Samuel Johnson

Freya Johnston at the LRB:

To read his life in his work – to see that work as bearing the imprint of an existence that was, in Johnson’s words, ‘radically wretched’ as well as triumphant – is to attempt the kind of biographical criticism at which Johnson himself excelled, which he might indeed be said to have invented in the Lives of the Poets. He might also be said, posthumously, to have suffered from it, since the grip of Boswell’s vivid and brilliantly idiosyncratic account of his friend on readers’ imaginations was so immediate and so tenacious that it quickly came to seem bigger and more compelling than the work itself. The astonishing range of that work is fairly represented in David Womersley’s selection: poetry (in Latin and English), fiction, sermons, lectures, journalism, literary criticism, political pamphlets, a fairy tale, a travelogue, biographies, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and the dictionary. By giving each of them due weight, this superb new edition – a slab of a book – suggests a way of putting Johnson’s life and his writing back together again. In the first few pages, we find four schoolboy translations of Horace put alongside an early poem called ‘Festina Lente’, thirty lines of verse on the doomed hopes of ‘The Young Author’, and one of the little prose memorials he occasionally composed to soothe himself, this one recording his mother’s ‘difficult and dangerous labour’. Womersley’s positioning of these texts, based on attested dates of composition rather than publication, possesses biographical and critical coherence, providing the reader with a sense of Johnson’s exceptional versatility in public and private life.

more here.