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Timeline

Samuel Johnson baby

1709

Samuel Johnson is born in Lichfield, Staffordshire to Sarah (née Ford) and Michael Johnson, a bookseller.

If you had had children, Sir, said I, would you have taught them anything? "I hope (replied he), that I should have willingly lived on bread and water to obtain instruction for them; but I would not have set their future friendship to hazard for the sake of thrusting into their heads knowledge of things for which they might not perhaps have either taste or necessity." 
                                                                Piozzi: Anecdotes

I love the acquaintance of young people; because, in the first place, I don't like to think myself growing old. In the next place, young acquaintances must last longest, if they do last; and then, Sir, young men have more virtue than old men; they have more generous sentiments in every respect.

James Boswell The Life of  Samuel Johnson (1791) 

 former student David Garrick

1737

Following the failure of his school, Johnson walks to London with his former student David Garrick to seek support for his play Irene.

old dictionary

1746

Johnson begins planning his Dictionary, publishing his famous Plan, in a letter to Lord Chesterfield, in 1747.

The general error of those who possess powerful and elevated understandings is, that they form schemes of too great extent, and flatter themselves too hastily with success; they feel their own force to be great, and, by the complacency with which every man surveys himself, imagine it still greater: they therefore look out for undertakings worthy of their abilities, and engage in them with very little precaution; for they imagine that every obstruction will give way, and that, without premeditated measures, they shall be able to find expedients in all difficulties.


Johnson: Rambler No. 43 (August 14, 1750)

Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.


Johnson: Letter to Francesco Sastres (August 21, 1784)

Library

1747

Work on the Dictionary begins in earnest.

old building in Gough Square - Johnson's

1749

Johnson moves to Gough Square, his play Irene is performed at Drury Lane, and he writes The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Though the discoveries or acquisitions of man are not always adequate to the expectations of his pride, they are at least sufficient to animate his industry.


Johnson: Rambler No. 150 (August 24, 1751)

Every man, from the highest to the lowest station, ought to warm his heart and animate his endeavours with the hopes of being useful to the world, by advancing the art which it is his lot to exercise; and for that end he must necessarily consider the whole extent of its application, and the whole weight of its importance.


Johnson: Rambler No. 9 (April 17, 1750)

old books in a library self

1750

Johnson begins The Rambler, writing some 200 essays before it ends in 1752.

old pen with ink

1752-54

Johnson's wife Tetty dies and Francis Barber joins his household. Johnson continues to write for The Adventurer despite his melancholia.

I have ever since [his wife's death] seemed to myself broken off from mankind; a kind of solitary wanderer in the wild of life, without any direction, or fixed point of view: a gloomy gazer on the world to which I have little relation.

James Boswell The Life of  Samuel Johnson (1791)

It may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.

Preface, Dictionary of the English Language

dictionary page - The Dictionary of the English Language

1755

The Dictionary of the English Language is published.

Literary Party - Johnson with friends

1758-60

Johnson writes all but 12 articles of the 103 essays to appear in The Idler

Don't set up for what is called hospitality; it is a waste of time, and a waste of money; you are eaten up, and not the more respected for your liberality. If your house be like an inn, nobody cares for you. 

James Boswell The Life of  Samuel Johnson (1791)

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.


Boswell: Life

Rasselas book cover

1759

Johnson writes Rasselas in order to pay for his mother's funeral and has to leave Gough Square due to its expense.

profile picture of Johnson

1762

Johnson receives a state pension for his literary achievements. 

It frequently happens that applause abates diligence. Whosoever finds himself to have performed more than was demanded will be contented to spare the labour of unnecessary performances, and sit down to enjoy at ease his superfluities of honour.

Johnson: Rambler #111 (April 9, 1751)

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.


Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson 1791

Johnson meets Boswell in a book shop painting

1763

Johnson meets Boswell in a book shop. Their relationship lasted for 21 years, until Johnson’s death in 1784. 

painting with a reader of The Lives of Poets

1779-81

Johnson publishes The Lives of Poets, one of his most popular and influential works. 

The essence of verse is regularity, and its ornament is variety. To write verse is to dispose syllables and sounds harmonically by some known and settled rule -- a rule however lax enough to substitute similitude for identity, to admit change without breach of order, and to relieve the ear without disappointing it.


Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)

O! my friend, the approach of death is very dreadful. I am afraid to think on that which I know I cannot avoid. It is vain to look round and round for that help which cannot be had. Yet we hope and hope, and fancy that he who has lived to-day may live to-morrow. But let us learn to derive our hope only from God.


Johnson: Letter to John Taylor

old document

1784

Johnson dies at 8 Bolt Court.

old books with leather covers

1791

Boswell publishes The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D

I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.


Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides 1785

I cannot but remark a kind of respect, perhaps unconsciously, paid to this great man by his biographers: every house in which he resided is historically mentioned, as if it were an injury to neglect naming any place that he honoured by his presence.

 

Johnson, Life of Milton  1779

Lord Harmsworth

1911

Cecil, Lord Harmsworth, purchases 17 Gough Square and opens it to the public as Dr Johnson's House.

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