Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

IT is told that, when a child of three years old, Dr. Johnson chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it; upon which, it is said, he dictated to his mother the following epitaph:

Here lies good master duck
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on;
If it had lived, 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 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.'

Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 40..

Guthrie, the historian, had from July 1736 composed the parliamentary speeches for the magazines; but, from the beginning of the session which opened on the 14th of November 1740, Johnson succeeded to that department and continued it from that time to the debate on spirituous liquors, which happened in the House of Lords in February, 1742-3. The eloquence, the force of argument, and the splendour of language displayed in the several speeches are well known, and universally admired. The whole has been collected in two volumes by Mr. Stockdale, and may form a proper supplement to this edition. That Johnson was the author of the debates during that period was not generally known; but the secret transpired several years afterwards, and was avowed by himself on the following occasion. Mr. Wedderburne (now Lord Loughborough), Dr. Johnson, Dr. Francis (the translator of Horace), the present writer, and others dined with the late Mr. Foote. An important debate towards the end of Sir Robert Walpole's administration being mentioned, Dr. Francis observed that

'Mr. Pitt's speech on that occasion was the best he had ever read.' He added that 'he had employed eight years of his life in the study of Demosthenes, and finished a translation of that celebrated orator, with all the decorations of style and language within the reach of his capacity; but he had met with nothing equal to the speech above-mentioned.'

Many of the company remembered the debate; and some passages were cited, with the approbation and applause of all present. During the ardour of conversation Johnson remained silent. As soon as the warmth of praise subsided, he opened with these words: 'That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter-street.' The company was struck with astonishment. After staring at each other in silent amaze, Dr. Francis asked how that speech could be written by him.

'Sir,' said Johnson, 'I wrote it in Exeter-street. I never had been in the gallery of the House of Commons but once. Cave had interest with the door-keepers. He, and the persons employed under him, gained admittance; they brought away the subject of discussion, the names of the speakers, the side they took, and the order in which they rose, together with notes of the arguments advanced in the course of the debate. The whole was afterwards communicated to me, and I composed the speeches in the form which they now have in the Parliamentary Debates.'

To this discovery Dr. Francis made answer:

'Then, Sir, you have exceeded Demosthenes himself; for to say that you have exceeded Francis's Demosthenes would be saying nothing.'

The rest of the company bestowed lavish encomiums on Johnson: one, in particular, praised his impartiality; observing that he dealt out reason and eloquence with an equal hand to both parties.

'That is not quite true,' said Johnson, 'I saved appearances tolerably well; but I took care that the WHIG DOGS should not have the best of it'

Johnsonian Miscellanies, i. 378-9 (from Arthur Murphy, An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1792)).

IN 1743-1744, Osborne the bookseller, who kept a shop in Gray's-Inn, purchased the Earl of Oxford's library, at the price of thirteen thousand pounds. He projected a catalogue in five octavo volumes, at five shillings each. Johnson was employed in that painful drudgery. He was likewise to collect all such small tracts as were in any degree worth preserving, in order to reprint and publish the whole in a collection, called 'The Harleian Miscellany'. The catalogue was completed; and the Miscellany in 1749 was published in eight quarto volumes. In this business Johnson was a day-labourer for immediate subsistence, not unlike Gustavus Vasa working in the mines of Dalecarlia. What Wilcox, a bookseller of eminence in the Strand, said to Johnson, in his first arrival in town, was now confirmed. He lent our author five guineas, and then asked him, 'How do you mean to earn your livelihood in this town?' 'By my literary labours,' was the answer. Wilcox, staring at him, shook his head: 'By your literary labours! — You had better buy a porter's knot.' Johnson used to tell this anecdote to Mr. Nichols; but he said, 'Wilcox was one of my best friends, and he meant well.' In fact, Johnson, while employed in Gray's-Inn, may be said to have earned a porter's knot. He paused occasionally to peruse the book that came to his hand. Osborne thought that such curiosity tended to nothing but delay, and objected to it with all the pride and insolence of a man who knew that he paid daily wages. In the dispute that of course ensued, Osborne, with that roughness which was natural to him, enforced his argument by giving the lie. Johnson seized a folio, and knocked the bookseller down.

