صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني

the most superfluous things he saith are always of some value. And other ancient authors have the same phrase, nearly in the same sense."

Of one thing I am certain, that considering how highly the small portion which we have of the table-talk and other anecdotes of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more, I am justified io preserving rather too many of Johnson's sayings, than too few; especially as from the diversity of dispositions it cannot be known with certainty beforehand, whether what may seem trifling to some, and perhaps to the collector himself, may not be most agreeable to many; and the greater number that au author can please in any degree, the more pleasure does there arise to a benevolent mind.

To those who are weuk enough to think this a degrading task, and the time and labour which have been devoted to it misemployed, I shall content myself with opposing the authority of the greatest man of any age, Julius C.isar, of whom Bacon observes, that "in his book of apophthegms which he collected, we see that he esteemed it more honour to make himself but a pair of tables, to take the wise and pithy words of others, than to have every word of bis own to be made an apophthegm or au oracle."

Having said thus much by way of introduction, I commit the following pages to the candour of the Public.

Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield, in Staffordshire, on the 18th of September, N. S. 1700; aud his initiation into the Christian church was not delayed: for his baptism is recorded, in the register of St Mary's parish in that city, to have been performed ou the day of his birth: His father is there stiled Gentleman, a circumstance of which an ignorant panegyrist has.praised him for not being proud; when the truth is, that the appellation of Gentleman, though now lost in the indiscriminate assumption of Esquire, was commonly taken by those who could not boast of gentility. His father was Michael Johnson, a native of Derbyshire, of obscure extraction, who settled in Lichfield as a bookseller and stationer. His mother was Sarah Ford, descended of an ancient race of substantial yeomanry in Warwickshire. They were well advanced in years when they married, and never had more than two children, both sons; Samuel, their first-born, who lived to be the illustrious character whose various excellence 1 am to endeavour to record, and Nathanacl, who died in his twenty-fifth year.

'M. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body, and of a atroog aud active mind; yet, as in the most solid rocks veins of unsound substance are often discovered, there was in him a mixture of that disease, the nature of which eludes the most minute enquiry, though the effects *re well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of maukiud, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness. From him then bis son inherited, with some other qualities, "a vile melancholy," which in his t;o strong expression of any disturbance of the mind, " made him mad all his life, at least not sober." Michael was, however, forced by the narrowness of his circumstances to be very diligent in business, not only in his shop, but by occasionally resorting to several towns in the neighbourhood, some of which were at a considerable distance from Lichfield. At that time booksellers' shops, in the provincial towns of England, were very rare, so that there was not one even in Birmingham, in which town old Mr. Johnson-used to open a shop every market-day. He was a |»retty good Latin scholar, and a citizen so creditable as to be made one of the magistrates of Lichfield; and being a man of good sense, and skill in his trade, be acquired a reasonable share of wealth, of which however lie afterwards lost the greatest part, by engaging unsuccessfully in a manufacture of parchment. He was a zealous high-churchman and royalist, and retained his attachment to the unfortunate house of Stuart, though he reconciled himself, by casuistical arguments of expediency and necessity to take the oaths imposed by the prevailing power.

There is a circumstance in his life somewhat romantic, but so well authenticated, that I shall not omit it. A young woman of Leek, in Staffordshire, while he served his apprenticeship there, conceived a violent passion for him: and though it met with no favourable return, followed bim to Lichfield, where she took lodgings opposite to the house in which he lived, and indulged her hopeless flame. When he was informed that it so preyed upon her mind that her life was in danger, he with a generous humanity went to her and offered to marry her, but it was then to* late: Her vital power was exhausted ; and she actually exhibited one of the very rare instances of dying for love. She was buried in the cathedral of Lichfield; and he, with a tender regard, placed a stone over her grave with the inscription:

Here lies the body of

Mrs. Elizareth Blaney, a stranger:

She departed this life

SO of September, 1694.

Johnson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I asked his old school-fellow, Mr. Hector, surgeon, of Brimingham, if she was not vain of her son. He said, " she had too much good sense to be vain, but she knew her son': value." Her piety was not inferior to her understanding; and to her must be ascribed those early impressions of religion upon the mind of her son, from which the world afterwards derived so much benefit. He told me, that he remembered distinctly having had the first notice of Heaven, "a place to which good people went, aud Hell, "a place to which bad people went, communicated to him by her, when a little child in bed with her; aud that it might be the better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson, their man-servant: he not being in the way, this was not done; but there was no occasion for any artificial aid for its preservation.

In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting. That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may easily be supposed; for to u*e his own words in his Life of Sydenham, "That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and the ardour of his curiosity, might have' been remarked from his infancy, by aV^Jigent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion of intellectual vigour."

In all such investigations it is certainly unwise to pay too much attention to incidents which the credulous relate with eager satisfaction, and the more scrupulous or witty enquirer considers only as topics of ridicule: Yet there is a traditional story of the infant Hercules of toryism so curiously characteristic, that 1 shall not withhold it. It was communicated to me in a letter from Miss Mary Adye, of Lichfield.

