A Dictionary of the English Language
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From Boswell’s Life of Johnson

One of the many caricatures of Boswell which appeared on the publication of his "Life of Johnson." (Vol. 2, p. xii)

The following are excerpts from James Boswell's biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). This text and the accompanying pictures are taken from the 1907 2-volume edition edited by Roger Ingpen (London, Pitman & Sons). The excerpts (with their page numbers in [brackets]) are rearranged chronologically.


[102] But the year 1747 is distinguished as the epoch, when Johnson's arduous and important work, his "Dictionary of the English Language," was announced to the world, by the publication of its Plan or "Prospectus."

[104] How long this immense undertaking had been the object of his contemplation, I do not know. I once asked him by what means he had attained to that astonishing knowledge of our language, by which he was enabled to realise a design of such extent and accumulated difficulty. He told me that "it was not the effect of particular study; but that it had grown up in his mind insensibly." I have been informed by Mr. James Dodsley that several years before this period, when Johnson was one day sitting in his brother Robert's shop, he heard his brother suggest to him that a Dictionary of the English Language would be a work that would be well received by the public; that Johnson seemed at first to catch at the proposition, but, after a pause, said, in his abrupt decisive manner," I believe I shall not undertake it." That he, however, had bestowed much thought upon the subject, before he published his "Plan," is evident from the enlarged, clear, and accurate views which it exhibits; and we find him mentioning in that tract, that many of the writers whose testimonies were to be produced as authorities, were selected by Pope; which proves that he had been furnished, probably by Mr. Robert Dodsley, with whatever hints that eminent poet had contributed towards a great literary project, that had been the subject of important consideration in a former reign.

The booksellers who contracted with Johnson, single and unaided, for the execution of a work, which in other countries has not been effected but by the co-operating exertions of many, were Mr. Robert Dodsley, Mr. Charles Hitch, Mr. Andrew Millar, the two Messieurs Longman, and the two Messieurs Knapton. The price stipulated was £1,575.

The "Plan" was addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, then one of his Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State; a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction, and who, upon being informed of the design, had expressed himself in terms very favourable to its success. There is, perhaps in every thing of any consequence, a secret history which it would be amusing to know, could we have it authentically communicated. Johnson told me,1 "Sir, the way in which the plan of my Dictionary came to be inscribed to Lord Chesterfield, was this: I had neglected to write it by the time appointed. Dodsley suggested a desire to have it addressed to Lord Chesterfield. I laid hold of this as a pretext for delay, that it might be better done, and let Dodsley have his desire. I said to my friend, Dr. Bathurst, "Now, if any good comes of my addressing to Lord Chesterfield, it will be ascribed to deep policy, when, in fact, it was only a casual excuse for laziness."

It is worthy of observation, that the "Plan" has not only the substantial merit of comprehension, perspicuity, and precision, but that the language of it is unexceptionally excellent; it being altogether free from that inflation of style, and those uncommon but apt and energetic words, which in some of his writings have been censured, with more petulance than justice; and never was there a more dignified strain of compliment than that in which he courts the attention of one who, he had been persuaded to believe, would be a respectable patron.

"With regard to question of purity or propriety (says he), I was once in doubt whether I should not attribute to myself too much in attempting to decide them, and whether my province was to extend beyond the proposition of the question, and the display of the suffrages on each side; but I have been since determined by your Lordship's opinion, to interpose my own judgment, and shall therefore endeavour to support what appears to me most consonant to grammar and reason. Ausonius [105] thought that modesty forbade him to plead inability for a task to which Cæsar had judged him equal:

Cur me posse negem posse quod ille putat?2

And I may hope, my Lord, that since you, whose authority in our language is so generally acknowledged, have commissioned me to declare my own opinion, I shall be considered as exercising a kind of vicarious jurisdiction; and that the power which might have been denied to my own claim, will be readily allowed me as the delegate of your Lordship."

This passage proves, that Johnson's addressing his "Plan" to Lord Chesterfield was not merely in consequence of the result of a report by means of Dodsley, that the Earl favoured the design; but that there had been a particular communication with his Lordship concerning it. Dr. Taylor told me that Johnson sent his "Plan" to him in manuscript, for his perusal; and that when it was lying upon his table, Mr. William Whitehead happened to pay him a visit, and being shown it, was highly pleased with such parts of it as he had time to read, and begged to take it home with him, which he was allowed to do; that from him it got into the hands of a noble Lord, who carried it to Lord Chesterfield. When Taylor observed this might be an advantage, Johnson replied, "No, Sir, it would have come out with more bloom, if it had not been seen before by anybody."

