Category Archives: Samuel Johnson

“On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”



Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting Nature called for aid,
And hovering Death prepared the blow,
His vigorous remedy displayed
The power of art without the show.

In Misery’s darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish poured his groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mocked by chill delay,
No petty gain disdained by pride,
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way.


— Samuel Johnson, “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”





Robert Levet (1705–1782), described in an obituary as “a practitioner in physic,” was an unlicensed medical practitioner in London during the eighteenth century. Levet was befriended by Samuel Johnson. He lived in Johnson’s home for many years. He practiced medicine among the poor and destitute of London, for modest fees.





A few observations on the poem, and a few platitudes of my own. It is good — following the example and preaching of Jesus — to assist, and not to shun, the needy and downtrodden; and it is good — as exemplified not only by Levet, but by Johnson, in befriending Levet (who was regarded by some of Johnson’s friends as being coarse in manner and who was of humble origins himself) — to show kindness and solicitude for those whom one encounters in the byways, so to speak, of daily life, on our journey through it.

This is essentially what the poem says to me. I could relate it to my own experience and, for me, that matters a lot when it comes to reading and literature.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2020

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”



This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny, that we shall be less happy if we were conquered by the French. The intention of the author is undoubtedly good, but his labour is superfluous at a time when all ranks of people are unanimously zealous and active against our enemies; and when indeed there is no great danger of invasions while we have the sea covered with our ships, and maintain fifty thousand men in arms on our coasts.

— Samuel Johnson, review of An Impartial Account of the Invasion under William Duke of Normandy, and the consequences of it, with proper Remarks (1756), by Charles Parkin, A. M. Rector of Oxburgh in Norfolk. IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 347-348


— posted by Roger W. Smith

    March 2020






A reader of this post commented: “I don’t understand the purpose of this post. Can you explain?”

I should have made this more clear.

Samuel Johnson died in 1784. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published in 1791. Because of Boswell — primarily because of him — Johnson has been known mostly for his conversation, not his writings.

The late Donald Greene wrote about Boswell’s Life: “I can think of no other book that … has deterred so many intelligent people from making a firsthand acquaintance with the work of a very great writer and thinker.” A contemporary writer, Stephen Miller, in a 1999 essay wrote: “I know many people who have read — or dipped into — Bowell’s Life but have not read a word of Johnson.”

Therefore, I am trying to get Johnson’s writings in front of persons with a taste for good writing.

Boswell did a great service in preserving so much of Johnson’s conversation. He also wrote one of the great, if not the greatest, biographies of all time. Yet, his Johnson is often a caricature of himself. The supposedly reactionary thinker brilliant in conversation and unsurpassable in repartee known for his ability to get the best of his interlocutor on any conceivable subject.

Johnson was witty and quotable; he had a penetrating intellect. But one gets to know him a lot better from his various and voluminous output as a writer. And, he could be the opposite of mean-spirited. His kindly offices throughout his life to many persons and the help and encouragement he gave to writers, often ones younger and less well known than him, were not negligible and are apparent to serious students of his life and writings.




This brief excerpt, passage, to me illustrates what Johnson could do so well: express points cogently and forcefully with (in this case) the minimum of words required. In just two sentences, Johnson shows why the book under review is not worth reading. Most writers — including myself probably — would struggle to make the same point. I might find myself, if I were the reviewer, writing something like: This book is based upon a flawed premise. Yes, a book has to have point of view, but the author is arguing a point that was already made, and he really has nothing new to say. Many historical works have already gone over the same ground.

And so on.

One can see this facility in Johnson’s conversation. He could get to the point — to the essence of the argument — and unsnarl it much faster than his interlocutors and listeners. While they were still mulling over it, he already had seized upon the essence.




My high school English teacher, Robert Tighe, was once asked by a student how long should a paper be? As long as required to cover the subject, Mr. Tighe replied. No more and no less.

an intellectual adventure



“My father never judged people by what they wore, how much they earned or what school they attended. He wanted to know if someone was an intellectual. By that, he meant someone who read books and thought about ideas. That was his kind of person.”

