I still remember the day when the set texts for my A Level English course were announced. For Shakespeare, we had Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Henry IV Part 1, As You Like It and the Sonnets. And for the pre-1785 paper, Chaucer's Miller's Tale, Ben Jonson's Alchemist, the Penguin anthology of The Metaphysical Poets and Dr Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare. I can't help feeling like an old fogey when I interview prospective candidates for Warwick nowadays. They are the brightest and best of our youth, with CVs testifying to immense industry and ambition, but the A Level syllabus has not put them through their paces as this course did me. Very few of them have heard of either Shakespeare's great contemporary, Ben Jonson, or his great editor and commentator, Dr Samuel Johnson, who was born in Lichfield 300 years ago this month.
I was lucky in my teacher. Mr Adams looked a little like Dr Johnson himself, especially after he damaged his knee and hobbled into class with a club-like walking stick, which he would beat on the desk as he pronounced sonorous literary judgments, some of which have stayed with me these 35 years. "John Donne makes Tom Stoppard seem like tennis for rabbits"; "Dr Johnson was a contentious old noddy." In showing me how Dr Johnson freighted every sentence with attention and affection, he taught me how to write. Whole swathes of the Preface to Shakespeare were carved into my consciousness. "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion."
And, like all great teachers, Mr Adams directed us beyond the set syllabus. We read Johnson's strange novel Rasselas and the satirical poem The Vanity of Human Wishes; we were given cyclostyled extracts from The Rambler and The Lives of the Poets. We were made to ponder a major insight in a minor book review: "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
With the possible exception of his true successor (though his political and moral opposite) William Hazlitt, Dr Johnson is the greatest writer of critical prose in the English language. James Boswell tells us how he did it:
Sir Joshua Reynolds once asked him by what means he had attained his extraordinary accuracy and flow of language. He told him, that he had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion, and in every company: to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in; and that by constant practice, and never suffering any careless expressions to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him.