Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1728

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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
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 school-fellows, 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.

He, however, went to Oxford, and was entered a Commoner of Pembroke College, on the 31st of October, 1728, being then in his nineteenth year.

The Reverend Dr. Adams, who afterwards presided over Pembroke College with universal esteem, told me he was present, and gave me some account of what passed on the night of Johnson's arrival at Oxford. On that evening, his father, who had anxiously accompanied him, found means to have him introduced to Mr. Jorden, who was to be his tutor. His being put under any tutor, reminds us of what Wood says of Robert Burton, authour of the “Anatomy of Melancholy,” when elected student of Christ Church; “for form's sake, though he wanted not a tutor, he was put under the tuition of Dr. John Bancroft, afterwards Bishop of Oxon.”1

His father seemed very full of the merits of his son, and told the company he was a good scholar, and a poet, and wrote Latin verses. His figure and manner appeared strange to them; but he behaved modestly, and sat silent, till upon something which occurred in the course of conversation, he suddenly struck in and quoted Macrobius; and thus he gave the first impression of that more extensive reading in which he had indulged himself.

His tutor, Mr. Jorden, fellow of Pembroke, was not, it seems, a man of such abilities as we should conceive requisite for the instructor of Samuel Johnson, who gave me the following account of him. “He was a very worthy man, but a heavy man, and I did not profit much by his instructions. Indeed, I did not attend him much. The first day after I came to college, I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered, I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now2 talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor.” BOSWELL. “That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind.” JOHNSON. “No, Sir, stark insensibility.”3

The fifth of November was at that time kept with great solemnity at Pembroke College, and exercises upon the subject of the day were required. Johnson neglected to perform his, which is much to be regretted; for his vivacity of imagination, and force of language, would probably have produced something sublime upon the gunpowder plot. To apologise for his neglect, he gave in a short copy of verses, intitled Somnium, containing a common thought; “that the Muse had come to him in his sleep, and whispered, that it did not become him to write on such subjects as politicks; he should confine himself to humbler themes:” but the versification was truly Virgilian.

He had a love and respect for Jorden, not for his literature, but for his worth. “Whenever (said he) a young man becomes Jorden's pupil, he becomes his son.”

Having given such a specimen of his poetical powers, he was asked by Mr. Jorden, to translate Pope's Messiah into Latin verse, as a Christmas exercise. He performed it with uncommon rapidity, and in so masterly a manner, that he obtained great applause from it, which ever after kept him high in the estimation of his College, and, indeed, of all the University.

It is said, that Mr. Pope expressed himself concerning it in terms of strong approbation. Dr. Taylor told me, that it was first printed for old Mr. Johnson, without the knowledge of his son, who was very angry when he heard of it. A Miscellany of Poems collected by a person of the name of Husbands, was published at Oxford in 1731. In that Miscellany Johnson's translation of the Messiah appeared, with this modest motto from Scaliger's Poeticks, "Ex alieno ingenio Poeta, ex suo tantum versificator.”

I am not ignorant that critical objections have been made to this and other specimens of Johnson's Latin Poetry. I acknowledge myself not competent to decide on a question of such extreme nicety. But I am satisfied with the just and discriminative eulogy pronounced upon it by my friend Mr. Courtenay.
 “And with like ease his vivid lines assume The garb and
dignity of ancient Rome. -- Let college verse-men trite
conceits express, Trick'd out in splendid shreds of Virgil's
dress.  From playful Ovid cull the tinsel phrase, And vapid
notions hitch in pilfer'd lays; Then with mosaick art the piece
combine, And boast the glitter of each dulcet line:  Johnson
adventur'd boldly to transfuse His vigorous sense into the Latin
muse; Aspir'd to shine by unreflected light, And with a Roman's
ardour think and write.  He felt the tuneful Nine his
breast inspire, And, like a master, wak'd the soothing lyre:
Horatian strains a grateful heart proclaim, While Sky's wild
rocks resound his Thralia's name. -- Hesperia's plant, in some
less skilful hands.  To bloom a while, factitious heat demands:
Though glowing Maro a faint warmth supplies, The sickly blossom
in the hot-house dies:  By Johnson's genial culture, art, and
toil, Its root strikes deep, and owns the fost'ring soil;
Imbibes our sun through all its swelling veins, And grows a
native of Britannia's plains.”4 

Notes

1. Athen. Oxon. edit. 1721, i. 627.

2. Oxford, 20th March 1776.

3. It ought to be remembered, that Dr. Johnson was apt, in his literary as well as moral exercises, to overcharge his defects. Dr. Adams informed me, that he attended his tutor's lectures, and also the lectures in the College Hall, very regularly.

4. Poetical Review of the Literary and Moral Character of Dr. Johnson, by John Courtenay, Esq. M.P.