Part 3. A Dictionary of the English Language

(Boswell is writing at his desk on the left of the stage.) 

BOSWELL (To audience)

Ah, you’re back again, are you?   Now, where did I leave you last?  At Oxford, wasn’t it?  I’ve got the next part here somewhere.  Just a minute! (He searches among the papers on his table.)  He left Oxford, you see.  He never took his degree. Well, he had to leave, of course.  No money.  It’s probably different in your time!  Or is it?  I don’t know.  Some things take so long to change!  Now where did I put the next bit?  I had it ready for you.  I must get some order into all this.  (He finds the sheet under the wine bottle.)  Ah, here it is! With that window open everything blows away if you don’t hold it down! 

(He reads.)  He left Oxford after one year and started on a very empty period in his life.  He wrote little.  He had no degree, no work, and nothing to occupy him.  His mind was a machine, going round and round, but not connected to anything.  He was doing nothing, and he was conscious that he was producing nothing. (He makes a circle sign to the audience with his forefinger.) That’s it! Just going round in circles.

You’ve got to keep busy, you know.  You’ve got to keep busy. The less you do, the less you feel like doing! If you’re busy, you can always fit in something else!  Well, that’s the theory! That’s the theory!

Anyway, he got to know a group of friends in Birmingham, and one of them was Elizabeth Porter, a widow.  He was young, he could talk well, but he had no position and no prospects.  He was an awkward, gangling youth of 25, and she was a reasonably well-off widow in her mid-forties.  But love has a way of getting round obstacles, and they got married.  He called her Tetty. They married, I think, for love.  This was in the summer of 1735.

With Tetty’s money, Sam set up a school, but it wasn’t a success, and he decided to come here to London like so many young men before and since.  Another Midlands man had done it before, and he had done well. His name was William Shakespeare.

Sam walked from Lichfield to London with David Garrick. Yes, Garrick the actor. Well, he wasn’t an actor then of course. He was just poor and unknown like Johnson.  In fact, Garrick had been one of the few pupils of Johnson’s ill-fated school.  They walked and rode!  Well, they had one horse between them!

This is how you ride to London with one horse.  One of you rides on and ties the horse to a post or a tree, and then he carries on walking.  The other comes up, unties the horse, rides on and overtakes the first person and then he ties up the horse again, and so on!  Ride and tie, they call it!  Ride and tie. It worked quite well but I don’t know what the horse made of it all!

They arrived in London with almost nothing, but very soon young Garrick was the actor of the moment, the toast of London, the great celebrity, and poor Johnson…well, he stayed poor and struggled on.

Later Tetty joined him and there they were, together, with no money and with few hopes of earning any.

(The light moves from Boswell to Johnson, centre stage.  He is pacing up and down but from time to time he reads from a paper on the table and moves coins from a small pile of assets on the right of the table to the pile of debts on the left.)

JOHNSON Who’d have thought we needed so much money to exist, just to get by, just to be?  To be or not to be! Ha! Nothing special, no great dinners, no bottles of wine, just existing!  It’s a daily battle! 

(He reads from a sheet of paper in his hand.)

Johnson, Samuel. Total assets.  Fourteen pounds, one shilling and seven pence.

(He puts down the sheet of paper.)

Look at David!  David Garrick!  He’s the lion of the London stage!  The whole city at his feet, and he was my pupil!  He couldn’t write a sentence of grammatical English, let alone one in Latin!  He is hardly ever troubled by an original thought, and now look at him!  Famous, rich, secure! And look at me.

(He picks up the paper and reads from it. As he reads the amount for each item, he moves the money from the pile of assets to the pile of debts. The first pile dwindles, and the second grows.)

Johnson, Samuel.  Total expenses.

Item one.  Rent for this week and back rent owing.

Six pounds, eight shillings and four pence.

If you’re poor to start with, it’s a long haul.  You spend years climbing up to where other people start from.

