27 April 2014

Samuel Johnson (1691–1773) at Gawsworth, Cheshire

At the entrance to Maggoty Wood, Gawsworth, Cheshire is this sign:

The grave at the top of the wood is
that of Samuel (Maggoty) Johnson
(1691–1773), dancing master and
jester at Gawsworth Hall.
The epitaph on the grave was
provided at his death
(and probably written by him).
the lines alongside were added
about 1851 as a corrective to the
impious tone of the epitaph.'

Samuel Johnson of Cheshire was also a playwright most noted for Hurlothrumbo (1729), which proved very popular at the Haymarket Theatre, and was mentioned (although not in terms of praise) in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.

In December 1797 'C. L.' wrote a very long letter about Johnson which was subsequently published in the Monthly Magazine, and British Register. He was obviously an authority on Johnson and says that the writer was:

'[A] man, who though not equal, in solid sense and strength of understanding, to his celebrated namesake, may at least contend with him on the score of vivid fancy, versatility of talent, and oddness of character. With the profession of a dancing-master, in which he excelled very much, he united that of a poet, of a musician, and a player. In the first of these characters he was tutor to some of the highest families, and by that means became acquainted with many of the nobility.'

Fascinatingly, he continues:

'The late Duke of Montague (the reputed author of the Bottle Conjuror*), finding Mr. Johnson a proper instrument for his favourite purpose of ridiculing the credulity and foolish curiosity of the age, engaged him to write the play of Hurlothrumbo; a composition, which, for absurd bombast and turgid nonsense, perhaps, stands unrivalled in the English language [...]. [I]t was performed for many successive nights, till the whole town had had the satisfaction, or rather the mortification, of finding themselves personally duped, and of discovering that intelligible rant did not constitute sublimity.'

Johnson himself played the part of Lord Flame.

* 'The Bottle Conjuror' was Montagu's famous hoax, in which a man was due to perform at the Haymarket Theatre by squeezing himself into a quart wine bottle. He didn't appear and the disappointed audience trashed the theatre interior.

Samuel Johson's well preserved grave.

Original Inscription, 1773

Under this Stone Reʃt the Remainsof Mr SAMUEL JOHNSON
Afterwards ennobled with the grand Title of
Who after having been in this Life different from other Men
By the Eccentricities of his Genius
Choʃe to retain the fame Character after his Death
And was, at his own Deʃire, buried here May 5th
A.D. MDCCLXXIII aged 82.
"Stay, thou whom chance directs or eaʃe perʃuades,
To ʃeek the Quiet of theʃe Sylvan ʃhades,
Here, undiʃturbed and hid from Vulgar Eye
A Wit, Muʃician, Poet, Player, lies
A Dancing maʃter to in Grace he ʃhone,
And all the arts of Opera were his own
In comedy well ʃkilled he drew Lord Flame,
Acted the Part and gained himʃelf the Name,
Averʃe to Strife how oft he’d gravely ʃay,
Theʃe peaceful Groves ʃhould ʃhade his breathleʃs Clay
That, when he roʃe again, laid here alone,
No friend and he ʃhould quarrel for a Bone
Thinking that were ʃome old goʃsip nigh,
She poʃsibly might take his Leg or Thigh.'

The 'corrective' stone.

1851 Inscription

If chance hath brought thee here, or curious eyes,
To see the spot where this poor jester lies,
A thoughtless Jester even in his death,
Uttering his jibes beyond his latest breath,
O stranger pause a moment, pause and say,:
"Tomorrow should thou quit thy house of clay,
Where wilt thou be my soul? in paradise?
Or where the rich man lifted up his eyes".
Immortal spirit wouldst thou then be blest,
Waiting thy perfect bliss on Abraham's breast,
Boast not of silly art or wit or fame,
Be thou ambitious of a Christian's name,
Seek not thy body's rest in peaceful grove,
Pray that thy soul may rest in Jesus' love,
O speak not lightly of that dreadful day,
When all must rise in joy or dismay.
When spirits pure in body glorified,
With Christ in heavenly mansions shall abide,
While wicked souls shall hear the Judges boom,
"Go thee accursed into endless gloom",
Look at that stone and this, and ponder well,
Then choose twixt Life and Death,
Twixt heaven and hell.'

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