This is a copy of the infamous letter from Samuel Johnson to the fourth Earl of Chesterfield on the subject of the Dictionary (1755) – the complex and ambitious work which took Johnson over eight years to complete. In the letter, Johnson vents his fury towards his supposed patron for neglecting him for seven years and then making a show of support when the Dictionary was nearly finished. With biting humour, Johnson asks, ‘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’.
In Johnson’s era, patronage relied on the unspoken rule that an author would flatter a patron in exchange for sponsorship. By exposing the flaws in this system, Johnson’s letter marks a turning point in the history of patronage. He signals the emergence of a new wave of professional, paid writers who earned their living from the publishing trade, independent of patrons.
Why was Samuel Johnson so angry?
When Johnson embarked on the Dictionary, he published a Plan of the work (1747) dedicated to Chesterfield (1694‒1773). Johnson hoped for generous support but, as he says here, he was refused ‘one smile of favour’.
In 1754, when the Dictionary was on ‘the verge of publication’, Chesterfield wrote ‘two Papers’ for The World magazine. These celebrated Johnson’s work, but misleadingly implied that Chesterfield had been a caring patron. Johnson was riled into writing this letter in February 1755, and in April he published his Dictionary with a wry definition of ‘patron’: ‘one who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery’.
Who made and owned this copy?
The original letter has not survived, but this is one of two known copies dictated by Johnson from memory. One was scribed by his friend and biographer James Boswell, in 1781. This second one was made sometime before that by Giuseppe Baretti (1719‒1789), an Italian-English lexicographer in Johnson’s London circle.
The letter was given to Bennet Langton (1736‒1801), who added a note recording Johnson’s admission that he ‘did once receive’ a negligible ‘ten pounds’ from Chesterfield. The letter then passed to Boswell, who published it – first in 1790, and then again in his famous Life of Johnson (1791, pp. 141–42) – and left it to the British Museum.
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 received, 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 adres, 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 encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed 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 encoura=gement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. [The shep˄herd 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 cynical asperity not to confess obligations 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,
Your lordship's most humble,
most obedient servant,
Doctor Johnson, when he gave me this Copy of his letter desired that I would annex to it his information to me, that whereas it is said in the letter that no assistance has been received - he did one received from L. C. the sun of ten ponds; but as that was so inconsiderable a sum, he thought the mention of it could not properly find place in a letter of the kind that this was.
[Hand written along the right hand side]
[Red ink stamp in lower centre of page]
- Full title:
- Transcript in the hand of Joseph Baretti of Samuel Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chesterfield about the Dictionary, with two autograph corrections
- 18th century, London
- Manuscript / Letter
- Samuel Johnson, Giuseppe [or Joseph] Baretti [scribe]
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 5713
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and ideas
David Crystal looks past the myths surrounding Samuel Johnson's Dictionary to discover a work of remarkable precision, sensitivity and attention to social and regional variation.