JOHNSON—DAYS OF STRUGGLE
 SAMUEL JOHNSON was the son of a country bookseller, and he was
born at Lichfield in 1709. He was a big, strong boy, but he
suffered from a dreadful disease, known then as the King's Evil.
It left scars upon his good-looking face, and nearly robbed him
of his eyesight. In those days people still believed that this
dreadful disease would be cured if the person suffering from it
was touched by a royal hand. So when he was two, little Samuel
was taken to London by his father and mother, and there he was
"touched" by Queen Anne. Samuel had a wonderful memory, and
although he had been so young at the time, all his life after he
kept a kind of awed remembrance of a stately lady who wore a long
black hood and sparkling diamonds. The touch of the Queen's soft
white hand did the poor little sick child no good, and it is
quaint to remember that the great learned doctor thought it might
be because he had been touched by the wrong royal hand. He might
have been cured perhaps had he been taken to Rome and touched by
the hand of a Stuart. For Johnson was a Tory, and all his life
he remained at heart a Jacobite.
At school Samuel learned easily and read greedily all kinds of
books. He loved poetry most, and read Shakespeare when he was so
young that he was frightened at finding himself alone while
reading about the ghost in Hamlet. Yet he was idle at his tasks
and had not
 altogether an easy time, for when asked long years
after how he became such a splendid Latin scholar, he replied,
"My master whipt me very well, without that, sir, I should have
Samuel learned so easily that, though he was idle, he knew more
than any of the other boys. He ruled them too. Three of them
used to come every morning to carry their stout comrade to
school. Johnson mounted on the back of one, and the other two
supported him, one on each side. In winter when he was too lazy
to skate or slide himself they pulled him about on the ice by a
garter tied round his waist. Thus early did Johnson show his
power over his fellows.
At sixteen Samuel left school, and for two years idled about his
father's shop, reading everything that came in his way. He
devoured books. He did not read them carefully, but quickly,
tearing the heart out of them. He cared for nothing else but
reading, and once when his father was ill and unable to attend to
his bookstall, he asked his son to do it for him. Samuel
refused. But the memory of his disobedience and unkindliness
stayed with him, and more than fifty years after, as an old and
worn man, he stood bare-headed in the wind and rain for an hour
in the market-place, upon the spot where his father's stall had
stood. This he did as a penance for that one act of
Johnson's father was a bookworm, like his son, rather than a
tradesman. He knew and loved his books, but he made little money
by them. A student himself, he was proud of his studious boy,
and wanted to send him to college. But he was miserably poor and
could not afford it. A well-off friend, however, offered to
help, and so at eighteen Samuel went to Oxford.
Here he remained three years. Those years were not altogether
happy ones, for Johnson's huge ungainly
 figure, and shabby,
patched clothes were matters for laughter among his fellow-
students. He became a sloven in his dress. His gown was
tattered and his linen dirty, and his toes showed through his
boots. Yet when some one, meaning no doubt to be kind, placed a
new pair at his door, he kicked them away in anger. He would not
stoop to accept charity. But in spite of his poverty and shabby
clothes, he was a leader at college as he had been at school, and
might often be seen at his college gates with a crowd of young
men round him, "entertaining them with wit and keeping them from
After remaining about three years at college, Johnson left
without taking a degree. Perhaps poverty had something to do
with that. At any rate, with a great deal of strange, unordered
learning and no degree, and with his fortune still to make,
Samuel returned to his poverty-stricken home. There in a few
months the father died, leaving to his son an inheritance of
With forty pounds not much is to be done, and Samuel became an
usher, or under-master in a school. He was little fitted to
teach, and the months which followed were to him a torture, and
all his life after he looked back on them with something of
After a few months, he left the school where he had been so
unhappy, and went to Birmingham to be near an old schoolfellow.
Here he managed to live somehow, doing odd bits of writing, and
here he met the lady who became his wife.
Johnson was now twenty-five and a strange-looking figure. He was
tall and lank, and his huge bones seemed to start out of his lean
body. His face was deeply marked with scars, and although he was
very near-sighted, his gray eyes were bright and wild, so wild at
times that they frightened those upon whom they were turned. He
 his own hair, which was coarse and straight, and in an age
when every man wore a wig this made him look absurd. He had a
trick of making queer gestures with hands and feet. He would
shake his head and roll himself about, and would mutter to
himself until strangers though that he was an idiot.
And this queer genius fell in love with a widow lady more than
twenty years older than himself. She, we are told, was coarse,
fat, and unlovely, but she was not without brains, for she saw
beneath the strange outside of her young lover. "This is the
most sensible man that I ever saw in my life," she said, after
talking with him. So this strange couple married. "Sir," said
Johnson afterwards, "It was a love-marriage on both sides." And
there can be no doubt that Samuel loved his wife devotedly while
she lived, and treasured her memory tenderly after her death.
Mrs. Johnson had a little money, and so Samuel returned to his
native town and there opened a school. An advertisement appeared
in the papers, "At Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young
gentlemen are boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages,
by Samuel Johnson." But Johnson was quite unfitted to be a
teacher, and the school did not prosper. "His schoolroom," says
another writer, "must have resembled an ogre's den," and only two
or three boys came to it. Among them was David Garrick, who
afterwards became a famous actor and amused the world by
imitating his friend and old schoolmaster, the great Sam, as well
as his elderly wife.
After struggling with his school for more than a year, Johnson
resolved to give it up and go to London, there to seek his
fortune. Leaving his wife at Lichfield, he set off with his
friend and pupil David Garrick, as he afterwards said, "With
twopence halfpenny in my pocket, and thou, Davy, with three
halfpence in thine."
