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Character of Michael Johnson.
narrowness of his circumstances to be very diligent in business, not only in his shop', but by occasionally resorting to several towns in the neighbourhood, some of which were at a considerable distance from Lichfield3. At that time booksellers' shops in the provincial towns of England were very rare, so that there was not one even in Birmingham, in which town old Mr. Johnson used to open a shop every market-day. He was a pretty good Latin scholar, and a citizen so creditable as to be made one of the magistrates of Lichfield; and, being a man of good sense, and skill in his trade, he acquired a reasonable share of wealth, of which however he afterwards lost the greatest part, by engaging unsuccessfully in a manufacture of parchment. He was a zealous
Stockdale in his Memoirs, ii. 102, records an anecdote told him by Johnson of 'the generosity of one of the customers of his father. "This man was purchasing a book, and pressed my father to let him have it at a far less price than it was worth. When his other topics of persuasion failed, he had recourse to one argument which, he thought, would infallibly prevail :-You know, Mr. Johnson, that I buy an almanac of you every year."'
2 Extract of a letter, dated 'Trentham, St. Peter's day, 1716,' written by the Rev. George Plaxton, Chaplain at that time to Lord Gower, which may serve to show the high estimation in which the Father of our great Moralist was held: 'Johnson, the Litchfield Librarian, is now here; he propagates learning all over this diocese, and advanceth knowledge to its just height; all the Clergy here are his Pupils, and suck all they have from him; Allen cannot make a warrant without his precedent, nor our quondam John Evans draw a recognizance sine directione Michaelis. Gentleman's Magazine, October, 1791. BOSWELL.
3 In Notes and Queries, 3rd S. v. 33, is given the following title-page of one of his books : ‘Φαρμακο-βασανος ; or the Touchstone of Medicines, etc.
By Sir John Floyer of the City of Litchfield, Kt., M.D., of Queen's College, Oxford. London: Printed for Michael Johnson, Bookseller, and are to be sold at his shops at Litchfield and Uttoxiter, in Staffordshire; and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in Leicestershire, 1687.'
Johnson writing of his birth says: 'My father being that year sheriff of Lichfield, and to ride the circuit of the county [Mr. Croker suggests city, not being aware that 'the City of Lichfield was a county in itself.' See Harwood's Lichfield, p. 1. In like manner, in the Militia Bill of 1756 (post 1756) we find entered, 'Devonshire with Exeter City and County,' 'Lincolnshire with Lincoln City and County'] next day, which was a ceremony then performed with great pomp, he was asked by my mother whom he would invite to the Riding; and answered, "all the town now." He feasted the citizens with uncommon magnificence, and was the last but one that maintained the splendour of the Riding.' Annals, p. 10. He served the office of churchwarden in 1688; of sheriff in 1709; of junior bailiff in 1718; and senior bailiff in 1725.' Harwood's Lichfield, p. 449.
5 My father and mother had not much happiness from each other. They seldom conversed; for my
An incident in his life.
high-church man and royalist, and retained his attachment to the unfortunate house of Stuart, though he reconciled himself, by casuistical arguments of expediency and necessity, to take the oaths imposed by the.prevailing power'.
There is a circumstance in his life somewhat romantick, but so well authenticated, that I shall not omit it. A young woman of Leek, in Staffordshire, while he served his apprenticeship there, conceived a violent passion for him; and though it met with no favourable return, followed him to Lichfield, where she took lodgings opposite to the house in which he lived, and indulged her hopeless flame. When he was informed that it so preyed upon her mind that her life was in danger, he with a generous humanity went to her and offered to marry her, but it was then too late her vital power was exhausted; and she actually exhibited one of the very rare instances of dying for love. She was buried in the cathedral of Lichfield; and he, with a tender regard, placed a stone over her grave with this inscription:
Here lies the body of
father could not bear to talk of his affairs, and my mother being unacquainted with books cared not to talk of anything else. Had my mother been more literate, they had been better companions. She might have sometimes introduced her unwelcome topic with more success, if she could have diversified her conversation. Of business she had no distinct conception; and therefore her discourse was composed only of complaint, fear, and suspicion. Neither of them ever tried to calculate the profits of trade, or the expenses of living. My mother concluded that we were poor, because we lost by some of our trades; but the truth was, that my father, having in the early part of his life contracted debts, never had trade sufficient to enable him to pay them and maintain his family; he got something, but not enough.' Annals,
p. 14. Mr. Croker noticing the violence
Johnson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I asked his old school-fellow, Mr. Hector, surgeon of Birmingham, if she was not vain of her son. He said, 'she had too much good sense to be vain, but she knew her son's value.' Her piety was not inferiour to her understanding; and to her must be ascribed those early impressions of religion upon the mind of her son, from which the world afterwards derived so much benefit. He told me, that he remembered distinctly having had the first notice of Heaven, ' a place to which good people went,' and hell, 'a place to which bad people went,' communicated to him by her, when a little child in bed with her1; and that it might be the better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson, their man-servant; he not being in the way, this was not done; but there was no occasion for any artificial aid for its preservation.
