Page:A critical examination of Dr G Birkbeck Hills "Johnsonian" Editions.djvu/18

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The charm of a well edited book is always more felt than described. The scrupulous editor—who is judicious and restrained by his reverence for his author—seems to glide about noiselessly; where there is obscurity or difficulty, he whispers an explanation in a little unobtrusive note. He hides himself as much as he can; like the prompter on the stage he is never seen, but "gives the word" when wanted. With this we may contrast Dr B. Hill's method, which we find to be neither more nor less than a gigantic system of note-taking and extracting from multifarious common-place books—the hunting up of "parallel passages" from other books. Johnson utters an opinion, and something he said elsewhere to the same, or to the contrary effect—or something that some one else has said—is noted, and all these things are "shot" in heaps, and "shovelled" upon the unlucky author, who is himself elbowed quite out of the way.

But the most amazing and distracting of all the editor's inventions is assuredly his system of "parallel passages."

It is difficult to give an idea of the wearisome effect left by these quotations encountered at every page with a monotonous frequency. There is surely a sort of scientific scale in supplying notes. The reader comes on something obscure in the text, and casts his eyes down to the bottom of the page for help, which a mere glance ought to find for him. It is altogether different if he has to encounter a long passage from the Rambler or Spectator, and which amounts to no more than this, that Johnson had more verbosely expressed the same idea in another place. More tedious still are the laborious references to other portions of the work—the eternal "See ante," and "See post." The injury thus done to Boswell's sprightly, pleasant chronicle—a light, flowing narrative—were it only in form, is extraordinary. Boswell's own notes are always judicious and artistic—little asides, as it were; an anecdote; a short corrective remark, or gay comment; a short, sufficient sketch of a person alluded to; there are only about half a dozen that seem intruders and too "heavy" for their place. The whole, text and notes, is homogeneous.

After "Walpole's Letters," in nine volumes, his journals, histories, etc., our editor's mainstay for quotation purposes is the Rambler, and others of Johnson's works. For every sentiment of Johnson's there is furnished something analogous from his Rambler, Idler, etc. For this course he gives a singular reason. Johnson, it seems, always talked for argument, so that his conversations could not represent his true opinions. These must be supplied from more orthodox sources. "Editing Boswell," therefore, is to consist in neutralising, correcting, and in part abolishing all these pleasant talks. Cannot our editor understand that the charm of conversation, as of all comedy, is to be found in its spontaneousness and absence of responsibility, and that the speakers are not presumed to "talk upon affidavit," as it were? Their attraction is their being first impressions, and