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Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The son of a bookseller, he rose to become one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century, most famously compiling A Dictionary of the English Language.

Poverty and illness followed Johnson for much of his life. He contracted scrofula (also known as the King’s Evil) as a baby, which resulted in poor hearing and eyesight and left him noticeably scarred. Johnson attended the local grammar school in Lichfield and went on to Pembroke College, Oxford. However, he was to leave after just 13 months as his parents could no longer afford the fees. In 1735, he married a widow, Elizabeth Porter, and set up a school at Edial; it failed within months. With this behind him, Johnson took one of the few remaining pupils - the soon-to-be star of the London stage, David Garrick - and walked to the capital to seek fame and fortune. Johnson worked as a hack writer for many years, writing and editing articles for Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine. He received some critical success with his early poem London (1738) and his biography of the wayward poet, Richard Savage (1744) but Johnson’s big opportunity came in 1746 with the commission to write the Dictionary. Johnson lived in 17 different places in London, but moved to Gough Square in order to work on the Dictionary, which was finally published in 1755. From then on Johnson’s fame was assured and he was known as 'Dictionary Johnson', although he still suffered some financial difficulty.

Johnson’s written work was immense and varied. He completed a critical edition of the works of William Shakespeare and created biographies and critical appraisals of 52 English poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for his Lives of the Poets. He also wrote literary criticism and was a prolific essayist, for two years being the almost sole contributor to The Rambler, as well as writing for The Idler and The Adventurer.

Johnson gained a pension from George III in 1762, allowing him a more comfortable lifestyle. He could now spend more time travelling and talking: Johnson was well known for his robust character and challenging and often hilarious conversation. He was a sociable man, being a member of several Clubs and his circle of friends included the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the literary hostess Hester Thrale and the writer Oliver Goldsmith. Johnson’s life inspired many biographies, the most famous of which, by his great friend, the Scottish lawyer James Boswell, was published in 1791.

Today, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Johnson is the second most-quoted Englishman. A topical reference guide to his quotations can be found here. He most famously said ‘...when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson after Sir Joshua Reynolds Samuel Johnson, after Sir Joshua Reynolds

Chatting, engraving after Thomas Rowlandson# Chatting, Thomas Rowlandson after Samuel Collings, 1786
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