Johnsonian Miscellanies, i. 378-9 (from Arthur Murphy, An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1792) i. 380-381).

SOON after the publication of Johnson's Life of Savage, which was anonymous, Mr. Walter Harte, dining with Mr. Cave at St. John's Gate, took occasion to speak very handsomely of the work. Cave told Harte, when they next met, that he had made a man very happy the other day at his house by the encomiums he bestowed on the author of Savage's Life.

'How could that be?' says Harte; 'none were present but you and I' Cave replied, 'You might observe I sent a plate of victuals behind the screen. There skulked the Biographer, one Johnson, whose dress was so shabby that he durst not make his appearance. He overheard our conversation; and your applauding his performance delighted him exceedingly.'

Nichols, Anecdotes, v. 32-33 n. Boswell also had this story from Edmond Malone (Life of Johnson, i. 163 n).

JOHNSON received from some unknown source a letter deriving the word 'curmudgeon' from coeur méchant , or wicked heart — a wild enough guess, which pleased the doctor so much that he adopted it in his Dictionary, giving due credit to 'unknown correspondent'. Twenty years later, Dr. Ash, preparing a dictionary of his own, was struck by this gem, and transferred it to his own pages. But, wishing all the glory of the discovery for himself, he gave no credit to Johnson, and informed a wondering world that curmudgeon was formed from coeur, 'unknown', and méchant , 'correspondent'.

Walsh, Handy-book, p. 234.

Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson had paid the high compliment of addressing to his Lordship the plan of his Dictionary, had behaved to him in such a manner as to excite his contempt and indignation. . .

When the Dictionary was upon the eve of publication, Lord Chesterfield, who, it is said, had flattered himself with expectations that Johnson would dedicate the work to him, attempted in a courtly manner to sooth, and insinuate himself with the Sage, conscious, as it should seem, of the cold indifference with which he had treated its learned author; and further attempted to conciliate him by writing two papers in The World in recommendation of the work; and it must be confessed that they contain some studied compliments, so finely turned, that if there had been no previous offence, it is probable that Johnson would have been highly delighted. Praise in general was pleasing to him; but by praise from a man of rank and elegant accomplishments he was peculiarly gratified....

This courtly device failed of its effect. Johnson, who thought that 'all was false and hollow', despised the honeyed words, and was even indignant that Lord Chesterfield should, for a moment, imagine that he could be the dupe of such an artifice. His expression to me concerning Lord Chesterfield upon this occasion was,

'Sir, after making great professions, he had for many years taken no notice of me; but when my Dictionary was coming out, he fell a scribbling in The World about it. Upon which, I wrote him a letter expressed in civil terms, but such as might show him that I did not mind what he said or wrote, and that I had done with him: . . .

Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 256, 257-8, 259-60, 261-3.

MRS. DIGBY told me that when she lived in London with her sister Mrs. Brooke, they were, every now and then, honoured by the visits of Dr. Samuel Johnson. He called on them one day, soon after the publication of his immortal dictionary. The two ladies paid him due compliments on the occasion. Among other topics of praise, they very much commended the omission of all naughty words. 'What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?' said the moralist. The ladies, confused at being caught, dropped the subject of the dictionary.

Beste, Memorials, pp. 11-12.

MY desire of being acquainted with celebrated men of every description had made me, much about the same time [1776], obtain an introduction to Dr. Samuel Johnson and to John Wilkes, Esq. Two men more different could perhaps not be selected out of all mankind. They had even attacked one another with some asperity in their writings; yet I lived in habits of friendship with both. I could fully relish the excellence of each; for I have ever delighted in that intellectual chemistry which Pan separate good qualities from evil in the same person.... I conceived an irresistible wish, if possible, to bring Dr. Johnson and Mr. Wilkes together. How to manage it was a nice and difficult matter.

