Samuel Johnson’s achievement is so impressive that we tend to forget its very high-risk background. In his maturity, Johnson possessed a regal quality. He had produced his Dictionary of the English Language and been awarded an honorary degree by Oxford, from which he had been too poor to graduate. He was famous as the essayist of The Rambler and The Idler. He had written two great poems, his Juvenalian imitations, as well as other fine poems. Alexander Pope seems to have recognized him as his poetic successor. Johnson edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and his “Preface” to the plays is a classic statement of literary criticism. In his philosophical tale Rasselas, Johnson wrote in what F. R. Leavis sought to define as the central tradition of English prose. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets surely stands as one of the permanent works of eighteenth-century English literature, ranking with Gulliver’s Travels, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Burke’s Reflections.

When Johnson pronounces, the pronouncement also has a regal quality, as when, in his “Preface” to Shakespeare, he defines the criteria of literary greatness:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favor.

Johnson’s manner here persuades us that this is a self-evident truth, though we should also attend to the presence of skepticism. Literary value is not demonstrable and is a matter of consensus or “opinion,” but a persisting consensus approaches certitude.

In his maturity, Johnson was the central figure of perhaps the most brilliant circle since Plato’s Academy. At his Literary Club, he met with the greatest English historian, Gibbon; the greatest political philosopher in the English tradition, Burke; the founder of modern economics, Adam Smith; the portrait painter, Joshua Reynolds; Boswell, Goldsmith, Burney, Percy, Hawkins. It was an astonishing constellation.

The social climax of Boswell’s Life of Johnson occurs in 1767 when King George III arranges to meet Johnson while he is using the library at Queen’s House. We are surprised not to be surprised when Johnson and the king meet on a footing of something like equality:

His majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent, Mr. Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King was, and, in obedience to his Majesty’s commands, mentioned that Dr. Johnson was then the library. His Majesty said he was at leisure, and would go to him: upon which Mr. Barnard took one the candles that stood on the King’s table, and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his Majesty had the key. Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered to him, “Sir, here is the King.” Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.

There are many things worth noticing about this meeting. The king has the courtesy to be “easy” in his manners. Johnson is himself regal. He knows his place: “It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign.” But he also knows that he is Samuel Johnson.

By 1767 Johnson’s sense of himself surely was natural to him, but it was a highly achieved sense of self and won against great odds. He could be surprisingly aware at times that it was indeed an achieved self:

Sir, I would no more deprive a nobleman of his respect, than of his money. I consider myself as acting a part in the great system of society, and I do to others as I would have them do to me. I would behave to a nobleman as I should expect he would behave to me, were I a nobleman and he, Sam. Johnson.

Johnson sees himself as “acting a part” in the “great system of society.” His part is not prescribed. He consciously chooses to “act” it. He must mean that the “great system” is worth “acting” in and that doing so is a matter of conscious choice.

The foundations of Johnson’s sense of self were, from the beginning, extremely precarious. The central theme of Boswell’s Life is one of tremendous difficulty overcome: disease, physical ugliness, bouts with insanity. Johnson’s father, Michael Johnson, was an unstable personality, something of a political fanatic, and given to wide mood swings. He was a Jacobite and loyal to the Stuart succession, a quixotic opinion at that time, with little hope of practical success. To be a Jacobite in 1767 was roughly equivalent to belonging now to the John Birch Society or the Communist Party.

As an infant, Johnson was blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other. As a school child, he crawled over street crossings in order not to fall in the gutter, refusing all assistance. In his maturity, he read one-eyed with a magnifying glass. He was a startlingly ugly child as the result of scrofula, or tuberculosis of the lymph glands, which left deep scars as the infections were lanced. Boswell records, courtesy of Mrs. Thrale’s earlier memoir, a poignant incident in which Johnson’s mother took him to London to be touched by Queen Anne, the last British monarch about whom it was possible to entertain the idea that she had magical curative powers. From the year 1710, Johnson remembered of Anne “a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds and a long black hood.” The queen’s touch did nothing for his afflictions.

Johnson’s father sent him to Pembroke College, Oxford, but could not pay the bills. Our glimpses of Johnson at Oxford must strike us as indicating a rebellious and radical temperament. “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolick. I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.” This is a temperament that could be expected to issue in a politics of resentment and anger but in Johnson’s case did not. He would act that part in the great system of society and chat with George III.

