Dr Samuel Johnson: 300th Anniversary of his birth this week

A17 -Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_ReynoldsYou know what, I doubt whether he’d even get a column in today’s newspapers. No one would dare hire him. If Dr Johnson were writing in modern Fleet Street, his views would be denounced as utterly outrageous. Foreign ambassadors would be constantly on the Today programme, demanding apologies for the insult done to their country.

Polly Toynbee would be in a state of permanent apoplexy. Any newspaper that dared to print his views would face the wrath of the Equalities Commission. It must be admitted – 300 years after the birth of one of the greatest figures of English literature – that some of his stuff can seem outré to the point of unacceptability.

He is not just sexist. He is not just xenophobic. He is a free-market, monarchy-loving advocate of the necessity of human inequality.

Listen to him bashing the Americans. “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

Ireland? Worth seeing, but not worth going to see. The French – a dirty bunch, blowing into the spouts of teapots to make them pour properly.

As for the Scots, they are mainly liars who had no cabbage until Cromwell introduced it. They subsist on horse-food, and the finest sight a Scottish person can see is the high road leading to England. Not even Simon Heffer would get away with that kind of Jock-bashing, tongue in cheek
or not.

Samuel Johnson thought the decline in the use of the cane would harm educational attainment. It wasn’t just that he was opposed to women having jobs. He thought it was a bit off for them even to paint or draw. “Public practice of any art, and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female,” he said; and as for a woman preaching, it “was like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done
at all.”

You might find some Daily Telegraph columnists who still think like that – but not in print. And no matter how odd some of us look in our picture bylines, Dr Johnson was positively bizarre.

He continues:

“Johnson was so venerated in his lifetime that George III paid him a stipend of £300 a year just to exist. When he lived just off Fleet Street, tourists would come in search of a glimpse, like rubbernecking fans amid the mansions of Beverly Hills. When he died Edmund Burke was among his pallbearers; he was buried at Westminster Abbey, and across the land there were assorted sermons on this doleful event.

Above all his remarks – his squibs, his sallies, his ruminations – were each deemed so individually precious that they were noted down by the Scottish lawyer and patron saint of journalism, James Boswell, and consecrated in a 1,400-page biography, which is itself one of the landmarks of our literature.

Time after time you come across a dictum of Johnson, and you find yourself nodding and saying, yup, that’s us, that’s the human race.

“Almost every man has some real or imagined connection to a celebrated character.”

“Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment.”

“The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment.”

“The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative.”

“Every animal revenges his pains on those who happen to be near.” Of all the lines in Goldsmith’s plays, the most famous was actually contributed by Johnson. “How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

There is a lot of thought in that couplet. Many journalists have been paid many thousands of pounds to say the same thing at considerably greater length.

But his prestige and his moral authority derived above all from one superhuman literary effort.

It took 40 Frenchmen 55 years to produce a dictionary of French. It took the Accademia della Crusca 20 years to produce a dictionary of Italian. It took Johnson 9 years to produce his dictionary, and he personally wrote 40,000 entries. When the Victorians began their great oeuvre in 1888, they called it the “New English Dictionary”, and it was new in the sense that it was the first to presume to move out of the shadow of Johnson.

It is an immense thing to be the definer of not just any old language, but the language of what was then the greatest country on earth. It is, above all, an act of fantastic self-assertion, to freeze the great torrent of words as they change and glide through history and say, That’s it. That’s what they all mean, and they mean it because I, Johnson, say so.

He was a genius; he was rated by T S Eliot as a poet of the first rank, and far from being a hard-hearted bigot he was prodigal with money and an abominator of slavery who believed in sticking up for the little guy. He worked tirelessly for the education of his black manservant, Frank Barber. He liberated him from the navy and made him the chief beneficiary of his will.

This country has never produced an author with a better or more generous understanding of human nature.

But would he have been allowed to write a column today, with
all his exuberant rudeness? I doubt it.”