The opinion conceived of it by another noble author, appears from the following extract of a letter from the Earl of Orrery to Dr. Birch:

"Caledon, Dec. 30, 1747.

"I have just now seen the specimen of Mr. Johnson's Dictionary, addressed to Lord Chesterfield. I am much pleased with the plan, and I think the specimen is one of the best that I have ever read. Most specimens disgust, rather than prejudice us in favour of the work to follow; but the language of Mr. Johnson's is good, and the arguments are properly and modestly expressed. However, some expressions may be cavilled at, but they are trifles. I'll mention one: the barren Laurel. The laurel is not barren, in any sense whatever; it bears fruits and flowers. Sed hæ sunt nugæ, and I have great expectations from the performance."3

That he was fully aware of the arduous nature of the undertaking, he [106] acknowledges; and shows himself perfectly sensible of it in the conclusion of his "Plan"; but he had a noble consciousness of his own abilities, which enabled him to go on with undaunted spirit.

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued. "Adams: This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? Johnson: Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others: and there is a Welsh gentleman who has published a collection of Welsh proverbs, who will help me with the Welsh. Adams: But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? Johnson: Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. Adams: But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. Johnson: Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman." With so much ease and pleasantry could he talk of that prodigious labour which he had undertaken to execute.

The public has had from another pen,4 a long detail of what had been done in this country by prior Lexicographers; and no doubt Johnson was wise to avail himself of them, so far as they went; but the learned, yet judicious research of etymology, the various, yet accurate display of definition, and the rich collection of authorities, were reserved for the superior mind of our great philologist. For the mechanical part he employed, as he told me, six amanuenses; and let it be remembered by the natives of North Britain, to whom he is supposed to have been so hostile, that five of them were of that country. There were two Messieurs Macbean; Mr. Shiels, who we shall hereafter see partly wrote the "Lives of the Poets," to which the name of Cibber is affixed;5 Mr. Stewart, son of Mr. George Stewart, bookseller at Edinburgh; and a Mr. Maitland. The sixth of these humble assistants was Mr. Peyton, who, I believe, taught French, and published some elementary tracts.

To all these painful labourers, Johnson showed a never-ceasing kindness, so far as they stood in need of it. The elder Mr. Macbean had afterwards the honour of being Librarian to Archibald Duke of Argyle, for many years, but was left without a shilling. Johnson wrote for him a Preface to "A System of Ancient Geography"; and, by the favour of Lord Thurlow, got him admitted a poor brother of the Charter-house. For Shiels, who died of a consumption, he had much tenderness; and it has been thought that some choice sentences in the "Lives of the Poets" were supplied by him. Peyton, when reduced to penury, had frequent aid from the bounty of Johnson, who at last was at the expense of burying him and his wife.

While the Dictionary was going forward, Johnson lived part of the time in Hoiborn, part in Gough-square, Fleet-street; and he had an upper room fitted up like a counting-house for the purpose, in which he gave to the copyists their several tasks. The words, partly taken from other dictionaries, and partly supplied by himself, having been first written down with spaces left between them, he delivered in writing their etymologies, definitions, and various significations. The authorities were copied from the books themselves, in which he had marked the passages with a black-lead pencil, the traces of which could easily be effaced. I have seen several of them, in which that trouble had not been taken; so that they were just as when used by the copyists. It is remarkable that he was so attentive in the choice of the passages in which words are authorized, that one may read page after page of his Dictionary with improvement and pleasure; and it should not pass unobserved, that he has quoted no author whose writings had a tendency to hurt sound religion and morality.

The necessary expense of preparing a work of such magnitude for the press, must [108] have been a considerable deduction from the price stipulated to be paid for the copyright. I understand that nothing was allowed by the booksellers on that account; and I remember his telling me, that a large portion of it having, by mistake, been written upon both sides of the paper, so as to be inconvenient for the compositor, it cost him twenty pounds to have it transcribed upon one side only.