— Judith Colp Rubin, eulogy for Ralph Colp Jr., MD, November 2008



i In my first two brief therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Colp Jr. at Columbia University, he asked me some standard questions for a psychiatric interview and I shared with him in general some of the problems and anxieties I was having, such as feelings of frustration in dating and romantic relationships and with my job.

In our third session, I said something which I can’t recall precisely — something along the lines of I am not just a bored, frustrated office worker living a life of quiet desperation; I have a rich intellectual life.

“Tell me about them,” he said. (I seen to recall that I had mentioned books.)

I told Dr. Colp that I was reading Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection and — as has been the case with me through my life; there are books that come along, so to speak, that overwhelm me — about how Resurrection overwhelmed me on so many levels: the story, the writing; the underlying moral and human questions addressed. I think I said something to him about how I had always thought that I would be likely to prefer Dostoevsky (whom I had already read) to Tolstoy, and here I was bowing at the altar of Tolstoy.

As was usual, Dr. Colp did not say all that much. But he was never a passive listener, never cold, bored, or indifferent (He was simply reserved and very thoughtful.) I could tell that this “disclosure” by me had him thoroughly engaged and was giving him a truer picture and appreciation of me. It was another level for us to connect deeply on: the intellectual or “thought” sphere.

A few sessions later, I said something to Dr. Colp that I knew he appreciated very much as feedback. I could see and sense it. I told him, “I can feel the interest [in me, his as a therapist] on your part. That in itself, that alone, is therapeutic.”






Dr. Colp’s whole life was that of an intellectual. I realize now, at this stage of my life, that this is now, and has always been, true of me. It has given my life meaning and purpose, and whatever achievements or value it has involved or amounted to.

At some point, much later, I told Dr. Colp that I had been reading Samuel Johnson’s essays and that they were a revelation for me: the depth of penetrating insight, the practical wisdom that one could take away from them. (Dr. Colp once complimented me with having the gift of “rapid insight.”)

Dr. Colp belonged to a reading group. He told me that my comments about Johnson were illuminating. He said that a man in his reading group had once said, “The only reason that Johnson is of any interest is the book Boswell wrote about him.”

I told Dr. Colp that (I had already read Boswell’s biography, about which I had talked at length with Dr. Colp) Johnson’s own writings assuredly were well worth reading.

“I guess he was wrong,” Dr. Colp said of the past remark. He always welcomed the opportunity to learn something new.


I told Dr. Colp once, ruefully, that I had bought quite a few expensive books, including multivolume sets of the works of writers such as Whitman and Parkman. (And a multivolume set: The British Empire Before the American Revolution by Lawrence Henry Gipson, which I still have not gotten around to reading. Dr. Colp told me that he had been told that it was a great read). I felt rueful because I had “overbought” and would probably never be getting around to reading most of the books. My appetite was bigger than what I could consume.

“You’ll get around to reading them,” Dr. Colp said emphatically. I wondered if that was true, but I felt better about my indulgences.






Right now, I am having a sort of intellectual adventure. I love to map out such intellectual endeavors for myself, and then try to follow through on them. I am reading Samuel Johnson’s works in the Yale Edition. They are splendid books, superbly edited and annotated, and beautifully produced. There are twenty-three volumes, of which I own all but two.

I probably won’t read them all. I have already read, in their entirety or in part, Johnson’s Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, many of the essays (which are a must), a portion of his Lives of the Poets, and other miscellaneous writings by Johnson.

Johnson is, I would suspect, not in fashion nowadays, and his style is often said to be dated. His political views would probably be regarded as retrograde. He has typically been portrayed as a stodgy Tory conservative, if not an arch-conservative. This is simplistic and amounts to making Johnson a caricature (as Boswell has been accused of having done.) Books such as Donald Greene’s The Politics of Samuel Johnson (which I have read) demonstrate this. I think it is more accurate to say that Johnson was a contrarian who hated political cant and what today might be called liberal smugness.





