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Johnson 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.” 1
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 so 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 stepdaughter, 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 she. “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
* " Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson,” by Hester Lynch Piozzi, p. 11.—“Life of Dr. Johnson," by Sir John Hawkins, p. 6.
1 Mr. Croker considers this story there is probably a mistake only as to “apocryphal ;" because it turns out that the place, and the child may have ex. Sacheverel was at this time inhibited hibited his precocious enthusiasm at the from preaching, and because Johnson town hall, instead of in the cathedral. could then have been only nine months' - He * kicked her shins," as Johnson old; but as Sacheverel was received told Bishop Percy and Miss Williams.with much state by the corporation, Percy's Letter to Boswell, Nich. Illus, vii. 6 “Prayers and Meditations,” p. 27.
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.” 1
Young Johnson had the misfortune to be much afflicted with the scrophula, or king's evil, which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual 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
* This anecdote of the duck, though disproved by internal and external evidence, has nevertheless, 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 seeds 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 administration; and in an eloquence which conveys their blended illustrations in a language "more tuneable than needs or rhyme or verse to add more harmony.'
“ The above little verses also shew that superstitious 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 suppress it. But, like many other theories, it is deduced from a supposed fact, which is, indeed, a fiction.
1 Additional circumstances in Sir J. Hawkins's version are that the ducklings were his own, and that when the accident happened, he ran to his mother
in great emotion, and bid her write. “ Write!” said she, “what must I write ?"
“Why, write," answered he,
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 observed resembled a cone, he corrected my inaccuracy by shewing 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 Islam, 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 grievous 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
!“ Almighty God, who has restored boy crying at the palace when I went to light to my eye, and enabled me to pur- be touched. Being asked, “On which sue again the studies which Thou has set side of the shop was the counter ?' I before me: Teach me, by the diminu. answered, “On the left from the en. tion of my sight, to remember that what. trance,' many years after, and spoke, not ever I possess is Thy gist, and by its re- by guess, but by memory. We went in covery to hope for mercy."
the stage-coach, and returned in the 3 "This year, in Lent-12, I was waggon, as my mother said, because my taken to London, to be touched for the cough was violent. The hope of saving evil by Queen Anne. My mother was a few shillings was no slighi motive; for at Nicholson's, the famous bookseller, she, not having been accustomed to in Little Britain. My mother, then with money, was afraid of such expense as child, concealed her pregnancy, that she now seems very small. She sewed two might not be hindered from the journey. guineas in her petticoat, lest she should I always retained some memory of this be robbed. We were troublesome to the journey, though I was then but thirty passengers; but to suffer such inconmonths old. I remembered a little dark veniences in the stage-coach was common room behind the kitchen, where the in these days to persons in much higher jack-weight fell through a hole in the rank. I was sick ; one woman fondled floor, into which I once slipped my leg. me, the other was disgusted. She I seem to remember that I played with bought me a small silver cup and spoon, a string and a Dell, which my cousin, marked SAM. I., lest, if they had been Isaac Johnson, gave me ; and that there marked S. I., which was her name, they was a cat with a white collar, and a dog should, upon her death, have been taken called Chops, that leaped over a stick; from me. She bought me a speckled but I know not whether I remember the linen frock, which I knew afterwards by thing, or the talk of it. I remember a the name of my London frock. The
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 said) 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 some odour, that “his mother had not carried him far enough; she 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 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 undermaster 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 severe.3
• “ Anecdotes,” p. 10.
cup was one of the last pieces of plate which dear Tetty sold in our distress. I have now the spoon. She bought at the same time two tea-spoons, and till my manhood she had no more." His anxious mother had previously made another journey with him to Wolverhampton, to consult a physician about his eyes.
* The Corporation of London, ac. cording to Nichols, withdrew their patronage from “Carte's History” in consequence of this allusion, and the book fell into neglect.
2 The school in Dane-street.
“At this time," says the author of the Short Account of Lichfield, “ he had the appearance of idiocy, and the sons of a gentleman in the town were reprimanded for bringing home 'that disagreeable driveller.' On the other hand, when he was being laughed at by the children of a Rev. Mr. Butt, who called him "the great boy,” the father told them he would one day prove a great man.
3 Hunter was a sporting preben. dary in the cathedral. According to Davies, he would “let off” a boy who showed bim where game was.
He used (said he) to beat us unmercifully; and he did not distin. guish 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.”ı
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
· He states, “Autobiog. Frag.," that he was under Hawkins, the usher, years and, perhaps, four months.” As he was transferred from this tutor in the spring of 1719, this would fix the date of his entrance into the school at the beginning of the year 1717, when he was eight years old. He, with his class, were then advanced to the upper school, owing to a complaint that Hunter was neglecting his day-scholars for his more profitable boarders.
“ This was the course of the school,” he writes, “which I remember with pleasure; for I was indulged and caressed by my master, and, I think, really excelled the rest.
At this removal I cried; the rest were indifferent.
I made all the twenty-five exercises, others made but sixteen. I never showed all mine ; five lay long after in a drawer in the shop. I made an exercise in a little time and showed it my mother; but the task being long upon me, she said, . Though you could make an exercise in so short a time, I thought you would find it difficult to make them all as soon as you should.' This Whitsuntide, I and my brother were sent to pass some time at Birmingham; I believe a fort. night. Why such boys were sent to trouble other houses, I cannot tell. My mother had some opinion that much improvement was to be had by changing
the mode of life. My uncle Harrison was a widower, and his house was kept by Sally Ford, a young woman of such sweetness of temper, that I used to say she had no fault. We lived most at uncle Ford's, being much caressed by my aunt, a good-natured, coarse woman, easy of converse, but willing to find something to censure in the absent. My uncle Harrison did not much like us, nor did we like him. He was a very mean and vulgar man, drunk every night, but drunk with little drink; very peevish, very proud, very ostentatious, but, luckily, not rich. At my aunt Ford's I ate so much of a boiled leg of mutton, that she used to talk of it. My mother, who had lived in a narrow sphere, and was then affected by little things, told me seriously that it would hardly ever be forgotten. Her mind, I think, was afterwards much enlarged, or greater evils wore out the care of less. I stayed after the vacation was over some days, and remember, when I wrote home, that I desired the horses to come on Thursday of the first school week, and then, and not till then, they should be welcome to go. I was much pleased with a rattle to my whip, and wrote of it to my mother. When my father came to fetch us home, he told the ostler that he had twelve miles home, and two boys under his care. This offended me."