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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

08 September 2017

Malcolm Guite shares a view with Samuel Johnson’s cat

I STOOD the other day, gazing through the window of a house in the City of London, at the statue of a cat.

This was no ordinary cat; for the statue commemorated Samuel Johnson’s cat, Hodge, whom Doctor Johnson famously described as “a very fine cat indeed”, for whose sake he used to hasten to Billingsgate market to buy oysters, because his manservant was too ashamed to be seen in public buying the trashy food of the poor. But Hodge liked oysters, and Johnson took pleasure in his pleasure.

For the house whose window I gazed through was 17 Gough Square, one of the great shrines of England: the house in which Johnson compiled his incomparable dictionary. It gave me as much pleasure to stand there as eating the oysters must have given Hodge.

Of course, a good book “makes one little room an everywhere”, and I can pull out my dog-eared pocket Boswell in the corner of any railway carriage and find myself at once ensconced at the Mitre, while the good Doctor discourses with Goldsmith and Burke over the Madeira, and his little Scottish friend takes notes.

But there is still something special about being in a great writer’s house, about climbing the same foot-worn stairs, admiring the same pictures, looking through the same window. And, in Johnson’s house, they keep a copy of the dictionary lying open on the table. You can turn its pages in the very room where it was com­piled.

There is another, and for me, a deeper and more personal aura about that house. It was here, too, in the midst of all that he achieved, that Johnson encountered, suffered, and resisted his terrible bouts of depression — those visitations of “the black dog”, a phrase that Johnson used in a letter to a friend and bequeathed to Churchill, who made it famous.

Johnson was sometimes paralysed and speechless with his depression, unwilling and, indeed, unable to see friends: a double blow for a man to whom eloquence and friendship were among life’s greatest joys. Even though his melancholy sometimes put on a quasi-religious garb, it was, in fact, Johnson’s deep faith that sustained him and helped him through.

It used to trouble me that the statue of Johnson, just round the corner, outside St Clement Danes, is placed so that the great man has his back to the church. But now I am glad of it. Now I see that, in a modern phrase Johnson would have relished, Jesus could say to Johnson: “I’ve got your back; you can advance.”

The faith that sustained Johnson enabled him to step out from the church to face and engage the world. He looks down towards Fleet Street, to where the words of the worldly were waiting to be challenged and renewed by the words of a man who was himself renewed and sustained by the Word.
And, when Johnson finally got home, I fancy that the black dog was sometimes kept at bay by a very fine black cat.

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