Samuel Johnson and Beowulf

In 1773 Samuel Johnson set off for Scotland with James Boswell at his side. Boswell was Scottish and had connections in many places, but even he had never penetrated to the distant parts of the Highlands and Isle of Skye and Outer Hebrides that the two of them were to visit.

What has this to do with Beowulf? Just this: that Johnson had opinions on many things and was sometimes wrong. He had not read Milman Perry on the subject of Yugoslavian bards and did not have the advantage of contemporary scholarship on ancient sagas. More surprisingly, he had no idea of the ability of the human mind to memorize.

It happened that a Scottish author had recently produced what he said were translations from ancient Gaelic that he attributed to Ossian. There are ancient poems written by Ossian, but these were new and hitherto unknown. Johnson, rightly, was skeptical and made use of the journal of his Scottish travels to express his doubts.

“In an unknown speech,” wrote Johnson, “nothing that is not very short is transmitted from one generation to the next. Few have opportunities of hearing a long composition often enough to retain it; and what is once forgotten is lost forever. I believe there cannot be recovered in the whole Earse language, five hundred lines of which there is any evidence to prove them a hundred years old.”

Had memory really so far deteriorated in Johnson’s day? Had he never been to a performance of Shakespeare? How did he think Homer’s sagas had been transmitted? Having conquered Scotland, he might have turned his attention to Yugoslavia and discovered as Milman Perry did in the 1930’s, bards memorizing very lengthy poems on the basis of one hearing.

Indeed, Johnson would have benefitted from a reading of last Sunday’s New York Times with its eloquent tribute to Patrick Leigh Fermor who wrote years ago that “when one is young, the mind takes an impression like wax and holds it like stone, but in later years the mind takes an impression like stone and holds it like wax.” Johnson, in his later years, had forgotten, perhaps, what he could have done in his youth.

Beowulf, too, (to get around to the connection at last) almost certainly was composed and transmitted by illiterate bards who did not know, having never met Johnson, that they were doing something impossible.

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