The New York Times
Samuel Johnson: A Lifeby David Nokes
A modern biography of Samuel Johnson that will serve as the definitive work on the legendary British man of letters
In this groundbreaking portrait of Samuel Johnson, David Nokes positions the great thinker in his rightful place as an active force in the Enlightenment, not a mere recorder or performer, and demonstrates how his interaction with life/p>/b>
A modern biography of Samuel Johnson that will serve as the definitive work on the legendary British man of letters
In this groundbreaking portrait of Samuel Johnson, David Nokes positions the great thinker in his rightful place as an active force in the Enlightenment, not a mere recorder or performer, and demonstrates how his interaction with life impacted his work. This is the story of how Johnson struggled to define the English language, why he embarked upon such foolhardiness, and where he found the courage to do so. Moving beyond James Boswell's seminal narrative about the life of the preeminent eighteenth-century novelist, literary critic, biographer, editor, essayist, and lexicographer, this biography addresses his life and action through the hitherto unexplored perspectives of such major players as Johnson's wife, Tetty; Hester Thrale, in whose household he resided for seventeen years while working on his annotated Shakespeare; and Frances Barber, the black manservant who in many ways was like a son to Johnson. An in-depth interrogation of the primary sources, particularly the letters, offer surprising insight into Johnson's formative experiences. At last, here's a reading of the great man that will reveal the rightful glory of an enduring work and an incomparable scholar.
The New York Times
“David Nokes has a firm understanding of what goes toward the making of a literary life, and his biography of Johnson . . . is not merely a crisp rendition of the known facts, but a book that shows the man in some new interpretative light.”—Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review of Books
“David Nokes, a prominent scholar of 18th-century English literature, takes a fresh look at Samuel Johnson, the man known as the creator of the dictionary. In doing so, Nokes shows a very human side of Johnson, and the perspective of his times. . . . Nokes has written an excellent biography that shows Johnson's human side and his struggles.”—Mary Foster, The Associated Press
“David Nokes has a firm understanding of what goes toward the making of a literary life, and his biography of Johnson . . . is not merely a crisp rendition of the known facts, but a book that shows the man in some new interpretative light.”—Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review of Books
“For the moment, Johnson's mirror still reflects us in a hundred ways, down to his naughty preference for reviewers who “write chiefly from their own minds” over notices by “duller men” who “are glad to read the books through.” Dully, I have done so, and can recommend Nokes. He is a sharp-eyed, close-focused, light-footed chronicler; he moves fast, writes succinctly, quotes richly, speculates rarely and knits the sources into a swift, lively narrative.”—Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (UK)
“[A] scholarly and richly documented study.”—John Carey, The Sunday Times (UK)
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PART ONEThe Midlander1LichfieldLichfield, the field of the dead, a city in Staffordshire, so named from martyred Christians. Salve magna parens.September 7, 1709, I was born at Lichfield.Johnson, AnnalsLichfield has changed little in appearance in the past fifty years, though possibly it is more pleasant to explore on foot than formerly. James Clifford, in his biography of Johnson, described 'thundering trucks and streams of motor-cars' making the market-place a scene of noise and danger, but now that the city centre has been pedestrianised the walk from Bird Street, along Bore Street and down to Tamworth Street is an agreeable saunter.1 St Mary's Church, opposite the Birthplace, where young Samuel should have been christened (he was not expected to live and it was done hurriedly, in his mother's bedroom), is no longer a complete church; three-quarters of it has been transformed into the Lichfield Heritage Centre offering local history, tea and coffee. On the corner of Sadler and Breadmarket Streets is the Birthplace Museum, opposite the squat statue of the Doctor presented to the city by its citizens in August 1838. 'Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place', proclaims its plinth, though often lost in the market throng of greengrocers, jewellery and pastry stalls.Lichfield is a city of commemoration. Along Dam Street, leading to Minster Pool and the cathedral, is Dame Oliver's School with, above it, a neat metal plaque to commemorate the spot where Lord Brooke, leader of the besieging parliamentary forces, was killed by a bullet fired by a local royalist sharpshooter high up in the cathedral. In Breadmarket Street, just past the Johnson Birthplace a plaquecommemorates Elias Ashmole, antiquarian and founder of the Ashmolean Museum, born there in 1617; outside the George Hotel in Bird Street another commemorates the residence of the playwright George Farquhar; further down the street yet another points out Garrick's house, and along Cathedral Close is where Joseph Addison lived when his father was the Dean. High up on the wall outside old St Mary's Church a small tablet commemorates three martyrs 'burnt at the stake in this market place' in the 1550s. Another signifies that George Fox, founder of the Quakers, stood 'without shoes' in the market in the winter of 1651, after his release from prison in Derby, 'and denounced the City of Lichfield'.2Michael Johnson lived virtually his whole life in Lichfield, rising to become, in the year of Samuel's birth, its sheriff. It was a notable achievement for a man whose start had not been easy. In later years Samuel refused to be drawn on the subject of his forebears, informing Boswell he 'could scarcely tell' who his grandfather had been. Quite possibly he felt a sense of shame acknowledging William Johnson, born in Cubley, Derbyshire, about whose status there is a certain ambiguity; some