Thursday, May 31, 2018

'Reposite It on the Shelves in My Name'

On this date, May 31, in 1769, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to his friend the Rev. Thomas Warton, a poet and scholar at Trinity College who had recently served as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry:

“Many years ago when I used to read in the library of your College I promised to recompense the College for that permission by adding to their books a Baskersvilles Virgil. I have now sent it, and desire you to reposite it on the Shelves in my name.”

Johnson refers to the summer of 1754, which he spent in Oxford while working on his Dictionary of the English Language. It was published the following year, and Oxford awarded him an honorary M.A. – thus, “Doctor” Johnson. At age eighteen, in 1728, Johnson had enrolled in Pembroke College, dropped out within a year and left without a degree because of his family’s lack of funds. Johnson was repaying multiple debts. He was blessed and sometimes cursed with a strong sense of indebtedness that sometimes turns into a punishing over-scrupulosity. In 1777, when he was sixty-eight years old, Johnson returned to the place of his birth, Lichfield. His father, Michael Johnson, had worked there as a bookseller. As a boy, Johnson once refused to look after the book stall his father kept in the nearby village of Uttoxeter. Half a century later, Johnson returned to perform an act of penance. In the Life, Boswell reports him saying:

“Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago, I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.”

Less dramatic and more benign is Johnson’s gift of John Baskerville’s quarto edition of Virgil’s Bucolica, Georgica et Aeneis to the library. Baskerville was a Birmingham printer and typographic designer, and the Virgil was his first creation, elegantly printed on wove paper, a novelty at the time. The Virgil was the first In Five Hundred Years of Book Design (Yale University Press, 2001), Alan Bartram writes:

“In this Virgil, his first book, the ‘amateur’ Baskerville shows an assurance one would have expected from a highly experienced master . . . His use of his own, freshly created type, with its balance between the subtlety of the earlier printers’ designs and the harsh new French types, is exemplary. . . The skill seen here is especially remarkable, for such simplicity, even minimalism, was revolutionary. It was a defining moment in bookmaking, ridding it of the irrelevant, flowery decoration.”

The friendship between Johnson and Warton had cooled by the time of the gift. The earlier importance of the friendship for Johnson can be gauged by this excerpt from a letter Johnson wrote to Warton on Dec. 21, 1754:

“I have ever since [the death of my wife] seemed to myself broken off from mankind a kind of solitary wanderer in the wild of life, without any certain direction, or fixed point of view: a gloomy gazer on a World to which I have little relation. Yet I would endeavour by the help of you and your brother to supply the want of closer union by friendship.”

Caricatured as a stern, over-Latinate pedant by critics, Johnson was always ardent, never half-hearted or reluctant, even when repaying an old debt.

[ADDENDUM: A reader corrects two errors in this post. He notes I implied that "the award of the M.A. come after the publication of the Dictionary whereas in fact it came before, in February. This is a minor quibble, though, as it was Warton and Francis Wise who'd pestered the University to award the degree beforehand so that 'Samuel Johnson A. M.' could appear on the title-page.

"Less trivially, an M.A. isn't a doctorate. Johnson would not be known as 'Doctor' Johnson until made L.L.D. by Trinity College, Dublin in 1765. Oxford followed suit ten years later with a Doctor in Civil Law degree (C.L.D.)."

Thanks, as always, to an attentive reader.]

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