The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Samuel Johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson (September 7, 1709 Old Style/September 18 New Style 1December 13, 1784), often referred to simply as Dr Johnson, was one of England's greatest literary figures: a critic, poet, essayist, biographer and lexicographer whose bon mots are still frequently quoted in print today.


Life and work

The son of a poor bookseller, Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He attended Lichfield Grammar School , and from 1728 to 1731, Pembroke College, Oxford. Though he was a formidable student, poverty forced him to leave Oxford without taking a degree. He attempted to work as a teacher and schoolmaster, but these ventures were not successful. At the age of twenty-five, he married Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter, a widow twenty-one years his senior.

In 1737, Johnson, penniless, left for London together with his former pupil David Garrick. Johnson found employment with Edward Cave, writing for The Gentleman's Magazine. For the next three decades, Johnson wrote biographies, poetry, essays, pamphlets, parliamentary reports and even prepared a catalogue for the sale of the Harleian Library. Johnson lived in poverty for much of this time. The poem "London" (1738) and the Life of Savage (1745), a biography of Johnson's friend and fellow writer Richard Savage, who had shared in Johnson's poverty and died in 1744, are important works of this period.

Johnson began on one of his most important works, A Dictionary of the English Language, in 1747. It was not completed until 1755. Although it was widely praised and enormously influential, Johnson did not profit from it much financially, since he had to bear the expenses of its long composition. At the same time he was working on his dictionary, Johnson was also writing a series of bi-weekly essays under the title The Rambler. These essays, often on moral and religious topics, tended to be more grave than the title of the series would suggest. The Rambler ran until 1752. Although not originally popular, they found a large audience once they were collected in volume form. Johnson's wife died shortly after the final number appeared.

Johnson began another essay series, The Idler, in 1758. It ran weekly for two years. The Idler essays were published in a weekly news journal, rather than as an independent publication like The Rambler. They were shorter and lighter than the Rambler essays. In 1759, Johnson published his satirical novel Rasselas, said to have been written in two weeks to pay for his mother's funeral. At some point, however, Johnson gained a reputation for being a notoriously slow writer, and poet Charles Churchill wrote of him that He for subscribers baits his hook - and takes your cash, but where's the book.[1]

In 1762, Johnson was awarded a government pension of three hundred pounds a year, largely through the efforts of Thomas Sheridan and the Earl of Bute. Johnson met James Boswell, his future biographer, in 1763. Around the same time, Johnson formed "The Club", a social group that included his friends Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick and Oliver Goldsmith. By now, Johnson was a celebrated figure. He received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin in 1765, and one from Oxford ten years later.

In 1765, he met Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and member of Parliament, and his wife Hester Thrale. They quickly became friends, and soon Johnson became a member of the family. He stayed with the Thrales for fifteen years until Henry's death in 1781. Hester's reminiscences of Johnson, together with her diaries and correspondence, are second only to Boswell's as a source of biographical information on Johnson.

In 1773, ten years after he met Boswell, the two set out on A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, and two years later Johnson's account of their travels was published under that title. (Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides was published in 1786) Their visit to the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides took place when pacification after the Jacobite Risings was crushing the Clan system and Gaelic culture which was increasingly being romanticised. Johnson proceeded to debunk claims that James Macpherson's Ossian poems were translations of ancient Celtic writings.

Johnson's final major work was the Lives of the English Poets, a project commissioned by a consortium of London booksellers. The Lives, which were critical as well as biographical studies, appeared as prefaces to selections of each poet's work.

Johnson died in 1784 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Large and powerfully built, Johnson had poor eyesight and was hard of hearing. His face was deeply scarred from childhood scrofula. Johnson suffered from a number of tics and larger jerky involuntary movements; symptoms described by his contemporaries suggest that Johnson may have suffered from Tourette's syndrome and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder. He tended towards melancholia. Johnson was a compassionate man, supporting a number of poor friends under his own roof. He was a devout, conservative Anglican as well as a staunch Tory. He admitted to sympathies for the Jacobite cause but by the reign of George III he came to accept the Hanoverian Succession.

Johnson's fame is due in part to the success of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell, however, met Johnson when Johnson had already achieved a degree of fame and stability; Boswell's biography puts disproportionate emphasis on the last years of Johnson's life. Consequently, Johnson has been seen more as a gruff, lovable clubman than as the struggling and poverty-stricken writer that he was for the greater part of his life.

Re-enactment of Samuel Johnson's wedding to Elizabeth Porter ("Tetty") at in . The event is re-enacted at the church every year.
Re-enactment of Samuel Johnson's wedding to Elizabeth Porter ("Tetty") at St. Werburgh's Church in Derby. The event is re-enacted at the church every year.

His time in Birmingham (after leaving Oxford and before he moved to London) is remembered by a frieze in the city's Old Square, an area much changed from when he lived there. Birmingham Central Library has a Johnson Collection . It has around 2,000 volumes of works by him, and books and periodicals about him. It includes many of his first editions.


1 After Britain's change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, Johnson celebrated his birthday on September 18.

2 Dr. Johnson (played by Robbie Coltrane) featured in the third series of Blackadder (in the episode titled 'Ink and Incapability'), presenting his dictionary to Prince George for his patronage, whereupon it is beleived to be burnt by Baldrick; Blackadder then attempts to rewrite the whole thing in one night.

Online texts


See also

Dr Johnson's House

External links

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