Doctor Johnson
The History of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia


"Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge." (Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language)

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, in 1709, the son of a bookseller. He was brought up amongst great literature and, because of ill health, spent a great deal of time reading. He contracted tuberculosis at a young age and was underwent a series of ineffectual treatments which left him disfigured and nearly blind. He grew into a strong and athletic man, despite this sickly childhood, and was known for his feats of strength. In 1728 Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. He stayed only 13 months, until December 1729, when he ran out of money. At Oxford he was known as much for his laziness as for his intellect, although his tutor, William Jorden, later wrote of Johnson's immense and useless knowledge of obscure Latin poetry - a remnant of the bookshop upbringing.

Johnson took on several unsuccessful teaching jobs after leaving Oxford, and then started to publish articles in The Birmingham Journal. In 1735 he married a woman many years older than him, Elizabeth Porter. She was wealthy, witty, and beautiful, and together they set up a school in Lichfield (where he was to teach Garrick - the most famous actor of his generation). In the late 1730s, Johnson began to contribute to the progressive Gentleman's Magazine, writing a selection of rather mediocre poetry and sycophantic praise of literary figures. His work became more political, and included a piece on Robert Walpole, the then Prime Minister. He began to write prodigiously: "London" (his first major poem), "Marmor Norfolciense", and "A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage". Johnson continued to write increasingly refined and humorous political satire in The Gentleman's Magazine, which maintained its political detachment by opposing all politicians. Johnson wrote his first piece on Shakespeare in 1745, called "Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth". It was not as brilliant as his later critical writing, but was nonetheless remarkable as the first true piece of Shakespearean criticism. In 1749 Johnson published The Vanity of Human Wishes, his most accomplished poem as well as the first work published with his name. It uses striking imagery and is more direct and sparing in its use of language than any of his contemporaries.

In the late 1740s, Johnson's relationship with Garrick paid dividends, and Irene, his first play, was performed in the West End. It was well received and earned Johnson a reputation as a learned and witty scholar. At the same time he worked upon The Rambler, a publication of essays by Johnson and his friends. It proved hugely successful and became synonymous with the literary salons of the eighteenth century. Walter Jackson Bate described them thus: "saturated with thought to an extent unexceeded by any other writer of English prose since Francis Bacon."

In the years following, Johnson worked without cease on his Dictionary of the English Language, which was finally published in 1755. It was the first dictionary to attempt to include the entire English language with examples of usage and was produced remarkably quickly for such a mammoth undertaking. It is a work of great erudition as well as of sheer hard work, and secured Johnson's reputation as one of the great figures in English literary history.

In the later part of his life, Johnson produced a series of other publications, including The Literary Journal, and The Idler, both attempting to replicate the success of The Rambler. In 1759 Johnson wrote his only long work of fiction, Rasselas, a tale of the East combining adventure and a profound commentary on modern life. It is an underrated work that still manages to stir the reader with its fast pace and romantic setting. It was a huge success and enabled Johnson to live out his days in some style. Towards the end of his life, Johnson wrote some magnificent Shakespearean criticism which has aged remarkably well and should still be read by students wishing to gain a more profound understanding of Britain's greatest playwright. The Lives of the Poets was his last major work. Johnson died in 1784, having lived a life of profound importance to the literary world. James Boswell, who idolized Johnson and followed him around for a great part of his life, wrote the most famous biography.

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