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The Johnsonian Legend Post by :ChrisLang Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :1648

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The Johnsonian Legend

The ten handsome volumes which the indefatigable and unresting zeal of Dr. Birkbeck Hill, and the high spirit of the Clarendon Press, have edited, arranged, printed, and published for the benefit of the world and the propagation of the Gospel according to Dr. Johnson are pleasant things to look upon. I hope the enterprise has proved remunerative to those concerned, but I doubt it. The parsimony of the public in the matter of books is pitiful. The ordinary purse-carrying Englishman holds in his head a ready-reckoner or scale of charges by which he tests his purchases--so much for a dinner, so much for a bottle of champagne, so much for a trip to Paris, so much for a pair of gloves, and so much for a book. These ten volumes would cost him L4 9s. 3d. 'Whew! What a price for a book, and where are they to be put, and who is to dust them?' Idle questions! As for room, a bicycle takes more room than 1,000 books; and as for dust, it is a delusion. You should never dust books. There let it lie until the rare hour arrives when you want to read a particular volume; then warily approach it with a snow-white napkin, take it down from its shelf, and, withdrawing to some back apartment, proceed to cleanse the tome. Dr. Johnson adopted other methods. Every now and again he drew on huge gloves, such as those once worn by hedgers and ditchers, and then, clutching his folios and octavos, he banged and buffeted them together until he was enveloped in a cloud of dust. This violent exercise over, the good doctor restored the volumes, all battered and bruised, to their places, where, of course, the dust resettled itself as speedily as possible.

Dr. Johnson could make books better than anybody, but his notions of dusting them were primitive and erroneous. But the room and the dust are mere subterfuges. The truth is, there is a disinclination to pay L4 9s. 3d. for the ten volumes containing the complete Johnsonian legend. To quarrel with the public is idiotic and most un-Johnsonian. 'Depend upon it, sir,' said the Sage, 'every state of society is as luxurious as it can be.' We all, a handful of misers excepted, spend more money than we can afford upon luxuries, but what those luxuries are to be is largely determined for us by the fashions of our time. If we do not buy these ten volumes, it is not because we would not like to have them, but because we want the money they cost for something we want more. As for dictating to men how they are to spend their money, it were both a folly and an impertinence.

These ten volumes ended Dr. Hill's labours as an editor of Johnson's Life and Personalia, but did not leave him free. He had set his mind on an edition of the Lives of the Poets. This, to the regret of all who knew him either personally or as a Johnsonian, he did not live to see through the press. But it is soon to appear, and will be a storehouse of anecdote and a miracle of cross-references. A poet who has been dead a century or two is amazing good company--at least, he never fails to be so when Johnson tells us as much of his story as he can remember without undue research, with that irony of his, that vast composure, that humorous perception of the greatness and the littleness of human life, that make the brief records of a Spratt, a Walsh, and a Fenton so divinely entertaining. It is an immense testimony to the healthiness of the Johnsonian atmosphere that Dr. Hill, who breathed it almost exclusively for a quarter of a century and upwards, showed no symptoms either of moral deterioration or physical exhaustion. His appetite to the end was as keen as ever, nor was his temper obviously the worse. The task never became a toil, not even a tease. 'You have but two subjects,' said Johnson to Boswell: 'yourself and myself. I am sick of both.' Johnson hated to be talked about, or to have it noticed what he ate or what he had on. For a hundred years now last past he has been more talked about and noticed than anybody else. But Dr. Hill never grew sick of Dr. Johnson.

The Johnsonian Miscellanies(A) open with the Prayers and Meditations, first published by the Rev. Dr. Strahan in 1785. Strahan was the Vicar of Islington, and into his hands at an early hour one morning Dr. Johnson, then approaching his last days, put the papers, 'with instructions for committing them to the press and with a promise to prepare a sketch of his own life to accompany them.' This promise the doctor was not able to keep, and shortly after his death his reverend friend published the papers just as they were put into his hands. One wonders he had the heart to do it, but the clerical mind is sometimes strangely insensitive to the privacy of thought. But, as in the case of most indelicate acts, you cannot but be glad the thing was done. The original manuscript is at Pembroke College, Oxford. In these Prayers and Meditations we see an awful figure. The solitary Johnson, perturbed, tortured, oppressed, in distress of body and of mind, full of alarms for the future both in this world and the next, teased by importunate and perplexing thoughts, harassed by morbid infirmities, vexed by idle yet constantly recurring scruples, with an inherited melancholy and a threatened sanity, is a gloomy and even a terrible picture, and forms a striking contrast to the social hero, the triumphant dialectician of Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, and Madame D'Arblay. Yet it is relieved by its inherent humanity, its fellowship and feeling. Dr. Johnson's piety is delightfully full of human nature--far too full to please the poet Cowper, who wrote of the Prayers and Meditations as follows:

'If it be fair to judge of a book by an extract, I do not wonder that you were so little edified by Johnson's Journal. It is even more ridiculous than was poor Rutty's of flatulent memory. The portion of it given us in this day's paper contains not one sentiment worth one farthing, except the last, in which he resolves to bind himself with no more unbidden obligations. Poor man! one would think that to pray for his dead wife and to pinch himself with Church fasts had been almost the whole of his religion.'

