258 years ago this month, on 15th April 1755, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language after nearly a decade of planning and hard slog. He was offered the opportunity to write the dictionary – and paid the modern equivalent of £230,000 to do so – because he was already a well-respected essayist, poet and biographer. The Dictionary wasn’t the first English dictionary, but it spent the next 173 years as the pre-eminent one (superseded only by the OED) and its influence was immense.
Despite this, in 1777 Johnson wrote:
‘When I survey my past life, I discover nothing but a barren waste of time’.
His perception of himself didn’t come from false modesty, but from a genuine inability to recognise the worth of his achievements – a not-uncommon sensation for people with depression as severe as Johnson’s.
A lot of our information about Johnson’s mental health comes from his biographer James Boswell (himself a depressive, or ‘hypochondriack’, in 18th century terminology), who described Johnson as ‘afflicted…with a constitutional melancholy, the clouds of which darkened the brightness of his fancy, and gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking.’
In the 18th century depression was generally assumed to be inherited, and Boswell says Johnson’s father Michael had a ‘general sensation of gloomy wretchedness’, but it seems that most of Johnson’s bouts of depression were caused by a crushing sense of guilt that started in childhood. His mother Sarah had slammed religion into him, gifting him a dread of death, judgement and Hell that affected the rest of his life and caused him to set impossibly high standards for himself.
It isn’t really surprising that Johnson was a hypochondriac, given his fear of death, though it’s been suggested that he was also suicidal at times – a paradox for a man so terrified of dying.
He was guilty about everything. When his wife died he felt guilty that he’d neglected her for his career; after she died he felt guilty about still feeling sexual desire (fairly standard for an 18th century devout Anglican); he felt guilty about losing religion in his youth and then guilty that he wasn’t living up to his religious duty when he found it again…
‘Surely’, he wrote, ‘I shall not spend my whole life with my own total disapprobation.’
That’s a fairly despairing statement. To ward off his demons as best he could, Johnson walked obsessively, regularly walking the 32 miles from his home in Lichfield to Birmingham and back, and touring the Scottish Highlands with Boswell. 18th century medicine agreed with us that exercise was beneficial for mental health. He also, rumour has it, asked his friend Hester Thrale to shackle his ankles to protect him from his own head, and he muttered prayers to himself – ‘pious ejaculations’, as Boswell called them.
In 1783, thinking he was dying, Johnson wrote:
‘The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me.’
He never did ‘drive’ it; he died in the evening of 13th December 1784, angry with his physician for asking if he felt better.
His dictionary definition of ‘hypochondriack’, incidentally, was: ‘Melancholy; disordered in the imagination.’