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Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: Criticism on Principle

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Dr Johnson’s witty and penetrating critical biographies of the great and good

By 1779, Samuel Johnson had attained that title by which he would become familiarly known: ‘Dr Johnson’. He wasn’t ‘doctored’ when he completed his most defining work (‘defining’ in every sense), the Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. But when he came to write his Lives of the Poets, just five years before his death, he had become the era’s most celebrated man of letters, with an annual pension from the state to honour his services to scholarship and literature, and a reputation – and, indeed, a celebrity status – that continues to dwarf that of all other eighteenth-century writers. Who can picture Henry Fielding, or envisage Samuel Richardson? But Johnson, with his one-line pronouncements on everything from London to literature, death to dictionaries, remains remarkably alive to us. Read the rest of this entry


December 13 in Literary History: Samuel Johnson Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 13th of December

1784: Samuel Johnson dies. Among the books he planned to write, but died before he got a chance to undertake them, Dr Johnson listed a cookbook set out ‘upon philosophical principles’ and a history of his melancholy. He did, of course, manage to complete his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a book that is often very funny, as well as being informative, scholarly, and educational.  Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about Samuel Johnson

The life of Dr Johnson, told through five pieces of biographical trivia

1. Samuel Johnson was known to drink up to 25 cups of tea in one sitting. Johnson (1709-84) took his eating and drinking seriously, as his prodigious tea habit testifies. According to his first – and still most celebrated – biographer, James Boswell, ‘Doctor’ Johnson (he only acquired the first of his honorary doctorates in 1765, ten years after his famous dictionary was published) would refuse to listen to anyone else at the dinner table until he had satisfied his appetite, ‘which was so fierce, and indulged with such intenseness, that while in the act of eating, the veins of his forehead swelled, and generally a strong perspiration was visible.’ Johnson is reckoned to have been an alcoholic, too. These days, we might say he had an addictive personality: addicted to drink (possibly), to eating, to reading (ever since he first read and fell under the spell of Hamlet as an eight year-old, while living above his father’s bookshop in Lichfield), and – above all – to work. He also collected orange peel, possibly for some (unknown) medicinal remedy. (When Boswell pressed him for more details, the good doctor replied, ‘Nay, Sir, you shall know their fate no further.’) Read the rest of this entry