My worthy booksellers and friends, Messieurs Dilly in the Poultry, at whose hospitable and well-covered table I have seen a greater number of literary men than at any other, except that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, had invited me to meet Mr. Wilkes and some more gentlemen on Wednesday, 15 May. 'Pray,' said I, 'let us have Dr. Johnson: —'What, with Mr. Wilkes? not for the world,' said Mr. Edward Dilly: 'Dr. Johnson would never forgive me.' 'Come,' said I, 'if you'll let me negotiate for you, I will be answerable that all will go well.' Dilly. 'Nay, if you will take it upon you, I am sure I shall be very happy to see them both here.'

Notwithstanding the high veneration which I entertained for Dr. Johnson, I was sensible that he was sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction, and by means of that I hoped I should gain my point. I was persuaded that if I had come upon him with a direct proposal, 'Sir, will you dine in company with Jack Wilkes?' he would have flown into a passion, and would probably have answered, 'Dine with Jack Wilkes, sir! I'd as soon dine with Jack Ketch.' I therefore, while we were sitting quietly by ourselves at his house in an evening, took occasion to open my plan thus:—

'Mr. Dilly, sir, sends his respectful compliments to you, and would be happy if you would do him the honour to dine with him on Wednesday next along with me, as I must soon go to Scotland.'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, I am obliged to Mr. Dilly. I will wait upon him—'
BOSWELL. 'Provided, Sir, I suppose, that the company which he is to have is agreeable to you.'
JOHNSON. 'What do you mean, Sir? What do you take me for? Do you think I am so ignorant of the world as to imagine that I am to prescribe to a gentleman what company he is to have at his table?'
BOSWELL. 'I beg your pardon, sir, for wishing to prevent you from meeting people whom you might not like. Perhaps he may have some of what he calls his patriotic friends with him.'
JOHNSON. 'Well, sir, and what then? What care I for his patriotic friends? Poh!'
BOSWELL. 'I should not be surprised to find Jack Wilkes there.'
JOHNSON. 'And if Jack Wilkes should be there, what is that to me, sir? My dear friend, let us have no more of this. I am sorry to be angry with you; but really it is treating me strangely to talk to me as if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally.'
BOSWELL. 'Pray forgive me, sir: I meant well. But you shall meet whoever comes, for me.'

Thus I secured him, and told Dilly that he would find him very well pleased to be one of his guests on the day appointed. Upon the much-expected Wednesday, I called on him about half an hour before dinner, as I often did when we were to dine out together, to see that he was ready in time, and to accompany him. I found him buffeting his books, as upon a former occasion, covered with dust, and making no preparation for going abroad.

'How is this, sir?' said I. 'Don't you recollect that you are to dine at Mr. Dilly's?'
JOHNSON. 'Sir, I did not think of going to Dilly's: it went out of my head. I have ordered dinner at home with Mrs. Williams.'
BOSWELL. 'But, my dear Sir, you know you were engaged to Mr. Dilly, and I told him so. He will expect you, and will be much disappointed if you don't come.
JOHNSON. 'You must talk to Mrs. Williams about this.'

Here was a sad dilemma. I feared that what I was so confident I had secured would yet be frustrated. He had accustomed himself to show Mrs. Williams such a degree of humane attention as frequently imposed some restraint upon him; and I knew that if she should be obstinate he would not stir. I hastened downstairs to the blind lady's room, and told her I was in great uneasiness, for Dr. Johnson had engaged to me to dine this day at Mr. Dilly's, but that he had told me he had forgotten his engagement, and had ordered dinner at home.

'Yes, sir,' said she, pretty peevishly, 'Dr. Johnson is to dine at home.'—
'Madam,' said I, 'his respect for you is such that I know he will not leave you unless you absolutely desire it. But as you have so much of his company, I hope you will be good enough to forgo it for a day; as Mr. Dilly is a very worthy man, has frequently had agreeable parties at his house for Dr. Johnson, and will be vexed if the Doctor neglects him today. And then, madam, be pleased to consider my situation; I carried the message, and I assured Mr. Dilly that Dr. Johnson was to come, and no doubt he has made a dinner, and invited a company, and boasted of the honour he expected to have. I shall be quite disgraced if the Doctor is not there.'

