Samuel Johnson

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Dr Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was one of the leading figures of English literature's Augustan Age. Often referred to simply as Dr Johnson, he was one of the foremost literary scholars and writers of his day. He is also known for his witty conversation, much of which was recorded by his first biographer, James Boswell. He is responsible, for example for the aphorism, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money".

Early life

Samuel Johnson was born September 18th 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire to Michael and Sarah Johnson. His father was a bookseller; the family business would provide a major supplement to Johnson's formal education, as he had access to the works of classical literature from his father's stock.

As a child, Johnson suffered from scrofula. He was touched by Queen Anne in accordance with a widespread belief that the royal touch could cure it. Health problems would continue throughout his life.

Johnson received the first portion of his formal education at the local grammar school. By 1728, the Johnsons were able to send him to Pembroke College at Oxford. This was not to last; after thirteen months, Johnson was forced to withdraw for want of funds. The advanced degrees Johnson would claim later in life were honoris causa, given after his literary accomplishments.

Johnson entered the family trade as a bookseller for two years. In 1735 he married a widow, Elizabeth Porter. Johnson tried, with indifferent success, to launch a career as a schoolmaster. The school he started would fail, but one of his students, David Garrick would become one of the leading actors and producers of the day. His association with Garrick would lead him to London and mark the beginning of his career as a professional writer.


by 1737 Johnson was working as a journalist submitting essays to publications such as The Gentleman's Magazine. Published by William Cave, this was the first periodical to describe itself as a magazine. In 1738 Johnson's Juvenalian satire, London was published. The biographical Life of Mr. Richard Savage was published, detailing the hardships of one of Johnson's literary friends. Johnson produced two notable series of literary essays in this period: The Rambler, published from 1750 to 1752, and The Adventurer published from 1753 to1754.

The Dictionary

  1. Sir Isaac Newton defines water, when pure, to be a very fluid salt, volatile, and void of all savour or taste; and it seems to consist of small, smooth, hard, porous, spherical particles, of equal diameters, and of equal specifick gravities, as Dr. Cheyne observes. Their smoothness accounts for their sliding easily over one another's surfaces; their sphericity keeps them also from touching one another in more points than one; and by both these their frictions in sliding over one another, is rendered the least possible. Their hardness accounts for the incompressibility of water, when it is free from the intermixture of air. The porosity of water is so very great, that there is at least forty times as much space as matter in it. Quincey. Shakespeare.
  2. The sea. Common Prayer
  3. Urine. Shakespeare
  4. To hold Water. To be sound; to be right, L'Effrange.
  5. It is used for the lustre of a diamond. Shakespeare
  6. Water is much used in composition for things made with water, being in water, or growing in water: as, water-spaniel, water- flood, water-courses, water-pots, water-fox, water-snakes, water-gods, water- newt, Sidney. Psalms. Isaiah. Jo. Walton, May. Dryden. Derbam.

By 1747. Johnson's reputation as a man of letters had grown sufficiently that he was approached by a group of publishers to create an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was a massive undertaking which would take nine years to write. While Johnson employed a number of assistants, the dictionary, can in a real sense be considered to have been authored by Johnson himself.[1]

Later Years

The success of the dictionary did not, in itself, provide Johnson with financial security. In 1762 Johnson was awarded a crown pension of 300 pounds a year. In 1763 Johnson met James Boswell, his first major biographer. In his later years, Johnson was one of the leading figures of London literary and artistic society, conversing with the leading members of the English enlightenment such as Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. In 1777 he began his Lives of the Poets, not completed till 1781, and a major feat of biography and criticism. Although the choice of poets was not his but that of the booksellers with whom he contracted, with the result that many inconsiderable writers were included, his judgments established his lasting reputation as a literary critic.

Samuel Johnson died on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.


  1. Samuel Johnson. A dictionary of the English language : in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, A history of the language, and An English grammar. London : Printed by W. Strahan, 1755.