The first time Tetty Porter met her future husband, Samuel Johnson, she told her daughter, Lucy, that she had never encountered a more ‘sensible’ man. Most readers assume she was praising Johnson’s sober, rational side; Leslie Stephen, writing in 1878, went so far as to commend Tetty’s penetrative ‘good sense’ for discerning the same quality in Johnson, despite his ‘grotesque appearance’. But if we take Tetty’s ‘sensible’ to mean – as in this period it certainly could – ‘quick’, ‘perceptive’, ‘eager’ or ‘ardent’, Johnson emerges as a rather different character, more like Marianne Dashwood, to whom the word ‘sensible’ is applied in Sense and Sensibility (1811) before it shifts to her prudent sister, Elinor. Boswell remarked that Johnson ‘had, from his early youth, been sensible to the influence of female charms’. That ‘sensible’ encompassed some pretty warm feelings, as Boswell knew: in 1762, Johnson allegedly told him that ‘the white bubbies and the silk stockings’ of actresses ‘excite my genitals’.
It was only during the 19th century that the word sensible became permanently yoked to the practical, commonsensical part of human nature. Tetty, born in the 17th century, probably did not mean she thought Johnson ‘reasonable; judicious; wise’ (this definition of sensible is censured as an example of ‘low conversation’ in his Dictionary of the English Language). The thing most likely to have struck her was how easily and strongly his feelings were affected. ‘It was a love-match on both sides,’ Johnson said simply.
He was born in Market Square, slap bang in the middle of Lichfield, in September 1709, the elder son of Michael Johnson and his wife, Sarah, rather old and very proud parents. They had, Johnson recalled, ‘not much happiness from each other’, and immediately deposited their ambitions in him. Michael, the son of a labourer, had had the rare good luck to receive a charity school education and was apprenticed to a London stationer. At 24, he opened a bookselling and binding shop in Lichfield, but it was forever on the verge of collapse. A childhood spent surrounded by books – learning how they were made, what they cost, and just how difficult they could be to sell – informed Johnson’s clear-sighted attitude to the literary marketplace.
Sickly at birth, Johnson contracted scrofula, a tubercular infection of the lymph glands, which left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in one eye and with dim vision in the other. It also generated scar tissue and boils that disfigured his face, as did a later bout of smallpox. Friends and strangers commented more or less sympathetically on his compulsive rituals, facial tics, and the strange noises he made, which may have been symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. In later life, Johnson told a friend that he had never tried to make a good impression on anyone until after the age of thirty, ‘considering the matter as hopeless’.
He disliked speaking about his background because, as he said (working a nice line in parodic lordliness), ‘one has so little pleasure in reciting the anecdotes of beggary.’ One childhood pleasure was rummaging among the books in his father’s shop. The hodge-podge of works he found there, from arcane philosophy to popular romances, formed the basis of an enormous general knowledge. His reading was impulsive rather than systematic, and remained so in later life. Rarely finishing a book, he devoured words ‘ravenously’, as one female friend put it, comparing him to a hound with a bone. He told another friend that ‘snatches of reading’ were ‘in a certain degree advantageous. I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice.’ Boswell recounts how the young Johnson alighted on a folio edition of Petrarch while hunting for some apples his younger brother, Nathaniel, had hidden on a shelf.
By the time he arrived in 1728 to study at Pembroke College, Oxford, Johnson had read, as he proudly recalled, ‘a great many books, which were not commonly known at the Universities … so that when I came to Oxford, Dr Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me, I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there.’ But the money ran out, and he was unable to complete his degree. Long before, he had stopped attending lectures because his toes were poking through his shoes. He became wretchedly sensitive to small acts of kindness and charity. Legend has it that when an anonymous benefactor left a pair of new shoes outside his college room, he threw them away, bursting ‘with indignation’.
Johnson’s fury on that occasion may help to explain the footnote he appended, in his 1765 edition of Shakespeare’s plays, to a passage in King John about shoes:
– – – slippers, (which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,)
I know not how the commentators understand this important passage, which in Dr Warburton’s edition is marked as eminently beautiful, and, on the whole, not without justice. But Shakespeare seems to have confounded the man’s shoes with his gloves. He that is frighted or hurried may put his hand into the wrong glove, but either shoe will equally admit either foot. The authour seems to be disturbed by the disorder he describes. JOHNSON.