Item two.  Delivered groceries:  carrots, potatoes, two parsnips and (He turns the page) miscellaneous greens!  That sounds better than two cabbages and one cauliflower, doesn’t it! “Miscellaneous greens!”  It all depends on the words.  Words are what matter!  Anyway, groceries: Three shillings and seven pence halfpenny.

“This mournful truth is everywhere confessed –

Slow rises worth by poverty depressed.”

(He mimics a conversation of gossips.)

‘That’s a good line!  Who wrote that?’ 

‘It was Johnson!’ 

‘Johnson?  Who’s Johnson?’ 

‘You remember him.  He showed some promise, but he had to leave Oxford.  (He whispers.)  No money!  He’s been refused umpteen teaching jobs!  Too odd, much too odd!  You only have to look at the fellow.’

‘He married, didn’t he?’

‘Oh yes, a woman twice his age!  But she had some money, you see!’

(In his normal voice)  Oh yes, Tetty!  That’s what they all said.  I married you for your money.  How little did they know!

(He mimics the gossips again.)

‘Some money, you say?’

‘Yes. Well, he soon spent that!  He set up a school.  A school?  It wasn’t a school.  It was a disaster.  Then he came to London to earn a living from his pen.  A writer? Ha!  He’d have done better as a porter!  He’s big enough!  Johnson!  Who’s Johnson?  A nobody!’

(He sighs and reads from the paper in his hand.)

Item three.  For Elizabeth Johnson.  Walking shoes.  One pair, with parasol.  With parasol?  In November?  In London?  With parasol.  One pound, eighteen shillings and nine pence.  Oh Tetty!  Literature is the meanest employer in London!  And that’s saying something!  Look at David.  Gesticulating and declaiming and smirking on the stage have made him thousands.  I struggle up the hill and get nowhere.  Look at the professional men!  If you are a lawyer, it is difficult to be poor!  But if you are poor, how difficult it is to be a lawyer!  O tempora, o mores! 

(He pulls himself up.)  Still, envy is a sin.  On we go!  Up, Sam.  Up you get!

(He reads again.)  Item four.  Medicines for Elizabeth Johnson.  One pound eighteen shillings.

The solution for me is to die off!  That’s when recognition comes.  When you’re dead!  Fame doesn’t give you a hot meal or a warm bed when you’re alive, but once you’re safely dead, up go all the statues!  We can’t blot our copybooks then!  Once dead, we are respectable!  Yes, then you get your statue! But what good is that? 

(He reads)  Item five.  Repairs to leaking roof.  Two pounds seventeen shillings and sixpence.

Item six. Tea.  Eight shillings and sixpence.  That’s a lot of tea! 

(He starts to count out the money but there is not sufficient for the tea.)

There isn’t enough for the tea!  I am in debt!  

(He desperately goes through his trouser pockets, looks under the candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and then, while searching on the table, he finds more coins under a bottle.)

Thank goodness for that!

(He counts it out.) Now we can afford a cup of tea!

Total wealth minus total expenses equals (He counts the money left in the pile of assets.) seven shillings and two pence halfpenny!  Hmph! That won’t hold body and soul together very long!  Well, well.

(Going out.)  To work!  Now, where did I leave my pen?

Boswell comes in from the left and sits at his usual place with his bottle of wine on the table on the left of the stage. On the other side, off stage, are the scribes who write out the definitions which Johnson dictates to them.  One scribe is working there now.

BOSWELL           Things looked as though they would go from bad to worse, but, as long as we don’t give up, the wheel has a habit of coming round full circle.  Just when things look blackest, they pick up again. 

