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Samuel Johnson, Richard Rolt, and the 'Universal Visiter.' (dispute over authorship of 18th century essays)

SINCE the eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson has been associated with six essays printed in the Universal Visiter, a monthly periodical written by Christopher Smart and Richard Rolt. These six pieces, 'Some Account of the Life and Writings of Chaucer', 'Reflections on the State of Portugal', 'Further Thoughts on Agriculture', 'Reflections on the Present State of Literature' ('Dissertation on Authors'), 'Dissertation on the Epitaphs Written by Mr. Pope', and 'The Rise, Progress, and Perfection of Architecture among the Ancients', were all signed with a double asterisk, assumed to have been a code signifying Johnson's authorship.(1) Boswell rejected three of the pieces, 'Some Account of the Life and Writings of Chaucer', 'Reflections on the State of Portugal', and 'The Rise, Progress, and Perfection of Architecture among the Ancients', as being un-Johnsonian.(2) However, an annotated copy of the Universal Visiter belonging to one Ann Gardner who is thought to have been a female relative of Thomas Gardner, the Visiter's publisher, assigned all six pieces to Johnson.(3) Because of the presumed authority of Ann Gardner's testimony, Johnson is still tentatively associated with the six pieces marked **, although only the three acknowledged by Boswell have gained general acceptance into the Johnson canon.

Comments by modern scholars reflect the current confusion concerning Johnson's contributions to the Universal Visiter. Edward Bloom observes that because of Ann Gardner's testimony, 'one should hesitate to reject the three essays |those rejected by Boswell~ without further examination'.(4) The three essays are listed in Bloom's bibliography of Johnson's periodical writings with question marks. Donald Eddy's response to the problem, found in the introduction to the facsimile edition of the Visiter, is similar; unconvinced that the essays rejected by Boswell are Johnson's, he, in deference to the signature and the authority of those who assigned it to Johnson, declares that evidence put forward for Johnson's authorship of the conjectural pieces should not be neglected.(5) Citing Bloom as a source, Robert Donald Spector speculates that the essays on Chaucer and architecture are perhaps Johnson's.(6) However, an unequivocal position is taken by a standard reference work, British Literary Magazines, in its entry for the Universal Visiter. It states that, because of Ann Gardner's annotations, 'we can attribute to Johnson all those pieces signed with two asterisks'.(7)

It is difficult to dismiss Ann Gardner's testimony if the Ann Gardner who annotated her copy of the Universal Visiter was Thomas Gardner's daughter. That she was is by no means certain. We know that Thomas Gardner had a daughter named Ann, but we do not know that it was she who annotated the copy of the Visiter that was in the British Library until it was destroyed in the bombing of the Second World War. There is another Ann Gardner who may have had sufficient interest in the Visiter and its contributors to have annotated her copy, Ann Gardiner the tallow chandler of Snow Hill. She was an old friend of Johnson's from the time when he was living with his wife until his death. He left her a book in the codicil to his will. She is mentioned intermittently in the Life from 1752 to 1783,(8) and there are frequent references to her in Johnson's letters.(9) Although her name is spelled 'Gardiner' in the Life, it is spelled 'Gardner' in her obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine.(10) It is possible that she, like Mrs Williams, knew something of Johnson's affairs, and may, therefore, have had an interest in trying to identify the authors of pieces in a periodical with which Johnson was connected. Until the identity of the annotator of the Universal Visiter can be unquestionably established, the ascriptions are open to debate. Indeed, there is sufficient external evidence to suggest that Richard Rolt, not Samuel Johnson, was the author of two of the conjectural pieces, 'Reflections on the State of Portugal' and 'The Rise, Progress, and Perfection of Architecture among the Ancients'.

