A CRITICAL EXAMINATION
Johnson or Boswell, who in their lives must have passed numbers of places where more or less obscure people were "lying as babies?"
Surveying the ruins at St Andrews, Johnson pronounced that it was "a sorrowful scene," and very naturally, for these were devastated churches. The editor tells us: "One sorrowful scene Johnson was perhaps too late in the year to see." And what was this?—a death?—illness? Why, nothing but some broken windows in one of the colleges!
There is a critical instinct that comes of familiarity with turns of thought and character, and which almost infallibly guides us to the meaning. "Davies," Johnson wrote, "has had great success as an author, generated by the corruption of a bookseller," a pleasant sarcasm, which is surely intelligible. He means that the success of the authorship was owing to the knowledge of the "tricks of the trade," or that the authorship was of the inferior sort that might be expected from a crafty bookseller. The editor can see nothing of this. Johnson intended to point at Davies having been a bankrupt! There was "the corruption of the bookseller." With this interpretation Johnson's saying becomes unmeaning, for there is no corruption in bankruptcy as regards authorship. Moreover, Davies's bankruptcy had occurred some years before.
Johnson wrote to his friend Taylor that a Dr Wilson "can have no money," etc. Here is a specimen of the fashion in which Dr B. Hill will mistake the plain meaning of a passage. "Taylor," he says, "might have had some dispute" with Wilson. But the passage is clear—Wilson had a dispute, not with Taylor, but with a "Mr B." Johnson writes that the case is clear on Mr B.'s side, and Taylor intervening had merely drawn up some paper to help his friend, which Johnson praised. The editor tells us also, in reference to Taylor's quarrel with his wife: "Boswell seems to have known nothing of this matter." What! Boswell, who went on visits to Taylor with Johnson, who talked over his affairs with Johnson, and who was inquisitive enough—would he not have asked about Taylor's wife? As Taylor was alive, and helped him in his work, he was naturally silent on this delicate point.
When comforting Mrs Thrale on the loss of her husband, Johnson wrote: "Whom I have lost let me not now remember." Who could mistake the meaning? "You have lost your husband, but see all I have lost losses I dare not think of." That is to say, his own wife, his mother, etc. Then he added that others had suffered also" Lucy Porter has just lost her brother." But no; he was thinking of Thrale, whom he wished not even to " now remember," though he was at the moment remembering him, and dwelling on his merits.
Some of the editor's facetious comments are not very intelligible. Mrs Thrale wrote of her husband that "he had not much heart, and his fair daughters none at all." This, the editor good-naturedly says, "she recorded, or pre tended to record, in her journal." The eldest of his five daughters, he adds, was sixteen, and the youngest only two years old. Every one knows that there are affectionate children, even at these ages, as well as heartless ones, or there are indications of these qualities. We have then this mysterious utterance concerning the youngest: "She died two years later—not five years old—and without a heart"! I cannot guess what this means.
Dr B. Hill is a rather indifferent hand at translation. Witness his dealing with the familiar "omne ignotum pro magnifico," which means that "everything unknown is taken to be splendid." But the editor has it, "the un-