So why go through this self-appointed intellectual task, this “journey” of plowing through Johnson’s works? Because there is so much to be learned — so much that I am learning as we speak — from him, both from his writings, the excellence of which I can only hope to emulate; and his deep thoughts, which cause me, in the words of Charles Darwin (Dr. Colp’s alter ego), to “think energetically.”

The other books can wait.



— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020





… Lecture 7 [in A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773 by Sir Robert Chambers] deftly capsulizes the complicated economic history behind the conversion of villenage from the yoke of abject slavery to the privilege of landholding. Villenage arose in early feudal Europe not because foreign invaders made slaves of conquered people but because the inherently primitive circumstances of agrarian societies produced a lower class in economic bondage. [italics added] Opposed to theoretical notions of an original human equality was the stark historical situation of an unequal distribution of property and an overabundance of laborers to farm a limited number of estates. Since Europe lacked commercial diversity and economic opportunities for social advancement and ownership found in a civilized milieu, most of the populace faced either dire poverty or cruel servitude under a feudal lord:


When the accommodations of life were few, but few arts were necessary to produce them. One man was therefore less necessary to another, and the numerous wants and ready supplies by which the system of polished life is held together, were not yet known to the world. Men held commerce with men but as givers and receivers; where there was little traffic there was little money, and all the products of the earth which are now circulated through a wide range of buyers and sellers, then passed immediately, if they passed at all, from him that raised them to him that consumed them. He only was rich who was the owner of land, and he that had no land was necessarily poor. And the poverty of those days was not want of splendour but want of food …. Yet this was undoubtedly the state of the first feudal communities: of which the traces still remain in some parts of the world. (Sir Robert Chambers, “Of the Feudal Law, Strictly So Called, and of the Effects of That Law on Our Constitution and Government. IN A Course of Lectures on The English Law; Contained in Four Lectures, Volume I; one of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford University 1767-1773; manuscript in British Library)


[Samuel] Johnson would observe numerous traces of such a backward feudal economy in Scotland and contemplate measures for alleviating the widespread poverty upon his return to England. What Lecture 7 sets forth as historical remedies for the end of serfdom might have offered Johnson some pertinent lessons for evaluating the Highlands. According to the lecture, the emancipation of villeins coincided with the spread of peace, religion, law, and economic mobility, as more of the peasants shared in the ownership of lands by copyhold tenure. Alarmed by the spectacle of mass emigration from Scotland, Johnson would have welcomed some curtailment of “the inequalities of life” in northern Britain to stabilize a region caught between a medieval heritage and modern progress.


— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 64-66


In his A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson, who is known to have collaborated to an undetermined extent with Sir Robert Chambers on his Oxford lectures, wrote:

Where there is no commerce nor manufacture, he that is born poor can scarcely become rich …. The laird is the original owner of the land, whose natural power must be very great, where no man lives but by agriculture; and where the produce of the land is not conveyed /through the labyrinths of traffic, but passes directly from the hand that gathers it to the mouth that eats it …. Among manufacturers, men that have no property may have art and industry, which make them necessary, and therefore valuable. But where flocks and corn are the only wealth, there are always more hands than work …. He therefore who is born poor never can be rich.”






Feudalism has always fascinated me, ever since I majored in history at Brandeis University and took almost half of the courses in my major in medieval history.

The above excerpts from works I was recently reading — my interest in Sir Robert Chambers was spurred by my knowledge of his relationship with Samuel Johnson — seem to provide an excellent and succinct explanation (which I shared with my wife, who agreed) of the workings of pre-capitalist economies in Europe.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2020




I have kept and treasure the books from my medieval history courses.






“the business of the biographer”


His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.


— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets





Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750





In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Samuel Johnson on NOT keeping secrets




The following are excerpts from an essay by Samuel Johnson — one of the greatest essayists of all time — on the keeping (which, in practice, usually means not keeping) of secrets.

