Thursday, August 23, 2012

`Fine, Crescentic, Semilunar Falstaffian Prominence'

Of his friend Samuel Johnson, James Boswell assures us “his size was remarkably large” and “his frame was majestic,” but I’m unable to find a reliable estimate of Johnson’s height and weight. Was he genuinely outsized by eighteenth-century standards?  Or was his emotional forcefulness, his pit-bull tenacity in argument, the true source of his reputed bulk? Did his personality, in short, inflate the impression of Falstaffian bulk? At least three American writers of the nineteenth century seem impressed with Johnson’s gross tonnage, and suggest it contributes to his looming literary presence. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes of Johnson in the introduction to his third novel, A Mortal Antipathy (1885): 

“I feel more intimately acquainted with than I do with many of my living friends. I can hardly remember when I did not know him... His ample coat too, I see, with its broad flaps and many buttons and generous cuffs, and beneath it the long, still more copiously buttoned waistcoat, arching in front of the fine, crescentic, semilunar Falstaffian prominence, involving no less than a dozen of the above-mentioned buttons, and the strong legs with their sturdy calves, fitting columns of support to the massive body and solid capacious brain enthroned over it. I can hear him with his heavy tread as he comes into the Club, and a gap is widened to make room for his portly figure. ‘A fine day,’ says Sir Joshua. ‘Sir,’ he answers, ‘it seems propitious, but the atmosphere is humid and the skies are nubulous,’ at which the great painter smiles, shakes his trumpet, and takes a pinch of snuff.” 

I prize Holmes’ passage most for “the fine, crescentic, semilunar Falstaffian prominence.” That is, an ample belly. In Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1883), Nathaniel Hawthorne describes his visit to Lichfield, Johnson’s birthplace, and the monument of Johnson erected there in 1838. Like Holmes, Hawthorne isn’t sparing with the adjectives: 

“The figure is colossal (though perhaps not much more so than the mountainous Doctor himself) and looks down upon the spectator from its pedestal of ten or twelve feet high, with a broad and heavy benignity of aspect, very like in feature to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Johnson, but calmer and sweeter in expression. Several big books are piled up beneath his chair, and if I mistake not, he holds a volume in his hand, thus blinking forth at the world out of his learned abstraction, owl-like, yet benevolent at heart. The statue is immensely massive, a vast ponderosity of stone, not finally spiritualised, nor, indeed, fully humanised, but rather resembling a great stone-bowlder than a man. You must look with the eyes of faith and sympathy, or, possibly you might lose the human being altogether, and find only a big stone within your mental grasp.” 

Our third Johnson-bedazzled American is Herman Melville. In Chapter 104 of Moby-Dick, “The Fossil-Whale,” Ishmael says of dictionaries: 

“And here it be said that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that great lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.” 

The Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was 18 inches tall, almost 20 inches wide and weighed 21 pounds. Its boastful maker judged it Vasta mole superbus – “Proud in its great bulk.” The first edition contained 42,773 entries illustrated with roughly 114,000 literary citations. It took Johnson nine years to assemble, almost single-handedly. “Uncommon personal bulk,” indeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Six feet tall?