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 17471 ; 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 in the future). He worked assiduously but with no pretense of enjoying it. The lexicographer, he remarked, is “a humble drudge…. Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few.” Yet this thankless task was intellectually daunting:
When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.
It was so huge a task that in other nations dictionaries on this scale were undertaken not by single scholars but by whole academies; and even their achievements must, like his, become the victims of time and change—change for the worse, for “tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration.” Such pleasure as he felt when he contemplated his finished book arose, he said, from his sense that in spite of his many handicaps he might have done something for English literature and for national pride. But he concludes the preface in a gloomy mood:
I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds. I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.
Yet his success was surely gratifying in some degree: Boswell reported that “he received our compliments upon that great work with complacency, and told us that the Academy della Crusca [the Florentine Academy] could scarcely believe that it was done by one man.” Johnson’s other biographer, Sir John Hawkins, called the Dictionary a “stupendous compilation…undertaken and completed by the care and industry of a single person.”
Since he maintained that “one great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language,” Johnson may safely, in this respect, be described as conservative. The idea that if left to itself, without authoritative safeguards, the language, used by corrupt speakers, would itself suffer corruption had a long history. Early in the seventeenth century Ben Jonson had given it memorable expression: “Wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is. It imitates the public riot.” To check this corruption is an ethical obligation. Jonathan Swift agreed, and hoped there would be some way of “ascertaining and fixing our language for ever.”
Johnson wanted, in the national interest, to fix the spelling and pronunciation of the language as well as the meanings of its words. These meanings should be illustrated by examples drawn from “writers of the first reputation,” used as bulwarks against the deterioration brought on by the unavoidable fact that the same language was used by lesser writers, and indeed by everybody, high and low.
The character of dictionaries is determined, at any rate in part, by the lexicographer’s choice between prescriptive and descriptive approaches. When Johnson speaks of preserving the purity of the language he implies that he will favor or recommend some usages as superior to others. Some expressions will be condemned as low or as “cant,”2 and others prescribed as proper. A descriptive dictionary would merely map the language as it stands, recording words without regard to the compiler’s opinion as to the desirability of keeping them in circulation or banning their use. But Johnson admits that as his work proceeded he came to see that language could not be “fixed” and its continual change could not be halted. The lexicographer finds that the dictionary cannot “embalm his language.” The sharing of language by all classes means that language, like manners, must inevitably be depraved, for example by its use in commerce; and its depravity must spread to all its users. The maker of dictionaries cannot cure obsolescence or prevent novelty; all he or she can hope for is to palliate what cannot be cured. Having understood that, says Johnson, “let us make some struggles for our language.”
In the light of these expressions it may seem surprising that there is a continuing debate among professional Johnsonians over whether their hero’s methods are prescriptive or descriptive. In the collection of Anniversary Essays on Johnson’s Dictionary Geoff Barnbrook defends the view that Johnson’s project was “prescriptive,” while Anne McDermott, who knows the Dictionary as well as anybody, having produced a CD-ROM version, challenges that opinion.
This is not a quarrel of the kind that leaves one combatant for dead; McDermott can’t dispose of the evidence in the preface and the Plan, but she is really arguing for a middle way, claiming that the words Johnson selected for inclusion in the Dictionary “are rarely marked by expressions of approval or disapproval and the reason for inclusion seems to have been predominantly usage.” But Barnbrook maintains, with equal learning, not merely that Johnson was prescriptivist but that it was “culpable” of him, as lexicographer, to be so.
The assumption that dictionaries ought to be in some measure prescriptive is far from dead. Indeed Barnbrook thinks “the fully descriptive approach” has come in only very recently, and concludes that this regrettable and harmful delay is to some extent Johnson’s fault. But the preface is surely clear enough about his intentions. He wanted to preserve the best English as he understood it from his researches into its literature from about the time of Elizabeth I, but he also saw the need to record the language actually in use. It was a reasonable ambition, and, as Barnbrook himself remarks, “the reader may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.”