documents describe him as a 'gentleman', others merely as a 'yeoman'. He first appears in Lichfield records in 1664, living in Tamworth Street with his wife Catherine and four children of whom Michael was the eldest.3 The family found life in Lichfield unrewarding and were forced to scuttle round from place to place with little money until eventually William died in 1671, whereupon Catherine threw herself on local charity and was granted 'a waistcoat' to keep her warm. Apart from the physical benefit this gift conferred, it also indicated she was a perfectly respectable person for the Smith Charity to support. It was another charitable donation, this time from the Conduit Lands Trust, which provided Michael with an apprenticeship to a stationer in London, something he never forgot.4 Once the eight-year term of his indenture was completed he returned to Lichfield and took up residence in Sadler Street in a substantial property with room both for his mother and a handsome bookshop. Soon he was not only selling books but publishing them; the title page of one boasts of 'shops at Litchfield and Uttoxiter, in Staffordshire; and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire', while he also maintained stallsat Abbots Bromley, Birmingham and Burton.5 A file of letters between him and a trusted client, Sir William Boothby of Ashbourne, reveals the baronet complaining of his 'hurry at Uttoxiter', grumbling that 'the paper booke was not goode paper will not beare ink well'. In December 1684 Sir William, who was very free with objections, lamented that 'Xinophon is misplaced in the binding (a great fault you must be careful to prevent)'; but he was considerably less forthcoming when it came to settling his account. In October 1684 he sent Michael £10 by the bearer 'wh: is all I can spare at present'; in February he wrote: 'I cannot yet help you to money', and in December complained again of Michael's charges; although he lacked time to examine the books, he thought 'many of them to deare'.6In 1691 Michael published The Happy Sinner; or the Penitent Malefactor, a collection of last prayers by the army surgeon Richard Cromwell, executed on 3 July in Lichfield for murder. Cromwell left behind him only his 'seven sovereign remedies for the ills of the flesh', the ingredients of which might be had from apothecaries 'except the Queen of Hungarie's Water', which, Michael noted, he retailed himself. The following year, when his mother died, Michael was a churchwarden of St Mary's, had purchased a 'sitting' in the church, was employing apprentices of his own and, by 1697, was even wealthy enough to advance £80 to the Corporation of Lichfield.7Sir William Boothby's criticisms still rankled in Michael's mind. At one point the baronet had complained that 'most of yr books ... are so ill Bund that I cannot open them to reade without much difficulty'. This was, he said, 'a great fault'. By the middle of the decade this was a fault Michael planned to correct by setting up as a manufacturer of parchment, vellum and leather and publishing his own books. So assiduous was he in his new enterprise that he obtained a summons against Jonathan Drayton, a tanner and potential rival. Michael travelled throughout the Midlands selling and repairing books, becoming a success and building up his trade, apparently reconciled to allowing the more personal side of life to take care of itself. But in June 1706, almost fifty and anxious for the future of his flourishing business, he negotiated a lengthy marriage contract between himself and Sarah Ford of King's Norton. Within the week they weremarried.8 He drew up a further contract assigning his several mortgages into one deed and spent a great deal both of time and money planning a grand new house for them to live in, on the corner of Sadler and Breadmarket Streets, on four floors with at least fifteen rooms, overlooking the market. So grand was his new edifice that it encroached on all the neighbouring properties, for which he had to pay an annual indemnity of 2s 6d for forty years.9 But it was worth it; Michael Johnson had finally arrived and it was in this house that, on 7 September 1709, his son Samuel was born.Sarah, forty and bearing her first child, had 'a very difficult and dangerous labour', but it was a difficulty in which young Samuel, when he heard of it, took pride. 'I was born almost dead', he announced, 'and could not cry for some time.' Sarah Johnson was attended by the notable man-midwife George Hector, by whose efforts Johnson was safely delivered and celebrated in the words, 'Here is a brave boy.' The next day, Rogation Sunday, his father, who had risen that year to be sheriff of Lichfield, was due to ride the circuit of the city, a ceremony which was then performed with considerable solemnity. Asked by his wife 'whom he would invite', Michael replied 'All the town now.'10 Michael Johnson's feasting of his Riding was almost the last to be maintained with 'uncommon magnificence' and splendour; nothing in his later life would match the eminence of that day.Samuel was put 'by my father's persuasion' to be suckled by 'one Marklew, commonly called Bellison' in George Lane; it was a further tiny mark of the sheriff's status that his wife should not feed the infant herself. Sarah Johnson came to visit every day though, conscious of her husband's dignity, 'used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule'. She would leave little things behind her, a fan or gloves, to have an excuse to return unexpectedly but 'never discovered any token of neglect'. It was Samuel who showed signs, not of neglect, but of tubercular infection from this status-seeking wet-nursing. The Annals, Johnson's partial memoir of his early years, speak of an 'inflammation' discovered after 'a few weeks' on his buttocks 'which was at first, I think, taken for a burn; but soon appeared to be a natural disorder'. From this point on diseases multiplied and Samuel narrates the evidence of 'scrofuloussores' afflicting every part of his body.11 It was soon discovered that his eyes were affected and 'an issue was cut in my left arm, of which I took no great notice, as I think my mother has told me, having my little hand in a custard'. His mother immediately felt guilty and 'thought my diseases derived from her family' but Dr Swinfen, Johnson's godfather, told her the sores proceeded from 'the bad humours of the nurse'. The result was the same. 