Samuel Johnson: Wikis


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Samuel Johnson LLD MA

Samuel Johnson c. 1772,
painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Born 18 September 1709 (1709-09-18)
(O.S. 7 September)
Lichfield, England
Died 13 December 1784 (1784-12-14) (aged 75)
London, England
Occupation essayist, lexicographer, biographer, poet
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Jervis Porter

Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [O.S. 7 September] – 13 December 1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson was a devout Anglican and committed Tory, and has been described as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history".[1] He is also the subject of "the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature": James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson.[2]

Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and attended Pembroke College, Oxford for just over a year, before his lack of funds forced him to leave. After working as a teacher he moved to London, where he began to write miscellaneous pieces for The Gentleman's Magazine. His early works include the biography The Life of Richard Savage, the poems London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and the play Irene.

After nine years of work, Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755; it had a far-reaching impact on Modern English and has been described as "one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship".[3] The Dictionary brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary, 150 years later, Johnson's was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.[4] His later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of William Shakespeare's plays, and the widely read tale Rasselas. In 1763, he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later travelled to Scotland; Johnson described their travels in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Towards the end of his life, he produced the massive and influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a collection of biographies and evaluations of 17th- and 18th-century poets.

Johnson had a tall and robust figure, but his odd gestures and tics were confusing to some on their first encounter with him. Boswell's Life, along with other biographies, documented Johnson's behaviour and mannerisms in such detail that they have informed the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome (TS),[5] a condition not defined or diagnosed in the 18th century. After a series of illnesses he died on the evening of 13 December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the years following his death, Johnson began to be recognised as having had a lasting effect on literary criticism, and even as the only great critic of English literature.[6]




Early life and education

Large three-storey house on a corner site
Johnson's birthplace in Market Square, Lichfield

Born on 18 September 1709 (New Style) to Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah Ford,[7] Samuel Johnson often claimed that he grew up in poverty. Since both families had money, it is uncertain what happened between Michael and Sarah's marriage and the birth of Samuel just three years later to provoke such a change in fortune.[8] Johnson was born in the family home above his father's bookshop in Lichfield, Staffordshire and,[7] because his mother Sarah was 40 when she gave birth, a "man-midwife" and surgeon of "great reputation" named George Hector was brought in to assist.[9] He did not cry and, with doubts surrounding the newborn's health, his aunt claimed "that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street".[10] As it was feared the baby might die, the vicar of St Mary's was summoned to perform a baptism.[11] Two godfathers were chosen: Samuel Swynfen, a physician and graduate of Pembroke College, Oxford, and Richard Wakefield, a lawyer, coroner, and Lichfield town clerk.[12]

Johnson's health improved and he was put to wet-nurse with Joan Marklew. He soon contracted scrofula,[13] known at that time as the "King's Evil" because it was thought royalty could cure it. Sir John Floyer, former physician to Charles II, recommended that the young Johnson should receive the "royal touch",[14] which he received from Queen Anne on 30 March 1712. However, the ritual was ineffective, and an operation was performed that left him with permanent scars across his face and body.[15] With the birth of Johnson's brother, Nathaniel, a few months later, Michael was unable to keep on top of the debts he had accumulated over the years, and his family was no longer able to live in the style to which it had been accustomed.[16]

When he was a child in petticoats, and had learned to read, Mrs Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.' She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. 'What's the matter?' said she. 'I can say it,' he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it over more than twice.[17]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Johnson demonstrated signs of great intelligence as a child, and his parents, to his later disgust, would show off his "newly acquired accomplishments".[18] His education began at the age of three, and came from his mother who had him memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer.[19] When Johnson turned four, he was sent to a nearby school, and, when he reached the age of six, he was sent to a retired shoemaker to continue his education.[20] A year later, Johnson was sent to Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin.[21] During this time, Johnson started to exhibit the tics that would influence how people viewed him in his later years, and which formed the basis for the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome.[22] He excelled at his studies and was promoted to the upper school at the age of nine.[21] During this time, he befriended Edmund Hector, nephew of his "man-midwife" George Hector, and John Taylor, with whom he remained in contact for the rest of his life.[23]

At the age of 16, Johnson was given the opportunity to stay with his cousins, the Fords, at Pedmore, Worcestershire.[24] There he became a close friend of Cornelius Ford, who employed his knowledge of the classics to tutor Johnson while he was not attending school.[25] Ford was a successful, well-connected academic, but was also a notorious alcoholic whose excesses contributed to his death six years after Johnson's visit.[26] Having spent six months with his cousins, Johnson returned to Lichfield, but Mr. Hunter, the headmaster, "angered by the impertinence of this long absence", refused to allow him to continue at the grammar school.[27] Unable to return to Lichfield Grammar School, Johnson was enrolled into the King Edward VI grammar school at Stourbridge.[25] Because the school was located near Pedmore, Johnson was able to spend more time with the Fords, and he began to write poems and verse translations.[27] However, he spent only six months at Stourbridge before returning once again to his parents' home in Lichfield.[28]

Entrance of Pembroke College, Oxford

During this time, Johnson's future was uncertain as his father was deeply in debt.[29] To earn money, Johnson began to stitch books for his father, and it is possible that Johnson spent most of his time in his father's bookshop reading various works and building his literary knowledge. They remained in poverty until Sarah Johnson's cousin, Elizabeth Harriotts, died in February 1728 and left enough money to send Johnson to college.[30] On 31 October 1728, a few weeks after he turned 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford.[31] The inheritance did not cover all of his expenses at Pembroke, but Andrew Corbet, a friend and fellow student at Pembroke, offered to make up the deficit.[32]

Johnson made friends at Pembroke and read much. In later life, he told stories of his idleness.[33] He was later asked by his tutor to produce a Latin translation of Alexander Pope's Messiah as a Christmas exercise.[34] Johnson completed half of the translation in one afternoon and the rest the following morning. Although the poem brought him praise, it did not bring the material benefit he had hoped for.[35] The poem later appeared in Miscellany of Poems (1731), edited by John Husbands, a Pembroke tutor, and is the earliest surviving publication of any of Johnson's writings. Johnson spent the rest of his time studying, even over the Christmas vacation. He drafted a "plan of study" called "Adversaria", which was left unfinished, and used his time to learn French while working on his knowledge of Greek.[36]

After thirteen months, a shortage of funds forced Johnson to leave Oxford without a degree, and he returned to Lichfield.[30] Towards the end of Johnson's stay at Oxford his tutor, Jorden, left Pembroke and was replaced by William Adams. He enjoyed Adams as a tutor, but by December, Johnson was already a quarter behind in his student fees, and he was forced to return home. He left behind many books that he had borrowed from his father because he could not afford to transport them and as a symbolic gesture in that he hoped to return to his studies soon.[37]

He eventually received a degree: just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755, Oxford University awarded Johnson the degree of Master of Arts.[38] He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1765 by Trinity College Dublin and in 1775 by Oxford University.[39] In 1776, he returned to Pembroke with Boswell and toured the college with his previous tutor Adams, who was then its Master. He used that visit to recount his time at the college, his early career, and to express his later fondness for Jorden.[40]

Early career

Little is known about Johnson's life between the end of 1729 and 1731; it is likely that he lived with his parents. He experienced bouts of mental anguish and physical pain during years of illness;[41] his tics and gesticulations associated with Tourette syndrome became more noticeable and were often commented upon.[42] By 1731 Johnson's father was deeply in debt and had lost much of his standing in Lichfield. Johnson hoped to get an usher's position which became available at Stourbridge Grammar School, but as he did not have a degree his application was passed over on 6 September 1731.[41] At about this time, Johnson's father became ill and developed an "inflammatory fever" which led to his death in December 1731.[43] Johnson eventually found employment as undermaster at a school in Market Bosworth, run by Sir Wolstan Dixie, 4th Baronet who allowed Johnson to teach without a degree.[44] Although Johnson was treated as a servant,[45] he found pleasure in teaching despite thinking it boring. After an argument with Dixie he quit the school, and by June 1732 he had returned home.[46]

Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter, Johnson's wife

Johnson continued to look for a position at a Lichfield school. After being turned down for a position in Ashbourne, he spent his time with his friend Edmund Hector, who was living in the home of the publisher Thomas Warren. At the time Warren was starting his Birmingham Journal, and he enlisted Johnson's help.[47] This connection with Warren grew, and Johnson proposed a translation of Jeronimo Lobo's account of the Abyssinians.[48] Johnson read Abbé Joachim Le Grand's French translations, and thought that a shorter version might be "useful and profitable".[49] Instead of writing the whole work himself, he dictated to Hector, who then took the copy to the printer and made any corrections. Johnson's A Voyage to Abyssinia was published a year later.[49] He returned to Lichfield in February 1734, and began an annotated edition of Poliziano's Latin poems, along with a history of Latin poetry from Petrarch to Poliziano; a Proposal was soon printed, but a lack of funds halted the project.[50]

Johnson remained with his close friend Harry Porter during a terminal illness,[51] which culminated when Porter died on 3 September 1734, leaving his wife Elizabeth Jervis Porter (otherwise known as "Tetty") widowed at the age of 45, with three children.[52] Some months later, Johnson began to court her. The Reverend William Shaw claims that "the first advances probably proceeded from her, as her attachment to Johnson was in opposition to the advice and desire of all her relations".[53] Johnson was inexperienced in such relationships, but the well-to-do widow encouraged him and promised to provide for him with her substantial savings.[54] They married on 9 July 1735, at St. Werburgh's Church in Derby.[55] The Porter family did not approve of the match, partly because Johnson was 25 and Elizabeth was 21 years his elder, and Elizabeth's marriage to Johnson so disgusted her son Jervis that he severed relations with her.[56] However, her daughter Lucy had accepted Johnson from the start, and her other son, Joseph, accepted the marriage later.[57]

In June 1735, while working as a tutor for Thomas Whitby's children, Johnson had applied for the position of headmaster at Solihull School.[58] Although Walmesley gave his support, Johnson was passed over because the school's directors thought he was "a very haughty, ill-natured gent., and that he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can't help) the gent[s] think it may affect some lads".[59] With Walmesley's encouragement, Johnson decided that he could be a successful teacher if he ran his own school.[60] In the autumn of 1735, Johnson opened Edial Hall School as a private academy at Edial, near Lichfield. He had only three pupils: Lawrence Offley, George Garrick, and the 18-year-old David Garrick, who later became one of the most famous actors of his day.[59] The venture was unsuccessful and cost Tetty a substantial portion of her fortune. Instead of trying to keep the failing school going, Johnson began to write his first major work, the historical tragedy Irene.[61] Biographer Robert DeMaria believed that Tourette syndrome likely made public occupations like schoolmaster or tutor almost impossible for Johnson to hold; this may have led Johnson to "the invisible occupation of authorship".[22]

