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(Encyclopædia Britannica, December, 1856)
SAMUEL JOHNSON, one of the most eminent English writers of the eighteenth century, was the son of Michael Johnson, who was, at the beginning of that century, a magistrate of Lichfield, and a bookseller of great note in the midland counties. Michael's 5 abilities and attainments seem to have been considerable. He was so well acquainted with the contents of the volumes which he exposed to sale, that the country rectors of Staffordshire and Worcestershire thought him an oracle on points of learning. Between 10 him and the clergy, indeed, there was a strong religious and political sympathy. He was a zealous churchman,' and, though he had qualified himself for municipal office by taking the oaths to the sovereigns in possession,' was to the last a Jacobite in heart. At 15 his house, a house which is still pointed out to every traveller who visits Lichfield, Samuel was born on the 18th of September, 1709. In the child the physical,
intellectual, and moral peculiarities which afterwards distinguished the man were plainly discernible; great muscular strength accompanied by much awkwardness and many infirmities; great quickness of parts, with 5 a morbid propensity to sloth and procrastination; a kind and generous heart, with a gloomy and irritable temper. He had inherited from his ancestors a scrofulous taint, which it was beyond the power of medicine to remove.
His parents were weak enough to 10 believe that the royal toucho was a specific for this
malady. In his third year he was taken up to London, inspected by the court surgeon, prayed over by the court chaplains, and stroked and presented with
a piece of gold by Queen Anne. One of his earliest 15 recollections was that of a stately lady in a diamond
stomacher and a long black hood. Her hand was applied in vain. The boy's features, which were originally noble and not irregular, were distorted by
his malady. His cheeks were deeply scarred. He 20 lost for a time the sight of one eye; and he saw but
very imperfectly with the other. But the force of his mind overcame every impediment. Indolent as he was, he acquired knowledge with such ease and rapid
ity that at every school to which he was sent he was 25 soon the best scholar. From sixteen to eighteen he
resided at home, and was left to his own devices. He learned much at this time, though his studies were without guidance and without plan. He ransacked his father's shelves, dipped into a multitude of books, read what was interesting, and passed over what was 5 dull. An ordinary lad would have acquired little or no useful knowledge in such a way: but much that was dull to ordinary lads was interesting to Samuel. He read little Greek; for his proficiency in that language was not such that he could take much pleasure in the masters of Attic poetry and eloquence. But he had left school a good Latinist, and he soon acquired, in the large and miscellaneous library of which he now had the command, an extensive knowledge of Latin literature. That Augustano delicacy 15 of taste, which is the boast of the great public schools of England, o he never possessed. But he was early familiar with some classical writers, who were quite unknown to the best scholars in the sixth form at Eton. He was peculiarly attracted by the works of 20 the great restorers of learning. Once, while searching for some apples, he found a huge folio volume of Petrarch's works. The name excited his curiosity, and he eagerly devoured hundreds of pages. Indeed, the diction and versification of his own Latin compo- 25 sitions show that he had paid at least as much attention to modern copies from the antique as to the original models.
While he was thus irregularly educating himself, his 5 family was sinking into hopeless poverty. Old Michael Johnson was much better qualified to pore upon books, and to talk about them, than to trade in them. His business declined: his debts increased: it was with
difficulty that the daily expenses of his household 10 were defrayed. It was out of his power to support
his son at either university o; but a wealthy neighbour offered assistance; and, in reliance on promises which proved to be of very little value, Samuel was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford.
When the young 15 scholar presented himself to the rulers of that society,
they were amazed not more by his ungainly figure and eccentric manners than by the quantity of extensive and curious information which he had picked up dur
ing many months of desultory, but not unprofitable 20 study. On the first day of his residence he surprised
his teachers by quoting Macrobius;' and one of the most learned among them declared, that he had never known a freshman of equal attainments.
At Oxford, Johnson resided during about three 25 years. He was poor, even to raggedness; and his appearance excited a mirth and a pity, which were equally intolerable to his haughty spirit. He was driven from the quadrangle of Christ Church° by the sneering looks which the members of that aristocratical society cast at the holes in his shoes. Some chari- 5 table person placed a new pair at his door ; but he spurned them away in a fury. Distress made him, not servile, but reckless and ungovernable. No opulent gentleman commoner, ' panting for one-and-twenty, could have treated the academical authorities with more 10 gross disrespect. The needy scholar was generally to be seen under the gate of Pembroke, a gate now adorned with his effigy, haranguing a circle of lads, over whom, in spite of his tattered gown and dirty linen, his wit and audacity gave him an undisputed 15 ascendency. In every mutiny against the discipline of the college he was the ringleader.' Much was pardoned, however, to a youth so highly distinguished by abilities and acquirements. He had early made himself known by turning Pope's Messiaho into Latin 20