'In ten weeks I was taken home, a poor, diseased infant, almost blind. I remember my aunt Nath. Ford told me, when I was about [ ...] years old, that she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.'There is a defiant swagger about the way Johnson, writing in about 1770, parades his early physical misfortunes proudly, not underplaying but rather exaggerating and exploiting them, taking his disadvantages and learning to use them to his advantage. In telling of his infant life he patronised his parents and, without consciously belittling them, took away the dignity they had so much striven to create. 'My father had much vanity', wrote Johnson, 'which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted.' In one anecdote Johnson says that his father 'never had much kindness' for Mrs Harriots, his mother's relative, and 'willingly disgusted her, by sending his horses from home on Sunday'. This behaviour, apparently criticised, is actually cherished as a symbol of masculine independence. But it was a kind of behaviour which vanished when, later, poverty enforced a cowed compliance. 'I remember, that, mentioning her legacy in the humility of distress, he called her our good Cousin Harriots.' Mrs Harriots, a childless widow, made a special point of Sunday observances; Johnson later noted the 'regularity' of her household, observing that 'he who may live as he will, seldom lives long in the observation of his own rules'.12 On her death in February 1728 she bequeathed Mrs Johnson 'a pair of her best flaxen sheets and pillow cases, as well as a large pewter dish and a dozen pewter plates' along with £40 'for her own separate use'.13A great deal of these scrappy, mutilated Annals concern troubles between his parents. 'My mother had no value for his relations,' Johnson recalled; 'those indeed whom we knew of were much lower than hers.' Not just lower, note, but much lower. The sentiment hesingled out to characterise his childhood home is contempt. 'This contempt began, I know not on which side, very early: but, as my father was little at home, it had not much effect.' Johnson too spent as much time as he could away from home; at the age of sixteen he went to Stourbridge where he found the influence of his cousin Cornelius Ford more benign than his parents' contemptuous sniping. 'They seldom conversed; for my father could not bear to talk of his affairs; and my mother, being unacquainted with books, cared not to talk of any thing else.' There, neatly combined in a witty paradox, is Johnson's vision of life at Lichfield; but the wit comes from his years away from it, and the death of both parents.Had my mother been more literate, they had been better companions. She might have sometimes introduced her unwelcome topick with more success, if she could have diversified her conversation. Of business she had no distinct conception: and therefore her discourse was composed only of complaint, fear, and suspicion. Neither of them ever tried to calculate the profits of trade, or the expenses of living.Though attempting to be even-handed in estimating why his father and mother 'had not much happiness from each other', his criticisms are most acute when reckoning up his mother's faults.My mother concluded that we were poor, because we lost by some of our trades; but the truth was, that my father, having in the early part of his life contracted debts, never had trade sufficient to enable him to pay them, and maintain his family; he got something, but not enough.14His father was a romantic, so lost in the grand gestures of building his own Market Street mansion or celebrating his city 'Riding' with a feast of uncommon magnificence that he would not reckon up the cost. Coming from a background of poverty and apprenticed by charity, he was anxious to make his mark in the city. In 1706 he acquired the Earl of Derby's library, all 2,900 volumes of it, a tremendous coup but one which, considering this was the year in which he rebuilt his house and was married, showed a tendency to overreach himself.Mrs Johnson brought with her a considerable dowry of some £430, but 'he had been unable to carry out his part of the bargain in adding £100 to a trust fund'. 'It was not till about 1768, that I thought to calculate the returns of my father's trade, and by that estimate his probable profits,' Johnson remarks. 'This, I believe, my parents never did.' Oddly, no record of his calculation has been found. He writes in his Welsh Diary of his intention 'To note down my Father's stock, expences, and profit'. But apparently he never did.15Michael was over-ambitious and may have known it, but could do nothing about it. Buying up a small twelve-shilling parcel of books, including Troutback's sermons or a speech of Haversham's on the death of Dr Fowke, he was in his element. He enjoyed haggling with tight-fisted customers who reminded him that they bought an almanac 'every year'. But his purchase of the Earl of Derby's library, together with his manufacture of parchment and leather, were enterprises that went beyond his abilities. In 1718 he was tried 'for using ye Trade of a Tanner' without having been apprenticed to it and, in drawing up his defence, he gave evidence of his pride in his achievements. He was, he said, a merchant 'tradeing to Ireland, Scotland and the furter most parts on England', dealing in commodities, 'more perticuler in Hydes and Skins', who vehemently denied having done any actual tanning himself. He turned the hides over to John Barton who had 'a tanhouse of his own where he tans the Defend's amongst other goods'. Evidence of the court verdict has been lost but it seems Michael was cleared since he continued working for the locality, and was elected junior bailiff on 25 July 1718, fortuitously just as his trial was due to begin.16When Samuel was two and a half he was taken by his mother to London, to be touched by Queen Anne for the 'King's evil' as scrofula was called. Anne was the last monarch to perform a rite which appeared, even then, rather anachronistic, but