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Friday, 25 February 2011

James Boswell: Samuel Johnson's Cat Hodge



Statue of Samuel Johnson's cat Hodge in the courtyard outside Johnson's house, 17 Gough Square, London: photo by Michael K. Westlake, 2006 (via Dr. Johnson's Rambler)

Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, 'Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;' and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, 'but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.'

This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. 'Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.' And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, 'But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'


Hodge keeping watch: photo by Michael K. Westlake, 2006 (via Dr. Johnson's Rambler)

James Boswell: Life of Johnson, entry for 23 March 1783 (Johnson aetat 74)


Anonymous said...

Beautiful cat; great story. Our Felix returned yesterday from some unfortunate (but thankfully limited) oral surgery. He's an enormous mixed-breed (but mostly Maine Coon, we think; he bears the characteristic prominent M on his brow). He's doing well; everyone was happy to have him back. This story makes me think of Felix's positive spirit and his appetite.

Julia said...

Oysters and a statue !!!
This post put me in a very difficult position with my cat - now she thinks we are not treating her as she deserves...

TC said...

Happy for Felix (whose name of course means happy). Maine Coons have been known to grow to the proportions of buffalo, so one imagines the degree of difficulty in such a procedure, for all concerned, as pretty high; therefore success to be celebrated.

Julia, here is someone I think your cat might like to get to know.

TC said...

A few further specimens of Hodgeiana.

Julia, in Johnson's day and age oysters were not the costly delicacy they are today. They were "affordable" even for poor and common folk. The oyster fishermen of England's coastal waters saw to that. But Johnson did not stoop to assigning the task of shopping for Hodge's oysters to his manservant, Francis Barber (with whom and Hodge he shared his residence); he went himself daily to the fish market, to make sure Hodge got the best of what could be purchased. (The Gough Square statue has Hodge sitting beside a couple of empty oyster shells.)

When Hodge was agéd and, much like his master, in a declining state, Johnson, who was himself familiar with the pains of old age, attempted to relieve the old cat with valerian -- which, as with the oysters, he made a point of shopping for himself.

As to Hodge's appearance, it's pretty safe to say the sculptor had that right, because one Percival Stockdale, who was Johnson's immediate neighbour from 1769, wrote a poem in memoriam for the much-loved animal, "An Elegy on the Death of Dr. Johnson's Favourite Cat", containing the lines:

And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene'er he stroaked his sable furr

... and one further interesting bit of Hodge trivia, the second paragraph of Boswell's wonderful passage about Hodge and his master became the epigraph to Vladimir Nabokov's amazing 1962 novel/poem, Pale Fire.

And oh well, while we're at it, having come this far with Johnson's moggy, here's Percival Stockdale's elegy for him;

Let not the honest muse disdain
For Hodge to wake the plaintive strain.
Shall poets prostitute their lays
In offering venal statesmen praise;
By them shall flowers Parnassian bloom
Around the tyrant's gaudy tomb;
And shall not Hodge's memory claim
Of innocence the candid fame;

Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who, by his master, when caressed,
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene'er he stroaked his sable furr?

The general conduct if we trace
Of our articulating race,
Hodge's example we shall find
A keen reproof to human kind.

He lived in town, yet ne'er got drunk,
Nor spent one farthing on a punk;
He never filched a single groat,
Nor bilked a taylor of a coat;
His garb when first he drew his breath,
His dress through life, his shroud in death.

Of human speech to have the power,
To move on two legs, not on four;
To view with unobstructed eye
The verdant field, the azure sky

Favoured by luxury, to wear
The velvet down, the golden glare—
If honour from these gifts we claim,
Chartres had too severe a fame.

But wouldst thou, son of Adam, learn
Praise from thy noblest powers to earn;
Dost thou, with generous pride, aspire
Thy nature's glory to acquire?
Then in thy life exert the man,
With moral deeds adorn the span;
Let virtue in thy bosom lodge;
Or wish thou hadst been born a Hodge.

TC said...

(And don't look now, but the boy in the lower image in the post just above this one is... feeding oysters to a small cat.)

Julia said...

Oh, yes he is!

Yin loved the oyster girl you sent us. Smell and gave that look... ¡reproches y más reproches!

I loved the text you sent ME (she doesn't know how to value it)

And yes, I knew oyster weren't the expensive things that are today. Yin didn't know, but still she want some, bought by myself, she specifies.

Artemesia said...

Ulysses/Joyce: Episode 4 Calypso

"The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

-- Mkgnao!

-- O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writing-table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

-- Milk for the pussens, he said.

-- Mrkgnao! the cat cried.

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.

-- Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.

Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.

-- Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly."
Great writers have great cats!
Thanks for Hodge..

TC said...

Dear Yin...obviously it is a great pleasure for you to devote your life to her in this way, Julia.

And for that matter one suspects it is a great pleasure for her as well.

And Artemesia, the Ulysses bit is brilliant!

Great cats make those who love them great writers, I think. Not that the cats care about that latter part, of course. Indeed, I believe Julia's cat Yin has been known to "help" with such things as books and papers by sitting upon them.

(Julia has inventoried those among other "Multiple Uses of a Cat" in a number of delightful posts at Meliora Latent.)