Johnson was writing odd bits and pieces here and there, and slowly but surely, but mainly slowly, he was gaining a reputation.  He was an expert on the English language.  That was clear.  And it just so happened that at that time, there wasn’t any dictionary of English worth the name.  (Whispering) What was worse, everyone else had one!  The Italians and the Spanish and the French!  They all had their dictionary! Yes, that didn’t go down very well, the French having something we didn’t!  The French had their Académie Française, with forty members, and with money from the King, all very efficient. So, what happened?  Well, as usual, the English muddled through and got there in the end. Six booksellers got together and approached Johnson and asked him to…to write a dictionary!  And that’s what he did!  He sat down and wrote a, no “the”, ‘Dictionary of the English Language’.  It was nine years’ hard labour, but now at least he had something to work at.  It’s not easy working on your own, you know.  You don’t have a job waiting for you at 9 o’clock every morning.  Every day Johnson had to force himself to start work. But with the dictionary he finally had something to turn to. It was always there. He had something fixed in his life.

We all need something to help us through the day, and that’s why our job is so important. The afternoons are the worst, don’t you think? The morning has its own impetus and the evenings are calmer but getting through the afternoon, that’s the problem. Now he always had the dictionary to turn to. It was always there waiting. And he did it all single-handed.  Well, he had six helpers to copy it out, but he did all the brain work! He composed every definition himself.

(Addressing the audience in a confidential tone) The French took fifty-five years, and there were forty of them!  Johnson got the job done in nine!  And on his own!  And English has far more words than French.  (He starts to lecture.) It’s all to do with the origin of English, you see.  French is from Latin, but English words come from Anglo Saxon and from French.  That’s why we have two words for everything, one Saxon and one Romance.  We have “freedom” and “liberty”.  We have “go in” and we have “enter”, “happy and content”, “deadly and fatal”, “sad and melancholy”. Two words for everything, you see. The Norman conquest had its good side!  And that’s why… but I digress.  I must not get carried away!

People would point him out as he walked down Fleet Street. “Look over there!  That’s Johnson!  Dictionary Johnson!”  Yes, he became known as Dictionary Johnson.  That was before I knew him, of course, but he’s told me all about it.

(The light on Boswell fades, and Johnson is revealed, pacing up and down, centre stage.)

JOHNSON   A steady job! I have a steady job at last.  There can be nothing as steady as writing a dictionary!  My secretary shouts out the words, and I give the definitions and that’s how we get on. 

SCRIBE (Off stage, shouting in a Scottish accent.) “Lexicographer!”

JOHNSON   “Lexicographer!” Well, that’s close to home! What’s a lexicographer?  A harmless drudge!  Yes, why not?  (He shouts back.) “A writer of dictionaries!  A harmless drudge!”  Well, it’s steady work all right, and I am the man to do it!  The vital thing about energy is using it somewhere.  How much human energy down the ages has been wasted! Now I am in harness, thank goodness, and that feels good.

SCRIBE   “Whig”.

JOHNSON   (To himself) “Whig”, ha!  Whigs and Tories!  Politicians!  We must not let the Whig dogs get the best of it!  (He shouts to the scribe.)  “Whig.  The name of a faction!”

(He walks over to his desk and takes up a book.)

BOSWELL Nine years it took him.  Yes, he was the man for the job.  Over forty thousand definitions!  One hundred and fourteen thousand quotations. You see, he gave examples of how the words were used by different authors.  He must have had all these instances in his head and remembered how any word was used by Shakespeare or Spencer or Milton or in the Bible.

He had six men to help him copy them out, and five of them were Scottish.  So much for his supposed dislike of the Scots!  For him a poor Scotsman was as much in need of help as a poor Englishman, though he never could resist a joke about us!

SCRIBE (In broad Scots accent) I’ve got down as far as “oats”.  How do you define “oats”? 

JOHNSON  “Oats”.  ((He dictates slowly, giving the man time to copy it down.)  “Oats.  A grain which in England is generally given to horses, (pausing a moment) but in Scotland supports the people”.

SCRIBE (He can be heard muttering in Gaelic.  It is unintelligible except for the last word.)  Sassenach!

JOHNSON I didn’t quite catch that.  Luckily!

SCRIBE    (Off) “Pension”!

BOSWELL Can I come in here a moment?  At that time a pension was awarded by the government not only to people who had achieved some public good, but also to men of influence who would later support the party in power.  So, a pension was often a way of buying political support, and that was how Johnson defined it.

