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A ROUGH DIAMOND.
N the year 1709, on the 18th day of Septemwer, a
little son was born to a poor bookseller of Lichfield, and on that very same day the babe was
carried across the stony square in which the Church of St. Mary stands, and baptized by the name of Samuel—Samuel Johnson, as it is inscribed in the register. A little insignificant sickly child, yet destined to rise to great eminence.
Is there any one in our country who can read and write and yet has not heard of Johnson's Dictionary; heard of it, and doubtless used it, perhaps putting it back on its shelf without caring much who compiled the book, who gave days and years to the monotonous yet useful composition ?
Yet it is well to know these things, good to follow our brother in his strivings and failures, hopes and realisations, if not during life, yet after death, and especially such a great, patient, rough, tender, wise and wonderful brother as this was! It is worth while looking back to what he was as a man, even forgetting the Dictionary-maker.
So we turn to the voluminous story of his life told by the most admiring of biographers, and choose out from its closely-written pages those which we think will show us best the poor bookseller's son—the greatest literary character of his day-Samuel Johnson. He was for three years an only child, and several stories of his infancy have reached us. One points to the fact that he must have possessed great quickliess and an excellent memory.
His mother, a sensible if not learned woman, in his tender youth gave him a collect to learn, and after putting the prayer-book into his hands went upstairs to execute some household work. On reaching the second floor the pit-pat of childish footsteps following surprised her. "I can say it," panted little Sam, and he repeated his task without a mistake. Yet the child could not have read the words over more than twice.
Another anecdote relates that young Samuel, in the heedless gambols of a child of three, trod on a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it. Whereupon he is said to have dictated to his mother the following epitaph
Here lies good Master Duck,
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on ;
For then we'd had an odd one. The mother is said to have handed these lines down as little Sam's own; but great Samuel Johnson in after years was wont to shake his head, and affirm that the kind old father made the lines, and wished to pass them off for his boy's. Possibly little Sam might have suggested the idea, and so we may reconcile both statements.
One of the trials of this great man's childhood, and, indeed, entire life, was his shortsightedness, amounting at times to blindness of one eye, and which was caused by a disease in the blood. This grievous affliction was early discovered, and the best physician in the town was consulted, who advised he should be taken to London to receive the royal touch, then supposed to charm away "The Evil.” The boy was thirty months old at the time, and was able to call up in after years, confusedly, “a solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds and a long black hood”-Queen Anne!
Alas! the royal fingers did nothing for this poor sufferer, though the mother firmly believed in the superstition; and
little Sam was conveyed home no better, but hugging in his arms a small silver cup and spoon which his mother bought for him in London. We hear again of this cup and spoon in
Johnson's first instruction, save what his mother might have given him, was derived from a certain Dame Oliver, who kept a little school in Lichfield. Hither each morning the servant used to lead him, for he was too shortsighted to be trusted by himself, and could not even cross the gutter without kneeling down to take a near view of it. One day the maid was late in coming to fetch him home, and Sam, growing impatient, set out by himself. The schoolmistress, however, becoming alarmed for his safety, followed him at a little distance, which, when the child perceived, he felt his pride was wounded, and running back he thumped the poor lady with his small fists. All the same, little Sam Johnson and Dame Oliver were staunch friends; and years later, when the small pupil had grown into a big lad bound for Oxford University, the old lady called upon him to bid him goodbye, bringing with her a parting present of gingerbread.
Of the next school he was sent to, Johnson always spoke with respect, though the master was a severe one.
"He whipped me very well,” were his words; “ without that, I should have done nothing."
Johnson approved of the rod, and has left some sensible observations concerning its use. “I would rather," said he, “have the rod to be the general terror to all to make them learn, than tell a child if you do thus or thus you will be more esteemed than your brothers or sisters. A ild is afraid of being whipped and gets his task, and there is an end on't, whereas, by exciting emulation and comparison of superiority, you lay the foundation of lasting mischief, you make brothers and sisters hate each other.”
You must not think that Johnson required much whipping
at school, for he very soon came to be acknowledged “a king of men.” Learning came easily to him, only play was difficult. In what games could he engage, almost blind as he was, and stout and unwieldy, moreover ? One winter amusement of his is handed down to us : a barefooted boy fastened a garter round his waist, which Johnson clung to, and thus yoked the two-legged steed dragged his clumsy but clever schoolmate along the ice.
Johnson could and did give most valuable assistance to his fellows in school hours, and in return they would place themselves in other matters at his service. For instance, three of them bore him to school in this fashion;-one stooped and Johnson got on his back, then the other two supported him on either side, and the three proceeded with their burden at a steady trot. In his nineteenth year Johnson went to Oxford. His father, who was a fair scholar, like many booksellers of that day, took him there himself, seemingly very full of the merits of his son. He informed the company at his tutor's house that he was a good scholar and a poet, and wrote Latin verses.
Johnson sat by silent and strange till some one touched on books, and then he spoke out so decidedly and well, that those who perhaps might have smiled at the old father's fond praises, were compelled to own that the son seemed likely to justify them. His life at Oxford must have been a strange mixture of pleasure and pain; he loved books and the company of his equals, and he had both there, but then he was miserably poor, and his pride revolted from the thought of the gay young fellows around him witnessing his privations. As an instance of this, he was wont to visit a friend at Christ Church, where the tutor was a man of high repute, and so he gathered his lectures at secondhand. Christ Church men are generally drawn from the families of the rich and great; and one day as Johnson's shoes were worn out so that his feet peeped