Johnson believed in it, and wore around his neck the amulet with Michael the archangel on one side, a sailing ship on the other, throughout his life.a This visit toLondon, towards the end of March 1712, was his first memory of the city and the 'speckled linen frock' his mother bought him was always remembered as his 'London frock'. She herself wore a stout petticoat with two guineas sewn into it 'lest she should be robbed'. They stayed with a colleague of his father, John Nicholson, 'the famous bookseller, in Little Britain'.Johnson's memories of odd incidents in the visit seem real enough though, as he said, recalling a cat with a white collar and the dog, Chops, leaping over a stick, 'I know not whether I remember the thing, or the talk of it.' He recalled 'a little dark room behind the kitchen, where the jack-weight fell through a hole in the floor, into which I once slipped my leg', recollected 'that I played with a string and a bell, which my cousin Isaac Johnson gave me' and remembered, with pride, being asked 'on which side of the shop was the counter' and answering 'on the left from the entrance'. Many years later he verified what he said had been true. His memories of the 'touching' itself are those of an infant. Of the queen he recalled nothing; 'some confused Remembrance of a Lady in a black Hood', he told Mrs Thrale; but he remembered 'a boy crying at the palace' quite clearly.17 Also the visit seemed to involve a kind of demotion, going to London 'in the stagecoach' but returning 'in the waggon'. His mother had told him it was his fault 'because my cough was violent'. On their way to London she had been embarrassed; 'I was sick; one woman fondled me, the other was disgusted.' But, recollecting these events, he drew a different conclusion: 'The hope of saving a few shillings was no slight motive; for she, not having been accustomed to money, was afraid of such expenses as now seem very small.' His mother had spent some of her money buying, besides the speckled frock, 'a small silver cup and spoon, marked SAM.I. lest if they had been marked S.I. which was her name, they should, upon her death, have been taken from me'. The silver cup 'was one of the last pieces of plate which dear Tetty sold in our distress' but 'I have now the spoon.'18All these incidents are remembered as if from a golden age when, if they travelled in a wagon, it was from a desire not to spread his germs, rather than from simple economy. Sarah had been forty when he was born; Michael, over fifty, was more concerned with businessthan with his family. But the family equilibrium changed some three years later when, to everyone's surprise, his mother bore a second son, Nathaniel. Until that moment Samuel, a sickly infant, had been the cynosure of his elderly parents' affections, and it cannot be surprising that from that time a sense of rebellion entered his general demeanour. 'I never believed what my father said,' he told Boswell; 'I always thought that he spoke ex officio, as a priest does.' Sarah made what efforts she could to break down any jealousies, teaching Samuel, at Nathaniel's christening in October 1712, to 'spell and pronounce the words little Natty, syllable by syllable' and getting him 'to say it over in the evening to her husband and his guests'. This kind of ritual, requiring him to display his talents before onlookers, soon became a source of contention. As a youngster 'in petticoats' Samuel is supposed to have trodden on a duckling, killing it, and to have made up these lines on burying it:Under this stone lyes Mr Duck Whom Samuel Johnson trode on He might have liv'd if he had luck; But then he'd been an odd one.As an adult Johnson denied the story, claiming the lines were made up by his father, 'a foolish old man, that is to say ... foolish in talking of his children'. Both his parents were in his view equally guilty of basking in the reflected glory of their precocious infant; he would often 'run up a tree when company was expected, that he might escape the plague of being showed off to them'.19The first school Samuel attended was in Dam Street, run by Dame Oliver, a widow who managed to survive by selling confectionery, tending her school and receiving charity from St Mary's. Her school was just around the corner from the bookshop but Samuel was so disabled by poor sight that he was seen home past the cesspool in the market-place. According to tradition, one day he insisted on going home alone, feeling his way on all fours, but Dame Oliver followed at a discreet distance, monitoring his progress. When he realised she was watching, he leapt up and attacked her; an early example of his fierce attachment to independence. From there he progressed to the schoolof Thomas Browne, also in Dam Street, who boasted of having once produced a spelling book which he dedicated to 'the Universe'. Browne died in July 1717 and from the inventory of his will the simplicity of his pedagogy can be gauged: in the kitchen there is 'a par-cell of old bookes' valued at 5s, and 'in ye School ... 1 Table & old cheer' at the same price. Yet from these sources Johnson learnt to read, to write, to spell correctly, and the rudiments of English syntax.20His education in Christianity began at home and was largely the work of his mother who, while he still shared a bed with her, informed him of the twofold nature of the 'future state', one part of which consisted of 'a fine place filled with happiness, called Heaven; the other a sad place, called Hell'. In his sixties Johnson recalled his mother's wonderment 'that she should begin such talk so late' of these alternative future states. He told Mrs Thrale that 'I did not respect my own mother, though I loved her'. On Easter Sunday 1716 the roof of St Mary's Church collapsed 'with a rumbling noise, upon the lower leads of the south aisle'. Some members of the congregation cried out 'murder'; others 'Oh the Presbyterians.'The church was closed for repairs and Johnson seized the opportunity to declare his opposition to further church attendance, citing his poor eyesight as his excuse.He entered Lichfield Grammar School the same year, the start of a lifelong learning process which he remembered always 'with pleasure'. 