Hume had written in 1741: “We have no dictionary of our language, and scarcely a tolerable grammar.”18 He was mistaken, for Nathaniel Bailey had published An Universal Etymological English Dictionary in 1721, and this had had predecessors semi-lexicographical. The proposal for a new dictionary was apparently made by Robert Dodsley in the presence of Johnson, who said, “I believe I shall not undertake it.”19 But when other booksellers joined Dodsley in offering Johnson £ 1,575 if he would assume the obligation, he signed the contract, June 18, 1746.

After much rumination he drew up a thirty-four-page Flan for a Dictionary of the English Language, and had it printed. He sent this to several persons, among them Lord Chesterfield, then secretary of state, with some hopeful praise of the Earl’s excellence in English and other departments. Chesterfield invited him to call. Johnson did; the Earl gave him ten pounds and a word of encouragement. Later Johnson called again, was kept waiting an hour, left in anger, and abandoned the idea of dedicating his work to Chesterfield.

He went to his task leisurely, then more diligently, for his fee was meted out to him in installments. When he reached the word lexicographer he defined it as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge . . .” He had hoped to finish in three years; he took nine. In 1749 he moved to Gough Square, off Fleet Street. He hired—and himself paid for—five or six secretaries, and set them to work in a third-floor room. He read the recognized English authors of the century from 1558 to 1660—from the accession of Elizabeth I to that of Charles II; he believed that the English language had in that period reached its highest excellence, and he proposed to take that Elizabethan-Jacobean speech as a standard by which to establish good usage. He drew a line under each sentence that he proposed to quote as illustrating the use of a word, and noted in the margin the first letter of the word to be defined. His aides were instructed to copy each marked sentence on a separate slip, and insert this at its alphabetical place in Bailey’s dictionary, which served as a starting point and guide.

During these nine years he took many holidays from definitions. Sometimes he found it easier to write a poem than to define a word. On January 9, 1749, he issued a twelve-page poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes. Like the London of a decade earlier, it was in form an imitation of Juvenal, but it spoke with a power that was his own. He still resented his poverty, and Chesterfield’s neglect:

There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail—
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the gaol.

How vain are the warrior’s victories! See Charles XII of Sweden:

He left the name, at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.20

How foolish, then, to pray for long life when we see the vanity, deceptions, and pains of old age: the mind wandering in repeated anecdotes, fortune shaking with every day’s events, children scheming for a legacy and mourning death’s delay, while “unnumbered maladies the joints invade, lay siege to life, and press the dire blockade.”21 From vain hopes and sure decay there is only one escape: prayer, and faith in a redeeming, rewarding God.

Yet this pessimist had happy moments. On February 6, 1749, Garrick staged Irene. It was a great event for Johnson; he washed himself, bound his paunch in a scarlet waistcoat trimmed with gold lace, flourished a hat likewise adorned, and watched his friend play Mohammed II to Mrs. Cibber’s Irene. The tragedy ran for nine nights, and brought Johnson £200; it was never revived, but Dodsley gave him another £ 100 for the copyright. He was now (1749) sufficiently famous and opulent to found a club: not TheClub, which came fifteen years later, but the “Ivy Lane Club,” so named from the street where, at the King’s Head Tavern, Johnson, Hawkins, and seven others met on Tuesday evenings to eat beefsteak and to barter prejudices. “Thither,” said Johnson, “I constantly resorted.”22

Every Tuesday and Friday from March 21, 1750, to March 14, 1752, he wrote a little essay published by Cave as The Rambler, for which he received four guineas a week. The essays sold fewer than five hundred copies, and Cave lost money on the venture, but when they were collected into a book they achieved twelve editions before Johnson’s death. Shall we confess that the only numbers that we found interesting are 170 and 171,23 in which Johnson made a prostitute point a moral and adorn her tale? Critics complained that the style and vocabulary were too sesquipedalianly Latinesque; but Boswell, between sins, found comfort in Johnson’s exhortations to piety.24

