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There is a circumstance in his life fomewhat romantick, but fo well authenticated, that I shall not omit it. A young woman of Leek, in Staffordshire, while he served his apprenticeship there, conceived a violent passion for him ; and though it met with no favourable return, followed him to Lichfield, where she took lodgings opposite to the house in which he lived, and indulged her hopeless fame. When he was informed that it so preyed upon her mind that her life was in danger, he with a generous humanity went to her and offered to marry her, but it was then too late : Her vital power was exhaufted; and the actually exhibited one of the very rare instances of dying for love. She was buried in the cathedral of Lichfield; and he, with a tender regard, placed a stone over her grave with this inscription:
Here lies the body of
She departed this life
Johnson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I afked his old school-fellow Mr. Hector, surgeon, of Birmingham, if she was not vain of her son. He said, “ she had too much good sense to be vain, but The knew her fon's value." Her piety was not inferiour to her understanding; and to her must be ascribed those early impressions of religion upon the mind of her son, from which the world afterwards derived so much benefit. He told me, that he remembered distinctly having had the first notice of Heaven “ a place to which good people went,” and Hell “ a place to which bad people went,” communicated to him by her, when a little child in bed with her; and that it might be the better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson, their man-servant. He not being in the way, this was not done ; but there was no occasion for any artificial aid for its preservation.
In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting. That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may easily be supposed; for to use his own words in his Life of Sydenham, “That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from his infancy, by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For, there is no instance of any man,
whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life
In all such investigations it is certainly unwise to pay too much attention
• When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three years old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon his father's shoulders, listening, and gaping at the much celebrated preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. Johnfon how he could possibly think of bringing such an infant to church, and in the midst of so great a croud.. He answered, because it was impossible to keep him at home ; for, young as, he was, he believed he had caught the publick spirit and zeal for Sacheverel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him.”
Nor can I omit a little instance of that jealous independence of spirit, and impetuosity of temper, which never forsook him. The fact was acknowledged to me by himself, upon the authority of his mother. One day, when the servant who used to be sent to school to conduct him home, had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then fo near-sighted, that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees to take a view of the kennel before he ventured to step over it. His schoolmistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the kennel, or be run over by, a cart, followed him at some distance. He happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat her, as well as his strength would permit..
Of the strength of his memory, for which he was all his life eminent to a degree almost incredible, the following, early instance was told me in his presence at Lichfield, in 1776, by his step-daughter, Mrs. Lucy Porter, as related to her by his mother. When he was a child in petticoats, and had learnt to read; Mrs. Johnson one morning put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the collect for the day, and said, “Sam, you must get this by heart.” She went up stairs, leaving him to study it :. But by the time she had reached the second floor, she heard him following her. “What's the matter?” said the. “I can say it,” he replied; and repeated it distinctly, though he could not have read it over more than twice.
But there has been another story of his infant precocity generally circulated, and generally believed, the truth of which I am to refute upon his own authority. It is told', that, when a child of three years old, he chanced to tread upon a duckling, the eleventh of a brood, and killed it; upon which, it is said, he dictated to his mother the following epitaph :
“ Here lies good master duck,
Whom Samuel Johnson trod on;
For then we'd had an odd one."
There is surely internal evidence that this little composition combines in it, what no child of three years old could produce, without an extension of its faculties by immediate inspiration ; yet Mrs, Lucy Porter, Dr. Johnson's step-daughter, positively maintained to me, in his presence, that there could be no doubt of the truth of this anecdote, for she had heard it from his mother. So difficult is it to obtain an authentick relation of facts, and such authority may there be for errour; for he assured me, that his father made the verses, and wished to pass them for his child's. He added, “ my father was a foolish old man; that is to say, foolish in talking of his children'."
Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the scrophula, or king's evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and
, Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson by Hester Lynch Piozzi, p. 11.--Life of Dr. Johnson by Sir John Hawkins. p. 6.
• This anecdote of the duck, though disproved by internal and external evidence, has never. theless, upon supposition of its truth, been made the foundation of the following ingenious and fanciful reflections by Miss Seward, amongst the communications concerning Dr. Johnson with which she has been pleased to favour me." These infant numbers contain the feeds of those propensities which through his life so strongly marked his character, of that poetick talent which afterwards bore such rich and plentiful fruits.; for, excepting his orthographick works, every thing which Dr. Johnson wrote was Poetry, whose essence consists not in numbers, or in jingle, but in the strength and glow of a fancy, to which all the stores of nature and of art stand in prompt adminiftration ; and in an eloquence which conveys their blended illustrations in a language
more tuneable than needs or shyme or verse to add more harmony.' « The above little verses also shew that fuperftitious bias which grew with his growth, and strengthened with his strength,' and of late years particularly injured his happiness, by presenting to him the gloomy side of religion, rather than that bright and cheering one which gilds the period of closing life, with the light of pious hope."