Throughout Boswell’s Life there is a dark undercurrent of mental instability in Johnson. He appears to have had his first severe nervous collapse in 1729, when he was twenty years old:

The “morbid melancholy,” which was lurking in his constitution, and to which we may ascribe those particularities, and that aversion to regular life, which, at a very early period, marked his character, gathered such strength in his twentieth year as to afflict him in a dreadful manner. While he was at Lichfield, in the college vacation of the year 1729, he felt himself overwhelmed with a horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness, and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dismal malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labours, and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.

Johnson’s private demons were such that Boswell could describe him as resembling a Roman gladiator in the Coliseum, with the lions ready to leap out at him at any time. There is even a much-discussed essay by Katherine Balderston that argues that Johnson’s relationship with Hester Thrale was at least in part therapeutic, that Johnson required “punishment”in the form of whipping. There is no way to know the truth of this, but Johnson’s extreme reaction against Hester Thrale when she married the musician Piozzi does suggest violent depths of feeling.

As a young adult, Johnson was unattractive, to say the least. He had his scrofula scars, and when his wife-to-be, Elizabeth Porter, first laid eyes upon him, she found his appearance “forbidding.” He was “lean and lank, so that his immense structure of bones was hideously striking to the eye. . . . He also wore his hair, which was straight and stiff, and separated behind: and he often had, seemingly, convulsive starts and odd gesticulations, which tended to excite at once surprise and ridicule.” But Johnson’s power of intellect did overcome for Elizabeth Porter this strange behavior. “Mrs. Porter was so much engaged by his conversation that she overlooked all these external disadvantages, and said to her daughter, ‘this is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life.’”

We now know that Johnson’s odd behavior, his twitchings and mutterings, were very likely the result of a disease of his nervous system called Tourette’s Syndrome. In an article published in the British Medical Journal in June 1979, Dr. T. J. Murray diagnosed Johnson’s nervous malady. His diagnosis appears convincing, and, indeed, Johnson’s symptoms are what can be called classic:

Johnson blew his breath out like a whale, he clucked and wheezed, he often gave half-whistles, he rolled his head over on one shoulder, he seemed to be constantly chewing his cud, his arm movements appeared involuntary, as when he would stretch an arm at full length with a cup of tea at the end of it.

The symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome appear to be modified by concentration. Thus, at the Literary Club, Johnson’s behavior is not recorded to have been physically extraordinary. When in serious conversation with his peers, he evidently did not twitch, gesticulate, or wheeze.

There is also the complicated matter of his relationship to the disreputable and indeed criminal poet Richard Savage, about which we now know as much as we are likely ever to know. In 1738, Johnson, having failed as a schoolteacher in the countryside, settled in London to make a living as a writer and fell into the company of Richard Savage. Most remarkably, the longest life in his Lives of the Poets, longest by far, is that of Savage, longer than that of Dryden or of Pope. Johnson, when a young failure and outcast, may well have been drawn to Savage as a comrade of the social depths, a fellow struggling writer, perhaps drawn to him as a pathological example, a criminal mind, maybe a cautionary tale.

Savage was a buccaneer Grub Street poet and hack writer, as Johnson was then. He was a rogue and perhaps a murderer. He claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Countess of Macclesfield by Lord Rivers and tried to blackmail the Countess with his most famous poem, “The Bastard.” His situation was such that he sometimes appeared in finery and other times, down on his luck, in rags.

In his masterful study Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (1993), Richard Holmes stresses another side of Savage not so visible in accounts heretofore, and not especially evident in Johnson’s own Life of Savage. Mr. Savage was in his way a brilliant crook, witty and eloquent, and could be, even in degradation, a social charmer. Even his jailers and bilked creditors were fascinated by him. Charles Dickens, that great investigator of the criminal mind, was also fascinated by Savage and said that Johnson’s Life of this poet was one of his favorite eighteenth-century books.

Samuel Johnson’s early connection with Savage is certainly discordant with the later “Doctor Johnson,” the imperial and judicious figure of his middle and later years. It is possible that Savage fascinated Johnson as what he might have become if he had not somehow risen above the Grub Street literary-criminal bohemia. 

