A Timely Definition of ‘Time’

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.
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An Untold Story

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” was published in 1791, a little more than six years after Johnson’s death. It is not a biography as readers may think of a biography: the recounting of incidents from a life of action. The poet W.H. Auden said that writers are “makers, not doers” and thus he, Auden, was not going to write his memoirs. We need biographies of the doers in order to learn what was happening behind the scenes, how close the men of action came to disaster and saved their (and sometimes, our) day, he suggested. Johnson’s life was the life of a man of letters, a life spent writing plays, compiling the first major English dictionary, compiling an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, writing weekly columns on every topic his extraordinary mind could entertain. He was a maker.
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The Greatest Story Never Told

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” was published in 1791, a little more than six years after Johnson’s death. It is not a biography as readers may think of a biography: the recounting of incidents from a life of action. The poet W.H. Auden said that writers are “makers, not doers” and thus he, Auden, was not going to write his memoirs. We need biographies of the doers in order to learn what was happening behind the scenes, how close the men of action came to disaster and saved their (and sometimes, our) day, he suggested. Johnson’s life was the life of a man of letters, a life spent writing plays, compiling the first major English dictionary, compiling an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, writing weekly columns on every topic his extraordinary mind could entertain. He was a maker.
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Clean-up in Aisle Shakespeare

There is nothing wrong with Shakespeare that couldn’t be fixed by getting rid of all the violence, and, oh! those sad endings. So many of his plays end with a pile of bodies on stage and no detective to sort it all out for us and arrest the bad guys. No one leaves the theater smiling after seeing one of those productions.

For the first few generations of critics and theater producers that followed Shakespeare, this was a common attitude. The audiences loved Shakespeare from the start, the 1590s, when his plays started to be performed in London, even if they missed some of his … finer points. There were a lot of entertaining murders, after all.

Dr. Simon Forman was a doctor and astrologer of the era who would be forgotten except he kept a diary about his day-to-day life in 1610. In it, he recounts seeing several Shakespeare plays live in production at the Globe Theater. He describes seeing “Macbeth” on April 20, 1610, in what may have been the earliest production of the tragedy. He only devotes a couple paragraphs to describing the play and crams several acts into this:

Simon Forman's diary

Simon Forman’s diary

Then was Macbeth crowned kings; and then he, for fear of Banquo, his old companion, that he should beget kings but be no king himself, he contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on his way as he rode. The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had to bid to a feast, to the which also Banquo should have come, he began to speak of noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he did thus, standing up to drink a carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he, turning about to sit down again, saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they hard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth. Then MackDove fled to England to the kinges sonn, and soon they raised an army and cam to Scotland, and at Dunstonanse overthrue Macbeth. In the meantime, while MacDove was in England, Macbeth slew MackDove’s wife and children, and after in the battle MackDove slewe Macbeth. Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.

“Macbeth” was an action movie. Did Dr. Forman notice the themes of ambition, the arrogance inside pointless ambition, or the violence that that begets? Perhaps, but the revenge plot seems to have been the shiny bauble that caught his attention.

Enter Nahum Tate to the rescue. The Poet Laureate from 1692 till his death in 1715, in 1681 he wrote “King Lear.” You may have heard of “King Lear,” but that one, the one by William Shakespeare, is too sad. Cordelia is killed, Lear carries her dead body to the stage where he then dies, every audience member with a heart is weeping, and “Who wants a snack now? Anyone?” Everyone wants to go to bed and hide under the covers. Dr. Samuel Johnson thought that Shakespeare had gone too far in killing Cordelia; it “shocked” him, he said. He preferred “The History of King Lear” by Nahum Tate.

Tate’s Lear ends with Lear killing Cordelia’s executioners and Lear’s subsequent announcement of a wedding: He is giving Cordelia’s hand in marriage to Edgar. Lear then says that he is old and will retire to die sometime soon and gives his kingdom to the newly engaged. Edgar speaks the last line: “Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.”

Tate did not try to put across his play as Shakespeare’s; the title page of the printed edition says it was “revised with alterations” and he writes a poem of praise to his forebear:

‘Twere worth our While t’ have drawn you in this day
By a new Name to our old honest Play;
But he that did this Evenings Treat prepare
Bluntly resolv’d before-hand to declare
Your Entertainment should be most old Fare.
Yet hopes, since in rich Shakespear’s soil it grew,
‘Twill relish yet with those whose Tasts are True,
And his Ambition is to please a Few.

Shakespeare’s rich soil. He goes on to state that plays ought to teach morals:

Why shou’d these Scenes lie hid, in which we find
What may at Once divert and teach the Mind?
Morals were alwaies proper for the Stage,
But are ev’n necessary in this Age.
Poets must take the Churches Teaching Trade …

This is a perfectly reasonable aesthetic stance and one that can be argued over, but not here, not today.

