Samuel Johnson was born on 18 September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the son of a bookseller whose shop was in the Market Square. When he was five years old he went for English lessons at Dame Oliver's School, Dam Street. After attending the Grammar Schools in Lichfield and Stourbridge he went on to Pembroke College, Oxford. Although a bright student, he suffered from mental stress, not helped by his poverty at this time and his poor eyesight and he left after just over a year. He worked as a teacher in Market Bosworth before moving to Birmingham, where he lived for three years. Here he met Elizabeth Porter, whom he was later to marry. She was twenty years older than Samuel, had already raised a family by a previous marriage and was financially secure. He wrote for the Birmingham Journal and completed his first published book, A voyage to Abyssinia (1735), a translation from a French book of travels.
Following their marriage Samuel and Elizabeth set up a school at Edial, near Lichfield but this was not a success. One of Samuel's pupils was David Garrick and together they went to London in 1737, Johnson to write for The gentleman's magazine (founded by Edward Cave) and Garrick, eventually, to become a playwright. Johnson's first poem, London was published in the magazine the following year and this was followed by essays and debates. From 1747 he was to work on his Dictionary of the English language which was to take him eight years to complete, interspersed with The rambler, a periodical published in three volumes in 1750. He was again very poor, alleviated to some extent with the help of his friends. Rasselas (1759), a prose tale of Abyssinia, is said to have been written in a week to pay for his mother's burial. Better fortune came in 1762 when Johnson was awarded a crown pension of £300 a year.
Samuel Johnson drew around him a circle of friends and was often consulted for advice on literary matters. He bacame particualry closed to Henry and Hester Thrale and spent much time in their company. Other friends included James Boswell, Fanny Burney, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. He became quite lonely and sad in his later years and suffered much ill health. His achievements continued to be recognised and on his death he had the honour of being buried in Westminster Abbey. The life of this great man of letters was recorded by James Boswell and it through this great work in its own right that succeeding generations have enhanced their appreciation of the life and works of the man who gave us the Dictionary of the English language.
Samuel Johnson passed through Shropshire in July 1774 en route for North Wales and stopped off at Hawkstone where he was shown the splendours of the Park by the daughter of the house (Hawkstone Hall). The good doctor was suitably impressed by what he saw, Grotto Hill and the rest, although he apparently found the walking hard work. In fact he was so impressed that he could not help but compare it with scenes in Derbyshire and proceeded to wax lyrical on the subject:
It excells Dovedale, by the extent of its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdures of its hollows and the loftiness of its rocks. The ideas which it forces upon the mind are the sublime, the dreadful and the vast. Above, is inaccessible altitude, below, is horrible profundity.
There is no doubt that Hawkstone Park does contain some dramatic scenery but Dr. Johnson does seem to have gone over the top in this description. Could it be perhaps that the combination of a glass of port at luncheon with all that fresh air and exercise had the effect of stimulating the doctor's powers of verbosity? We can only guess.
This account of Samuel Johnson's visit to Shropshire is taken from An Illustrated Literary Guide to Shropshire by Gordon Dickins, published by Shropshire Libraries, 1987. © Gordon Dickins, 1987.
The following works are available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection:-Complete English poems
You may read the following online here:-
Project Gutenberg has several texts available, including Boswell's Life of Johnson
A selection of poetry by the author can be found in Representative poetry on-line, part of the University of Toronto site.
A copious selection of quotations by Samuel Johnson can be found on The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page, describing itself as the most comprehensive collection of Samuel Johnson quotations on the web.
Two books by Graham Nicholls, Boswell and Johnson: the story of a friendship (1977) and Who was Samuel Johnson?, are available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection. Also in the collection is the study by John Wain, published in 1974.
There is a website devoted to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop which has a good account of his life and works. Also look at Jack Lynch's Samuel Johnson pages.
Doctor Johnson - in Staffordshire is one of the local heroes on the BBC Stoke and Staffordshire website.
The Literary Encyclopedia has a profile of Samuel Johnson by Philip Smallwood, University of Central England.
There is a website devoted to the celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson entitled Samuel Johnson Tercentenary 2009.
Page created 9 January 2000 and last updated 24 July 2009.
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