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Samuel Johnson Essay On Epitaphs For Mother

Samuel Johnson (18 September1709 [7 September O.S.] – 13 December1784) was a Britishauthor, linguist and lexicographer. He is often referred to as simply Dr. Johnson in the history of literature and is regarded as the greatest man of letters in English history.


  • By Numbers here from Shame or Censure free,
    All Crimes are safe, but hated Poverty.
    This, only this, the rigid Law persues,
    This, only this, provokes the snarling Muse.
  • Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest,
    Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest
  • This mournful truth is ev'rywhere confessed —
    Slow rises worth, by poverty depressed.
  • Unmoved though Witlings sneer and Rivals rail,
    Studious to please, yet not ashamed to fail.

    He scorns the meek address, the suppliant strain.
    With merit needless, and without it vain.
    In Reason, Nature, Truth, he dares to trust:
    Ye Fops, be silent: and ye Wits, be just.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Prologue
  • A thousand horrid Prodigies foretold it.
    A feeble government, eluded Laws,
    A factious Populace, luxurious Nobles,
    And all the maladies of stinking states.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Act I, Sc. 1
  • To-morrow's action! Can that hoary wisdom,
    Borne down with years, still doat upon tomorrow!
    That fatal mistress of the young, the lazy,
    The coward, and the fool, condemn'd to lose
    A useless life in waiting for to-morrow,
    To gaze with longing eyes upon to-morrow,
    Till interposing death destroys the prospect
    Strange! that this general fraud from day to day
    Should fill the world with wretches undetected.

    The soldier, labouring through a winter's march,
    Still sees to-morrow drest in robes of triumph;
    Still to the lover's long-expecting arms
    To-morrow brings the visionary bride.
    But thou, too old to hear another cheat,
    Learn, that the present hour alone is man's.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Act III, Sc. 2
  • There Poetry shall tune her sacred voice,
    And wake from ignorance the Western World.
    • The Tragedy of Irene (1749), Act IV, Sc. 1
  • It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say.
  • Liberty is, to the lowest rank of every nation, little more than the choice of working or starving.
  • Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little.
    • Letter from Johnson to John Taylor, 18 August 1763. The Yale Book of Quotations edited by Fred R. Shapiro, pg 400.
  • I have always suspected that the reading is right, which requires many words to prove it wrong; and the emendation wrong, that cannot without so much labour appear to he right.
    • The Plays of William Shakespeare, Vol. I (1765), Preface
  • The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.
    • A Review of Soame Jenyns' A Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, published in the first volume of Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces (London, 1774), p. 23
  • Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.
  • That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.
    • A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), Inch Kenneth
  • There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good.
  • How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?
    • Taxation No Tyranny (1775)
  • There is no wisdom in useless and hopeless sorrow; but there is something in it so like virtue, that he who is wholly without it cannot be loved.
  • I am inclined to believe that few attacks either of ridicule or invective make much noise, but by the help of those they provoke.
  • Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.
    • Prayers and Meditations, No. 1770 (1785)
  • This world, where much is to be done and little to be known.
    • Prayers and Meditations, Against Inquisitive and Perplexing Thoughts (1785)
  • Here closed in death th' attentive eyes
    That saw the manners in the face.
    • Epitaph on Hogarth (1786)
  • Catch then, O! catch the transient hour,
    Improve each moment as it flies;
    Life's a short Summer — man a flower,
    He dies — alas! how soon he dies!
    • Winter, An Ode. The works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1787), p. 355
  • He who praises everybody praises nobody.
    • Johnson's Works (1787), vol. XI, p. 216; This set included the Life of Samuel Johnson by Sir John Hawkins
  • Books that you may carry to the fire, and hold readily in your hand, are the most useful after all.
  • Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement; but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.
    • Attributed in Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1824) by Colonel Peter Hawker
  • Round numbers are always false.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 2, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 6, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek.
    • Quoted in the "Apophthegms, Sentiments, Opinions and Occasional Reflections" of Sir John Hawkins (1787-1789) in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 11, edited by George Birkbeck Hill
  • Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.
    • Quoted in Anecdotes of Johnson by Hannah More in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897), vol. II, p. 197, edited by George Birkbeck Hill. More had quoted this remark in a letter to her sister (April 1782)
  • From Thee, great God: we spring, to Thee we tend,
    Path, motive, guide, original, and end.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 257
  • Let me rejoice in the light which Thou hast imparted; let me serve Thee with active zeal, humbled confidence, and wait with patient expectation for the time in which the soul which Thou receivest shall be satisfied with knowledge.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 613
  • A desire for knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all he has to get knowledge.
    • Dr. Johnson’s Table Talk (London: 1807), p. 64
  • The richest author that ever grazed the common of literature.
    • Of John Campbell, as quoted by Joseph Wharton; reported in "John Campbell", Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)
  • There can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity.
  • The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.

Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane Theatre (1747)[edit]

  • When learning's triumph o'er her barb'rous foes
    First reared the stage, immortal Shakespeare rose;
    Each change of many-colored life he drew,
    Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new:
    Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign,
    And panting Time toiled after him in vain.
  • Cold approbation gave the ling'ring bays,
    For those who durst not censure, scarce could praise.
  • Declamation roared, while Passion slept.
  • Ah! let not Censure term our fate our choice,
    The stage but echoes back the public's voice;
    The drama's laws the drama's patrons give,
    For we that live to please must please to live.

Vanity of Human Wishes (1749)[edit]

  • Let observation with extensive view
    Survey mankind, from China to Peru.
    • Line 1; comparable to: "All human race, from China to Peru, Pleasure, howe’er disguis’d by art, pursue", Thomas Warton, Universal Love of Pleasure
  • But, scarce observ'd, the knowing and the bold
    Fall in the gen'ral massacre of gold.
  • Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
    And pause a while from learning to be wise.
    There mark what ills the scholar's life assail —
    Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
  • A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
    No dangers fright him, and no labors tire.
  • He left the name at which the world grew pale,
    To point a moral, or adorn a tale.
  • "Enlarge my life with multitude of days!"
    In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays:
    Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
    That life protracted is protracted woe.
  • An age that melts in unperceiv'd decay,
    And glides in modest innocence away.
  • Superfluous lags the vet'ran on the stage.
  • Fears of the brave, and follies of the wise!
    From Marlb'rough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
    And Swift expires, a driv'ler and a show.
  • Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
    Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
  • For patience, sov'reign o'er transmuted ill.
  • With these celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
    And makes the happiness she does not find.