Admittedly the problem is complicated by learned attempts to define the exact relation between Johnson’s attitude toward dictionaries and his views on contemporary politics. That he could again be called conservative is obvious, but only the first step: after all, he was the patriot who drank a toast to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies, and persistently opposed slavery, of which Boswell, rather surprisingly, approved. Johnson’s contempt for the Whigs is well known. He defines tory as “one who adheres to the antient constitution of the state, and the apostolick hierarchy of the church of England, opposed to a whig.” Whig he defines simply as “a faction.” Yet he defines party-man as “a factious person: an abettor of a party,” without specifying a party, and his position amid the complex political alignments of the time is far from simple, as Nicholas Hudson’s contribution to the Anniversary Essays(“Reassessing the Political Context of the Dictionary“) amply demonstrates. It seems that Johnson rather favored the Broad-bottom coalition, a group which believed it would be better if there were neither Tories nor Whigs, and that the country should be run entirely by able men of no particular party allegiance: Utopian politics, perhaps, but Johnson thought well of Thomas More.
Still in his mid-forties when the Dictionary was published, he hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of Boswell, and the years of his greatest celebrity were still ahead. His contemporaries treasured reports of his conversation and odd behavior, and the foundations of the Johnson “myth” were already laid. It has flourished, often in defiance of the facts, and the books under review continue the scholarly process of qualifying or demolishing the anecdotal mythology about him. Paul J. Korshin, whose essay in the anniversary volume is devoted to this cause, argues that “there is seldom any foundation” to the legends. Many are trivial, but some do need examination or possibly correction. One such is the story of Johnson’s relations with Lord Chesterfield.
Johnson wrote Chesterfield a famous, bitter letter reproaching the nobleman for his failure to support the Dictionary, and for his attempt to claim credit for it when it was finished without his assistance:
Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before…. Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?
The force of this complaint is enhanced by E.M. Ward’s well-known history painting, showing a neglected and insulted Johnson scowling in Chesterfield’s anteroom. Korshin points out that Chesterfield, in his two essays commending Johnson’s work, never suggested that he should be the dedicatee, as Johnson suspected. Moreover Johnson was never in want while he worked on the project, for the booksellers—who financed the project, and whom he himself described as “the real patrons of literature”—paid him well. Freya Johnston reminds us that although Johnson defined patron as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery,” he accepted a pension from the King. But the King was head of the church and state, and Johnson respected hierarchy, though believing it right that its beneficiaries should show “condescension” (a word which lacked the derogatory modern sense) toward their inferiors.
Chesterfield was a great man, a minister of state, and very rich. In his essays on the subject of the Dictionary he “condescended” to Johnson, and, being himself regarded as a great authority on the language, gave the book valuable publicity. The story of the wait in the anteroom was denied by Johnson himself. Ian Lancashire’s contribution to the anniversary volume suggests that any expectations that Chesterfield would give Johnson money (beyond the £10 he handed over in the early stages) were misguided: “The printer normally bore all the expenses of dictionary-making.” As Johnson did not see fit even to acknowledge the help of the printers it is not surprising that he felt he owed Chesterfield nothing. But it seems that Chesterfield owed him nothing, either. Nicholas Hudson, also in the anniversary volume, points out that “Chesterfield had the reputation, not entirely undeserved, for unshakable integrity and profuse generosity,” and he lists several notably disinterested acts. In short, Chesterfield’s reputation has suffered unjustly from his involvement in the Johnson myth. Henry Hitchings has a different view, as we shall see later.
