Saturday 13 December 2014

"I have seen as much of life as the world can show": The Death of Dr Johnson

Samuel Johnson (Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, 18th September 1709 - London, England, 13th December 1784)

Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772
Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1772
When Gareth Southwell and I launched the Gallimaufry earlier this year, for our first subject we selected the estimable Dr Samuel Johnson and the story of his dictionary. Today marks the anniversary of the death of this great man of letters, and it seemed only right that we should mark this occasion.

As he entered his seventy fifth year, Samuel Johnson was not in the best of health. He had spent many months battling ill health and was in low spirits, having lost close friends to death during the preceding years.

Frail and growing weaker, Johnson suffered from bronchitis and circulatory problems and, on 17th June 1783, he suffered a debilitating stroke. As he took to his bed in the care of his doctors, Johnson concluded that he was entering the final months of his life and prepared for death.

Johnson wrote to confidantes of his beliefs and London began to chatter of the poor condition of the great man, wondering whether he was correct in his suspicion that he was not long for this world. Although the stroke temporarily robbed him of his ability to speak, Johnson wrote of the black dog that plagued him from dawn to dusk, this spectre of doom banished only when Johnson was in company. When his ability to speak returned the melancholy did not life and Johnson continued to set his affairs in order.

As Johnson recuperated from the stroke, his always serious gout flared up mercilessly and he underwent painful surgery to ease the condition. Visited by friends, he took to his bed in December 1783 and remained there until the following spring. As the weather grew brighter though, so too did Johnson and in May 1784, he emerged from his home and joined Boswell on a trip to Oxford.

However, Johnson found the excursion exhausting and when he returned to London and Boswell went on to Scotland, he felt the absence of his friend keenly and lamented once more the return of the black dog. Once more Johnson took to his bed and once more his mood grew dark but this time, he would not recover and despite the care of his doctor, Thomas Warren, he declared again that he would soon be dead.

This time Johnson was right. He received visitors to his bedside and said his goodbyes to them one last time  before, on 13th December, he slipped into unconsciousness. Johnson did not linger then and passed away at seven o'clock that evening; fittingly he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, though his name lived on through the centuries, an icon of Georgian England.


Unknown said...

We used to live in Streetly, Sutton Coldfield which isn't far from Lichfield. You can visit the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum & Bookshop and, of course, there is also the magnificent cathedral there too.

Catherine Curzon said...

I think I am due a trip!