Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/84

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72

A CRITICAL EXAMINATION

means by a sudden impulse, by something that caught hold of him." It is curious that so thorough a Johnsonian should not recall another occasion when the same word was used: "God Almighty will not take a catch of him"—that is, will not take him by surprise; take an unfair advantage of him.

A poor woman is described in the text as "sitting shivering in a niche" of the old Westminster Bridge. This is surely intelligible—these niches with seats are still to be seen on Vauxhall and other bridges. But this is not enough. To prevent all mistake, the editor begins with a definition of "niche," taken from the Dictionary. "Johnson defines 'niche' as a hollow in which a statue may be placed"! Though in the case of the bridge there were seats, for the woman was sitting there. The editor, who seems to think that the poor woman had no business to be there at all, in a place which Dr Johnson had proved was intended for a statue, now introduces from Dodsley's "Account of London" a passage about these very recesses, which, he says, states that they were "intended to be filled with groups of statuary." The woman must now really move on. But having Dodsley's work on my own shelves—an entertaining book—I took it down, and read, to my astonishment, not that these recesses were intended for statues, but that "between the recesses are pedestals," on which groups of statuary were to be placed. So the whole niche speculation utterly fails.

Another odd mistake. In 1765 Johnson wrote down, "I read my resolutions." The editor fancies that he was thinking of some old resolutions made thirteen years before, "perhaps the resolutions made when his wife lay dead before him." Nothing of the kind. Turning back to only the preceding page, we find them: "My resolutions, which God perfect," i.e. "to avoid loose thoughts and rise at light."

At Pembroke College Johnson, showing his old haunts and going over the place, pointed out the old scenes: "Here we played cricket," etc. This is not by the card. "Johnson must have pointed to a field outside the college precincts, for within there was no room for cricket." A needless caution. It would have occurred to no one that cricket was played "within the precincts," i.e. in a courtyard.

Every one knows the story of how Johnson knocked down his bookseller, Osborne, with a folio. The scene took place in Johnson's own room. It is not of much importance what the volume was, but Nichols identified it as a copy of the Septuagint. But the editor has a fancy which must be introduced. It seems that Osborne had made Johnson a present of a "Second Folio Shakespeare": and the editor has the fantastic notion that either by design or chance, Johnson had used this tome to terraser his visitor! True, he hesitates somewhat, for "it is scarcely likely that Osborne would have brought it to Johnson, as schoolboys used to provide birch rods, with which they were beaten." But this "conceit," such as it is, seemed so taking and pleasant, that we find him in another work stating more positively, "in the good old days in the grammar schools the unhappy culprit was often required to provide a birch rod, etc. Might not Osborne in like manner have provided a folio with which he was to be knocked down?" Now we have heard in schools of boys having to ask for punishment, and it may be to fetch the birch rod, but it may be doubted if there was ever a custom of the boys being sent out to purchase a birch rod! But this by the way. Then as to Nichols, who was so positive? All a mistake, for the editor has seen the sale catalogue of Johnson's books, and there was no Septuagint among them; so he still clings to his "Second Folio Shake-