Critic, essayist, lexicographer, biographer, author, father of modern English literature. These are only some of the epithets that Samuel Johnson is known by. His achievements are indeed remarkable.
Samuel Johnson was born the son of Michael, a bookseller, and Sarah Johnson, on September 18, 1709. Right from childhood, Samuel had to grapple with physical afflictions. As an adult, Samuel is said to have remarked about himself as having been "born dead". That was the extent of the problems that he had to struggle against. He contracted tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands. He was practically blind in one eye and he suffered from tics. The tragedy of his early life was that nobody took him seriously and on the contrary, many tended to dismiss him as an "idiot".
However, Samuel was made of tough stuff. He was strong and athletic. He enjoyed riding, going for walks and swimming. His love for these activities continued even in his later life. Such outdoor activities left with him with a strong physique.
Samuel enrolled at the grammar school in Lichfield, where he was born, in the year 1717. In 1728, he entered Pembroke College in Oxford. However, thirteen months later, in December 1729, he had to drop out because he did not have the funds to continue education there.
Entry into the literary world
Samuel Johnson made his foray into world of books and literature in the year 1731, the year of his father's death, when his translation of Pope's Messiah into Latin was first published in
A Miscellany of Poems, along with the poetry of other Oxford students.
For earning a living, he joined the Market Bosworth grammar school, but soon opted to leave as one would "a prison" (as has been remarked by some biographers). He later took to writing seriously. He joined a friend in Birmingham and began to contribute to the newspaper,
In the year 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior. With help and support from her, he started a school near Lichfield in 1736. The school was not a success and along with his friend, actor David Garrick, he left for London in 1737.
Johnson and The Gentleman
Samuel Johnson's association with The Gentleman's Magazine, considered the first modern magazine, began in the year 1738. In the next two years, he published a series of satiric works, targeting the government of Sir Walpole.
In 1739, he published a translation and annotation of the Swiss philosopher Jean Pierre de Crousar's Commentary on Pope's philosophical poem
An Essay on Man.
In the early 1940s, he collaborated with William Oldys, antiquary and editor, on a catalogue of the great Harleian Library; worked on
A Medicinal Dictionary, assisting a schoolmate in the work; and issued proposals for an edition of Shakespeare.
In 1746, he wrote The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language and signed a contract for
A Dictionary of the English Language. His major publication of this period was
An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers (1744). He produced a series of journalistic essays,
The Rambler, between 1750 and '52.
Johnson was a renowned biographer too. His Lives of the Poets (1779-1781) was a collection of critical biographies of English poets since 1600.
Among Johnson's greatest literary labours is the Dictionary of the English
Language, published in the year 1755. It was the first such work prepared according to modern standards of lexicography. What prompted Johnson to launch on the mammoth and tedious task, according to some historians, was the increased literacy and education spread throughout the country. With so much written material being produced (books and magazines were being distributed and read very widely even in small villages and towns), Johnson felt the need to attempt to codify the language by publishing his
Dictionary of the English Language.
Age of Johnson
The successive stages of literary taste during the period of the Restoration and the 18th century are referred to as the ages of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson. The period from 1744 to about 1784 is referred to as the age of Samuel Johnson.
Although Johnson composed poetry, he is best known as a prose writer.
A biography on Johnson
Johnson the prolific writer inspired Scottish writer and close friend James Boswell to pen his biography. Until the death of Samuel Johnson in 1784, Boswell and he remained close friends. Boswell's
Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is one of the most famous literary biographies ever written.