‘The authour’ referred to here is as accommodatingly non-specific as the shoes that ‘admit either foot’, but the name which follows hard on the heels of authorial disorder is ‘JOHNSON’, not Shakespeare. Which of them, in truth, is ‘disturbed’ by what ‘he describes’? A weirdly strong and invasive mood is suggested by Shakespeare’s ‘falsely thrust’. Because this language might be used of a dagger, it makes the confusion of one foot with another seem a fatal act of betrayal, or likely to lead to one. Johnson seems to imagine that it is Shakespeare rather than King John who is confused; that Shakespeare errs in his identification of wrongness; that when he says ‘shoes’ he is really thinking of ‘gloves’. The passage communicates, over and above everything else, what Auden called the ‘nuance of damage’.
The family business was left in chaos when Johnson’s father died in December 1731. Johnson’s own efforts to become a schoolteacher seem to have failed in large part due to the odd way he looked and moved. His anger and insecurity were widely and understandably construed as arrogance. At 22, he secured his first regular employment as an undermaster at a grammar school in Leicestershire. But he soon fell out with the headmaster, ‘an abandoned brutal rascal’, and left, with the heady sensation of escaping a prison. Apart from a subsequent two-month period as a private tutor near Lichfield, his teaching career was suspended until after his marriage to Tetty in July 1735. He was 25, his wife a widowed 46-year-old mother of three. Two of her children never spoke to her again; none of them had children themselves. Supported by Tetty’s funds, Johnson established at Edial Hall, three miles west of Lichfield, what he described as a ‘private boarding-school for Young Gentlemen’. Following months of careful preparation, the enterprise was a disaster. Only a few pupils ever turned up, among them the future theatrical superstar David Garrick, one of whose earliest comic turns was to impersonate Johnson’s ‘tumultuous and awkward fondness’ for his wife, ‘running round the bed after she had lain down, and crying “I’m coming, my Tetsie, I’m coming, my Tetsie!”’ Boswell speculated that Johnson’s lifelong tendency to learn and work in a desultory fashion made him less able to impress methodical knowledge on the boys than an inferior but more consistent instructor might have been. He tactfully alluded to the impression Johnson must have made in the classroom. Describing Johnson’s erudition as acquired ‘by fits and starts’ and ‘violent irruptions’, Boswell indirectly conjures the image of the schoolmaster lunging, barking and twitching before his pupils.
The following year, 1737, reduced again to poverty, Johnson left his wife in Lichfield and, accompanied by Garrick, headed to London in the hope of finding employment. He carried with him the manuscript of a play, Irene, which – unlike his subsequent compositions – had been written and revised with painstaking attention. But this would not be the work to make his name (it wasn’t performed until 1749). He turned instead to the publisher Edward Cave, proposing various kinds of writing for inclusion in the Gentleman’s Magazine. Cave accepted several contributions, launching Johnson into professional authorship. His first, modest success was a poem called ‘London’, and the familiar figure of the hardened city-dweller, champion speaker and greedy reveller began to take shape. ‘A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity,’ Johnson declared in later life. He became the bosom companion (and, later, biographer) of the squalid and glamorous poet Richard Savage. At night, ‘in high spirits and brimful of patriotism’, they walked the streets together, denouncing ministerial corruption and vowing to stand by their country. Savage’s licentiousness, Boswell reported, may have led his protégé ‘into some indulgencies which occasioned much distress to his virtuous mind’.
Public recognition of his abilities eventually came in 1755, when Johnson, by now in his forties and with more than fifteen years of hackwork behind him, published his Dictionary, the fruit of eight years’ labour. Even this success did not prevent him from being arrested for debt the following year. He finally attained a measure of financial security in 1762, when he accepted a royal pension. His wife did not live to see his triumph. After her death in 1752, Johnson gathered around him a household of querulous and troublesome dependents: the blind poet Anna Williams; the drunk and morose physician Robert Levet, commemorated by Johnson in a beautifully spare poem of 1782; a young black servant, Frank Barber, whom he sent to school at his own expense, and to whom he left a large sum of money; and the ‘surly slut’ Poll Carmichael, probably rescued from prostitution. It’s hardly surprising that, for nearly two decades, he spent as much time away from this house as he could, staying during the week at the Streatham residence of his wealthy friends Henry and Hester Thrale and returning to his squabbling, miserable companions only at the weekend. His relationship with Hester – the ‘dear mistress’ of his most charming and most agonised letters – attests more than any other to how ‘sensible’ a man Johnson truly was. Generous, gossipy, tough, clever and ambitious, she put up for many years with his violent mood swings and constant demands for attention, while enduring her husband’s indifference and the loss of most of their 12 children.
