Pembroke College, Oxford
Chapter 1- Childhood and adolescence
The first chapter of Boswell's Life of Johnson takes some sound reading. The witty dialogue and descriptions of Dr Johnson and his colourful life in London come later.
We learn that Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 in Lichfield. The town has a strong history of producing literary types, as the website Enjoy England describes:
Lichfield lies just north of Birmingham and is surrounded by Staffordshire countryside with a long and rich history. Famous for its three-spired, magnificent cathedral, it has been home to some of Britain's much loved and respected dignitaries such as the writer and wit, Samuel Johnson, actor and playwright David Garrick and Erasmus Darwin, inventor, scientist and grandfather of Charles Darwin.
From the beginning, Boswell wishes to describe the nature of Samuel Johnson’s depression, which he links to Johnson's fathers predisposition to the illness: an admirable description of the nature of the malady:
“there was in him a mixture of that disease, the nature of which eludes the most minute enquiry, though the effects are well known to be a weariness of life, an unconcern about those things which agitate the greater part of mankind, and a general sensation of gloomy wretchedness.”
Dr Johnson's father, Michael, was a bookseller, his mother, Sarah Ford, was "a woman of distinguished understanding". She was also devoutly religious. Boswell cites early examples of Johnson's powerful intellect:
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 more than twice
Boswell does not dwell too long on Johnson's early childhood, but soon moves onto boyhood and education: Dame Oliver, who kept a school for young children at Lichfield, and then Latin with Mr Hawkins, and then the harsher Mr Hunter, who sounds like the stereo-type of a flogging-teacher, ruling by fear, but Johnson later expressed respect for the man, explaining that there was a consistency in the way he treated the students that did not lead to resentment. From a distance of 250 years, this seems improbable, but we can only rely on Dr Johnson's own view.
Only the very wealthy or the very intelligent attended a university in the 18th century, and the latter only if fortune favoured them. For Samuel Johnson, his opportunity came about through the assistance of friends:
That a man in Mr. Michael Johnson's circumstances should think of sending his son to the expensive University of Oxford, at his own charge, seems very improbable. The subject was too delicate to question Johnson upon. But I have been assured by Dr. Taylor that the scheme
never would have taken place had not a gentleman of Shropshire, one of his schoolfellows, spontaneously undertaken to support him at Oxford, in the character of his companion; though, in fact, he never received any assistance whatever from that gentleman
Johnson attended Pembroke College at Oxford in 1728 and 1729, but suffered from poverty and an acute episode of depression.
Nonetheless, Johnson read voraciously:
From his earliest years he loved to read poetry, but hardly ever read any poem to an end; that he read Shakespeare at a period so early, that the speech of the ghost in Hamlet terrified him when he was alone; that Horace's Odes were the compositions in which he took most delight, and it was long before he liked his Epistles and Satires. He told me what he read solidly at Oxford was Greek; not the Grecian historians, but Homer and Euripides, and now and then a little Epigram; that the study of which he was the most fond was Metaphysicks, but he had not read much, even in that way.
Boswell here shows some of the insight which later graces other parts of his book. He observes that Dr Adams told him "that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, "was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicsome fellow, and passed the happiest part of his life". But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real internal state even of those whom we see frequently."
Dr Johnson did not take a degree, and left Oxford in 1729.