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LIFE OF JOHNSON,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
THE admission of Dr. Johnson's poems into the supplement to his own collection, published in 1793, renders some account of his life necessary in this place. I am aware that the following is short and may not be thought satisfactory, for what can be satisfactory to those who have read Mr. Boswell's very interesting volumes, and who that has read them is unacquainted with the mind, the habits, the genius of Dr. Johnson ? Still as some account is indispensible to preserve the uniformity, of our plan, an attempt has been made to compress the leading events of his life in a sbort narrative, which may perhaps refresh the memory, although it can add no. thing to the vast fund of information already before the public.
This highly distinguished writer was born on the 18th of September 1709, at Litchfield in Staffordshire, where his father Michael Johnson, a native of Derby, shire, of obscure extraction, was at that time a bookseller and stationer. Hin mother, Sarah Ford, was a native of Warwickshire, and sister to Dr. Ford, phy, sician, who was father to Cornelius Ford, a clergyman of loose character, whom Hogarth has satirized in one of the prints of his Modern Midnight Conversation.
Our author was the eldest of two sons. Nathaniel, the youngest, died in 1737, in his twenty-fifth year. The father was a man of robust body and active mind, yet occasionally depressed by melancholy, which Samuel inherited, and, with the aid of a stronger mind, was not always able to shake off. He was also a steady high-churchman, and an adherent of the house of Stuart, a prejudice which his son outlived in the nation at large, without entirely conquering in himself. Mrs. Johnson was a woman of good natural understanding, unimproved by education, and our author acknowledged, with gratitude, that she endeavoured to instil sentiments of piety as soon as he was capable of any instruction. There is little else in his family history worthy of notice, nor had he much pleasure in tracing his pedigree. He venerated others, however, who could produce a recorded ancestry; and used to say, that in him this was disinterested, for he could scarcely tell who was his grandfather.
That he was remarkable in his early years has been supposed, but many proofs have not been advanced by his biographers. He had, indeed, a retentire me. mory, and soon discovered symptoms of an impetuous temper, but these circum. stances are not enough to distinguish him from hundreds of children who never at tain eminence. In his infancy he was afflicted with the scrophula, which injured his sight, and he was carried to London to receive the royal touch from the hand of queen Anne, the last of our sovereigns who encouraged that popular superstition.
He was first taught to read English by a woman who kept a school for young children at Litchfield, and afterwards by one Brown, Latin he learned at Litchfield-school, under Mr. Hunter, a man of severe discipline, but an attentive teacher. Johuson owned that he needed correction, and that his master did not spare him, but this instead of being the cause of unpleasant recollections in his advanced life, served only to convince him that severity in school-education is nee cessary, and in all his conversations on the subject, he persisted in pleading for a liberal use of the rod.
At this school his superiority was soon acknowledged by his companions, who could not refuse submission to the ascendancy which he acquired. His proficiency, however, as in every part of his life, exceeded his apparent diligence. He could learn more than others in the same allotted time, and he was learning when he seemed to be idle. He betrayed an early aversion to stated tasks, but, if roused, he could recover the time he appeared to have lost with great facility. Yet he seems afterwards to have been conscious that much depends on regularity of study, and we find him often prescribing to himself stated portions of reading, and recommending the same to others. No man perhaps was ever more sensible of his failings, or avowed them with more candour, nor, indeed, would many of them have been known, if he had not exhibited them as warnings.
His memory was uncommonly tenacious, and to his last days he prided himself on it, considering a defect of memory as the prelude of total decay. Perhaps he carried this doctrine rather too far, when he asserted that the occasional failure of memory in a man of seventy must imply something radically wrong; but it may be in general allowed that the memory is a pretty accurate standard of mental strength.
Although his weak sight prevented him from joining in the amusements of his school-fellows, for which he was otherwise well qualified by personal courage and an ambition to excell, he found an equivalent pleasure in sauntering in the fields, or reading such books as came into his way, particulárly old romances. For these he retained a fondness throughout life, but was wise and candid enough to attribute to them, in some degree, that unsettled turn of mind which prevented his fixing in any profession.
About the age of fifteen, he paid a long visit to his uncle Cornelius Ford, but on his return his master, Hunter, refused to receive him again on the foundation of Litchfield-school; what his reasons were is not known. He was now remored to the school of Stourbridge in Worcestershire, where he remained about a year, with very little acquisition of knowledge but here, as well as at Lichfield, he gave several proofs of his inclination to poetry, and afterwards published some of
these juvenile productions in the Gentleman's Magazine. From Stourbridge he l'eturned home, where he remained about two years, without any regular appli. cation. His time, however, was not entirely wasted, as he employed it in read. ing many of the ancient writers, and stored his mind with so much various information, that when he went to Oxford, Dr. Adams said he 6 was the best qualified for the university that he had ever known come there."
By what means his father was enabled to defray the expense of an university education has not been very accurately told. It is generally reported that he went to assist the studies of a young gentleman of the name of Corbet. His friend, Dr. Taylor, assured Mr. Boswell, that he never could have gone to college, had not a gentleman of Shropshire, one of his school.fellows, spontaneously under, taken to support him at Oxford, in the character of his companion, though, in fact, he never received any assistance whatever from that gentleman. however, entered a commoner of Pembroke College on the 31st October 1728. His tutor was Mr. Jordan, a fellow of Pembroke, a man whom Johnson men, tioned with respect many years after, but to whose instructions he did not pay much regard, except that he formally attended his lectures, as well as those in the College-hall. It was at Jordan's request that be translated Pope's Messiah into Latin verse, as a Christmas exercise. Pope is said to have expressed his high approbation of it, but critics in that language, among whom Pope could never be ranked, have not considered Johnson's Latin poems as the happiest of his compositions. When Jordan left college to accept of a living, Johuson became a scholar of Dr. Adams, who was afterwards the head of Pembroke, and with whom Johnson maintained a strict friendship to the last hour of his life.
During the vacation, in the following year, he suffered severely by an attack of his constitutional melancholy, accompanied by alternate irritation, fretfulness and languor. It appears, however, that he resisted his disorder by every effort of a great inind, and proved that it did not arise from want of mental resources, or weakness of understanding. On his return to the university, he probably con, tinued his desultory manner of reading, and occasionally formed resolutions of re. gular study, in which he seldom persisted. Among his companions he was looked up to as a young man of wit and spirit, singular and unequal in temper, impatient of college rules, and not over respectful to his seniors. Such at least seems to be the result of Mr. Boswell's inquiries, but little is known with certainty, except what is painful to relate, that he either put on an air of gaiety to conccal his ansious cares, or secluded himself from company that that poverty might not be known which at length compelled him to leave college without a degree.
He now (1731) returned to Litchfield, with very gloomy prospects. His father died a few months after his return,and the little he left behind him was barely suf. ficient for the temporary support of his widow. In the following year our author accepted the place of usher of the school of Market Bosworth in Leicestershire, an employment which the pride of sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron, soon rendered irksome, and he threw it up in a disgust which recurred whenever he recollected this part of his history. For six months after, he resided at Birmingham as the guest of Mr. Hector, an eminent surgeon, and is supposed during that time to have fur. nished some periodical essays for a newspaper printed by Warren a bookseller iu