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he simply said that he wished it had been impossible. After he had published his dictionary he was once with a friend at the top of a hill. "I haven't had a roll for a long time," said the great lexicographer; and, emptying his pockets, he stretched himself on the ground, turning over and over, like a barrel, till he reached the bottom.
But in spite of physical defects and eccentric manners, he dominated, by the sheer force of genius, the most brilliant club of London, and became the most imposing literary figure of his age. In conversation he was ready and eloquent, though apt to bear down an opponent by mere vociferation or savage personality. "There is no arguing with Johnson," said Goldsmith; "for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the but-end of it." He looked upon conversation as an intellectual wrestling, and delighted in it as a skilled and powerful athlete. "That fellow," he once said when sick, "calls forth all my powers. Were I to see Burke now, it would kill me."
He sometimes offended his friends by his rude personalities; but his repentance was so prompt and genuine that he was speedily forgiven. He set a high value on friendship, which, he said, one ought to keep in constant repair. "I look upon a day as lost," he said in his later years, "in which I do not make a new acquaintance." With all his clearness of judgment and honesty of purpose, he was sometimes narrow and prejudiced in his opinions. Not everything he says is to be taken as true, though expressed in the most dogmatic way. "No man but a blockhead," he said, "ever wrote except for money." His principles as a Tory and Churchman sometimes warped his literary criticism. Upon the death of Dr. Bathurst, a friend of his earlier years, he said, "Dear Bathurst was a man to my very heart's content: he hated a fool, and he hated a rogue, and he hated a Whig; he was a very good hater."
Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield in 1709, the son of a bookseller of considerable ability and reputation. As a boy he was fond of athletic exercises, in which he excelled; and he possessed a constitutional fearlessness that made him a natural
leader. At the grammar school of his native town he acquired the rudiments of Latin under a stern discipline. Though he afterwards complained of the severity of his teachers, he remained a believer in the virtues of the rod. "A child that is flogged," he said, "gets his task, and there's an end on't; whereas by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundations of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other."
He left school at sixteen, and spent the next two years at home, probably learning his father's business. He continued his studies, became a good Latin scholar, and accumulated large stores of general information. He was a voracious reader. In 1728 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, with an unusual store of knowledge. He suffered from poverty; and at the end of three years he left the University without taking a degree. Attacks of melancholy sometimes drove him to the verge of insanity. When reminded in after-years that he had been "a gay and frolicsome fellow," he replied, "Ah, sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority." In his poverty he remained proud; and when a new pair of shoes was placed at his door by some benevolent person, he ungraciously flung them away.
In 1731 he left the University to make his way in the world. For the next thirty years his life was a constant struggle with poverty and hardship. Though of a deeply religious nature, he did not turn to the church for a living. He tried teaching, and failed. At the age of twenty-six he married a fat, gaudy widow of forty-eight. To Johnson's defective sight she always remained a "pretty creature," while she had discernment enough to see the worth and ability of her husband. Though his declaration that "it was a love match on both sides" is apt to meet with some incredulity, the marriage did not prove an unhappy one, and there is something pathetic in the tenderness with which he always referred to her.
In 1737 he went to London with three or four guineas and half of the tragedy of " Irene" in his pocket. Literature at this time did not offer an inviting field. It generally meant poorly paid hack-work for publishers. Long afterwards, in recalling the trials of this period, Johnson burst into tears. One of the publishers to whom he applied for work advised him, after surveying his athletic frame, to get a "porter's knot and carry trunks." He was often in want of food, clothes, and lodging. In these days of precarious livelihood he was befriended by Harry Hervey, toward whom he ever afterwards cherished a lively sense of gratitude. "Harry Hervey," he said shortly before his death, 66 was a vicious man, but very kind to me. If you call a dog Hervey, I shall love him."
Notwithstanding his dependent condition, he did not become bsequious. His feeling of manly independence and self-respect never deserted him. He was employed once by Osborne to make a catalogue of the Harleian Library. Reproved by his employer in an offensive manner for negligence, Johnson knocked him down with a huge Greek folio.
The year after his arrival in London we find him at work on the Gentleman's Magazine, a periodical of wide circulation. His most important contributions were his reports of the proceedings of Parliament, which the publisher, as a measure of precaution, sent forth as "Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput." He was furnished with notes, generally meagre and inaccurate; and on these as a basis it was his business to write the speeches. He did the work marvellously well. Many years afterwards one of Pitt's speeches was pronounced superior to anything in Demosthenes. Johnson replied, "I wrote that speech in a garret in Exeter Street." When his impartiality was once praised in a friendly company, he answered with charming frankness, "That is not quite true; I saved appearances pretty well, but I took care that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it."
In 1738 appeared a poem entitled " London," an imitation of the third satire of Juvenal. It met with a favorable reception;
and though it brought the author only ten guineas in money, served to direct attention to him as a man of genius. It was published anonymously; but Pope declared on reading it that the author could not long remain concealed. Its general theme is found in the following lines, which were written doubtless with all the conviction of bitter experience:
"This mournful truth is everywhere confessed,
But here more slow, where all are slaves to gold;
Another work appearing in 1744 added much to Johnson's reputation. One of his Grub Street acquaintances was Richard Savage, a man of noble birth but profligate life. In spite of an insolent manner, he was of agreeable companionship and wide experience. He had passed through great vicissitudes of fortune; and on his death, Johnson wrote his life in a masterly manner. "No finer specimen of literary biography," says Macaulay, "existed in any language, living or dead." It had the effect of pretty well establishing Johnson's fame.
In 1747 he was applied to by several eminent booksellers to prepare a "Dictionary of the English Language." The remuneration agreed upon was fifteen hundred guineas. The plan was issued and addressed to Lord Chesterfield, the most polished man of his time. This distinguished lord had at one time given the burly scholar encouragement; but repelled at last by his boorishness of manner, he had politely shaken him off. He characterized Johnson as a "respectable Hottentot, who throws his meat any where but down his throat." "This absurd person," he says again, was not only uncouth in manners and warm in dispute, but behaved exactly in the same way to superiors, equals, and inferiors; and therefore, by a necessary consequence, absurdly to two of the three." Johnson's opinion of Chesterfield contained just as little flattery. He denounced that nobleman's "Letters" as teaching the morals
of a harlot and the manners of a dancing-master. At another time he said, "I thought this man had been a lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among lords."
After seven years of drudgery Johnson brought his work to a close. In hopes of having it dedicated to himself, Chesterfield took occasion to recommend it in two letters published in the World, a periodical to which men of rank and fashion frequently contributed. The proud scholar was not to be appeased; and his reply was terrific — "the far-famed blast of doom proclaiming into the ear of Lord Chesterfield," says Carlyle, "and through him of the listening world, that patronage should be no more." "Is not a patron, my lord," wrote Johnson, "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached the ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been earlier, 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. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which Providence has enabled me to do for myself."
Johnson defined a lexicographer as a "harmless drudge." This is fairly descriptive of the nature of his work, which consisted in collecting, defining, and illustrating all the words in the language. Judged by present high standards, the work is defective. Scientific etymology was not yet in existence. But it far surpassed anything before it, and was received with enthusiasm by the English people.
Johnson's energies were not wholly expended on the drudgery of the "Dictionary." In 1749 he published another imitation of Juvenal entitled the "Vanity of Human Wishes." It is written with much vigor, and in passages surpasses the original. The vanity of the warrior's pride is illustrated by Charles XII. of Sweden: