Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 2 (1792)

If I want to make better progress on the 12 volumes of the Works of Samuel Johnson that I'm reading as part of Harold Bloom's western canon list, I should probably have taken less than two years between reading Volume 1 and finishing up The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 2 (1792). At this rate it will take me twenty years to finish the whole set!

This volume contains documentation of some of Johnson's greatest known works -- the proposal and preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, and the same for his definitive edition of the Works of Shakespeare, both of which give him cause to comment on the scholarship of one of his contemporaries:

In his preface to his edition of Shakespeare, he writes about his use of the work of the scholar Lewis Theobald (who he describes as "a man of narrow comprehension, and small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsic splendor of genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it."):

"Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained himself in his second edition, except when they were confuted by subsequent annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his achievement. The exuberant excrescence of his diction I have often lopped, his triumphant exultations over Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed, and his contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but I have in some places shown him, as he would have shown himself, for the reader's diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or excuse the contraction of the rest." (p. 119)

Beyond insanely complicated dictionary compilations and extremely thorough Shakespearean editing, Johnson's works in this volume jump from prefaces to other writers works, plans for a curriculum, political histories and commentaries, moral allegories, and a lot more. And all of them are witty, moving, and/or interesting. The man could write, and the man had opinions. Take, for example, his ideas about Canada, which I have to quote at length because they are so great:

"The French therefore contented themselves with sending a colony to Canada, a cold uncomfortable uninviting region, from which nothing but furs and fish were to be had, and where the new inhabitants could only pass a laborious and necessitous life, in perpetual regret of the deliciousness and plenty of their native country.

" Notwithstanding the opinion which our countrymen have been taught to entertain of the comprehension and foresight of French politicians, I am not able to persuade myself, that when this colony was first planted, it was thought of much value, even by those that encouraged it; there was probably nothing more intended than to provide a drain into which the waste of an exuberant nation might be thrown, a place where those who could do no good might live without the power of doing mischief. Some new advantage they undoubtedly saw, or imagined themselves to see, and what more was necessary to the establishment of the colony was supplied by natural inclination to experiments, and that impatience of doing nothing, to which mankind perhaps owe much of what is imagined to be effected by more splendid motives.

"In this region of desolate sterility they settled themselves, upon whatever principle; and as they have from that time had the happiness of a government by which no interest has been neglected, nor any part of their subjects overlooked, they have, by continual encouragement and assistance from France, been perpetually enlarging their bounds and increasing their numbers." (p. 301-302)

The French and Indian War may have colored his sentiments a little there...

Overall, Volume 2 was pretty entertaining and interesting in retrospect, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to read it. Since volumes three and four are already waiting for me on my new bookcase, I should scold myself into making more of an effort to show a little love to Dr. Johnson and his wonderful works.

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