He is now to be considered as "tugging at his oar," as engaged in a steady continued course of occupation, sufficient to employ all his time for some years; and which was the best preventive of that constitutional melancholy which was ever lurking about him, ready to trouble his quiet. But his enlarged and lively mind could not be satisfied without more diversity of employment, and the pleasure of animated relaxation.6 He therefore not only exerted his talents in occasional compositions very different from Lexicography, but formed a club in Ivy-lane, Paternoster-row, with a view to enjoy literary discussion, and amuse his evening hours. The members associated with him in this little society were his beloved friend Dr. Richard Bathurst, Mr. Hawkesworth, afterwards well known by his writing, Mr. John Hawkins, an attorney,7 and a few others of different professions.


[115] The first paper of the Rambler was published on Tuesday, the 20th of :March, 1749-50; and its author was enabled to continue it, without interruption, every Tuesday and Saturday, till Saturday, the 17th of March,8 1752, on which day it closed. This is a strong confirmation of the truth of a remark of his, which I have had occasion to quote elsewhere,9 that "a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it"; for, notwithstanding his constitutional indolence, his depression of spirits, and his labour in carrying on his Dictionary, he answered the stated calls of the press twice a week from the [116] stores of his mind during all that time; having received no assistance, except four billets in No. 10, by Miss Mulso, now Mrs. Chapone; No. 30, by Mrs. Catharine Talbot; No. 97, by Mr. Samuel Richardson, whom he describes in an introductory note as " An author who has enlarged the knowledge of human nature and taught the passions to move at the command of virtue;" and Nos. 44 and 100, by Mrs. Elizabeth Carter.


So slowly did this excellent work [The Rambler], of which twelve editions have now issued from the press, gain upon the world at large, that even in the closing number the author says, "I have never been much of a favourite of the public."10

[127] Every page of the Rambler shows a mind teeming with classical allusion and poetical imagery: illustrations from other writers are, upon all occasions, so ready and mingle so easily in his periods, that the whole appears of one uniform vivid texture.

The style of this work has been censured by some shallow critics as involved and turgid, and abounding with antiquated and hard words. So ill-founded is the first part of this objection, that I will challenge all who may honour this book with a persual, to point out any English writer whose language conveys his meaning with equal force and perspicuity. It must, indeed, be allowed, that the structure of his sentcnces is expanded, and often has somewhat of the inversion of Latin; and that he delighted to express familiar thoughts in philosophical language; being in this the reverse of Socrates, who, it is said, reduced philosophy to the simplicity of common life. Rut let us attend to what he himself says in his concluding paper: "When common words were less pleasing to the ear, or less distinct in their signification, I have familiarized the terms of philosophy, by applying them to popular ideas."11 And, as to the second part of this objection. upon a late careful revision of the work, I can with confidence say, that it is amazing how few of these words, for which it has been unjustly characterised, are actually to be found in it; I am sure, not the proportion of one to each paper. This idle charge has been echoed from one babbler to another, who have confounded Johnson's Essays with Johnson's Dictionary; and because he thought it right in a Lexicon [128] of our language to collect many words which had fallen into disuse, but were supported by great authorities, it has been imagined that all of these have been interwoven into his own compositions. That some of them have been adopted by him unnecessarily, may, perhaps, be allowed; but, in general, they are evidently an advantage, for without them his stately ideas would be confined and cramped. "He that thinks with more extent than another, will want words of larger meaning."12 He once told me that he had formed his style upon that of Sir William Temple, and upon Chambers's Proposal for his Dictionary.13 He certainly was mistaken; or, if he imagined at first that he was imitating Temple, he was very unsuccessful;14 for nothing can be more unlike than the simplicity of Temple, and the richness of Johnson. Their styles differ as plain cloth and brocade. Temple, indeed, seems equally erroneous in supposing that he himself had formed his style upon Sandys's "View of the State of Religion in the Western Parts of the World."

The style of Johnson was, undoubtedly, much formed upon that of the great writers in the last century, Hooker, Bacon, Sanderson, Hakewell, and others; those "Giants," as they were well characterised by a great Personage,15 whose authority, were I to name him, would stamp a reverence on the opinion.

We may, with the utmost propriety, apply to his learned style that passage of Horace, a part of which he has taken as the motto to his Dictionary:

"Cum tabulis animum censoris sumet honesti:
Audebit quæcumque parum splendoris habebunt,
Et sine pondere erunt et honore indigna ferentur.
Verba movere loco; quamvis invita recedant,
Et versentur adhuc intra penetralia Vestæ:
Obscurata diu populo bonus eruet, atque
Proferet in lucem speciosa vocabula rerum.
Quæ priscis memorata Catonibus atque Cethegis,
Nunc situs informis premit et deserta vetustas:
Adsciscet nova, quæ genitor produxerit usus
Vehemens, et liquidus, puroque simillimus amni,
Fundet opes, Latinumque beabit divite lingua."16.