(Footnote A: Two volumes. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1897.)

It were hateful to pit one man's religion against another's, but it is only fair to Dr. Johnson's religion to remember that, odd compound as it was, it saw him through the long struggle of life, and enabled him to meet the death he so honestly feared like a man and a Christian. The Prayers and Meditations may not be an edifying book in Cowper's sense of the word; there is nothing triumphant about it; it is full of infirmities and even absurdities; but, for all that, it contains more piety than 10,000 religious biographies. Nor must the evidence it contains of weakness be exaggerated. Beset with infirmities, a lazy dog, as he often declared himself to be, he yet managed to do a thing or two. Here, for example, is an entry:

'29, EASTER EVE (1777).

'I rose and again prayed with reference to my departed wife. I neither read nor went to church, yet can scarcely tell how I have been hindered. I treated with booksellers on a bargain, but the time was not long.'

Too long, perhaps, for Johnson's piety, but short enough to enable the booksellers to make an uncommon good bargain for the Lives of the Poets. 'As to the terms,' writes Mr. Dilly, 'it was left entirely to the doctor to name his own; he mentioned 200 guineas; it was immediately agreed to.' The business-like Malone makes the following observation on the transaction: 'Had he asked 1,000, or even 1,500, guineas the booksellers, who knew the value of his name, would doubtless have readily given it.' Dr. Johnson, though the son of a bookseller, was the least tradesman-like of authors. The bargain was bad, but the book was good.

A year later we find this record:

'MONDAY, April 20 (1778).

'After a good night, as I am forced to reckon, I rose seasonably and prayed, using the collect for yesterday. In reviewing my time from Easter, 1777, I find a very melancholy and shameful blank. So little has been done that days and months are without any trace. My health has, indeed, been very much interrupted. My nights have been commonly not only restless but painful and fatiguing.... I have written a little of the Lives of the Poets, I think, with all my usual vigour. I have made sermons, perhaps, as readily as formerly. My memory is less faithful in retaining names, and, I am afraid, in retaining occurrences. Of this vacillation and vagrancy of mind I impute a great part to a fortuitous and unsettled life, and therefore purpose to spend my life with more method.

'This year the 28th of March passed away without memorial. Poor Tetty, whatever were our faults and failings, we loved each other. I did not forget thee yesterday. Couldst thou have lived! I am now, with the help of God, to begin a new life.'

Dr. Hill prints an interesting letter of Mr. Jowett's, in which occur the following observations:

'It is a curious question whether Boswell has unconsciously misrepresented Johnson in any respect. I think, judging from the materials, which are supplied chiefly by himself, that in one respect he has. He has represented him more as a sage and philosopher in his conduct as well as his conversation than he really was, and less as a rollicking "King of Society." The gravity of Johnson's own writings tends to confirm this, as I suspect, erroneous impression. His religion was fitful and intermittent; and when once the ice was broken he enjoyed Jack Wilkes, though he refused to shake hands with Hume. I was much struck with a remark of Sir John Hawkins (excuse me if I have mentioned this to you before): "He was the most humorous man I ever knew."'

Mr. Jowett's letter raises some nice points--the Wilkes and Hume point, for example. Dr. Johnson hated both blasphemy and bawd, but he hated blasphemy most. Mr. Jowett shared the doctor's antipathies, but very likely hated bawd more than he did blasphemy. But, as I have already said, the point is a nice one. To crack jokes with Wilkes at the expense of Boswell and the Scotch seems to me a very different thing from shaking hands with Hume. But, indeed, it is absurd to overlook either Johnson's melancholy piety or his abounding humour and love of fun and nonsense. His Prayers and Meditations are full of the one, Boswell and Mrs. Thrale and Madame D'Arblay are full of the other. Boswell's Johnson has superseded the 'authorized biography' by Sir John Hawkins, and Dr. Hill did well to include in these Miscellanies Hawkins' inimitable description of the memorable banquet given at the Devil Tavern, near Temple Bar, in the spring of 1751, to celebrate the publication of Mrs. Charlotte Lennox's first novel. What delightful revelry! what innocent mirth! prolonged though it was till long after dawn. Poor Mrs. Lennox died in distress in 1804, at the age of eighty-three. Could Johnson but have lived he would have lent her his helping hand. He was no fair-weather friend, but shares with Charles Lamb the honour of being able to unite narrow means and splendid munificence.

I must end with an anecdote:

'Henderson asked the doctor's opinion of Dido and its author. "Sir," said Dr. Johnson, "I never did the man an injury. Yet he would read his tragedy to me."'



(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Johnsonian Legend

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