Saturday, August 02, 2014

`Pliable to Pick Up Even the Pin'

What follows is a portion of Dr. Johnson’s definition of elephant in his Dictionary. Note the sympathetic rendering of an animal often comically portrayed as oversized, slow and lumbering: “The largest of all quadrupeds, of whose sagacity, faithfulness, prudence, and even understanding, many surprising relations are given.” One senses admiration for an animal still exotic and even frightening in Europe in 1755. Johnson adds in a quite non-lexicographical fashion: “It is naturally very gentle; but when enraged, no creature is more terrible.” Do we hear a note of identification in Johnson’s definition?  His ferocity in conversation was legendary and he seldom peacefully suffered fools. Coleridge referred to “his bow-wow manner.” Hazlitt, apropos of the pachyderm, writes disapprovingly of Johnson in English Comic Writers (1819): “He has neither ease nor simplicity, and his efforts at playfulness, in part, remind one of the lines in Milton:—`the elephant / To make them sport wreath’d his proboscis lithe.'” Hazlitt, though a brilliant writer, was frequently blind to the best in others. 

All of which came to me while reading in Hester Lynch Thrale Pizzoli’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson L.L.D. in Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897). She describes an occasion when friends of Johnson tried to characterize his mind: 

“He was not at all offended, when comparing all our acquaintances to some animal or other, we pitched upon the elephant for his resemblance, adding that the proboscis of that creature was like his mind most exactly, strong to buffet even the tiger, and pliable to pick up even the pin.” 

Johnson, too, was filled with “'satiable curtiosity.”

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