Sterne and Hogarth in parallel
by A. Torelli, E. Notti

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John Loche
Samuel Johnson
A quotation
Coffee Houses






Gin Lane and Beer Street
Masquerades and Operas






David Garrick
Analysis of Beauty

   Samuel Johnson: a quotation

"No man but a blockhead,'' said Johnson, "ever wrote except for money". Johnson despised gentlemen who dabbled in his craft, as a man whose life is devoted to music or painting despises the ladies and gentlemen who treat those arts as fashionable accomplishments. An author was, according to him, a man who turned out books as a brick-layer turns out houses or a tailor coats. Johnson was not the first professional author in this sense, but perhaps the first man who made the profession respectable. Johnson suffered acutely and made some attempts to escape from his misery. Literature was thus perforce Johnson's sole support; and by literature was meant, for the most part, drudgery of the kind indicated by the phrase, "translating for book-sellers".1


1 Leslie Stevenson, Samuel Johnson. New York: the Macmillan Company.
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Samuel Johnson:childhood and early life

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709. His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller, highly respected by the cathedral clergy. He opened a bookstall on market-days at neighbouring towns, including Birmingham, which was as yet unable to maintain a separate bookseller. Michael Johnson was probably a more devoted High Churchman and Tory than many of the cathedral clergy themselves. He was a man of considerable mental and physical power, but tormented by hypochondriacal tendencies. His son inherited a share both of his constitution and of his principles. Disease and superstition had thus stood by his cradle, and they never quitted him during life. The demon of hypochondria was always lying in wait for him, and could be exorcised for a time only by hard work or social excitement. It may be as well to sum up at once some of the physical characteristics which marked him through life and greatly influenced his career. The disease had scarred and disfigured features otherwise regular and always impressive. It had seriously injured his eyes, entirely destroying, it seems, the sight of one. He expressed some annoyance when Reynolds had painted him with a pen held close to his eye; and protested that he would not be handed down to posterity as "blinking Sam".

The queer convulsions by which he amazed all beholders were probably connected with his disease. Sometimes he seemed to be obeying some hidden impulse. In spite of such oddities, he was not only possessed by physical power corresponding to his great height and massive stature, but was something of a proficient at athletic exercises. Vast strength hampered by clumsiness and associated with grievous disease, deep and massive powers of feeling limited by narrow though acute perceptions, were characteristic both of soul and body. These peculiarities were manifested from his early infancy. The boy was regarded as something of an infant prodigy. His great powers of memory, characteristic of a mind singularly retentive of all impressions, were early developed. He seemed to learn by intuition. Indolence, as in his after life, alternated with brief efforts of strenuous exertion.

One of his great pleasures was in reading old romances, a taste which he retained through life. After learning to read at a dame-school, young Samuel was sent to the Lichfield Grammar School. A good deal of Latin was "whipped into him,'' and he was always a believer in the virtues of the rod. Johnson left school at sixteen and spent two years at home, probably in learning his father's business. This seems to have been the chief period of his studies. His father's shop would give him many opportunities, and he devoured what came in his way with the undiscriminating eagerness of a young student. His intellectual resembled his physical appetite. He gorged books. He tore the hearts out of them, but did not study systematically. His memory enabled him to accumulate great stores of a desultory and unsystematic knowledge. Somehow he became a fine Latin scholar, though never first-rate as a Grecian. When he went to the University (Oxford) at the end of this period, he was in possession of a very unusual amount of reading. Meanwhile he was beginning to feel the pressure of poverty. His father's affairs were probably getting into disorder. He left without taking a degree.

The effect of the Oxford residence upon Johnson's mind was characteristic. The lad already suffered from the attacks of melancholy, which sometimes drove him to the orders of insanity. At Oxford, Law's Serious Call gave him the strong religious impressions which remained through life. Though a hearty supporter of authority in principle, Johnson was distinguished through life by the strongest spirit of personal independence and self-respect. A proud melancholy lad, conscious of great powers, had to meet with hard rebuffs, and tried to meet them by returning scorn for scorn. Such distresses, however, did not shake Johnson's rooted Toryism. He fully imbibed, if he did not already share, the strongest prejudices of the place, and his misery never produced a revolt against the system, though it may have fostered insolence to individuals. Oxford was remarkable as an illustration of the spiritual and intellectual decadence of a body which at other times has been a centre of great movements of thought. On leaving the University, in 1731, the world was all before him.