The Rambler (1750–1752)[edit]

Rambler texts (1750) - Rambler texts (1751 - 1752)
  • A transition from an author's book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.
  • All the performances of human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance: it is by this that the quarry becomes a pyramid, and that distant countries are united with canals. If a man was to compare the effect of a single stroke of the pick-axe, or of one impression of the spade, with the general design and last result, he would be overwhelmed by the sense of their disproportion; yet those petty operations, incessantly continued, in time surmount the greatest difficulties, and mountains are levelled, and oceans bounded, by the slender force of human beings.
    It is therefore of the utmost importance that those, who have any intention of deviating from the beaten roads of life, and acquiring a reputation superior to names hourly swept away by time among the refuse of fame, should add to their reason, and their spirit, the power of persisting in their purposes; acquire the art of sapping what they cannot batter, and the habit of vanquishing obstinate resistance by obstinate attacks.
  • The student who would build his knowledge on solid foundations, and proceed by just degrees to the pinnacles of truth, is directed by the great philosopher of France to begin by doubting of his own existence. In like manner, whoever would complete any arduous and intricate enterprise, should, as soon as his imagination can cool after the first blaze of hope, place before his own eyes every possible embarrassment that may retard or defeat him. He should first question the probability of success, and then endeavour to remove the objections that he has raised.
  • He that would pass the latter part of life with honour and decency, must, when he is young, consider that he shall one day be old; and remember, when he is old, that he has once been young.
  • Frugality may be termed the daughter of Prudence, the sister of Temperance and the parent of Liberty.
  • Hope is necessary in every condition. The miseries of poverty, of sickness, or captivity, would, without this comfort, be insupportable; nor does it appear that the happiest lot of terrestrial existence can set us above the want of this general blessing; or that life, when the gifts of nature and of fortune are accumulated upon it, would not still be wretched, were it not elevated and delighted by the expectation of some new possession, of some enjoyment yet behind, by which the wish shall at last be satisfied, and the heart filled up to its utmost extent.
  • As it is necessary not to invite robbery by supineness, so it is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.
    • No. 79 (18 December 1750)
  • There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.
  • To convince any man against his will is hard, but to please him against his will is justly pronounced by Dryden to be above the reach of human abilities.
  • In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.
    • No. 96 (16 February 1751)
  • Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
  • No man is much pleased with a companion, who does not increase, in some respect, his fondness for himself.
  • No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.
  • Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.
  • No oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority.
  • That he delights in the misery of others no man will confess, and yet what other motive can make a father cruel?
  • The unjustifiable severity of a parent is loaded with this aggravation, that those whom he injures are always in his sight.
  • Avarice is generally the last passion of those lives of which the first part has been squandered in pleasure, and the second devoted to ambition.
  • Every man is rich or poor according to the proportion between his desires and his enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession, and he that teaches another to long for what he never shall obtain is no less an enemy to his quiet than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.
  • But, perhaps, the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some rare or abstruse sentiment, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truth in few words.
    • No. 175 (19 November 1751)

A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)[edit]

  • I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.
  • Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.
  • It is the fate of those, who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries, whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which Learning and Genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.
  • CLUB — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.
  • ESSAY — A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
  • EXCISE — A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.
  • GRUBSTREET — The name of a street near Moorsfield, London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems.
  • LEXICOGRAPHER — A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.
  • NETWORK — Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
  • OATS — A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
  • PATRON, n. One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is repaid in flattery.
  • PENSION — An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.

The Idler (1758–1760)[edit]

Full text online
  • It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.
  • Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty.
  • Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.
    • No. 30 (November 11, 1758)
  • I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lies.
    • No. 30 (November 11, 1758)
  • The joy of life is variety; the tenderest love requires to be renewed by intervals of absence.
    • No. 39 (January 13, 1759)
  • Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is, therefore, become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetick. Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.
    • No. 40 (January 20, 1759)
  • He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty.
  • Pleasure is very seldom found where it is sought. Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks. The flowers which scatter their odours from time to time in the paths of life, grow up without culture from seeds scattered by chance. Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.
  • Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
  • It is seldom that we find either men or places such as we expect them. ... Yet it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction.
  • He that thinks with more extent than another will want words of larger meaning; he that thinks with more subtilty will seek for terms of more nice discrimination; and where is the wonder, since words are but the images of things, that he who never knew the original should not know the copies?
    Yet vanity inclines us to find faults any where rather than in ourselves. He that reads and grows no wiser, seldom suspects his own deficiency; but complains of hard words and obscure sentences, and asks why books are written which cannot be understood?
  • The act of writing itself distracts the thoughts, and what is read twice is commonly better remembered than what is transcribed.
    • No. 74 (September 15, 1759)
  • We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know, because they have never deceived us.
    • No. 80 (October 27, 1759)

The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759)[edit]

Full text online
  • Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
  • "I fly from pleasure," said the prince, "because pleasure has ceased to please; I am lonely because I am miserable, and am unwilling to cloud with my presence the happiness of others."
  • Nothing … will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.
  • To a poet nothing can be useless.
  • [The poet] must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as a being superior to time and place.
  • Humanlife is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed.
  • A man used to vicissitudes is not easily dejected.
  • Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.
  • Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanicks laughs at strength.
    • Chapter 13; variant with modernized spelling: Knowledge is more than equivalent to force. The master of mechanics laughs at strength.
  • I live in the crowd of jollity, not so much to enjoy company as to shun myself.
  • Many things difficult to design prove easy to performance.
  • Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.
  • The first years of man must make provision for the last.
  • But it is evident, that these bursts of universal distress are more dreaded than felt; thousands and ten thousands flourish in youth, and wither in age, without the knowledge of any other than domestic evils, and share the same pleasures and vexa­tions, whether their kings are mild or cruel, whether the armies of their country pursue their enemies or retreat before them.
  • Example is always more efficacious than precept.
  • Such is the common process of marriage. A youth and maiden meeting by chance, or brought together by artifice, exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and dream of one another. Having little to divert attention, or diversify thought, they find themselves uneasy when they are apart, and therefore conclude that they shall be happy together. They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty.
  • That the dead are seen no more,” said Imlac, “I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and of all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth: those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence, and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.
    “Yet I do not mean to add new terrors to those which have already seized upon Pekuah. There can be no reason why spectres should haunt the Pyramid more than other places, or why they should have power or will to hurt innocence and purity. Our entrance is no violation of their privileges: we can take nothing from them; how, then, can we offend them?”
  • The endearing elegance of female friendship.
  • The world is not yet exhausted: let me see something to-morrow which I never saw before.
  • "Some," answered Imlac, "have indeed said that the soul is material, but I can scarcely believe that any man has thought it, who knew how to think; for all the conclusions of reason enforce the immateriality of mind, and all the notices of sense and investigations of science, concur to prove the unconsciousness of matter.
  • [Imlac continues] "It was never supposed that cogitation is inherent in matter, or that every particle is a thinking being. Yet, if any part of matter be devoid of thought, what part can we suppose to think? Matter can differ from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of motion: to which of these, however varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed? To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly one way or another, are modes of material existence, all equally alien from the nature of cogitation. If matter be once without thought, it can only be made to think by some new modification, but all the modifications which it can admit are equally unconnected with cogitative powers."

The Patriot (1774)[edit]

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  • It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.
    A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
  • Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.
  • Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country.
  • The greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent.
  • A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion. The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past.