In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting. That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may easily be supposed; for to use his own words in his Life of Sydenham,
"That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from his infancy, by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For, there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion of intellectual vigour.'
In all such investigations it is certainly unwise to pay too much. attention to incidents which the credulous relate with eager satisfaction, and the more scrupulous or witty enquirer considers only as topicks of ridicule: Yet there is a traditional story of the infant Hercules of toryism, so curiously characteristick, that I shall not withhold it. It was communicated to me in a letter from Miss Mary Adye, of Lichfield:
'When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three
'I remember, that being in bed with my mother one morning, I was told by her of the two places to which the inhabitants of this world were received after death: one a fine place filled with happiness, called Heaven;
the other, a sad place, called Hell. That this account much affected my imagination I do not remember.' Annals, p. 19.
'Johnson's Works, vi. 406.
Anecdotes of Johnson's childhood.
years old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon his father's shoulders, listening and gaping at the much celebrated preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. Johnson how he could possibly think of bringing such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a croud. He answered, because it was impossible to keep him at home; for, young as he was, he believed he had caught the publick spirit and zeal for Sacheverel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him'.'
Nor can I omit a little instance of that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him. The fact was acknowledged to me by himself, upon the authority of his mother. One day, when the servant who used to be sent to school to conduct him home, had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then so near-sighted, that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees to take a view of the kennel before he ventured to step over it. His schoolmistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the kennel, or be run over by a cart, followed him at some distance. He happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat her, as well as his strength would permit.
Of the power of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following early instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his step-daughter, Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by his mother.
Mr. Croker disbelieves the story altogether. 'Sacheverel,' he says, 'by his sentence pronounced in Feb. 1710, was interdicted for three years from preaching; so that he could not have preached at Lichfield while Johnson was under three years of age. Sacheverel, indeed, made a triumphal progress through the midland counties in 1710; and it appears by the books of the corporation of Lichfield that he was received in that town, and complimented by the attendance of the corporation, "and a present of three dozen of wine," on June 16, 1710; but then "the infant Hercules of Toryism" was just nine months old.' It is quite possible that the story is in
the main correct. Sacheverel was received in Lichfield in 1710 on his way down to Shropshire to take possession of a living. At the end of the suspension in March 1713 he preached a sermon in London, for which, as he told Swift, 'a bookseller gave him £100, intending to print 30,000' (Swift's Journal to Stella, April 2, 1713). It is likely enough that either on his way up to town or on his return journey he preached at Lichfield. In the spring of 1713 Johnson was three years old.
2 See post, p. 48, and April 25, 1778, note; and Boswell's Hebrides, Oct. 28, 1773.
Johnson's infant precocity.
When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read, Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, 'Sam, you must get this by heart.' She went up stairs, leaving him to study it But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. 'What's the matter?' said she. 'I can say it,' he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it more than twice.
But there has been another story of his infant precocity generally circulated, and generally believed, the truth of which I am to refute upon his own authority. It is told', that, when a child of three years old, he chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it; upon which, it is said, he dictated to his mother the following epitaph :
'Here lies good master duck,
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on;
If it had liv'd, it had been good luck,
There is surely internal evidence that this little composition combines in it, what no child of three years old could produce, without an extension of its faculties by immediate inspiration; yet Mrs. Lucy Porter, Dr. Johnson's step-daughter, positively maintained to me, in his presence, that there could be no doubt of the truth of this anecdote, for she had heard it from his mother. So difficult is it to obtain an authentick relation of facts, and such authority may there be for errour; for he assured me, that his father made the verses, and wished to pass them for his child's. He added, 'my father was a foolish old man2; that is to say, foolish in talking of his children3.
Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, p. 11. Life of Dr. Johnson, by Sir John Hawkins, p. 6. BOSWELL.
'My father had much vanity which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted.' Annals, p. 14.
3 This anecdote of the duck, though disproved by internal and external evidence, has nevertheless, upon supposition of its truth, been made the foundation of the following ingenious
and fanciful reflections of Miss Seward, amongst the communications concerning Dr. Johnson with which she has been pleased to favour me : 'These infant numbers contain the seeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character, of that poetick talent which afterwards bore such rich and plentiful fruits; for, excepting his orthographick works, every thing which Dr. Johnson wrote was Poetry, Young