She gradually softened to my solicitations, which were certainly as earnest as most entreaties to ladies upon any occasion, and was graciously pleased to empower me to tell Dr. Johnson, 'That all things considered, she thought he should certainly go.' I flew back to him still in dust, and careless of what should be the event, 'indifferent in his choice to go or stay'; but as soon as I had announced to him Mrs. Williams's consent, he roared, 'Frank, a clean shirt,' and was very soon dressed. When I had him fairly seated in a hackney-coach with me, I exulted as much as a fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to set out for Gretna-Green.

When we entered Mr. Dilly's drawing room, he found himself in the midst of a company he did not know. I kept myself snug and silent, watching how he would conduct himself. I observed him whispering to Mr. Dilly,

'Who is that gentleman, sir?'—'Mr. Arthur Lee.'—
JOHNSON. 'Too, too, too' (under his breath), which was one of his habitual mutterings. Mr. Arthur Lee could not but be very obnoxious to Johnson, for he was not only a Patriot but an American. He was afterwards minister from the United States at the court of Madrid. 'And who is the gentleman in lace?'—
'Mr. Wilkes, Sir.'

This information confounded him still more; he had some difficulty to restrain himself, and taking up a book, sat down upon a window-seat and read, or at least kept his eye upon it intently for some time, till he composed himself. His feelings, I dare say, were awkward enough. But he no doubt recollected his having rated me for supposing that he could be at all disconcerted by any company, and he therefore resolutely set himself to behave quite as an easy man of the world, who could adapt himself at once to the disposition and manners of those wham he might chance to meet.

The cheering sound of 'Dinner is upon the table' dissolved his reverie, and we all sat down without any symptom of ill humour. There were present, besides Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Arthur Lee, who was an old companion of mine when he studied physic at Edinburgh, Mr. (now Sir John) Miller, Dr. Lettsom, and Mr. Slater the druggist. Mr. Wilkes placed himself next to Dr. Johnson, and behaved to him with so much attention and politeness, that he gained upon him insensibly. No man ate more heartily than Johnson, or loved better what was nice and delicate. Mr. Wilkes was very assiduous in helping him to some fine veal.

'Pray give me leave, sir — it is better here. A little of the brownsome fat, sir— a little of the stuffing — some gravy. — Let me have the pleasure of giving you some butter. — Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange; — or the lemon, perhaps, may have more zest .'—
'Sir, sir, I am obliged to you, sir,' cried Johnson, bowing, and turning his head to him with a look for some time of 'surly virtue', but, in a short while, of complacency....

Mr. Arthur Lee mentioned some Scotch who had taken possession of a barren part of America, and wondered why they should choose it.

JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative. The Scotch would not know it to be barren.'
BOSWELL. 'Come, come, he is flattering the English. You have now been in Scotland, sir, and say if you did not see meat and drink enough there.'
JOHNSON. 'Why yes, sir; meat and drink enough to give the inhabitants sufficient strength to run away from home.' All these quick and lively sallies were said sportively, quite in jest, and with a smile, which showed that he meant only wit. Upon this topic he and Mr. Wilkes could perfectly assimilate; here was a bond of union between them, and I was conscious that as both of them had visited Caledonia, both were fully satisfied of the strange narrow ignorance of those who imagine that it is a land of famine. But they amused themselves with persevering in the old jokes. When I claimed a superiority for Scotland over England in one respect, that no man can be arrested there for a debt merely because another swears it against him, but there must first be the judgement of a court of law ascertaining its justice; and that a seizure of the person, before judgement is obtained, can take place only if his creditor should swear that he is about to fly from the country, or, as it is technically expressed, is in meditatione fugae
WILKES. 'That, I should think, may be safely sworn of all the Scotch nation.'
JOHNSON. (to Mr. Wilkes ). 'You must know, sir, I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilized life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.'
WILKES. 'Except when he is with grave, sober, decent people like you and me.'
JOHNSON. (smiling). 'And we ashamed of him.'...

