Johnson, a sickly child whose father was a bookseller, was born in Lichfield. In 1728 he entered Pembroke College, oxford, and began his literary life with a translation of a collection of religious writings by Alexander Pope (1731). He could not afford to complete his education and would later be awarded an honorary "Dr." title. After his father's death in 1731, Johnson taught grammar school to ease his family's debt during 1732 and then spent three years in Birmingham, where he published his first essays in the Birmingham Journal. His first book, a translation from a French account of a Portuguese missionary, appeared in 1735 under the title A Voyage to Abyssinia. He also married Mrs. Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter, a wealthy widow 20 years his elder, beginning a lifelong romance. The couple's efforts at starting a school failed, so they moved to London in 1737. One of their students, David Garrick, accompanied the Johnsons. He would later become one of England's most celebrated actors.
Johnson at last earned a stable living, making numerous contributions to Edward Cave's journal The Gentleman's Magazine. His famous poem "London," an imitation of Juvenal's Third Satire, appeared in 1738, offering commentary on Johnson's favorite themes: social degeneracy, the self-importance of the wealthy, and economic abuses against the poor. It was one of a very few superb poems Johnson would publish. He then published biographical commentary on Richard Savage, a friend, who died in 1744, the first of many biographical writings, which would become as famous as his creative work. A series of such biographies later were published in a volume titled The Lives of the Poets, material that would be studied centuries later for its insights not only into human nature, but also into the England of his day. Urged by a publisher named Robert Dodsley to help codify the ever-shifting English language by writing a dictionary, Johnson published his Plan for the dictionary in 1747 and applied for financial support to Lord Chesterfield but received none. He decided to undertake the project anyway and worked on it for eight years, using varied sources for terms. He quoted from religious works, offering advice for a moral life, using, for example, more than 100 quotations from the religious poetry of George Herbert.
In 1749 Johnson published his most accomplished poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," an imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire. It emphasized the folly of allowing hopes to distort reality, crippling man's ability to cope with everyday life. He would consider the same theme again a decade later in his only novel, The His tory of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759). Also in 1749 Garrick staged Johnson's forgettable play Irene. While not his most accomplished work, Irene earned £300 for Johnson, who always needed funds.
In 1750 Johnson began publication of The Rambler, a twice-weekly periodical that he almost single-handedly wrote. The essays contained in The Rambler established Johnson's distinctive style as he considered moral issues echoed in his later novel. James Boswell later wrote in the most famous biography in English, Life of Samuel Johnson L.L.D. (1791), about the essays, which "in no writings whatever can be found more bark and steel for the mind."
Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, a momentous and vitally important work, at last was published in 1765. When Chesterfield stepped forward to "support" the project, Johnson blasted him by including in the work the definition of patron as "Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery." Despite the work's popularity, Johnson could hardly stay ahead of his debts. Finally after 1762, Johnson received a state pension and some measure of financial security. He became known famously as an arbiter of taste, labeled "The Great Cham" by Tobias Smollett, and led an artistic group called simply "The Club." Its membership included the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the politician and writer Edmund Burke, the novelist Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick, as well as Boswell. Johnson continued his voluminous writing, which included an eight-volume edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765). A deservedly famous figure, he toured Scotland with Boswell and published his observations in 1775 as A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). The Lives of the Poets appeared in 1782, offering 52 studies that featured his acute literary criticism and showcased his totally absorbing understanding of the human condition.
Suffering ill health, Johnson fought bouts of depression in his later years. He died in 1784 and was buried as a celebrated hero of letters in Westminster Abbey. For the most part as a result of Boswell's detailed and eminently readable biography, Johnson enjoyed more fame after his death than he had during his life. The rational practicality he gave to his critiques of literature and philosophy guaranteed Johnson a reputation as one who applied an insightful knowledge of his own human weakness and strength to his assessment of others. In his creative work he fulfilled his stated requirements of a true poet, to observe and reflect upon the quotidian with fresh understanding.
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