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Dr Samuel Johnson

In a quaint old house in Lichfield, England, now used as a draper's

shop, Samuel Johnson, son of a poor bookseller and bookbinder, was born.

Here, as in Westminster Abbey, a statue is erected to his memory. Near

by is the schoolhouse where Addison and Garrick studied.

When Samuel was two and a half years old, diseased with scrofula, his

good mother, with ten dollars sewed in her skirt so that nobody could

steal it, took him to London that, with two hundred others, he might be

touched by Queen Anne, and thus, as superstitious people believed, be

healed. On this journey she bought him a silver cup and spoon. The

latter he kept till his dying-day, and parted with the cup only in the

dire poverty of later years.

The touch of the Queen did no good, for he became blind in one eye; with

the other he could not see a friend half a yard off, and his face was

sadly disfigured. Being prevented thus from sharing the sports of other

boys, much time was spent in reading. He was first taught at a little

school kept by Widow Oliver, who years after, when he was starting for

Oxford, brought him a present of gingerbread, telling him he was the

best scholar she ever had. After a time he studied Latin under a master

who "whipped it into him." The foolish teacher would ask the boy the

Latin word for candlestick, or some unexpected thing, and then whip him,

saying, "This I do to save you from the gallows!"

Naturally indolent, Samuel had to struggle against this tendency. He

had, however, the greatest ambition to excel, and to this he attributed

his later success. He was also inquisitive, and had a wonderful memory.

When he wore short dresses, his mother gave him the Prayer-Book one day,

and, pointing to the Collect, said, "You must get this by heart." She

went up stairs, but no sooner had she reached the second floor than she

heard him following. He could repeat it perfectly, having looked it over

but twice. He left school at sixteen, spending two years at home in

helping his parents, and studying earnestly. One day, his father, being

ill, asked him to go to a neighboring town and take his place in selling

books at a stall on market-day. He was proud, and did not go. Fifty

years afterward, in his greatness, then an old man, he went to this

stall, and, with uncovered head, remained for an hour in the rain where

his father had formerly stood, exposed to the sneers of the bystanders

and the inclemency of the weather. It showed the repentance of a noble

soul for disobedience to a parent.

At nineteen, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, where he acted as

servant. He used to go daily to his friend Taylor, and get lectures

second-hand, till his feet, showing through his worn-out shoes, were

perceived by the students, and he ceased going. A rich young man

secretly put a pair of new shoes at his door, which he indignantly threw

out of the window. He was willing to work and earn, but would not

receive charity. At the end of three years he became so poor that he was

obliged to leave college, his father dying soon after.

After various experiences, he sought the position of usher at a school,

but was refused because it was thought that the boys would make fun of

his ugliness. He finally obtained such a place, was treated with great

harshness, and left in a few months. Strange to say, the poor, lonely

scholar, only twenty-six, now fell in love with a widow forty-eight

years old. After obtaining his mother's consent, he married her, and the

union proved a most happy one. With the little money his wife possessed,

he started a school, and advertised for pupils; but only three came, and

the school soon closed. In despair he determined to try London, and see

if an author could there earn his bread. In that great city he lived for

some time on nine cents a day. One publisher to whom he applied

suggested to him that the wisest course would be to become a porter and

carry trunks.

A poem written at this time, entitled "London," for which he received

fifty dollars, one line of which was in capital letters,


attracted attention; and Pope, who was then at the height of his fame,

asked Dublin University to give to the able scholar the degree of M.A.,

that he might thus be able to take the principalship of a school, and

earn three hundred dollars a year; but this was refused. Out of such

struggles come heroic souls.

When he was forty, he published the "Vanity of Human Wishes," receiving

seventy-five dollars, asserted by many to be the most impressive thing

of its kind in the language. The lines,

"There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,

Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail,"

show his struggles. A drama soon after, played by the great actor, David

Garrick, brought him nearly a thousand dollars; but the play itself was

a failure. When asked by his friends how he felt about his ill success,

he replied, "Like the monument," meaning that he continued firm and

unmoved, like a column of granite. Fame was coming at last, after he had

struggled in London for thirteen years--and what bitterness they had


For two years he worked almost constantly on a paper called the

"Rambler." When his wife said that, well as she had thought of him

before, she had never considered him equal to this, he was more pleased

than with any praise he ever received. She died three days after the

last copy was published, and Johnson was utterly prostrated. He buried

himself in hard work in his garret, a most inconvenient room; but he

said, "In that room I never saw Mrs. Johnson." Her wedding-ring was

placed in a little box, and tenderly kept till his death.

Three years afterward, his great work, his Dictionary, appeared, for

which he received eight thousand dollars; but, as he had been obliged to

employ six assistants for seven years, he was still poor, but now

famous. The Universities of Oxford and Dublin, when he no longer needed

their assistance, hastened to bestow their degrees upon him. Even George

III. invited him to the royal palace,--a strange contrast to a few years

before, when Samuel Johnson was under arrest for a debt of thirty

dollars! When asked by Reynolds how he had obtained his accuracy and

flow of language in conversation, he replied, "By trying to do my best

on every occasion and in every company." About this time his aged mother

died, and in the evenings of one week, to defray her funeral expenses,

he wrote "Rasselas," and received five hundred dollars for it. He wrote

in his last letter to her, "You have been the best mother, and I believe

the best woman, in the world. I thank you for your indulgence to me, and

beg forgiveness of all that I have done ill, and of all that I have

omitted to do well." His last great work was "The Lives of the Poets."

He received now a pension of fifteen hundred dollars a year, for his

valuable services to literature, but never used more than four hundred

dollars for himself. He took care of a blind woman of whom he said, "She

was a friend to my poor wife, and was in the house when she died, she

has remained in it ever since," of a mother and daughter dependent upon

an old family physician, and of two men whom nobody else would care for.

Once when he found a poor woman on the street late at night, he took her

home, and kept her till she was restored to health. His pockets were

always filled with pennies for street Arabs; and, if he found poor

children asleep on a threshold, he would slip money into their hands

that, when they awakened, they might buy a breakfast. When a servant was

dying who had been in the family for forty-three years, he prayed with

her and kissed her, the tears falling down his cheeks. He wrote in his

diary, "We kissed and parted--I humbly hope to meet again, and part no

more." He held, rightly, that Christianity levels all distinctions of


He was very tender to animals. Once, when in Wales, a gardener brought

into the house a hare which had been caught in the potatoes, and was

told to give it to the cook. Dr. Johnson asked to have it placed in his

arms; then, taking it to the window, he let it go, shouting to it to

run as fast as possible. He would buy oysters for his cat, Hodge, that

the servants, from seeing his fondness for it, might be led to treat it


He died at the age of seventy-five, such men as Burke and Reynolds

standing by his bedside. Of the latter, he begged that he would "read

his Bible, and never paint on Sundays." His last words were to a young

lady who had asked his blessing: "God bless you, my dear!" He was buried

with appropriate honors in Westminster Abbey, and monuments are erected

to him in St. Paul's Cathedral, and at Lichfield. The poor boy, nearly

blind, became "the brightest ornament of the eighteenth century."