Johnson left for London with his former pupil David Garrick on 2 March 1737, the day Johnson's brother had died. He was penniless and pessimistic about their travel, but fortunately for them, Garrick had connections in London, and the two were able to stay with his distant relative, Richard Norris.[62] Johnson soon moved to Greenwich near the Golden Hart Tavern to finish Irene.[63] On 12 July 1737 he wrote to Edward Cave with a proposal for a translation of Paolo Sarpi's The History of the Council of Trent (1619), which Cave did not accept until months later.[64] In October 1737 Johnson brought his wife to London, and he found employment with Cave as a writer for The Gentleman's Magazine.[65] His assignments for the magazine and other publishers during this time were "almost unparalleled in range and variety", and "so numerous, so varied and scattered" that "Johnson himself could not make a complete list".[66] The name Columbia, a poetic name for the United States coined by Johnson, first appears in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in the Magazine.[67][68]

Title page of London second edition

In May 1738 his first major work, the poem London, was published anonymously.[69] Based on Juvenal's Satire III, it describes the character Thales leaving for Wales to escape the problems of London,[70] which it portrays as a place of crime, corruption, and neglect of the poor. Johnson could not bring himself to regard the poem as earning him any merit as a poet.[71] Alexander Pope claimed that the author "will soon be déterré" (brought to light, become well known), but this would not happen until 15 years later.[69]

In August, Johnson's lack of an MA degree from Oxford or Cambridge led to his being denied a position as master of the Appleby Grammar School. In an effort to end such rejections, Pope asked Lord Gower to use his influence to have a degree awarded to Johnson.[10] Gower petitioned Oxford for an honorary degree to be awarded to Johnson, but was told that it was "too much to be asked".[72] Gower then asked a friend of Jonathan Swift to plead with Swift to use his influence at the University of Dublin to have a Masters degree awarded to Johnson, in the hope that this could then be used to justify an MA from Oxford,[72] but Swift refused to act on Johnson's behalf.[73]

Between 1737 and 1739, Johnson befriended Richard Savage.[74] Feeling guilty about living on Tetty's money, Johnson stopped living with her and spent his time with Savage. They were poor and would stay in taverns or sleep in "night-cellars" except for nights that they would roam the streets because they lacked the necessary funds.[75] Savage's friends tried to help him by attempting to persuade him to move to Wales, but Savage ended up in Bristol and again fell into debt. He was committed to debtors' prison and died in 1743. A year later, Johnson wrote Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a "moving" work which, in the words of the biographer and critic Walter Jackson Bate, "remains one of the innovative works in the history of biography".[76]

A Dictionary of the English Language

Johnson's Dictionary Vol. 1 (1755) title page

In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language;[69] a contract with William Strahan and associates, worth 1,500 guineas, was signed on the morning of 18 June 1746.[77] Johnson claimed that he could finish the project in three years. In comparison, the Académie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete its dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, "This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman".[69] Although he did not succeed in completing the work in three years, he did manage to finish it in nine, justifying his boast.[69] According to Bate, the Dictionary "easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who labored under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time".[3]

Johnson's dictionary was not the first, nor was it unique. It was, however, the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. Other dictionaries, such as Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum, included more words,[4] and in the 150 years preceding Johnson's dictionary about twenty other general-purpose monolingual "English" dictionaries had been produced.[78] However, there was open dissatisfaction with the dictionaries of the period. In 1741, David Hume claimed: "The Elegance and Propriety of Stile have been very much neglected among us. We have no Dictionary of our Language, and scarce a tolerable Grammar".[79] Johnson's Dictionary offers insights into the 18th century and "a faithful record of the language people used".[4] It is more than a reference book; it is a work of literature.[78]

For a decade, Johnson's constant work on the Dictionary disrupted his and Tetty's living conditions. He had to employ a number of assistants for the copying and mechanical work, which filled the house with incessant noise and clutter. He was always busy with his work, and kept hundreds of books around.[80] John Hawkins described the scene: "The books he used for this purpose were what he had in his own collection, a copious but a miserably ragged one, and all such as he could borrow; which latter, if ever they came back to those that lent them, were so defaced as to be scarce worth owning".[81] Johnson was also distracted by Tetty's health, as she started to show signs of a terminal illness.[80] To accommodate both his wife and his work, he moved to 17 Gough Square near his printer, William Strahan.[82]

Johnson's Dictionary Vol. 2 (1755) title page

In preparation for the work, Johnson wrote a Plan for the Dictionary. This Plan was patronised by Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, to Johnson's displeasure.[83] Seven years after first meeting Johnson to go over the work, Chesterfield wrote two anonymous essays in The World recommending the Dictionary.[84] He complained that the English language lacked structure and argued in support of the dictionary. Johnson did not like the tone of the essay, and he felt that Chesterfield had not fulfilled his obligations as the work's patron.[85] Johnson wrote a letter expressing this view and harshly criticising Chesterfield, saying "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it."[86] Chesterfield, impressed by the language, kept the letter displayed on a table for anyone to read.[86]

The Dictionary was finally published in April 1755, with the title page acknowledging that Oxford had awarded Johnson a Master of Arts degree in anticipation of the work.[87] The published dictionary was a huge book. Its pages were nearly 18 inches (46 cm) tall, and the book was 20 inches (51 cm) wide when opened; it contained 42,773 entries, to which only a few more were added in subsequent editions, and sold for the extravagant price of £4 10s, perhaps the rough equivalent of £350 today.[88] An important innovation in English lexicography was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 114,000. The authors most frequently cited include Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden.[89] It was years before "Johnson's Dictionary", as it came to be known, turned a profit. Author's royalties were unknown at that time, and Johnson, once his contract to deliver the book was fulfilled, received no further monies from its sale. Years later, many of its quotations would be repeated by various editions of the Webster's Dictionary and the New English Dictionary.[90]

Besides working on the Dictionary, Johnson also wrote various essays, sermons, and poems during these nine years.[91] He decided to produce a series of essays under the title The Rambler that would run every Tuesday and Saturday for twopence each. Explaining the title years later, he told his friend, the painter Joshua Reynolds: "I was at a loss how to name it. I sat down at night upon my bedside, and resolved that I would not go to sleep till I had fixed its title. The Rambler seemed the best that occurred, and I took it".[92] These essays, often on moral topics, tended to be more grave than the title of the series would suggest; his first comments in The Rambler were to ask "that in this undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation of myself and others".[92] The popularity of The Rambler took off once the issues were collected as a volume; they were reprinted nine times during Johnson's life. Writer and printer Samuel Richardson, enjoying the essays greatly, questioned the publisher as to who wrote the works; only he and a few of Johnson's friends were told of Johnson's authorship.[93] One friend, the novelist Charlotte Lennox, includes a defence of The Rambler in her novel The Female Quixote (1752). In particular, the character Mr. Glanville says, "you may sit in Judgment upon the Productions of a Young, a Richardson, or a Johnson. Rail with premeditated Malice at the Rambler; and for the want of Faults, turn even its inimitable Beauties into Ridicule" (Book VI, Chapter XI). Later, she claims Johnson as "the greatest Genius in the present Age".[94]

His necessary attendance while his play was in rehearsal, and during its performance, brought him acquainted with many of the performers of both sexes, which produced a more favourable opinion of their profession than he had harshly expressed in his Life of Savage ... He for considerable time used to frequent the Green Room, and seemed to take delight in dissipating his gloom, by mixing in the sprightly chit-chat of the motley circle than to be found there. Mr David Hume related to me from Mr Garrick, that Johnson at last denied himself this amusement, from considerations of rigid virtue; saying, "I'll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities".[95]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

However, not all of his work was confined to The Rambler. His most highly regarded poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, was written with such "extraordinary speed" that Boswell claimed Johnson "might have been perpetually a poet".[96] The poem is an imitation of Juvenal's Satire X and claims that "the antidote to vain human wishes is non-vain spiritual wishes".[97] In particular, Johnson emphasises "the helpless vulnerability of the individual before the social context" and the "inevitable self-deception by which human beings are led astray".[98] The poem was critically celebrated but it failed to become popular, and sold less than London.[99] In 1749, Garrick made good on his promise that he would produce Irene, but its title was altered to Mahomet and Irene to make it "fit for the stage".[100] The show eventually ran for nine nights.[101]

Tetty Johnson spent most of her time in London ill, and in 1752 she decided to return to the countryside while Johnson was busy working on his Dictionary. She died on 17 March 1752, and, at word of her death, Johnson wrote a letter to his old friend Taylor, which according to Taylor "expressed grief in the strongest manner he had ever read".[102] He wrote a sermon in her honour, to be read at her funeral, but Taylor refused to read it, for reasons which are unknown. This only exacerbated Johnson's feelings of being lost, and his despair after the death of his wife, and John Hawkesworth had to take over organising the funeral. Johnson felt guilty about the poverty in which he believed he had forced Tetty to live, and blamed himself for neglecting her. He became outwardly discontent, and his diary was filled with prayers and laments over her death until his own. She was his primary motivation, and her death hindered his ability to complete his work.[103]

Later career

On 16 March 1756, Johnson was arrested for an outstanding debt of £5 18s. Unable to contact anyone else, he wrote to the writer and publisher Samuel Richardson. Richardson, who had previously lent Johnson money, sent him six guineas to show his good will, and the two became friends.[104] Soon after, Johnson met and befriended the painter Joshua Reynolds, who so impressed Johnson that he declared him "almost the only man whom I call a friend".[105] Reynolds' younger sister Frances observed during their time together "that men, women and children gathered around him [Johnson], laughing" at his gestures and gesticulations.[106] In addition to Reynolds, Johnson was close to Bennet Langton and Arthur Murphy. Langton was a scholar and an admirer of Johnson who persuaded his way into a meeting with Johnson which led to a long friendship. Johnson met Murphy during the summer of 1754 after Murphy came to Johnson about the accidental republishing of the Rambler No. 190, and the two became friends.[107] Around this time, Anna Williams began boarding with Johnson. She was a minor poet who was poor and becoming blind, two conditions that Johnson attempted to change by providing room for her and paying for a failed cataract surgery. Williams, in turn, became Johnson's housekeeper.[108]

Dr Samuel Johnson - author James Boswell - biographer Sir Joshua Reynolds - host David Garrick - actor Edmund Burke - statesman Pasqual Paoli - Corsican independent Charles Burney - music historian Thomas Warton - poet laureate Oliver Goldsmith - writer prob. ''The Infant Academy'' (1782) Puck by Joshua Reynolds unknown portrait servant - poss. Dr Johnson's heir Use button to enlarge or use hyperlinks
A literary party, 1781, of Johnson (second from left) and other members of "The Club".

