Category Archives: Samuel Johnson

Johnson on Acting

From Boswell, 1783

Johnson, indeed had thought more upon the subject of acting than might be generally supposed. Talking of it one day to Mr. Kemble, he said, “Are you, Sir, one of those enthusiasts who believe yourself transformed into the very character you represent.” Upon Mr. Kemble’s answering that he had never felt so strong a persuasion himself; “To be sure not, Sir, (said Johnson). The thing is impossible. And if Garrick really believed himself to be that monster Richard the Third, he deserved to be hanged every time he performed it.”

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A School Where Every Thing May Be Learnt

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson, speaking of the year 1775.

    Somebody found fault with writing verses in a dead language, maintaining that they were merely arrangements of so many words, and laughed at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for sending forth collections of them not only in Greek and Latin, but even in Syriack, Arabick, and other more unknown tongues. JOHNSON. “I would have as many of these as possible; I would have verses in every language that there are the means of acquiring. Nobody imagines that an University is to have at once two hundred poets; but it should be able to shew two hundred scholars. Pieresc’s death was lamentable, I think, in forty languages. And I would have at every coronation, and every death of a King, every Gaudiam, and every Luctus, University verses in as many languages as can be acquired. I would have the world to be thus told, ‘Here is a school where every thing may be learnt.'”

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Patriotism

One of Johnson’s most well-known pronouncements, in its original context. 1775

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest. I maintained, that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels. Being urged (not by Johnson,) to name one exception, I mentioned an eminent person, whom we all greatly admired. JOHNSON. “Sir, I do not say that he is not honest; but we have no reason to conclude from his political conduct that he is honest. Were he to accept of a place from this ministry, he would lose that character of firmness which he has, and might be turned out of his place in a year. This ministry is neither stable, nor grateful to their friends, as Sir Robert Walpole was: so that he may think it more for his interest to take his chance of his party coming in.”

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On Writing and Reading

Samuel Johnson to Boswell, 1775.

“I once wrote for a magazine: I made a calculation, that if I should write but a page a day, at the same rate, I should, in ten years, write nine volumes in folio, of an ordinary size and print.” BOSWELL. “Such as Carte’s History?” JOHNSON. “Yes, Sir. When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”

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Nothing Too Little

Johnson, in 1763, speaking to Boswell about the latter’s confessing to putting in his journal “too many little incidents.”

 

There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.

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Intellectual Labor

(Back home and back to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, after two weeks in some of the great libraries of the UK. Samuel Johnson in the year 1763:

“Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to attain it.”

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Samuel Johnson on the death of two associates

Letter to the Rev. Mr. Thomas Warton, June 24, 1755

Dear Sir,

To talk of coming to you, and not yet to come, has an air of trifling which I would not willingly have among you; and which, I believe, you will not willingly impute to me, when I have told you, that since my promise, two of our partners are dead, and that I was solicited to suspend my excursion till we could recover from our confusion.

I have not laid aside my purpose; for every day makes me more impatient of staying from you. But death, you know, hears not supplications, nor pays any regard to the convenience of mortals. I hope now to see you next week; but next week is but another name for to-morrow, which has been noted for promising and deceiving.

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