English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

SAMUEL JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES.

   Early Life and Career.  London.  Rambler and Idler.  The Dictionary.  Other
   Works.  Lives of the Poets.  Person and Character.  Style.  Junius.

EARLY LIFE AND CAREER.

Doctor Samuel Johnson was poet, dramatist, essayist, lexicographer, dogmatist, and critic, and, in this array of professional characters, played so distinguished a part in his day that he was long regarded as a prodigy in English literature.  His influence has waned since his personality has grown dim, and his learning been superseded or overshadowed; but he still remains, and must always remain, the most prominent literary figure of his age; and this is in no small measure due to his good fortune in having such a champion and biographer as James Boswell.  Johnson’s Life by Boswell is without a rival among biographies:  in the words of Macaulay:  “Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets; Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists; Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers;” and Burke has said that Johnson appears far greater in Boswell’s book than in his own.  We thus know everything about Johnson, as we do not know about any other literary man, and this knowledge, due to his biographer, is at least one of the elements of Johnson’s immense reputation.

He was born at Lichfield on the 18th of September, 1709.  His father was a bookseller; and after having had a certain amount of knowledge “well beaten into him” by Mr. Hunter, young Johnson was for two years an assistant in his father’s shop.  But such was his aptitude for learning, that he was sent in 1728 to Pembroke College, Oxford.  His youth was not a happy one:  he was afflicted with scrofula, “which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much that he did not see at all with one of his eyes.”  He had a morbid melancholy,—­fits of dejection which made his life miserable.  He was poor; and when, in 1731, his father died insolvent, he was obliged to leave the university without a degree.  After fruitless attempts to establish a school, he married, in 1736, Mrs. Porter, a widow, who had L800.  Rude and unprepossessing to others, she was sincerely loved by her husband, and deeply lamented when she died.  In 1737 Johnson went to London in company with young Garrick, who had been one of his few pupils, and who was soon to fill the English world with his theatrical fame.

LONDON.—­Johnson soon began to write for Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and in 1738 he astonished Pope and the artificial poets by producing, in their best vein, his imitation of the third Satire of Juvenal, which he called London.  This was his usher into the realm of literature.  But he did not become prominent until he had reached his fiftieth year; he continued to struggle with gloom and poverty, too proud to seek patronage in an age when popular remuneration had not taken its place.  In 1740 he was a reporter of the debates in parliament for Cave; and it is said that many of the indifferent speakers were astonished to read the next day the fine things which the reporter had placed in their mouths, which they had never uttered.

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