Friday, 18 September 2009

Johnson, Boswell & Knowledge for All

Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. Lichfield, the cathedral city in Staffordshire where he was born, hosts a weekend of celebrations beginning in the Market Square at 5.30pm this evening. His London House, at Gough Square in the City of London is free to enter all day. Cake will be available.

High Church Anglican, Tory, moralist, Londoner, lexicographer, tea drinker, xenophobe, Shakespearean, satirist, conversationalist: there is much to admire in Johnson’s prodigious output.

His Preface to Shakespeare remains the best introduction to the Bard; his curious novella Rasselas, echoes contemporary concerns about the strangeness of the ‘other’; his essays in The Rambler and his sketches of a familiarly venal Parliament remain as incisive and witty as when they were cast.

But it is The Life, brilliantly documented by his companion James Boswell, that is the true measure of this remarkable man. Having made his way to London on foot in the company of the aspiring actor David Garrick, Johnson knew long periods of poverty before acclaim and public honour came his way. He never lost his compassion and sympathy for his fellow man, the belief that knowledge should be available to all who sought it. There are many examples of this humanity, but one will suffice, an extract from Boswell’s The Life:

‘On Saturday July 30 [1763], Dr Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education.
JOHNSON: ‘Most certainly, sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it’.
‘And yet (said I) people go through the world very well, and carery on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’
JOHNSON: ‘Why, sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’
He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’
‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’
Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare.
Dr Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

Today, raise a cup of his favourite cha to the Great Cham.

On the tercentenary of the famous London writer’s birth, Peter Martin celebrates the legacy of a man admired for his insight and humanity, qualities forged in the darker and less well analysed episodes of his life.

From our September 2009 Issue

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