Wednesday, March 19, 2014

`Nothing But Leather and Prunella'

“Worth makes the man; the rest is nothing but leather and prunella.” 

Roger Sale writes with admiration short of hagiography in “Johnson in Darkness,” a chapter in Literary Inheritance (University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), his examination of writers (Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth, Henry James) and their relations with writers of the immediately preceding generation. Johnson’s shadow, in Sale’s view, is Alexander Pope. The sentence quoted above is Sales, from Pope, by way of Johnson. These lines are from An Essay on Man (1734): 

“You'll find, if once the monarch acts the monk,
Or, cobbler-like, the parson will be drunk,
Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow.
The rest is all but leather or prunella.” 

The last word, despite its sound, is not a confection made from dried plums. Here’s the operative definition in the OED: “A strong silk or worsted fabric formerly used for the gowns of graduates, members of the clergy, and barristers, and later for the uppers of shoes.” The dictionary cites Pope’s usage. In his Dictionary (1755), Johnson also cites the lines, but in his entry for fellow, under this definition: “8. A word of contempt; the foolish mortal; the mean wretch; the sorry rascal.” Sale judges Johnson’s Dictionary his supreme creation, and is less than enthusiastic about the periodical essays and Rasselas. In the entry for fellow, Johnson is “at his best,” Sale says. This is unexpected and useful. He writes: 

“Pope is fending off precisely those tones Johnson, not really attending to Pope’s passage, asks us to include. It is as though Pope, for Johnson, is not worth the attention he accords Sidney, Shakespeare, or Dryden.” 

Sale goes on the strongly praise Johnson’s late poem, “On the Death of Mr. Robert Levet,” lauding his use of the tetrameter quatrain over his earlier reliance on the heroic couplet. Of the poem he says: “It is appropriate to end with it here as a way of honoring Johnson, his best book a dictionary, his strongest appearance in someone else’s book about him, his poems a few scattered things, his best prose work an homage to a friend whose life and work had come to nothing [The Life of Savage].” 

Sale continues: “…Johnson knew Levet as his fellow, obscurely wise because there was no wisdom in what he said, coarsely kind so that only those most in need of his kindness could recognize it for what it was. Worth makes the man; the rest is nothing but leather and prunella.” 

Sale is the sort of critic who helps us see a great writer as if for the first time. We weigh his judgments and ours, and read Johnson anew.


rhollick said...

Also comes up in "Middlemarch" where at the start of Vol. 2 Lydgate says "Ladislaw is a sort of gypsy; he thinks nothing of leather and prunella."

Logrunner said...

Just come across the expression in Anthony Trollope's autobiography where he was standing for Parliament and assessing the voters' opinion of his political ideas.