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A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions/Dr B. Hill's "Discoveries"

< A Critical Examination of Dr G. Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions


Naturally, having made his first "discovery" of a Boswell in the old shop "under the shadow of a great cathedral," our editor began to find some other wonderful things. Most of these turn out to be either no discoveries at all, or to be all wrong, or made by somebody else. This is generally the case with persons who largely take up a subject of study which delights them; they forget that others have been at work before them, and are too eager and enthusiastic to investigate what these have done.

Lest these "discoveries" of his should be overlooked, the editor makes special mention of them in his preface. We will begin with one notable specimen. Johnson had praised some pretty lines on a girl singing at her wheel, and repeated them: "Verse sweetens toil," etc. Asked where they were to be found, he said he did not recall the name of the poem, but it was by "one Giffard, a parson." The editor went hard to work, and at last discovered the poem. With pardonable pride he claims his meed of praise: "That I have lighted upon the beautiful lines which Johnson quoted, and have found out who 'one Giffard, a parson,' was, is to me a source of just triumph. I have not known many happier hours than the one in which, in the library of the British Museum, my patient investigation was rewarded, and I perused 'Contemplation.'" Observe what is claimed patience, long in vestigation, diligent search, final success and triumph. Willing to sympathise, and wishing to follow in our editor's track, I, at a venture, took down the index to the Gentleman's Magazine, Dr B. Hill's old friend, which he has consulted in every difficulty, and was referred to vol. 77, p. 1, page 477, where, to my amazement, I found an account of this " Giffard, a parson," with the passage:—" One small poem of his, entitled 'Contemplation,' was printed in 1752, which attracted the notice of Dr Johnson, who has quoted it in his Dictionary." Bewildered, I next opened another familiar Encyclopaedia—Nicholl's "Literary Anecdotes"—and there again was I informed that "Contemplation " was the name of the poem! Next I opened Johnson's great Dictionary. There again it was, under the word "Wheel." The whole process took about five minutes! What did it mean? Where were Dr B. Hill's "patient in vestigations," "happy hours," and moment of triumph in the Museum? We must not sup pose that he would resort to deliberate artifice to enhance his labours; but the incident, at least, calls for some explanation, which Dr B. Hill should consider it due to himself to give.

"I would particularly refer," he says, "to the light I have thrown upon Johnson engaging in politics with Hamilton, and upon Burke's talk of retiring." It is well known that Johnson had formed this connection with Hamilton, and wrote for him a work on "Corn." "But," says the editor, "I suspect there was more than this," as now we shall hear. In the spring of the year 1766, "Burke separated from Hamilton," and it seems to Dr B. Hill "highly probable" that Hamilton then sought Johnson's assistance. In almost the next sentence we are told that Hamilton, "on losing Burke, wrote on February 12, 1765," etc., though we have just been in formed that he did not lose Burke until a year later. Then "Chambers was looked for to supply Burke's place," though we have been assured that on "losing Burke" Johnson was applied to. But leaving aside this confusion, we are still uncertain as to "the discovery" made by Dr B. Hill, or "the light" he has "thrown" on the matter. We hear of Warton, Chambers, Burke, Hamilton, but nothing new about Johnson, except an " I think it highly probable."

Next, Dr B. Hill would again particularly refer to "the light I have thrown upon Burke's talk of retiring." Johnson begged him not to think of it, adding that it " would be civil suicide." The editor "discovers" that "the gentleman" was Burke, who had recently said in the House that if a question were pressed he would resign his office. An ordinary reader would see that "retiring" had a more general meaning than this; and indeed it would be absurd to think that a mere resignation would be "civil suicide," particularly in the case of such a man as Burke. But the editor should have recalled a passage in "The Tour," under August 19, where Mr Nairne said that he had "an inclination to retire" which was regularly discussed by Johnson. He declared that those who were scrupulous "may retire." "I have talked of retiring, but I find my vocation is an active life." This is conclusive. So much then for the "light thrown" upon Burke's talk of retiring when it turns out (1) that it was not Burke at all; (2) that he was not "retiring"; and (3) that "retiring" means quite another thing.