'Perhaps it is not possible that any other period can make the same impression on the memory,' he confessed.21 For two years he was in the lower school, taught by the elderly Humphrey Hawkins who indulged him with the result that he 'really excelled the rest'. Whereas most people, then and now, regard the syllabus of their schooldays as eminently forgettable, Johnson spends page after page of his Annals attempting to recreate details of a way of life which struck him with delight as the blueprint for escape. On Thursday nights and Friday mornings they studied Aesop; on Friday afternoons Quae Genus, a section of the Latin grammar introducing nouns and pronouns, which 'was to me always pleasing'. By contrast As in Praesenti, on the conjugation of verbs, 'was, I know not why, always disgusting'. That precious phrase 'I know not why' is a poor pretenceof misunderstanding the schoolboy joke which got 'arse' from As. For him, learning Latin was a feature of school life at which he excelled, which would lead away from crawling half-blind in Lichfield to a wider world, and he failed to comprehend the sniggers of boys who took amusement from the lamest of jokes. To Johnson the supposed difficulties of preparation were no such thing: 'Propria quae Maribus I could repeat without any effort of recollection. I used to repeat it to my mother and Tom Johnson.' For the first time he had a skill to be proud of, which he loved to display, being truly his and not, as the buried Duck had been, something his father had made up so poor-sighted Samuel would be one of the company. It was particularly in front of his mother, and his non-Latin-speaking cousin Tom, who was living with them at the time, that he showed off his erudition. Tom's father, Andrew, had 'kept the ring at Smithfield (where they wrestled and boxed) for a whole year, and', Johnson later boasted, 'never was thrown or conquered'.22The Latin so intoxicated Johnson that he dreamt of it: 'I once went as far as the middle of the paragraph, "Mascula dicuntur monosyllaba" in a dream', he recalled in his Annals, which are partly composed in Latin. Once, though, his memory failed and he was deeply discouraged till his mother comforted him. He told her of his 'good escape', but she was not in the least surprised: 'we often come off best when we are most afraid,' she said. She told him that when forming verbs he had once announced he 'did not form them in an ugly shape' and she had been very proud. There is an unfinished, irregular organisation to these memories in the Annals; thought follows thought seemingly at random with a 'dear mother!' interjected amid other thoughts, which 'sooth my mind'. He recalls a 'Moral' he learnt as a boy, of a man who had hated another and found that it 'had made him rich'. This he repeated 'emphatically' within his mother's hearing, but this was a test she failed. 'She remarked it, as I expected,' the elderly Johnson comments. Intentionally or not, his memory had reversed the terms of the aphorism. His mother said she could 'never conceive that riches could bring any evil', a naive enough reaction to her increasing poverty. Her son more emphatically repeated that it was hatred that had 'made him rich'.When Samuel was ten, his class of eleven pupils ('the number was always fixed in my memory') progressed to the upper school, managed by the Reverend Edward Holbrooke; 'a peevish and ill-tempered man', noted Johnson, though others disagreed. Their removal from the lower school, rather earlier than was the custom, followed a 'reproof' of Hawkins by Richard Wakefield, town clerk and Johnson's godfather, who claimed he was 'intent upon his boarders' and let the town boys fester in the lower school. Hawkins complained that 'he had lost half his profit' by the move and Johnson noted that he 'cried' at the removal. From this point on he no longer noted the pleasure of study; instead, an apparent indolence which would be characteristic of his adult enterprises crept into his work. Assigned sixteen exercises to do, he did twenty-five but 'never shewed all mine; five lay long after in a drawer in the shop'. He could work quickly, but often dawdled; he once showed his mother an exercise he had tarried over and she said she knew that he could do them but would he 'as soon as you should'?At Whitsun he and Natty were sent to stay in Birmingham ('Why such boys were sent to trouble other houses, I cannot tell'). His mother seemingly believed in widening their acquaintance on her (socially superior) side of the family. They stayed with their uncle Ford whose wife was easy, talkative but prone 'to find something to censure in the absent'; they met their uncle Harrison (whose wife had died) and their seventeen-year-old cousin Sally, about whom, Johnson remembered, he 'used to say she had no fault'.23 About his uncle Harrison Johnson was terse: 'He was a very mean and vulgar man, drunk every night, but drunk with little drink, very peevish, very proud, very ostentatious, but luckily, not rich.' As Johnson writes these memories the thoughts come flooding back; there was the boiled leg of mutton he had gorged himself on at aunt Ford's, who 'used to talk of it', and his mother had told him, seriously, 'that it would hardly ever be forgotten'; there was himself sitting, lost in thought by the kitchen window, doing his school exercise while just behind him, quite unnoticed, his cousin Sally danced. He had a deep sense of pleasure as he recalled occasional glimpses of this early, apparently charmed, life: his having a rattle to his whip; the sense oftime elapsing, while Sally danced, and he had not perceived it. 