CATS IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT (PART 3 – Samuel Johnson and Hodge)

Dr. Johnson and Hodge, 19th century engraving

Dr. Johnson and Hodge, 19th century engraving

Samuel Johnson, the father of the first English dictionary had a cat named Hodge for whom he cared deeply.  James Boswell, Johnson’s friend and biographer, found Johnson’s relationship with Hodge so important that he included a description of this bond in Johnson’s biography. 

“Nor would it be just under this head, to omit the fondness which he shewed 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 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 presences 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.” (Boswell, 1820, p. 824)

Those last words of Boswell’s regarding Hodge were used as part of the inscription on the statue erected to the cat’s memory located near Johnson’s House in Gough Square.  The inscription reads:

Hodge

‘a very fine cat indeed’

belonging to

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

of Gough Square 

The statue erected in the late 1990’s, shows Hodge sitting on Johnson’s dictionary with two oysters at his feet.

Statue of Hodge the Cat outside Samuel Johnson's House

Statue of Hodge the Cat outside Samuel Johnson’s House

 

            Percival Stockdale, a not very famous poet, but an avid reformer against slavery, and most importantly, Johnson’s friend, wrote an elegy to poor deceased Hodge.

An Elegy on The Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat

 Percival Stockdale 1778

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 manner 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 of 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 gown, the golden glare –
–If honour from these gifts we claim,
Chartres had too severe a fame.
But wouldst though, 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 deed adorn the span;
Let virtue in they bosom lodge;
Or wish thou hadst been born a Hodge.

 

             Another poem included in Repplier’s, The cat: Being a Record of the Endearments and Invectives Lavished by Many Writers Upon an Animal Much Loved and Abhorred written by Susan Coolidge is about Johnson’s famous relationship with his cat, Hodge.

 
 

Hodge the Cat

 

Burly and big his books among,

     Good Samuel Johnson sat,

With frowning brows and wig askew,

His snuff strewn waistcoat far from new;

So stern and menacing his air,

That neither “Black Sam” nor the maid

To know or interrupt him dare;

Yet close beside him, unafraid,

Sat Hodge the cat.

 

“This participle,” the Doctor wrote,

“the modern scholar cavils at,

But,”—even as he penned the word,

A soft protesting note was heard:

The Doctor fumbled with his pen,

The dawning thought took wings and flew,

The sound repeated come again,

It was a faint reminding “Mew!”

From Hodge, the cat.

 

“Poor Pussy!” said the learned man,

Giving the glossy fur a pat,

“It is your dinner time, I know,

And, —well, perhaps I ought to go;

For if Sam every day were sent

Off from his work your fish to buy,

Why, men are men, he might resent,

And starve or kick you on the sly;

Eh! Hodge, my cat?”

 

The Dictionary was laid down,

The Doctor tied his vast cravat,

And down the bussing street he strode,

Taking an often –trodden road,

And halted at a well know stall:

“Fishmonger,” he spoke the Doctor gruff,

“give me six oysters, that is all;

Hodge knows when he has had enough,

Hodge is my cat.”

 

Then home Puss dined, and while in sleep

He chased a visionary rat,

His master sat him down again,

Rewrote his page, renibbed his pen;

Each I was dotted, each t was crossed,

He labored on for all to read,

Nor deemed that time was waste or lost

Spent in supplying the small need—

Of Hodge, the cat.

 

The dear old Doctor! fierce of mien,

Untidy, arbitrary, fat

What gentle thoughts his name enfold!

So generous of his scanty gold,

So quick to love, so hot to scorn,

Kind to all sufferers under heaven,

A tenderer despot ne’er was born;

His big heart held a corner even

For Hodge, the cat.”

(Repplier, 1918, p.80-2)

REFERENCES

Boswell, James. (1820). The life of Samuel Johnson. Oxford University.

Repplier, Agnes. (1918). The cat: being a record of the endearments and invectives lavished by many writers upon an animal much loved and abhorred. New York: Sturgis and Walton Co.

FURTHER READING

A nicely written piece about Hodge appears at Purr ‘n’ Furr http://www.purr-n-fur.org.uk/famous/hodge.html

 

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