For over a century, Tate’s Lear was the play that theater-goers saw when they attended a production of King Lear. In the mid-1800s, the tragic ending was restored and around that time Shakespeare’s original version became the revolutionary and new version that everyone was talking about.

In the early 1800s, Thomas Bowdler came up with an idea: an edited edition of Shakespeare. His thinking was that if Shakespeare’s plays are of value, why not make those values more obvious? His “Family Shakespeare” promised to be an edition “in which nothing is added to the original Text: but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” A parent or teacher could confidently place the “Family Shakespeare” in the hands of a pupil and leave them alone with it “without fear”:

From [it] the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure; may improve his moral principles, while he refines his taste; and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition.

Bowdler’s version of Macbeth sounds a bit boring after Dr. Forman’s description of an action-movie Macbeth from two centuries before.

Among his edits, Bowdler changed “Out, damned spot!” to “Out, crimson spot!” and he converted Ophelia’s suicide in “Hamlet” to an accident, which gives the lie to his claim that there would be “nothing added to the original text.”

Just as Tate was ridiculed in his time yet saw his renditions of the plays become popular in their own right, Bowdler was also ridiculed in his time but saw his editions become the best known version of Shakespeare’s plays for generations.

His name became a verb: “To bowdlerize” means to clean up a famous work and make it more “family-oriented.” A hundred years later, the entry for Thomas Bowdler in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, the most famous edition of that encyclopedia, plainly states what drives bowdlerization: “false squeamishness.”

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 8 asks, “A restaurant that removed your favorite item from the menu, a bad cover of a great song … Write a post about something that should’ve been left untouched, but wasn’t. Why was the original better?”

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Time and Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf is probably named Webster and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “Johnson.com” or something like that. Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. His treatment of the word “time,” for instance, offers fourteen different meanings for the word: “1. The measure of duration. 2. Space of time. 3. Interval. 4. Season; proper time. 5. A considerable space of duration; continuance; process of time. 6. Age; particular part of time. 7. Past time. 8. Early time. 9. Time considered as affording opportunity. 10. Particular quality of the present. 11. Particular time. 12. Hour of childbirth. 13. Repetition of any thing, or mention with reference to repetition. 14. Musical measure.” (“Time,” Johnson’s Dictionary)

Johnson offers a quote from English literature, usually the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, or Dryden, as a pertinent example for each particular definition. Sometimes he offers as many as seven quotes. For his fourteen definitions of “Time,” he uses forty-six quotes.

Samuel_Johnson

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

This project would be difficult enough to produce in our era of desktop publishing (is there an app for dictionary creation?); Johnson put together his Dictionary in his house, with workmen appearing every so often to assemble a printing press and run off some pages. He paid them out of his own pocket. His personal library, large but not comprehensive, was supplemented by books borrowed from friends. The books were so covered with his markings that they were not worth being returned, the friends remembered.

It took him nine years to complete the Dictionary, yet he had promised it in three. For the rest of his career, Johnson was ridiculed as a slow worker; he proposed to work up an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the first ever single source, authoritative edition that would be created) in 1756 and started attracting subscribers, but by 1762 another writer took a public jibe at him: “He for subscribers baits his hook/and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” His Shakespeare was published in 1765.

While working on his Dictionary, he published a self-written, twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler, to earn a living. (In other words, he wrote a blog while working on his big project.) Then, while working on his edition of Shakespeare, he published a weekly blog, um, magazine, called The Idler.

Samuel Johnson visited the topic of time over a dozen times in those two journals, and perhaps for understandable reasons: For someone so productive and yet considered a slow worker (The Idler was so named as a joke about his avoiding the long slow work on his Shakespeare), it is likely that few writers had considered time in so many facets. Any waking hour not spent earning a living was indeed “a particle of time (dropped) useless to the ground.”

Johnson had many health issues, ranging from regular bouts with a bleak depression, which he was the first to name the “black dog”; nearsightedness that glasses did not aid (or vanity made him avoid them); a disfiguring skin condition; and Tourette syndrome, a condition that did not have a name until the late 1800s and was not considered a medical condition in Johnson’s lifetime. The tics made him seem an odd character, and he felt he had to win people over with his wit. (Asked once why he made noises, he said it was a bad habit.) His many tics and violent gesticulations are described in every contemporary account about him written by his friends, so the posthumous diagnosis seems a trustworthy one.

A year and a half before his death, he described time and its slowness in old age thus:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. … When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, […] After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 25 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 1 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

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