To occupy himself, Johnson began to work on The Literary Magazine, or Universal Review, the first issue of which was printed on 19 March 1756. Philosophical disagreements erupted over the purpose of the publication when the Seven Years' War began and Johnson started to write polemical essays attacking the war. After the war began, the Magazine included many reviews, at least 34 of which were written by Johnson.[109] When not working on the Magazine, Johnson wrote a series of prefaces for other writers, such as Giuseppe Baretti, William Payne and Charlotte Lennox.[110] Johnson's relationship with Lennox and her works was particularly close during these years, and she in turn relied so heavily upon Johnson that he was "the most important single fact in Mrs Lennox's literary life".[111] He later attempted to produce a new edition of her works, but even with his support they were unable to find enough interest to follow through with its publication.[112] To help with domestic duties while Johnson was busy with his various projects, Richard Bathurst, a physician and a member of Johnson's Club, pressured him to take on a free slave, Francis Barber, as his servant.[113]

These efforts, however, consumed only a small portion of his time; his work on Edition of Shakespeare took up the rest. On 8 June 1756, Johnson published his Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare, which argued that previous editions of Shakespeare were edited incorrectly and needed to be corrected.[114] However, Johnson's progress on the work slowed as the months passed, and he told music historian Charles Burney in December 1757 that it would take him until the following March to complete it. Before that could happen, he was arrested again, for a debt of £40, in February 1758. The debt was soon repaid by Jacob Tonson, who had contracted Johnson to publish Shakespeare, and this encouraged Johnson to finish his edition to repay the favour. Although it took him another seven years to finish, Johnson completed a few volumes of his Shakespeare to prove his commitment to the project.[115]

In 1758, Johnson began to write a weekly series, The Idler, which ran from 15 April 1758 to 5 April 1760, as a way to avoid finishing his Shakespeare. This series was shorter and lacked many features of The Rambler. Unlike his independent publication of The Rambler, The Idler was published in a weekly news journal The Universal Chronicle, a publication supported by John Payne, John Newbery, Robert Stevens and William Faden.[116] Since The Idler did not occupy all Johnson's time, he was able to publish his philosophical novella Rasselas on 19 April 1759. The "little story book", as Johnson described it, describes the life of Prince Rasselas and Nekayah, his sister, who are kept in a place called the Happy Valley in the land of Abyssinia. The Valley is a place free of problems, where any desire is quickly satisfied. The constant pleasure does not, however, lead to satisfaction; and, with the help of a philosopher named Imlac, Rasselas escapes and explores the world to witness how all aspects of society and life in the outside world are filled with suffering. They return to Abyssinia, but do not wish to return to the state of constantly fulfilled pleasures found in the Happy Valley.[117] Rasselas was written in one week to pay for his mother's funeral and settle her debts; it became so popular that there was a new English edition of the work almost every year. References to it appear in many later works of fiction, including Jane Eyre, Cranford and The House of the Seven Gables. Its fame was not limited to English-speaking nations: Rasselas was immediately translated into five languages (French, Dutch, German, Russian and Italian), and later into nine others.[118]

By 1762, however, Johnson had gained notoriety for his dilatoriness in writing; the contemporary poet Churchill teased Johnson for the delay in producing his long-promised edition of Shakespeare: "He for subscribers baits his hook / and takes your cash, but where's the book?"[119] The comments soon motivated Johnson to finish his Shakespeare, and, after receiving the first payment from a government pension on 20 July 1762, he was able to dedicate most of his time towards this goal.[119] Earlier that July, the 24-year-old King George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 in appreciation for the Dictionary.[39] While the pension did not make Johnson wealthy, it did allow him a modest yet comfortable independence for the remaining 22 years of his life.[120] The award came largely through the efforts of Sheridan and the Earl of Bute. When Johnson questioned if the pension would force him to promote a political agenda or support various officials, he was told by Bute that the pension "is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done".[121]

On 16 May 1763, Johnson first met 22-year-old James Boswell—who would later become Johnson's first major biographer—in the bookshop of Johnson's friend, Tom Davies. They quickly became friends, although Boswell would return to his home in Scotland or travel abroad for months at a time.[122] Around the spring of 1763, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Goldsmith and others (the membership later expanded to include Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon). They decided to meet every Monday at 7:00 pm at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street, Soho, and these meetings continued until long after the deaths of the original members.[123]

During the whole of the interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. After the King withdrew, Johnson shewed himself highly pleased with his Majesty's conversation and gracious behaviour. He said to Mr Barnard, 'Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.'[124]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

On 9 January 1765, Murphy introduced Johnson to Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and MP, and his wife Hester. They struck up an instant friendship; Johnson was treated as a member of the family, and was once more motivated to continue working on his Shakespeare.[125] Afterwards, Johnson stayed with the Thrales for 17 years until Henry's death in 1781, sometimes staying in rooms at Thrale's Anchor Brewery in Southwark.[126] Hester Thrale's documentation of Johnson's life during this time, in her correspondence and her diary (Thraliana), became an important source of biographical information on Johnson after his death.[127]

Johnson's edition of Shakespeare was finally published on 10 October 1765 as The Plays of William Shakespeare, in Eight Volumes ... To which are added Notes by Sam. Johnson in a printing of one thousand copies. The first edition quickly sold out, and a second was soon printed.[128] The plays themselves were in a version that Johnson felt most true to the original based on his analysis of the manuscript editions. Johnson's revolutionary innovation was to create a set of corresponding notes that allow readers to identify the meaning behind many of Shakespeare's more complicated passages or ones that may have been transcribed incorrectly over time.[129] Included within the notes are occasional attacks upon rival editors of Shakespeare's works and their editions.[130] Years later, Edmond Malone, an important Shakespearean scholar and friend of Johnson's, stated that Johnson's "vigorous and comprehensive understanding threw more light on his authour than all his predecessors had done".[131]

In February 1767 Johnson was granted a special meeting with King George III. This took place at the library of the Queen's house, and it was organised by Barnard, the King's librarian.[132] The King, hearing that Johnson would visit the library, commanded Barnard to introduce him to Johnson.[133] After a short meeting, Johnson was impressed with both the King himself and their conversation.[124]

Final works

Man staring intently at a book held close to his face
Johnson (1775) showing his intense concentration and the weakness of his eyes; he did not want to be depicted as "Blinking Sam"[134]

On 6 August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland, to begin "a journey to the western islands of Scotland", as Johnson's 1775 account of their travels would put it.[135] The work was intended to discuss the social problems and struggles that affected the Scottish people, but it also praised many of the unique facets of Scottish society, such as a school in Edinburgh for the deaf and mute.[136] Also, Johnson used the work to enter into the dispute over the authenticity of James Macpherson's Ossian poems, claiming they could not have been translations of ancient Scottish literature on the grounds that "in those times nothing had been written in the Earse [i.e. Gaelic] language".[137] There were heated exchanges between the two, and according to one of Johnson's letters, MacPherson threatened physical violence.[138] Boswell's account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), was a preliminary attempt at a biography before his Life of Johnson. Included were various quotes and descriptions of events, including anecdotes such as Johnson swinging around a broadsword while wearing Scottish garb, or dancing a Highland jig.[139]

In the 1770s, Johnson, who had tended to be an opponent of the government early in life, published a series of pamphlets in favour of various government policies. In 1770 he produced The False Alarm, a political pamphlet attacking John Wilkes. In 1771, his Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands cautioned against war with Spain.[140] In 1774 he printed The Patriot, a critique of what he viewed as false patriotism. On the evening of 7 April 1775, he made the famous statement, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."[141] This line was not, as widely believed, about patriotism in general, but the false use of the term "patriotism" by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (the patriot-minister) and his supporters; Johnson opposed "self-professed Patriots" in general, but valued what he considered "true" patriotism.[142]

The last of these pamphlets, Taxation No Tyranny (1775), was a defence of the Coercive Acts and a response to the Declaration of Rights of the First Continental Congress of America, which protested against taxation without representation.[143] Johnson argued that in emigrating to America, colonists had "voluntarily resigned the power of voting", but they still had "virtual representation" in Parliament. In a parody of the Declaration of Rights, Johnson suggested that the Americans had no more right to govern themselves than the Cornish people. If the Americans wanted to participate in Parliament, said Johnson, they could move to England and purchase an estate.[144] Johnson denounced English supporters of American separatists as "traitors to this country", and hoped that the matter would be settled without bloodshed, but that it would end with "English superiority and American obedience".[145] Years before, Johnson had advocated that the English and the French were just "two robbers" who were stealing land from the natives, and that neither deserved to live there.[109] After the signing of the 1783 Peace of Paris treaties, marking the colonists' defeat of the British, Johnson was "deeply disturbed" with the "state of this kingdom".[146]

Mr Thrale's death was a very essential loss to Johnson, who, although he did not foresee all that afterwards happened, was sufficiently convinced that the comforts which Mr Thrale's family afforded him, would now in great measure cease.[147]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

On 3 May 1777, while Johnson was trying to save Reverend William Dodd from execution, he wrote to Boswell that he was busy preparing a "little Lives" and "little Prefaces, to a little edition of the English Poets".[148] Tom Davies, William Strahan and Thomas Cadell had asked Johnson to create this final major work, the Lives of the English Poets, for which he asked 200 guineas, an amount significantly less than the price he could have demanded.[149] The Lives, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet's work, and they were quite larger than originally expected.[150] The work was finished in March 1781 and the whole collection was published in six volumes. As Johnson justified in the advertisement for the work, "my purpose was only to have allotted to every Poet an Advertisement, like those which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates and a general character."[151]

