Daily Archives: August 17, 2019

New course lesson 5. Dr Samuel Johnson

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Dr JOHNSON New course 5.

Samuel Johnson was born in the small city of Lichfield. Lichfield lies in the country of Staffordshire. Staffordshire is a county in the Midlands of England. When Samuel Johnson was born the United Kingdom had been formed not many years earlier.

The Johnson family was an Anglican family. That meant that they were members of the Church of England. This accorded them many advantages since the Church of England was the church by law established. Samuel attended King Edward School in Lichfield. It was named after Edward VI. Edward VI was a boy king in the 16th century who founded many schools.

Johnson’s father was a bookseller. Samuel was to follow in his father’s footsteps. The boy did exceedingly well at school. He was a voracious reader.  Samuel was fixated with learning about certain subjects. He was utterly obsessed with history, literature and divinity. The boy amassed a staggering vocabulary. However, he was ungainly. Despite being well built and well above average height he was a laggard at sports. His hand eye co-ordination and gross motor skills were very poor. To look at him you would instantly perceive that he must be either a genius or a simpleton. He could not be anything in between.  As he was a substandard athlete he did not fit in well with his own generation. As a child he sought out the company of adults. He was by all accounts a most peculiar character. Samuel made small involuntary movements. His gait was strange and his manner of sitting was distinctly odd. He spoke in a florid and formal fashion. The boy was relentlessly logical even when this was deeply unpopular. His stilted and highly articulate speech made him a target for derision and mockery from less bookish types.

An attack of smallpox almost killed Samuel Johnson. It left his face pockmarked and it blinded him in one eye. Smallpox was a disease that claimed tens of millions of lives. It was only wiped out in the 1970s.

Samuel Johnson attended Oxford University. There undergraduates studied classics – Latin and Ancient Greek. Through these languages they read history, philosophy and other subjects. Samuel spent only one year there before leaving. Therefore he did not graduate. That was not unusual for an undergraduate at the time. Very few people attended secondary school. To have finished it at all was a distinction. Some people did not even attend primary school in those distant days.

Having gone down from Oxford Samuel Johnson went to London. There he worked as a teacher for a while. Back then a male teacher was called a ‘schoolmaster’. Later Samuel Johnson set up a book shop. He also founded a printing press. He prospered in trade. This made him able to afford hearty dinners. He had a ferocious appetite and his girth expanded precipitously. This was to cause him some health complaints in the evening of life.

Johnson was well known for his waspish aphorisms. He was a journalist – not reporting the news but commenting on society. His witticisms had people in stitches. As well as journalism he made money from translating English into Latin.

Samuel Johnson was a regular worshipper in his local church. His religiosity was no affectation. He was a sincerely spiritual man. He also wrestled with questions of morality. He came to regard slavery as an unutterable wickedness. This was a deeply unpopular opinion in 18th century London. London was a city that had profited much from human bondage.

The Tory Party was the party that commanded Samuel Johnson’s allegiance. No one was a member of the party as such. Nor did he ever seek public office. He was broadminded and accepted people of contrary views could be decent. He was also willing to change his view of things. He was not rigid or blinkered.

The Jacobite Rebellion took place in 1745. Johnson later acknowledged that he felt a certain sympathy for the objective of the Jacobites. To wit, placing James III on the Throne. After the comprehensive defeat of the Jacobites Samuel Johnson came to accept the Hanoverian dynasty.

By the mid 18th century Samuel Johnson was a well known London character. Samuel would discourse for hours. He may have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome.  Budding writers and journalists congregated at his shop. They hung on his every word. His conversational patter was enthralling. His razor sharp intellect was marveled at by literary London. He was able to distill issues very quickly. His crystalline prose expostulated his opinions splendidly. He is best known for publishing one of the earliest English dictionaries.

In the 1770s there was much kerfuffle in America. In those days Britons were wont to allude to America as ‘the Colonies’. Dr Johnson did not agree with the claim of some in America to be exempt from tax unless they were represented in the legislature that taxed them. He penned a pamphlet ‘Taxation no tyranny’. Johnson felt nothing but withering contempt for the pretensions of the American Revolutionaries. He quipped ‘why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes’?

When the American Declaration of Independence was issued the British Government did not officially respond to it. Dr Johnson was secretly paid by the government to write a riposte. This was then published.

Dr Johnson married but had no children. In old age he suffered gout and numerous other ailments. He was known for his liberality to his friends even when his own financial situation was not good.

Oxford University awarded Samuel Johnson a doctorate in humane letters. This was an honorary doctorate. There were no substantive doctorates in the anglosphere in those days. Because of his honorary doctorate he is always known as Dr Johnson.

Dr Johnson loathed travel. Travel was slow and dangerous in those days. He despised sailors as louts and drunkards. He spent almost his whole adult life in London. He but rarely returned to his birthplace. His ailments rendered travel even more uncomfortable on bockety roads in his old age. Towards the end of his days he suffered from several maladies such as gout.

After Johnson died a book about him was published by James Boswell. It was entitled The Life of Johnson.

Many of his quotations survive. One of these is ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.’

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  1. In which city was Johnson born?
  2.  What was his Christian name?
  3.  What was his father’s occupation?
  4. What religious denomination did the Johnson family belong to?
  5. Which university did he attend?
  6.  How long did he spend at Oxford?
  7. What did he study at Oxford?
  8.  Did he graduate?
  9.  What was his first job?
  10.  What business did he set up?
  11. Describe his appearance?
  12.  What was his manner of speaking?
  13. Was he religious?
  14. Was he generous?
  15.  What did he think of the Jacobites?
  16.  What did he make of slavery?
  17. What did he think about the American Revolution?
  18.  What is his most famous book?
  19. Which other languages did he know?
  20. Was he married?
  21. What is the best known biography of him?
  22.  Who wrote it?
  23. What disease did Johnson suffer as a child?
  24.  Was he sporty?
  25. What did he say about Americans calling for liberty?
  26. What did he say about people who are tired of London?
  27.  In which city did he spend most of his life?
  28.  What was his political party?
  29. Is he still alive?
  30.  What was his nationality?
  31.  Which is his most famous book?
  32. What do you think of him? Five sentences.