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was informed that it so preyed upon her mind that her life was in danger, he with a generous humanity went to her and offered to marry her, but it was then too late: her vital power was exhausted; and she actually exhibited one of the very rare instances of dying for love. She was buried in the cathedral of Lichfield; and he, with a tender regard, placed a stone over her grave with this inscription :
Here lies the body of
She departed this life
20 of September, 1694. Johnson's mother was a woman of distinguished understanding. I asked his old school-fellow, Mr. Hector, surgeon of Birmingham, if she was not vain of her son.
He said, • she had too much good sense to be vain, but she knew her son's value.' Her piety was not inferiour to her understanding; and to her must be ascribed those early impressions of religion upon the mind of her son, from which the world afterwards derived so much benefit. He told me, that he remembered distinctly having had the first notice of Heaven, 'a place to which good people went,' and hell, a place to which bad people went,' communicated to him by her, when a little child in bed with her'; and that it might be the better fixed in his memory, she sent him to repeat it to Thomas Jackson, their man-servant; he not being in the way, this was not done; but there was no occasion for any artificial aid for its preservation.
In following so very eminent a man from his cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting. That he was remarkable, even in his earliest years, may easily be supposed; for to use his own words in his Life of Sydenham,
1 I remember, that being in bed with my mother one morning, I was told by her of the two places to which the inhabitants of this world were received after death : one a fine place filled with happiness, called Heaven; the other, a sad place, called Hell. That this account much affected my imagination I do not remember. Annals, p. 19.
Anecdotes of Johnson's childhood.
'That the strength of his understanding, the accuracy of his discernment, and ardour of his curiosity, might have been remarked from his infancy, by a diligent observer, there is no reason to doubt. For, there is no instance of any man, whose history has been minutely related, that did not in every part of life discover the same proportion of intellectual vigour?'
In all such investigations it is certainly unwise to pay too much attention to incidents which the credulous relate with eager satisfaction, and the more scrupulous or witty enquirer considers only as topicks of ridicule: Yet there is a traditional story of the infant Hercules of toryism, so curiously. characteristick, that I shall not withhold it. It was communicated to me in a letter from Miss Mary Adye, of Lichfield:
When Dr. Sacheverel was at Lichfield, Johnson was not quite three years old. My grandfather Hammond observed him at the cathedral perched upon his father's shoulders, listening and gaping at the much celebrated preacher. Mr. Hammond asked Mr. 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?'
Johnson's Works, vi. 406. ? Mr. Croker disbelieves the story altogether. “Sacheverel,' he says, ‘by his sentence pronounced in Feb. 1710, was interdicted for three years from preaching; so that he could not have preached at Lichfield while Johnson was under three years of age. Sacheverel, indeed, made a triumphal progress through the midland counties in 1710; and it appears by the books of the corporation of Lichfield that he was received in that town, and complimented by the attendance of the corporation, “and a present of three dozen of wine,” on June 16, 1910; but then “the infant Hercules of Toryism” was just nine months old. It is quite possible that the story is in the main correct. Sacheverel was received in Lichfield in 1710 on his way down to Shropshire to take possession of a living. At the end of the suspension in March 1713 he preached a sermon in London, for which, as he told Swift, 'a bookseller gave him £100, intending to print 30,000' (Swift's
Johnson's infant precocity.
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 school-mistress, 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 power 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 step-daughter, 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 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
Journal to Stella, April 2, 1713). It is likely enough that either on his way up to town or on his return journey he preached at Lichfield. In the spring of 1713 Johnson was three years old.
See post, p. 56, and April 25, 1778, note; and Boswell's Hebrides, Oct. 28, 1773.
? Anecdotes of Dr. Johnson, by Hester Lynch Piozzi, p. II. Life of Dr. Johnson, by Sir John Hawkins, p. 6. BOSWELL.
Johnson's infant precocity.
upon a duckling, the eleventh 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.My father had much vanity which his adversity hindered from being fully exerted. Annals, p. 14.
* 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 of Miss Seward, amongst the communications concerning Dr. Johnson with which she has been pleased to favour me: 'These infant numbers contain the seed 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.
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 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
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. BOSWELL. · Prayers and Meditations, p. 27. BOSWELL.
Speaking himself of the imperfection of one of his eyes, he said to Dr. Burney, 'the dog was never good for much.' MALONE.
• Boswell's Hebrides, Sept. 1, 1773.
4.No accidental position of a riband,' wrote Mrs. Piozzi, escaped him, so nice was his observation, and so rigorous his demands of propriety' Piozzi's Anec. p. 287. Miss Burney says :- Notwithstanding Johnson is sometimes so absent and always so near-sighted, he scrutinizes into every part of almost everybody's appearance (at Streatham).' And again she writes :—His blindness is as much the effect of absence [of mind) as of infirmity, for he sees wonderfully at times. He can see the colour of a lady's top-knot, for he often finds fault with it.' Mme. D'Arblay's Diary, i. 85, ii. 174. He could, when well, distinguish the hour on Lichfield town-clock. Post, p. 74.