Johnson was unable to enjoy this success because Henry Thrale, the dear friend with whom he lived, died on 4 April 1781.[152] Life changed quickly for Johnson, and Hester Thrale became interested in the Italian singing teacher Gabriel Mario Piozzi, which forced Johnson to move on from his previous lifestyle.[153] After returning home and then travelling for a short period, Johnson received word that his friend and tenant Robert Levet, had died on 17 January 1782.[154] Johnson was shocked by the death of Levet, who had resided at Johnson's London home since 1762.[155] Shortly afterwards Johnson caught a cold which turned into bronchitis, lasting for several months, and his health was further complicated by "feeling forlorn and lonely" by Levet's death being accompanied by that of Johnson's friend Thomas Lawrence and his housekeeper Williams.[156]

Final years

Grandly dressed woman, seated, with her daughter kneeling on her right
Hester Thrale and her daughter Queeney

Although he had recovered his health by August, he experienced emotional trauma when he was given word that Hester Thrale would sell the residence that Johnson shared with the family. What hurt Johnson the most was the possibility that he would be left without her constant company.[157] Months later, on 6 October 1782, Johnson attended church for the final time in his life, to say goodbye to his former residence and life. The walk to the church strained him, but he managed the journey unaccompanied.[158] While there, he wrote a prayer for 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.[159]

Hester Thrale did not completely abandon Johnson, and asked him to accompany the family on a trip to Brighton.[158] He agreed, and was with them from 7 October until 20 November 1782.[160] On his return, his health began to fail him, and he was left alone following Boswell's visit on 29 May 1783 until he travelled to Scotland.[161]

On 17 June 1783, Johnson's poor circulation resulted in a stroke[162] and he wrote to his neighbour, Edmund Allen, that he had lost the ability to speak.[163] Two doctors were brought in to aid Johnson; he regained his ability to speak two days later.[164] Johnson feared that he was dying, and wrote:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. The neighbourhood is impoverished. I had once Richardson and Lawrence in my reach. Mrs. Allen is dead. My house has lost Levet, a man who took interest in everything, and therefore ready at conversation. Mrs. Williams is so weak that she can be a companion no longer. When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, except that Dr. Brocklesby for a little keeps him at a distance. Dinner with a sick woman you may venture to suppose not much better than solitary. After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?[165]

By this time he was sick and gout-ridden. He had surgery for gout, and his remaining friends, including novelist Fanny Burney (the daughter of Charles Burney), came to keep him company.[166] He was confined to his room from 14 December 1783 to 21 April 1784.[167]

His health had begun to improve by May 1784, and he travelled to Oxford with Boswell on 5 May 1784.[167] By July, many of Johnson's friends were either dead or gone; Boswell had left for Scotland and Hester Thrale had become engaged to Piozzi. With nobody to visit, Johnson expressed a desire to die in London and arrived there on 16 November 1784. On 25 November 1784, he allowed Burney to visit him and expressed an interest to her that he should leave London; he soon left for Islington, to George Strahan's home.[168] His final moments were filled with mental anguish and delusions; when his physician, Thomas Warren, visited and asked him if he were feeling better, Johnson burst out with: "No, Sir; you cannot conceive with what acceleration I advance towards death."[169]

A few days before his death, he had asked Sir John Hawkins, as one of his executors, where he should be buried; and on being answered, "Doubtless, in Westminster Abbey," seemed to feel a satisfaction, very natural to a Poet.[170]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Many visitors came to see Johnson as he lay sick in bed, but he preferred only Langton's company.[169] Burney waited for word of Johnson's condition, along with Windham, Strahan, Hoole, Cruikshank, Des Moulins and Barber.[171] On 13 December 1784, Johnson met with two others: a young woman, Miss Morris, whom Johnson blessed, and Francesco Sastres, an Italian teacher, who was given some of Johnson's final words: "Iam Moriturus" ("I who am about to die").[172] Shortly afterwards he fell into a coma, and died at 7:00 pm.[171]

Langton waited until 11:00 pm to tell the others, which led to John Hawkins' becoming pale and overcome with "an agony of mind", along with Seward and Hoole describing Johnson's death as "the most awful sight".[173] Boswell remarked, "My feeling was just one large expanse of Stupor ... I could not believe it. My imagination was not convinced."[172] William Gerard Hamilton joined in and stated, "He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. -Johnson is dead.- Let us go to the next best: There is nobody; -no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."[171]

He was buried on 20 December 1784 at Westminster Abbey with an inscription that reads:

Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Obiit XIII die Decembris,
Anno Domini
Ætatis suœ LXXV.[174]

Critical theory

The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) title page

Johnson's works, especially his Lives of the Poets series, describe various features of excellent writing. He believed that the best poetry relied on contemporary language, and he disliked the use of decorative or purposefully archaic language.[175] In particular, he was suspicious of the poetic language used by Milton, whose blank verse he believed would inspire many bad imitations. Also, Johnson opposed the poetic language of his contemporary Thomas Gray.[176] His greatest complaint was that obscure allusions found in works like Milton's Lycidas were overused; he preferred poetry that could be easily read and understood.[177] In addition to his views on language, Johnson believed that a good poem incorporated new and unique imagery.[178]

In his smaller poetic works, Johnson relied on short lines and filled his work with a feeling of empathy, which possibly influenced Housman's poetic style.[179] In London, his first imitation of Juvenal, Johnson uses the poetic form to express his political opinion and, as befits a young writer, approaches the topic in a playful and almost joyous manner.[180] However, his second imitation, The Vanity of Human Wishes, is completely different; the language remains simple, but the poem is more complicated and difficult to read because Johnson is trying to describe complex Christian ethics.[181] These Christian values are not unique to the poem, but contain views expressed in most of Johnson's works. In particular, Johnson emphasises God's infinite love and shows that happiness can be attained through virtuous action.[182]

A caricature of Johnson by James Gillray mocking him for his literary criticism; he is shown doing penance for Apollo and the Muses with Mount Parnassus in the background.

When it came to biography, Johnson disagreed with Plutarch's use of biography to praise and to teach morality. Instead, Johnson believed in portraying the biographical subjects accurately and including any negative aspects of their lives. Because his insistence on accuracy in biography was little short of revolutionary, Johnson had to struggle against a society that was unwilling to accept biographical details that could be viewed as tarnishing a reputation; this became the subject of Rambler 60.[183] Furthermore, Johnson believed that biography should not be limited to the most famous and that the lives of lesser individuals, too, were significant;[184] thus in his Lives of the Poets he chose both great and lesser poets. In all his biographies he insisted on including what others would have considered trivial details to fully describe the lives of his subjects.[185] Johnson considered the genre of autobiography and diaries, including his own, as one having the most significance; in Idler 84 he explains how a writer of an autobiography would be the least likely to distort his own life.[186]

Johnson's thoughts on biography and on poetry coalesced in his understanding of what would make a good critic. His works were dominated with his intent to use them for literary criticism. This was especially true of his Dictionary of which he wrote: "I lately published a Dictionary like those compiled by the academies of Italy and France, for the use of such as aspire to exactness of criticism, or elegance of style".[187] Although a smaller edition of his Dictionary became the standard household dictionary, Johnson's original Dictionary was an academic tool that examined how words were used, especially in literary works. To achieve this purpose, Johnson included quotations from Bacon, Hooker, Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, and many others from what he considered to be the most important literary fields: natural science, philosophy, poetry, and theology. These quotations and usages were all compared and carefully studied in the Dictionary so that a reader could understand what words in literary works meant in context.[188]

Plays of William Shakespeare (1773 expanded edition) title page

Not being a theorist, Johnson did not attempt to create schools of theories to analyse the aesthetics of literature. Instead, he used his criticism for the practical purpose of helping others to better read and understand literature.[189] When it came to Shakespeare's plays, Johnson emphasised the role of the reader in understanding language: "If Shakespeare has difficulties above other writers, it is to be imputed to the nature of his work, which required the use of common colloquial language, and consequently admitted many phrases allusive, elliptical, and proverbial, such as we speak and hear every hour without observing them".[190]

His works on Shakespeare were devoted not merely to Shakespeare, but to understanding literature as a whole; in his Preface to Shakespeare, Johnson rejects the previous dogma of the classical unities and argues that drama should be faithful to life.[191] However, Johnson did not only defend Shakespeare; he discussed Shakespeare's faults, including his lack of morality, his vulgarity, his carelessness in crafting plots, and his occasional inattentiveness when choosing words or word order.[192] As well as direct literary criticism, Johnson emphasised the need to establish a text that accurately reflects what an author wrote. Shakespeare's plays, in particular, had multiple editions, each of which contained errors caused by the printing process. This problem was compounded by careless editors who deemed difficult words incorrect, and changed them in later editions. Johnson believed that an editor should not alter the text in such a way.[193]

Character sketch

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.'[194]

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

Johnson's tall and robust figure combined with his odd gestures were confusing to some; when William Hogarth first saw Johnson standing near a window in Samuel Richardson's house, "shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner", Hogarth thought Johnson an "ideot, whom his relations had put under the care of Mr. Richardson".[195] Hogarth was quite surprised when "this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr. Richardson were sitting and all at once took up the argument ... [with] such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this ideot had been at the moment inspired".[195] Not everyone was misled by Johnson's appearance; Adam Smith claimed that "Johnson knew more books than any man alive",[196] while Edmund Burke thought that if Johnson were to join Parliament, he "certainly would have been the greatest speaker that ever was there".[197] Johnson relied on a unique form of rhetoric, and he is well known for his "refutation" of Bishop Berkeley's immaterialism and his claim that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to exist:[198] during a conversation with Boswell, Johnson powerfully stomped a nearby stone and proclaimed of Berkeley's theory, "I refute it thus!"[194]

Johnson was a devout, conservative Anglican and a compassionate man who supported a number of poor friends under his own roof, even when unable to fully provide for himself.[39] Johnson's Christian morality permeated his works, and he would write on moral topics with such authority and in such a trusting manner that, Walter Jackson Bate claims, "no other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him".[199] However, Johnson's moral writings do not contain, as Donald Greene points out, "a predetermined and authorized pattern of 'good behavior'", even though Johnson does emphasise certain kinds of conduct.[200] He did not let his own faith prejudice him against others, and had respect for those of other denominations who demonstrated a commitment to Christ's teachings.[201] Although Johnson respected John Milton's poetry, he could not tolerate Milton's Puritan and Republican beliefs, feeling that they were contrary to England and Christianity.[202] He was an opponent of slavery on moral grounds, and once proposed a toast to the "next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies".[203] Beside his beliefs concerning humanity, Johnson is also known for his love of cats,[204] especially his own two cats, Hodge and Lily.[204] Boswell wrote, "I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat."[205]