Against this dark background of complication and neurosis, however, we see as a countercurrent Johnson’s astonishing, indomitable energy, his appetite for pleasure, and his intellectual aspiration. These constitute a bright river of light flowing through Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Again and again we experience his energy through, for example, the power of his language. Johnson, along with Defoe and Dickens, was a great Londoner, a man who fully inhabited what was then perhaps the greatest of all cities. He matched his pleasure with his language: “Why, Sir, Fleet Street has a very animated appearance; but I think the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross.” Or, another example, “Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. For there is in London all that life can afford.”

The pleasure principle in Johnson was very strong, and I judge that it helped him to fight back the lions in their dark cages. Boswell records, “We dined at an excellent inn at Chapel-house, where he expostulated on the felicity of England in its taverns and inns, and triumphed over the French in not having in any perfection the tavern life.” Johnson’s remarks about taverns amount to a sort of prose poetry. He also experienced the strong pleasures of driving in a carriage—no doubt more intensely than other carriage passengers—as when, Boswell notes, “In the afternoon, as we were driven rapidly along in the post chaise, he said to me: ‘Life has not many things better than this.’” Or, later:

When at table, he was totally absorbed in the business of the moment; his looks seemed riveted to his plate; nor would he, unless when in very high company, say one word, or pay the least attention to what was said by others, till he had satisfied his appetite; which was so fierce, and indulged with such intentness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.

Again and again we feel the force of his language. When Johnson helped at the sale of Henry Thrale’s brewery, he remarked that “we are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” That surely embellished the occasion.

Johnson’s fear of death, of course, is famous and runs like another dark thread through Boswell’s Life. Death is another one of those lions in their cages. He fights back that lion sometimes with Falstaffian laughter. But he was so serious about ideas that the determinant appears to have been a theological point. For much of his adult life, Johnson appears to have believed that he was literally damned. What his mortal sin was we do not know, but I judge that it had to do with carnal desire. The scholar Maurice Quinlan has demonstrated how Johnson was at least partially relieved of this terror. Taking very seriously the teaching of the theologian William Law, Johnson for years believed that one must “imitate Christ” in order to be saved. Needless to say, that is a tall order. But then Johnson was instructed by another theologian that there is a different economy of salvation. The eccentric Samuel Clarke persuaded Johnson that the grace conferred by Christ could absolve even the sins of one Sam Johnson, whatever they were.

The emotional energy and eloquence of Johnson’s prayers must strike us as startling. In his religious passion, he seems less a man of his own time than a contemporary of men such as Donne and Herbert:

O Lord, our heavenly father, almighty and most merciful God, in whose hands are life and death, who givest and takest away, castest down and raisest up, look with mercy on the affliction of thy unworthy servant, turn away thine anger from me, and speak peace to my troubled soul. Grant me the assistance and comfort of the Holy Spirit, that I may remember with thankfulness the blessings so long enjoyed by me in the society of my departed wife.

Elizabeth Johnson had died in 1752, about a month before Johnson uttered this prayer. A more complicated utterance can scarcely be imagined. Why was his soul a “troubled” one? Did he feel torment over an attraction to other women? Apparently his “trouble”was so great that only the author of the universe could relieve him of it: “Look with mercy on the affliction of thy unworthy servant.”

These afflictions seriously tormented a man who had one of the most powerful intellects of this time but also a tortured spirit. Johnson’s prayers should not be omitted from any consideration of him, for they are among the most eloquent devotional writing we have. It is difficult not to reflect that Johnson did not deserve suffering of this sort. Surely his friends, Burke and Gibbon and Reynolds and Goldsmith, did not regard themselves in this way. David Hume would have laughed, and so too perhaps Adam Smith. But Johnson had a sensibility that could not bear to read of the death of Cordelia in King Lear. That moment seemed to him a sort of hole in the universe, like the death of his wife.

His courage was exemplary, and not only in his verbal jousts with Macpherson and Chesterfield.

He feared death [Boswell writes], but he feared nothing else, not even what might occasion death. . . . One day at Mr. Beauclerk’s house in the country, when two large dogs were fighting, he went up to them, and beat them till they separated; and at another time, when told of the danger there was that a gun might burst if charged with too many balls, he put in six or seven and fired it off against a wall. Mr. Langton told me that when they were swimming together near Oxford, he cautioned Dr. Johnson against a pool, which was reckoned particularly dangerous; upon which Johnson directly swam into it. He told me himself that one night he was directly attacked in the street by four men, to whom he would not yield, but kept them all at bay, till the watch came up, and carried both him and them to the round house.

