“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.” Behind these words is the story of a life that powerfully demonstrates the truth of the statement. The author of the statement rose from being the poor son of a bookseller to being one of the most quoted English writers. No, I’m not talking about Shakespeare. Strangely enough, in comparison to Shakespeare, this man is no longer that well known. His name was Samuel Johnson.
A Difficult Beginning
Born into disadvantaged circumstances in 1709, Samuel Johnson really knew what it meant to persevere. Besides the poverty of his family, he was hindered by poor health. When he was very young he became sick with scrofula, a type of tuberculosis in the lymphs, which caused him to become nearly blind in one eye. He had other health problems as well and struggled with depression throughout his life.
The Self-Taught Writer
In spite of his illness Johnson studied hard and did well in school. Although his father was too poor to leave Johnson more than £20 as his inheritance, he gave Johnson something that was far more valuable to him than money – a love of books. When he finished school, Samuel Johnson started to study at Oxford University but did not have enough money to complete his studies there. However, he did not allow the lack of funds to stop him from learning. He spent hours in the great library in London, teaching himself by reading. It was this prolific reading which equipped Johnson for his writing. He famously said, “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read”.
As he did not have an official qualification, it was difficult for Johnson to find work. He earned a small income by working as a free-lance writer and teaching. He wrote for newspapers and for his periodical called The Rambler, which became one of his most successful works. As he became known for his wit and skill with words he was even paid by ministers to write their sermons!
Johnson’s Unusual Dictionary
Perhaps the work that best shows the vast knowledge Johnson had is his Dictionary of the English Language. It is said that in preparation for writing the dictionary Johnson read every single work of English poetry and prose written between 1558 and 1660! It took him between 7 and 9 years to write the dictionary and for every word he found at least two quotes from literature to illustrate the word.
Johnson’s dictionary is quite unique because it is witty as well as informative. For example he wrote this definition for “oats”: “A grain, which in England is given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
The reason why Johnson is not that well known is because, although he wrote many essays, stories, poems and biographies, he never wrote a singular great work like Shakespeare and Milton did. However his writings are definitely worth reading. His longest fiction work is a novella called Rasselas which tells the story of a prince who searches for happiness. This fascinating story has a very similar theme to the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. If you would like to read it click here.
Success at Last
In 1762 Johnson was awarded a pension of £300 a year which freed him from his constant struggles with lack of money. In 1765 he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree and so became Dr. Samuel Johnson. Dr. Johnson passed away in December, 1784, having left a lasting legacy which has impacted English literature for over two centuries. The story of his perseverance in the face of many obstacles has encouraged and inspired many. As he said, “If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.”
This article only begins to touch on Johnson’s life and works and I would encourage you to read more about this brilliant man.
Johnson, Samuel and Walker, John, A Dictionary of the English Language, London, 1850 (https://archive.org/stream/dictionaryofengl00joh#page/n9/mode/2up)
I learned some information in this post from Dave Raymond’s Modernity course. ( https://www.compassclassroom.com/modhist)
“Samuel Johnson Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2017. 8 November 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/samueljohn121923.html
“Samuel Johnson Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. Xplore Inc, 2017. 8 November 2017. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/s/samueljohn133958.html