Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/30

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A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

and for whom he had a cordial affection. The editor, however, has discovered that Johnson "did not speak equally well of Dr James's morals." This is rather a serious charge, for "morals" is a large word. He explains it in this way: "He will not," wrote Johnson, "pay for three box tickets which he took; 'tis a strange fellow." Who has not experienced something of this kind a rich friend forgets to pay, or puts off paying, for some ticket, cab, etc., or is a little stingy—we tell it with a smile "'tis a strange fellow," but we do not thereby revile his "morals." Dr B. Hill has studied books, not character.

Once Johnson, pleased with a dinner, said, "It could not have been better had it been prepared by a 'synod of cooks.'" Could anything be clearer or more intelligible, as a pleasant remark en passant? But listen to the editor: "When Johnson spoke of a 'synod of cooks,' he was, I conjecture, thinking of Milton's 'Synod of Gods,' in Beelzebub's speech in 'Paradise Lost,' Book II., line 391." It gives one a sort of chill to read these solemnities. But if we must explain it all literally, and " by the card," Johnson was not thinking of Milton or Beelzebub, nor even of the Diocesan Synods of his own country; he was drawing a humorous picture of the chefs assembled in council, grave as divines, and concocting their dinner.

Boswell described Hawkins as "Mr John Hawkins, an attorney." "In thus styling Hawkins, he remembered, no doubt, Johnson's sarcasm against attorneys." Thus Dr B. Hill: "No doubt." Nothing of the kind. There was no connection between Boswell's speech and Johnson's sarcasm, which was "that he did not like to speak ill of a gentleman behind his back, but he believed he was an attorney." Which prompts Dr B. Hill to engender a new and rather grotesque theory that Johnson "had some motive for his ill-will towards them (the attorneys)," just as he had towards excisemen. And what is the ground for this speculation? That when describing, in his poem, the various bad characters that infested the streets of London, Johnson had used the phrase, "The fell attorney prowls for prey." These are all morbid imaginings. Miss Hawkins expressly states that Boswell used the offensive description of her father because the latter had described him as "Mr James Boswell, a native of Scotland," instead of "the celebrated," or well-known Mr Boswell.

"I mentioned to him," says Boswell, "a respectable person in Scotland whom he knew." Now, who could see any obscurity here? But we have a long disquisition on the meaning of the word "respectable." In those days "it was still a term of high praise." The dictum, as it is needless, we might let pass. But it must be proved by quotations, firstly from Johnson's Dictionary; secondly, from "The Tour"; thirdly, from Dr Franklin; fourthly, from the Gentleman's Magazine; fifthly, from Hannah More; sixthly, from Gibbon; seventhly, from George III.; eighthly, from Lord Chesterfield! All these personages, it seems, used "respectable" as "a term of praise."

When Mrs Thrale contemptuously described Boswell as "sitting steadily down at the other end of the room" to take notes of the conversation, the editor suggests that "stealthily" should be read. But Mrs Thrale meant that Boswell pursued his work with a sort of obtuse purpose or "doggedness," regardless of remark. He never had any idea of "stealthiness" in his task. The Prince of Wales had promised to attend the Royal Academy Exhibition, and Johnson wrote that "when we had waited an hour and a half he sent us word that he could not come." This quite puts the editor in a rage. "The First