To so great a master of thinking, to one of such vast and various knowledge as Johnson, might have been allowed a liberal indulgence of that licence which Horace claims in another place.

"———Si forte necesse est
Indiciis monstrare recentibus abdita rerum,
Fingere cinctutis non exaudita Cethegis
Continget; dabiturque licentia sumpta pudenter:
Et nova fictaque nuper habehunt verba fidem si
Græco fonte cadent, parce detorta. Quid autem
Cæcilio Plautoque dabit Romanus, ademptum
Virgilio Varioque? Ego cur, acquirere pauca
Si possum, invideor; cum lingua Catonis et Enni
Sermonem patrium ditaverit, et nova rerum
Nomina protulerit? Licuit, semperque licebit
Signatum præsente nota producere nomen."17

[129] Yet Johnson assured me that he had not taken upon him to add more than four or five words to the English language, of his own information; and he was very much offended at the general licence by no means "modestly taken" in his time, not only to coin new words, but to use many words in senses quite different from their established meaning, and those frequently very fantastical.


[133] In 1751 we are to consider him as carrying on both his Dictionary and Rambler.


[136] In 1752, he was almost entirely occupied with his Dictionary.

[Johnson's wife dies on March 17th.]

[146] He now relieved the drudgery of his Dictionary, and the melancholy of his grief, by taking an active part in the composition of the Adventurer, in which he began to write April 10, marking his essays with the signature T, by which most of his papers in that collection are distinguished...


[149] In one of the books of his diary, I find the following entry :

"Apr. 3, 1753. I began the second vol. of my Dictionary, room being left in the first for Preface, Grammar, and History, none of them yet begun.

[150] "O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen."


[151] The Dictionary, we may believe, afforded Johnson full occupation this year. As it approached to its conclusion, he probably worked with redoubled vigour, as seamen increase their exertion and alacrity when they have a near prospect of their haven.

[158] Johnson this year found an interval of leisure to make an excursion to Oxford, for the purpose of consulting the libraries there. Of this, and of many interesting circumstances concerning him, during a part of his life when he conversed but little with the world, I am enabled to give a particular account, by the liberal communications of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Warton, who obligingly furnished me with several of our common friends' letters, which he illustrated with notes. These I shall insert in their proper places.



"It is but an ill return for the book with which you were pleased to favour me,18 to have delayed my thanks for it till now. I am too apt to be negligent; but I can never deliberately show my disrespect to a man of your character; and I now pay you a very honest acknowledgment, for the advancement of the literature of our native country. You have shown to all, who shall hereafter attempt to study of our ancient authors, the way to success; by directing them to the perusal of the books which those authors had read. Of this method, Hughes,19 and men much greater than Hughes, seem never to have thought. The reason why the authors, which are read, of the sixteenth century, are so little understood, is, that they are read alone; and no help is borrowed from those who lived with them, or before them. Some part of this ignorance I hope to remove by my book,20 which now draws towards its end; but which I cannot finish to my mind, without visiting the libraries of Oxford, which I therefore hope to see in a fortnight.21 I know not how long I shall stay, or where I shall lodge: but shall be sure to look for you at my arrival, and we shall easily settle the rest. I am, dear Sir,

"Your most obedient, etc,

[London,] July 16, 1754."

"Sam. Johnson.


