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Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the scrophula, or king's evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much, that he did not see at all with one of his eyes, though its appearance was little different from that of the other. There is amongst his prayers, one inscribed 'When my EYE was restored to its use',' which ascertains a defect that many of his friends knew he had, though I never perceived it". I supposed him to be only near-sighted; and indeed I must observe, that in no other respect could I discern any defect in his vision; on the contrary, the force of his attention and perceptive quickness made him see and distinguish all manner of objects, whether of nature or of art, with a nicety that is rarely to be found. When he and I were travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, and I pointed out to him a mountain which I observed resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy, by shewing me, that it was indeed pointed at the top, but that one side of it was larger than the other3. And the ladies with whom he was acquainted agree, that no man was more nicely and minutely critical in the elegance of female dress*. When I found that he saw the
whose essence consists not in numbers, or in jingle, but in the strength and glow of a fancy, to which all the stores of nature and of art stand in prompt administration; and in an eloquence which conveys their blended illustrations in a language more tuneable than needs or rhyme or verse to add more harmony."
'The above little verses also shew that superstitious bias which "grew with his growth, and strengthened with his strength," and, of late years particularly, injured his happiness, by presenting to him the gloomy side of religion, rather than that bright and cheering one which gilds the period of closing life with the light of pious hope.'
This is so beautifully imagined, that I would not suppress it. But like many other theories, it is deduced from a supposed fact, which is, indeed, a fiction. BOSWELL.
Prayers and Meditations, p. 27. BOSWELL.
2 Speaking himself of the imperfection of one of his eyes, he said to Dr. Burney, 'the dog was never good for much.' MALONE.
3 Boswell's Hebrides, Sept. 1, 1773. 4 No accidental position of a riband,' wrote Mrs. Piozzi, 'escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of propriety.' Piozzi's Anec. p. 287. Miss Burney says:- Notwithstanding Johnson is sometimes so absent and always so near-sighted, he scrutinizes into o every part of almost everybody's appearance [at Streatham].' And again she writes:- His blindness is as much the effect of absence [of mind] as of infirmity, for he sees wonderfully at times. He can see the colour of a lady's top-knot, for he very often finds fault with it.' Mme. D'Arblays Diary, i. 85, ii. 174. He could, romantick
The king's evil.
romantick beauties of Islam, in Derbyshire, much better than I did, I told him that he resembled an able performer upon a bad instrument'. How false and contemptible then are all the remarks which have been made to the prejudice either of his candour or of his philosophy, founded upon a supposition that he was almost blind. It has been said, that he contracted this grievous malady from his nurse'. His mother yielding to the superstitious notion, which, it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the virtue of the regal touch; a notion, which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such judgement as Carte3 could give credit; carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer', then a physician in
when well, distinguish the hour on Lichfield town-clock. Post, p. 64.
1 See post, Sept. 22, 1777.
2 This was Dr. Swinfen's opinion, who seems also to have attributed Johnson's short-sightedness to the same cause. My mother,' he says, thought my diseases derived from her family.' Annals, p. 12. When he was put out at nurse, 'She visited me,' he says, 'every day, and used to go different ways, that her assiduity might not expose her to ridicule.'
3 In 1738 Carte published a masterly 'Account of Materials, etc., for a History of England with the method of his undertaking.' (Gent. Mag. viii. 227.) He proposed to do much of what has been since done under the direction of the Master of the Rolls. He asked for subscriptions to carry on his great undertaking, for in its researches it was to be very great. In 1744 the City of London resolved to subscribe £50 for seven years (ib. xiv. 393). In vol. i. of his history, which only came down to the reign of John (published in 1748), he went out of his way to assert that the cure by the king's touch was not due to the 'regal unction'; for he had known a man cured who had gone over to
France, and had been there 'touched by the eldest lineal descendant of a race of kings who had not at that time been crowned or anointed?' (ib. xviii. 13.) Thereupon the Court of Common Council by a unanimous vote withdrew its subscription. (ib. 185.) The old Jacobites maintained that the power did not descend to Mary, William, or Anne. It was for this reason that Boswell said that Johnson should have been taken to Rome; though indeed it was not till some years after he was 'touched' by Queen Anne that the Pretender dwelt there. The Hanoverian kings never touched.' The service for the ceremony was printed in the Book of Common Prayer as late as 1719. (Penny Cyclo. xxi. 113.) It appears by the newspapers of the time,' says Mr. Wright, quoted by Croker, ‘that on March 30, 1712, two hundred persons were touched by Queen Anne.' Macaulay says that 'Charles the Second, in the course of his reign, touched near a hundred thousand persons. . . . The expense of the ceremony was little less than ten thousand pounds a year.' Macaulay's England, ch. xiv.
* See post, p. 91, note.
Johnson at a dame's school.
Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly; and Mrs. Piozzi has preserved his very picturesque description of the scene, as it remained upon his fancy. Being asked if he could remember Queen Anne, 'He had (he said) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood'. This touch, however, was without any effect. I ventured to say to him, in allusion to the political principles in which he was educated, and of which he ever retained some odour, that 'his mother had not carried him far enough; she should have taken him to ROME.'
He was first taught to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, who kept a school for young children in Lichfield. He told me she could read the black letter, and asked him to borrow for her, from his father, a bible in that character. When he was going to Oxford, she came to take leave of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of gingerbread, and said, he was the best scholar she ever had. He delighted in mentioning this early compliment: adding, with a smile, that 'this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive.' His next instructor in English was a master, whom, when he spoke of him to me, he familiarly called Tom Brown, who, said he, published a spelling-book, and dedicated it to the UNIVERSE; but, I fear, no copy of it can now be had3.
