A Doctor Writes

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2012)

Among my favourite books – I mean the books that I actually own – is a first edition of Dr Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, published in 1781 in four volumes. I bought the Lives in a bookshop in Dublin – in Blackrock, to be exact – for what seemed to me a bargain price, though whether it really was a bargain I shall not know until I try to sell them, which I never shall.

Among the fascinations of these volumes are the annotations made by the first owner of them, in a clear and elegant, although slightly spidery hand. Was eighteenth century ink, I wonder, brown when first put to paper, or did it brown with age? On inspection, the annotations (with a few exceptions, those being pedantic corrections of the slight errors inevitable in a work 2000 pages long) were actually emendations of the text. It was Mrs Valerie Myers, wife of the literary biographer, Jeffrey Myers, and a literary scholar in her own right, who suggested to me that the emendations might be taken from a subsequent edition of the Lives: and so it proved when I compared the first edition with a subsequent edition contained in Johnson’s Complete Works.

This discovery naturally excited me. Could it be that I had alighted on Johnson’s own copy, which he had emended himself for the second edition? I doubted it; he was very short-sighted, and was no respecter of books as physical objects. These were in very good condition; Johnson, I suspect, would have destroyed them in writing the emendations.

But could he have dictated the changes to an amanuensis? This thought set my mind fantasising. Who could the amanuensis have been? A name came at once to mind: Edmund Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar who was a close friend of Johnson’s. That was why this copy was in Ireland.

Alas, the explanation was quite otherwise, and much more banal. I found a letter in the fourth volume that explained it all. It was from a scholar at Trinity College to a former owner of the books, explaining that when the second edition of the Lives, with emendations, was brought out, purchasers of the first edition were invited to booksellers who would give, or sell, them a pamphlet containing all of Dr Johnson’s emendations. Apparently only ten copies of this pamphlet were ever taken up; but the original owner of what was now my copy had conscientiously copied the emendations into the four volumes.

This story brought to mind one told me by an historian at Oxford. In the 1930s, the Bodleian bought a copy of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. With changing political circumstances, entries about various prominent figures such as Bukharin and Yagoda became inoperative, to use a later political euphemism; and purchasers of the encyclopaedia were circulated with a letter from the publisher asking them to tear out the original page and insert the enclosed, ‘corrected’ page (the entry on Yagoda being replaced by one on the yak, or some such). The real point of this story was not to illustrate Stalinist dishonesty, which is sufficiently well understood, but to illustrate the moral weakness or ideological leanings of some of the Bodleian staff: for they complied with the instructions given, and duly replaced the pages.

But let me return to the Lives: this is a book that I love for its content as well as its form. Johnson peppers his biographical sketches with moral observations of great interest. One of my favourites is in his life of Swift, a man he did not altogether admire. Remarking on Swift’s eccentricity, Johnson says:

Singularity, as it implies a contempt for the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provoked the hostility of ridicule; he therefore who indulges in peculiar habits is worse than others, if he be not better.

If he be not better: it is in this clause that Johnson shows the superiority, seriousness and honesty of his mind, for a lesser writer, a mere reactionary hack, would not have added it. Johnson is therefore not saying that all change is to be reprehended, that custom and convention must be our guide through thick and thin; but neither is novelty to be welcomed or applauded for its own sake.

Referring in his life of Thomas Gray to his subject’s travels, Johnson says:

It is by studying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement.

The uninstructed traveller gawps; the instructed one observes. One is reminded of Pasteur’s later remark that chance favours the mind prepared.

Of some of the stanzas of Gray’s famous Elegy, Johnson says:

I have never seen the notions [in them] in any other place; yet he that reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them.

This is precisely the great quality of Johnson’s apercus: that he who reads them persuades himself that he has always felt them, though he never has.

Johnson is not very complimentary about Gray’s poetry on the whole, and indeed he makes sport of some of its infelicities. But he allows the Elegy a full measure of greatness; for, says Johnson:

… by the common sense of readers uncorrupted by with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours.

Take that, all you literary theorists!

Curiously, some of the sentiments expressed in the Elegy, a few of whose verses run through my mind in every cemetery (and I love cemeteries, I can resist them no more than bookshops), are at variance with the slight faults of Gray’s character that Johnson enumerates in his biographical sketch. Compare for example the following eight lines, whose generous sentiments towards the humble people buried in the churchyard are incomparably expressed:

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour –
The paths of glory lead but to the grave…

Compare them, I say, with what Johnson says of Gray – quoting Gray’s intimate friend, Mason:

There is no character without some speck, some imperfection; and I think the greatest defect in his was… a visible fastidiousness, or contempt and disdain of his inferiors in science.

