Friday, April 02, 2021

'Choose Me, You English Words'

“When Walter Pater prescribed the literary novice a daily dose of Johnson, he certainly intended it rather as a tonic than as a cordial. Under flea, it is true, under patriot, under lexicographer itself, the Great Bear deposited a rare honey.” 

Walter de la Mare’s gift for metaphor could be cloying, but this one works. Friends likened Samuel Johnson to bears, bulls, oxen and rhinoceroses. He was big and powerful in body and bearing, especially when arguing. De la Mare is writing in “A Book of Words” (Pleasures and Speculations, 1940), his review of A Glossary of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions in the work of English Authors, particularly of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries by the philologist Robert Nares, originally published in 1822. Can a patient reader trace the Pater allusion for me? I don’t know his work well and find only a single reference to Johnson, in his Appreciations (1889):


“[A]ny writer worth translating at all has winnowed and searched through his vocabulary, is conscious of the words he would select in systematic reading of a dictionary, and still more of the words he would reject were the dictionary other than Johnson’s.”


De le Mare’s selections from Johnson’s “rare honey” are puzzling. The Dictionary defines flea as “a small black insect remarkable for its agility in leaping” – commonsensical if not entomologically precise. De la Mare may be thinking of a wisecrack reported by Boswell:


“Johnson, for sport perhaps, or from the spirit of contradiction, eagerly maintained that [Samuel] Derrick had merit as a writer. Mr. Morgan argued with him directly, in vain. At length he had recourse to this device. ‘Pray, Sir, (said he,) whether do you reckon Derrick or Smart the best poet?’ Johnson at once felt himself rouzed; and answered, ‘Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.’”


Johnson’s Dictionary defines patriot as “one whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” In the fourth edition, he adds this: “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.” Both a little overstated. I think de la Mare is recalling Johnson’s better-known and much misunderstood use of the word, as reported by Boswell: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In the original, Boswell provides little context for the remark, uttered on April 7, 1775, but assures us Johnson was referring to “false patriotism.”


Lexicographer is surely the best-known definition in Johnson’s Dictionary: “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.”


De la Mare says of Nares’ Glossary that its “one requisite in a reader is simply a delight in words—words as words, and for their own sweet sake.” Then de la Mare quotes Edward Thomas’ poem “Words”: “Choose me, / You English words.”

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