TC said...

For those who share our affection for Johnson:

Later Johnson: The Black Dog

Some Late Johnsoniana

Samuel Johnson: On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet

Samuel Johnson: The Last

Samuel Johnson: The Vulture

Samuel Johnson: Valediction

Anonymous said...

Stockdale's elegy -- where to begin? Incredible.

TC said...

(This bit I particularly like, though of course it is verse of a moralizing kind that has been dismissed and patronized by so many generations of pseudo-avant criticism that it can now be viewed as pure archaism; which superior condescension, to my mind, only helps bring out its many virtues; foremost among these that universalizing motive to attain that which Johnson himself condensed so well in the phrase, "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed":)

The general conduct if we trace
Of our articulating race,
Hodge's example we shall find
A keen reproof to human kind.

He lived in town, yet ne'er got drunk,
Nor spent one farthing on a punk;
He never filched a single groat,
Nor bilked a taylor of a coat;
His garb when first he drew his breath,
His dress through life, his shroud in death.

Julia said...

Thanks, Artemisia, for this glimpse of Joyce. It's fantastic!

Tom, don't think I'm so devoted to Yin's needs and welfare, I should work harder on that [she forced me to write this ;-)]

Good morning and have a nice day, Tom.

TC said...

The same to you and Yin (and of course Diego).

Julia, the newspaper tells me your temperature yesterday was fifty degrees (F.) above the temperature here at this moment (Arctic cold spell).

The sad birds are chirping very meekly in the frosty dawn. They expected springtime...

But the brave adventurer cat has as usual been summoned out by the morning Call of the Wild.

(Though someone here speculates that his destination in these mysterious dawn adventures is not the hunting of small animals but the hunting of snacks from indulgent neighbours.)

Julia said...

Spring will come to you soon, I hope!
It's a wonderful day here,but the summer is ending we can feel it. Sad, though inevitable.

Someone is absolutely right, I believe. My mother discovered some weeks ago that one of their cats even has another name in one of their neighbours' house. Garfield they call him. But he's "Meterete" for us.

Tom King said...

People used to eat way more oysters in New York. This Times article says they ate 100 million oysters in the eight months between Sep 1906 and May 1907. Since the population was 2 million then, that's 50 for every person.

TC said...


That's a LOT of oysters.

Chris Bridgwood said...

Dear Tom Clark - I've just discovered (fallen into, gratefully) your blog, and am foraging at random, finding treasure all the way. A beautiful commonplace book, with all mod cons, and wonderful vibrations between words and pictures. My growing sense of finding myself home from home was clinched by this Hodge post - an increasingly curly and yellowing photocopy of that passage has been pinned to a series of noticeboards with each house-move over the last twenty-five years. It still moves me, and I'm moved to find a distant stranger needing to share it too. Thank you. I'll get back to the foraging.

Barry Taylor

TC said...

Barry, thanks so much for falling by, or in... (I am myself a veteran of falling, though still alas an apprentice at picking myself up).

Indeed I have just now landed gratefully and gently on my feet as evidently the first arriviste at your virtual and virginal establishment. Wonderfully pristine!

"The vibrations between words and pictures" sounds so lovely. (And in fact the fathoming and fine-tuning of such curious vibrations happens to be exactly what this blog is here for, though perhaps not everybody notices).

If that Boswell passage has touched your heart and stayed with you as it has with me, I reckon it's at least in part because you too have experienced the wonder of being permitted into the world of cat(s).

Would that we were all so good at speaking of these things (or of any things) as Johnson.

Chris Bridgwood said...

Tom (if I may) - thanks for your reply - I'm sorry that my first-class web illiteracy has led you to land unheralded and unwelcomed on a territory so pristine I haven't actually been there myself - indeed didn't even know of its existence. I thought I was just opening a Google account to allow me to post my comment to you (and, to cap it all, find that the posts bear my wife's name in the header. For crying out loud.) Do I assume from what you say about being my first visitor that I've acquired a blog without noticing? I imagine Lady Bracknell not approving.

Back to the real business - one of the things I value about Boswell here is that there are so many opportunities for false sentiment, archness, cuteness in writing about cats and their owners, and he sidesteps them all on his way to the true feeling and psychology of that 'kindly reverie' and its being provoked by the 'ludicrous account', with its cartoon speed and violence. Sometimes its easy to pass over Boswell's genius, isn't it - he can be so good he's invisible.

Thanks again


TC said...


Yes, absolutely.

Indeed, how can we ever know exactly how much editorial contribution might have been made to the genius of Johnson's conversation by Boswell's brilliant transcription-from-memory?

Stan Szczesny said...

It's been awhile since I read Boswell's Life of Johnson. I didn't remember Hodge. Nice post. I have been reading and posting on Boswell's Hebrides Journal. Here's a link to some of the posts:

TC said...

Thanks very much, Stan. Let us never forget Hodge, then.

A pleasure to drop in at your outpost, just now, the sort of place where it feels like a light has been left burning for just such purposes -- to make a nocturnal visitor from afar feel at home.

Even in this difficult Outer Hebrides of an epoch.