Lives of the English Poets (1779–81)[edit]

  • The true Genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.
  • Those writers who lay on the watch for novelty, could have little hope of greatness; for great things cannot have escaped former observation.
  • Language is the dress of thought.
  • Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.
  • New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.
  • Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.
  • Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.
  • 'Paradise Lost' is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.
  • He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank verse: but those that hope only to please must condescend to rhyme.
  • It is not by comparing line with line, that the merit of great works is to be estimated, but by their general effects and ultimate result. It is easy to note a weak line, and write one more vigorous in its place; to find a happiness of expression in the original, and transplant it by force into the version: but what is given to the parts may be subducted from the whole, and the reader may be weary, though the critick may commend. Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention. That book is good in vain, which the reader throws away. He only is the master, who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveller casts upon departing day.
  • He delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning.
  • The Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.
  • His [David Garrick's] death has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.

Elegy on the Death of Mr. Robert Levet, A Practiser in Physic (1783)[edit]

Published in The British Magazine and Review, Volume 3 (August 1783), p. 136-137.
The magazine notes: This gentleman, who was patronized while living, and is so elegantly praised now dead, by Dr. Samuel Johnson, had for some years an apartment assigned him in the doctor's house, and a constant place at his table. He was a native of Hull, in Yorkshire; and, though not regularly bred to physic, had acquired a considerable degree of knowledge in the healing art. The nature of his practice, as well as it's success, may be gathered from the eulogium of his, benevolent patron. He died the 17th of January 1782.
  • Officious, innocent, sincere,
    Of every friendless name the friend.
  • In misery's darkest cavern known,
    His useful care was ever nigh
    Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,
    And lonely want retir'd to die.
  • And sure th' Eternal Master found
    His single talent well employ'd.
  • Then with no throbs of fiery pain,
    No cold gradations of decay,
    Death broke at once the vital chain,
    And freed his soul the nearest way.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785)[edit]

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell
  • A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly. The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge. Consider, sir; what is the purpose of courts of justice? It is, that every man may have his cause fairly tried, by men appointed to try causes. A lawyer is not to tell what he knows to be a lie: he is not to produce what he knows to be a false deed; but he is not to usurp the province of the jury and of the judge, and determine what shall be the effect of evidence — what shall be the result of legal argument.
  • If lawyers were to undertake no causes till they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found a very just claim.
  • I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.
  • A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly.
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned ... A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.
    • August 31 and September 23, 1773
    • Also quoted in Boswell's Life of Johnson
  • I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.
  • Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to everything.
  • Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people.
  • A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
    • October 5, 1773
    • Recounted as a common saying of physicians at the time.
  • Come, let me know what it is that makes a Scotchman happy!
    • October 23, 1773
    • Ordering a glass of whisky for himself

Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson (1786)[edit]

Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, by Mrs. Piozzi (1786)
  • If the man who turnips cries,
    Cry not when his father dies,
    'Tis a proof that he had rather
    Have a turnip than his father.
  • He was a very good hater.
  • The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public.
  • It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.
  • I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.
  • There is in this world no real delight (excepting those of sensuality), but exchange of ideas in conversation.

Letters to and from Dr. Samuel Johnson[edit]

  • Sir, what is Poetry? Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is: but it is not easy to tell what it is.
    • Letter to James Macpherson, 20 June 1778. (Quotation used as epigram to Władysław Tatarkiewicz, "Dwa pojęcia poezji" ("Two Concepts of Poetry"), in Tatarkiewicz's book, Parerga, Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1978, pp. 20–38.)

Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson, by Hester Lynch Piozzi (1788)

  • The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.
  • Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)[edit]

The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell. The following page numbers are taken from the Great Books edition (see Sources), which is fairly easy to find in U.S. public libraries.

Vol I[edit]

  • Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs all his faculties.
  • I'll come no more behind your scenes, David [Garrick]; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities.
  • Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it.
    • February 7, 1754 (Letter to Lord Chesterfield)
  • [Of Lord Chesterfield] This man, I thought, had been a Lord among wits; but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords!
  • A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
    • 1754, p. 72 (n. 4)
    • Referring to critics
  • A lady once asked him how he came to define 'pastern', the knee of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as might be expected, he at once answered, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."
  • If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in a constant repair.
  • Towering is the confidence of twenty-one.
  • No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
  • Small debts are like small shot; they are rattling on every side, and can scarcely be escaped without a wound; great debts are like cannon, of loud noise but little danger.
    • Letter to Joseph Simpson, circa 1759
  • Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.
    • Letter, June 8, 1762 [to an unnamed recipient], p. 103
  • Nothing is little to him that feels it with great sensibility.
  • A man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself.
  • Great abilities are not requisite for an Historian; for in historical composition, all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent. He has facts ready to his hand; so there is no exercise of invention. Imagination is not required in any high degree; only about as much as is used in the lower kinds of poetry.
  • Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
  • But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.
  • I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, "Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task."
  • Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull. If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expence of truth, what fame might I have acquired.
  • Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, sir, is not in Nature.
  • Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.
    • July 31, 1763, p. 132. [Several editions have the variant "hind legs".]
  • I [Boswell] happened to say, it would be terrible if he should not find a speedy opportunity of returning to London, and be confined in so dull a place.
    JOHNSON: "Don't, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here."
  • I refute it thus.
    • August 6, 1763, p. 134
    • Said as he kicked a stone, speaking of Berkeley's "ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter".

Vol II[edit]

  • Why, Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.
  • So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.
  • Shakspeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven: but this does not refute my general assertion.
  • It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.
  • That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.
  • Johnson observed, that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney."
  • A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience.
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
  • A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden.
  • Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
    • Recalling "what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils" April 30, 1773, p. 217
  • Attack is the reaction; I never think I have hit hard unless it rebounds.
  • A man will turn over half a library to make one book.
  • Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
    • April 7, 1775, p. 253
    • Boswell's full mention of this statement reads:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.
  • Hell is paved with good intentions.
    • April 14, 1775
    • Malone added a footnote indicating this is a "proverbial sentence", quoting an earlier 1651 source. At least two other sources appear prior to Johnson. John Ray, in 1670, cited as a proverb, "Hell is paved with good intentions." Even earlier than that, it has been attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), as "Hell is full of good intentions or desires."
      • Wilson, Robert. [alt.quotations "Earlier Attributions"]. UseNet. Retrieved on 2009-01-06. 
      • Note that "The road to Hell…" is not part of the quotation.
    • The Samuel Johnson web site suggests this entry is dated 16 April, but it appears to be part of the previous entry.
  • Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.
  • There is now less flogging in our great schools than formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what the boys get at one end they lose at the other.
  • There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.
  • This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts.