When Henry died in 1781, Hester fell in love with the Italian musician Gabriel Piozzi – whom she married, to Johnson’s furious hurt and disgust, in 1784. He was suffering by this time from emphysema, dropsy and an enormous sarcocele (defined in the Dictionary as ‘a fleshy excrescence of the testicles, which sometimes grow so large as to stretch the scrotum much beyond its natural size’), whose weight and tenderness necessitated ‘suspension’ and ‘exploration by puncture’. From December 1783 to late April 1784 he was unable to leave the house. When, to everyone’s amazement, he recovered, his first excursion was to St Clement’s Church to give thanks for his deliverance. Until the end of his life eight months later, Johnson continued to embrace new experiences (‘Sir, I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance’). His curiosity led him, at seventy, to shave the hair from his arms and chest just to see how long it would take to grow again. He made one last visit to Lichfield and commissioned new tombstones for his parents and brother, the latter having died in mysterious circumstances (he may have committed suicide) in that charged and hectic year of 1737. Surrounded by friends and admirers, Johnson died at his home in Bolt Court, just off Fleet Street. His last known words were spoken to a young female visitor whose identity has never been established: ‘God bless you, my dear.’
To read his life in his work – to see that work as bearing the imprint of an existence that was, in Johnson’s words, ‘radically wretched’ as well as triumphant – is to attempt the kind of biographical criticism at which Johnson himself excelled, which he might indeed be said to have invented in the Lives of the Poets. He might also be said, posthumously, to have suffered from it, since the grip of Boswell’s vivid and brilliantly idiosyncratic account of his friend on readers’ imaginations was so immediate and so tenacious that it quickly came to seem bigger and more compelling than the work itself. The astonishing range of that work is fairly represented in David Womersley’s selection: poetry (in Latin and English), fiction, sermons, lectures, journalism, literary criticism, political pamphlets, a fairy tale, a travelogue, biographies, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and the dictionary. By giving each of them due weight, this superb new edition – a slab of a book – suggests a way of putting Johnson’s life and his writing back together again. In the first few pages, we find four schoolboy translations of Horace put alongside an early poem called ‘Festina Lente’, thirty lines of verse on the doomed hopes of ‘The Young Author’, and one of the little prose memorials he occasionally composed to soothe himself, this one recording his mother’s ‘difficult and dangerous labour’. Womersley’s positioning of these texts, based on attested dates of composition rather than publication, possesses biographical and critical coherence, providing the reader with a sense of Johnson’s exceptional versatility in public and private life. This effect cannot be achieved by the full-dress, multi-volume Yale edition of his works, which is organised according to genre and therefore confines the personal prose unpublished in Johnson’s lifetime to one volume and the poems to another. A one-volume selected edition can afford to be more experimental, to suggest comparisons and analogues – ways of reading across life and work, combining print and manuscript sources, placing self-lacerating diary entries alongside a differently devastating polemic – that might not otherwise be available.
Johnson’s writings seemed to his contemporaries to offer personal guidance for all stages of life. Chance acquaintances, regular correspondents and acolytes came to rely on his advice and knowledge about everything from reading lists to the digestive faculties of dogs. Such reliance was not always welcome. When one young man called out, ‘Mr Johnson, would you advise me to marry?’ he was brusquely told: ‘I would advise no man to marry, Sir, who is not likely to propagate understanding.’ Characteristically, Johnson shortly after repented of his impatience, providing his interrogator with a lengthy ‘dissertation’ on the pros and cons of matrimony which was ‘so useful, so elegant, so founded on the true knowledge of human life, and so adorned with beauty of sentiment, that no one ever recollected the offence, except to rejoice in its consequences’. The anecdote typifies the man: Johnson was able to explain moral questions so admirably that people forgot all about his initial roughness. In fact, his tendency to explain such questions in the fullest and most down-to-earth terms was often a way of atoning for the harsh first impression he had made.
We cannot know what Johnson told the young man, but we can hazard a guess. In Rasselas (1759) Princess Nekayah gives a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of single and of matrimonial life: ‘Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.’ Her sentiments chime with Johnson’s own; one friend remembered his comment that ‘even ill-assorted marriages were preferable to cheerless celibacy.’ This careful adjustment of preferences – acknowledging the inevitable discrepancy between human hopes and human reality, yet opting for one kind of disappointment as preferable to another – is one of the most valuable aspects of Johnson’s thinking. It is a kind of mournful pragmatism.