The full article appears in The Daily Telegraph today here

18 thoughts on “Dr Samuel Johnson: 300th Anniversary of his birth this week”

  1. Understood human nature? Not my nature to be so misanthropic about my fellows, except when I come across bigots like your namesake. Or Thatcher. And you, if you are serious about your admiration for this oaf’s politics.
    In Blackadder they burnt his dictionary. Should have burnt him with it.
    Love and peace.

  2. Vicus, I take it that you are not a Dr. Johnson fan!

    Here are some of his great quotations.

    A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.

    A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him.

    Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.

    As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.

    Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.

    Do not accustom yourself to use big words for little matters.

    Don’t think of retiring from the world until the world will be sorry that you retire. I hate a fellow whom pride or cowardice or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl. Let him come out as I do, and bark.

    Every quotation contributes something to the stability or enlargement of the language.

    Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.

    He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man.

    Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.

    Hope is necessary in every condition.
    Samuel Johnson

  3. And this quotation is for our Editor, the lovely Melissa.

    “To hear complaints with patience, even when complaints are vain, is one of the duties of friendship”

  4. “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment.” – Oh Boris, why did you not heed these words when you endorsed the tedious tat market that was the “Thames Festival” (last weekend) – a crafts and fast food market is not a festival nor did we see any merriment!

  5. For those who are interested – Dr Johnson’s House just off Fleet Street will be open to the public this coming Friday, his birthday.

    From 11am to 5:30pm and no charge to enter.

  6. It is a shame that we do not have the freedom to be as blunt as Dr. Johnson nowadays. I am so ticked off at Gordon Brown, the acid remarks I am storing up about Jocks wouldswamp Aberdeen! But people are individuals, not stereotypes. It is only Gordon I should like to chop into small pieces and serve up stuffed into a haggis skin.

  7. Get on down there to Dr Johnson’s house!


    Dr. Johnsons House, 17 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE
    By Tube
    Temple (Circle & District Line), Holborn or Chancery Lane (Central Line).
    By Bus
    All routes to Aldwych, Chancery Lane, Fleet Street or St. Paul’s.
    Bus numbers 4, 11, 15, 23, 26, 76 and 172 run along Fleet Street.

  8. Aye, aye… Dr Samuel Johnson is me great, great, great grandad alright. That explains why I’m so politically incorrect. And proud of it.

    The French blow into the spouts of teapots to make them pour properly? I thought they spat into the spouts of their teapots to lubricate them to make them pour properly?

    I have always thought that the backward Australians are so simple minded because they stem from shipped convicts.

    And Heathersland’s great national hero of all time is Dame Elizabeth Who Ate All The Pies. And one of their bank holidays is called ‘ Sir Abdelbaset Al Magrahi Day ‘ which falls on 20 August. Fancy that.

  9. I suspect that I am not the only who Boris has riled by this little essay.
    The typical Torygraph reader probably hasn’t heard that Sam Johnson is dead. For pity’s sake, Bozza, don’t go telling them that there is no longer an empire.

  10. Vicus Scurra – I must say that you take life too seriously. The piece of writing about Dr Samuel Johnson is brilliant. It is so amusing and interesting that I despair for you that you have to take things so seriously and to heart.

    Those were the days when people said what they thought and didn’t pretend to you due to political correctness. I would MUCH rather have someone like Dr. Johnson to speak/listen to than some sad politically correct pompous prat who’s up his own a***. He would be far more interesting than practically every person one meets today. Most sit on the fence and can’t get off it.

    I have noticed that the people who take the most offence to comments such as those we’ve just read, are the ones who lack any confidence or self esteem. I have many Scottish ancestors and my mother is Glaswegian – I laughed at the comments about the Scots.

    Bring it on is what I say. More of the same please. When people had freedom of speech and actually had personalities. Today, this stupid nonsense of not upsetting anyone has made most of you into zombies wondering around grunting and mindless. Give me a man of strength, character and opinion any day.

    To those of you offended by this wonderful man I say – go get a life

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