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Dr J.’s Sampler

Gleanings from the sage of Fleet Street

Jun 14, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 37 • By BARTON SWAIM
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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.  

As by the cultivation of various sciences, a language is amplified, it will be more furnished with words deflected from their original sense; the geometrician will talk of a courtier’s zenith, or the eccentric virtue of a wild hero, and the physician of sanguine expectations and phlegmatic delays. Copiousness of speech will give opportunities to capricious choice, by which some words will be preferred, and others degraded; vicissitudes of fashion will enforce the use of new, or extend the signification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current sense: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will at one time or other, by public infatuation, rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety.


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:

Of the Italian writers without rhyme, whom Milton alleges as precedents, not one is popular; what reason could urge in its defence has been confuted by the ear. But whatever be the advantages of rhyme I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is; yet like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than imitated. He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank verse, but those that hope only to please must condescend to rhyme.

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: 

Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. 

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. 

When these wonder-working sounds sink into sense, and the doctrine of the Essay, disrobed of its ornaments, is left to the powers of its naked excellence, what shall we discover? That we are, in comparison with our Creator, very weak and ignorant; that we do not uphold the chain of existence; and that we could not make one another with more skill than we are made. We may learn yet more: that the arts of human life were copied from the instinctive operations of other animals; that if the world be made for man, it may be said that man was made for geese. To these profound principles of natural knowledge are added some moral instructions equally new: that self-interest, well understood, will produce social concord; that men are mutual gainers by mutual benefits; that evil is sometimes balanced by good; that human advantages are unstable and fallacious, of uncertain duration and doubtful effect; that our true honour is not to have a great part, but to act it well; that virtue only is our own; and that happiness is always in our power.

Surely a man of no very comprehensive search may venture to say that he has heard all this before, but it was never till now recommended by such a blaze of embellishments, or such sweetness of melody. 

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.



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