Johnson was under special strain in those years, for his mind was fatigued by definitions, and his spirits were depressed by the deterioration of his wife. “Tetty” calmed the pains of age and solitude with alcohol and opium. Often she kept Johnson from her bed.25He rarely took her with him when he dined out. Dr. Taylor, who knew both of them intimately, said she “was the plague of Johnson’s life, was abominably drunken and despicable in every way, and Johnson frequently complained … of his situation with such a wife.”26 Her death (March 28, 1752) made him forget her faults, and he developed a post-mortem uxoriousness that amused his friends. He extolled her virtues, lamented his loneliness, and hoped she would intercede for him with Christ.27 “He told me,” Boswell recalled, “that he generally went abroad at four in the afternoon, and seldom came home till two in the morning. … His place of frequent resort was the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, where he loved to sit up late.”28

To be alone was terror. So Johnson, after his wife’s death, took into his Gough Square home (1752) Anna Williams, a Welsh poetess who was losing her sight. An operation to cure her failed, and she became completely blind. Except for short intervals she stayed with Johnson till her death (1783), superintending the household and the kitchen, and carving the roast—and judging the fullness of cups with no other guide than her fingers. To care for his more intimate needs Johnson (1753) took a Negro servant, Frank Barber, who remained with him twenty-nine years. Johnson sent him to school, labored to have him learn Latin and Greek, and left him a substantial legacy. To complete the establishment Johnson invited a derelict doctor, Robert Levett, to live with him (1760). The three formed a quarrelsome ménage, but Johnson was thankful for their company.

In January, 1755, he sent the final sheets of the Dictionary to the printer, who thanked God that he was nearly finished with such a job and such a man. News of the approaching publication reached Chesterfield, who hoped for a dedication. He tried to atone for his former invisibility by writing, for a magazine, two articles hailing the expected work, and praising Johnson as one whom he would be glad to accept as dictator of good English usage. The proud author sent the Earl (February 7, 1755) a letter which Carlyle described as “that far-famed Blast of Doom proclaiming that patronage should be no more”:


I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of The World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the Publick, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honor, which, being little accustomed to favors from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge. . . .

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward room, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before. . . .

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less. For I have been long wakened from that dream of hope in which I once boasted myself, with so much exaltation,

My Lord,
Your Lordship’s most humble,
Most obedient servant,

Chesterfield’s only comment on the letter was that it was “very well written.” And indeed it is a masterpiece of eighteenth-century prose, quite free from the Latin derivatives that had sometimes clogged and burdened Johnson’s style. Its author must have felt and pondered it deeply, for he recited it to Boswell from memory twenty-six years later.30 It was not published till after Johnson’s death. Presumably his resentment discolored his condemnation of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son— that “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”31

Johnson went up to Oxford early in 1755, partly to consult the libraries, but also to suggest to his friend Thomas Warton that it would help float the Dictionary if its author could put a degree after his name. Warton managed it, and in March Johnson was made an honorary Master of Arts. So at last the Dictionary was published, in two large folio volumes of almost 2,300 pages, priced at four pounds ten. In ending the preface Johnson proclaimed that

the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amid inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow; and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed.... I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds; I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or praise.

The critics could not be expected to realize that Johnson’s Dictionary marked a crest and watershed in the English literature of the eighteenth century, as the Encyclop édie (1751-72) of Diderot and d’Alembert marked a crest and turning point in the literature of France. Much fun was made of incidental defects in Johnson’s work. Among the forty thousand entries there were oddities like gentilitious and sygilate (which are respectfully preserved by Webster). There were angry definitions like that of pension: “An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” Or excise: “a hateful tax on commodities.” There were personal quirks, as in the definition of oats: “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”—which was quite true. Boswell asked Johnson “if civilization was a word; he said No, but civility was.”32 Many of Johnson’s etymologies are now rejected; he had much Latin and less Greek, but was poorly acquainted with modern languages; he admitted frankly that etymology was his weak point.33 He defined pastern as “the knee of a horse” (it is part of a horse’s foot); when a lady asked him how he came to make such a mistake he answered, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.”34 In so large a work, whose every page gave a dozen openings to error, he could not escape missteps.

Johnson’s achievement was appreciated abroad. The French Academy sent him a copy of its Dictionnaire, and the Accademia della Crusca of Florence sent him its Vocabulario.35 The Dictionary sold well enough to please the booksellers, who paid Johnson to prepare an abbreviated edition. The larger form remained standard until Noah Webster replaced it in 1828. It placed Johnson at the head of English authors in his time; he actually acquired, except for aristocrats like Horace Walpole, a dictatorship over English letters. The reign of the “Great Cham of Literature” began.*

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