Puslapio vaizdai

them; so that when in his 19th year he was entered a Commoner of Pembroke college, Oxford, his mind was stored with a variety of knowledge; and he had given very early proofs of his poetical genius both in his school exercises and in other occasional compositions.

For some transgression or absence his tutor had imposed upon him as a Christmas exercise the task of translating into Latin verse Pope's Messiah, which, being shown to the author of the original, was read and returned with this encomium, " The writer of this poem will leave it a question for posterity, whether his or mine be the original." The particular course of his reading while in college, and during the vacation which he passed at home, cannot be traced. That at this period he read much, we have his own evidence in what he afterwards told the King; but his mode of study was never regular, and at all times he thought more than he read. He informed Mr. Boswell, that what he read solidly at Oxford was Greek, and that the study of which he was most fond was metaphysics.

In the year 1731 Johnson left the university without a degree; and as his father, who died in the month of december of that year, had suffered great misfortunes in trade, he was driven out a Commoner of nature, and excluded from the regular modes of profit and prosperity. Having therefore not only a profession, but the means of subsistence to seek, he accepted, in the month of March 1732, an invitation to the office of undermaster of a free school at Market Bosworth in


Leicestershire but not knowing, as he said, whether it was more disagreeable for him to teach or for the boys to learn the grammar-rules, and being likewise disgusted at the treatment which he received from the patron of the school, he relinquished in a few months a situation which he ever afterwards recollected with horror. Being thus again without any fixed employment, and with very little money in his pocket, he translated Lobo's voyage to Abyssinia for the trifling sum, it is said, of five guineas, which he received from a bookseller in Birmingham. This was the first attempt which it is certain he made to procure pecuniary assistance by means of his pen; and it must have held forth very little encouragement to his commencing author by profession.

In 1735, being then in his 26th year, he married Mrs. Porter, the widow of a mercer in Birmingham, whose age was almost double his; whose external form, according to Garrick and others, had never been captivating; and whose fortune amounted to hardly 800l. That she had a superiority of understanding and talents is extremely probable, both because she certainly inspired him with a more than ordinary passion, and because she was herself so delighted with the charms of his conversation as to overlook his external disadvantages which were many and great. He now set up a private academy, for which purpose he hired a large house well situated near his native city; but this undertaking did not succeed. The only pupils who are known to have been placed under his care were

the celebrated David Garrick, his brother George Garrick, and a young gentleman of fortune whose name was Offely. He kept his academy only a year and a half; and it was during that time that he constructed the plan and wrote a great part of his tragedy of Irene.

The respectable character of his parents and his own merit had secured him a kind reception in the best families at Litchfield, and he was particularly distinguished by Mr. Walmsley, Register of the ecclesiastical court, a man of great worth and of very extensive and various erudition. That gentleman, upon hearing part of Irene read, thought so highly of Johnson's abilities as a dramatic writer that he advised him by all means to finish the tragedy and produce it on the stage. To men of genius the stage holds forth temptations almost resistless. The profits arising from a tragedy, including the representation and printing of it, and the connections which it sometimes enables the author to form, were in Johnson's imagination inestimable. Flattered, it may be supposed, with these hopes, he set out some time in the year 1737 with his pupil David Garrick for London, leaving Mrs. Johnson to take care of the house and the wreck of her fortune. The two adventurers carried with them from Mr. Walmsley an earnest recommendation to the reverend Mr. Colson, then master of an academy, and afterwards Lucasian professor of mathematics in the university of Cambridge: but from that gentleman it does not appear that Johnson found either protection or encouragement.

How he spent his time upon his first going to London is not particularly known. His tragedy was refused by the managers of that day; and for some years the Gentleman's Magazine seems to have been his principal resource for employment and support. His connection with Cave the proprietor of it became very close; he wrote prefaces, essays, reviews of books and poems; and he was occasionally employed in correcting the papers written by other correspondents. When the complaints of the nation against the administration of Sir Robert Walpole became loud, and a motion was made, february 13th 1740-1, to remove him from his Majesty's counsels for ever, Johnson was pitched upon by Cave to write what was in the Magazine intitled Debates in the Senate of Lilliput, but was understood to be the speeches of the most eminent members in both houses of Parliament. These orations, which induced Voltaire to compare British with ancient eloquence, were hastily sketched by Johnson while he was not yet 32 years old, while he was little acquainted with life, while he was struggling not for distinction but for existence. Perhaps in none of his writings has he given a more conspicuous proof of a mind prompt and vigorous almost beyond conception: for they were composed from scanty notes taken by illiterate persons employed to attend in both houses; and sometimes he had nothing communicated to him but the names of the several speakers, and the part which they took in the debate.

His separate publications, which at this time

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

attracted the greatest notice, vere, "London, a Poem in imitation of Juvenal's third Satire ; "Marmor Norfolciense, an Essay on an ancient prophetical inscription in Monkish Rhyme, lately discovered near Lynne in Norfolk;" and "A complete Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage from the malicious and scandalous aspersions of Mr. Brook, author of Gustavus Vasa. The poem, which was published in 1738 by Dodsley, is universally known and admired as the most spirited instance in the English language of ancient sentiments adapted to modern topics. Pope, who then filled the poetical throne without a rival, being informed that the author's name was Johnson, and that he was an obscure person, replied, "He will soon be déterré." The other two pamphlets which were published in 1739 are filled with keen satire on the government: and though Sir John Hawkins has thought fit to declare that they display neither learning nor wit, Pope was of a different opinion; for, in a note of his preserved by Mr. Boswell, he says, that "the whole of the Norfolk Prophecy is very humorous


Mrs. Johnson, who went to London soon after her husband, now lived sometimes in one place and sometimes in another, sometimes in the city and sometimes at Greenwich: but Johnson himself was oftener to be found at St. John's Gate, where the Gentleman's Magazine was published, than in his own lodgings. It was there that he became acquainted with Savage, with whom he was induced, probably by the similarity of their circumstances, to

« AnkstesnisTęsti »