Dr J.’s Sampler
Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street
Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
Peter Martin’s decision to include Johnson’s preface to his Dictionary was an excellent one. It is a delightful essay, partly explaining his lexicographical methodology and partly setting forth Johnson’s views on the nature of language. He struggled for nine years to produce the Dictionary; indeed he almost gave up on it more than once, and wasn’t happy with it when it appeared. None of this comes through in the preface, which alternates between self-effacing wit and peremptory authority.
Johnson’s understanding of linguistic change is, as you would expect, extraordinarily sophisticated. In 1755 he was well aware of what postmodern literary critics were congratulating themselves for knowing in the 1980s: that change in language is inevitable, and that words derive their meanings, not from themselves, but from the ways in which they are used.
Yet Johnson did not draw from this the literally inhuman conclusion that the lexicographer’s duty is merely to describe the language with no reference to propriety or correctness. He refused to include “casual and mutable” language (I notice the Oxford English Dictionary has now adopted, under “footprint,” the meaning “an environmental consequence of human activity”). “This fugitive cant, which is always in a state of increase or decay, cannot be regarded as any part of the durable materials of a language, and therefore must be suffered to perish with other things unworthy of preservation.”
Language is mutable, yes, but it is not for that reason impossible to misuse it, as everyone but linguists seems to understand. Johnson: “Tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.”
Johnson was at his best in his Lives of the Poets, a series of biographical and critical reflections on 52 British poets, written near the end of his life and published in 1781, three years before his death. The present volume reprints most of the lives of Pope, Milton, and Abraham Cowley (this last a risky but reasonable choice), as well as excerpts from Johnson’s full-length biography of Richard Savage.
Like all great criticism, Johnson’s is valuable even when it’s wrong. In the life of Milton, for example, even his disapproval of blank verse is instructive—and, in its way, right:
Again and again, Johnson puts into words what the educated reader usually thinks, without realizing, or admitting to himself, that he thinks it. Again on Milton:
Johnson could tolerate technical imperfection in a poem far more easily than he could abide a common sentiment dressed in florid language, and his discussion of Pope’s Essay on Man remains one of the great eviscerations of English literary history. “Never was penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised,” he begins.
Johnson’s champions have wondered for years why his writings aren’t more widely known. Certainly his prose is often too abstract and Latinate. He was not a systematic thinker, and there is no One Great Work to serve as an obvious point of entry to his writing. Whatever the reasons for his neglect, there is this to be said in his favor: It is impossible to read Johnson without a heightened awareness of the seductiveness of cant.
Surely that’s all the reason we need.
Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834.