Page images
PDF
EPUB

olim semper miraturi,' whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

“ There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences. Thus Sallust, the great master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that, when he had made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense ; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character, which represents him as careful of his health and negligent of his life.

“ But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life, when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and have so little regard to the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.

“There are, indeed, some natural reasons why these narratives are often written by such as were not likely to give much instruction or delight, and why most accounts of particular persons are barren and useless. If a life be delayod till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence ; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, , and are rarely transmitted by tradition. We know how

few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind; and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original."

I am fully aware of the objections which may be made to the minuteness, on some occasions, of my detail of Johnson's conversation, and how happily it is adapted for the petty exercise of ridicule, by men of superficial understanding, and ludicrous fancy; but I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man. I am therefore exceedingly unwilling that any thing, however slight, which my illustrious friend thought it worth his while to express with any degree of point, should perish. For this almost superstitious reverence, I have found very old and venerable authority, quoted by our great modern prelate, Secker, in whose tenth sermon there is the following passage:

“ Rabbi David Kimchi, a noted jewish commentator, who lived about five hundred years ago, explains that passage in the first psalm, His leaf also shall not wither,' from rabbins yet older than himself, thus: "That even the idle talk,' so he expresses it, ' of a good man ought to be regarded;' 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 tabletalk, and other anecdotes, of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more, I am justified in 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 an author can please in any degree, the more pleasure does there arise to a benevolent mind.

| Rambler, No. 60.

To those who are weak 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 Cæsar, 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 his own to be made an apophthegm or an oracle."

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

SAMUEL JOHNSON was born at Lichfield, in Staffordshire, on the eighteenth of September, N. S. 1709; and 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 on the day of his birth; his father is there styled 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 Jobinson, 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 I am to endeavour to record, and Nathanael, who died in his twenty-fifth yearh.

8 Bacon's Advancement of Learning, Book I.

h Nathanael was born in 1712, and died in 1737. Their father, Michael Johnson, was born at Cubley in Derbyshire, in 1656, and died at Lichfield in

Mr. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body, and of a strong and 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 inquiry, though the effects are well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness. From him then his son inherited, with some other qualities, "a vile melancholy,” which, in his too strong expression of any disturbance of the mind,“ made him mad all his life, at least not soberi.” 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 pretty 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, he acquired a reasonable share of wealth, of which, however, he afterwards lost the greatest part, by engaging unsuccessfully in a manufacture of parchment. He was a zealous high

1731, at the age of seventy-six. Sarah Ford, his wife, was born at King's Norton, in the county of Worcester, in 1669, and died at Lichfield, in January, 1759, in her ninetieth year.—King's Norton, Dr. Johnson supposed to be in Warwickshire, (see his inscription for his mother's tomb,) but it is in Worcestershire, probably on the confines of the county of Warwick.-Malone.

Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, third edit. p. 213. k Extract of a letter, dated Trentham, St. Peter's day, 1716, written by the rev. George Plaxton, chaplain at that time to lord Gower, which may serve to show the high estimation in which the father of our great moralist was held :Johnson, the Lichfield librarian, is now here: he propagates learning all over this diocese, and advanceth knowledge to its just height; all the clergy here are his pupils, and suck all they have from him ; Allen cannot make a warrant without his precedent, nor our quondam John Evans draw a recognizance sine directivne Michaelis.-GENTLEMAN's MAGAZINE, October, 1791.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

church man 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 romantick, 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 him 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 too 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 this inscription:

HERE LIES THE BODY OF
MRS. ELIZABETH BLANEY, A STRANGER.

SHE DEPARTED THIS LIFE
20 OF SEPTEMBER, 1694.

Johuson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I asked his old schoolfellow, Mr. Hector, sur

It was not, however, much cultivated, as we may collect from Dr. Johnson's own account of his early years, published by R. Phillips, 8vo. 1805, a work undoubtedly authentick, and which, though short, is curious, and well worthy of perusal. “My father and mother, says Johnson, had not much happiness from each other. They seldom conversed; for my father could not bear to talk of his affairs ; and my mother, being unacquainted with books, cared not to talk of any thing else. Had my mother been more literate, they had been better companions. She might have sometimes introduced her unwelcome topick with more success, if she could have diversified her conversation. Of business she had no distinct conception; and therefore her discourse was composed only of complaint, fear, and suspicion. Neither of them ever tried to calculate the profits of trade, or the expenses of living. My mother concluded that we were poor, because we lost by some of our trades; but the truth was, that my father, having in the early part of his life contracted debts, never had trade sufficient to enable him to pay them, and to maintain his family: he got something, but

« PreviousContinue »