Freya Johnston’s main business in Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking is not exactly with myth, but with a more limited topic, Johnson’s interest in littleness. We may think Johnson a writer in love with the grandeur of generality and we would describe his Latinate musings as grand in style rather than small. One would expect him to have subscribed to the classical idea of decorum, of stylistic levels, high, middle, and low. However, there exists a low style appropriate to great subjects, the model for it being the gospels, written in commonplace Greek—and, for that matter, the Incarnation itself, in which a god assumes lowly human form.3 The “art of sinking” depends on the contrast of the classical with the humble, as it is exemplified in Johnson’s late poem “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,” an old, despised figure who was Johnson’s friend for forty years, and who worked among the poor and the insignificant:
Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.
Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.
But Johnson’s interest in littleness was not merely rhetorical, an interest in “a forced alliance between great and little things.” For instance, he collected bits of orange peel from the oranges he had presumably squeezed the previous evening. Next day he scraped and preserved the dried fragments. He refused to tell the inquisitive Boswell why he did so, thus frustrating the biographer’s legitimate passion for little “specimens…of Johnson’s character,” as his friend Mrs. Thrale called her “Anecdotes.” This is an instance of the great man’s interest in small things generally. And although his style has a “dignified plenitude,” he did a great deal of “compressing, diminishing, contracting, and reducing.” As a biographer himself he was aware of the importance of what, in a periodical essay, he called “the minute circumstances of daily life.”
Nor does Helen Deutsch, in her rambling, scholarly, and intelligent book Loving Dr. Johnson, have Johnson neglect the orange peel. Her plan is to pay “serious attention to the whimsy of the anecdote,” though she is an enemy of anecdotes preserved by the “myth.” Her broad aim is to reconcile the image of Johnson—the clubbable man, loved by posterity as well as by his contemporaries—and the man racked by disease and tormented by his fear of madness. Her book is long, slowed by digressions, overloaded with endnotes and comments on Einstein’s skull, Samuel Beckett’s melancholia, and other interesting topics, but it does a good deal to “highlight the many forms and objects of love—the complex interaction of desire, fantasy, narcissistic misrecognition, and unsettling confrontation with the alien—that the idea of Johnson has inspired.”
Deutsch is clear on the point that people who love Johnson love the man rather than the lexicographer, the biographer, the critic, or the poet. His writings serve as relics; they keep these lovers in touch with the object of their affection or devotion. On the whole the relic that interests her most is Johnson’s dead body. Despite his “express desire not to have his body violated” he was subjected to posthumous examination, and some body parts—a lung, a kidney, and a slice of scrotum—were preserved. The lung may have served as an exhibit in the collection of one William Cruickshank, and possibly also as an illustration for emphysema in an anatomy textbook, here duly illustrated. These fragments have interested doctors who sought to diagnose Johnson’s ailments, but to Deutsch they are anecdotes, surviving fragments of the great man. She would love to find the actual lung.
The medical evidence suggests that Johnson did indeed have emphysema, a malignant tumor on a testicle, and other afflictions, including “dropsy,” a disease that accounts for his desperate attempt to scarify himself and get rid of excess fluid shortly before his death. Not the autopsy but the “convulsive starts and odd gesticulations” of the living Johnson indicated that he also suffered from Tourette’s syndrome; and he had other diseases, some the sequelae of childhood scrofula (he had only one working eye). He can hardly have been happy in his body, but alive or dead it turned out to be a good source of anecdotes, if not of relics.
I don’t understand the connection Deutsch finds between Johnson’s Latinate style and his tics, but the style of her book is founded on making unexpected connections:
In their writing of “The Gospel According to Dr. Johnson” and in their summoning of his living ghost from a scrutinized corpse, Johnsonians create a secular will—their own Testament—based on a Christian paradox, that of the immortal spirit of literature dwelling in the author’s mortal body.
This is not whimsy but said in what seems perfect seriousness. She compares the individual lover’s reception of Johnson to the Anglican sacrament because it “emphasizes the transforming power of individual reception of the host over the nature of its substance.” I have a feeling Dr. Johnson would have found some effective way of refuting that remark, which makes him a sacrament administered to a congregation of English professors.
