« AnteriorContinuar »
FIELDING, it is said, drank confusion to the man who invented the fifth act of a play. He who has edited an extensive work, and has concluded his labours by the preparation of a copious index, might well be pardoned, if he omitted to include the inventor of the Preface among the benefactors of mankind. The long and arduous task that years before he had set himself to do is done, and the last thing that he desires is to talk about it. Liberty is what he asks for, liberty to range for a time wherever he pleases in the wide and fair fields of literature. Yet with this longing for freedom comes a touch of regret and a doubt lest the fresh woods and pastures new' may never wear the friendly and familiar face of the plot of ground within whose narrower confines he has so long been labouring, and whose every corner he knows so well. May-be he finds hope in the thought that should his new world seem strange to him and uncomfortable, ere long he may be called back to his old task, and in the preparation of a second edition find the quiet and the peace of mind that are often found alone in old use and wont.'
With me the preparation of these volumes has, indeed, been the work of many years. Boswell's Life of Johnson I read for the first time in my boyhood, when I was too young for it to lay any hold on me. When I entered Pembroke College, Oxford, though I loved to think that Johnson had
been there before me, yet I cannot call to mind that I ever opened the pages of Boswell. By a happy chance I was turned to the study of the literature of the eighteenth century. Every week we were required by the rules of the College to turn into Latin, or what we called Latin, a passage from The Spectator. Many a happy minute slipped by while, in forgetfulness of my task, I read on and on in its enchanting pages. It was always with a sigh that at last I tore myself away, and sat resolutely down to write bad Latin instead of reading good English. From Addison in the course of time I passed on to the other great writers of his and the succeeding age, finding in their exquisitely clear style, their admirable common sense and their freedom from all the tricks of affectation, a delightful contrast to so many of the eminent authors of our own time. Those troublesome doubts, doubts of all kinds, which since the great upheaval of the French Revolution have harassed mankind, had scarcely begun to ruffle the waters of their life. Even Johnson's troubled mind enjoyed vast levels of repose. The unknown world alone was wrapped in stormy gloom; of this world all the complaints which were made were unjust'. Though I was now familiar with many of the great writers, yet Boswell I had scarcely opened since my boyhood. A happy day came just eighteen years ago when in an old book-shop, almost under the shadow of a great cathedral, I bought a second-hand copy of a somewhat early edition of the Life in five well-bound volumes. Of all my books none I cherish more than these. In looking at them I have known what it is to feel Bishop Percy's ‘uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his books in death. They became my almost inseparable companions. Before long I began to note the parallel passages and allusions not only in their pages, but in the various authors whom I studied. Yet in these early · Post, iv. 198.
Post, iii. 355.
days I never dreamt of preparing a new edition. It fell to my lot as time went on to criticise in some of our leading publications works that bore both on Boswell and Johnson. Such was my love for the subject that on one occasion, when I was called upon to write a review that should fill two columns of a weekly newspaper, I read a new edition of the Life from beginning to end without, I believe, missing a single line of the text or a single note. At length, 'towering in the confidence'' of one who as yet has but set his foot on the threshold of some stately mansion in which he hopes to find for himself a home, I was rash enough more than twelve years ago to offer myself as editor of a new edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Fortunately for me another writer had been already engaged by the publisher to whom I applied, and my offer was civilly declined. From that time on I never lost sight of my purpose but when in the troubles of life I well-nigh lost sight of every kind of hope. Everything in my reading that bore on my favourite author was carefully noted, till at length I felt that the materials which I had gathered from all sides were sufficient to shield me from a charge of rashness if I now began to raise the building. Much of the work of preparation had been done at a grievous disadvantage. My health more than once seemed almost hopelessly broken down. Nevertheless even then the time was not wholly lost. In the sleepless hours of many a winter night I almost forgot my miseries in the delightful pages of Horace Walpole's Letters, and with pencil in hand and some little hope still in heart, managed to get a few notes taken. Three winters I had to spend on the shores of the Mediterranean. During two of them my malady and my distress allowed of no rival, and my work made scarcely any advance. The third my strength was returning, and in the six months that I spent three Post, i. 375.