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A gentleman once told Dr. Johnson, that a friend of his, looking into the Dictionary which the Doctor had lately published, could not find the word ocean. "Not find ocean!" exclaimed our Lexicographer; "Sir, I doubt the veracity of your information !" He instantly stalked into his library; and, opening the work in question with the utmost impatience, at last triumphantly put his finger upon the subject of research, adding, “There, Sir; there is ocean!" The gentleman was preparing to apologise for the mistake; but Dr. Johnson good-naturedly dismissed the subject, with "Never mind it, Sir; perhaps your friend spells ocean with
654. Johnson's " Limæ labor."
[From Alexander Chalmers' Historical and Biographical Preface to The Rambler: British Essayists, vol. xvii.]
The general opinion entertained by Dr. Johnson's friends was, that he wrote as correctly and elegantly in haste, and under various obstructions of person and situation, as other men can, who have health, and ease, and leisure for the lima labor. Mr. Boswell says, with great truth, that "posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed." And Sir John Hawkins informs us, that these essays hardly ever underwent a revision before they were sent to the press; and adds, “ the original manuscripts of the Rambler' have passed through my hands, and by the perusal of them I am warranted to say, as was said of Shakspeare by the players of his time, that he never blotted a line, and I believe without
the risk of that retort which Ben Jonson made to them, 'Would he had blotted out a thousand!""
Such are the opinions of those friends of Dr. Johnson who had long lived in his society, had studied his writings, and were eager to give to the public every information by which its curiosity to know the history of so eminent a character might be gratified. But by what fatality it has happened, that they were ignorant of the vast labour Dr. Johnson employed in correcting this work after it came from the first press, it is not easy to determine. This circumstance indeed might not fall within the scope of Mr. Murphy's elegant essay; but had it been known to Sir John Hawkins or to Mr. Boswell, they would undoubtedly have been eager to bring it forward as a prominent part of Dr. Johnson's literary history. Mr. Boswell has given us some various readings of the "Lives of the Poets;” and the reader will probably agree with him, that although the author's "amendments in that work are for the better, there is nothing of the pannus assutus: the texture is uniform, and indeed what had been there at first is very seldom unfit to have remained." (1) At the conclusion of these various readings he offers an apology, of which I may be permitted to avail myself: "Should it be objected, that many of my various readings are inconsiderable, those who make the objection will be pleased to consider that such small particulars are intended for those who are nicely critical in composition, to whom they will be an acceptable collection."
Is it not surprising, that this friend and companion
(1) These were the alterations made by the author in the manuscript, or in the proof before publication for the second edition. Mr. Boswell does not seem to have known that Dr. Johnson made so many alterations for the third edition, as to induce Mr. Nichols to collect them in an octavo pamphlet of three sheets closely printed, which was given to the purchasers of the second octavo edition. CHALMERS.
of our illustrious author, who has obliged the public with the most perfect delineation ever exhibited of any human being, and who declared so often that he was determined
"To lose no drop of that immortal man;"
that one so inquisitive after the most trifling circumstance connected with Dr. Johnson's character or history, should have never heard or discovered, that Dr. Johnson almost re-wrote the "Rambler" after the first folio edition? Yet the fact was, that he employed the limæ laborem not only on the second, but on the third edition, to an extent, I presume, never known in the annals of literature, and may be said to have carried Horace's rule far beyond either its letter or spirit:
carmen reprehendite, quod non
"Never the verse approve, and hold as good,
The alterations made by Dr. Johnson in the second and third editions of the "Rambler" far exceed six thousand; a number which may perhaps justify the use of the word re-wrote, although it must not be taken in its literal acceptation. If it be asked, of what nature are these alterations, or why that was altered which the world thought perfect, the author may be allowed to answer for himself. Notwithstanding its fame while printing in single numbers, the encomiums of the learned, and the applause of friends, he knew its imperfections, and determined to remove them. He foresaw that upon this foundation his future fame would rest, and he determined that the superstructure thrown
up in haste should be strengthened and perfected at leisure. A few passages from No. 169. will explain his sentiments on this subject:
"Men have sometimes appeared, of such transcendent abilities, that their slightest and most cursory performances excel all that labour and study can enable meaner intellects to compose; as there are regions of which the spontaneous products cannot be equalled in other soils by care and culture. But it is no less dangerous for any man to place himself in this rank of understanding, and fancy that he is born to be illustrious without labour, than to omit the cares of husbandry, and expect from his ground the blossoms of Arabia." - "Among the writers of antiquity I remember none except Statius, who ventures to mention the speedy production of his writings, either as an extenuation of his faults, or as a proof of his facility. Nor did Statius, when he considered himself as a candidate for lasting reputation, think a closer attention unnecessary; but amidst all his pride and indigence, the two great hasteners of modern poems, employed twelve years upon the Thebaid, and thinks his claim to renown
proportionate to his labour.". "To him whose eagerness of
praise hurries his productions soon into the light, many imperfections are unavoidable, even where the mind furnishes the materials, as well as regulates their disposition, and nothing depends upon search or information. Delay opens new veins of thought, the subject dismissed for a time appears with a new train of dependent images, the accidents of reading or conversation supply new ornaments or allusions, or mere intermission of the fatigue of thinking enables the mind to collect new force and make new excursions."
With such sentiments it must appear at least probable, that our author would, in his own case, endeavour to repair the mischiefs of haste or negligence; but as these were not very obvious to his friends, they made no inquiry after them, nor entertained any suspicion of the labour he endured to render his writings more worthy of their praise; and when his contemporaries had departed, he might not think it necessary to tell a new generation that he had not reached perfection at once.
On one occasion Mr. Boswell came so near the question, that if Dr. Johnson had thought it worth entering upon, he had a very fair opportunity. Being asked by a lady, whether he thought he could make his Rambler better, he answered that he certainly could. BOSWELL. "I'll lay you a bet, Sir, you cannot." JOHNSON. "But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better." BOSWELL. "But you may add to them; I will not allow of that." JOHNSON. Nay, Sir, there are three ways of making them better, — putting out, adding, or correcting." (1)
655. Donne v. Pope. (2)
The late Mr. Crauford, of Hyde Park Corner, being engaged to dinner, where Dr. Johnson was to be, resolved to pay his court to him; and, having heard that he preferred Donne's Satires to Pope's version of them, said, "Do you know, Dr. Johnson, that I like Dr. Donne's original Satires better than Pope's." Johnson said, "Well, Sir, I can't help that."
Miss Johnson, one of Sir Joshua's nieces (afterwards Mrs. Deane), was dining one day at her uncle's with Dr. Johnson and a large party: the conversation happening to turn on music, Johnson spoke very contemptuously of that art, and added, "that no man of talent, or whose mind was capable of better things, ever would or could devote his time and attention to so idle and frivolous a pursuit." The young lady, who was very fond of music, whispered her next neighbour, "I wonder what Dr. Johnson thinks of King David." Johnson
(1) In corroboration of his assertions, Mr. Chalmers has transcribed No. 180. of the original folio Rambler, marking the variations by italics.
(2) This and the six following scraps were communicated
to Mr. Croker.