Vol III[edit]

  • A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him. A man when he gets into a higher sphere, into other habits of life, cannot keep up all his former connections. Then, Sir, those who knew him formerly upon a level with themselves, may think that they ought still to be treated as on a level, which cannot be; and an acquaintance in a former situation may bring out things which it would be very disagreeable to have mentioned before higher company, though, perhaps, everybody knows of them.
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
  • While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till grief be digested, and then amusement will dissipate the remains of it.
  • Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.
Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.
Still to the lover's long-expecting arms
To-morrow brings the visionary bride.
But thou, too old to hear another cheat,
Learn, that the present hour alone is man's.
It is always observable that silence propagates itself, and that the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find any thing to say.
I am inclined to believe that few attacks either of ridicule or invective make much noise, but by the help of those they provoke.
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
CLUB — An assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.
Merriment is always the effect of a sudden impression. The jest which is expected is already destroyed.
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
Nothing … will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.
Example is always more efficacious than precept.
There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed.
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.
Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.

Samuel Johnson, the premier English literary figure of the mid- and late eighteenth century, was a writer of exceptional range: a poet, a lexicographer, a translator, a journalist and essayist, a travel writer, a biographer, an editor, and a critic. His literary fame has traditionally—and properly—rested more on his prose than on his poetry. As a result, aside from his two verse satires (1738, 1749), which were from the beginning recognized as distinguished achievements, and a few lesser pieces, the rest of his poems have not in general been well known. Yet his biographer James Boswell noted correctly that Johnson's "mind was so full of imagery, that he might have been perpetually a poet." Moreover, Johnson wrote poetry throughout his life, from the time he was a schoolboy until eight days before his death, composing in Latin and Greek as well as English. His works include a verse drama, some longer serious poems, several prologues, many translations, and much light occasional poetry, impromptu compositions or jeux d'esprit. Johnson is a poet of limited range, but within that range he is a poet of substantial talent and ability.

Johnson, the son of Sarah and Michael Johnson, grew up in Lichfield. His father was a provincial bookseller prominent enough to have served as sheriff of the town in 1709, the year of Samuel's birth, but whose circumstances were increasingly straitened as his son grew up. Samuel was a frail baby, plagued by disease. He contracted scrofula (a tubercular infection of the lymph glands) from his wet nurse, which left him almost blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other, deaf in one ear, and scarred on his face and neck from the disease itself and from an operation for it. He also was infected with smallpox. These early and traumatic illnesses presaged the continuing physical discomfort and ill health that would mark his entire life.

The Johnson household was not a particularly happy one, for financial difficulties only exacerbated his parents' incompatibilities. The serious psychological problems Johnson experienced throughout his life were undoubtedly connected in part with the troubled domestic situation of his childhood. Johnson's major advantage from the beginning was his mind, for the intellectual powers that were to astonish his associates throughout his life appeared early. He excelled at the Lichfield Grammar School, which he attended until he was fifteen.

According to his boyhood friend Edmund Hector, Johnson's first poem, "On a Daffodill, the first Flower the Author had seen that Year," was composed between his fifteenth and sixteenth years (in 1724). Written in heroic quatrains, the poem is largely an accumulation of traditional lyric conventions typical of poets from Robert Herrick to Matthew Prior. At moments, however, its weighted seriousness, and particularly the melancholy sense of process and the moral that ends it, suggests some of the points where the poetic strengths of the mature Johnson would focus. The poem poses no serious challenge to William Wordsworth but is not an entirely inauspicious beginning. Hector later told Boswell that Johnson "never much lik'd" the poem because he did not feel "it was ... characteristic of the Flower." Significantly, even so young, Johnson recognized the need for the concreteness and specificity that in his later poems would infuse the more abstract intellectual conceptions that dominated his first effort.

Johnson spent the next year at Stourbridge. Initially he made a protracted visit to his older cousin Cornelius Ford, enjoying the company of this genial, witty, and worldly relative and access to a social world significantly wider than life at Lichfield had offered. Later Johnson worked at the Stourbridge Grammar School with the headmaster, John Wentworth. About a dozen of Johnson's poems from this period survive, mainly translations. Most of them were school exercises, such as his translations of Virgil's first and fifth eclogues and the dialogue between Hector and Andromache in the sixth book of the Iliad. Johnson later told Boswell that Horace's odes were "the compositions in which he took most delight," and he had already translated the Integer vitae ode (I:xxii) before studying with Wentworth. At Stourbridge he translated three other odes (II: ix, xiv, and xx) and two epodes of Horace's (II and XI). All are capable and fairly accurate performances, although the epodes show more energy. The most interesting of his early translations is that of Joseph Addison's Latin poem "The Battle of the Pygmies and the Cranes" (1698), for it anticipates the vigor, the sympathetic involvement and resulting moral poignance, and the ability to revivify known truths that are characteristic of Johnson's greatest poems.

Two more school exercises, "Festina Lente" (Make Haste Slowly) and "Upon the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude," are original poems. The latter, written in the stanzaic form that Christopher Smart would employ over three decades later in the Song to David (1763), is singular among Johnsonian poems for what it terms "extatick fury," and it shows his youthful willingness to experiment with verse forms and varieties of poetic expression. Despite its interest, it is in many ways the "rude unpolish'd song" that it claims to be, and it suggests that Johnson's decision to confine himself to couplets and quatrains was not unwise. Wentworth's preservation of Johnson's early pieces reflects his high opinion of his pupil's talent and skill, and the early poems show an increasing command of diction and rhythm. W. Jackson Bate has pointed out that although merely school exercises, they are "as good as the verse written by any major poet at the same age."

Johnson returned to Lichfield in the fall of 1726 and spent two more years there, working and also reading in his father's bookshop. Once again he found a mentor, this time Gilbert Walmesley, a scholarly, sophisticated, hospitable lawyer who was registrar of the Ecclesiastical Court at Lichfield. In 1728, when Johnson was nineteen, his parents managed to scrape together enough money to send him to Pembroke College, Oxford. In his first interview he impressed his tutor by quoting Macrobius, and with the wide knowledge he had accumulated over his years of reading, he continued to impress members of the college with his intellectual prowess. Although a desultory and often irresponsible student, he loved college life. His reading of William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) during this period led him to think seriously about religion, and he gradually developed the deep, though troubled, acceptance of the Christian faith and its principles that marked his life.

As a youth in Lichfield, Johnson had first attempted Latin verse in a now-lost poem on the glowworm, but several of his Latin poems composed as college exercises survive. Of these the most important is a translation of Alexander Pope's Messiah (1712), made as a 1728 Christmas exercise at the suggestion of his tutor. Working through Isaiah, Virgil, and Pope, Johnson produced his own Latin poem of 119 lines at remarkable speed, writing half of it in an afternoon and completing the rest the next morning. This kind of facility in poetic composition was characteristic of Johnson, whether he was writing original poetry or translating, just as he later wrote prose with incredible speed. He could effectively organize and even edit in his mind; he later explained to Boswell that in composing verses, "I have generally had them in my mind, perhaps fifty at a time, walking up and down in my room; and then I have written them down, and often, from laziness, have written only half lines." The manuscript of The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) reflects this practice, for the first half of many lines is written in different ink than the last half.