Although Johnson was also known as a staunch Tory, he admitted to sympathies for the Jacobite cause during his younger years but, by the reign of George III, he came to accept the Hanoverian Succession.[202] It was Boswell who gave people the impression that Johnson was an "arch-conservative", and it was Boswell, more than anyone else, who determined how Johnson would be seen by people years later. However, Boswell was not around for two of Johnson's most politically active periods: during Walpole's control over British Parliament and during the Seven Years' War. Although Boswell was present with Johnson during the 1770s and describes four major pamphlets written by Johnson, he neglects to discuss them because he is more interested in their travels to Scotland. This is compounded by the fact that Boswell held an opinion contradictory to two of these pamphlets, The False Alarm and Taxation No Tyranny, and so attacks Johnson's views in his biography.[206]

In his Life of Samuel Johnson Boswell referred to Johnson as Dr Johnson so often that he would always be known as Dr Johnson, even though he hated being called such. Boswell's emphasis on Johnson's later years depicted him only as an old man who involved himself in taverns, but this depiction is appealing.[207] Although Boswell, a Scotsman, was a close companion and friend to Johnson during many important times of his life, like many of his fellow Englishmen Johnson had a reputation for despising Scotland and its people. Even during their journey together through Scotland, Johnson "exhibited prejudice and a narrow nationalism".[208] Hester Thrale, in summarising Johnson's nationalistic views and his anti-Scottish prejudice, said: "We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch, & indeed to be abused by them in return."[209]


Johnson had several health problems, including childhood tuberculous scrofula, gout, testicular cancer, and a stroke in his final year that left him unable to speak; his autopsy indicated that he had pulmonary fibrosis along with cardiac failure probably due to hypertension, a condition then unknown. Although Johnson overall was probably as healthy as others of his generation,[210] he displayed signs consistent with several diagnoses, including depression and Tourette syndrome (TS).

There are many accounts of Johnson suffering from bouts of depression and what Johnson thought might be madness. As Walter Jackson Bate puts it, "one of the ironies of literary history is that its most compelling and authoritative symbol of common sense—of the strong, imaginative grasp of concrete reality—should have begun his adult life, at the age of twenty, in a state of such intense anxiety and bewildered despair that, at least from his own point of view, it seemed the onset of actual insanity".[211] To overcome these feelings, Johnson tried to constantly involve himself with various activities, but this did not seem to help. Taylor said that Johnson "at one time strongly entertained thoughts of Suicide".[212] Boswell claimed that Johnson "felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible melancholia, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery".[213]

Reynolds' 1769 portrait depicting Johnson's "odd gesticulations"[214]

Early on, when Johnson was unable to pay off his debts, he began to work with professional writers and identified his own situation with theirs.[215] During this time, Johnson witnessed Christopher Smart's decline into "penury and the madhouse", and feared that he might share the same fate.[215] Hester Thrale Piozzi claimed, in a discussion on Smart's mental state, that Johnson was her "friend who feared an apple should intoxicate him".[127] To Hester Thrale, what separated Johnson from others who were placed in asylums for madness—like Christopher Smart—was his ability to keep his concerns and emotions to himself.[127]

Two hundred years after Johnson's death, the posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome became widely accepted.[216] The condition was unknown during Johnson's lifetime, but Boswell describes Johnson displaying signs of TS including tics and other involuntary movements.[217][218] According to Boswell "he commonly held his head to one side ... moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand ... [H]e made various sounds" like "a half whistle" or "as if clucking like a hen", and "... all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a Whale."[219] There are many similar accounts; in particular, Johnson was said to "perform his gesticulations" at the threshold of a house or in doorways.[220] When asked by a little girl why he made such noises and acted in that way, Johnson responded: "From bad habit."[219] The diagnosis of the syndrome was first made in a 1967 report,[221] and TS researcher Arthur K. Shapiro described Johnson as "the most notable example of a successful adaptation to life despite the liability of Tourette syndrome".[222] Details provided by the writings of Boswell, Hester Thrale, and others reinforce the diagnosis, with one paper concluding:

[Johnson] also displayed many of the obsessional-compulsive traits and rituals which are associated with this syndrome ... It may be thought that without this illness Dr Johnson's remarkable literary achievements, the great dictionary, his philosophical deliberations and his conversations may never have happened; and Boswell, the author of the greatest of biographies would have been unknown.

From early childhood, Johnson suffered from poor eyesight, especially in his left eye, which interfered with his education. There were somewhat contradictory reports about his eyesight from his contemporaries. He appeared to have been near-sighted, yet he did not use eyeglasses. His eyesight became worse with age; still, his handwriting remained quite legible.[224]


Statue of Dr. Johnson erected in 1838 opposite the house where he was born at Lichfield's Market Square. There are also statues of him in London and Uttoxeter.[225]

Johnson was, in the words of Steven Lynn, "more than a well-known writer and scholar";[226] he was a celebrity. His activities and the state of his health in his later years were constantly reported in various journals and newspapers, and when there was nothing to report, something was invented.[227] According to Bate, "Johnson loved biography," and he "changed the whole course of biography for the modern world. One by-product was the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and there were many other memoirs and biographies of a similar kind written on Johnson after his death."[2] These accounts of his life include Thomas Tyers's A Biographical Sketch of Dr Samuel Johnson (1784);[228] Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785); Hester Thrale's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, which drew on entries from her diary and other notes;[229] John Hawkins's Life of Samuel Johnson (1787), the first full-length biography of Johnson;[230] and, in 1792, Arthur Murphy's An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, which replaced Hawkins's biography as the introduction to a collection of Johnson's Works.[231] Another important source was Fanny Burney, who described Johnson as "the acknowledged Head of Literature in this kingdom" and kept a diary containing details missing from other biographies.[232] Above all, Boswell's portrayal of Johnson is the work best known to general readers. Although critics like Donald Greene argue about its status as a true biography, the work became successful as Boswell and his friends promoted it at the expense of the many other works on Johnson's life.[233]

In criticism, Johnson had a lasting influence, although not everyone viewed him favourably. Some, like Macaulay, regarded Johnson as an idiot savant who produced some respectable works, and others, like the Romantic poets, were completely opposed to Johnson's views on poetry and literature, especially in regards to Milton.[234] However, some of their contemporaries disagreed: Stendhal's Racine et Shakespeare is based in part on Johnson's views of Shakespeare,[191] and Johnson influenced Jane Austen's writing style and philosophy.[235] Later, Johnson's works came into favour, and Matthew Arnold, in his Six Chief Lives from Johnson's "Lives of the Poets", considered the Lives of Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addison, Swift, and Gray as "points which stand as so many natural centres, and by returning to which we can always find our way again."[236]

More than a century after his death, literary critics such as G. Birkbeck Hill and T. S. Eliot came to regard Johnson as a serious critic. They began to study Johnson's works with an increasing focus on the critical analysis found in his edition of Shakespeare and Lives of the Poets.[234] Yvor Winters claimed that "A great critic is the rarest of all literary geniuses; perhaps the only critic in English who deserves that epithet is Samuel Johnson".[6] F. R. Leavis agreed and, on Johnson's criticism, said, "When we read him we know, beyond question, that we have here a powerful and distinguished mind operating at first hand upon literature. This, we can say with emphatic conviction, really is criticism".[237] Edmund Wilson claimed that "The Lives of the Poets and the prefaces and commentary on Shakespeare are among the most brilliant and the most acute documents in the whole range of English criticism".[6] The critic Harold Bloom placed Johnson's work firmly within the Western Canon describing him as "unmatched by any critic in any nation before or after him...Bate in the finest insight on Johnson I know, emphasized that no other writer is so obsessed by the realization that the mind is an activity, one that will turn to destructiveness of the self or of others unless it is directed to labor."[238] It is no wonder that his philosophical insistence that the language within literature must be examined became a prevailing mode of literary theory during the mid-20th century.[239]

There are many societies formed around and dedicated to the study and enjoyment of Samuel Johnson's life and works. On the bicentennial of Johnson's death in 1984, Oxford University held a week-long conference featuring 50 papers, and the Arts Council of Great Britain held an exhibit of "Johnsonian portraits and other memorabilia". The London Times and Punch produced parodies of Johnson's style for the occasion.[240] In 1999, the BBC Four television channel started the Samuel Johnson Prize, an award for non-fiction.[241]

Half of Johnson's surviving correspondence, together with some of his manuscripts, editions of his books, paintings and other items associated with him are in the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, housed at Houghton Library at Harvard University since 2003. Materials in the collection may be accessed through the Houghton Reading Room. The collection includes drafts of his "Plan for a Dictionary", documents associated with Hester Thrale Piozzi and James Boswell (including corrected proofs of his Life of Johnson) and a teapot owned by Johnson.[242]

Major works

Essays, pamphlets, periodicals, sermons
1732–33   Birmingham Journal
1747 Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language
1750–52   The Rambler
1753–54 The Adventurer
1756 Universal Visiter
1756- The Literary Magazine, or Universal Review
1758–60 The Idler (1758–1760)
1770 The False Alarm
1771 Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands
1774 The Patriot
1775 A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland
Taxation No Tyranny
1781 The Beauties of Johnson
1728 Messiah, a translation into Latin of Alexander Pope's Messiah
1738 London
1747 Prologue at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury Lane
1749 The Vanity of Human Wishes
Irene, a Tragedy
Biographies, criticism
1744 Life of Mr Richard Savage
1745 Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth
1756 "Life of Browne" in Thomas Browne's Christian Morals
Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare
1765 Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare
The Plays of William Shakespeare
1779–81 Lives of the Poets
1755 Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language
A Dictionary of the English Language
1759 The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia


