Samuel Johnson? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I experience difficulties while writing I recall a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson that is both cautionary and encouraging:
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
I have not been able to find this statement in a book written by Johnson or by his biographer James Boswell. Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: Samuel Johnson died in 1784, and the earliest known evidence linking him to this adage was published fifteen years after his demise. An industrious collector of anecdotes named William Seward released “Biographiana” in 1799. This two volume work of short biographical sketches contained an entry for a translator known as Abbé Marolles who was criticized by Seward for the poor quality of his translations and verses. A footnote within the entry attributed the saying under investigation to Johnson: 1
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”—Dr. Johnson.
Interestingly, an important precursor of this adage was published many years earlier in 1764 when “The Scots Magazine” published a biographical profile of the poet and satirist Charles Churchill. The work “The Prophecy of Famine” was a great success for Churchill, and the author of the profile contended that his subsequent poems were of low quality. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
(The Prophecy of Famine) had accordingly a rapid and extensive sale; and it was often asserted by his admirers that Mr Churchill was a better poet than Mr Pope. This exaggerated adulation, as it had before corrupted his morals, now began to impair his mind: several succeeding pieces were published, which, being written without effort, are read without pleasure.
The above critical expression was applied to a specific set of poems, and syntactically it did not precisely fit the form of an adage. Nevertheless, the conversion of the phrase into an adage would have been effortless. The writer of the words above was not listed in the magazine.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1799, Biographiana, “By the Compiler of Anecdotes of Distinguished Person”, (William Seward), Footnote, Quote Page 260, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1764 December, The Scots Magazine, Volume 26, Memoirs of Mr Charles Churchill, Start Page 649, Quote Page 651, Printed for W. Sands, A Murray, and J Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link ↩