"London" and the Fundamental Problem of Hermeneutics

Critical Inquiry 9 (2):303-322 (1982)
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Abstract

In the preface to the Yale edition of Samuel Johnson’s poems, the editors remark that “for a modern reader who can recreate the situation in which [“London”] was written, it may still be exciting enough. But to one with less imaginative capacity or historical knowledge, its appeal lies in Johnson’s skillful handling of the couplet.”2 To assist us in re-creating the milieu of 1738, the editors supply the usual notes identifying various historical personages and events which are no longer in the domain of common knowledge. In this respect they follow Johnson’s lead. “London” is manifestly an occasional poem; and its occasion—in part, Walpole’s timidity abroad and corruption at home—like all occasions, passed.3 Indeed it passed so quickly that Johnson himself felt called upon in the fifth edition to annotate, for instance, his mention of “the Gazetteer”: “the paper which at that time contained apologies for the Court.” By 1750 Walpole was long out of court, the Gazetteer extinct, and “London” as outdated as yesterday’s newspaper.For poems like “London” whose contents are neither au courant nor immortal but rather historical or simply dead, the Yale editors suggest two avenues of resuscitation: the reader may either restore the background by means of historical imagination or, failing that, admire Johnson’s couplet art, which perhaps has a better chance at perennial appeal. Either content or form, either history or art—both options require a sacrifice on our part, and that sacrifice is our occasion, our need. Even assuming that the poem’s context could be exhumed and that we could participate once again in all the rage of the “patriot” opposition to Walpole, Why would we want to? The problem is that not only “London” but the Walpole regime itself is now defunct. Yet the same question must be asked of the poem’s art, even and especially if it is eternal. Why are we interested in the aesthetic knowledge of couplets that have been drained of all substance? Is understanding “London” in either case an end in itself? The pure content of the poem is too concrete, its pure form too abstract, to answer our occasions. Thus to understand the poem as either history or art demands a leisure that has no exigencies and is therefore free for the bygone and ethereal.42. E.L. McAdam, Jr. and George Milne, eds., Poems, vol. 6, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson , p. xvii.3. For a detailed exposition of the social and political background of “London,” see Donald Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson , pp. 88-92, and James Clifford, “London,” Young Sam Johnson , pp. 175-94.4. John Locke explains the infinite leisure we can take in understanding the obscurities of ancient authors in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser, 2 vols. , 2:110:There being no writings we have any great concernment to be very solicitous about the meaning of, but those that contain either truths we are required to believe, or laws we are to obey, and draw inconveniences on us when we mistake or transgress, we may be less anxious about the sense of other authors; who, writing but their own opinions, we are under no greater necessity to know them, than they to know ours. Our good or evil depending not on their decrees, we may safely be ignorant of their notions: and therefore in the reading of them, if they do not use their words with a due clearness and perspicuity, we may lay them aside

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