Samuel Johnson | Biography
Samuel Johnson | Biography

Quick Information

  • Full Name Samuel Johnson
  • Occupation Poet, Lexicographer, Playwright, Essayist, Literary critique, Biographer
  • Nationality British
  • Birthplace Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
  • Birth Date Sep 18, 1709
  • Death Date Dec 13, 1784 (aged 75)

Quotes

English Language Pioneer

Samuel Johnson | Biography

In 1747, Johnson came up with a plan for 'A Dictionary of the English Language.' The dictionary aimed to explain different meanings of the word by using quotations from famous and influential authors. After the publication of the dictionary in 1755 and its abridgment in 1756, it received high critical acclaim due to its rich sense divisions, rich categorization of word's significance and meaning, and witty definitions with cultural assertiveness and conservative perspective to bind the language.


Quick Information
  • Birth Date Sep 18, 1709
  • Full Name Samuel Johnson
  • Occupation Poet, Lexicographer, Playwright, Essayist, Literary critique, Biographer
  • Nationality British
  • Birthplace Lichfield, Staffordshire, England
  • Death Date Dec 13, 1784 (aged 75)

Samuel Johnson was one of the most respected literary figures of the 18th century. His dictionary, 'A Dictionary of the English Language,' published in 1755, would become an essential piece of literary work of that era.  

Who is Samuel Johnson?

Samuel Johnson was a famous 18th-century poet, lexicographer, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critique and biographer. He is noted for publishing a dictionary back in 1755, for which he was given an honorary doctorate by Dublin University in 1765. He would also be later known as Dr. Johnson because of the degree. Although he started his formal career as an undermaster at Market Bosworth Grammar school, he is noted for being one of the brilliant minds in the field of literature. 

Early Life and Education 

Born on 18 September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, Samuel Johnson was the eldest son of Michael Johnson and Sarah (Ford) Johnson. His father was a bookseller at Sadler Street, Lichfield, and his mother was a housewife. Johnson's early childhood was full of illnesses and sorrow. He had mentioned in his own accounts that he was born "almost dead."

While growing up, he battled scrofula, which is tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands, along with partial blindness in the left eye and some indication of Tourette syndrome. At that time, it was believed that the monarch's touch could cure scrofula. That is also the reason why scrofula was called King's evil. So, at the age of two and half years, he was taken to Queen Anne. On 30 March 1712, he was touched by the queen. The gold touch piece was among one of his precious possessions, which he had kept with him for the remainder of his life. 

After many medical procedures to improve his health condition, he started to get better. Yet, this good health came at the price of many mutilating scars on his face and neck. Johnson was a well-built person. He was tall, and along with time, he became huge. He was also strong and energetic. He loved to swim, walk and ride. 

In 1717, Johnson was enrolled in Litchfield Grammar School to learn Greek and Latin. He was an intelligent chap who also had a fair share of arrogance and indolence. His master in the school, John Hunter, was an orthodox teacher of that time. Hunter believed in learning through brutal methods. Later, when Johnson published his first dictionary, 'A Dictionary of the English Language' on 15 April 1755, he defined "school" as "house of discipline and instruction."  

Though Johnson's school environment was full of terror under Hunter's mastership, the company of future life-ling friends, Edmund Hector and John Taylor, would make it seem tolerable. Later in life, Edmund Hector became a surgeon, and John Taylor became prebendary of Westminster and justice of the peace for Ashbourne. 

Invitation From Cornelius

At the age of seventeen, Johnson was invited to spend nine months with his cousin Cornelius Ford at Pedmore, Worcestershire. He believed it was his liberation from the oppressive Lichfield. Ford was fourteen years older than Johnson. He was a well-educated scholar who had served a fellowship at Cambridge. For these reasons, Johnson believed that his pursuit of academics would flourish under the guidance of his worldly cousin. He would read the works of poets Matthew Prior and Samuel Garth along with the playwright William Congreve during his stay with his cousin. These writers influenced him to the extent that they were quoted frequently in his dictionary. 

In the year 1728, Johnson started a new journey of his life in Pembroke College, Oxford. Through the inheritance of a distant relative and the generosity shown by his old friend from Lichfield Grammar School, Johnson managed to get into the college. This journey could not last more than 13 months as he ran out of funds. As a result, he had to leave his college.             

Career and journey to literature

In 1731, Johnson made his first publication. It was a Latin translation of Alexander Pope's 'Messiah' which appeared in A Miscellany of Poems. Alexander Pope was among the leading poets of that time. This is also a reason why Johnson would comment on his achievement in most of his writings. 

Later in 1731, Johnson took up a career as undermaster at Market Bosworth Grammar School. He did not like his position much as he thought it was untenable. The arrogance and rudeness of Sir Wolstan Dixie, who was in charge of his appointments, made it so. Johnson left his job and later described his feelings as escaping from prison. With just twenty pounds of inheritance from his father after his death, he went through some tough times.

Johnson moved to Birmingham to his friend Hector after failing in the pursuit of the teaching profession. During his stay in Birmingham, he published some of his essays in 'The Birmingham Journal' in 1732-1733. In 1735, he published an English translated version of 'A Voyage to Abyssinia' by Father Jerome Lobo with some help from his friend Hector. The book was an account of a Jesuit missionary expedition which was first translated into French by Joachim Le Grand in 1728. Johnson then translated the French edition of the book to English. This work of his showed some signs of matureness in his writing. It could also be seen in the book's preface, in which he praises Lobo for not attempting to present marvels. He writes, "He meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears, and his cataracts fall from the rock without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants."

