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"How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws and kings can cause or cure."

"He is a man of most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, the king's evil. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. This ill-favoured, melancholy man with enormous creative and intellectual powers is named Samuel Johnson."

So wrote James Boswell of the man whose biography he made the most famous in the world.

Samuel Johnson
by James Barry c. 1777

Johnson's good friend, Joshua Reynolds, painted Johnson many times, but those who knew Johnson best, declared that the most revealing portrait by far of the lexicographer, was done by James Barry, for it clearly reveals in his face, the

"vulnerability and melancholia"
that prevailed throughout his life.

Michael Johnson, Samuel's father
"He was," said his son, "a pious and worthy man, but wrong-headed and afflicted with Melancholy."

Samuel Johnson
by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson
by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson
by Joshua Reynolds

Samuel Johnson
Reynolds' last portrait of Johnson

Samuel Johnson
by John Opie

Samuel Johnson's death mask

Johnson "is always in revolt." He described his life as, "radically wretched." Blessed with a great mind, he had a fat, ungainly body and a face disfigured by a childhood disease. His scholar's passion for books was severely challenged by his abysmally poor eyesight. He was a man of high moral principle and stern rationality, but haunted to the end of his days by abnormal fears of madness and Hell.

This renowned wit, man of letters, poet and brilliant conversationalist, lived from 1749 to 1759 at 17 Gaugh Street just off Fleet Street in London, England. It is the only one of his 16 London addresses still in existence. He chose this four-storey, early eighteenth century redbrick house because it was near the printer of his great work. He rented it with the advance he had received from the publishers for the Dictionary. It is visited annually by thousands of tourists. Fortunately, on the day of our visit, we were the only ones taking the tour.

Dr. Johnson's House
17 Gough Square
photo by
G. Wilson

on Samuel's favourite chair
photo by
G. Wilson

Entering Johnson's attic
photo by
G. Wilson

During his early years here, circumstances seem to have been comfortable for Johnson. He received the sum of 1575 pounds for compiling the Dictionary, compensation that was spread over a number of years and shared as well with his assistants. This sum was supplemented by other small payments for his miscellaneous literary work. Occasionally he fell upon hard times and had to call upon his friends for a loan.

I am obliged to entreat your assistance. I am now under arrest for five pounds, eighteen shillings. Mr. Strachan, from whom I should have received the necessary help in this case, is not at home; and I am afraid of not finding Mr. Millar. If you will be so good as to send me this sum, I will gratefully repay you and add to it all former obligations. I am Sir, Your most obedient and most humble servant,"

Gough Square, 16 March (1756)

17 Gough Square

Johnson featured in Stained Glass in his Gough Street home.

Johnson's house is now a museum. It was supposed to contain material relating to the life of Johnson and the circle of his friends, but there was little memorabilia in the museum when we visited it. Most of the rooms were relatively empty, but it was a moving experience to climb the four flights of stairs to his "dictionary workshop," and enter the long, hall-like room where he along with his six amanuenses - five Scots and an Englishman labouring under his critical scrutiny - worked for nine years on his famous Dictionary.

Johnson declared his purpose was to produce a dictionary

"by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed and its attainment facilitated by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained and its duration lengthened."

Johnson's Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 1767
(There were five editions during his lifetime.)

The work that established Johnson's reputation was the first, comprehensive English dictionary published in 1755. It was compiled in the newly rented house on Gough Square. where he and his copyists toiled at the tremendous task. Johnson wrote the definitions of over 40,000 words and illustrated them with 114,000 quotations drawn from every field of learning and literature. It is thought he may have gathered over twice this number, but discarded many lest, "the bulk of my volumes fright away the student." His citations were thought to be "highly selective and chosen more for their literary or moral value, than for their linguistic value." He chose them all from just seven sources: Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Addison, Bacon, Pope and the Bible.

He illustrated the word eternally with this quotation from Addison.

Bear me, some god, to Baja's gentle feats,
Or cover me in Umbria's green retreats,
Where western gales eternally reside,
And all the seasons lavish all their pride."