  1. ^ Rogers, Pat (2006), "Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.), Oxford University Press,, retrieved 25 August 2008 
  2. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. xix
  3. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 240
  4. ^ a b c Lynch 2003, p. 1
  5. ^ Murray 1979 and Stern 2005
  6. ^ a b c Winters 1943, p. 240
  7. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 5
  8. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 13–14
  9. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 15–16
  10. ^ a b Watkins 1960, p. 25
  11. ^ Lane 1975, p. 16
  12. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 5–6
  13. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 16–17
  14. ^ Lane 1975, p. 18
  15. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 19–20
  16. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 20–21
  17. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 38
  18. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 18–19
  19. ^ Bate 1977, p. 21
  20. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 25–26
  21. ^ a b Lane 1975, p.  26
  22. ^ a b DeMaria 1994, pp. 5–6
  23. ^ Bate 1977, p. 23, 31
  24. ^ Lane 1975, p. 29
  25. ^ a b Wain 1974, p. 32
  26. ^ Lane 1975, p. 30
  27. ^ a b Lane 1975, p. 33
  28. ^ Bate 1977, p. 61
  29. ^ Lane 1975, p. 34
  30. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 87
  31. ^ Lane 1975, p. 39
  32. ^ Bate 1977, p. 88
  33. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 90–100. Bate also comments that Johnson's standard of effort was very high, so high that Johnson said he had never known a man to study hard.
  34. ^ Boswell 1986, pp. 91–92
  35. ^ Bate 1977, p. 92
  36. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 93–94
  37. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 106–107
  38. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 128–129
  39. ^ a b c Bate 1955, p. 36
  40. ^ Bate 1977, p. 99
  41. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 127
  42. ^ Wiltshire 1991, p. 24
  43. ^ Bate 1977, p. 129
  44. ^ Boswell 1986, pp. 130–131
  45. ^ Hopewell 1950, p. 53
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  47. ^ Bate 1977, p. 134
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  53. ^ Boswell 1969, p. 88
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  55. ^ Bate 1977, p. 147
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  58. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 153–154
  59. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 154
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  64. ^ Wain 1974, p. 81; Bate 1977, p. 169
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  66. ^ Bate 1955, p. 14
  67. ^ The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. 8, June 1738, p. 285 Retrieved 22 August 2009
  68. ^ Debates in Parliament, Samuel Johnson. Retrieved 22 August 2009
  69. ^ a b c d e Lynch 2003, p. 5
  70. ^ Bate 1977, p. 172
  71. ^ Bate 1955, p. 18
  72. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 182
  73. ^ Watkins 1960, pp. 25–26
  74. ^ Watkins 1960, p. 51
  75. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 178–179
  76. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 180–181
  77. ^ Hitchings 2005, p. 54
  78. ^ a b Lynch 2003, p. 2
  79. ^ Lynch 2003, p. 4
  80. ^ a b Lane 1975, p. 109
  81. ^ Hawkins 1787, p. 175
  82. ^ Lane 1975, p. 110
  83. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 117–118
  84. ^ Lane 1975, p. 118
  85. ^ Lane 1975, p. 121
  86. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 257
  87. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 256, 318
  88. ^ "Currency Converter", The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey,, retrieved 24 July 2008 
  89. ^ Lynch 2003, pp. 8–11
  90. ^ Bate 1955, p. 25
  91. ^ Lane 1975, p. 113
  92. ^ a b Lane 1975, p. 115
  93. ^ Lane 1975, p. 116
  94. ^ Lynn 1997, p. 241
  95. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 67
  96. ^ Bate 1955, p. 22
  97. ^ Weinbrot 1997, p. 49
  98. ^ Bate 1977, p. 281
  99. ^ Lane 1975, pp. 113–114
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  102. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 272–273
  103. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 273–275
  104. ^ Bate 1977, p. 321
  105. ^ Bate 1977, p. 324
  106. ^ Murray 1979, p. 1611
  107. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 322–323
  108. ^ Martin 2008, p. 319
  109. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 328
  110. ^ Bate 1977, p. 329
  111. ^ Clarke 2000, pp. 221–222
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  114. ^ Bate 1977, p. 330
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  126. ^ Wain 1974, p. 262
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  130. ^ Wain 1974, p. 194
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  134. ^ Yung 1984, p. 14
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  140. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 443–445
  141. ^ Boswell 1996, p. 182
  142. ^ Griffin 2005, p. 21
  143. ^ Bate 1977, p. 446
  144. ^ Ammerman 1974, p. 13
  145. ^ DeMaria 1994, pp. 252–256
  146. ^ Griffin 2005, p. 15
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  149. ^ Bate 1977, p. 526
  150. ^ Bate 1977, p. 527
  151. ^ Clingham 1997, p. 161
  152. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 546–547
  153. ^ Bate 1977, pp. 557, 561
  154. ^ Bate 1977, p. 562
  155. ^ Rogers, Pat (1996), The Samuel Johnson Encyclopedia, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 
  156. ^ Martin 2008, pp. 501–502
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  160. ^ Bate 1977, p. 570
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  171. ^ a b c Watkins 1960, p. 79
  172. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 599
  173. ^ Hill 1897, p. 160 (Vol. 2)
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  175. ^ Needham 1982, pp. 95–96
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  189. ^ Greene 1989, p. 140
  190. ^ Greene 1989, p. 141
  191. ^ a b Greene 1989, p. 142
  192. ^ Needham 1982, p. 134
  193. ^ Greene 1989, p. 143
  194. ^ a b Boswell 1986, p. 122
  195. ^ a b Bate 1955, p. 16 quoting from Boswell
  196. ^ Hill 1897, p. 423 (Vol. 2)
  197. ^ Bate 1955, pp. 15–16
  198. ^ Bate 1977, p. 316
  199. ^ Bate 1977, p. 297
  200. ^ Greene 1989, p. 87
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  202. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 537
  203. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 200
  204. ^ a b Skargon 1999
  205. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 294
  206. ^ Greene 2000, p. xxi
  207. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 365
  208. ^ Rogers 1995, p. 192
  209. ^ Piozzi 1951, p. 165
  210. ^ Murray 2003
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  212. ^ Bate 1977, p. 116
  213. ^ Bate 1977, p. 117
  214. ^ Lane 1975, p. 103
  215. ^ a b Pittock 2004, p. 159
  216. ^ Stern 2005
  217. ^ Pearce 1994, p. 396
  218. ^ Murray 1979, p. 1610
  219. ^ a b Hibbert 1971, p. 203
  220. ^ Hibbert 1971, p. 202
  221. ^ McHenry 1967, pp. 152–168 and Wiltshire 1991, p. 29
  222. ^ Shapiro 1978, p. 361
  223. ^ Pearce 1994, p. 398
  224. ^ Blinking Sam: The Ocular Afflictions of Dr Samuel Johnson. Graham A. Wilson, MB, ChB, FRANZCO; James G. Ravin, MD, MS. Arch Ophthalmol. 2004;122:1370-1374. PMID 15364718 available online
  225. ^ Statue Reference
  226. ^ Lynn 1997, p. 240
  227. ^ Lynn 1997, pp. 240–241
  228. ^ Hill 1897, p. 335 (Vol. 2)
  229. ^ Bloom 1998, p. 75
  230. ^ Davis 1961, p. vii
  231. ^ Hill 1897, p. 355
  232. ^ Clarke 2000, pp. 4–5
  233. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 7
  234. ^ a b Lynn 1997, p. 245
  235. ^ Grundy 1997, pp. 199–200
  236. ^ Arnold 1972, p. 351
  237. ^ Wilson 1950, p. 244
  238. ^ Bloom 1995 pp. 183, 200.
  239. ^ Greene 1989, p. 139
  240. ^ Greene 1989, pp. 174–175
  241. ^ BBC - BBC Four - Samuel Johnson Prize 2008, BBC,, retrieved 25 August 2008 .
  242. ^ The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, Harvard College Library,, retrieved 10 January 2010 


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External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.
In Reason, Nature, Truth, he dares to trust:
Ye Fops, be silent: and ye Wits, be just.

Dr Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [7 September O.S.] - 13 December 1784) was a British author, linguist and lexicographer. He is often referred to as simply Dr. Johnson.



Still to the lover's long-expecting arms
To-morrow brings the visionary bride.
But thou, too old to hear another cheat,
Learn, that the present hour alone is man's.
It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say.
I am inclined to believe that few attacks either of ridicule or invective make much noise, but by the help of those they provoke.
I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
  • Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest,
    Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest
  • This mournful truth is ev'rywhere confessed —
    Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.
    • London: A Poem (1738), lines 176-177
  • Unmoved though Witlings sneer and Rivals rail,
    Studious to please, yet not ashamed to fail.

    He scorns the meek address, the suppliant strain.
    With merit needless, and without it vain.
    In Reason, Nature, Truth, he dares to trust:
    Ye Fops, be silent: and ye Wits, be just.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Prologue
  • To-morrow's action! Can that hoary wisdom,
    Borne down with years, still doat upon tomorrow!
    That fatal mistress of the young, the lazy,
    The coward, and the fool, condemn'd to lose
    A useless life in waiting for to-morrow,
    To gaze with longing eyes upon to-morrow,
    Till interposing death destroys the prospect
    Strange! that this general fraud from day to day
    Should fill the world with wretches undetected.

    The soldier, labouring through a winter's march,
    Still sees to-morrow drest in robes of triumph;
    Still to the lover's long-expecting arms
    To-morrow brings the visionary bride.
    But thou, too old to hear another cheat,
    Learn, that the present hour alone is man's.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Act III, Sc. 2
  • It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say.
  • That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
    • Journey to the Western Islands (1775), Inch Kenneth
  • There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good.
  • How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
    • Taxation No Tyranny (1775)
  • I am inclined to believe that few attacks either of ridicule or invective make much noise, but by the help of those they provoke.
  • Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.
    • Prayers and Meditations, No. 1770 (1785)
  • This world, where much is to be done and little to be known.
    • Prayers and Meditations, Against Inquisitive and Perplexing Thoughts (1785)
  • Here closed in death th' attentive eyes
    That saw the manners in the face.
    • Epitaph on Hogarth (1786)
  • He who praises everybody praises nobody.
    • Johnson's Works (1787), vol. XI, p. 216; This set included the Life of Samuel Johnson by Sir John Hawkins
  • Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all.
  • Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.
    • Attributed in Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1824) by Colonel Peter Hawker
  • Round numbers are always false.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 2, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 6, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 11, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.
    • Quoted in Anecdotes of Johnson by Hannah More in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 197, edited by George Birkbeck Hill. More had quoted this remark in a letter to her sister (April 1782)
  • What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
    • Quoted in "Anecdotes by William Seward, F.R.S." in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 309, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.

Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane Theatre (1747)

  • When learning's triumph o'er her barb'rous foes
    First reared the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose;
    Each change of many-colored life he drew,
    Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new:
    Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign,
    And panting Time toiled after him in vain.
  • Cold approbation gave the ling'ring bays,
    For those who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
  • Declamation roared, while Passion slept.
  • Ah! let not Censure term our fate our choice,
    The stage but echoes back the public's voice;
    The drama's laws the drama's patrons give,
    For we that live to please must please to live.

Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)

  • Let observation with extensive view
    Survey mankind, from China to Peru.
    • Line 1. Compare: "All human race, from China to Peru, Pleasure, howe’er disguis’d by art, pursue", Thomas Warton, Universal Love of Pleasure.
  • Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
    And pause a while from learning to be wise.
    There mark what ills the scholar's life assail —
    Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
    • Line 157
  • A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
    No dangers fright him, and no labors tire.
    • Line 191
  • He left the name at which the world grew pale,
    To point a moral, or adorn a tale.
    • Line 122
  • "Enlarge my life with multitude of days!"
    In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays:
    Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
    That life protracted is protracted woe.
    • Line 255
  • Superfluous lags the vet'ran on the stage.
    • Line 308
  • Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
    Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
    • Line 345
  • With these celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
    And makes the happiness she does not find.
    • Line 367

The Rambler (1750-1752)

Rambler texts (1750) - Rambler texts (1751 - 1752)
All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance...
  • A transition from an author's book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
  • All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance: it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals. If a man was to compare the effect of a single stroke of the pick-axe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are levelled, and oceans bounded, by the slender force of human beings.
    It is therefore of the utmost importance that those, who have any intention of deviating from the beaten roads of life, and acquiring a reputation superior to names hourly swept away by time among the refuse of fame, should add to their reason, and their spirit, the power of persisting in their purposes; acquire the art of sapping what they cannot batter, and the habit of vanquishing obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.
Hope is necessary in every condition.
  • The student who would build his knowledge on solid foundations, and proceed by just degrees to the pinnacles of truth, is directed by the great philosopher of France to begin by doubting of his own existence. In like manner, whoever would complete any arduous and intricate enterprise, should, as soon as his imagination can cool after the first blaze of hope, place before his own eyes every possible embarrassment that may retard or defeat him. He should first question the probability of success, and then endeavour to remove the objections that he has raised.
    • No. 43 (14 August 1750)
  • He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young.
  • Frugality may be termed the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance and the parent of Liberty.
    • No. 57 (2 October 1750)
  • Hope is necessary in every condition. The miseries of poverty, of sickness, or captivity, would, without this comfort, be insupportable; nor does it appear that the happiest lot of terrestrial existence can set us above the want of this general blessing; or that life, when the gifts of nature and of fortune are accumulated upon it, would not still be wretched, were it not elevated and delighted by the expectation of some new possession, of some enjoyment yet behind, by which the wish shall at last be satisfied, and the heart filled up to its utmost extent.
    • No. 67 (6 November 1750)
Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • As it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness, so it is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.
    • No. 79 (18 December 1750)
  • There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.
    • No. 86 (12 January 1751)
  • In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.
    • No. 96 (16 February 1751)
  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
    • No. 103 (12 March 1751)
  • No man is much pleased with a companion, who does not increase, in some respect, his fondness for himself.
    • No. 104 (16 March 1751)
  • No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.
    • No. 106 (23 March 1751)
  • Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.
    • No. 135 (2 July 1751)
  • No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.
    • No. 148 (17 August 1751)
  • That he delights in the misery of others no man will confess, and yet what other motive can make a father cruel?
    • No. 148 (17 August 1751)
  • The unjustifiable severity of a parent is loaded with this aggravation, that those whom he injures are always in his sight.
    • No. 148 (17 August 1751)
  • Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession, and he that teaches another to long for what he never shall obtain is no less an enemy to his quiet than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.
    • No. 163 (8 October 1751)
  • But, perhaps, the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some rare or abstruse sentiment, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truth in few words.
    • No. 175 (19 November 1751)

A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

CLUB — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.
  • Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.
  • I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.
  • CLUB — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.
  • ESSAY — A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
  • EXCISE — A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
  • GRUBSTREET — The name of a street near Moorsfield, London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems.
  • LEXICOGRAPHER — A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.
  • NETWORK — Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
  • OATS — A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
  • PATRON, n. One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery.

The Idler (1758-1760)

Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
Full text online
  • It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.
    • No. 11 (June 24, 1758)
  • Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty.
    • No. 11 (June 24, 1758)
  • The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be renewed by intervals of absence.
    • No. 39 (January 13, 1759)
  • He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.
    • No. 57 (May 19, 1759)
  • Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks. The flowers which scatter their odours from time to time in the paths of life, grow up without culture from seeds scattered by chance.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them. ... Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction.
    • No. 58 (May 26, 1759)
  • We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know, because they have never deceived us.
    • No. 80 (October 27, 1759)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)

Full text online
Example is always more efficacious than precept.
Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.
  • Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
    • Ch. 1
  • Nothing[...] will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.
    • Ch. 6
  • To a poet nothing can be useless.
    • Ch. 10
  • Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.
    • Ch. 11
  • Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.
    • Ch. 12
  • Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanicks laughs at strength.
    • Ch. 13; variant with modernized spelling: Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanics laughs at strength.
  • Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
    • Ch. 26
  • But it is evident, that these bursts of universal distress are more dreaded than felt; thousands and ten thousands flourish in youth, and wither in age, without the knowledge of any other than domestic evils, and share the same pleasures and vexa­tions, whether their kings are mild or cruel, whether the armies of their country pursue their enemies or retreat before them.
    • Ch. 28
  • Example is always more efficacious than precept.
    • Ch. 29
  • Such is the common process of marriage. A youth and maiden meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another. Having little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together. They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty.
    • Ch. 29
  • Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.
    • Ch. 41
  • The world is not yet exhausted: let me see something to-morrow which I never saw before.
    • Ch. 47

The Patriot (1774)

Full text online
  • It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.
    A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
  • Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.
  • Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country.
  • The greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent.
  • A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion. The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.

Lives of the English Poets (1781)

  • Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.
    • The Life of Cowley [2]
  • Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.
    • The Life of Pope [3]
  • New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.
    • The Life of Pope
  • Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.
    • The Life of Addison
  • He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning.
    • The Life of Dryden
  • The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.
    • The Life of Gray
  • His [David Garrick's] death has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.
    • The Life of Edmund Smith

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785)

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
  • A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence — what shall be the result of legal argument.
    • August 15, 1773
  • If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.
    • August 15, 1773
  • I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.
    • August 16, 1773
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned ... A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.
    • August 31 and September 23, 1773
    • Also quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.
    • September 14, 1773
  • Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to everything.
    • September 17, 1773
  • Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.
    • September 20, 1773
A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
  • A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
    • October 5, 1773
    • Recounted as a common saying of physicians at the time.
  • Come, let me know what it is that makes a Scotchman happy!
    • October 23, 1773
    • Ordering a glass of whisky for himself

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, by Mrs. Piozzi (1786)
  • It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.
  • There is in this world no real delight (excepting those of sensuality), but exchange of ideas in conversation.
  • If the man who turnips cries,
    Cry not when his father dies,
    'Tis a proof that he had rather
    Have a turnip than his father.
  • He was a very good hater.
  • The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public.
  • The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
  • Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.
  • I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.

Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell. The following page numbers are taken from the Great Books edition (see Sources), which is fairly easy to find in U.S. public libraries.

Vol I

  • Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs all his faculties.
    • 1743
  • I'll come no more behind your scenes, David [Garrick]; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.
    • 1750
  • A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.
    • March 1750
  • Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.
    • February 7, 1754 (Letter to Lord Chesterfield)
  • [Of Lord Chesterfield] This man, I thought, had been a Lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords!
    • 1754
  • A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
    • 1754, p. 72 (n. 4)
    • Referring to critics
  • A lady once asked him how he came to define 'pastern', the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as might be expected, he at once answered, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."
    • 1755, p. 82
  • If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair.
    • 1755, p. 83
  • Towering is the confidence of twenty-one.
    • January 9, 1758
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
    • March 1759, p. 97
  • Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.
    • Letter, June 8, 1762 [to an unnamed recipient], p. 103
  • Nothing is little to him that feels it with great sensibility.
    • July 20, 1762
  • A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself.
    • December 21, 1762
  • Great abilities are not requisite for an Historian; for in historical composition, all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand; so there is no exercise of invention. Imagination is not required in any high degree; only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry.
    • July 6, 1763, p. 120
  • Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!
    • July 6, 1763, p. 120
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
    • July 14, 1763, p. 121
  • But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
    • July 14, 1763, p. 123
  • I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, "Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task."
    • July 21, 1763, p. 126
  • Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, sir, is not in Nature.
  • A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
    • July 31, 1763, p. 132
  • I [Boswell] happened to say, it would be terrible if he should not find a speedy opportunity of returning to London, and be confined in so dull a place.
    JOHNSON: "Don't, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here."
    • August 6, 1763, p. 134
  • I refute it thus.
    • August 6, 1763, p. 134
    • Said as he kicked a stone, speaking of Berkeley's "ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter"

Vol II

  • Why, Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.
  • So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.
    • Feb. 15, 1766, p. 145
  • Shakspeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven: but this does not refute my general assertion.
    • October 19, 1769, p. 170
  • It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.
    • October 26, 1769, p. 174
  • That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
    • 1770, p. 181
  • Johnson observed, that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney."
    • 1770, p. 181
  • A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience.
    • 1770, p. 182
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
    • 1770, p. 182
  • A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.
    • April 14, 1772, p. 201
  • Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
    • Recalling "what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils" April 30, 1773, p. 217
  • Attack is the reaction; I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds.
    • April 2, 1775
  • A man will turn over half a library to make one book.
    • April 6, 1775
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
    • April 7, 1775, p. 253
    • Boswell's full mention of this statement reads:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.
  • Hell is paved with good intentions.
    • April 14, 1775
    • Malone added a footnote indicating this is a "proverbial sentence", quoting an earlier 1651 source. At least two other sources appear prior to Johnson. John Ray, in 1670, cited as a proverb, "Hell is paved with good intentions." Even earlier than that, it's been attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), as "Hell is full of good intentions or desires."[1]
      • Note that "The road to Hell…" is not part of the quotation.
    • The Samuel Johnson web site suggests this entry is dated 16 April, but it appears to be part of the previous entry.[2]
  • Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
    • April 18, 1775, p. 258
  • There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.
    • 1775, p. 273
  • There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.
    • March 21, 1776, p. 287