'This close attention I have seldom in my whole life obtained.'About this time, too, he found his love of Shakespeare; he was sitting in the kitchen at home one day, reading through the early pages of Hamlet, and was so moved by the ghost scene that he rushed upstairs, to the outside door, to see living people about him. In a bookseller's house he found much to lose himself among, and quickly developed his lifelong habit of reading deeply but haphazardly, never following a book to the end; often he annotated, as he did to a copy of Visscher's Atlas, numbering its pages and writing out a contents table in the back. But with these memories, the sense of deep-seated grievances returns to the Annals. His father had come to fetch his sons home on Thursday of the first school week as Johnson alone had desired him, but had called out to the ostler that 'he had twelve miles home, and two boys under his care'. That cry had deeply offended Samuel, not only taking away his independence, but lumping him in with his brother as simply 'two boys'. Little wonder that in the paragraph before are more examples of the first person singular than anywhere else in Johnson.24He recollected more of his school exercises, from Aesop to Phaedrus, the wolf and the lamb, translating and parsing. What reconciles schoolmasters to long lessons, opines Johnson (the failed schoolmaster), 'is the pleasure of tasking'. In one exercise he reverses the terms of Horace's lament that weapons used in civil strife might more properly be used to expand the empire and denounces European depredations of the world. 'Every age seems ambitious of surpassing its predecessor in wickedness', he translates: 'So insatiable is our avarice that ... new regions unknown to our ancestors are sought out, and their inhabitants subjugated.' In another exercise he takes delight in exploiting the irony that 'if crimes had not been perpetrated, no one would have made laws against them'.25 Sometimes the boys, uncertain of the meaning of a word, asked for guidance, only to find that Holbrooke himself 'did not know the meaning of Uvae Crispae' (a species of gooseberry). Upon being sent for punishment they complained they 'could not get' the passage only to be told they should have asked: they had, they said, but 'the assistant wouldnot tell us'. This is rendered quite feelingly by Johnson, who complains that their headmaster, John Hunter, was 'wrong-headedly severe. He used ... to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it.' It is the unfairness of the sentence, not its severity, that Johnson criticises, for he was a great believer in corporal punishment:I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terrour to all, to make them learn, than tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets his task, and there's an end on't; whereas by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other.26One wonders if the gentle method of'comparisons of superiority' had been tried at the bookshop in Market Street and became a reason for a growing dislike there between Samuel and Nathaniel. He himself well knew the virtues of a whipping. 'My master whipt me very well,' he told his friend Bennet Langton cheerfully. 'Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing.' These two, diametrically opposed, opinions of Hunter are quite characteristic. As Johnson grew older his impatience with the extreme tenderness and partiality of parents towards their offspring increased. Asked to listen to two boys reciting Gray's Elegy one after another, and judge which of them did it best, he protested: 'No, pray Sir, let the dears both speak it at once; more noise will by that means be made, and the noise will be sooner over.'At home he ate oatmeal porridge in the mornings before his day at school but well remembered, years later, the tarts he and Edmund Hector used to buy from the pastry cook, Dame Reid. Too blind and clumsy to be good at games, he made sure his schoolfellows knew how far he exceeded them in intellect. 'They never thought to raise me by comparing me to anyone,' he told Boswell; 'they never said, Johnson is as good a scholar as such a one; but such a one is as good a scholar as Johnson.' The 'such a one' who might have bornecomparison was Lowe, another town boy, but Johnson did not believe 'he was as good a scholar'. Hector recalled,As his uncommon abilities for learning far exceeded us, we endeavoured by every boyish piece of flattery to gain his assistance, and three of us, by turns, used to call on him in a morning, on one of whose backs, supported by the other two, he rode triumphantly to school.27Boswell in his Life calls the boys whose backs Johnson used to ride upon his 'favourites' who showed him 'submission and deference' and who, in turn, 'used to receive very liberal assistance from him'. With only such partial evidence to draw upon it is hard to be precise, but there is an unpleasant hint of bullying about this anecdote. He recalled that in winter, when the city's Stowe Pool was frozen over, he used to take 'a pleasure in being drawn upon the ice by a boy barefooted, who pulled him along by a garter fixed round him'. His intelligence and bulk combined to make him compensate for early physical weaknesses by domineering both at home and school.St Mary's Church, its repairs completed, reopened at the end of 1721, by which time Johnson was airing adolescent doubts: he 'came to be a sort of lax talker, rather against religion' and thought himself a 'clever fellow'. He 'used to talk to my mother' in just such a way, he told Boswell, showing off his cleverness. 'She ought to have whipped me for it.' Johnson's Annals, brief and interspersed as they are, cease in 1719 at the age of ten, but other records tell us of gradual family breakdown and bids for independence. Michael was always unable to meet the terms of the marriage settlement that required £100 from him, plus £200 of Sarah's dowry that should be placed in the hands of trustees. In March 1721 Dr Ford, one of the trustees, died, and responsibility passed to his son, Sarah's nephew Cornelius. Beset by problems with the excise, Michael signed a document with Cornelius Ford in September 1725, presumably at Lichfield, for it was then that Cornelius met Samuel and the two formed an immediate bond. Before long Cornelius had invited Samuel to stay with him at Pedmore.Samuel was just sixteen; Cornelius was thirty-one with a charming, sophisticated manner. He had been a Cambridge don and a London wit, knew Lord Chesterfield and Alexander Pope, and had accumulated fashionable debts which he eventually settled, equally fashionably, by marrying a rich spinster and entering the Church. He had been married for eighteen months to Judith Crowley, who was thirteen years his senior and formerly a Quaker, by the time he met Johnson. Cornelius was just the person to dazzle a bright