The translation of The Messiah was received enthusiastically at Pembroke. Although the extant evidence is conflicting, one close friend said that Johnson's father had it printed without his son's knowledge and even dispatched a copy to Pope. Johnson, who had always experienced difficulties in getting along with his father, was furious at the interference, for he had his own plans for having the poem presented properly to the English author. Whatever actually happened in this connection, the translation was Johnson's first published poem, for in 1731 it was included in A Miscellany of Poems, edited by John Husbands, a Pembroke tutor. But by the time it appeared, lack of money had forced Johnson to leave Oxford and return once more to Lichfield.

Johnson's early translations and his Latin verse reflect two poetic modes that he would pursue for the rest of his life. Other poems extant from his earlier years show his abilities in the kind of occasional or impromptu verses that appear in large numbers in his later writings. In addition to the more serious and substantial "Ode on Friendship," there are the complimentary verses "To a Young Lady on Her Birthday" and "To Miss Hickman Playing on the Spinet," along with "On a Lady leaving her place of Abode" and "On a Lady's Presenting a Sprig of Myrtle to a Gentleman," the latter composed hastily to help a friend. A Latin quatrain, "To Laura," resulted when a friend proposed a line and challenged Johnson in company to finish it; he complied instantly. Finally, an epilogue written for a play acted by some young women at Lichfield presages his later theatrical pieces, while "The Young Author" prepares for the future treatment of a similar theme in one of his great verse satires. Almost the entire range of Johnson's mature poetic interests is represented in his early pieces.

Barred from returning to Oxford because of his family's increasingly desperate financial situation, Johnson lacked an occupation, had no prospects of one, and faced a bleak future on his return to Lichfield. Worst of all was his psychological state. For him the early years of the 1730s were a period of despair, ultimate breakdown, and only gradual recovery. Indolence had always been a problem for him; indeed, it would plague him throughout his life. But during this period, despite his best efforts to pull himself together and focus his life, he could not break the terrible lassitude afflicting him. Deeply depressed, paralyzed with gilts and fears, he suffered a massive emotional collapse that lasted for about two years and left him unsteady for three more. He later dated his constant health problems from this period, writing in a letter in his early seventies that "My health has been from my twentieth year such as seldom afforded me a single day of ease" (Letters of Samuel Johnson, II: 474). In addition, during this time he developed the convulsive gestures, tics, and obsessional mannerisms that contributed to making his demeanor so odd. Johnson was a large, powerful man, but his awkwardness, his scrofula and smallpox scars, and his compulsive mannerisms, combined with his disheveled and slovenly dress, created a grotesque initial impression.

After failing in attempts to secure several positions, Johnson was briefly employed in 1732 as an undermaster at Market Bosworth Grammar School in Leicestershire. He hated the job and particularly the chief trustee who controlled the school, and he quit during the summer. In the autumn he visited his old friend Hector in Birmingham and lived there for over a year, still trying to settle his mind and his life. By 1734 he managed to complete a translation of Father Jeronymo Lobo's account of Abyssinia, Johnson's first published book (1735). He had not forgotten poetry. Returning to Lichfield, he published proposals for a subscription edition of the Latin poems of the fifteenth-century writer Politian, with a history of Latin poetry from the age of Petrarch to Politian. Like most of his endeavors during this bleak period, the project failed.

In July 1735 Johnson married Elizabeth Jervis Porter, whom he referred to as "Tetty," a widow twenty years his senior. To this unusual marriage, which he always described as a love match, she brought a substantial amount of money, and with it Johnson began a small school at Edial. It opened in the fall with only three students, among them David Garrick, who was to become the greatest actor of the century. As the school rapidly declined, Johnson decided to try to earn money—and perhaps to make a name for himself—by writing a blank-verse tragedy, a historical drama in the vein that Addison's Cato (1713) had popularized. Usually a rapid writer, this time he was unable to proceed with any celerity on his ill-fated play Irene (not published until 1749). He had completed only half of it when the school failed. With Tetty's resources now steadily diminishing, he decided to go to London, where he hoped to find work writing for journals and translating and to complete and sell Irene. Tetty stayed behind. On 2 March 1737 Johnson and young Garrick set out for London, sharing a single horse between them. In London and then in Greenwich, Johnson continued to work on Irene, but in the summer he returned to Lichfield, and after three months there he finally finished the drama. No evidence exists to indicate that any other work cost Johnson as much effort as Irene. The manuscript of his first draft is extant, and it shows his extensive research, his careful organization, and his detailed descriptions of scenes and characters.

Johnson and Tetty moved back to London in October, and Johnson sought unsuccessfully to get Irene produced. Meanwhile he began to do some work for Edward Cave on the Gentleman's Magazine. In March 1738 his first contribution to it appeared, an elegant and dignified Latin poem, "To Sylvanus Urban" (Cave's editorial pseudonym), which defended Cave against current attacks by rival booksellers. Other poems that year included light complimentary verses to Elizabeth Carter and Lady Firebrace, and Latin and Greek epigrams to Carter, Richard Savage, and Thomas Birch.

As he worked for Cave, Johnson also sought something to write on his own that might sell. A natural choice was the "imitation," a popular contemporary poetic form. Dryden in his Preface to Ovid's Epistles (1680) had described the imitation as a kind of translation, "where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases." Johnson himself would later define it in the Life of Pope (volume 7 of Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, 1779-1781) as "a kind of middle composition between translation and original design, which pleases when the thoughts are unexpectedly applicable and the parallels lucky." Pope, whose Imitations of Horace had been appearing during the 1730s, was the acknowledged master of the mode, which had been developed extensively during the Restoration by such poets as Abraham Cowley, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and John Oldham and had also been employed by Swift. Johnson turned to the Latin poet Juvenal and imitated his Satura III on urban life inLondon. Late in March 1738 he sent a copy of the poem to Cave, with a letter in which he claimed to be negotiating for a needy friend who had actually composed the poem. He even offered to alter any parts of it that Cave disliked. Cave printed London and arranged for Robert Dodsley, who was well known for his abilities to promote poetry, to publish it. From Dodsley, Johnson received ten guineas for the copyright, because, as he explained to Boswell years later, the minor poet Paul Whitehead had recently gotten ten guineas for one of his pieces, and he would not settle for less than Whitehead had earned. London was published on 13 May 1738.

In Juvenal's third satire his friend Umbricius pauses at the archway of the Porta Capena to deliver a diatribe against city life as he leaves Rome forever for deserted Cumae. Johnson's Thales in London similarly rails as he waits on the banks of the Thames at Greenwich to depart for Wales. (Much ink has been spilled over whether or not Thales is modeled on Johnson's friend Savage, but the best evidence suggests that Johnson had not met Savage at the time he wrote the poem.) Following the example of Pope and others, Johnson insisted that the relevant passages from Juvenal's satire be published with his own poem at the bottom of the pages, because he believed that part of any beauty that London possessed consisted in adapting Juvenal's sentiments to contemporary topics. Thus Juvenal's work provides a natural point of departure for evaluating Johnson's achievement.