Against his assorted demons, Johnson asserted energy, courage, and principle. His energy was voracious. “He knows how to read better than anyone [said Mrs. Knowles]; he gets at the substance of a book directly; he tears the heart out of it.” And Johnson was capable of heroic laughter:

Johnson could not stop his merriment, but continued it all the way till he got without the Temple-gate. He then burst into such a fit of laughter that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet ditch.

There may be a sort of secular redemption in Johnson. It is possible, he can be understood to say, that art, as exemplified by Shakespeare, can redeem experience. In the famous tenth chapter of Rasselas, Imlac sets forth an enthusiastic description of the ideal poet. In the eleventh chapter, the ideal seems to crash to earth. “To be a poet,” said Imlac, “is indeed very difficult.” But perhaps not impossible. Imlac’s description of the ideal poet closely resembles Johnson’s own description of Shakespeare in his “Preface” to the plays. We are allowed to think here that the raggedness of experience can sometimes be redeemed by the shaping power of the highest art, lead turned to gold. Iago and Macbeth are founts of evil but necessary to their plays. Without them, the two plays would not exist. The aesthetic wholeness of the two plays transcends the ugliness of practical experience.

The heroism of Johnson ultimately consists of the fact that, for all the dark pathways of his imagination, he was loyal to sanity. He was often ill, melancholy, in debt, perhaps half-mad, but when he sat down at his desk to be “Samuel Johnson,” he spoke in the style of normality:

If there be, what I believe there is, in every nation, a style which never becomes obsolete, a certain mode of phraseology so consonant and congenial to the analogy and principles of its respective language as to remain settled and unaltered; this style is to be sought in the common intercourse of life.

It is there that we have the essence of Samuel Johnson. He willed his normality. Johnson’s ultimately victorious sanity derived from a set of axioms that he had derived from his reading in literature, philosophy, history, and theology. No doubt because of his own mental instability, he was drawn to the great sane axioms having to do with human limitation, self-discipline, the inevitability of the vanity of human wishes, and the psychological power of prayer.

His strange inner life, however we estimate it, contrasts with his imperial assertions of sanity in his prose style and his poetic traditionalism. His view of Alexander Pope is slightly scandalous: “New sentiments and new images others may produce; but to attempt any further improvement of versification will be dangerous.” Dangerous? Dangerous I suppose to the mission of literature, which is moral instruction. Pope’s lucidity carried the message, and Johnson clung to it. Weak human nature required all the support it could get.

Though he was a stern moralist, Johnson was also an exemplar of charity in the old sense of the word, caritas. His Fleet Street menage was a sort of zoo: the blind Mrs. Williams; the negro servant, Francis Barber; Hodge the cat; and the quack, Dr. Levitt, who very likely ministered, perhaps with narcotics, to Johnson’s neuroses. Boswell writes persuasively:

His generous humanity to the miserable was almost beyond example. The following instance is well-attested. Coming home late one night he found a poor woman lying the street, so much exhausted that she could not walk he took her upon his back, and carried her to his house, where he discovered that she was one of those wretched females who had fallen into the lowest state of vice, poverty, and disease. Instead of harshly upbraiding her, he had her taken care of with all tenderness for a long time, at considerable expence, till she was restored to health, and endeavored to put her into a virtuous way of living.

That this encomium should come from the whoremonger James Boswell is one of the startling moments in the Life.

By the time we finish our reflections upon this extraordinary life, both in his writings and in Boswell, we are certainly ready to agree with the judgment passed by his friend William Gerard Hamilton, known to history as “Single Speech” Hamilton because of his maiden address in Parliament: “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best: there is nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

But the remarkable thing is that the chaos of Johnson, in the end, was rigorously controlled through heroic effort and the grand achievement actually achieved. Has there been a better sentence, one with more authority and structure, in its periodicity and its specification of illusions, than the opening of Rasselas?

Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope, who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow—attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abyssinia.

All of the illusions specified in that sentence collide at the end with “history,” the record of experience.

Jeffery Hart was a professor of English at Dartmouth College and a Senior Editor at National Review.