adolescent and his importance for the young Johnson is indicated by the fact that in the Annales compiled in late 1734, Johnson mentions his visit to Ford second only to his birth. Nothing else is noted as memorable until he enters Oxford, three years later.The visit started as an autumn excursion but lasted until the following Whitsun; it was, in Johnson's view, his awakening to a world in which he felt at home. It was at Pedmore that he learnt to discuss books with Cornelius, whose 'mastery of the classics, and elegant Latin and English style was conspicuous'. He may also have attempted his first verses, 'On a Daffodill', in which, although the adjectives ('lambent zephyrs', 'balmy spirits') may be utterly conventional, the final stanza has a certain distinction:With grief this emblem of mankind I see, Like one awaken'd from a pleasing dream, Cleora's self, fair flower, shall fade like thee, Alike must fall the poet and his theme.28The personal pronoun 'I' places Johnson at the centre of his poem. Awakening from a dream may be conventional enough, but for Johnson, dreams were unpleasantly real. Much later, watching Mrs Thrale's son go off to school, he said, abruptly: 'Make your boy tell you his dreams: the first corruption that entered into my heart was communicated in a dream.' When she urged him to say more he retorted, 'Do not ask me.' Dreams of his brother Nathaniel, who died very young, were a constant source of terror in his later years.During this brief, all-important phase of his development, Johnson wrote some of the more piquant versions of Horace thatsurvive among his Juvenilia; these include Epode XI in which the poet, made voluble by drink ('when repeated bowls unlock'd the heart'), complains of the mercenary nature of even the tenderest affairs ('all the fair their favours sold'). The final stanza of the poem runs thus:Lyciscus whose soft arms excel A girl's, inflames me with desire; Nor counsels nor reproach expel The raging of the kindled fire But the next blooming virgin's beauteous face Or boy, whose snowy neck the flowing ringlets grace.29It seems unlikely that Johnson allowed himself to follow through the homosexual idea adumbrated here; the thought alone excited him. But Ford was a tempter to the young Johnson, drinking hard and daring him to experience life in all its forms. In later years he was presented to the Rectory of South Luffenham in Rutland but found it considerably less agreeable than life in London. Allegedly it was Ford who served as model for the drunken clergyman, smoking his pipe and contemplating a vast punch-bowl, in Hogarth's A Midnight Modern Conversation from 1733. As Johnson left, Ford gave him, as a final thought, the advice to 'dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence' that they might 'more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer'. It was not advice that Johnson ever followed, though the image of Ford remained with him for many years.30When he returned home it was inevitable he should suffer a reverse, quarrelling with his younger brother, tiring of both his father and his somewhat snobbish mother. He was cock among his fellows, riding on their backs to class, and felt no anxiety at taking six months away from school. But revenge was waiting. Hunter, resentful at his pupil's arrogance, refused to have him back; attempts were made to get him to Newport School in Shropshire, but without success. In the end it was Ford who intervened to get him admitted to school at Stourbridge, to live in the headmaster's house, giving rise to one of the smart epigrams for which Johnson was becoming noted. In Lichfield, he claimed, he learnt 'nothing from the master but a gooddeal in his school', whereas at Stourbridge the situation was reversed: he learnt 'a great deal from the master but nothing in his school'. The headmaster was John Wentworth and probably, in return for teaching the youngest boys, Johnson paid nothing for his own instruction. It was a time of arrogance and untrustworthiness; Johnson was, he confesses, 'idle, mischievous, and stole'; what he stole is unknown, but the statement is interesting for the truculence it reveals. Wentworth was good, but lazy; 'a very able man, but an idle man', said Johnson. He himself was a 'big boy', full of his own abilities and ready to mock anyone who pretended to teach him. 'I was too good a scholar,' he commented boastfully. 'He could get no honour by me.'31From some translations of his surviving Latin verse exercises we can judge how good his vaunted scholarship was. His versions of Virgil are conventional enough, but those of Horace involve him more directly; much later he told Boswell that Horace's odes were the poems which gave him most delight. There is a noticeable antithesis between his translation of Horace's Ode II.xx and his English poem 'Festina Lente' which appears to have been written immediately afterwards. 32 In the ode a strong first-person voice ponders on literary fame; like a bird the poet will soar:I spring,And cut with joy the wond'ring skies.Though 'from no princes I descend', his talent shall take him to 'Quaff nectar with th'immortal Gods' and 'My works shall propagate my fame'. By using an unusual word ('unballast'), previously employed by Addison, Johnson appears to give the poem a personal edge. But in 'Festina Lente' he presents the other side of the dilemma.Be careful to command Your passion ...it advises, strongly urging a pursuit of reason to 'guide the reins with steady hand'. Opposed to the rush of the ode, the steady pentameters of this poem have a clear target: 'Rashness! thou spring from whence misfortunes flow!' For Johnson the antithesis was clear.33 The poem'Upon the Feast of St Simon and St Jude' indicates he was still in Stourbridge on 28 October but left soon afterwards to return to Lichfield where bookselling seemed still his likeliest career option. He may have desired to quaff nectar with the gods, but he realised that his father, however capable as a bibliophile, was sinking further into debt: that year it was £10 he borrowed from Richard Rider, but loans from friends became a regular expedient.The previous year Michael had been charged with matters arising from the excise. In a private note the