If there exists such a congregation Henry Hitchings must belong to it, but he has little in common with Deutsch except love of Johnson. His interest is less passionate but still intimate, in the life as well as the work; his business in Defining The Worldis with the Dictionary, but he doesn’t ignore the years between the great man’s birth in Lichfield (“a small city close to the very centre of England”) in 1709 and the years of lexicographical drudgery that inaugurated Johnson’s years of fame.4 Compared with some of the works mentioned above, Hitchings’s is an easy book, not intended for a sacramental community or for students of rhetoric, or even for the learned scholiasts of the anniversary volume. It is simply addressed to an intelligent public that would like to know more about the Dictionary and its heroic compiler.
The story of the earlier years, often told, must be told again: the provincial boy, son of an elderly bookseller, goes to Oxford but cannot afford to complete his course, and returns home. But Lichfield was not a bad place to live in, and during a brief and otherwise unsuccessful career as a schoolmaster Johnson had David Garrick as a pupil. It was with Garrick that he traveled to London in 1737 to seek his fortune, and they were friends throughout their famous lives. Life in London meant hard labor, “confusion and estrangement.” His biography of Richard Savage, a dissolute poet whom he befriended in these “wilderness years,” is distinguished, but he lived by hackwork. One tedious but useful job was cataloging a great library. He claimed to be idle but he knew how to work, and Hitchings reminds us that he was never in good health as he did so.
The facts are here set forth with amenity and economy, and when he gets to the Dictionary Hitchings is equally lucid and interesting. In 1746 Johnson signed an agreement with the booksellers, got himself a house conveniently situated near the shop of the bookseller he would be directly dealing with, and hired his amanuenses. Hitchings knows a little about all these humble and shadowy figures.
The celebrated Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1747. At this time Johnson was still hoping for active patronage from Chesterfield, with consequences touched on above. But Hitchings tends to take Johnson’s part; at the outset Chesterfield had given him that miserable £10, and much later wrote two pieces in a weekly paper promoting the Dictionary; but “the tone…is at once calculated and smug,” and in Hitchings’s view he was clearly angling for the dedication. His interest was slight and opportunistic; he praised the Plan, in which Johnson had flattered him, without realizing that Johnson had long since abandoned it and made another. Hitchings is by no means certain that the wait in the anteroom did not happen, and even suspects that another part of that story—that Johnson was kept there while his lordship entertained the poetaster Colley Cibber—is untrue.
When Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” was first published in 1749, it contained this couplet:
…mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret and the jail.
In the second edition of 1755, “garret” is changed to “patron.” Hitchings evidently approves of the alteration. He obviously would not accept the version of the Chesterfield–Johnson relationship proposed by Ian Lancashire in his contribution, touched on above, to the anniversary volume. On another vexed question, the balance between prescriptive and descriptive, Hitchings is ecumenical: “Despite his natural tendency to legislate, his first aim was not to revise the language with interventionist, pontifical zeal but to record and fortify its present condition.”
Definition is not an easy art; as Johnson remarked, “there is often only one word for one idea.” He does not always succeed, but Hitchings gives him credit for ingenuity. Unlike an earlier lexicographer who defined heart as “a most noble part of the body,” Johnson calls it
the muscle which by its contraction and dilation propels the blood through the course of circulation, and is therefore considered as the source of vital motion. It is supposed in popular language to be the seat sometimes of courage, sometimes of affection.
“That’s pretty good,” says Hitchings; so it is. And so are his own illuminating remarks on the Dictionary. He notes, for example, that the entry for to take runs to eight thousand words, and that for to fall Johnson offers sixty-four senses before giving up on the sixty-fifth. Not bad for a naturally lazy man.
