Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/32

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A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

get drunk to-morrow? Dr B. Hill actually debates the point that Burke could not be the person who lived laxly! For Burke was always "eminent friend." "Moreover," he adds, with perfect gravity, "Burke was not in the habit of getting drunk." Nor did he "live laxly in the world." Then Dr B. Hill thinks of Hamilton, a most sober, respectable personage, and whom Boswell also spoke of as "celebrated," and whom nobody thought lived laxly, etc. But then Boswell and Hamilton were not "friends." Had the editor reflected a little he would have found the person that suited exactly—Windham, who both lived laxly and got drunk.

Boswell, speaking of Harry Dundas, had alluded to his strong Scotch accent, and the editor says: "There is no doubt malice in this second mention of Dundas's accent." As a ground for this malice, he instances Boswell's complaints of neglect. But let us see what is this "malicious" passage: "I cannot too highly praise Mr Dundas's speech. His Scottish accent has often been obtruded as an objection to his powerful abilities," etc. He then likens him to the "most eminent orators of antiquity," in fact, indulges in extravagant panegyric. The truth was, the prudent Boswell was complimenting Dundas in the hope of obtaining his patronage.

Johnson wrote to his black servant exhorting him to be "a good boy." The editor enters on a serious calculation of years, and actually proves by dates that he was not "a boy"! Of course the reader sees that Johnson was using a familiar colloquial phrase. "Be a good boy and take care of yourself," is the refrain of a ballad. In other instances he tries hard to prove that women were not to be called "girls."

"A gentleman," says Boswell, "supposed a case," etc. "The gentleman," the editor says, "must have been Boswell himself, for no one else was present." But Boswell was too careful a workman to overlook this. On turning to the passage, it will be seen that it was a reminiscence, Boswell suspending his account of the conversation to introduce it. For he says: "And let it be kept in mind that he was very careful not to encourage," etc., giving as an illustration, "A gentleman supposed a case." And, on resuming, he is careful to say: "He, this evening, expressed himself," etc.

Some of the editor's "illustrations" only illustrate the contrary sense of the passage—as when Johnson declared that "hardly any one died without affectation." We have Madame de Sevigne to the effect that there is often long acting of a comedy during life, "but that at death we tell the truth "; and also Young, who speaks of "dropping the mask" at death.

"Boswell liked to display such classical learning as he had." Thus the editor, generalising. But it turns out that he was dining with the Headmaster of Eton, and frankly confessed that, to keep up his credit in such company, he furbished up some quotations, which was most natural, "talking," in fact, "ostentatiously." And on this is founded a general statement.

At a dinner, when "The Dunciad" came under discussion, "one of the company," says Boswell, having remarked, "And a poem on what on dunces?" Johnson rudely attacked him. "Ah, it was worth while being a dunce then! Hadst thou been living," etc. The editor thinks that this "one of the company" was Boswell. The dinner was in 1769, in the early stages of Boswell's intimacy with the sage, and long before he had begun to make rude speeches to him. The dinner was given by Boswell—he was the host neither was he in anything approaching to a dunce. There was one present, however, who was a favourite butt of Johnson, and of whom he was always speaking contemptuously—Tom Davies—and he was certainly the man.