Johnson's Miscellany by Samuel Johnson

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Programme Information

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.