'Reflections on the State of Portugal' (February 1756, 67-73) and 'The Rise, Progress, and Perfection of Architecture among the Ancients; with some Account of its Declension among the Goths, and Revival among the Moderns' (255-8), the lead article for the June issue, were directly claimed for Johnson by Ann Gardner and the European Magazine reviewer, and indirectly by those who connected him to the Universal Visiter essays signed with a double asterisk. However, the pieces don't appear to have gained wide acceptance as Johnson's by early compilers of his works. Neither Tom Davies, the editor of Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces (1773 and 1774), a collection of works purported to be by the author of the Rambler, nor the editor of The Beauties of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1781) used them, and they weren't reprinted in Arthur Murphy's initial collection of Johnson's works in 1792 or in any of the subsequent editions. However, they were added to Hawkins's edition of Johnson's works in the supplemental Volume XIV (1788), edited, according to the British Library catalogue, by Isaac Reed, a scholar whom students of the Johnson canon should not ignore. Does their inclusion indicate that Isaac Reed thought Johnson their author? The issue is confused by a note appended to the essay on architecture that states that the editor relied on the 'authority of Sir John Hawkins' (p. 215) for the authorship of this piece and the two preceding ones, 'Reflections on the State of Portugal' and 'A Project for the Employment of Authors'. Sir John's opinion on matters of Johnsonian composition is not commanding; he gave Johnson 'Some Thoughts on Agriculture' which we know was written by Rolt, but not 'Further Thoughts on Agriculture', generally acknowledged as Johnson's. Furthermore, he disregarded his own note in his life of Johnson that assigned double asterisks as Johnson's discriminatory mark when making the original selections for Johnson's collected works. One must wonder why Reed didn't cite the European Magazine's 'An Account of the Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson, including some Incidents from his Life' (December 1784-April 1785) which predated Hawkins's publication and which Reed must have known about as he was one of the proprietors of the Magazine. If Reed was behind most of the attributions made in the European Magazine, as is generally thought, he would have had his own sources for identifying what Johnson contributed to the Visiter and could have cited them instead of Hawkins. The issue cannot, of course, be resolved in this paper, but it does suggest that perhaps the European Magazine reviewer and the editor of Volume XIV were not the same person.

Portugal is not an unlikely subject for Johnson. A translation and abridgement of the Portuguese Jesuit Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia (1735) was one of his first literary productions, and he wrote a long essay on Portuguese navigators in his introduction to John Newbery's World Displayed (1759). However, even a superficial reading is enough to convince anyone familiar with Johnson's prose that this poorly organized and stylistically undistinguished piece was not written by him.

Edward Bloom's analysis of 'Portugal' is the only detailed account of the essay as a product of Johnson's pen. Bloom rejects the piece on 'instinct perhaps more than internal evidence', concluding that 'some other author should receive credit for it'.(11) Bloom is quite right to reject 'Portugal' for the piece was probably written by Richard Rolt.

Rolt's A New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce which appeared in January 1756--and for which, coincidentally, Johnson wrote the Preface at the request of the booksellers, for he did not know Rolt(12)--contains a long entry on Portugal that supplied the material for the Visiter essay. Indeed, much of the Visiter piece is taken directly from the Dictionary:(13)

TABULAR DATA OMITTED

The evidence strongly suggests that Richard Rolt, not Samuel Johnson, was the author of 'Portugal'. Additional evidence suggests that he was also the author of 'The Rise, Progress, and Perfection of Architecture among the Ancients'.

After pointing out the similarities between the Visiter essay on architecture and the entry under architecture in Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, Edward Bloom contends that 'there can be no question that the essayist of 1756 had Chambers' work before him while he was composing his piece'.(14) Johnson had used, and acknowledged, Chambers as a source for the definition of architecture in his Dictionary so that, given the signature and Johnson's known interest in architecture, the circumstantial evidence favours Johnson as author of the piece. But the Cyclopaedia which was issued five times between 1727 and 1746(15) was readily available, and Johnson was certainly not alone in using it as a source. Bloom rightly contends that someone other than Johnson composed the Universal Visiter essay, offering, and then dismissing, William Chambers and John Gwynn as possibilities. Richard Rolt, however, is a more likely author of the piece. He had used the Cyclopaedia for the definition of agriculture in his New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. He had also used it for his definition of architecture, and then borrowed from himself to create the first part of the Visiter essay.

