Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/50

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
38
A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

JOHNSON'S STAY AT OXFORD.

Here is a very interesting, much-debated question: How long was Johnson at the University? The popular notion, always accepted after the account given by his friends and con temporaries, is that he really completed his term, but left without taking a degree. Mr Croker, however, on inspecting the books, was the first to broach a theory that he had been only fourteen months at Oxford. After an interval of nearly sixty years, Dr B. Hill is found to adopt the theory; so does the Rev. Mr Napier, so does Mr Birrell, and so does the editor of the Globe edition. All these editors seems to think that there can be no dispute about the point. But on the other side, who have we? Boswell himself, the friend and biographer; Hawkins, friend, biographer, and executor; Murphy, another friend and biographer; contemporary accounts and memoirs; I may add myself and my edition, because I was the first since Mr Croker to investigate the matter afresh at the fountainhead. Finally, Mr Leslie Stephen, a sound Johnsonian, inclines to the three years' theory.

Boswell announces in the most positive way that Johnson "left the college in autumn, 1731, without a degree, having been a member of it little more than three years." Now, that painstaking writer has told us "that I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London in order to fix a date correctly; which, when I had accomplished, I well knew would obtain me no praise, though a failure would have been to my discredit." Here is a date, year, and month, and a period given, for which he had no need to "run half over London" to ascertain, for he had simply to consult his great friend, or his great friend's tutor, Dr Adams. And he actually tells us that on several occasions he obtained from Johnson all the particulars of his early life and education. Further, once at Oxford, Boswell extracted from Dr Adams everything about Johnson's residence at Oxford. Would not his first question have been: "And how many years, sir, did he remain there?" It is quite impossible to put aside the force of this argument.

Again, we should consider the number of de tails and events that have come down to us of Johnson's college life, his acquaintances, poverty, studies, and change of tutors, etc., all of which suggest a regular University course, quite in compatible with a stay of a few months. All through his life he looked on himself and spoke of himself as a "University man," who belonged to the place, which he certainly would not have done had he been there only fourteen months. Would he have been con stantly returning and stopping there, and call ing up old memories of places and friends? Any reader would have an uneasy feeling that Johnson, after so short a residence, and being obliged to quit the place under the stigma of not being able to pay his way, was making but a pretence of being an Oxonian. He would be really little more than a "freshman." Nay, those fourteen months would have been but too painful an episode for Johnson himself to recall, and he would certainly have shunned all allusion to his Alma Mater. Further, would the University have given him two degrees on so slender a connection?