Tuesday, December 09, 2014

`Dear Object of Hiation!'

In the Jan. 14, 1773 edition of The Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement appeared an anonymous poem, “On Johnson’s Dictionary.” The author was soon revealed as John Maclaurin, Lord Dreghorn (1734- 1796), a Scottish jurist and prolific writer of forgotten verse. For Johnson, the Scots were an irresistible butt of jokes (“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”), even in the company of Boswell, a native son of Edinburgh. One suspects Lord Dreghorn’s objection to Johnson is less linguistic than patriotic. The poem begins with octosyllabic couplets: 

“In love with a pedantic jargon,
Our poets, now a-days, are far gone;
Hence he alone can read their songs
To whom the gift of tongues belongs;
Or who to make him understand,
Keeps Johnson’s lexicon at hand,
Which an improper name has got,
He should have dubb’d it Polyglot.” 

“Be warn’d, young poet, and take heed
That Johnson you with caution read;
Always attentively distinguish
The Greek and Latin words from English;
And never use such, as ’tis wise
Not to attempt to nat’ralize.” 

In most of the rest of the poem, written in blank verse, Lord Dreghorn attempts to parody A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Johnson’s fondness for a Latinate and Greek-heavy vocabulary, but one can hardly fault a dictionary for inclusiveness. Lord Dreghorn’s strategy is, shall we say, maladroit. That is, heavy-handed, dogged, unsubtle. He apparently gleaned the Dictionary for rare words (itself an homage to Johnson’s labors), and then deploys them in inappropriate contexts, which has the unintended consequence of sending us back to Johnson’s Dictionary to look up so many delicious words: anthropopathy, fulgid, depauperated, pedestrious, vectitation, frigorific and dedecoration – and that’s just the third of six stanzas. One feels greedily defensive of our munificent tongue. In the final stanza, the speaker, tired, thirsty and hungry from his lexicographical labors, awaits his reward: 

“While ambulation thoughtless I protract
The tir’d sun appropinquates to the sea,
And now my arid throat, and latrant guts
Vociferate for supper; but what house
To get it in gives dubitation sad.
O! for a turgid bottle of strong beer,
Mature for imbibition; and O! for —
(Dear object of hiation!) mutton-pye.” 

Johnson, no doubt, would be amused by the proposed menu. According to Boswell, Johnson was served roast mutton at an inn and “scolded the waiter, saying, `It is as bad as bad can be: it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept, and ill-drest.’” Johnson had his gentle but immortal revenge of Lord Dregborn’s parody. On April 18, 1775, Johnson, Boswell and Sir Joshua Reynolds dined at the villa of Richard Owen on the Thames near Twickenham. Boswell reports: 

“I had brought with me a great bundle of Scotch magazines and news-papers, in which his Journey to the Western Islands was attacked in every mode; and I read a great part of them to him, knowing they would afford him entertainment. I wish the writers of them had been present: they would have been sufficiently vexed. One ludicrous imitation of his style, by Mr. Maclaurin, now one of the Scotch Judges, with the title of Lord Dreghorn, was distinguished by him from the rude mass. `This (said he) is the best. But I could caricature my own style much better myself.’”

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