Last night I did an exercise with my graduate seminar, where we looked at facsimiles of the original editions of two Johnson poems, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes and compared them with the version in our text (Greene’s Major Works) and with the versions in Fleeman and the Yale edition. I was surprised at how well it went over (no one fell asleep, in other words). We talked a bit about printing conventions in the eighteenth century, including the tendency of print houses to impose their own style on the works they published, and how this might change the meaning of the text. It’s a conversation we’ll continue next week as we read the poems of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith (from Lonsdale’s edition).

A relevant passage to all this study and discussion, I think, is this one, from an early essay by R. W. Chapman, who was a good textual scholar but whose major works (editions of Austen and of Johnson’s letters) have now been more or less superseded by more recent editors:

He [Ingram Bywater] was in fact a very great scholar. Many who knew him by his recensions of the text of Aristotle and by his casual conversation–his copious memory was stored with the lapses of lesser scholars–thought of him as profoundly versed in the diction of Greek philosophers and the principles of textual criticism, and by the same token preoccupied to excess with minutiae of idiom, inordinately solaced by professional scandal. The travesty is risible, but it is fostered by a vulgar error. There is no humaner science than grammar, and few more exciting pursuits than textual criticism; but the dry bones of both studies attract the spade of unenlightened industry, and the fair name of classical scholarship suffers from the multitude of its drudges.

“The spade of unenlightened industry”: that single phrase encapsulates practically the entire self-doubt of the scholar, does it not?