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Without that, sir, I should have done nothing.' During two years spent at home, before he went to college, he read widely in the classics, browsing in his father's book-shop, and storing up much of the learning for which he was afterwards famous. In 1728 he went to Pembroke College, Oxford. There we have a picture of him lounging at the college gate, interesting groups of students by his talk, as he was later to interest literary London. His life at college was a constant struggle with poverty. He was so poor that he was out at shoes, but so sturdily independent that he threw away a new pair left at his door in charity. Even thus early Johnson was subject to moods of bitter melancholy, but he determined "to fight his way by his literature and wit." On account of his poverty, he was unable to remain at college longer than three years. In 1736 he set up a small school at Lichfield, but the school failed. Then, in 1737, Johnson and Garrick went up to London together, having fourpence between them; and Johnson began his memorable career in the great metropolis.
London. — Gradually Johnson rose from the position of an obscure writer for the Gentleman's Magazine to that of the literary dictator of London, when, as one of his friends tells us,
considered as a kind of public oracle, whom everybody thought they had a right to visit and consult.” His first recognition came with the publication of his satire of London in 1738, a poem that attracted the favorable notice of Pope. In 1750 Johnson founded a periodical called The Rambler, somewhat on the model of the Tatler and the Spectator, and for two years conducted it almost single-handed. In it were printed the moral essays, which, in their dignified thought and ponderous, many-syllabled style, are Johnson's most characteristic work. In 1755 he published
his English Dictionary, the first important dictionary of the language; in 1759, his story of Rasselas; and from 1779 to 1781, a series of biographical and critical papers, The Lives of the Poets, the best of his works.
Johnson early gained a reputation in London for his solid learning and his good talk. Although at first he was poor and unknown, he came to be the friend and companion of some of the best minds of the day. He had an instinct for sociability. Upon first coming to London, he says, he “dined very well for eightpence, with very good company, at the Pine Apple in New Street.” Afterwards · he was the leading spirit and chief oracle in the immortal group of wits and thinkers who met at the Turk's Head tavern, and called themselves the Literary Club. Among them were Goldsmith, the poet; Garrick, the actor, called by Johnson, "the first man in the world for sprightly conversation;" Gibbon, the historian; Burke, statesman and orator; Sir Joshua Reynolds, painter, and president of the Royal Academy; and finally, the brilliant young aristocrat, Topham Beauclerk. Johnson was a man who had “no passion for clean linen;" he was uncouth in manner; his face was scarred by disease, and his large, ungainly person was subject to sudden starts and odd gesticulations. But he commanded the respect of these men, and enjoyed their friendship. For the sake of a social evening and the pleasure of argument, he founded several clubs. He once declared “that a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity.” Seated at the head of the table, he loved to dogmatize, to contradict and retort; he knew the pleasure of high talk, and delighted in the dust and smoke of the conflict. As Ben Jonson, in Shakespeare's day, quaffed sack at The Mermaid, so Dr. Johnson drank endless cups of tea or a little wine at
The Cheshire Cheese or The Mitre. He “loved to fold his legs and have out his talk.” In 1762 he was granted a pension of three hundred pounds by the King, which enabled him even more freely to take his ease at his inn.
But we must not think of Johnson as an idler. Although constitutionally indolent, he had won by his own solid parts a chief place in the world of letters.
As we have seen, he was capable of sustained intellectual effort. He once wrote forty-eight octavo pages (in his Life of Savage) at one sitting; although, as he says, he sat up all night. Moreover, Johnson was a thoroughly conscientious man, and his dominating manner was but a mask to a tenderness almost womanly, and to a genuinely humane and kindly nature. Full of years and honors, he died in 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
As Prose-Writer. While Johnson wrote some strong, quotable verse, he was preëminently a prose-writer in an age of prose. His essays in the Rambler, the Idler, and other periodicals are distinguished by their moral teachings rather than by their literary charm, and were influential in popularizing a peculiarly heavy and learned style, which has since been dubbed Johnsonese. Probably Johnson's most lasting contribution to literature, though by no means free from characteristic limitations, is his Lives of the Poets. In that work we find Johnson's mature critical opinions and an example of his later and more simple style. As a critic he was blinded oftentimes by prejudice and by the limitations of his age. He would banish from poetry whatever disagrees with common sense, and he discredits the higher emotional and imaginative qualities that are poetry's chief glory. In fact, Johnson was the last great champion of the old order. The reign of common sense was coming to a close. Even as he was writing, new agitations were already rife. Absolute as was his literary dictatorship, his throne was reared on the verge of that revolution which begins the modern period of our literary history. The industrial and social England, the rise of which we have suggested, was taking shape between Johnson's arrival in London in 1737 and his death in 1784; new feelings utterly opposed to many of his traditions and prejudices, and alien to his understanding and habits of thought, were quickening into life around him. While he held steadily to the ancient ways, those changes in literary standards had already begun which have led to the reversal of nearly every important dictum uttered by this great literary law-giver in matters of criticism.
And yet, though the influence of Johnson the critic and moralist has waned, that of Johnson the man is