Samuel Johnson

Happy birthday to Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell enjoying Edinburgh

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell enjoying Edinburgh

… about whom I once wrote a little poem.

By the way, did you hear the apocryphal story about when Johnson was asked by a Scot what he thought of Scotland (that land ‘where there is nothing to be got’ and there exists ‘a diffusion of learning’)?

His reply: ‘That it is a very vile country, to be sure, Sir’.

To which the young Scot rejoined, ‘Well, Sir! God made it’.

‘Certainly he did’, quipped Johnson, ‘but we must always remember that he made it for Scotchmen, and comparisons are odious, Mr. S——; but God made hell’.

Ouch! Of course, the Londoner had himself made a pleasant enough journey to Scotland once, in 1773 with James Boswell, very much enjoying the women and the ‘little Highland steed[s]’, but concluding from their three-month holiday (their twin accounts were subsequently published as The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) that ‘the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!’

Scottifying the Palate from ‘Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First’, etched by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786 (etching) Samuel Collings—Read

‘Scottifying the Palate’, from Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First. Etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786.

Samuel Johnson, 1709–84

'Samuel Johnson', by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas, 1756–1757. 1276 mm x 1016 mm. National Portrait Gallery, London.

‘Samuel Johnson’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas, 1756–1757. 1276 mm x 1016 mm. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The small off-white cardboard
plaque says that you were
plagued with nervous tics,
a victim of melancholia, and
a bit of a gasbag.
That may be true.
But Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92)
has made you appear
already in your Hades;
ashen, and clad in rags
already the colour of
the dust (of which you were formed
and to which you have long returned),
and all but abandoned for the
company of friends who gave you life;
and forgotten but for
the Dictionary that bears your name.
Certainly, you now hang alongside
a most uninteresting tribe,
and unaware, it seems, that
the adventurous and handsome Joseph Banks
hangs not 30 metres from you
in the next room, and that
the inspiring Charles Kingsley – and his fishing pole –
hangs on the wall in the room above.

– Jason Goroncy