‘What should books teach,’ he asked, ‘but the art of living?’ Writing to and about the ‘bulk of mankind’ was the literary equivalent of his own escape from loneliness to the comforts of social life, the only cure, he said, for his ‘vile melancholy’. Solitude and idleness were, in his view, the two roads to madness; his criticism of one friend as ‘a very unclubable man’ was a serious objection. Johnson always sought to bring one person’s experience into contact with another’s – this was, in his view, the chief aim of biography, his favourite kind of writing – and hence to palliate his own and his readers’ isolation. So his Lives of the Poets presents Milton not only as the contriver of Paradise Lost, but as a hopelessly unsuccessful schoolmaster and a strangely cruel father. The connection between writing and living, the application of one to the other, were subjects to which he returned throughout his long career. Unlike many authors, he did not shirk the potentially embarrassing question, ‘What is the point of books?’ And in view of the scale of many of his literary enterprises, it is heartening to find him complain: ‘Alas, Madam! How few books are there of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page?’ and ‘a book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?’ He recommended pocket-sized volumes, readily available at moments of boredom or crisis, as the best kind of literary resource, making the obvious but frequently overlooked point that ‘that book is good in vain which the reader throws away.’
Naturally competitive, Johnson was always rating, weighing, comparing and assessing, and he revelled in conversational and literary disputes (the verdicts he offers, when in company, should be taken with a bucket of salt). In the Rambler, he observes that an author ‘may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack’. Boswell pictured his friend’s mind as
the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgment, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.
Tales of Johnson embracing physical activity for its own sake, as well as in order to drive the wild beasts back into their dens, are numerous. Boswell (who knew him in his later years) remembered him jumping over a stile, rolling down a hill, racing against younger acquaintances, and perpetually straining to resist the siren lure of inertia. For Johnson, motion possessed an ethical dimension, such that inactivity (his own notorious indolence included) might be understood not simply as idleness, but as a crime against nature:
With ease, however, if it could be secured, many would be content; but nothing terrestrial can be kept at a stand. Ease, if it is not rising into pleasure, will be falling towards pain; and whatever hope the dreams of speculation may suggest of observing the proportion between nutriment and labour, and keeping the body in a healthy state by supplies exactly equal to its waste, we know that, in effect, the vital powers unexcited by motion, grow gradually languid; that as their vigour fails, obstructions are generated; and that from obstructions proceed most of those pains which wear us away slowly with periodical tortures, and which, though they sometimes suffer life to be long, condemn it to be useless, chain us down to the couch of misery, and mock us with the hopes of death.
Here, the pursuit of one thing causes its opposite, and the restless agility of Johnson’s own writing means that the argument never reposes on one viewpoint for long. The style is properly at odds with the subject, just as the pursuit of comfort turns out to promote suffering. By animating ease as an active agent (a typical manoeuvre in his writing), Johnson makes it cease to be the hoped-for state of motionless contentment. Even if we want to stay still, we should not. We should embrace our native mobility, rather than seek to work against it. And yet Johnson’s wish that there might, after all, be a secure state of some kind, somewhere, for ‘the mind can only repose on the stability of truth’, informs the sympathetic tone in which all this is elaborated.
Johnson presents his writing partly as an illness and partly as a cure. A reader, or a different kind of writer, might think that an author should display an ability to penetrate into our nature far beyond that of other human beings. But as soon as Johnson or one of his characters makes the reader feel an elevated sentiment about the achievements of literature, or about the greatness of writers, he turns that sentiment on its head. When Imlac, the sage of Rasselas, expatiates to his young charge on the tremendous difficulty of being a poet, he is diagnosed as experiencing an ‘enthusiastic fit’ in trying to ‘aggrandise his own profession’.
What, then, can the writer reasonably hope to achieve? The Rambler gives would-be authors a choice. They may be inventive, or they may be decorative. The best writers will succeed in making new facts and opinions appear to be something we have always known; or, conversely, they will make what we have always known seem worthy of renewed attention. Throughout his literary criticism, Johnson disparaged the pursuit of originality for its own sake and defended the act of copying: not in the sense of idle plagiarism, but of strenuous fidelity to the world. For this reason, imitation often emerges from his writing as a more admirable – and sometimes more difficult – pursuit than invention.
His attacks on wilful oddity were born of the convictions that literature ought to deal in universal truths; that human nature was fundamentally the same in every time and every place; and that, accordingly (as he put it in the ‘Life of Dryden’), ‘whatever can happen to man has happened so often that little remains for fancy or invention.’ Yet he also argued, in the Adventurer (a biweekly periodical that followed the model of the earlier Rambler), that ‘the mutability of mankind will always furnish writers with new images, and the luxuriance of fancy may always embellish them with new decorations,’ despite the fact that we are, as he put it in the Rambler, ‘all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure’.
The aim of Johnson’s writing, and of the books he admired, was to urge readers back to their present responsibilities in the world, hungry to fight and succeed. If human life is ‘everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’, then ‘the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.’ Literature and criticism, he argued, will always be informed and corrected by the lives of their readers, rather than vice versa: ‘Human experience, which is constantly contradicting theory, is the great test of truth.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.