Although the following quotation from the entry in Chambers's Cyclopaedia is long, it is necessary to give it in full in order to follow Rolt as he abridged it for his Dictionary and then copied his abridgement into the Visiter essay:

Architecture is usually divided, with respect to its objects, into three branches, civil, military, and naval. Civil Architecture, called also absolutely, and by way of eminence, Architecture, is the art of contriving and executing commodious buildings for the uses of civil life; as houses, temples, halls, bridges, colleges, portico's, etc. Architecture is scarce inferior to any of the arts in point of antiquity.--Nature and necessity taught the first inhabitants of the earth to build themselves huts, tents, and cottages: from which, in course of time, they gradually advanced to more regular and stately habitations, with variety of ornaments, proportions, etc. See Vitruvius's account of the origin of Architecture, under the article Order. The antient writers represent the Tyrians as the first among whom Architecture was carried to any tolerable pitch; and hence it was that Solomon had recourse thither for workmen to build his temple. Villalpandus, indeed, contends, that only under workmen were sent for from Tyre, artificers in gold, silver, brass, etc. and that the rules of Architecture were delivered by God himself to Solomon. Hence, he adds, the Tyrians, properly speaking, learned their Architecture from Solomon; which they afterwards communicated to the Egyptians; these to the Grecians, and these again to the Romans.--In effect, the author last cited undertakes to prove, that all the beauty and advantages of the Greek and Roman buildings were borrowed from the Jewish temple....

To confirm this, Sturmius produces several passages in Vitruvius, where the rules given by that architect, ... quadrate exactly with what Josephus relates of the temple of Jerusalem, ... To what a pitch of magnificence the Tyrians and Egyptians carried Architecture, before it came to the Greeks, may be learned from Isaiah xxiii. 8. and from Vitruvius's account of the Egyptian Oeci; their pyramids, obelisks, etc. Yet, in the common account, Architecture should be almost wholly of Grecian original: three of the regular orders or manners of building are denominated from them, viz. Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric: and there is scarce a single member, or moulding, but comes to us with a Greek name.

Be this as it will, it is certain the Romans, from whom we derive it, borrowed what they had intirely from the Greeks; nor do they seem, till then, to have had any other notion of the grandeur and beauty of buildings, beside what arises from their magnitude, strength, etc.--Thus far they were unacquainted with any other beside the Tuscan.

Under Augustus, Architecture arrived at its glory: Tiberius neglected it, as well as the other polite arts. Nero, amongst a heap of horrible vices, still retained an uncommon passion for building; but luxury and dissoluteness had a greater share in it, than true magnificence.--Apollodorus excelled in Architecture, under the emperor Trajan, by which he merited the favour of that prince; and it was he who raised the famous Trajan column, subsisting to this day.

After this, Architecture began to dwindle again; and though the care and magnificence of Alexander Severus supported it for some time, yet it fell with the western empire, and sunk into a corruption, from whence it was not recovered for the space of twelve centuries.

The ravages of the Visigoths, in the fifth century, destroyed all the most beautiful monuments of antiquity; and Architecture thenceforward became so coarse and artless, that their professed architects understood nothing at all of just designing, wherein its whole beauty consists: and hence a new manner of building took its rise, which is called the Gothic.

Charlemagne did his utmost to restore Architecture; and the French applied themselves to it with success, under the encouragement of H. Capet: his son Robert succeeded him in this design; till by degrees the modern Architecture was run into as great an excess of delicacy, as the Gothic had before done into massiveness. To these may be added, the Arabesk and Morisk or Moorish Architecture, which were much of a piece with the Gothic, only brought in from the south by the Moors and Saracens, as the former was from the north by the Goths and Vandals.

