Thursday, November 10, 2011

`Your Country Consists of Two Things'

Helen Pinkerton writes:

“I was in the middle of the Boswell-Johnson tour of the Hebrides, when I had to stop, and now I can resume reading it. What a delight it is! though neither man really seems to be interested in the birdlife or plants, except Johnson's lament at the lack of trees on those barren islands.”

Boswell and Johnson spent eighty-three days in the summer and fall of 1773 touring Boswell’s homeland, an irresistible target for Johnson’s prickly sense of humor. Scotland was his favorite punch line, the eighteenth-century counterpart to Polish jokes, and now he was touring the butt of his comedy in person for the first time, as though collecting ammunition. He was sixty-three, Boswell thirty-two, and together they visited Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Aberdeen, Inverness, Skye, Raasay, Coll, Mull, and Glasgow. Helen may be referring to this passage in Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), though there are several to choose from:

A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice. At St. Andrews Mr. Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice; I told him it was rough and low, or looked as if I thought so. This, said he, is nothing to another a few miles off. I was still less delighted to hear that another tree was not to be seen nearer. Nay, said a gentleman that stood by, I know but of this and that tree in the county.”

The solitary Scottish tree reminds me of the opening stage direction in Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree.” In1785, the year after Johnson’s death, Boswell published his own account of their visit to Scotland, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The paucity of trees is revived as a topic of conversation in the entry for Aug. 20:

“We went and saw Colonel Nairne’s garden and grotto. Here was a fine old plane tree. Unluckily the Colonel said, there was but this and another large tree in the county. This assertion was an excellent cue for Dr. Johnson, who laughed enormously, calling to me to hear it. He had expatiated to me on the nakedness of that part of Scotland which he had seen. His Journey had been violently abused, for what he had said upon this subject. But let it be considered, when Dr. Johnson talks of trees, he means trees of good size, such as he was accustomed to see in England; and of these there are certainly very few upon the eastern coast of Scotland.”

Part of the fun is watching Boswell navigate his conflicting loyalties to Johnson and the land of his birth, which explains why the italicized phrase in the sentence just quoted is amusing. In 1993, Yale University Press made the job easier by publishing an interleaved edition of the two books, Johnson and Boswell in Scotland, edited by the eighteenth-century scholar Pat Rogers. Corresponding passage in the texts can be read and compared on facing pages, and Rogers amply quotes from their correspondence and other books. In his introduction Rogers writes:

“For both men the trip had been a challenge and an experiment. Johnson wanted to see an area about as remote from London as Tibet is today; he had never been out of England before, though he was to make short peregrinations to north Wales and to Paris in later years. He wished to explore a more primitive landscape…”

Despite the exertions of travel, Johnson enjoyed himself, in part because he encountered so many opportunities to pester Boswell and his fellow Scots. Boswell quotes him in the Journal saying:

“Your country consists of two things, stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags; the naked skin is still peeping out.”

And later, in the Life of Johnson:

“What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?"


S R Plant said...

I must say I find Johnson's attitude toward Scotland tedious, everything else the Great Cham declaims is unique, perceptive, inspirational, but his obsession with Scottish jokes – man, did no one stand up to him!
I'm a little drunk now and tomorrow will have changed my mind, but still...

George said...

Well, the Vikings invaded it quite a bit, and the Anglo-Saxons must have, given that Lallans so long ago superseded Erse; and then there was quite a succession of English kings who did.

Having lived some years in Colorado (lots of stone, water not so much), I can understand the attraction of a landscape of stone and water. And having suffered the shock of early dark under trees and clouds on moving east, I have to say that at least in winter the Scots might have found a bare landscape less depressing.

Oxford used to publish a volume with Boswell's Tour following Johnson's Journey, but when I looked for it to give as a present I couldn't find it. I may have to look up the Yale edition.

Helen Pinkerton said...

The Yale UP edition, "Johnson and Boswell in Scotland: A Journey to the Hebrides" (1993), edited by Pat Rogers, is splendid in every way, including many illustrations. Also included are Johnson's letters from Scotland to the Thrales.