But which is more significant? The verses I have quoted, or the speck upon his character? Surely, nearly a quarter of a millennium after his death, the former.

One of the lives that I love most, and can re-read with great pleasure and instruction, partly for medical reasons, is that of Richard Savage (that Johnson originally published separately many years earlier). Savage was a minor poet and playwright whom Johnson befriended in his youth; and I doubt that a better portrait of a charming psychopath has ever been written.

Savage belonged to that small and select group of writers who were once condemned to death and reprieved: I can think, offhand, of Dostoyevsky, Koestler and the greatest South African writer (not much known or appreciated outside South Africa, however), Herman Charles Bosman. Savage was involved in a sordid quarrel with a man in a tavern and ran him through with his sword. Initially sentenced to death, he was reprieved by the intercession of the Countess of Hertford, but taverns remained his natural habitat for the rest of his life. Johnson captures precisely the failure of psychopaths to learn from experience, all the more powerful because the notion of the psychopath was not yet known:

By imputing none of his miseries to himself, he continued to act upon the same principles, and follow the same path; was never made wiser by his sufferings, nor preserved by one misfortune from falling into another. He proceeded throughout his life to tread the same steps on the same circle; always applauding his past conduct, or at least forgetting it, to amuse himself with phantoms of happiness, which were dancing before him; and willingly turned his eyes from the light of reason, when it would have discovered the illusion, and shewn him, what he never wished to see, his real state.

He was a consummate sponger on others, appearing ‘to think himself born to be supported by others, and dispensed from all necessity of providing for himself.’ He lived for the moment; ‘an irregular and dissipated manner of life had made him the slave of every passion that happened to be excited by the presence of its object, and that slavery to his passions reciprocally produced a life irregular and dissipated.’ He was completely unreliable; ‘he was not the master of his own motions, nor could promise any thing for the next day.’ His ‘friendship was of little value; for though he was zealous in the support or vindication of those he loved, yet it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself as discharged by the first quarrel from all ties of honour or gratitude; and would betray those secrets which, in the warmth of confidence, had been imparted to him.’

He was very amusing in conversation and his charm made him friends easily; he was invited into people’s houses; but ‘another part of his misconduct was the practice of prolonging his visits to unseasonable hours, and disconcerting all the families into which he was admitted.’ He never regarded a loan as something to be repaid, and indeed thought it was a clear sign of bad character if anyone asked him for a repayment; not surprisingly, perhaps, he died in a debtors’ prison, probably of gaol fever, that is to say typhus.

But if he was a psychopath, he showed traits which are by no means uncommon in the literary world. He was willing to satirise in print those whom he had recently praised in person; and I remember once being the victim of this kind of behaviour at the hands of an eminent novelist, to whom I was introduced at a party. He had read some of my articles, and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that he fawned on me and, being naive in the ways of the literary world, I was much flattered. Two weeks later, perhaps at a loss for something to say in his weekly newspaper column, he called upon the authorities, to a readership of millions, to drum me out of the medical profession (my livelihood). Ever since, I have listened with reserve to praise uttered by writers.

But honesty compels me to admit that I, in common I suspect with many scribblers, exhibit one of the traits of Richard Savage as described by Dr Johnson.

But though he paid due deference to the suffrages of mankind when they were given in his favour, he did not suffer his esteem of himself to depend upon others, nor found anything sacred in the voice of the people when they were inclined to censure him; he then readily shewed the folly of expecting the public to judge right, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgement who did not applaud him.


He was at other times more favourable to mankind than to think them blind to the beauties of his works, and imputed the slowness of their sale to other causes; either they were published at a time when the town was empty, or when the attention of the publick was engrossed in some struggle in the parliament, or some other general concern; or they were by neglect of the publisher not diligently dispersed, or by his avarice not advertised with sufficient frequency. Address, or industry, or liberality, was always wanting; and the blame was laid rather on any person than the author.

Ah yes, I’ve been there and thought all that. It’s uncanny, really. Savage was always able to live at peace with himself, says Dr Johnson, explaining it with that largeness of mind and generosity of spirit that was characteristically his:

By arts like these, arts which every man practises in some degree, and to which too much of the little tranquillity of life is to be ascribed…

Man does not live by truth alone.   

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Anything Goes.

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