The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 2. Johnsons early life: Lichfield, Oxford and Birmingham
He was born at Lichfield on 18 September, 1709, in the year in which his father, one of the chief booksellers of the midlands, was sheriff of the city. As a schoolboy, he seems to have been already distinguished by his ease in learning, his tenacity of memory, his lack of application, and delays adjusted to his power of rapid work. But the best part of his instruction he acquired for himself in his father’s shop. There, he prowled about at leisure, and read as his fancy directed. He was never a laborious reader. The progress which the understanding makes through a book, he said, has more pain than pleasure in it. “Sir; do you read books through?” he once asked. There may have been few books that he read through himself. His defective eyesight had probably some bearing on what came to be an intellectual habit. But he had in a supreme degree the gift of discovering the matter and quality of a book, almost on opening its pages. The extent of his knowledge was the wonder of all his friends: Adam Smith declared that Johnson knew more books than any man alive. He had begun this knowledge by sampling his father’s store. And in these days, before he had left school, he was already a good enough Latinist to be diverted from a search for apples by the discovery of a folio of Petrarch.
He was intended to follow his father’s business. Hawkins and Mrs. Piozzi both say that he could bind a book. But, after two years at home, he contrived to proceed to Oxford. He entered Pembroke college as a commoner on 31 October, 1728, and remained there continuously, with, at most, one week’s break in the long vacation, till December, 1729. Thereafter, his residence was irregular, and he left the university without taking a degree. The outstanding fact of his college career was the translation of Pope’s Messiah into Latin verse, as a Christmas exercise. This was the first of his works that was printed, being included in A Miscellany of Poems by Several Hands (1731), collected by J. Husbands, fellow of Pembroke college. Latin was already almost as familiar a language to him as his own. Late in life, during his tour in France, he was “resolute in speaking Latin,” though he had a command of French idiom that enabled him to supply the first paragraph to Baretti’s translation of Rasselas. “Though he is a great critic in French,” said Baretti, “and knows almost as much Italian as I do, he cannot speak either language, but he talks Latin with all Cicero’s fury.” His knowledge of the renascence poets was unusually wide. He regretted that they were not generally known, and that Pope’s attempt to rescue them from neglect by his Selecta Poemata Italorum had been fruitless. The first book which he himself designed was an edition of Politian, with a history of Latin poetry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Proposals for printing it by subscription were issued in August, 1734; but nothing came of the scheme, and the Latin poems of Politian still await an editor.