Friday, April 15, 2011

`No Bad Reading'

In 1910, three years before he became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Robert Bridges published in The Times Literary Supplement an essay, “Word-Books,” devoted to the abiding allure of dictionaries (collected in Robert Bridges: Poetry & Prose, Oxford University Press, 1955). Bridges admired Charles Lamb as the embodiment of a waning species of Englishness and had published a book about the essayist in 1882. In the essay he writes:

“It is a pity that Lamb, in his `Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading,’ never told us what he thought of Johnson’s Dictionary; whether he held it worthy to rank with his beloved Burton and Browne, or whether he would have set it between Gibbon and the backgammon-board. He was himself careful of words, and knew how tenderly they should be used; and one could believe that he might have cherished a fantastic devotion towards a book so full of extracts. But had he really ever made friends with the Dictionary, he would have told us.”

I find no mention of the Dictionary among Lamb’s works and the rare references to Johnson are gently jocular. Lamb, no doubt, found his great prose precursor too solemn, too Latinate, too orotund – in a word, laughable. Bridges, however, correctly concludes Lamb would have relished the heart of Johnson’s great lexicon – some 114,000 citations from more than five-hundred writers. Judged solely as an anthology of great literary passages (Johnson’s favorites, judged by frequency: Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope), the dictionary is a respectable one-volume education. Lamb, with his militant bookishness and antiquarian tastes, should have found it endlessly rereadable. It remains the only dictionary I have ever read sequentially, cover to cover. In the essay cited by Bridges, Lamb speaks for me when he writes: “When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.” Bridges continues on Lamb:

“With his peculiar personal idiosyncrasy, his individual irresponsible taste, he would, likely enough, have felt some prudish scruple at the idea of getting any knowledge of his craft at second-hand; and he could never have stomached the pedantry of some of Johnson’s authorities. Of Robert Browning it is recorded that when he determined to devote himself to poetry, he read the whole of Johnson’s Dictionary through, just as Gibbon, to qualify himself for his great historical task, studied the itineraries of the Roman Empire; and the Doctor’s two original folios with their uncurtailed quotation are no bad reading; they are a magnificent failure to accomplish an impossible feat—that is, to complete a dictionary such as a literary artist would love to possess.”

Like the Oxford English Dictionary, Johnson’s is a national epic in the form of a “word-book” – the nation being the English language. As Guy Davenport writes of Louis Zukofsky’s Bottom: On Shakespeare, they belong to “that scarce genre which we can only call a book, like Boswell’s Johnson, Burton’s incredible Anatomy, Walton’s Compleat Angler.” Lamb writes in his essay:

“I can read any thing which I call a book. There are things in that shape which I cannot allow for such.

“In this catalogue of books which are no books -- biblia a-biblia -- I reckon Court Calendars, Directories, Pocket Books, Draught Boards bound and lettered at the back, Scientific Treatises, Almanacks, Statutes at Large; the works of Hume, Gibbon [thus, Bridges’ reference to Gibbon above], Robertson, Beattie, Soame Jenyns [Johnson’s bĂȘte noir], and, generally, all those volumes which `no gentleman's library should be without :’ the Histories of Flavius Josephus (that learned Jew), and Paley's Moral Philosophy. With these exceptions, I can read almost any thing. I bless my stars for a taste so catholic, so unexcluding.”

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