Marrying A Widow Twenty Years Younger

Johnson married Elizabeth Porter in 1735. Although she was twenty years older than him and was a widow, he chose her because he found her both attractive and intelligent. Porter belonged to a well-off family, so after their marriage, his financial status improved drastically. With her help, he opened a school at Edial in 1735. The school, Edial Hall School, was very near to Lichfield, his hometown. There, Johnson taught Latin and Greek to three young gentlemen. But, the school did not do well and ran out of funds. As a result, it had to be shut down after a year.

After closing the school, Johnson began to work on his historical tragedy, 'rene.' It was a neoclassical tragedy. The play dramatized the love of Sultan Mahomet towards Irene, who was a Christian slave captured in Constantinople. Although he started this play while he was working in his father's bookstore back in 1726, he had not been able to complete it. After knowing that his play was taking shape, he became very impatient to bring the play to the city stage. Therefore, in 1737, he moved to London.

Writer On Gentleman's Magazine

In London, Johnson found a job as a writer in Gentleman's Magazine. It was the first time in that era something termed magazine was published. Many scholars believe that during this time, he honed his skills to become a better writer. Henry Hitching, who is an author, reviewer, and critic, commented about Johnson's time in Gentleman's Magazine as "accustomed him to the vicissitudes and duties of a life of writing, an existence that combined studious drudgery with occasional opportunities for creative flair."

'Life of Mr Richard Savage.'

While Johnson was continuing his career as a writer, he came across Richard Savage. He then befriended the poet, who was not very well known for his character. Savage was impulsive, violent, depressive, and had a hedonistic lifestyle. Savage died in the debtor's prison in 1744. This gave Johnson the push to write a biography of his troubled friend. In the same year, he published 'Life of Mr Richard Savage.' The book did not bring any financial wonders to him, yet it helped his growing reputation as a writer. 

Although Johnson was securing literary success in London, things were not going well with his conjugal life. His friendship with Savage was something his wife detested very much. Yet, when she grew ill, he returned to her and started to take care of her. They also started to have financial crises. It became his priority to indulge in a steady work that would pay him handsomely. During this time in 1746, a publisher named Robert Dodsley came to him with a proposition to compile a comprehensive, modern dictionary of the English language.

'A Dictionary of the English Language' And Later Career

In 1747, Johnson came up with a plan for 'A Dictionary of the English Language.' He then presented his plan to statesman Philp Dormer Stanhope also known as Lord Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield ignored his idea and sent him ten pounds as compensation for his efforts. But, Johnson's only intention to create the dictionary was to stabilize the language. He wanted to set uniformity in the usages and pronunciation. He did not want his version of the dictionary to impose rigid rules like how dictionaries of the continental academics did.

The dictionary aimed to explain different meanings of the word by using quotations from famous and influential authors. After the publication of the dictionary in 1755 and its abridgment in 1756, it received high critical acclaim due to its rich sense divisions, rich categorization of word's significance and meaning, and witty definitions with cultural assertiveness and conservative perspective to bind the language. The abridged version of his dictionary remained the standard English dictionary for 66 years until Noah Webster published his version in 1828. Lord Chesterfield later wanted to show his support to him, which Johnson completely refused.

In 1749, Johnson published 'The Vanity of Human Wishes.' It was an imitation of the Latin poet Juvenal's tenth 'Satire.' The poem's interpretation created a debate among people who found it as 'pessimism at human vanity and those who found it as 'hope for humanity's redemption.' In the same year, his play 'Irene' was produced by David Garrick. Johnson received three hundred pounds for it, which was a hefty sum of money at that time. 

After his mother's illness, he wrote 'The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, in April 1759 to cover her medical expenses. Originally titled 'The Prince of Abissinia: A Tale,' it is an apologue about bliss and ignorance. The book was said to be a work of philosophical and practical importance. Some of the critics also classified it as a novel because of the complexity of the work. 

In 1755, Johnson was awarded an honorary M.A. degree by Oxford for his scholarly successes. Later in 1765, he was again awarded another honorary degree of LL.D by Dublin University. After 1762, he was in a position where he did not need to write regularly to support himself financially. Though there were some controversies, he accepted the three hundred pounds annual pension from Lord Bute's ministry.

Meeting James Boswell And 'The Lives of the English Poets'

Johnson met and befriended James Boswell in 1763. Boswell was 31 years younger, but the bond he had with him was beyond age. Maybe that is the reason why Boswell wrote 'Life of Samuel Johnson' in 1791, which was an intimate and detailed biography of his beloved friend. Both Johnson and Boswell embarked upon the journey to Scotland, which was Boswell's native place. Samuel Johnson's 'A Journey to the Western Island of Scotland' was published in 1775 was an outcome of that journey.      

Johnson spent the other half of the 1770s working on 'The Lives of the English Poets.' This project of his was originally designed as a series of biographical introductions of the English Poets. Although it was supposed to be 60 volumes, the texts were published on their own. This work of his became extremely popular and happened to be one of the influential works in the field of biography. 

Death

At the age of 75, on 13 December 1784, Samuel Johnson bid his final farewell to everyone and left behind some marvelous works of literary criticism, lexicography, biography, and many literary works.

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