The architects of the 13th, 14th, and 15th century who had some knowledge of sculpture, seemed to make perfection consist altogether in the delicacy and multitude of ornaments, which they bestowed on their buildings, with a world of care and solicitude; though frequently without any conduct or taste. In the two last centuries, the Architects of Italy and France were wholly bent upon retrieving the primitive simplicity and beauty of antient Architecture; in which they did not fail of success: insomuch that our churches, palaces, etc. are now wholly built after the antique.--...

There are several arts subservient to Architecture, as carpentry, masonry, paving, joynery, smithery, glazery, plumbery, plastering, gilding, painting, etc.

Relying heavily on Chambers, Rolt constructed the following entry for his Dictionary:

Architecture

The art of building, or of erecting edifices, proper either for habitation or defense; which is usually divided, with respect to its objects, into three branches, civil, military, and naval. Civil architecture, called so absolutely, and by way of eminence, architecture, is the art of contriving and executing commodious buildings for the uses of civil life; as houses, temples, theatres, halls, bridges, colleges, porticoes, and other buildings both of utility and ornament. Architecture is scarce inferior to any of the arts in point of antiquity; for nature, and necessity, taught the primitive inhabitants of the earth to build themselves huts, tents, and cottages; from which, in course of time, they gradually advanced to more regular and stately habitations, with a variety of ornaments.

The ancient writers represent the Tyrians as the first among whom architecture was carried to any considerable pitch, which they afterwards communicated to the Egyptians; these to the Grecians; and these again to the Romans; from whom, after several vicissitudes of fortune, in the declension of the arts, and the ravages of the Visigoths, it has at last descended to the politer part of European nations, in all that beauty to which it arrived under the care of Vitruvius, in the reign of the emperor Augustus; and all that delicacy it received from the labours of Apollodorus, who erected the remarkable Trajan column, subsisting to this day: so that, by the improvement of the moderns, architecture is brought into the form of a mathematical art. There are several arts subservient to architecture; as carpentry, masonry, paving, joinery, smithry, glaziery, plumbery, plastering, gilding, and painting; in which there are a great consumption of timber, stone, brick, tile, lime, lead, glass, iron, and other commodities.

The discourse on architecture in the Visiter begins, after introductory comments, with the following paragraph which comes almost verbatim from Rolt's Dictionary:

Architecture may be properly divided into three branches; civil, military, and naval: but I am now only speaking of the first; which is the art of contriving and executing commodious buildings for the utility and ornament of civil life. The ancient writers represent the Tyrians as the first people among whom architecture was carried to any considerable improvement, which they afterwards communicated to the Egyptians; those to the Grecians; and these again to the Romans; from whence, after several vicissitudes of fortune, in the declension of the arts, and the ravages of the Visigoths, it has, at last, descended to the politer part of the European nations, in all that beauty to which it arrived under the care of Vitruvius, in the reign of the emperor Augustus; and all that delicacy it received from the labours of Apollodorus, who erected the remarkable Trajan column, subsisting to this day: so that, by the improvement of the moderns, architecture is brought into the form of a mathematical art; though the taste of the ancients was much superior. (p. 256)

The rest of the essay is a sweep of the history of architecture from the Tower of Babel to modern Italy, some of which was suggested by Chambers's essay. I have not been able to locate the sources for all of the material, but as an adept compiler Rolt was not without resources.

It is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty what Rolt's financial condition was at this time, but a letter from him to the Duke of Newcastle dated 8 September 1756 suggests that it was not good. He asked to be appointed Supervisor of the Stamps and one of the commissioners of the lottery, positions that he said were promised him by the Duke's brother. On account of this promise, Rolt professes to have 'relinquished a genteel Income, and have ever since been a Dependant upon the Promise to my great Loss, and almost entire ruin'.(16) As a writer for the booksellers, his income would probably not have been substantial, and whatever he could earn from the Universal Visiter venture was most likely needed. Arthur Sherbo speculates that Christopher Smart, whose mental illness had begun to manifest itself shortly after the Universal Visiter began appearing (February 1756), was confined by June.(17) With his partner failing him, it is not surprising that Rolt mined his own work and that of others for copy to fill the pages of his miscellany.