I attended Dr. Johnson home, and had the satisfaction to hear him tell Mrs. Williams how much he had been pleased with Mr. Wilkes's company, and what an agreeable day he had passed.

Boswell, Life of Johnson , iii. 64-9, 76-7, 79.

A very accomplished young lady who became in process of time the Hon. Mrs. Digby, related to her former tutor the following anecdote. This lady was present at the introduction of Dr. Johnson at one of the late Mrs. Montagu's literary parties, when Mrs. Digby herself, with several still younger ladies, almost immediately surrounded our Colossus of literature (an odd figure sure enough) with more wonder than politeness, and while contemplating him, as if he had been some monster from the deserts of Africa, Johnson said to them, 'Ladies, I am tame; you may stroke me.'

Nicholls, Illustrations , vi. 153-154.

AFTER breakfast we walked to the top of a very steep hill behind the house. When we arrived at the summit, Mr. Langton said,

'Poor dear Dr. Johnson, when he came to this spot, turned back to look down the hill, and said he was determined "to take a roll down". When we understood what he meant to do, we endeavoured to dissuade him; but he was resolute, saying, "he had not had a roll for a long time"; and taking out of his lesser pockets whatever might be in them — keys, pencil, purse, or pen-knife — and laying himself parallel with the edge of the hill, he actually descended, turning himself over and over, till he came to the bottom.'

Beste, Memorials, pp. 64-65.

ADMIRAL WALSINGHAM, who sometimes resided at Windsor, and sometimes in Portugal Street, frequently boasted that he was the only man to bring together miscellaneous parties, and make them all agreeable; and, indeed, there never before was so strange an assortment as I have occasionally met there. At one of his dinners were the Duke of Cumberland, Dr. Johnson, Mr. Nairn the optician, and Mr. Leoni the singer: at another, Dr. Johnson, etc., and a young dashing officer, who determined, he whispered, to attack the old bear that we seemed to stand in awe of. There was a good dinner, and during that important time Johnson was deaf to all impertinence. However, after the wine had passed rather freely, the young gentleman was resolved to bait him, and venture out a little further.

'Now, Dr. Johnson, do not look so glum, but be a little gay and lively like others: what would you give, old gentleman, to be as young and sprightly as I am?'
'Why, Sir,' said he, 'I think I would almost be content to be as foolish.'

Johnsonian Miscellanies , ii. 68-9 (from Joseph Cradock, 'Anecdotes of Dr. Sam. Johnson') Gentleman's Magazine , xcviii (January 1828), 24.

DURING the last visit which the Doctor made to Lichfield, the friends with whom he was staying missed him one morning at the breakfast-table. On inquiring after him of the servants, they understood he had set off from Lichfield at a very early hour, without mentioning to any of the family whither he was going. The day passed without the return of the illustrious guest, and the party began to be very uneasy on his account, when, just before the supper-hour, the door opened, and the Doctor stalked into the room. A solemn silence of a few minutes ensued, nobody daring to inquire the cause of his absence, which was at length relieved by Johnson addressing the lady of the house in the following manner:

'Madam, I beg your pardon for the abruptness of my departure from your house this morning, but I was constrained to it by my conscience. Fifty years ago, Madam, on this day, I committed a breach of filial piety, which has ever since lain heavy on my mind, and has not till this day been expiated. My father, you recollect, was a bookseller, and had long been in the habit of attending Uttoxeter market, and opening a stall for the sale of his books during that day. Confined to his bed by indisposition, he requested me, this time fifty years ago, to visit the market, and attend the stall in his place. But, Madam, my pride prevented me from doing my duty, and I gave my father a refusal. To do away the sin of this disobedience, I this day went in a post-chaise to Uttoxeter, and going into the market at the time of high business, uncovered my head, and stood with it bare an hour before the stall which my father had formerly used, exposed to the sneers of the standers-by and the inclemency of the weather; a penance by which I trust I have propitiated heaven for this only instance, I believe, of contumacy towards my father.'

Johnsonian Miscellanies, ii. 426-7 (from Richard Warner, A Tour through the Northern Counties (1802), i. 105).