Quotes from Johnson are in bold, followed by my explication.

See also downloadable Word documents below.



—- Roger W. Smith

     April 2017



Note: The entire essay, Rambler No. 13. “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” is available online at






“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it; for, however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit, yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance, and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity; which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750










“The vanity of being known to be trusted with a secret is generally one of the chief motives to disclose it”

The minute we are told a secret, it piques our vanity. We feel a sense of pride and importance that the person who told it to us chose us to entrust it to.



“however absurd it may be thought to boast an honour by an act which shews that it was conferred without merit

If we cannot be trusted to keep the secret, then we were not a good choice to confide in, were we? Since this is true, why are we nevertheless so proud of having been confided in?



“yet most men seem rather inclined to confess the want of virtue than of importance”

We feel so important in having been confided in — and so fortunate (because now we know something that others don’t and that they would like to) — that we brush off whatever compunction we might have about not keeping the secret confidential.



“and more willingly shew their influence, though at the expense of their probity, than glide through life with no other pleasure than the private consciousness of fidelity”

If we keep the secret and never tell it, we can say to ourselves, “I kept the secret as promised.” No one is going to give us credit for this, however, because no one knows about the secret (since we kept or lip buttoned). But “at the expense of … probity” (violating our pledge not to tell), we find it hard to resist the temptation to tell the secret to someone else, because that way we will be in the position of having shared something of value with them, which will give us credit in their eyes. We can bestow a “gift” om someone of our choosing at no cost to us.



“which, while it is preserved, must be without praise, except from the single person who tries and knows it.”

Johnson was famous for parallelism. He would repeat himself in eloquent parallel constructions. Here he says what he has already said: if we keep the secret, the only praise we will get is our own self-praise and (possibly, though unlikely) the praise of the person who told us it. We can gain much more praise and credit and tickle our vanity by telling the secret to others. They will value us as being the person who told them something they didn’t know, which, if disclosed, others would be eager to know.






“Secrets are very frequently told in the first ardour of kindness, or of love, for the sake of proving, by so important a sacrifice, sincerity or tenderness; but with this motive, though it be strong in itself, vanity concurs, since every man desires to be most esteemed by those whom he loves, or with whom he converses, with whom he passes his hours of pleasure, and to whom he retires from business and from care.” — excerpt (paragraph) from Samuel Johnson, “The duty of secrecy. The invalidity of all excuses for betraying secrets,” The Rambler No. 13, May 1, 1750

We bestow secrets on another out of what we conceive, perhaps, to be good motives. We think to ourselves — and say to our confidant, “_______ told me not to tell, but I am going to tell YOU something he (or she) told me.” By doing this, we delude ourselves with the fatuous notion that we are being benevolent. Actually, what we are doing is stroking our vanity, as Johnson points, out, and attempting to curry favor. What really motivates us is not altruistic motives, but, instead, the desire of winning “brownie points” with the person we have confided the secret to. “Yes, I betrayed _______’s confidence, but just think, my stock has increased in value with my respect to _______ [my friend]: he or she will value me more highly.”




Samuel Johnson on secrets (Rambler no. 13)



explication – Samuel Johnson on secrets

my personal library of books by and about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell



my Johnson and Boswell books



The above downloadable Word document contains an inventory of books by and about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in my personal home library.



— Roger W. Smith

   October 2020

Samuel Johnson, portraits at middle age


Posted below are copies of:

A portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was painted in 1769 when Johnson was age fifty-nine of sixty. It is my favorite portrait of Johnson.

An etching by Mary Palgrave Turner — based on a portrait of Johnson by Ozias Humphry — entitled “Johnson at Sixty.”

Samuel Johnson’s dates were 1709-1784.



Samuel Johnson, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.jpg



Samuel Johnson, Selected Essays (book cover).jpg



'Johnson at Sixty'.jpg




portraits of Samuel Johnson and his circle