When I think of all that hard work and the worker’s infirmity I remember Belial’s words in Paradise Lost: “who would lose,/Though full of pain, this intellectual being?” For Johnson worked at these intellectual tasks under what must often have seemed hellish conditions. He began without much confidence in the dignity of the job—“harmless drudge” is his well-known definition of lexicographer—and complained at the end of his preface that “much of my life has been lost under the pressures of disease; much has been trifled away; and much has always been spent in provision for the day that was passing over me.” He could still claim that he had “devoted this book, the labour of years, to the honour of my country”; and if he failed, so had every other such attempt. There never was a possibility of total success. “Dictionaries are like watches,” he wrote near the end of his life. “The worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.” Of the worst watches and the worst dictionaries this aphorism is untrue, but it is fair to the best, and it is with the best that Johnson’s Dictionary belongs.
Some twenty years after the publication of the Dictionary, the booksellers again knocked on Johnson’s door. They asked him to write biographical and crucial prefaces to an edition of the works of the English poets. Johnson was now sixty-eight and famous, with a vast list of achievements. The public, he had announced, “has no farther claim on me”; “a man is to have part of his life to himself.” Nevertheless he accepted the booksellers’ invitation, asking a fee of only two hundred guineas, which suggests that he greatly underestimated the amount of work he was taking on. (The booksellers later added another hundred.)
Johnson was not responsible for the choice of the poets, and he declined to be called the editor of the series. The booksellers chose some poets who did not interest him, and excluded some who did. He had little taste for archival research, calling it “tedious and troublesome,” and accepted much help from various friends, including Boswell and an autodidactic printer, John Nichols. For some of the lesser poets he relied on encyclopedias or simply announced that he had been unable to discover much or anything about the poet in question.
Johnson had his own views on biography. Authors, he thought, were not good subjects: “their inarticulacy, awkward levity, or unseasonable pedantry can be an embarrassment in polite society.” But in all cases he valued the reports of people who knew the subject of the biography personally above anything to be picked up from hearsay. His substantial biography of Richard Savage was reprinted in the new collection, regardless of the fact that very minor poets like Savage usually got only a page or two. No one will complain at its inclusion, but the Life of Savage is an anomaly in The Lives of the Poets, where, as a rule, the length of the biography roughly reflects Johnson’s opinion of the merit of the subject: Milton, Pope, and Dryden tower over the others, with Cowley, a special case, in the second rank.
He was slow to begin work but, once started, kept at it quite steadily for six years. He tried to be entertaining (“the book is good in vain, which the reader throws away”), and he succeeded. For biographies of any length he uses a rough tripartite structure: the facts of the life, a “character” of the poet, a critical survey of the works. As to this last, he believed it should not be “a dull collection of theorems, nor a rude detection of faults…but a gay and vigorous dissertation, where delight is mingled with instruction….”
The first poet treated is Abraham Cowley, a mid-seventeenth-century poet once thought preeminent, though his celebrity was fading. Johnson disliked his prim, amorous verse, disliked his conceits, and despised his extravagant “Pindaric” odes, which started a fashion that was still not quite exhausted. But this Life is famous less for what it says about Cowley than for the long “dissertation” on wit, which is really the first authoritative critical treatment of the “Metaphysical” poets of the early seventeenth century, including John Donne. Johnson, who conceived it his duty to expose “false taste,” is harsh on their “enormous and disgusting hyperboles.” These poets “were men of learning, and to shew their learning was their whole endeavour.” Yet “if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think.”
This is characteristic; Johnson puts the prosecution case, but then finds arguments for the defense. It is worth emphasizing that students who in our time discuss this kind of poetry, especially when the poet is Donne, cannot afford to ignore this famous passage, even though they may know a lot more than Johnson did about Donne and some notable contemporaries—George Herbert, for instance, whom Johnson nowhere mentions.
On the poets he himself regarded as great he is again both contentious and concessive; that was his habit. He had a strong dislike for Milton the Whig regicide, the “acrimonious and surly republican,” and he was no lover of blank verse. He memorably registers his contempt for the artificiality of “Lycidas” but finds reasons to like L’Allegro and Il Penseroso and Comus, and to Paradise Lost, he is cold but reverent: “Before the greatness displayed in Milton’s poem, all other greatness shrinks away.” Yet “none ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.”
