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Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is one of the pre-eminent figures of 18th-century English letters. A poet, essayist, critic, journalist and lexicographer, Johnson was formidably productive and wide-ranging. He was also a legendary wit and conversationalist, whose sharp-tongued pronouncements and many eccentricities are well recorded in Boswell’s classic Life. In 1755, he published the first proper dictionary of the English language, defining some 40,000 words with great verve. (In it, he defined a lexicographer as a ‘harmless drudge’.) His essays on Shakespeare, his Lives of the Poets and his extensive periodical essays were all seminal works in their field and his philosophical romance Rasselas (1759) is as pungent today as ever.
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