Monday, 5 October 2009

Gaudy at Trinity: 3

E-mail to Trinity College Archivist, 5 October

Many thanks, Clare, for the trouble you took and the time you gave me on Friday afternoon when letting me handle those Johnson letters!

This was the first time in my life that I have held in my hands REAL primary sources: those that I read for my special subject as an undergraduate (Great Britain in the Mediterranean, 1797-1802) were PRINTED cabinet papers, despatches etcetera.

And thank you too for arranging with Sharon that I could get hold of David Fairer's 'Correspondence of Thomas Warton' overnight. It was interesting to read in it how he dealt with ambiguities when attempting to read unclearly-written words. I discussed this point with the bod from the Bodleian in the Old Library and he made clear (as of course you had done) that a learning curve is always involved when reading manuscripts.

All of this was for me the cherry on the cake of a memorable gaudy.

Thomas Warton was a friend of Dr Johnson, a fellow of Trinity College and at various times both Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Poet Laureate. He played a major role in enabling Johnson to be awarded an MA which the lexicographer considered to be essential to lend credibility to his dictionary which was published in 1755 after eight years of toil.

Johnson had originally optimistically thought he could complete the massive project in just three years, which opinion was greeted with incredulity by many. Boswell records this snippet of patriotic conversation:

ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. …. But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.

This post is clearly a specious attempt to show that the gaudy for me was not just cakes and ale.

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