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September 2, 2018


Classic: The Life of Johnson

by N@ncy


Samuel Johnson:

Johnson was a national icon who
epitomised the idea of English character and language
He loved wit more than wine and
men of genius more than sycophants!


Masterpiece: Johnson’s Dictionary is his masterpiece.
He once said: “Dictionaries are like watches.
The worst is better than none, and
the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

Masterpiece: In 1755 Johnson struggled and ultimate triumphed to ‘fix’ the language
This proved to be one of the English language’s most significant cultural monuments
Johnson sometimes introduced his own humorous opinions:
Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.


STYLE: a union of force, vivacity and insight
TONE:  common sense and controlled ridicule
POLITICS: – unquestioning belief in monarchy and violent distrust of its critics


CONVERSATION: Johnson considered conversation a contest “…I do not mean the victor must have the better argument…but is superiority of parts and knowledge must appear.”
Who was the conversationalist who could best challenge Johnson? Johnson admits that is is always Edmund Burke. Johnson considered him an extraordinary man. “His stream of mind is perpetual.”


PAMPHLET: Samuel Johnson wrote a famous political pamphlet for the North ministry.
Taxation, no Tyranny in reference to fellow-subjects in America.
It was thought wisest to omit some bitter taunts against the colonists .
OPINION: Johnson favors neither conciliation or separation of America
but a return to patterns of imperial discipline!


WIT: I enjoyed Johnson’s good humored wit.
For example he teases Boswell with the differences between England and Scotland!
Johnson gives you a forcible hug and shakes laughter out of you whether you will or not.


WIT vs WRITERS: Johnson is a man with humor at the tip of his tongue
He has a witty comeback to follow every statement.
His spoken words are not always found in favour regarding his opinions.
Johnson did not have a high regard for two eminent writers:
Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson!
Historians: “…the verbiage of Robertson or the foppery of Sir John Dalrymple.” OUCH!
But Johnson praised…John Bunyan. “His Pilgrim’s Progress has great merit…”


The Netherlands: I was stopped in my ‘morning walk tracks’ when I heard that Johnson was interested in book written in the dialect of my province Friesland The Netherlands! . Boswell even mentioned the University of Vranyker ( Franeker, The Netherlands). It was a seat of great learning 1585-1811. I was married in Franker and lived there for 7 years!


What do Samuel Johnson and Nancy have in common?
We both learned the low Dutch language!
Dutch has been a civilized language for
…more than a thousand years and has a rich literature.
Dutch is the third Germanic language after English and German.
Perhaps I should read the classic Thomas à Kempis
…in Dutch as Samuel Johnson did! (pg 835)


RUNNING JOKE: –> Samuel Johnson vs Mrs. James Boswell
Johnson continues to end his letters to James Boswell with a special salutation to Boswell’s wife:
1775: My compliments to Mrs. Boswell, who does not love me.
1775: I know that she does not love me; but I intend to press in wishing her well till I get the better of her!”
1776:  I hope my irreconcilable enemy, Mrs. Boswell, is well. Desire her not to transmit her malevolence to the young people.” (Boswell’s children)
1776: “If Mrs. Boswell would be friends with me, we might now shut the temple of Janus.” (temple in Rome that opened in time of war….closed in time of peace.)


This alludes to Johnson’s old feudal principle of preferring male to female succession!
Johnson has great fun ‘teasing’ Mrs Boswell in this manner.
1777: Boswell writes to Johnson that his wife begs he accept her compliments….and will send him some home-made orange marmalade. Just read Johnson’s reply….he still is teasing her!
“Tell Mrs. Boswell I shall taste her marmalade cautiously at first. “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.” (Virgil, Aeneid ) “I fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts.”


ENEMIES: Not everyone was enamoured by Samuel Johnson. After a scathing review of Soame Jenyns’ essay (1756) the writer clearly believes  revenge is a dish best served cold.
He wrote this sarcastic epitaph for the deceased Samuel Johnson:

Here lies poor Johnson. Reader, have a care,
Tread lightly, lest you rouse a sleeping bear;
Religious, moral, generous, and humane
He was—but self-sufficient, rude, and vain;
Ill-bred and over-bearing in dispute,
A scholar and a Christian—yet a brute.



READING PLAN: I had difficulty at the beginning of the book. I had to adjust to Boswell’s style.
He relates facts and leaves little room for analysis. During the conversations with Johnson many illustrious writers, historians, (Hailes) poets, (Dryer) publishers (Dodsley), literary critic (John Dennis) and even an actor (Garrick) and Scottish physician/writer (Cheyne)
are mentioned. I checked names on Wikipedia. Only this way could I enjoy the jibes Johnson made about many people.
I found once I reached page 554 (Kindle edition) with 50% still to read….I finally felt the pulse of the book. Johnson was unleashing his ‘bon mots’ that were a product of his quick imagination and his eloquence and total mastery of the English language.


BE WARNED: As in all books of biography that are very long
your eyes will glaze over at a certain point. Mine did.
I choose to skim over long letters about non-literary issues  and various discussions about lengthy judicial cases or the problems of getting books published. My interest was in Johnson’s comments with Boswell about books and writers and their correspondence between Johnson and Boswell.


LAST THOUGHTS:    Great quote: wine

Johnson’s cup runneth over with wise observations.
Boswell: You said once to me not to drink wine was a deduction of life.
Johnson: …it is a diminution of pleasure to be sure but not of happiness. There is more happiness in being rational.

Read more from biography, Classic
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