Lord Chesterfield, to whom Johnson had paid the high compliment of addressing to his Lordship the Plan of his Dictionary, had behaved to him in such a manner as to excite his contempt and indignation. The world has been for many years amused with a story confidently repeated with additional circumstances, that a sudden disgust was taken by Johnson upon occasion of his having been one day kept long in waiting in his Lordship's antechamber, for which the reason assigned was, that he had company with him; and that at last, when the door opened, out walked Colley Cibber; and that Johnson was so violently provoked when he found for whom he had been so long excluded, that he went away in a passion, and never would [152] return. I remember having mentioned this story to George Lord Lyttelton, who told me he was very intimate with Lord Chesterfield; and holding it as a well-known truth, defended Lord Chesterfield by saying that "Cibber, who had been introduced familiarly by the back-stairs, had probably not been there above ten minutes." It may seem strange even to entertain a doubt concerning a story so long and so widely current, and thus implicitly adopted, if not sanctioned, by the authority which I have mentioned; but Johnson himself assured me that there was not the least foundation for it. He told me that there was never any particular incident which produced a quarrel between Lord Chesterfield and him; but that his Lordship's continued neglect was the reason why he resolved to have no connexion with him. When the Dictionary was upon the eve of publication, Lord Chesterfield, who, it is said, had flattered himself with expectations that Johnson would dedicate the work to him, attempted, in a courtly manner, to soothe and insinuate himself with the Sage, conscious, as it should seem, of the cold indifference with which he had treated its learned author; and farther attempted to conciliate him, by writing two papers in the World, in recommendation of the work: and it must be confessed that they contain some studied compliments, so finely turned, that if there had been no previous offence, it is probable that Johnson would have been highly delighted. Praise, in general, was pleasing to him; but by praise from a man of rank and elegant accomplishments, he was peculiarly gratified.

His Lordship says, "I think the public in general, and the republic of letters in particular, are greatly obligated to Mr. Johnson, for having undertaken and executed so great and desirable a work. Perfection is not to be expected from man; but if we are to judge by the various works of Mr. Johnson already published, we have good reason to believe that he will bring this as near to perfection as any man could do. The Plan of it, which he published some years ago, seems to me to be a proof of it. Nothing can be more rationally imagined, or more accurately and elegantly expressed. I therefore recommend the previous perusal of it to all those who intend to buy the Dictionary, and who, I suppose, are all those who can afford it."

*         *       *         *         *         *         *

"It must be owned, that our language is, at present, in a state of anarchy, and hitherto, perhaps, it may not have been the worse for it. During our free and open trade, many words and expressions have been imported, adopted, and naturalized from other languages, which have greatly enriched our own. Let it still preserve what real strength and beauty it may have borrowed from others; but let it not, like the Tarpeian maid, be overwhelmed and crushed by unnecessary foreign ornaments. The time for discrimination seems to be now come. Toleration, adoption, and naturalization, have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary. But where shall we find them, and, at the same time, the obedience due to them? We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and choose a dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and arduous post. And I hereby declare, that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a free-born British subject, to the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay, more, I will not only obey him like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe in him as my Pope, and hold him to be infallible, while in the chair, but no longer. More than this he cannot well require; for I presume that obedience can never be expected, when there is neither terror to enforce, nor interest to invite it."

*         *       *         *         *         *         *

[153] "But a Grammar, a Dictionary, and a History of our Language through its several stages, were still wanting at home, and importunately called for from abroad. Mr. Johnson's labours will now, I dare say, very fully supply that want, and greatly contribute to the farther spreading of our language in other countries. Learners were discouraged by finding no standard to resort to; and, consequently, thought it incapable of any. They will now be undeceived and encouraged."

This courtly device failed of its effect. Johnson, who thought that "all was false and hollow," despised the honey words, and was even indignant that Lord Chesterfield should, for a moment, imagine that he could be the dupe of such an artifice. His expression to me concerning Lord Chesterfield, upon this occasion, was, "Sir, after making great professions, he had, for many years, taken no notice of me; but when my Dictionary was coming out, he fell a scribbling in the World about it. Upon which, I wrote him a letter, expressing in civil terms, but such as might show him that I did not mind what he said or wrote, and that I had done with him."

This is that celebrated letter of which so much has been said, and about which curiosity has been so long excited, without being gratified. I for many years solicited Johnson to favour me with a copy of it, that so excellent a composition might not be lost to posterity. He delayed from time to time to give it me;22 till at last, in 1781, when we were on a visit at Mr. Dilly's, at Southill in Bedfordshire, he was pleased to dictate it to me from memory. He afterwards found among his papers a copy of it, which he had dictated to Mr. Baretti, with its title and corrections, in his own hand-writing. This he gave to Mr. Langton; adding, that if it were to come into print, he wished it to be from that copy. By Mr. Lanton's kindness, I am enabled to enrich my work with a perfect transcript of what the world has so eagerly desired to see.


"February 7, 1755.