The days of the later Stuarts and the first of the
 Georges were
the great days of patronage. When a writer of genius appeared,
noblemen and others, who were powerful and wealthy, were eager to
become his patron, and have his books dedicated to them. So
although the dunces among writers remained terribly poor, almost
every man of genius was sure of a comfortable life. But although
he gained this by his writing, it was not because the people
liked his books, but because one man liked them or was eager to
have his name upon them, and therefore became his patron. The
patron, then, either himself helped his pet writer, or got for
him some government employment. After a time this fashion
ceased, and instead of taking his book to a patron, a writer took
it to a bookseller, and sold it to him for as much money as he
could. And so began the modern way of publishing books.
But when Johnson came to London to try his fortune as a writer,
it was just the time between. The patron had not quite vanished,
the bookseller had not yet taken his place. Never had writing
been more badly paid, never had it been more difficult to make a
living by it. "The trade of author was at about one of its
lowest ebbs when Johnson embarked on it."
Johnson had brought with him to London a tragedy more than half
written, but when he took it to the booksellers they showed no
eagerness to publish it, or indeed anything else that he might
write. Looking at him they saw no genius, but only a huge and
uncouth country youth. One bookseller, seeing his great body,
advised him rather to try his luck as a porter than as a writer.
But, in spite of rebuffs and disappointments, Johnson would not
give in. When he had money enough he lived in mean lodgings,
when he had none, hungry, ragged, and cold, he roamed about the
streets, making friends with other strange, forlorn men of
genius, and sharing their miseries.
 But if Johnson starved he never cringed, and once when a
bookseller spoke rudely to him he knocked him down with one of
his own books. A beggar or not, Johnson demanded the respect due
to a man. At school and college he had dominated his fellows, he
dominated now. But the need of fighting for respect made him
rough. And ever after his manner with friend and foe alike was
rude and brusque.
The misery of this time was such that long years after Johnson
burst into tears at the memory of it. But it did not conquer
him, he conquered it. He got work to do at last, and became one
of the first newspaper reporters.
Nowadays, during the debates in Parliament there are numbers of
newspaper reporters who take down all that is said in shorthand,
and who afterwards write out the debates for their various
newspapers. In Johnson's day no such thing had been thought of.
He did not hear the debates, but wrote his accounts of them from
a few notes given to him by some one who had heard them. The
speeches which appeared in the paper were thus really Johnson's,
and had very little resemblance to what had been said in the
House. And being a Tory, Johnson took good care, as he
afterwards confessed, "that the Whig dogs should not have the
best of it." After a time, however, Johnson began to think this
so-called reporting was not quite honest, and gave it up. He
found other literary work to do, and soon, although he was still
poor, he had enough money to make it possible for his wife to
join him in London.
Among other things he wrote one or two poems and the life of
Richard Savage, a strange, wild genius with whom he had wandered
the streets in the days of his worst poverty. The tragedy called
Irene which Johnson had brought with him to London was at length
 years produced by Garrick, who had by that time
become a famous actor. Johnson had, however, no dramatic genius.
"When Johnson writes tragedy," said Garrick, " 'declamation roars
and passion sleeps':
when Shakespeare wrote, he dipped the pen
in his own heart." Garrick did what he could with the play, but
it was a failure, and although Johnson continued to believe that
it was good, he wrote no more tragedies.
The story of Irene is one of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
After Mahomet had taken Constantinople he fell in love with a
fair Greek maiden whose name was Irene. The Sultan begged her to
become a Mohammedan so that he might marry her. To this Irene
consented, but when his soldiers heard of it they were so angry
that they formed a conspiracy to dethrone their ruler.
Hearing of this Mahomet resolved to make an end of the conspiracy
and rescue his throne from danger. Calling all his nobles
together he bade Irene appear before him. Then catching her by
the hair with one hand and drawing his sword with the other he at
one blow struck off her head. This deed filled all who saw it
with terror and wonder. But turning to his nobles Mahomet cried,
"Now by this, judge if your Emperor is able to bridle his
affections or not."
It seems as if there were here a story which might be made to
stir our hearts, but Johnson makes it merely dull. In his long
words and fine-sounding sentences we catch no thrill of real
life. The play is artificial and cold, and moves us neither to
wonder nor sorrow.
Johnson's play was a failure, but by that time he had begun the
great work which was to name him and single him out from the rest
of the world as Dictionary Johnson. To make a complete
dictionary of a language is a
tre-  mendous work. Johnson thought
that it would take three years. It took, instead, seven.
But during these seven years he also wrote other things and
steadily added to his fame. He started a paper after the model
of the Spectator, called the Rambler. This paper was continued
for about two years, Johnson writing all but five of the essays.
After that he wrote many essays in a paper called the Adventurer,
and, later still, for two years he wrote for another paper a
series of articles called the Idler.
But none of these can we compare with the Spectator. Johnson
never for a moment loses sight of "a grand moral end." There is
in his essays much sound common sense, but they are lumbering and
heavy. We get from them no such picture of the times as we get
from the Spectator, and, although they are not altogether without
humor, it is a humor that not seldom reminds us of the dancing of
an elephant. This is partly because, as Johnson said himself, he
is inclined to "use too big words and too many of them."
In the days when Johnson wrote, this style was greatly admired,
but now we have come back to thinking that the simplest words are
best, or, at least, that we must suit our words to our subject.
And if we tell a fairy tale (as Johnson once did) we must not use
words of five syllables when words of two will better give the
feeling of the tale. Yet there are many pleasant half-hours to
be spent in dipping here and there into the volumes of the
Rambler or the Idler. I will give you in the next chapter, as a
specimen of Johnson's prose, part of one of the essays from the
Idler. It is the story of a man who sets forth upon a very
ordinary journey and who makes as great a tale of it as he had
been upon a voyage of discovery in some untraveled land.