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Johnson’s Business

SIR: Keith Walker’s review on Samuel Johnson (LRB, 7 August) devotes 19 informative column inches to the strangely full citations in the Dictionary of George Herbert, who was little esteemed in 1755 and is scarcely noticed elsewhere by Johnson. The 116 quotations from Herbert need not be puzzling. Johnson was able to complete the Dictionary as quickly as he did by making use of highly-organised clerical labour. In a garret near Fleet Street he had six clerks perched on stools in the manner of a counting house. While Johnson himself concentrated on the definitions and etymologies, they assembled the items and copied out quotations. It is more than likely that they were allowed to exercise their own initiative, for they were evidently educated men and one or two of them had literary ambitions of their own. Mr Shiels, Boswell tells us, was later to ghost-write Cibber’s Lives of the Poets, while Mr Peyton was a teacher of French and published some elementary tracts. If they were religious tracts, and Mr Peyton was to be heard on Sundays singing the regularised poems of The Temple in Samuel Wesley’s hymnal mentioned by Keith Walker, it takes no great stretching of the imagination to detect the trace of another hand than Johnson’s. The occurrences of Herbert in the Dictionary may thus be the mark of a small man on the monument of a greater.

Roger Kojecky

Keith Walker writes: Mr Kojecky’s speculation is ingenious, but there are too many similar puzzles about Johnson’s Dictionary which it wouldn’t solve, and everything we know about the circumstances of the making of the Dictionary is against it. Mr Kojecky apparently relies on Boswell’s description, which is confused and misleading on important details. For example, Boswell suggests that Johnson first made a list of words, and then hunted around for examples – an impossible procedure, as Bishop Percy pointed out. Thirteen works (18 volumes) used by Johnson for the Dictionary are extant. They show that Johnson underlined in pencil a word he wanted to be illustrated, put vertical lines at the beginning and end of the phrase or sentence be wanted quoted, and put the initial letter of the word in capitals in the outside margin. Then Johnson handed the book to an amanuensis who copied the passages on slips of paper and cancelled the marginal capital letter. Then the amanuenses put the slips in alphabetical order for Johnson to order into senses, and provide definitions etc. In so far as the amanuenses ‘assembled the items’, their work was purely mechanical. Johnson marked many more words and quotations than he used. In a copy of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy now in the Bodleian, Johnson marked 46 quotations of which only ten appear in the Dictionary. Burton was a favourite author of Johnson’s, and yet he seems to have read him for the Dictionary in a far more desultory fashion than he read Herbert. I think Johnson kept a tight rein on the selection of words and illustrative quotations. He once boasted to Boswell that he hadn’t allowed any quotes from ‘irreligious’ writers. That we find seven (innocuous) quotations from Bolingbroke, whom Johnson certainly considered irreligious, is a puzzle too, but I’m sure that none of his amanuenses would have dared to try and sneak them in. Mr Kojecky’s hypothesis wouldn’t even solve the problem of all the Herbert quotes, unless he supposes that an amanuensis, however learned and pious, had access to a copy of Herbert’s translation from Cornarus, last published in 1678.

The Objecting Ewart

SIR: I was very pleased to be so favourably commented on by John Bayley in his review of The Collected Ewart 1933-1980 (LRB, 4 September). If I now write to correct one or two misconceptions, this is because I honour his piece as criticism and not just off-the-cuff reviewing. First, in the poem ‘It’s hard to dislike Ewart’ the speaker is the reviewer, not myself. He acts and speaks like a prep-school master (some reviewers do). ‘The Larkin Automatic Car Wash’ is a para-poem, not a parody. It uses the Larkin language and the Larkin style and the Larkin metre; it is about a journey, it has exactly the same number of stanzas, it ends with what might be called a ‘spiritual experience’. A parody always sets out to exaggerate the qualities or eccentricities of an original, with a humorous intention. There is no humorous intention here; this is a perfectly serious poem. The poem ‘Variation on a Theme of K. Amis’ is not a parody, or intended to be in Kingsley Amis’s style; it is exactly what it says it is, a variation on his poem now called ‘A Bookshop Idyll’, the theme being women’s verse. It comments on the domesticity of a lot of this in the early Sixties, when the poem was written, and on its religious tendencies (Elizabeth Jennings, Kathleen Raine being not far from my mind). Things have changed, and such a poem could not now, truthfully, be written.

Gavin Ewart
London SW15

Literary Hoaxes

SIR: I fail to see a binding logic in Ronald Syme’s equation of ‘genuine hoax’ with a lack of ‘serious purpose’ (LRB, 4 September). Forgery (imposture, hoax) – the most trivial aspect of which is described as ‘making a mock of historians’, no inconsiderable achievement, some might think – may have a very serious Intention in mind: an attack on the system which is to judge it. Being duped is an education. Oddly, despite references to ‘pastiche’, ‘impersonation’, ‘pseudo-history’ and ‘fictional history’, Syme omits to mention the most renowned ‘hoaxes’ in English literature: Chatterton’s Rowley and Macpherson’s Ossian. Both these authors were ‘masters of craft and audacity’, as the consequent literary-historical controversy demonstrated. Most major critics were drawn into the vortex, and many took stock of their beliefs before drowning or struggling to safety. We need only quote Thomas Warton, compiler of the first literary history of English poetry, to see how ‘seriously’ the whole affair was regarded:

the determination of these questions affects the great lines of the history of poetry and even of general literature. If it should be decided, that [Chatterton’s] poems were really written so early as the reign or Edward IV, the entire system that has hitherto been framed concerning the progression of poetical composition, and every theory that has been established on the gradual improvement of taste, style, and language, will be shaken and disarranged.

Ian Haywood
London EC5


SIR: In my article on Misia Sert (LRB, 4 September), a mysterious entity called a ‘gondala’ made one of its few recorded appearances. Most readers probably do not know that a gondala is a mandala-shaped gonad, not to be confused with the Venetian boat so fomiliar to us from photagraphs and the paintings of Conoletta.

Clive James
London EC4

Anthony Blunt and the British Academy

SIR: I am grateful to you for publishing my long letter about Anthony Blunt (Letters, 18 September), but the letter as it appears contains a printer’s error which makes me attribute to Anthony Blunt himself something which was only put forward as a surmise of my own: viz. that ‘what he regrets most is having been lured into the trap in the first place, rather than his loyalty to friends once he was caught in it.’ As far as I know, all that Anthony Blunt himself has said is that he bitterly regrets his past actions, and this is what I wrote in my letter. All that followed was merely my own estimate of the relative weight which he attached to his part in the Burgess-Maclean and Philby affairs – ‘I suspect that’ was the expression I used – and Blunt himself should not be held responsible for what some may think a mistaken scale of values.

Dennis Proctor