He began to learn Latin' with Mr. Hawkins, usher, or undermaster of Lichfield school, 'a man (said he) very skilful in his
Anecdotes, p. 10. BOSWELL. * Johnson, writing of Addison's schoolmasters, says :-'Not to name the school or the masters of men illustrious for literature is a kind of historical fraud, by which honest fame is injuriously diminished. would therefore trace him through the whole process of his education.' Johnson's Works, vii. 418.
Neither the British Museum nor the Bodleian Library has a copy.
'When we learned Propria quæ maribus, we were examined in the Accidence; particularly we formed verbs, that is, went through the same person in all the moods and tenses.
This was very difficult to me, and I was once very anxious about the next day, when this exercise was to be performed in which I had failed till I was discouraged. My mother encouraged me, and I proceeded better. When I told her of my good escape, "We often," said she, dear mother! come off best when we are most afraid." She told me that, once when she asked me about forming verbs, I said, “I did not form them in an ugly shape." "You could not," said she, "speak plain; and I was proud that I had a boy who was forming verbs.” These little memorials soothe my mind.' Annals, p. 22.
little way.' With him he continued two years', and then rose to be under the care of Mr. Hunter, the head-master, who, according to his account, 'was very severe, and wrong-headedly severe. He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question; and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every question, there would be no need of a master to teach him.'
It is, however, but justice to the memory of Mr. Hunter to mention, that though he might err in being too severe, the school of Lichfield was very respectable in his time. The late Dr. Taylor, Prebendary of Westminster, who was educated under him, told me, that 'he was an excellent master, and that his ushers were most of them men of eminence; that Holbrook, one of the most ingenious men, best scholars, and best preachers of his age, was usher during the greatest part of the time that
"This was the course of the school which I remember with pleasure; for I was indulged and caressed by my master; and, I think, really excelled the rest.' Annals, p. 25.
2 Johnson said of Hunter:-'Abating his brutality, he was a very good master;' post, March 21, 1772. Steele in the Spectator, No. 157, two years after Johnson's birth, describes these savage tyrants of the grammarschools. The boasted liberty we talk of,' he writes, 'is but a mean reward for the long servitude, the many heartaches and terrors to which our childhood is exposed in going through a grammar-school. . . . No one who has gone through what they call a great school but must remember to have seen children of excellent and ingenuous natures (as has afterwards appeared in their manhood);
I say no man has passed through this way of education but must have seen an ingenuous creature expiring with shame, with pale looks, beseeching sorrow and silent tears, throw up its honest eyes and kneel on its tender knees to an inexorable blockhead to be forgiven the false quantity of a word in making a Latin verse.' Likely enough Johnson's roughness was in part due to this brutal treatment; for Steele goes on to say :'It is wholly to this dreadful practice that we may attribute a certain hardiness and ferocity which some men, though liberally educated, carry about them in all their behaviour. To be bred like a gentleman, and punished like a malefactor, must, as we see it does, produce that illiberal sauciness which we see sometimes in men of letters.'
Johnson was at school. Then came Hague, of whom as much might be said, with the addition that he was an elegant poet. Hague was succeeded by Green, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, whose character in the learned world is well known2. In the same form with Johnson was Congreve3, who afterwards became chaplain to Archbishop Boulter, and by that connection obtained good preferment in Ireland. He was a younger son of the ancient family of Congreve, in Staffordshire, of which the poet was a branch. His brother sold the estate. There was also Lowe, afterwards Canon of Windsor'.'
Indeed Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr. Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said, 'My master
' Johnson described him as 'a peevish and ill-tempered man,' and not so good a scholar or teacher as Taylor made out. Once the boys perceived that he did not understand a part of the Latin lesson; another time, when sent up to the uppermaster to be punished, they had to complain that when they 'could not get the passage,' the assistant would not help them. Annals, pp. 26, 32.
2 One of the contributors to the Athenian Letters. See Gent. Mag. liv. 276.
3 Johnson, post, March 22, 1776, describes him as one who does not get drunk, for he is a very pious man, but he is always muddy.'
A tradition had reached Johnson through his school-fellow Andrew Corbet that Addison had been at the school and had been the leader in a barring out. (Johnson's Works, vii. 419.) Garrick entered the school about two years after Johnson left. According to Garrick's biographer, Tom Davies (p. 3), 'Hunter was an odd mixture of the pedant and the sportsman. Happy was the boy who could slily inform his offended master where a covey of partridges was to be found; this notice was a
certain pledge of his pardon.' Lord Campbell in his Lives of the Chief Justices, ii. 279, says: Hunter is celebrated for having flogged seven boys who afterwards sat as judges in the superior courts at Westminster at the same time. Among these were Chief Justice Wilmot, Lord Chancellor Northington, Sir T. Clarke, Master of the Rolls, Chief Justice Willes, and Chief Baron Parker. It is remarkable that, although Johnson and Wilmot were several years classfellows at Lichfield, there never seems to have been the slightest intercourse between them in after life; but the Chief Justice used frequently to mention the Lexicographer as "a long, lank, lounging boy, whom he distinctly remembered to have been punished by Hunter for idleness." Lord Campbell blunders here. Northington and Clarke were from Westminster School (Campbell's Chancellors, v. 176). The schoolhouse, famous though it was, was allowed to fall into decay. A writer in the Gent. Mag. in 1794 (p. 413) says that it is now in a state of dilapidation, and unfit for the use of either the master or boys.'