BBC Radio 4, 15-29 May 2011
In this short series of three readings, Johnson's biographer, the late
David Nokes, introduced extracts from The Life of Richard Savage, the preface to his Dictionary of the English
Language, as well as essays published in the collection The Idler, the preface to his Shakespeare biography
and a rather cynical portrait of the poet Alexander Pope.
In Michael Pennington's magisterial characterization, Johnson came
across as a sublimely confident personality, revelling in his mastery of the balanced sentence containing multiple
subordinate clauses, as well as drawing on an extensive vocabulary. Described once as "the most distinguished man of letters
in English history," we got the sense that Johnson himself valued his reputation and was determined to exploit it to
the full. Each essay, whether long or short, was a rhetorical performance, designed to make listeners (and readers) admire its
construction as well as its content.
More importantly, we understood that, irrespective of subject-matter
(Shakespeare, the English lexicon, Richard Savage), Johnson was primarily interested in human beings, whom he placed
at the centre of his literary universe. He lived during the Enlightenment; his essays capture the confidence
associated with that time, with their belief in reason and logic as the foundation of a just society. While Johnson wrote
to show off, he also understood the importance of writing (and publishing) as a way of validating his world and the ways
of thinking that supported it.
To those of us who grew up in the 1980s, Samuel Johnson will forever be associated
with Robbie Coltrane's memorable cameo in Blackadder the Third, as he discovers to his horror that his Dictionary
of the English Language has omitted the word "sausage." Joanna Green's production helped us redefine that image by giving
an insight into the man himself - a prolific polymath able to turn his hands to various subjects with equal facility.