"When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three years old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon his father's shoulders, listening and gaping at the much celebrated preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. Johnsou how he could possibly think of bringing such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a crowd. He answered, because it was impossible to keep him at home; for, young as he was, he believed he had caught the public spirit and zeal for Sacheverel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him."

Nor can I omit a little instance of that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him. The fact was acknowledged to me by himself, upon the authority of his mother. One day, when the servant who used to be sent to school to conduct him home, had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then so near-sighted, that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees to take a view of the kennel, before he ventured to step over it. His school-mistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the kennel, or be run over by a cart, followed him at some distance. He happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat her, as well as his strength would permit.

Of the power of his memory, for whch he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following early instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his step-daughter, Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by his mother. When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, " Sam, you must get this by heart." She went up stairs, leaving him to study it: but by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. "What's the matter ?" said she. "1 can say it," he replied ; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.

But there has been another story of his infant precocity generally circulated, and generally believed, the truth of which I am to refute upon bis own authority. It is told, that, when a child of three years old, he chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it; upou which, it is suid, he dictated to his mother the following epitaph; "Here lies good master duck,

"Whom Samuel Johnson trod on; "If it had liv'd, it had been good luck, "For then we'd had an odd one." There is surely internal evidence that this little composition combines in it, what no child of three years old could produce, without an extension of its faculties by immediate inspiration; yet Mrs. Lucy Porter, Dr. Johnson's step-daughter, positively maintained to me, in his presence, that there could be no doubt of the truth of this anecdote, for she had heard it from his mother. So difficult is it to obtain an authentic relation of facts, and such authority may there be for error: for he assured me, that his father made the verses, and wished to pass them for his child's. He added, " my father was a foolish old man; that is to say, foolish in talking of his children."

Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the acrophula, or king's-evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much, that he did not see at all with one of his eyes, though its appearance was little different from that of the other. There is amongst his prayers, one inscribed " When my Eye was restored to its use," which ascertains a defect that many of his friends knew he had, though I never perceived it. I supposed him to be only near-sighted; and indeed I must observe, that in no other respect could I discern any defect in his vision; on the contrary, the force of his attention and perceptive quickness made him see and distinguish all manner of objects, whether of nature or of art, with a nicety that is rarely to be found. When he and I were travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, and 1 pointed out to him a mountain which I observed resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy, by shewing me, that it was indeed pointed at the top, but that one side of it was larger than the other. And the ladies with whom he was acquainted agree, that no ■nan was more nicely and minutely critical in the elegance of female dress. When I found that he saw the romantic beauties of Islam, in Derbyshire, much better than I did, 1 told him that he resembled an able performer upon a bad instrument. How false and contemptible then are all the remarks which have been made to the prejudice either of his candour or of his philosophy, founded upon a supposition that he was almost blind. It has been said, that he contracted his grievous malady from his nurse. His mother, yielding to the superstitious notion, which, it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion, which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such enquiry and such judgement as Carte could give credit; carried him to Loudon, where he was actually touched hy No. I. C

Qneen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer, then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly; and Mis. Fiozzi has preserved his very picturesqne description of the scene, us it remained upon his fancy. Hein^ asked if he could remembei Qneen Anne,—" He had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood." This touch, how ever, was without any effect. 1 ventured to say to him, in allusion to the political principles in which he was educated, and of which lie ever retained some odour, ;.hat"his, mother had not carried him far enough, she should have taken him to Komk."

He was first tanght to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, wha kept a school for young children in Lichfield. He told me she could read the black letter, and asked him to borrow for her, from his father, a hible in that character. When he was going to Oxford she came to take leave of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of gingerbread, and said he was the best scholar she ever had. He delighted in mentioning this early compliment : adding, with a smile, that " this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive." His next instructor in English was a master, whom, when he spoke of him tome, he familiarly called Tom Brown, "who," said he, "published a spelling-book, and dedicated it to the Universe; but, I fear, no copy of it can now be had."

He began to learn Latin with M. Hawkins, usher, or under-master of Lichfield school, " a man (said he) very skilful in his little way." With him he continned two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr. Hunter, the head-master, who, according to his account, "was verv severe, and wrong-headedly severe. He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distingnish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a qnestion, and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every qnestion, there would lie no need of a master to teach him."

It is, however, but justice to the memory of Mr. Hunter to mention, that though he might err in being too severe, the school of Lichfield was very respectable in his tune. The late Dr. Taylor, Prebendary of Westminster, who was educated under him, told me, that " he was an excellent master, and that his ushers were most of them men of eminence; that llolbrook, one of the most ingenious men, best scholars, and best preachers of his age, was usher during the greatest part of the time that Johnson was at school. Then came Hagne, of whom as much might be said, with the addition that he was an elegant fmet. Hagne was succeeded by Green, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, whose character in the learned world is well known. In the same form with Johnson was Congreve, who afterwards became chaplain to Archhishop Boulter, and

« السابقةمتابعة »