For nearly a century, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary was regarded as the standard dictionary of the English language. In his preface to it, he said,

"Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration. We have long preserved our constitution. Let us make some struggles for our language."

The words in the Dictionary ran from "abacke" to "zootomy." Some definitions expressed his social and political views as well as his personal prejudices.
- dedication: a servile address to a patron;
- irony:a mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words as, Bolingbroke was a holy man. (The latter gentleman was no favourite.)
- patriot: One whose ruling passion is love of his country. It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.
- bubble: a film of water filled with wind;
- to constipate: (first definition) to crowd together in a narrow room;
- sophistication: adulteration; not genuineness;
- tory: a cant term derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying savage
- Whig: the name of a faction;
- conservative: having the power of opposing diminution or injury;
- liberal: not mean; not low in birth; not low in mind;
- sinistrously: with a tendency to the left;
- politician: a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance;
- politicaster: a petty, ignorant pretender to politics;
- hare: a small quadruped with long ears and short tail that moves by leaps, remarkable for timidity, vigilance and fecundity;
- lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge;
- patron: commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery;
- oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Johnson was honest enough to admit there were some words whose meaning he did not know. Two of these were: stammel:(a coarse woollen clothing fabric usually died red and used sometimes for undershirts of penitents) and trolmydames: (an old English game like bagatelle, also called pigeon-holes or nine-holes)

There were also a few mistakes, one of which was his definition of the the word, pastern as the knee of a horse. It is the part of the foot between the fetlock and hoof. When asked by a woman why he had so defined it, his forthright reply was,

"Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."

The prodigious work, a task to tax and tire an academy of academics, inspired wonder and amazement and brought him fame and a Master of Arts degree from Oxford.. The compliment was a mutual one, for the university said it did itself more honour than Johnson to have "such a work done by an Oxford hand." Johnson was granted an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, Dublin in 1765 and another by Oxford in 1775. He adopted, thereafter, the title Dr. Johnson.

Painted in 1756, a year after Johnson's triumphant completion of Dictionary, it is the earliest known portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

The dining-room and the staircase of Johnson's house

Blitzed by A Flying Bomb on 18 July, 1944, the Dictionary Attic on Gough Street was restored after the war.

"What would be the security of the good,
If the bad could, at pleasure, invade them from the sky?"

Johnson was admired by George III, who expressed a desire to meet him. This was arranged and the two chatted about writing. When Johnson indicated that perhaps he had done more than his share of this and should now cease and desist, the king quickly disagreed and urged him to continue to write. To ensure that literary greats like Johnson would not starve, the king approved a policy of awarding them annual pensions. Johnson's pension of 300 pounds was awarded in 1762.

At the time, the Seven Years' War, which Johnson vigorously opposed, was ongoing. One of his new projects was to be a "History of War," which doubtless would have included his observations regarding that war between England and France. It remained only a new project, however, for unfortunately he never got around to writing it.

Johnson is considered to be the second most quoted man after Shakespeare. Some of his quotations include the following.

- When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
- The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England.
- Want of tenderness is want of parts and is no less a proof of stupidity than depravity.
- Marriage has many pains but celibacy has no pleasures.
- Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
- It is very strange and very melancholy that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.
- (Of the Americans at the time of the Revolution) How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from among the drivers of Negroes?
- Sir, 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.
- The Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.
- A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
- Asked the respective merits of two poets, he replied: Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.

An Imaginary Scene of Johnson in Chesterfield's waiting room

A frustrated and angry Johnson waited outside Lord Chesterfield's office for an opportunity to speak with him about serving as the Dictionary's sponsor or patron. Chesterfield had earlier indicated that he was interested in doing so, but on the occasion of Johnson's visit, he was informed that Chesterfield was engaged and unable to speak with him. Johnson said he tried on other occasions without success and he fumed about Chesterfield's "continued neglect."