The contemporary witnesses who credited Johnson with all Universal Visiter pieces marked ** were more than likely incorrect. It was apparently assumed that the Visiter symbols each represented a specific author, and when Johnson was identified as the author of 'Dissertation on the Epitaphs Written by Mr. Pope', signed **, which was collected with his Idler essays and added to his life of Pope, he was given the other Visiter essays signed with double asterisks.

It would be unwise to generalize about the accuracy of contemporary witnesses from the example of the Universal Visiter for it is not a case of several people independently making an incorrect judgement. The evidence suggests that once the double asterisk was identified as Samuel Johnson's symbol, that information was accepted and passed on without re-examination of the pieces until Boswell. The Universal Visiter was not a major publication, and probably did not have a large circulation. Johnson's contributions to it may not have been thought significant enough to merit a lengthy investigation. Had Richard Rolt, who died in 1770, been alive when his productions were identified as Johnson's, he probably would have claimed them, thus averting the ensuing confusion. It is ironic that Rolt, who, while living, pretended a connection with Johnson when none existed, should, after death, be so closely connected with him.

1 See e.g. European Magazine (Feb. 1785), 83; Johnsoniana (London, 1785), 39-40; Sir John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., ed. Bertram H. Davis (London, 1962), 294

2 James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill. rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford, 1934), i. 307.

3 For a full discussion of Ann Gardner's copy of the Universal Visiter, see Roland B. Botting, 'Johnson, Smart, and the Universal Visiter', MP 36 (1939), 293-300. Gardner's annotated copy of the Universal Visiter was destroyed during the bombing of London in the Second World War. Botting, therefore, is the final authority.

4 Edward Bloom, Samuel Johnson in Grub Street (Providence, RI, 1957), 127.

5 Donald D. Eddy, Samuel Johnson and Periodical Literature: The Universal Visiter (New York, 1979).

6 R. D. Spector, English Literary Periodicals and the Climate of Opinion During the Seven Years' War (Boston, 1979), 277.

7 Alvin Sullivan (ed.), The Augustan Age and the Age of Johnson 1698-1788, i, British Literary Magazines (Westport, Conn., 1983), 352-3 n. 3.

8 Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 242; iii. 22; iv. 245-6, 442 n. 2.

9 Samuel Johnson, Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman (London, 1952), ii. 26 (no. 390), 157 (no. 505.3), 159 (no. 506), 370 (no. 679); iii. 70 (no. 881), 167 (no. 965).

10 Gentleman's Magazine, 2 (1789), 956.

11 Bloom, Johnson in Grub Street, 128, 129.

12 Boswell, Life of Johnson, i. 359. Although Johnson supplied the Preface to Rolt's Dictionary, and may have been as adept at cutting and pasting as Rolt was, we have his own testimony that he was not familiar with the work. Boswell, astounded at the knowledge of the subject displayed in the Preface, asks Johnson whether he knew of Rolt or the work. Johnson's response is unequivocal: '"Sir, (said he) I never saw the man, and never read the book. The booksellers wanted a Preface to a Dictionary of Trade and Commerce. I knew very well what such a Dictionary should be, and I wrote a Preface accordingly."' While my argument cannot definitively deny that someone other than Rolt may have used his Dictionary entries, or the sources from which they were derived, to create the Universal Visiter essays in question, Samuel Johnson appears not to have been that person.

13 The following extracts from the Universal Visiter are from a microfilm of the original. The Dictionary extracts are from the copy of A New Dictionary of Trade and Commerce (1756) in the British Library. The pages are not numbered.

14 Bloom, Johnson in Grub Street, 132.

15 See William M. Sale, Jr., Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (Ithaca, NY, 1950), 99-100.

16 BL Add. MS 32867 fo. 266.

17 See Arthur Sherbo, Christopher Smart: Scholar of the University (East Lansing, Mich., 1967) for a comprehensive discussion of Smart's illness and dates of confinement.
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Author:Ferrero, Bonnie
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Date:May 1, 1993
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