  • A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him. A man when he gets into a higher sphere, into other habits of life, cannot keep up all his former connections. Then, Sir, those who knew him formerly upon a level with themselves, may think that they ought still to be treated as on a level, which cannot be; and an acquaintance in a former situation may bring out things which it would be very disagreeable to have mentioned before higher company, though, perhaps, everybody knows of them.
    • March 28, 1776, p. 296
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
    • April 5, 1776, p. 302
  • While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.
    • April 10, 1776, p. 305
  • Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.
    • May 1776
  • Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both.
    • May 1776, p. 313
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
  • Life admits not of delays; when pleasure can be had, it is fit to catch it. Every hour takes away part of the things that please us, and perhaps part of our disposition to be pleased.
    • September 1, 1777
  • I [Boswell] was somewhat disappointed in finding that the edition of The English Poets, for which he was to write Prefaces and Lives, was not an undertaking directed by him: but that he was to furnish a Preface and Life to any poet the booksellers pleased. I asked him if he would do this to any dunce's works, if they should ask him.
    JOHNSON: "Yes, Sir, and say he was a dunce."
    • September 14, 1777, p. 341
  • Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
    • September 19, 1777, p. 351, often misquoted as being hanged in the morning
  • When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.
    • September 20, 1777, p. 356
  • Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.
    • September 23, 1777, p. 363
    • A toast made by Johnson, as Boswell states, "when in company with some very grave men at Oxford"
  • It must be agreed that in most ages many countries have had part of their inhabitants in a state of slavery; yet it may be doubted whether slavery can ever be supposed the natural condition of man. It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion. An individual may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.
    • September 23, 1777, p. 363
  • It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.
    • March 31, 1778, p. 372
  • All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
    • On the subject of ghosts, March 31, 1778, p. 373
  • It is man's own fault, it is from want of use, if his mind grows torpid in old age.
    • April 9, 1778
  • Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.
    • April 10, 1778
  • Every state of society is as luxurious as it can be. Men always take the best they can get.
    • April 14, 1778
  • A country governed by a despot is an inverted cone.
    • April 14, 1778
  • I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
    • April 15, 1778, p. 392
  • Pleasure of itself is not a vice.
    • April 15, 1778
  • All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.
    • April 15, 1778, p. 393
  • As the Spanish proverb says, "He, who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him." So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.
    • April 17, 1778, p. 396
  • It is better to live rich, than to die rich.
    • April 17, 1778
  • The insolence of wealth will creep out.
    • April 18, 1778, p. 400
  • All censure of a man's self is oblique praise. It is in order to shew how much he can spare.
    • April 25, 1778, p. 403
  • Wine makes a man more pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others.
    • April 28, 1778, p. 404
  • Were it not for imagination, Sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess.
    • May 9, 1778, p. 409
  • I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.
    • March 26, 1779
  • Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
    • April 7, 1779
  • A man who exposes himself when he is intoxicated, has not the art of getting drunk.
    • April 24, 1779, p. 424
  • Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.
    • October 12, 1779
    • On the Giant's Causeway. A similar opinion was expressed by the Dutch traveller Richard Twiss in 1775 in A Tour of Ireland, p. 157.
  • If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.
    • Letter to James Boswell, October 27, 1779, p. 433

Vol IV

  • A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing, when he has nothing to say.
    • 1780, p. 446
  • Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.
    • 1780
  • No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.
  • The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.
    • 1780
  • Mrs. Montagu has dropt me. Now, Sir, there are people whom one should like very well to drop, but would not wish to be dropped by.
    • March 1781, p. 465
  • Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.
    • May 8, 1781
  • My friend was of opinion that when a man of rank appeared in that character [as an author], he deserved to have his merit handsomely allowed.
    • May 1781
  • A jest breaks no bones.
    • June 4, 1781
  • I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers; — one, that I have lost all the names, — the other, that I have spent all the money.
    • 1781, p. 477, Referring to subscribers to his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare, with Notes (1765)
  • Always, Sir, set a high value on spontaneous kindness. He whose inclination prompts him to cultivate your friendship of his own accord, will love you more than one whom you have been at pains to attach to you.
    • 1781, p. 479
  • To let friendship die away by negligence and silence, is certainly not wise. It is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of this weary pilgrimage.
    • March 20, 1782
  • Resolve not to be poor: whatever you have, spend less. Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
    • Letter to James Boswell, December 7, 1782, p. 494
  • A man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing.
    • 1783, p. 500
  • There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects. If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not remember where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug up their shoulders, and say, "His memory is going."
    • 1783, p. 501
  • A man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.
    • 1783, p. 501
  • Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.
    • When asked by Maurice Morgann whom he considered to be the better poet — Smart or Derrick, 1783, p. 504
  • I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me.
    • March 23, 1783
  • It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them.
    • May 1, 1783, p. 513
  • As I know more of mankind, I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man, upon easier terms than I was formerly.
    • 1783, p. 519
  • It might as well be said, "Who drives fat oxen should himself be fat."
    • In response to a line of a tragedy that went 'Who rules o'er freemen should himself be free." June 1784
  • It is as bad as bad can be: it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-drest.
    • Of roast mutton served to him at an inn, June 3, 1784, p. 535
  • Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones.
    • In response to Hannah More wondering why Milton could write Paradise Lost but only poor sonnets. June 13, 1784, p. 542
  • Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.
    • June 1784, p. 545
  • Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance.
    • November 1784, p. 566
  • I will be conquered; I will not capitulate.
    • On his final illness, 1784, p. 566
  • God bless you, my dear!
    • December 13, 1784 (Last words)


  • Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.


  • Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
    • This quotation has not been found in any of Johnson's writings or in the writings of contemporaries who quoted him.[3][4]
  • The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things — the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.
    • Actually written by Charles Grosvenor Osgood in his introduction to his abridgement of Boswell's Life of Johnson. [4]

Quotes about Johnson

  • Indeed, the freedom with which Dr. Johnson condemns whatever he disapproves of is astonishing.
    • Fanny Burney [Mme D’Arblay] (1752-1840), Diary, 23rd August 1778
  • Mrs. Digby told me that when she lived in London with her sister, Mrs. Brooke, they were every now and then honoured by the visits of Dr. Johnson. He called on them one day soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Amongst other topics of praise they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. 'What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?' said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being thus caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.
    • H.D. Best, Personal and Literary Memorials, London, 1829, printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897) vol. II, page 390, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • Dr. Johnson was observed by a musical friend of his to be extremely inattentive at a concert, whilst a celebrated solo player was running up and down the divisions and subdivisions of notes upon his violin. His friend, to induce him to take greater notice of what was going on, told him how extremely difficult it was. 'Difficult, do you call it, Sir?' replied the Doctor; 'I wish it were impossible.'
    • Anecdotes by William Seward, F.R.S. printed in Johnsonian Miscellanies, (1897), vol. II, page 308, edited by George Birkbeck Hill


Boswell. Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 44. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1952. (Reprinted in the 1990 edition as vol. 41.)

  1. Wilson, Robert, "[alt.quotations Earlier Attributions]", UseNet. URL accessed on 2009-01-06.
  2. Samuel Johnson web site
  3. “Your manuscript is both good and original. …” at The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page
  4. Apocrypha at The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page

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Samuel Johnson
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Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right|200px|Samuel Johnson circa 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds.]]

Samuel Johnson (born Lichfield, Staffordshire, England 18 September 1709; died London 13 December 1784) was a famous writer. After publishing a famous dictionary, he was given a doctorate, which is why he often called "Dr Johnson". He wrote some of his own stories, but more often he wrote criticisms about what other people had written. He said a lot of witty, amusing things, which are still remembered today. We know about some of the funny things he said because his friend James Boswell wrote a book about him.



Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. His father had a bookshop, but he was very poor. Samuel went to school in Lichfield. When he was nineteen he went to the University of Oxford, but he was so poor that he had to leave without taking a degree. A few years later he married a woman 21 years older than him. They went to live in London, where he tried to make a living by writing but for many years he was very poor.

It was not until 1762 that he became famous and the government gave him a pension of three hundred pounds a year. He started a club (called "The Club") which included a lot of famous people like the painter Joshua Reynolds and the writer Oliver Goldsmith (see picture). Johnson was now so famous that he was given an honorary doctorate (the title of "Doctor") from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1775.

Boswell and Johnson spent some time in Edinburgh and they travelled a lot to the Scottish islands. Johnson died in 1784 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Letter to Lord Chesterfield

Johnson spent several years writing his Dictionary of the English language. It was a big job. While he was writing it he could not be earning money, so he needed a patron (someone who would sponsor him by giving him money, and in return the dictionary would be dedicated to him). An important man called Lord Chesterfield said to Johnson that he would be his patron. But he never gave him any money, and Johnson never heard anything more from him, until the dictionary was ready. Then Lord Chesterfield wrote to Johnson saying that he hoped he would dedicate the dictionary to him. The letter that Johnson wrote back to Lord Chesterfield is very famous. It is very sarcastic (funny in an unkind way). Johnson said to him that it would have been nice to have had help when he was needing it. He said, sarcastically, that a patron was someone who stands on the river bank watching a man drowning and then, when then the drowning man is saved, asks him whether he can help. The letter made Lord Chesterfield look very silly.

Johnson's "Dictionary of the English Language"

There were very few dictionaries in Johnson's day, so it was a lot of work for him. Nowadays, a dictionary is made by a team of people. Dictionaries, like encyclopedias, should just give facts. But Johnson sometimes explained words in his dictionary in a way that showed his opinions (what he thought about things).


  • In most dictionaries, "oats" is said to mean something like: "a kind of cereal used as food". But Johnson (who hated the Scots) wrote: "a food given in England to horses and in Scotland to men".
  • In most dictionaries, "opera" is said to mean something like: "a play which is sung to music". But Johnson (who did not like opera) wrote: "an exotic and irrational entertainment" (meaning something like: "entertainment from a foreign country that does not make sense").

Although it shows his personal likes and dislikes, the dictionary still deserves to be famous. Johnson defined 43,000 words. It was the first time a dictionary had been published that gave examples of how the words had been used by well-known writers.


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