Between an introduction and conclusion, Juvenal's original satire is broken into two major sections. The first focuses primarily on the difficulties faced by an honest man trying to make a living in the city, while the second part considers the innumerable dangers of urban life (falling buildings, fires, crowds, traffic, accidents, and crimes). Johnson in general follows Juvenal's structure, but as he reworks the subject, the sections he retains and those he alters reveal his own particular concerns.

Johnson when he wishes can capture Juvenal's meanings exactly. "SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPREST" is a classic example, as he powerfully restates Juvenal's "haud facile emergunt quorum virtatibus obstat / Res angusta domi" (it is scarcely easy to rise in the world for those whose straitened domestic circumstances obstruct their abilities). Johnson can also use balance and antithesis in the couplet to juxtapose for satirical effect in a manner reminiscent of Pope; a fawning Frenchman, for example, will "Exalt each Trifle, ev'ry Vice adore, / Your Taste in Snuff, your Judgment in a Whore." But Johnson does not usually concentrate either on details or on close rendition of Juvenal, and because of his different satiric emphases, London becomes in important ways his own poem.

First of all, Johnson's treatment of country life includes significant additions to Juvenal. Early in London, with no Juvenalian basis whatsoever, he adds two lines describing what Thales expects to find in the country: "Some pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play, / Some peaceful Vale with Nature's Paintings gay." This couplet sets the tone for Johnson's subsequent rural depictions. In Satura III Juvenal lauds the country not for its beauty or the ease of life there, but as the only possible alternative to the city. Johnson, however, takes Juvenal's simple descriptions of country life and produces a combination of eighteenth-century garden (with pruned walks, supported flowers, directed rivulets, and twined bowers) and Miltonic Paradise (including nature's music, healthy breezes, security, and morning work and evening strolls). Such idealization of the country is totally incongruous with Johnson's views; he loved the bustling life of London and, like George Crabbe, always emphasized that human unhappiness emanates from the same causes in both the city and the country. His treatment of the country in London reflects prevailing poetic convention rather than conviction; his predominantly conventional additions to Juvenal in this area highlight the extent to which London is very much the work of a young poet eager to please, who played to contemporary tastes accordingly.

If Johnson's additions to Juvenal in the rural depictions are significant, his omissions in portraying the wretched life of the urban poor are even more telling. "SLOW RISES WORTH," justly the best-known line in the poem, has had impact enough to obscure the fact that Johnson's general treatment of poverty in London is cursory, particularly when compared to Juvenal's. He leaves out fully half of Juvenal's section on the general helplessness of the poor in making a living in the city. In surveying urban vexations, he omits Juvenal's sections on crowds, traffic, accidents, and thefts, leaves out the falling buildings (although collapsing older houses were a frequent hazard in eighteenth-century London), and condenses the fight scene. In the process he loses some of Juvenal's most telling episodes, for urban life is, of course, made intolerable not so much by huge disasters as by incessant small annoyances. The noise, the loss of sleep, and the difficulties in getting from one place to another disappear in Johnson's version because he is not interested in the small personal perils of city life.

No one, however, could accuse Johnson of not caring deeply about the conditions of the urban poor. He told Boswell that the true test of civilization was a decent provision for the poor, and he personally offered such provision to unfortunates whenever he could. Although his passages on the poor in London are usually competent and occasionally eloquent, he drastically condensed Juvenal's treatment because he wanted to focus his own poem on political rather than personal conditions."

The accuracy of Boswell's description of London as "impregnated with the fire of opposition" is clear from the many political references that Johnson adds to Juvenal. He expands Juvenal's introductory section to include nostalgic references to the political and commercial glories of the Elizabethan age and several times in the poem opposes Spanish power. In elaborating Juvenal's passage on crimes and the jail, he manages to attack Walpole's misuses of special juries and secret-service funds, the House of Commons, and the king himself. Johnson never forgets politics in London, even when he is at his most conventional. For example, the lines on the country include references to the seat of a "hireling Senator" and the confections of a "venal Lord."

Johnson's emphasis on politics in London was undoubtedly due to factors in the contemporary political scene as well as his personal life at the time. The year 1738 was one of widespread popular unrest, and the nation, already in ferment over the court and Walpole's ministry, was outraged over alleged Spanish suppression of British commerce. In the midst of the uproar Johnson, a newcomer to London, unsure of himself and his ability to achieve success anywhere, associated with various acquaintances who opposed the government as he eked out the barest of livings in the great capital. Young and frustrated, he was understandably eager enough to view the current political situation as the direct cause of adverse personal as well as national conditions. During his first few years in the city he produced the most violent political writings of his life. The year after London, he published Marmor Norfolciense (1739), a feigned prophetical inscription in rhymed Latin verse with a translation and long commentary attacking Walpole. This satire was so virulent that, according to Johnson's early biographer James Harrison, even a government inured to invective issued a warrant for his arrest.

London in many places shows Johnson's technical proficiency in employing the heroic couplet. It is an exuberant poem, full of life and high spirits. London does not finally bring out all of Johnson's powers, because the satire is weakened in places by the false stances into which he is forced by convention and political themes. But it is an impressive performance, and certain passages, such as the description of the dangers of friendship with great men, reflect Johnson's full poetic abilities. The final lines of this passage show Johnson rising above the specific poetic situation to present the overview of the moralist. The movement of satire into reflection here, buttressed by the enlargement and extension of the particular into the general, is characteristic of Johnson at his best. Indeed, these movements from satire to meditation and from the particular to the general combine a decade later with a more mature view, sometimes savage about life itself but always sympathetic to the struggles of suffering individuals, to produce The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), Johnson's second Juvenalian imitation.

Pope's One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight, another of his Horatian imitations, was published—also by Dodsley—a few days after London, and the two poems were favorably compared. Boswell reports that Pope himself responded generously to his putative rival; he asked Jonathan Richardson to try to discover who the new author was, and when told that he was an obscure man named Johnson, Pope commented that he would not be obscure for long. The popular success of the poem seemed to support Pope's prediction. Within a week a second edition was required, a third came out later that year, and a fourth in the next year. It was reprinted at least twenty-three times in Johnson's lifetime. However, the political topicality and the poetic conventionality that contributed so much to the contemporary success of London considerably lessened its later appeal. Its status as a major Johnsonian poem has always been secure and its substantial poetic power recognized. But it has also suffered from inevitable comparisons with The Vanity of Human Wishes. Modern readers have uniformly preferred the second poem for its moral elevation, its more condensed expression, and its treatment of more characteristic Johnsonian themes and ideas. Many of these elements are present in London, but to a lesser degree.