commissioner wrote that 'the justices would not give judgement against Mr Michael Johnson, the tanner', and advocated that 'next time he offends', instead of making the information public, it would be better to convey the matter privately, with an affidavit, 'that he may be prosecuted in the Exchequer'. Johnson was of an age to defy his father at every turn ('there must always be a struggle between a father and son') but when in the Dictionary, long after Michael's death, he defined collectors of excise as 'wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid', this memory must have been in his mind.34 Michael was elected senior bailiff to coincide, quite fortuitously, with these excise troubles, his name having been proposed, unsuccessfully, in 1722 and 1724. He appears not to have been particularly assiduous as a magistrate, attending only six of the fourteen 'Common Halls' in his first year. But he attracted no fine, and avoided all charges from the excise, running the Quarter Sessions alongside Jonathan Kilbey with whom he swore his oath of fidelity to the crown. The child of an old man, said Johnson, 'leads much the same sort of life as a child's dog; teased like that with fondness through folly, and exhibited like that to every company, through idle and empty vanity'.35Many years later, when Johnson's reputation was established, he could return to the Lichfield bookshop, pull down a book and recollect its binding 'to be the work of his own hands'. But this routine was a display, designed to shock more genteel company and prove there were few things he could not achieve. At the time, he disliked the book trade intensely, both for itself, and for the fence it put before his ambitions. 'When I was running about this town a very poor fellow, I was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty,' he declared, 'but Iwas, at the same time, very sorry to be poor.' Throughout the next two years he read widely, looking in 'a great many books, which were not commonly known at the universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into their hands by their tutors'. He read Latin and Greek, 'all literature, Sir, all ancient writers, all manly'; when upbraided for not paying enough attention to the shop, he replied that 'to supersede the pleasures of reading, by the attentions of traffic, was a task he never could master'.36As a teenager he came to know Gilbert Walmesley, a middle-aged native of the city who had studied at Trinity College, Oxford and at the Inner Temple. Crippled by gout, Walmesley now maintained himself in some style in the bishop's palace in Lichfield. In his younger days he had been a figure in London society, spending time with the literary figures, discussing with them Swift's Conduct of the Allies and agreeing 'how low human nature is sometimes capable of sinking'.37 His rabid anti-government Whiggery caused occasional difficulties and when the pro-Tory Peace of Utrecht was proclaimed in Lichfield by the pealing of bells, he left the city, 'as 'tis supposed', The Post Boy reported, 'disturbed by the music of the bells'. Perhaps on account of the violence of his opinions, he became known to Johnson through the bookshop, which sent a regular series of books and pamphlets to the bishop's palace. Johnson later acknowledged that Walmesley was 'one of the first friends that literature procured me' and in The Lives of the Poets he gives a frank estimate of their relationship.He was of an advanced age, and I was only not a boy; yet he never received my notions with contempt. He was a Whig, with all the virulence and malevolence of his party; yet difference of opinion did not keep us apart. I honoured him, and he endured me. He had mingled with the gay world without exemption from its vices or its follies, but had never neglected the cultivation of his mind; his belief of Revelation was unshaken; his learning preserved his principles; he grew first regular, and then pious ... Such was his amplitude of learning and such his copiousness of communication that it may be doubted whether a day now passes in which I have not some advantage from his friendship.38Just as at Pedmore where the older, more cultivated Ford led Johnson to sharpen his wits, so at Lichfield's bishop's palace he found someone who would let him speak his mind and argue against him with wit and fervour. Many years later Johnson told the novelist and diarist Fanny Burney: 'When I was beginning the world, and was nothing and nobody, the joy of my life was to fire at all the established wits! And then everybody loved to halloo me on.' Walmesley loved his spark of wit and Johnson found an environment in which his physical disabilities, his near-blindness and tendency to shake were as nothing compared to the lucidity of his speech. When, some years later, the bishop attempted to regain his rightful possession of the palace the tone of Walmesley's letters gives an indication of his style of argument. 'I thank God, I am not more afraid of him than I am of the lowest curate in the diocese,' he wrote to the bishop's son, warning that his father should beware of 'needless oppressive lawsuits'. Though Walmesley and Johnson argued fiercely, indeed because they did, a bond was forged between them. Years later Johnson declared, 'There was a violent Whig with whom I used to contend with great eagerness. After his death I felt my Toryism much abated.' Undoubtedly he was thinking of Gilbert Walmesley.39Copyright © 2010 by David Nokes
Meet the Author
David Nokes is the author of a biography of Jane Austen published in 1997. A professor of English literature at King's College, London, Nokes also teaches creative writing at the university. He has previously written a novel and a television drama and adapted classics for the screen. His reviews appear often in The Times Literary Supplement.
David Nokes is the author of a biography of Jane Austen published in 1997. A professor of English literature at King’s College, London, Nokes also teaches creative writing at the university. He has previously written a novel and a television drama and adapted classics for the screen. His reviews appear often in The Times Literary Supplement.
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