"My Lord,—

"I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of the World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is an honour, which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

"When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre; —that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could: and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

[154] "Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance23 one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

"The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks. 24

"Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he as reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it;25 till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

"Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my Lord,

"Your Lordship's most humble,

"Most obedient servant,

"Sam. Johnson."26

"While this was the talk of the town," says Dr. Adams, in a letter to me, "I happened to visit Dr. Warburton, who, finding that I was acquainted with Johnson, desired me earnestly to carry his compliments to him, and to tell him that he honoured him for his manly behaviour in rejecting these condescensions of Lord Chesterfield, and for resenting the treatment he had received from him with a proper spirit. Johnson was visible pleased with this compliment, for he had always a high opinion of Warburton."27 Indeed, the force of mind which appeared in this letter, was congenial with that which Warburton himself amply possessed.

[156] There is a curious minute circumstance which struck me, in comparing the various editions of Johnson's "Imitations of Juvenal." In the tenth Satire, one of the couplets upon the vanity of wishes, even for literary distinction, stood thus:

"Yet think what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret, and the jail."

But after experiencing the uneasiness which Lord Chesterfield's fallacious patronage made him feel, he dismissed the word garret from the sad group, and in all the subsequent editions the line stand,

"Toil, envy, want, the Patron, and the jail."

That Lord Chesterfield must have been mortified by the lofty contempt, and polite, yet keen, satire with which Johnson exhibited him to himself in this letter, it is impossible to doubt. He, however, with that glossy duplicity which was his constant study, affected to be quite unconcerned. Dr. Adams mentioned to Mr. Robert Dodsley that he was sorry Johnson had written his letter to Lord Chesterfield. Dodsley, with the true feelings of the trade, said, "he was very sorry too; for that he had a property in the Dictionary, to which his Lordship's patronage might have been of consequence." He then told Dr. Adams that Lord Chesterfield had shown him the letter. "I should have imagined (replied Dr. Adams) that Lord Chesterfield would have concealed it." "Poh! (said Dodsley) do you think a letter from Johnson could hurt Lord Chesterfield? Not at all, Sir. It lay upon his table, where anybody might see it. He read it to me; said, 'this man has great powers.' pointed out the severest passages, and observed how well they were expressed." This air of indifference, which imposed upon the worthy Dodsley, was certainly nothing but a specimen of that dissimulation which Lord Chesterfield inculcated as one of the most essential lessons for the conduct of life. His Lordship endeavoured to justify himself to Dodsley from the charges brought against him by Johnson; but we may judge of the flimsiness of his defence, from his having excused his neglect of Johnson, by saying that "he had heard he had changed his lodgings, and did not know where he lived;" as if there could have been the smallest difficulty to inform himself of that circumstance, by inquiring in the literary circle with which his Lordship was well acquainted, and was, indeed, himself, one of its ornaments.

Dr. Adams expostulated with Johnson, and suggested that his not being admitted when he called on him was probably not to be imputed to Lord Chesterfield: for his Lordship had declared to Dodsley that "he would have turned off the best servant he ever had, if he had known that he denied him to a man who would have been always more than welcome;" and in confirmation of this, he insisted on Lord Chesterfield's general affability and easiness of access, especially to literary men. "Sir (said Johnson), that is not Lord Chesterfield; he is the proudest man this day existing." "No, (said Dr. Adams,) there is one person, at least, as proud; I think, by your own account, you are the prouder man of the two." "But mine (replied Johnson instantly) was defensive pride." This, as Dr. Adams well observed, was one of those happy turns for which he was so remarkably ready.

Johnson, having now explicitly avowed his opinion of Lord Chesterfield, did not refrain from expressing himself concerning that nobleman with pointed freedom: "This man (said he) I thought had been a Lord among wits; but, I find he is only [157] a wit among Lords."28 And when his Letters to his natural son were published, he observed that "they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master." 29


The footnotes are by Boswell, unless they are marked M. or are in brackets, as these designate that they belong to a later editor.

1. September 22, 1777, going from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, to see Islam.

2. Ausonius Theodosio Augusto, v. 12.

3. Birch MSS. Brit. Mus. 4303.

4. See Sir John Hawkins's "Life of Johnson."

5. See under date of April 10, 1776, in this work.

6. For the sake of relaxation from his literary labours, and probably also for Mrs. Johnson's health, he this summer visited Tunbridge Wells, then a place of much greater resort than it is at present. Here he met Mr. Cibber, Mr. Garrick, Mr. Samuel Richardson, Mr. Whiston, Mr. Onslow (the Speaker), Mr. Pitt, Mr. Lyttelton, and several other distinguished persons. In a print, representing some of "the remarkable characters" who were at Tunbridge Wells in 1748 (See "Richardson's Correspondence"), Dr. Johnson stands the first figure. M.]