During this early period in London it was increasingly clear that Johnson's marriage was in trouble. Bruised by this second marriage to which she had brought so much and which had so reduced her circumstances, Tetty was retreating steadily from Johnson and also from life in general. The two gradually began to live apart much of the time, as Tetty steadily deteriorated, ultimately taking refuge in alcohol and opium and in her final years seldom leaving her bed. Johnson did all that he could to support her, writing furiously and stinting himself to provide for his wife. He sometimes walked the streets all night because he lacked money for even the cheapest lodging. For the next fifteen or twenty years he was a journalist and a hack writer of incredible productivity and variety. He became a trusted assistant to Cave on the Gentleman's Magazine from 1738 until the mid 1740s, writing many reviews, translations, and articles, including a long series of parliamentary debates from 1741 until 1744. He helped to catalog the massive Harleian Library and worked on the eight volumes of The Harleian Miscellany (1744-1746). In addition to a series of short biographies for Cave, he contributed biographical entries to A Medicinal Dictionary (1743-1745) by his friend Dr. Robert James, for whom he had composed the Proposals for the work (1741). His own Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, a short masterpiece of biography, appeared in 1744. In 1745 he published a proposal for a new edition of Shakespeare, composing Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth to illustrate his critical approach. This project did not materialize, but a greater one did. The next year he signed a contract with a group of publishers to produce an English dictionary, on which he labored for the next seven years in the garret of the house he rented at 17 Gough Square. Even as he worked on it, however, he always continued with many other miscellaneous writing projects.

During these years Johnson wrote substantially more prose than poetry, but he did publish various minor poems in the Gentleman's Magazine. An epitaph on the musician Claudy Phillips, composed almost extemporaneously and years later set to music, appeared there in September 1740. He revised several of his early poems (the Integer Vitae ode, "The Young Author," the "Ode to Friendship," and "To Laura") and published them in the Magazine in July 1743, along with a Latin translation, described as "the casual amusement of half an hour," of Pope's verses on his grotto. When Cave needed a revision of Geoffrey Walmesley's Latin translation of John Byrom's "Colin and Phebe" in February 1745, Johnson and Stephen Barrett alternated distiches, rapidly passing a sheet of paper between them "like a shuttlecock" across the table. In 1747, when the editor of the poetry section of the magazine was away and the copy available for the May issue was insufficient, Johnson contributed some half-dozen poems. Most were light occasional pieces written years before, including "The Winter's Walk," "An Ode" on the Spring, and several complimentary poems to ladies, but a more substantial English poem loosely based on the Latin epigraph of Sir Thomas Hanmer also appeared.

In the same year Johnson also supplied a prologue for the celebration of the reopening of the Drury Lane Theatre under his friend Garrick's management. He had already helped Garrick out by writing a preface for his first play, Lethe, for a benefit performance for Henry Gifford in 1740. The Prologue Spoken at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury-Lane was a much more considerable piece. Johnson later said that the whole poem was composed before he put a line on paper and that he subsequently changed only one word in it, making that alteration solely because of Garrick's remonstrances. The Drury Lane prologue offers an overview of the history of English drama, tracing it from "immortal" Shakespeare's "pow'rful Strokes" through Ben Jonson's "studious Patience" and "laborious Art" and the "Intrigue" and "Obscenity" of Restoration wits to the playwrights of his own age. After censuring contemporary tragedy and the taste for pantomimes and farces, he speculates pessimistically on the future of the stage, closing by reminding the audience that "The Stage but echoes back the publick Voice" and urging them to "bid the Reign commence / Of rescu'd Nature, and reviving Sense". The prologue is a fine poem that reflects premises Johnson would later employ in his dramatic criticism, particularly in his edition of Shakespeare. When published a few weeks after the opening, it did not bear Johnson's name, and the public was left to assume that Garrick was the author.

In each of the next three decades Johnson wrote one prologue, and they can be considered as a group, despite their chronological dispersion. In 1750 Johnson learned that John Milton's only surviving granddaughter, Elizabeth Foster, was living in poverty, and he convinced Garrick to put on a benefit performance of Comus (1637) to aid her. The new prologue Johnson composed lauds "mighty" Milton's achievement and the fame he has garnered, but characteristically Johnson also praises "his Offspring" Mrs. Foster for "the mild Merits of domestic Life" and "humble Virtue's native Charms." Late in 1767 he wrote a prologue that he had promised long before to Oliver Goldsmith for his comedy, The Good Natur'd Man (1768). With a parliamentary election approaching, Johnson, in a rather gloomy piece that, unsurprisingly, was not very popular, compared the pressures on the playwright and the politician to please the rabble. Thomas Harris, the manager of Covent Garden, solicited Johnson's last prologue in 1777 for a performance of Hugh Kelly's A Word to the Wise (1770) to benefit the author's widow and children. When first produced in 1770 the play had been disrupted by Kelly's political enemies, and Johnson's conciliatory and well-received prologue asked the audience to "Let no resentful petulance invade / Th' oblivious grave's inviolable shade." All Johnson's prologues resulted from the generosity to friends and to those in need so characteristic of him throughout his life. All of them are competent examples of the genre, while the poem for the opening of the Drury Lane Theatre, and to a lesser extent the prologue for Comus, rise to real excellence. The Drury Lane prologue has long remained one of Johnson's best-known poems.

In the fall of 1748 Johnson had returned to Juvenal, and in The Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of Juvenal's tenth satire, he wrote his greatest poem. He later said that he wrote the first seventy lines of it in one morning, while visiting Tetty at Hampstead. Like the Drury Lane prologue, the entire section was composed in his head before he put a line of it on paper. He also mentioned to Boswell in another connection that he wrote a hundred lines of the poem in one day. A receipt in Johnson's handwriting dated 25 November 1748 assigns the copyright of The Vanity of Human Wishes to Robert Dodsley for fifteen guineas, and it was published on 9 January 1749. Significantly, it was the first of Johnson's works in which his name appeared on the title page.

Satura X is Juvenal's greatest satire, and in The Vanity of Human Wishes Johnson produced a poem of equal worth. He directly shares some of Juvenal's concerns, for both use the theme of the folly of human desires and petitions for wealth, power, long life, and beauty, and early in each poem both emphasize the importance of using reason to guide one's choices. As they focus on various wishes, each poet introduces the theme of the liabilities inherent in the process of desiring. In both Satura X and The Vanity of Human Wishes fulfillment of desire is followed by envy from others and ultimately by personal dissatisfaction with the gain. Although inherent in Juvenal, this latter theme of the insatiability of the human imagination is emphasized much more in Johnson, who is concerned with general psychological factors, with the human mind and heart, while Juvenal is more interested in specific events and their influences on individuals. Johnson amplifies Juvenal's initial four-and-a-half lines to eleven lines, to present through images of moving and crowding the effect and extent of the emotions produced by the imagination, and he also specifically names some of these emotions. In considering each of these desires later in his poem he explores the additional theme of their treachery and their betrayal of the human being's best interests.

In The Vanity of Human Wishes Johnson followed Juvenal's basic structure, as he had in London, altering it to emphasize the concerns of his own poem. Juvenal's Satura X has 365 lines; that Johnson managed to imitate it in only 368 lines suggests his massive and masterly condensation, particularly since couplet verse often requires expansion and amplification. Both poems contain seven sections: an introduction and a conclusion enclose five sections on politics, eloquence or learning, war, long life, and beauty. The relative importance of the topics in each poem is clear from the amount of attention devoted to them by the two poets.