There was a page or two which Boswell cancelled in "The Tour," it is supposed under pressure from Sir A. Macdonald, whom he had assailed. The editor assures us that he "discovered, though too late, that in the first edition the leaf containing pp. 167-68 was really can and 169, there is a narrow projecting ridge of paper," etc.

It may be said that there is no "ridge" between pages 168 and 169; the editor means between pages 166 and 169, but this is a trifle. However this may be, Mr Croker, some sixty years ago, made "the discovery" of the cancel, pasting, ridge, and all! What sort of delusion is this? There is yet another mistake connected with this matter. He tells us that "Rowlandson, in one of his caricatures, paints Boswell as begging for mercy," etc. Now it was not Rowlandson that painted or etched Boswell in such an attitude. The caricature in question belongs to a series of about a score, exhibiting all the most ludicrous incidents of the "Tour," which were the work, as Angelo tells us, not of Rowlandson, but of another artist one Collins.

Again, he is afraid that ardent advocates of total abstinence will not be pleased at finding that "I have been obliged to show that Johnson thought that his gout was due to his temperance." To this special attention is called in the preface. To our astonishment, when we come to the body of the work, we find that it was a correspondent of "Notes and Queries," not Dr B. Hill, who found out this opinion of Johnson's!

Yet another of our editor's unlucky guesses is connected with the degree given to Johnson by Oxford. In his Latin reply acknowledging the diploma, he said it had been conferred on him at a time when crafty men were "attempting in every way to impair the fame and influence of the University, attempts which he always had opposed and would oppose." "Here," says the editor, "I believe he alludes to the charge of disloyalty brought against the University." He had in his mind a libellous or disloyal placard which had been posted up in the market-place of the town, and it was reported that this had been done by the students. It was this, according to Dr B. Hill, that was in Johnson's mind. But it will be seen that he talks of "crafty men? of attacks which he describes as "storms" (procellas). This might dispose of the whole point, but, unfortunately for the editor, Johnson's letter was written in February 1755, and the incident of the placard was in July, five or six months later! So the whole speculation topples over.

This delusion as to sham "discoveries" pursues Dr B. Hill through the whole of his various collections. In the "Letters" there is one for which he is bold enough to claim credit, and which seems really trop fort. He must think his readers rather simple folk. On one of his visits to Oxford Johnson had for his host Dr Edwardes, but in his Letters he does not say of what college, or where his rooms were. Now comes forward Dr B. Hill. "In fact, I believe it is a discovery of mine that he resided at Jesus College? Wonderful discovery that we can make at once ourselves by turning to any college list! But even granting to him this meagre amount of research, what will be said when we find in one of Hannah More's letters that she was "engaged to dine with Dr Edwardes of Jesus College, to meet Dr Johnson"? But let us go on.

The most surprising of Dr B. Hill's "discoveries" I have reserved for the last, and it really takes one's breath away. Goldsmith's age is generally known, or can be known; but our editor has found out that "Goldy" has himself revealed it, or rather hidden it Donnelly fashion in a sort of mysterious cryptogram. This is found in his edition, of the "Letters": "There is a passage," says the editor, "in The Bee, No. 2, which leads me to think that he himself held November twelfth as his birthday. He there says: 'I shall be sixty-two on the twelfth of next November.' Now, as The Bee was published in October 1757, he would not be sixty-two, but just half that number, thirty-one, on his next birthday." This is amazing, and beats the world. A man says he is sixty-two, but means that he is just half that age! But on turning to this Bee account, we find not Goldsmith at all, but an account of an elderly gentleman, one "Cousin Jeffrey," in attendance on an old maid, " Cousin Hannah," so that the age of sixty-two was appropriate