»  Dr. Johnson's Letter to Lord Chesterfield

 

Letter to Lord Chesterfield

by Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

 

•  Background

The great English literary personality Samuel Johnson (1709-84) wrote the following letter in 1755, when he was 45 years old.

Johnson had just completed his great dictionary of the English language, which he had been toiling away at for eight years. A coalition of seven London booksellers had commissioned the project eight years previously, at a fixed price of £1,575. At that time Johnson had issued a plan for the work, in the hope of bringing in more funds from patrons. He had dedicated the plan to Philip Dormer, the Earl of Chesterfield, whom Boswell describes as "a nobleman who was very ambitious of literary distinction." This dedication had actually been suggested by one of the booksellers; it was not Johnson's idea. However, Johnson must have paid a call on the Earl at some point, and been disappointed with the results. He did apparently get a few guineas out of the noble Lord, but it was much less than he had hoped for, and Chesterfield seems to have taken no further interest in the project …

 … Until, all those years later, when the dictionary was at last ready for publication (it was actually five years late), Lord Chesterfield published an advance review of it in a magazine named The World, presenting himself as principal patron of the work. This excited Johnson's indignation, and he wrote the following letter to his Lordship.

This is one of the great letters of all time. It is also pure Johnson: learned, elegant, crushing, and bitterly proud.


•  Notes

"Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre" — The conqueror of the world's conqueror.

"The Shepherd in Virgil" — Damon in the Eighth Eclogue:

Nunc scio, quid sit Amor. duris in cautibus illum
aut Tmaros aut Rhodope aut extremi Garamantes
nec generis nostri puerum nec sanguinis edunt.
Now know I what Love is: 'mid savage rocks
Tmaros or Rhodope brought forth the boy,
Or Garamantes in earth's utmost bounds —
No kin of ours, nor of our blood begot.

"till I am solitary and cannot impart it …" — Johnson's wife Elizabeth had died in March 1752. He mourned her extravagantly for the rest of his life.

"… till I am known and do not want it" — "want" here has the meaning "need."

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•  Text of the poem

To the Right Honourable the Earl of Chesterfield

                     February 1755.

    My Lord.

I have been lately informed by the Proprietor of the World that two Papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the Public were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the Great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship I was overpowered like the rest of Mankind by the enchantment of your adress, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the World contending, but I found my attendance so little incouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once adressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly Scholar can possess. I had done all that I could, and no Man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks.

Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the Water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.

I hope it is no very cinical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any Favourer of Learning I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that Dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation.

       My Lord,

            Your Lordship's Most humble

                 Most Obedient Servant

                      S.J.