Juvenal throughout Satura X emphasizes the physical, the sensuous, and the licentious, while Johnson in The Vanity of Human Wishes is most concerned with the spiritual and the psychological. He is not particularly interested in the sins of the flesh. In the section on old age, for example, Juvenal dwells at length on physical decrepitude, while Johnson refers only briefly to such infirmities and presents the avarice of an old man, a vice not mentioned by Juvenal. Significant differences also appear in the passages on beauty in the two poems. Juvenal presents a long section on masculine beauty, centered on graphic details of scandalous individual misconduct, which Johnson omits completely, preferring to focus on more general human problems. On the other hand, in the passages on female pulchritude, Juvenal contents himself with brief references to the dangers that beset beautiful women, while Johnson traces the complete moral disintegration of a beautiful young woman by using abstract terms (for example, "The Guardians yield, by Force superior ply'd; / By Int'rest, Prudence; and by Flatt'ry, Pride"). The whole passage exemplifies Johnson's careful development of the theme of the treachery of human desires, which lead people astray while they remain until the end ignorant of their gradual destruction.

Juvenal's orator becomes in The Vanity of Human Wishes Johnson's scholar, in part for autobiographical reasons. At some point near the time he left Oxford, Johnson had written a poem entitled "The Young Author," which in revised form he had published in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1743. This poem in many ways anticipates the mature treatment of the quest for scholarly renown in The Vanity of Human Wishes. Hester Thrale (later Piozzi) wrote that years later, when reading The Vanity of Human Wishes to the family and a friend at Streatham, Johnson burst into tears while reading the section on the scholar. Events in his life also dictated one famous emendation in the passage. Johnson had originally listed the problems besetting the scholarly life as "Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail." Boswell indicates that after experiencing difficulties with Lord Chesterfield over his putative patronage of Johnson's Dictionary, Johnson in his 1755 revision of the poem (in Robert Dodsley's Collection of Poems by Several Hands, volume 4) changed "the Garret" to "the Patron."

In the last passage of his poem Johnson amplifies Juvenal's succinctly abrupt "nil ergo optabunt homines?" (Is there nothing, therefore, that people should pray for?) to six lines of deeply moving rhetorical questions about human fate. This amplification again shows the plethora of emotions produced by the human imagination, and in addition emphasizes another theme of the poem, the overwhelming human desire to be free from the emotions that simultaneously bind and blind. Juvenal becomes flippant, but Johnson turns fervently serious when each advises turning to prayer. Juvenal's Stoicism and Johnson's Christianity dominate the endings of their respective poems. Both urge leaving individual destiny to heaven, and both assert that higher powers know what is best for human beings. Both poets urge people to pray for endurance, for acceptance of death, and for a healthy mind. (Johnson omits the last half of Juvenal's famous "mens sana in corpore sano" [a sound mind in a sound body], in part because he knew from personal experience that humans can endure despite the most debilitating physical ailments.) But Juvenal's Stoicism prompts him to say that humans themselves can do all that is necessary to have a tranquil life—"monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare" (I am pointing out what you are able to do for yourself)—while Johnson emphasizes the Christian concept of dependence on God: "celestial Wisdom calms the Mind, / And makes the Happiness she does not find." Johnson's closing lines emphasize that the human desire to free the self from the many treacherous emotions generated by the imagination can be fulfilled only by going beyond the self and worldly concerns and by relying on divine omniscience in order to compensate for the limitations in human knowledge that lead to folly.

Thus The Vanity of Human Wishes includes biblical as well as classical overtones. As its title suggests, it has close affinities with the Book of Ecclesiastes and shares many of its themes. The insufficiency of earthly goods and values and the concomitant need for religious faith as the only bulwark are traditional arguments in Christian apologetics from Augustine on, including Jeremy Taylor and the Renaissance divines whose works Johnson knew so well, and also William Law, whose Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life so deeply influenced the young Johnson.

Juvenal in his poetry assumes a dual persona. On the one hand he writes as a stern moralist castigating wrongdoing, but he also writes as a rhetorician and particularly as a wit, delighting in invective, exaggeration, and filth. Johnson recognized these two sides when he wrote in the Life of Dryden (Volume 1 of Prefaces, Biographical and Critical) that Juvenal was "a mixture of gaiety and stateliness, of pointed sentences [epigrams], and declamatory grandeur." Johnson in his own imitation chose to reproduce mainly Juvenal's "stateliness" and "declamatory grandeur." Johnson's slow and dignified couplets abound in vivid personified abstractions that with characteristic compression render an impression of philosophic generality. The Vanity of Human Wishes is marked by a moral elevation and seriousness that Satura X does not, on the whole, share. Juvenal delights in the narrowly personal; for example, hilarious conversations following Sejanus's fall vividly depict personal reactions. Johnson, in contrast, uses no dialogue in his poem, for he is concerned with general human feelings on a broader scale. He does, of course, use individual men and women as examples, and his replacement of Juvenal's classical personalities with more contemporary figures (Charles XII for Hannibal, for instance, and Marlborough and Swift for Marius, Pompey, and the Catilinian conspirators) is masterfully done. However, Johnson does not name individuals nearly as often as Juvenal does, and in many sections, such as the early stanzas on wealth, Johnson deals in generalities while Juvenal freely intersperses specific names.

The moral elevation and large vision so characteristic of The Vanity of Human Wishes are one reflection of the ways that Johnson moves from Satura X as a base to take his own poem beyond satire. Johnson's anger, his aggressiveness, and his capacity for savage and brutal wit made him eminently suited for writing satire, but his satiric urges were indulged more in his conversation than in his writings. Mrs. Thrale wrote that Johnson did not "encourage general satire," and that he had an "aversion" to it—an aversion that accounts in part for his unfairness to Swift in the Lives of the Poets (Prefaces, Biographical and Critical). Johnson's personal struggles to control his aggressive tendencies, to maintain good humor, and to be good-natured made him leery of releasing a satiric urge that might be so strong that it could only be destructive rather than constructive. Moreover, because of his recognition of his own pride, fears, vanity, and anxieties, he felt a sympathy with others that prevented him from attacking them too harshly. His keen understanding of his own shortcomings led him to the kind of sense of participation that makes strong, vicious satire impossible.

Johnson was finally more comfortable as a moralist than as a satirist. Bate has called Johnson's characteristic procedure in many of his great writings "satire manqué," or "satire foiled," a process in which satiric potential dissipates through understanding and compassion. Bate describes it as "a drama of thought and expression always moving from the reductive to explanation and finally to something close to apology." Johnson's tendency to employ satire manqué is shown at some points in London, but in that poem his youthful exuberance and self-consciousness, along with the political focus and obeisance to contemporary poetic practices, led him to a greater proportion of actual satire. The fact that The Vanity of Human Wishes is much more satire manqué than satire accounts for a great deal of its power.

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