JOHNSON (Shouting to scribe.)  What was that?

SCRIBE      “Pension”.

JOHNSON Pension.  Right!  “In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” (To himself). Come on, Johnson.  That was a bit near the bone!  It’ll get you into hot water.

BOSWELL And get him into hot water it did!  A few years later, in 1762, the year before I met him, he himself was offered a pension for his work on the dictionary.  But could he accept it after defining the word as he did? That was the question!  Johnson felt he had to refuse it, but then a friend reassured him by saying, “It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done.”  So, Johnson accepted it. It was £300 a year, which in those days was a reasonable sum and it enabled Johnson to be free from money worries at last.

JOHNSON Yes, that was a bit near the bone.  Let us be more circumspect and more learned!

SCRIBE      “Network”

JOHNSON “Network”   Right!  More learned.  (Loudly and pompously)  “Network.  Anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections.”

SCRIBE      (off) You what?

JOHNSON (To himself)  I thought that would be too much for him, but I’ll stick to it!  A man has a right to indulge himself sometimes!  (To scribe)  I’ll write it out for you!  (He goes to the window and looks out at the street.)  What weather!  November!  London in November!  “The melancholy charm of an English winter!”  I forget who wrote that, but there is no charm in melancholy.  A man has to be in good spirits to indulge in melancholy.  If you are really down, melancholy has no charm at all. You have to be happy to be able to write a tragedy.  When you are feeling low, there is enough of the tragic in your life already! Shakespeare turned to comedies at one of the unhappiest times of his life. He had recently lost his son when he wrote ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and ‘As You Like It’.

“The melancholy charm of an English winter!” Ha!  No charm at all! Cold is cold, and that’s the end of it!  No, I do not care overmuch for November, but I do love London!

SCRIBE   “Network!”

JOHNSON Alright, alright, I’ll write it out for you!  (He goes to his desk and starts to write.) “Anything reticulated…”

BOSWELL (Holding up a copy of the first “Rambler”.)  While he was dictating definition after definition for the Dictionary, he was also writing “The Rambler”.  Here.  Look at this!  This is the first one.  “The Rambler” was an essay, published as a broadsheet, like a newspaper. Twice a week for three years he produced an article on whatever was in his head at the time.  His mind was a well of information and ideas, and the printer’s deadline, twice a week, was the bucket that dropped into it.  Thank goodness for deadlines!  Without a deadline Monday’s newspaper would appear on Friday.  Without a deadline we would never get up in the morning.  Without a deadline ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Othello’ would never have been written!

JOHNSON (He walks over to Boswell’s table and picks up a copy of the Rambler”.)  Yes, oh yes, “The Rambler”!  (He reads a little.) Did I really write this?  It’s not bad!  Strange when you pick up something you wrote years before. It doesn’t seem yours! You wonder how on earth you managed it! It came out every Tuesday and Saturday for three years!  My thoughts on paper are fine!  Very wise!  How easy it is to be wise on paper!  But it’s when I am not writing that my head gets out of hand!  My mind wanders to this and that!  (He looks at “The Rambler” again.)  On paper thoughts are fixed at least!  They don’t run off!  Come on, now!  Back to work!  At least when at work my mind can’t be galloping away!

SCRIBE      “Pastern”.

JOHNSON “Pastern”. “Pastern”?   What in earth is a pastern?  I can’t look it up!  I am the dictionary!

SCRIBE      (Insisting) “Pastern”, Mr Johnson.

JOHNSON I know it’s a part of a horse, but which part? I really have no idea. I have absolutely no idea what a pastern is!

SCRIBE      Pastern!

JOHNSON (Shouting to the scribe) Pastern is the knee of a horse. That may well be wrong but it will have to do. (Shrugging his shoulders.) Alright.  I’m coming!  I’m coming!  (He walks off stage to the scribe.)

BOSWELL  And so passed the nine dictionary years!