However, just prior to the Dictionary's release, Chesterfield, who regularly contributed essays to a publication called the World, praised the forthcoming book. The news that the great Lord Chesterfield had seen fit to endorse his work was joyously related to Johnson. This resulted in Johnson's memorable reply to the nobleman part of which follows.

"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 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."

Chesterfield, who some say was unfairly faulted, admired the letter greatly and kept it at his door for visitors to read. When Johnson described Chesterfield as the proudest man in the kingdom, he was told there was one prouder - Johnson. His reply:
"But mine is defensive pride."

Lord Chesterfield

Members of the Club attend a Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynold's
From left: Boswell, Johnson, Reynolds, Burke, Garrick, Paoli, Warton, & Goldsmith

Johnson's Letter to Dr. Oliver Goldsmith nominating James Boswell to be a member of the Club.

Pubs and coffee houses were the places the Club members met most often to converse. One of the ones that Johnson visited, as he

"lumbered like a big bear"
up and down busy Fleet Street is the still existant:

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
photo by
G. Wilson

We visited this place made famous by Johnson and his Club members one afternoon and got there just as the barkeep closed up for their afternoon break. We were surprised and very disappointed to find the door locked and since a clerk was visible inside, I knocked on the door. He kindly opened it and I immediately launched into my lament about us having travelled a great distance from Canada just to savour the atmosphere of the pub once frequented by Johnson. He smiled sardonically, said he had heard that so many times before, but kindly let us come in. We had roast beef and yorkshire pudding which I washed down with a flagon of mead.

Cheshire Cheese Pub

Cheshire Cheese
Bill of Fare

Monarch 'Menu'
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
photo by
G. Wilson

We were told that the large portrait of Johnson hung above Johnson's favourite place in the pub, so I sat on Sam's seat and drank a toast to the great man.

To Samuel Johnson
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub
photo by
G. Wilson

James Boswell by Reynolds

Oliver Goldsmith
"His countenance was coarse and vulgar, his deportment was that of a scholar awkwardly affecting the easy gentleman."

Joshua Reynolds, an early self-portrait

Alexander Pope
Of whose "social qualities too high an opinion could not easily be formed."

"Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see,
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be."

Edmund Burke, Johnson's closest and most admired friend.
"His stream of mind is perpetual."

Laurence Sterne by Reynolds
Author of Tristram Shandy

Edward Gibbon by H. Walton
Author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
"Johnson marched to kettle-drums and trumpets; Gibbon moved to flutes and hautboys."
"An ugly, affected, disgusting fellow whose attendance poisoned every meeting."

We were told Johnson's head was on display downstairs and we checked it out before we left.

Plaster head of Johnson displayed in basement of Cheshire Cheese.
photo by
G. Wilson

A bizarre incident occurred as we prepared to leave the pub. A signature book was available for the patrons and as G. prepared to sign it, she was astounded to see the name immediately preceding was that of a very close high school friend. We quickly left the tavern to attempt to catch up with her, but she was nowhere to be seen.

Doctor Samuel Johnson,
"The Ever Sociable Gourmand and Witty Frequenter of Inns and Coffee Houses"
Bronze 6 ft.Statue by Percy Fitzgerald at the eastern end of St. Clement Dane's Church, The Strand. The first church on the site was reputedly founded by Danes living nearby in the 9th century.The Danes named the church they built after St Clement, patron saint of mariners.
It was donated by the sculptor and unveiled by him August 4h 1910

Johnson attended St. Clement Dane's church with some regularity, hence the location of the statue. We are told the curate's first sermon was nervously preached with the critical Doctor seated in the front row.

Boswell recalled Johnson's Good Friday visits to the church during the last years of his life. Johnson feared Hell. "I shall never forget the tremulous earnestness with which Johnson pronounced the awful petition in the Litany."

"In the hour of death and at the day of judgment, good Lord deliver us."

Despite the passage of some three hundred years since Dr. Johnson's birth, this great man continues to fascinate. This year alone, three new biographies have been written about him, each dealing with different facets of this "wisdom writer," and all seeking, as one writer said, "the consolations of wisdom."


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