His father died in the end of the year, and Johnson's whole immediate inheritance was twenty pounds. The greatest chance for a poor man was probably through the Church. In later life, he more than once refused to take orders upon the promise of a living. Johnson was a man of the world; though a religious man of the world. He represents the secular rather than the ecclesiastical type. Johnson's religious emotions were such as to make habitual reserve almost a sanitary necessity. They were deeply coloured by his constitutional melancholy. Fears of death and hell were prominent in his personal creed. He settled in Birmingham, in 1733. Some small literary work came in his way. He contributed essays to a local paper, and translated a book of Travels in Abyssinia.

Having no money and no prospects, Johnson naturally married. She was the widow of a Birmingham mercer named Porter. Her age at the time (1735) of the second marriage was forty-six, the bridegroom being not quite twenty-six. Johnson loved her devotedly during life, and clung to her memory during a widowhood of more than thirty years, as fondly as if they had been the most pattern hero and heroine of romantic fiction. Johnson, however, could boast of one eminent pupil in David Garrick, though, by Garrick's account, his master was of little service except as affording an excellent mark for his early powers of ridicule. He left Lichfield to seek his fortune in London. Garrick accompanied him. Long afterwards Johnson took an opportunity in the Lives of the Poets, of expressing his warm regard for the memory of his early friend, to whom he had been recommended by a community of literary tastes, in spite of party differences and great inequality of age.

In 1747 he had put forth a plan for an English Dictionary. Johnson had apparently been maturing the scheme for some time. He proceeds to lay down the general principles upon which he intends to frame his work, in order to invite timely suggestions and repress unreasonable expectations. He shared the illusion that a language might be "fixed'' by making a catalogue of its words. His main work was the Dictionary, which came out at last in 1755. Its appearance was the occasion of an explosion of wrath which marks an epoch in our literature. The appearance of the Dictionary placed Johnson in the position described soon afterwards by Smollett. He was henceforth "the great Cham of Literature'' a monarch sitting in the chair previously occupied by his namesake, Ben, by Dryden, and by Pope; but which has since that time been vacant. The world of literature has become too large for such authority. Complaints were not seldom uttered at the time. It was a slack tide of literature; the generation of Pope had passed away and left no successors, and no writer of the time could be put in competition with the giant now known as "Dictionary Johnson.''

Johnson, as he grew older and got into more polished society, became milder in his manners; but he had enough of the old spirit left in him to break forth at times with ungovernable fury, and astonish the well-regulated minds of respectable ladies and gentlemen. By far the most celebrated of Johnson's Lichfield friends was David Garrick, in regard to whom his relations were somewhat peculiar. Reynolds said that Johnson considered Garrick to be his own property, and would never allow him to be praised or blamed by any one else without contradiction. The two men had at bottom a considerable regard for each other, founded upon old association, mutual services, and reciprocal respect for talents of very different orders. But they were so widely separated by circumstances, as well as by a radical opposition of temperament, that any close intimacy could hardly be expected. Garrick's rapid elevation in fame and fortune seems to have produced a certain degree of envy in his old schoolmaster. The most unpleasant incident was when Garrick proposed rather too freely to be a member of the Club. Johnson said that the first duke in England had no right to use such language, and said, according to Mrs. Thrale, "If Garrick does apply, I'll blackball him. Surely we ought to he able to sit in a society like ours. In spite of such collisions of opinion and mutual criticism, Johnson seems to have spoken in the highest terms of Garrick's good qualities, and they had many pleasant meetings. After Garrick's death, Johnson took occasion to say, in the Lives of the Poets, that the death "had eclipsed the gaiety of nations and diminished the public stock of harmless pleasures.''

In a list of Johnson's friends it is proper to mention Richardson. Richardson seems to have given him substantial help, and was repaid by favourable comparisons with Fielding scarcely borne out by the verdict of posterity. Johnson's preference of the sentimentalist to the man whose humour and strong sense were so like his own, shows how much his criticism was biased by his prejudices.

Goldsmith, like Johnson, had tasted the bitterness of an usher's life, and escaped into the scarcely more tolerable regions of Grub Street. The relation thus indicated is characteristic; Johnson was as a rough but helpful elder brother to poor Goldsmith, gave him advice, sympathy, and applause, and at times criticised him pretty sharply, or brought down his conversational bludgeon upon his sensitive friend. Johnson worked only under the pressure of circumstances; a very small proportion of his latter life was devoted to literary employment. The working hours of his earlier years were spent for the most part in productions which can hardly be called literary. Seven years were devoted to the Dictionary, which, whatever its merits, could be a book only in the material sense of the word, and was of course destined to be soon superseded. Johnson may be considered as a poet, an essayist, a pamphleteer, a traveller, a critic, and a biographer. Johnson's style is characteristic of the individual and of the epoch. Simplicity, clearness, directness are, therefore, the great virtues of thought and style.


1 See Samuel Johnson by Leslie Stephen London Macmillan and co., limited edition New York: the Macmillan company,

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