7. He was afterwards for several years Chairman of the Middlesex Justices, and upon occasion of presenting an address to the King, accepted the usual offer of Knighthood. He is author of "A History of Musick," in five volumes in quarto. By assiduous attendance upon Johnson in his last illness, he obtained the office of one of his executors, in consequence of which the booksellers of London employed him to publish an edition of Dr. Johnson's works, and to write his Life.

8. [This is a mistake, into which the author was very pardonably led by the inaccuracy of the original folio edition of the Rambler, in which the concluding paper of that work is dated on "Saturday, March 17." But Saturday was in fact the fourteenth of March. This circumstance, though it may at first appear of very little importance, is yet worth notice; for Mrs. Johnson died on the seventeenth of March. M.]

9. "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides," 3d edit. p. 28.

10. [The Ramblers, certainly, were little noticed at first. Smart, the poet, first mentioned them to me as excellent papers, before I had heard any one else speak of them. When I went into Norfolk, in the autumn of 1751, I found but one person (the Rev. Mr. Squires, a man of learning, and a general purchaser of new books), who knew any thing of them. But he had been misinformed concerning the true author, for he had been told they were written by a Mr. Johnson of Canterbury, the son of a clergyman who had had a controversy with Bentley: and who had changed the readings of the old ballad entitled "Norton Falgate," in Bentley's bold style, (meo periculo) till not a single word of the original song was left. Before I left Norfolk in the year 1760, the Ramblers were in high favour among persons of learning and good taste. Others there were, devoid of both, who said that the hard words in the Rambler were used by the author to render his Dictionary indispensably necessary. B.]

11. Yet his style did not escape the harmless shafts of pleasant humour; for the ingenious Bonnell Thornton published a mock Rambler in the Drury-Lane Journal.

12. Idler, No. 70.

13. [The Paper here alluded to, was, I believe, Chambers's "Proposal for a Second and Improved Edition of his Dictionary," which, I think, appeared in 1738. This "Proposal" was probably in circulation in 1737, when Johnson first came to London. M.]

14. [The author appears to me to have misunderstood Johnson in this instance. He did not, I conceive, mean to say that, when he first began to write, he made Sir William Temple his model, with a view to form a style that should resemble his in all its parts: but that he formed his style on that of Temple and other: by taking from each those characteristic excellences which were most worthy of imitation. — See this matter farther explained in this work, under April 9, 1778; where, in a conversation at Sir Joshua Reynolds's, Johnson himself mentions the particular improvements which Temple made in the English style. These, doubtless, were the objects of his imitation, so far as that writer was his model. M.]

15. [?George III.]

16. Horat. Epist. Lib. ii. Epist. 2. v. 110. [See translation here.]

17. Horat. De Arte Poetica, v. 48. [See translation here.]

18. "Observations on Spenser's 'Faery Queen,' the first edition of which was now published."

19. "Hughes published an edition of Spenser."

20. "His Dictionary."

21. "He came to Oxford within a fortnight, and stayed about five weeks. He lodged at a house called Kettel-hall, near Trinity College. But during this visit at Oxford, he collected nothing in the libraries for his Dictionary."

22. Dr. Johnson appeared to have had a remarkable delicacy with respect to the circulation of this letter; for Dr. Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury, informed me that having many years ago pressed him to be allowed to read it to the second Lord Hardwicke, who was very desirous to hear it (promising, at the same time, that no copy of it should be taken), Johnson seemed much pleased that it had attracted the attention of a nobleman of such a respectable character; but, after pausing some time, declined to comply with the request, saying, with a smile, "No, Sir; I have hurt the dog too much already;" or words to that purpose.

23. The following note is subjoined by Mr. Langton. "Dr. Johnson, when he gave me this copy of his letter, desired that I would annex it to his information to me, that whereas it is said in the letter that 'no assistance has been received,' he did once receive from Lord Chesterfield the sum of £10, but as that was so inconsiderable a sum, he thought the mention of it could not properly find a place in a letter of the kind that this was."

24. Virgil Ecl. viii. 44-6.

25. In this passage Dr. Johnson evidently alludes to the loss of his wife. We find the same tender recollection recurring to his mind upon innumerable occasions; and, perhaps, no man ever more forcibly felt the truth of the sentiment so elegantly expressed by my friend Mr. Malone, in his Prologue to Mr. Jephson's tragedy of "Julia":

"Vain — wealth, and fame, and fortune's fostering care,
If no fond breast the splendid blessing share;
And, each day's bustling pageantry once past,
There, only there, our bliss is found at last."

