English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Samuel Johnson

SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709–1784), the great literary dictator of the latter part of the eighteenth century, was the son of a bookseller at Lichfield. After leaving Oxford, he tried teaching, but soon gave it up, and came to London in 1737, where he supported himself by his pen. After years of hardship he finally rose to the head of his profession, and a pension of £300 a year from George III. made his later years free from anxiety.

Johnson attempted many forms of literature. In poetry his chief works were “London,” an imitation of Juvenal, and “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” a piece of dignified and impressive moralizing. Garrick produced his tragedy of “Irene” in 1749, but without much success. The great Dictionary appeared in 1755, and made an epoch in the history of English lexicography. From 1750 to 1752 he issued the “Rambler,” which he wrote almost entirely himself. This periodical is regarded as the most successful of the imitations of the “Spectator,” but the modern reader finds it heavy. The “Idler,” a similar publication, appeared from 1758 to 1760. In 1759, when Johnson’s mother died, he wrote his didactic romance of “Rasselas” in one week in order to defray the expenses of her illness and funeral. This was the most popular of his writings in his own day, and has been translated into many languages. In 1765 Johnson issued his edition of Shakespeare in eight volumes, a task in many respects inadequately performed, yet in the interpretation of obscure passages often showing Johnson’s robust common sense and power of clear and vigorous expression.

It is generally agreed that none of Johnson’s various works is the equal of his conversation as reported in the greatest of English biographies, Boswell’s “Life of Johnson.” But the “Lives of the Poets,” written as prefaces to a collection of the English poets, is his most permanently valuable production, and, though limited by the standards of his time, is full of acute criticism admirably expressed. The “Life of Addison” is one of the most sympathetic of the “Lives,” and gives an excellent idea of Johnson’s matter and manner.