This is so beautifully imagined, that I would not fappress it. But, like many other theories, it is deduced from a supposed fact, which is, indeed, a fiction. C 2
hurt 3 Anecdotes, p. 10.
hurt his vifual nerves so much, that he did not see at all with one of his eyes, though its appearance was little different from that of the other. There is amongst his prayers, one inscribed “When my eye was restored to its use?,” which ascertains a defect that many of his friends knew he had, though I never perceived it. I supposed him to be only near-sighted; and indeed I must observe, that in no other respect could I discern any defect in his vision; on the contrary, the force of his attention and perceptive quickness made him see and distinguish all manner of objects, whether of nature or of art, with a nicety that is rarely to be found. When he and I were travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, and I pointed out to him a mountain which I obterved resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy by fhewing me, that it was indeed pointed at the top, but that one side of it was larger than the other. And the ladies with whom he was acquainted agree, that no man was more nicely and minutely critical in the elegance of female dress. When I found that he saw the romantick beauties of Inam, in Derbyshire, much better than I did, I told him that he resembled an able performer upon a bad instrument.
How false and contemptible then are all the remarks which have been made to the prejudice either of his candour or of his philosophy, founded upon a supposition that he was almost blind. It has been said, that he contracted this grie vous malady from his nurse. His mother yielding to the superstitious notion, which, it is wonderful to think, prevailed so long in this country, as to the · virtue of the regal touch; a notion, which our kings encouraged, and to which a man of such inquiry and such judgement as Carte could give credit ; carried him to London, where he was actually touched by Queen Anne. Mrs. Johnson indeed, as Mr. Hector informed me, acted by the advice of the celebrated Sir John Floyer, then a physician in Lichfield. Johnson used to talk of this very frankly; and Mrs. Piozzi has preserved his very picturesque description of the scene, as it remained upon his fancy. Being asked if he could remember Queen Anne, “ He had (he faid) a confused, but somehow a sort of solemn recollection of a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood ?." This touch, however, was without any effect. I ventured to say to him, in allusion to the political principles in which he was educated, and of which he ever retained fome odour, that “ his mother had not carried him far enough ; The should have taken him to Rome.”
He was first taught to read English by Dame Oliver, a widow, who kept a school for young children in Lichfield. He told me she could read the • Prayers and Meditations, p. 27.
black letter, and asked him to borrow for her, from his father, a bible in that character. When he was going to Oxford, she came to take leave of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of gingerbread, and said he was the best scholar she had ever had. He delighted in mentioning this early compliment; adding, with a smile, that “this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive.” His next instructor in English was a master, whom, when he spoke of him to me, he familiarly called Tom Brown, who, said he,“ published a spelling-book, and dedicated it to the UNIVERSE ;-but, I fear, no copy of it can now be had.”
He began to learn Latin with Mr. Hawkins, usher, or under-master of Lichfield school, “a man (said he) very skilful in his little way.” With him he continued two years, and then rose to be under the care of Mr, Hunter the head-master, who, according to his account, “ was very severe, and wrong-headedly fevere. He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence; for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it. He would ask a boy a question ; and if he did not answer it, he would beat him, without considering whether he had an opportunity of knowing how to answer it. For instance, he would call up a boy and ask him Latin for a candlestick, which the boy could not expect to be asked. Now, Sir, if a boy could answer every question, there would be no need of a master to teach him."
It is, however, but justice to the memory of Mr. Hunter to mention, that though he might err in being too severe, the school of Lichfield was very respectable in his time. The late Dr. Taylor, Prebendary of Westminster, who was educated under him, told me, that he was an excellent master, and that his ushers were most of them men of eminence; that Holbrook, one of the most ingenious men, best scholars, and best preachers of his age, was usher during the greatest part of the time that Johnson was at school. Then came Hague, of whom as much might be said, with the addition that he was an elegant poet. Hague was succeeded by Green, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, whose character in the learned world is well known. In the same form with Johnson was Congreve, who afterwards became chaplain to Archbishop Boulter, and by that connection obtained good preferment in Ireland. He was a younger fon of the ancient family of Congreve, in Staffordshire, of which the poet was a branch. His brother fold the estate. There was also