The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., by James Boswell

1755: AETAT. 46.

In 1755 we behold him to great advantage; his degree of Master of Arts conferred upon him, his Dictionary published, his correspondence animated, his benevolence exercised.

Mr. Charles Burney, who has since distinguished himself so much in the science of Musick, and obtained a Doctor’s degree from the University of Oxford, had been driven from the capital by bad health, and was now residing at Lynne Regis, in Norfolk. He had been so much delighted with Johnson’s Rambler and the Plan of his Dictionary, that when the great work was announced in the news-papers as nearly finished,’ he wrote to Dr. Johnson, begging to be informed when and in what manner his Dictionary would be published; intreating, if it should be by subscription, or he should have any books at his own disposal, to be favoured with six copies for himself and friends.

In answer to this application, Dr. Johnson wrote the following letter, of which (to use Dr. Burney’s own words) ‘if it be remembered that it was written to an obscure young man, who at this time had not much distinguished himself even in his own profession, but whose name could never have reached the authour of The Rambler, the politeness and urbanity may be opposed to some of the stories which have been lately circulated of Dr. Johnson’s natural rudeness and ferocity.’


‘SIR— If you imagine that by delaying my answer I intended to shew any neglect of the notice with which you have favoured me, you will neither think justly of yourself nor of me. Your civilities were offered with too much elegance not to engage attention; and I have too much pleasure in pleasing men like you, not to feel very sensibly the distinction which you have bestowed upon me.

‘Few consequences of my endeavours to please or to benefit mankind have delighted me more than your friendship thus voluntarily offered, which now I have it I hope to keep, because I hope to continue to deserve it.

‘I have no Dictionaries to dispose of for myself, but shall be glad to have you direct your friends to Mr. Dodsley, because it was by his recommendation that I was employed in the work.

‘When you have leisure to think again upon me, let me be favoured with another letter; and another yet, when you have looked into my Dictionary. If you find faults, I shall endeavour to mend them; if you find none, I shall think you blinded by kind partiality: but to have made you partial in his favour, will very much gratify the ambition of, Sir, your most obliged and most humble servant,


‘Gough-square, Fleet-street, April 8,1755.’

The Dictionary, with a Grammar and History of the English Language, being now at length published, in two volumes folio, the world contemplated with wonder so stupendous a work achieved by one man, while other countries had thought such undertakings fit only for whole academies. Vast as his powers were, I cannot but think that his imagination deceived him, when he supposed that by constant application he might have performed the task in three years.

The extensive reading which was absolutely necessary for the accumulation of authorities, and which alone may account for Johnson’s retentive mind being enriched with a very large and various store of knowledge and imagery, must have occupied several years. The Preface furnishes an eminent instance of a double talent, of which Johnson was fully conscious. Sir Joshua Reynolds heard him say, ‘There are two things which I am confident I can do very well: one is an introduction to any literary work, stating what it is to contain, and how it should be executed in the most perfect manner; the other is a conclusion, shewing from various causes why the execution has not been equal to what the authour promised to himself and to the publick.’

A few of his definitions must be admitted to be erroneous. Thus, Windward and Leeward, though directly of opposite meaning, are defined identically the same way; as to which inconsiderable specks it is enough to observe, that his Preface announces that he was aware there might be many such in so immense a work; nor was he at all disconcerted when an instance was pointed out to him. A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern the KNEE of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.’ His definition of Network8 has been often quoted with sportive malignity, as obscuring a thing in itself very plain. But to these frivolous censures no other answer is necessary than that with which we are furnished by his own Preface.

8 Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.’— ED.

His introducing his own opinions, and even prejudices, under general definitions of words, while at the same time the original meaning of the words is not explained, as his Tory, Whig, Pension, Oats, Excise,9 and a few more, cannot be fully defended, and must be placed to the account of capricious and humorous indulgence. Talking to me upon this subject when we were at Ashbourne in 1777, he mentioned a still stronger instance of the predominance of his private feelings in the composition of this work, than any now to be found in it. ‘You know, Sir, Lord Gower forsook the old Jacobite interest. When I came to the word Renegado, after telling that it meant “one who deserts to the enemy, a revolter,” I added, Sometimes we say a GOWER. Thus it went to the press; but the printer had more wit than I, and struck it out.’

9 Tory. ‘One who adheres to the ancient constitution or the state and the apostolical hierarchy of the church or England, opposed to a whig.’ Whig. ‘The name of a faction.’ 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.’ Oats. ‘A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’ 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.’— ED.

Let it, however, be remembered, that this indulgence does not display itself only in sarcasm towards others, but sometimes in playful allusion to the notions commonly entertained of his own laborious task. Thus: ‘Grub-street, the name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub-street.’—‘Lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.’

It must undoubtedly seem strange, that the conclusion of his Preface should be expressed in terms so desponding, when it is considered that the authour was then only in his forty-sixth year. But we must ascribe its gloom to that miserable dejection of spirits to which he was constitutionally subject, and which was aggravated by the death of his wife two years before. I have heard it ingeniously observed by a lady of rank and elegance, that ‘his melancholy was then at its meridian.’ It pleased GOD to grant him almost thirty years of life after this time; and once, when he was in a placid frame of mind, he was obliged to own to me that he had enjoyed happier days, and had many more friends, since that gloomy hour than before.

It is a sad saying, that ‘most of those whom he wished to please had sunk into the grave;’ and his case at forty-five was singularly unhappy, unless the circle of his friends was very narrow. He said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘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 constant repair.’

In July this year he had formed some scheme of mental improvement, the particular purpose of which does not appear. But we find in his Prayers and Meditations, p. 25, a prayer entitled ‘On the Study of Philosophy, as an Instrument of living;’ and after it follows a note, ‘This study was not pursued.’

On the 13th of the same month he wrote in his Journal the following scheme of life, for Sunday:

‘Having lived’ (as he with tenderness of conscience expresses himself) ‘not without an habitual reverence for the Sabbath, yet without that attention to its religious duties which Christianity requires;

‘1. To rise early, and in order to it, to go to sleep early on Saturday.

‘2. To use some extraordinary devotion in the morning.

‘3. To examine the tenour of my life, and particularly the last. week; and to mark my advances in religion, or recession from it.

‘4. To read the Scripture methodically with such helps as are at hand.

‘5. To go to church twice.

‘6. To read books of Divinity, either speculative or practical.

‘7. To instruct my family.

‘8. To wear off by meditation any worldly soil contracted in the week.’

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31