Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Lichfield is always worth seeing
and ‘always worth going to see’

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am back in Lichfield at the end of the week for a visit to Dr Milley’s Hospital on Beacon Street, close to the entrance to the Cathedral Close. The visit has been organised by Kate Gomez and the local history group, Lichfield Discovered.

Of course, Lichfield always brings to mind the saintly lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who is Lichfield’s favourite literary son. I was reminded earlier this week that it was 250 years this year that he became Dr Johnson because of the honorary degree conferred on him by Trinity College Dublin in 1765.

Although Johnson left Pembroke College, Oxford, without a degree, he was awarded the degree of Master of Arts by Oxford University in 1755, just before the publication of his Dictionary in 1755.

However, the style of “Doctor” by which he is universally known comes from the honorary doctorate in laws (LL.D.) conferred on him 250 years ago by Trinity College Dublin and dated 8 July 1765 in recognition of his editing William Shakespeare.

Johnson was surprised by this spontaneous compliment. The diploma read:

Omnibus ad quos præsentes literæ pervenerint, salutem. Nos Præpositus et Socii Seniores Collegii sacrosantæ et individuæ Trinitatis Reginæ, Elizabethæ juxta Dublin, testamur, Samueli Johnson, Armigero, ob egregiam scriptorum elegantium et utilitatem, gratiam concessam fuisse pro gradu Doctoratus in utroque Jure, octavo die Julii, Anno Domini millesimo septingentesimo sexagesimo-quinto. In cujus rei testimonium singulorum manus et sigillum quo in hisce utimur apposuimus; vicesimo tertio die Julii, Anno Domini millesimo septingentesimo sexagesimo quinto.

It was signed by William Clement, Francis Andrews, R Murray, Thomas Wilson, Robert Law, Thomas Leland, and Michael Kearney.

The Revd Canon Robert Law (1730-1789) among the signatories had been a fellow of TCD since 1754. He was ordained priest by the Bishop of Ferns, John Garnett, in 1755, was a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and Rector of Saint Mary’s. His son, the Revd Francis Law (1768-1807), married Belinda Isabella Comerford, daughter of Patrick Comerford of Cork, and was the father of the Revd Patrick Comerford Law.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Johnson acknowledged the honour he had received from Trinity College Dublin in a letter to Dr Leland. He had once thought of studying law, and of entering politics, and he wrote his “Prayer before the Study of Law” a few weeks after receiving this doctorate, on 26 September 1765:

Almighty God, the giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual; enable me, if it be thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful, and instruct the ignorant; to prevent wrongs and terminate contentions; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain, to thy glory and my own salvation, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

Johnson was sceptical about travel writers and their motives. Some years earlier, he wrote in the Idler on 23 February 1760:

“The greater part of travellers tell nothing, because their method of travelling supplies them with nothing to be told. He that enters a town at night and surveys it in the morning, and then hastens away to another place, and guesses at the manners of the inhabitants by the entertainment which his inn afforded him, may please himself for a time with a hasty change of scenes, and a confused remembrance of palaces and churches; he may gratify his eye with a variety of landscapes, and regale his palate with a succession of vintages; but let him be contented to please himself without endeavouring to disturb others. Why should he record his excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge, which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he never could attain?”

Later, in his Life of Johnson, James Boswell (1740-1795) recalled that Johnson, “I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour.” Johnson asked: “It is the last place where I should wish to travel.” Boswell replied: “Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?” Johnson: “No, Sir; Dublin is only a worse capital.” Boswell: “Is not the Giant’s Causeway worth seeing?” Johnson: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”

This weekend, however, I am sure, as always that only is Lichfield worth seeing, as always, but also “worth going to see.”

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)