where his father Michael Johnson, a bookseller, immediately printed the work. Michael Johnson had already published the translation before his son ever sent a copy to Pope, and it is said Johnson become “very angry” and said “if it had not been his Father [who had done this] he would have cut his throat.” However, according to Sir John Hawkins, Pope praised the work when he claimed that he could not tell if it was “the original” or not.
But, while the poem brought praise to Johnson, it never brought him the material benefit he hoped for. 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.
The poem later appeared in a Miscellany of Poems (1731), edited by John Husbands, a Pembroke tutor, and this is the earliest surviving publication of any of Johnson’s writings.
Meanwhile, after his failure to get a job as a teacher at Stourbridge Grammar School and an unhappy experience at a school in Market Bosworth, Samuel Johnson returned home to Lichfield once again 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)
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, Johnson 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, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, to have an MA awarded by Trinity College Dublin in the hope that this could be used to gain an MA from Oxford. However, 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)
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.
Until the Oxford English Dictionary appeared, Johnson’s Dictionary was regarded as the definitive and pre-eminent English dictionary. It stands alongside the collected works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer as one of the works that shaped and formed the words we write and speak to this day.
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.
Besides working on the Dictionary, Johnson 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 it 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.
Honours and friends
A wall mural in Lichfield commemorates the cathedral city’s favourite son (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Eventually, despite Swift’s refusal, Trinity College Dublin awarded Johnson 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 Bishop 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 and a compassionate man whose works are permeated with his morality. His faith did not prejudice him against others, and he respected members of other denominations who demonstrated a commitment to the teachings of Christ. He admired John Milton’s poetry but could not tolerate his Puritan and Republican beliefs. He was a Tory, yet he opposed slavery and once proposed a toast to the “next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies.”
He would write on moral topics with such authority and in such a trusting manner that one biographer said: “No other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him.”
Winter snow … Lichfield Cathedral seen in December last year from the gardens of Darwin House by Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield
Shortly before his death, he composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, to commemorate his father, Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), who were all buried in the church. The original stone was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, but it was replaced with the same inscription in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death.
On his last visit to church, the walk strained him. However, while there 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.”
In his last prayer, on 5 December 1784, before receiving Holy Communion and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:
Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
As he lay dying, Samuel 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. His life and work are celebrated in a stained glass window in Southwark Cathedral, he is named in the calendar of the Church of England as a modern Anglican saint.
Advice from Dr Johnson outside the Queen’s Head in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
A Georgian Family Christmas Party is being held in the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday [15 December]. The party is part of Lichfield’s Christmas Festival Weekend and includes carols, story-telling and activities for all ages. Entry is £5 – children free – and includes a drink and a mince pie on arrival. For more details or to book tickets call 01543 264 972, email email@example.com or visit www.samueljohnsonbirthplace.org.uk.
Bless us O Lord, in our coming in and in our going out ... a sign at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Tomorrow (14 December): Saint John of the Cross.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy , the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.