26. Upon comparing this copy with that which Dr. Johnson dictated to me from recollection, the variations are found to be so slight, that this must be added to the many other proofs which he gave of the wonderful extent and accuracy of his memory. To gratify the curious in composition, I have deposited both the copies in the British Museum.

27. Soon after Edward's "Canons of Criticism" came out, Johnson was dining at Tonson the Bookseller's, with Hayman the Painter and some more company. Hayman related to Sir Joshua Reynolds that the conversation having turned upon Edward's book, the gentlemen praised it much, and Johnson allowed its merit. But when they went farther, and appeared to put that author upon a level with Warburton, "Nay, (said Johnson), he has given him some smart hits to be sure; but there is no proportion between the two men; they must not be named together. A fly, Sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still."

28. [Johnson's character of Chesterfield seems to be imitated from - inter doctos nobilissimus, inter nobiles doctissimus, inter utrosque optimus (ex Aupeleio v. Erasm. — Dedication of Adagies to Lord Mountjoy); and from ἱδιώτης ἐν φιλoσόφοις, φιλόσοφος ἐν ἰδιώταις. Proclus de Critia. K.]

29. That collection of letters cannot be vindicated from the serious charge of encouraging, in some passages, one of the vices most destructive to the good order and comfort of society, which his Lordship represents as mere fashionable gallantry; and, in others, of inculcating the base practice of dissimulation, and recommending, with disproportionate anxiety, a perpetual attention to external elegance of manners. But it must, at the same time, be allowed that they contain many good precepts of conduct, and much genuine information upon life and manners, very happily expressed; and that there was considerable merit in paying so much attention to the improvement of one who was dependent upon his Lordship's protection: it has, probably, been exceeded in no instance by the most exemplary parent; and though I can by no means approve of confounding the distinction between lawful and illicit offspring, which is, in effect, insulting the civil establishment of our country, to look no higher: I cannot help thinking it laudable to be kindly attentive to those, of whose existence we have, in any way, been the cause. Mr. Stanhope's character has been unjustly represented as diametrically opposite to what Lord Chesterfield wished him to be. He has been called dull, gross, and awkward: but I knew him at Dresden, when he was Envoy to that court; and though he could not boast of the graces, he was, in truth, a sensible, civil, well-behaved man.

Cite this page: "From Boswell’s Life of Johnson." A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: October 9, 2013. http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/?page_id=3316.

  1. Translation of the Horace quotes by Andrew Wood (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1872).

    Epist., ii. 2 [l. 110].
    [He who a poem to indite desires,
    Which may a genuine work be deem’d, requires]
    That with his tablets he take up the mind
    Of a fair critic, and if words he find
    Which sparkle lack and weight, and which may seem
    Inane — in short, unworthy of his theme —
    These to expunge he will not hesitate,
    Though their removal ‘gainst his will may grate,
    And though they still may — hid from mortal eye —
    In the recesses of his sanctum lie.
    A worthy poet for the people’s use
    Will ferret out, and to the light produce
    Expressive terms long hid from public view,
    Used by old Cato and Cethegus too,
    Though now they’re cover’d by unsightly mould
    And dust of what is obsolete and old;
    New words he’ll use if sanction’d they shall be
    By custom — parent of all novelty;
    Impetuous — flowing like a river pure —
    His treasures he’ll pour forth, and thus procure
    The boon of a rich tongue for Latium; […]

    De Arte Poetica [l. 48.]
    If haply to describe, it needful be,
    Subjects abstruse by words coin’d recently,
    These words to fashion we’re compell’d, I own,
    Which to high-girt Cethegi were unknown,
    And license will be given as needs occasion,
    But license it must be in moderation.
    New words, and words but recently contrived,
    Will credit have if they should be derived
    From a Greek root with small degree of change —
    What truly! shall a Roman grant a range
    To Plautus and Caecilius which in vain
    Virgil and Varius may hope to gain?
    Shall there be grudged to me a boon not great
    If I a few new phrases can create,
    Since Ennius’ and Cato’s conversation
    Enrich’d the language of the Roman nation
    And new words introduced? None will refuse
    Nor have refused words seal’d by present use.

  2. Brandi on April 28th, 2011 at 12:49 am

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