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Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Johnson's career illustrates the emergence of writing as a trade, although in talent and learning he surpassed the crowds of ordinary hack writers who subsisted in London during the mid-eighteenth century. Johnson was the son of a bookseller in the town of Litchfield, and he read avidly the offerings of his father's shop. Therefore, although the lack of funds cut short his attendance at Oxford, Johnson's background had given him an ample stock of learning on which he was able to draw for his many writing projects--poetry and plays, translations, political and legal tracts, criticism and biography, essays, tales, and eventually even a dictionary of the English language. Physically he was not attractive. Large and robust, he had suffered from scrofula in childhood and the disease left facial scars. He was almost blind in one eye and had a variety of nervous tics. It was said of him, however, that as soon as he began to speak, one forgot all these disfigurements and disabilities in the pleasure of his wit. He was a man of immense literary energy who repeatedly scolded himself for laziness and procrastination.

Having failed as a schoolmaster near Litchfield, Johnson traveled to London with David Garrick, one of his pupils, who later became a celebrated actor and theater manager. Johnson received writing assignments from the editor of The Gentleman's Magazine and entered into the professional writing world called "Grub Street." In Grub Street, the area of London where poor writers lived and worked, men hired out their talents at so much a page or, if for poetry, at so much a line of printed copy. Writing to order, they composed essays, biographies, histories, poems on special occasions, as well as translations or abridgments of the works of others. Plagiarism was common. These writers compiled, digested, and simplified material for pamphlets, periodicals, and books. Some writers were attached to one or the other of the major political parties, but others would write for whatever political position was paying.

Johnson had such a wide range of knowledge and such a keen intellect that he never resorted to the lowest kinds of hack writing, but he did write to order for pay. He could turn out a suitable dedication or preface to make a mediocre work more impressive. He wrote parliamentary speeches merely on the basis of knowing who the speakers were and what the issue was. He stopped writing political speeches, however, when he realized that his written versions were being mistaken for the speeches that had actually been given.

Dictionary of the English Language

In 1747 Johnson asked for and got booksellers' support for a project to compile the first systematic and comprehensive dictionary of the English language. This task cost him eight years of endless drudgery. The Dictionary, first published in 1755, earned him a royal pension in 1762.

Meanwhile, he was producing other work, including the periodical essays entitled The Rambler (1750-1752). After the Dictionary, he wrote a second series of essays for The Idler (1758-1760) and the philosophical tale Rasselas (1759).

Late in his life, Johnson befriended James Boswell, a young Scot who was to become his biographer. Johnson continued to produce writing in many forms. The works of his late years include A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), which describes a trip he took with Boswell, and The Lives of the Poets (1779-1781), a biographical and critical survey of the major English poets since the Renaissance.

Johnson's Club

By this time Johnson had become London's most prominent literary celebrity and arbiter of taste. His group of friends, called simply the Club or the Literary Club, was an exclusive assemblage of the most important writers and thinkers of his era: the poet Oliver Goldsmith, the philosopher and lawyer Sir Edmund Burke, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor and theater manager David Garrick, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and others.

Johnson's Poetry

Johnson's verse was mainly of two kinds. He wrote two formal verse satires in heroic couplets based on the models of Juvenal, the great Roman satirist. One of these satires, London (1738), describes the dangers and decadence of the city. The second kind of poetry Johnson wrote is also satiric, but it tends to be light and playful and written for a specific occasion. An example is A Short Song of Congratulation. However, Johnson's moving poem On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet falls into neither of these categories.


In this formal verse satire written in 1749, Johnson expresses an idea central to much of his work. He believed that discontent and restlessness are a greater part of human existence than is satisfaction. Written in heroic couplets, the poem is generally considered one of Johnson's best and most powerful, but it is highly allusive and difficult. Imitating a satire by the Roman poet Juvenal, the poet voices his complaints in a series of images of corrupted individuals who fall from power into degradation.

Johnson's Prose RASSELAS

This philosophical prose tale has some elements of romance, such as the abduction and rescue of a maiden, travels to exotic lands, and encounters with bizarre characters. But the subject matter really focuses on the everyday problems of life--marriage, family harmony, and work. The title character and his sister, Nekayah, are royalty. They escape from their confinement in the Happy Valley, a pleasurable but dull land, to seek the best "choice of life." Their guide is the wise poet Imlac (a self-portrait of Johnson), with whom they observe and discuss various scenes of urban and rural discontent. They see that each style of life at first seems attractive to the outsider but that further investigation shows its disadvantages. Generally, they conclude, any style of life becomes dull or frustrating just because of the repetition of the same activities. The individual always wants what he or she does not have, imagining that the change will bring satisfaction. The tale concludes ironically when each of the main characters makes a choice and at the same time realizes that he or she will necessarily become dissatisfied with the outcome of that choice. Johnson's prose style in Rasselas, as elsewhere, is highly formal, with sentences organized in balanced parallel or opposite phrases; for example, "Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures."


This work was at first intended as a series of prefaces for a bookseller's edition of major English poets. Johnson, however, went beyond the original conception to develop lengthy essays of appreciation and criticism that merited being published on their own. Johnson gives a biographical study of each poet and follows it with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the poet's major works. In the course of these essays, Johnson develops the technique of literary criticism. He introduces moral as well as aesthetic criteria into his judgments. In his discussion of the works of Abraham Cowley, Johnson gave the name "metaphysical" to the school of seventeenth-century poetry led by John Donne. Johnson is always concerned with a poem's effects on the reader's feelings and beliefs. He sometimes allows his personal dislikes (for instance, his dislike of pastoral poetry) to distort his evaluations. Thus he finds Milton's great pastoral elegy Lycidas to be dull and insincere. Nevertheless, Johnson set a new standard for English literary criticism.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Eighteenth-century English literature (1700 to 1785): Johnson and Boswell.
Next Article:James Boswell (1740-1795).

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