Irish Wolfhound Times
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Samuel Johnson visits a dog show
The Country Magazine, London, April 20 1876
1. About Samuel Johnson and Boswell
Dr. Johnson had in his friend Boswell the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate, Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was 'always studying human nature and making experiments', and the marvellously vivacious Journals he wrote daily furnished him with first-rate material when he came to write his biography.
2. The Dog Show Manuscript (this article)
The Country Magazine, London, April 20 1876
"Noctes Johnsonians." (From recently discovered manuscripts).
Having learned by chance that there was a show of dogs to take place at ---- , Johnson expressed a desire to be present. Upon my showing astonishment that he should care for anything so trivial and of such ill repute, "Sir,' said he, "none can be truly wise who have not seen all shapes and manners of life. Thus, they who have been to this show are in some way wiser than you or I." I replied that this was true, but I questioned whether such wisdom were worth attaining. Johnson: "In that you err, for all wisdom is in various degrees good, and it is the height of arrogance to condemn any good thing, no matter how small." I felt the truth of his rebuke and was silent, inwardly despondent that I had ever presumed to bandy words with this great man. "Come, then," said he, cheerfully, think no more of it, but let us go."
I would fain have chartered a coach to convey us to the spot, but he said there was no need of this, and reprimanded my lavish haste, ' and, indeed," he continued, "we can make no mistake in the way, for see that depicted finger on the wall, beneath which is inscribed 'this way to the show". I would still fain have ridden, for the rain fell, and I was fearful lest my shoes should be betrayed. But Johnson decisively ordained that we should walk; "for," said he, "by driving we take an unfair advantage of others on whom the coachman will look with contempt, because they do not do the like." Boswell: "But are not we acting unwisely in this, that, whereas many always ride, we, by walking, shall therefore be condemned by the drivers." Johnson: 'No, sir, the exemplification in practice of our theoretical humility may cause others to imitate us, and so the drivers, though they may be angered, will not be able to condemn."
So, then, we two walked on for some distance, till we came to the end, and there, before entering we paid in coin of the realm for each of us one shilling, not but what Johnson took occasion to expound to the receiver how worse than foolish it was to tax men who were in pursuit of wisdom. "Sir," said he, with much gravity, " wisdom should be the ultimate aim of all, but a little thing—such as the payment you impose—may turn many from the true course. The man made reply that he
considered Johnson's head was already turned, so it was of no account: whereat we were ushered in amid loud and violent barkings of dogs.
"Doubtless," thought I, "these poor animals can feel instinctively the presence of this great man. and in that feeling how far do they excel the degraded person whom we have left!" Then, I noticed that the barking continued, I begged him to come away, lest the dogs should be overcome with their emotions. "Nay," said he, if it pleasures them, I will stay here long enough.
So we two joined with the crowds of visitors, and passed around amid countless and most varied dogs, till, indeed, I was truly bewildered, feeling unable to concentre my ideas in any definite form, and having but a mixed and obfuscated conception of the whole. "When I mentioned this to Johnson, "Why,Sir," replied he, "therein lies the value of this combined view of all manner of dogs, for it is most likely that, from a sight of all the choicest specimens, you will have fixed in your brain the image of the one perfect dog comprising the excellencies of all."
This I could not but agree to, and asked him to point out to me the best of the various kinds. This he said the judges would better do; and as be spoke it happened that we came upon a small railed enclosure, wherein, it would appear, the work of judging the dogs was taking place. Here I noticed that the dogs were led round and round with the judges in the midst, who seemed not to be much concerned in the matter, but looked in other directions, and not unfrequently, refreshed themselves with draughts of wine.
So I was able to observe that among those leading the dogs some were distinguished by scarlet caps, and this, I took occasion to mention to Johnson, was, doubtless, a scheme of fraud, whereby the wearers of the caps purposed to captivate the judges by the splendour of their apparel, "as if," I added, "it were men and not dogs that were being judged." I was gratified to find that he agreed with my censure, and afterwards remarked to me with evident complacency that the judges had acted very rightly, for they had bestowed no reward on any of the dogs that were led in by these designing men.
But the judging seemed not to be a matter of much difficulty; for, in fact, to one dog (a small white one, with a mark on its head) a prize was awarded before the judges even cast their eyes upon it. Still, when they looked upon this dog they seemed stricken with trembling and apprehension. "Doubtless," said my friend, there is cause for dreading this champion." I could not but feel astonished at what I saw, and asked, further, for what reason the champion was dreaded, to which question he was fain to answer he could not tell.
Till then I had not noticed the gentleman standing by my side, who now gave tokens of indignation, and told us that he could well answer my question. "Indeed, sir," said Johnson, " by doing so you will favour us greatly". But the gentleman replied that the story was long, and the time and place unfitting; whereupon Johnson, with that courtesy which he could always display on occasion, begged him to sup with us that night at the Mitre, and tell us the account. "I thank you, sir," said the stranger, "my name is Wakkerlee — not altogether unknown, I trust, in the canine world." "Truly, replied my friend, " I have heard your fame, and am indeed glad to have fallen in with you. When I afterwards asked him how or when he had heard of this gentleman, he confessed to me that he had never heard of him before, ' but, he added, "it is always wise to blend flattery with civility, though at the expense of truth.
Presently, when the judging was come to an end, we walked away through the show in search of refreshment, and as we went we heard much discoursing among those to whom dogs belonged. I could gather generally very many should have won that did not, and that the majority of exhibitors were disappointed and dissatisfied. On this subject I find in my notes the following remark of Johnson's: "It is not in human nature to consider the defects of one's own property so correctly as
those of another's. No, sir, the cow will prefer her own calf, though but a wretched weanling, to the finest produce of her neighbour.
"Sir, these men speak foolishly when they exult their own dogs, and profess to know more than the judges.The judges, indeed, would not have been appointed to that position if they did not know more than, the rest of mankind."
On reaching the room for refreshment, I oberved several of the judges drinking wine, and conversing with oortain of thoso whom I had noticed exhibiting dogs. I asked Johnson whether he did not consider this conduct reprehensible. Johnson: "Why, no sir; I should take it, a judge is a man of undoubted integrity, and it would bo a miserable thing indeed to hold him in suspicion because he makes merry with a friend. Sir, suppose I were a judge and yon an exhibitor, would you not consider it outrageous if we might not meet here and drink together, as we are now doing?" "That is true, sir, in a measure," I replied; "but ought we not to avoid the appearance of evil, so as to give no cause for ill natured remarks?" Johnson: "I see, sir, you would have a judge possess no friends, or, at any rate, renounce their
acquaintance." I felt a little stunned at this rebuff, and unable to say more on this head; but it is indeed impossible to argue with Johnson; for, as Goldsmith once remarked, "if he kicks and misses you with his foot, he will hurl his boot at your head and fell you to the earth." This was truly exemplified later in the show, when we came upon a man who was unduly exalting his own dog — a brute of hideous countenance.
"Sir," said Johnson, "I cannot see that your mastiff possesses any great excellence." The man replied in somewhat coarse terms, that those who could not discriminate between a bulldog and a mastiff were not likely to see much. Johnson: "Bulldog, do you say? A fitting animal in truth to be owned by a bullhead like yourself." There was a roar of laughter amid the bystanders at this sally, und the man retired abashed.
I have preserved no more minutes of our doings at the show, though we were there some long time.
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