The Life of Samuel Johnson

My photo: Two editions of Boswell’s ‘Life’ are open. The one on the left describes his first meeting with Johnson. The one on the right gives the quotation ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. This edition also shows the year and Johnson’s age at the top of the page, which is a very useful aid. John Wain’s biography is in the centre and Walter Jackson Bate’s is on the left. On the right is an edition of Johnson’s main works.

James Boswell

Now we come to Johnson, who has made an occasional appearance on the bookshelf already. It is hard not to quote Johnson. More exactly, it is hard not to quote from Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’, where Johnson’s conversation is noted down as if Boswell had a mini recording device in his pocket over two hundred years before it was invented.

Johnson is more read about than read. For every person that opens his articles in ‘The Rambler’, his short novel ‘Rasselas’, his poem ‘London’, his Lives of the Poets, his edition of Shakespeare or even his great Dictionary, there must be a thousand who read Boswell’s biography.

Boswell was only 22 when he met Johnson in Tom Davies’ bookshop in Covent Garden. Johnson was 54. It says much for Boswell’s perseverance that he became Johnson’s friend as he received several rebuffs at that first meeting. But Boswell did have a certain resilience. He was like Lucio in ‘Measure for Measure’, impossible to shake off.  “I am a kind of burr. I shall stick”, said Lucio, and Boswell was the same.

If you can, in addition to the ‘Life’, read something Johnson wrote. Perhaps start with something light. Here’s a poem.

“Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,

Wearing out life’s evening grey,

Smite thy bosom, sage and tell,

What is bliss? and which the way.?”

Thus I spoke and speaking sighed;

Scarce repressed the starting tear;

When the hoary sage reply’d

“Come my lad, and drink some beer!”

This from the great authority on literature! With Johnson you can never tell what is around the next corner!

 Johnson’s life seems to inspire biographers. Examples are John Wain (no, not John Wayne) and Walter Jackson Bate. Both their works have the same title, ‘Samuel Johnson’. 

Both biographers are kind and loyal to Johnson. Like Boswell, who set a very high standard in kindness and loyalty, they try to be fair and mention Johnson’s struggles as well as his triumphs. In fact, it is in his struggles that we admire Johnson most. Many people can be clever and witty but to battle for a lifetime against mental and physical obstacles is not so common.

Mental health is at last a subject which can be discussed openly and sensibly. Johnson had to deal with it from adolescence onwards. He had a lifetime struggle against unwanted and intrusive thoughts, but he did not give up. He waged his private war to the end.

Let us not ask where Johnson might have been placed on the spectrum of autism. Or how each bright sally of wit was counterbalanced by thoughts of gloom and hours of depression.  

So many readers see that he has walked a difficult path long before them and that wherever they may go in life, ‘they meet Johnson on his way back’, to use a phrase from John Wain.

As you travel through Boswell’s ‘Life’, there are several visits to make on the way: his journey to London with David Garrick, the work on the Dictionary, The Letter to Chesterfield, the meetings of The Club, his journey to Scotland with Boswell, his time at the Thrales’ house in Streatham and more. Enjoy them.

Don’t miss his carousing in the early hours of the morning with Bennet Langton and Topham Beauclerk. What impressive names people had in the 18th century! Langton had sought out Johnson’s company because as a boy he had been so impressed by Johnson’s essays in The Rambler. Just as Boswell had.  At Trinity College, Oxford, Langton met Topham Beauclerk. One evening the two stayed drinking late in London and at 3 in the morning they decided to visit Johnson and suggest a walk around the city. They went to his lodgings and shouted at the door till they woke him up. The three went out together, first to the market at Covent Garden and then for a row in a boat on the Thames. Finally, Langton left them as he had arranged to have breakfast with some ladies. What state he was in for the breakfast party is not known. Nor do we know how long Johnson and Beauclerk carried on together after Langton left them.

It is very difficult to record conversations as Boswell did. Try it some time. Did Boswell always get it absolutely right? Is it word for word? Surely sometimes he had to fill in gaps when his memory failed him. Probably the key expressions are authentic as, for example, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Johnson seems to have inspired others to be witty too. In the street he met a Mr Edwards whom he had not seen for nearly 50 years when they were students at Oxford together. They went back to Johnson’s house reminiscing. ‘You are a philosopher, Dr Johnson,’ said Edwards. ‘I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher, but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.’ Such was normal conversation in those days, and we must thank Boswell for recording it.

At Johnson death, his friend William Hamilton said, “Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody. No man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

If you are in London, go to Gough Square near Fleet Street and visit the house where Johnson lived when he produced his Dictionary. It took him nine years. You can visit the large room at the top of the house where he had six scribes who wrote down the definitions as Johnson dictated them.

Johnson is known for his dislike of the Scots. This became a joke rather than reality.  Boswell was Scottish. Five of Johnson’s six scribes were Scottish too. They needed work and Johnson helped them. In fact, Johnson had several lodgers. Robert Levet and Miss Williams were two of them. Read Johnson’s poem ‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’. Without Johnson’s kindness these people would have been hard put to have anywhere to live. He helped them and they gave him company, which he valued as he hated being alone.

When someone commented to Oliver Goldsmith that Johnson had given a room in his house to Robert Levet, Goldsmith said, ‘He is poor and honest, which is recommendation enough to Johnson’. What better compliment can anyone be paid?

So read Boswell’s ‘Life’. It’s incomparable. You can flit around and open it at any point. To borrow Hamilton’s phrase, and use it for biographers, we could say “No man can be said to put you in mind of Boswell.”  

As for other things, my play on Johnson is on this site. Read that if you have time. It is yet another picture of the man. Read the excellent biographies by John Wain and Walter Jackson Bate. But in the end, you will always return to ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’. There is no substitute for Boswell.