Dryden is the target of many sardonic comments because of his habitual complaints about shortage of money, and Johnson scorns the false wit of his Annus Mirabilis, but he finds Dryden a great writer because he had such vigor (always a term of praise), because he is “the father of English criticism,” and because of his style: “Nothing is cold or languid; the whole is airy, animated, and vigorous.” Pope is scorned for his addiction to great persons, but spared the rough treatment meted out to his friend Swift, who is said to be arrogant, malignant, and on occasion disgusting—charges that could well be laid against Pope, who is treated as a true genius, especially for his translations of Homer and the delightful Rape of the Lock: “an intelligence perpetually on the wing, vigorous and diligent.” Roger Lonsdale, the editor of this new edition of The Lives of the Poets, believes that Pope was for Johnson the climax of English achievement in poetry, and that he believed himself to have lived through a period of literary decadence.
Johnson had wanted to end the collection with the life of the poet Thomas Gray, but the booksellers preferred a different order, so the whole huge work does not conclude, as he hoped it might, with his famous commendation of the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” (“I rejoice to concur with the common reader….”) Before he reaches that point Johnson has characteristically ridiculed much of Gray’s other poetry; as usual he ends on this more amenable note. As his editor points out, he found very little to praise in poetry published after 1751, the date of the “Elegy.”
Swollen by Roger Lonsdale’s long introduction, his textual notes, and his voluminous commentary, the new edition of the Lives runs to some two thousand pages. It is quite simply a marvelous scholarly performance. Lonsdale had to deal with not easily legible manuscripts, with proofs in various stages, with the errors and inconsistencies of earlier editions, such as the one hitherto standard by George Birkbeck Hill, published in 1905. But his greatest achievement is probably the commentaries on the poems. Cowley, a writer of middle rank, requires fifty closely printed pages of notes; but forgotten poets—Pomfret, Burnet, Stepney, and the like—also demand elucidation. George Stepney—to choose a minnow at random—gets two pages from Johnson, one of which is taken up by a transcription of a long Latin epitaph and a final tepid compliment (“He apparently professed himself a poet…now and then a happy line may perhaps be found”). Lonsdale, in a note about four times as long as the biography, tells us about this poet’s family, his education, his friends, his diplomatic career, and the provisions of his will.
When you consider that there were so many poets like Stepney, as well as major poets of whom, though much is known, more is still to be discovered, you might say that Lonsdale’s labors have probably been more arduous than Johnson’s, and must sometimes have been “tedious and troublesome.” But the standard of modern Johnson scholarship is high, and these volumes will be regarded by Lonsdale’s peers as monuments to a heroic achievement.
June 22, 2006
The handsome volume edited by Allen Reddick contains photographic facsimiles of Johnson’s hitherto unpublished revisions, intended for the fourth edition of 1773. The printer, for some unknown reason, failed to include the changes made by Johnson and his amanuenses. Specialists will value this book for the evidence it provides of Johnson’s working methods, and for the annotations of the editor, a celebrated Johnsonian and author of The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary, 1746–1773 (Cambridge University Press, 1990 and 1996). Other readers may get a clearer idea of the character of the original dictionary from the selections in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, edited by Jack Lynch (Levenger, 2002). ↩
For example: to bamboozle (a cant word not used in pure or in grave writings): “to deceive; to impose upon; to confound.” Barbarism: “a form of speech contrary to the purity and exactness of any language.” Cant: “a corrupt dialect used by beggars and vagabonds; a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men; a whining pretention to goodness, in formal or affected terms; barbarous jargon.” ↩
Johnston is drawing on Erich Auerbach’s brilliant study of sermo humilis, in Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Pantheon, 1965). ↩
See the review in these pages by Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review, April 27, 2006. ↩