Lives of Dr. Johnson

The Lives of the Poets

by Samuel Johnson, edited by Roger Lonsdale
Oxford University Press,4 vols., 1,981 pp., $595.00

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, as it first appeared in 1755, occupied two huge and very expensive folio volumes. A glance at the familiar Vanity Fair illustration will prove that the school-leaving copy thrown out of her coach window by Becky Sharp was not the whole dictionary but a cheap abridgment, such as might be thought a suitable school-leaving present. The publishers—or more properly the booksellers, for in the eighteenth century they did the work of publishers—provided various cheaper versions, easier to sell, to carry, and to throw. But however it was packaged, Johnson’s was simply the dictionary of English. It had its faults, but it had no serious rival for over a century. Inevitably it grew less useful for the purposes of ordinary users, and it is now consulted mostly by eighteenth-century scholars and amateur lovers of Johnson, two numerous and devoted communities, though it must be said that many members of the second group are probably more interested in Johnson the man than in anything he wrote. For the scholars, last year, being the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Dictionary, has proved a stimulus to research, and the university presses have proved themselves equal to the challenge.

The dictionary itself is not simply an alphabetical list of words. Johnson added a substantial preface, a history of the language, and an English grammar. The editors of the stately Yale edition of Johnson’s work have decided, understandably, that even their generous remit wouldn’t allow them to include the dictionary entire, so what we have in this eighteenth volume are the history, the grammar, the preface to the first edition, prefaces to two later editions, and Johnson’s original Plan of the work, published in 1747 ; but not the Dictionary.

That the editorial work on this volume of the big Yale Johnson is carried out with the utmost scholarly care almost goes without saying, and it may seem ungrateful to add that the absence of the Dictionary itself, though unavoidable, leaves one with the feeling that the principal object of our interest in Johnson’s writings on the English language has absconded, leaving only a heap of remnants. They have their interest, but few critics have found much to praise in the history, which is an anthology of prose through the ages, with very little comment, or in the grammar. The present editors do not explicitly dissent from the judgment of Joseph Priestley, who admired the Dictionary but concluded sadly that Johnson had not “formed as just, and as extensive an idea of English grammar” as he had of the language itself.

The mood of the preface is dark. Johnson worked on the book for about eight years. He was reasonably well paid by the booksellers who sponsored the enterprise, and he was a writer who, despite many protestations of indolence, seemed irresistibly attracted to long and laborious assignments (the edition of Shakespeare and The Lives of the Poets lay …

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