ALTHOUGH Sir John Hawkins’s 1787 biography of Samuel Johnson has only lived a shadowy half-life since being eclipsed in 1791 by Boswell, there are a number of memorable passages of Johnson’s life to which Hawkins has an exclusive and inalienable right. One of these is the account of an all-night session of the Ivy Lane club, of which Hawkins was himself a member, held in late 1750 or early 1751 to ‘celebrate either the writing or the publication’ of Charlotte Lennox’s first novel, The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself.1 Johnson himself had insisted on this celebration, and the stodgy Hawkins disapproved in principle, likening it to a debauch. Nevertheless, Hawkins noted, albeit grudgingly, that the likeness was only superficial: there was laughter and conviviality, but not riot or drunkenness. Hawkins tells us that, ‘About five, Johnson’s face shone with meridian splendour, though his drink had been only lemonade.’2 By the phrase ‘meridian splendour’ Hawkins indicates that, despite the very early (or late) hour, Johnson’s sober visage beamed as brightly and warmly as the sun at midday. It seems, for Hawkins, an unaccustomed flight of rhetoric, and it is odd that no one has chosen to investigate and comment on it. In his comprehensive scholarly edition of Hawkins’s book, O M Brack, Jr does not refer to the phrase. It seems, unsurprisingly, not to be Hawkins’s own coinage, and has at least a 127 year history. The earliest reference I can find for this vivid and distinctive expression is in the title of a book by seventeenth-century puritan clergyman, William Secker, The Nonsuch Professor in his Meridian Splendor: or, The Singular Actions of Sanctified Christians (1660). In Secker’s book, the ‘meridian splendour’ signifies the glorious fullness of character and behaviour that befits and may be striven for by the ‘nonesuch professor’, that is, a person who is perfected by the profession (or open declaration) of faith in Christ. The hortatory style of the book deploys a richness of imagery and analogy, as well as epigrams, puns, quotations, parallelisms, chiasmus, and other effects. Secker clearly did not believe that the display of wit and virtuosic prose was in any way inconsistent with a gospel message. In particular, he makes great play throughout the book with imagery of the sun at midday, of which the following quotations will give a flavour:3 You do not look for so much splendor from the burnings of a candle as from the beamings of the Sun. (14) Though we cannot equalize his holiness, yet we should imitate his holiness: As it is the same light which shines from the body of the sun in its meridian, and which breaks forth in the dawnings of the morning. (26) There is little worth in outward splendor, if vertue yield it not an inward lustre. When this sun is in its meridian, it may be masked with a cloud. (45) A single beam of light is suddenly obscured, which in the body of the Sun secures its splendor. (67) [F]alse grace is always declining till it be wholy lost; but true grace goes from a mornings dawning, unto a Meridian shining. (198–99) [T]he Chrysolite which is of a golden colour in the morning, loses its splendor before the evening; such are the glittering shews of Hypocrites. (202) The Roman Triumphers in the Meridian of all their splendor, had a servant behind them crying to each of them, Memento te esse hominem. (231) When the Sun of earthly happinesse is in its Miridian [sic] Rayes it may be eclipsed. (262) One excellently compares our life to a day; Infancy is as it were the day breake, youth is the Sun rising, full growth is as the Sun in it’s Meridian, and old age is as the Sun setting; by the light of the day, let us doe the worke of the day. (309–10) It is as naturall for a beleeving man to be a working man, as it is for the Sun to shine … (423) So, Secker uses the expression ‘meridian splendor’ in his title, and rings the changes on the image throughout his book. I hesitate to attribute the coinage to Secker, but I have found no earlier uses of the expression. However, in the literary record of the 127 years between Secker and Hawkins there are a considerable (although not unmanageable) number,4 which may perhaps be adequately represented in a summary. Except for a 1685 reference to Secker’s book, the record is silent on the subject of ‘meridian splendor’ until 1693, when William Wotton uses the phrase in his translation of Du Pin’s New History of Ecclesiastical Writers, to refer to the spiritual excellence of the early Christian writers, who he said were ‘like great lights, whose Meridian Splendor darkn’d the little lustre’ of the writers of following centuries. The strong spiritual resonance is taken further in 1702 by John Wilson, in his Essay wherein National Love and Unity is Recommended, in which Christ himself is described as having in him ‘the Body of the Sun in its Meridian Splendor: Light convoying down Life, and Life manifesting it self by Love’—the first phrase of which could even be a quote from Secker (see the extract from page 26 of Secker’s book, above). Some later uses maintain this spiritual dimension, with Henry Winder in his History of the Rise … of Knowledge (1756) surmising that, in the absence of revelation, it would be plausible to venerate ‘the Sun in his Meridian Splendour, and … the Moon and Stars, in their Midnight Beauty and Lustre’ (162); and Edward Tatham writing in 1780 that ‘the high-day of Christianity [was] suffered to shine out in its meridian splendour, being supported in its career by signs on earth and signs in heaven’ (12). These examples, presenting Christianity as the high point of spiritual revelation and ethical teaching, certainly set the tone for other uses of the image. The meridian, in its literal meaning—‘Of or relating to midday or noon. Often spec. with reference to the position, strength, etc., of the sun at midday’ (OED)—implies the waxing (and waning) of the life-giving qualities of light and warmth, which may be applied metaphorically to phenomena natural, cultural, and personal. Another thread to the phrase ‘meridian splendour’, dating from 1709, is found in Aaron Hill’s Account of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire, in which Hill says that, ‘He, who looks back on former Ages, and traces that unhappy Nation [i.e., Greece] to its Meridian Splendour, will be strangely struck with an uncommon Wonder at the Degenerate Principles of their Unman’d Posterity’ (173). The theme of the rise and decline of nations extracts the same image from Thomas Mortimer, whose New History of England (1764) opens with the observation, ‘At the time when Julius Caesar formed the design of invading Britain, the military genius of the Romans was arrived at its meridian splendor …’ (9). Gibbon himself, whose great theme these expressions foreshadow, writes that the distinction between the Latin- and Greek-speaking parts of the empire, which ‘was in some degree concealed during the meridian splendor of prosperity, became gradually more visible as the shades of night descended upon the Roman world’. As nations rise and fall, so do things in nature, including human nature and character. Thomas Uvedale, in the Preface to his poem, The Remedy of Love, in imitation of Ovid (1704), say that it was not his aim ‘to brighten the Character of Womankind, or make it shine out in its Meridian Splendour’. In Book 1 of The Pleasures of the Imagination (1754), Mark Akenside proposes to trace ‘the rising lustre of her [Nature’s] charms, / From their first twilight, shining forth at length / To full meridian splendour’. The reign of nature, before the rise of human culture, is represented by John Gilbert Cooper, in Epistles to the Great (1757), through the power of the heavenly bodies: ‘… when refulgent TITAN’s Beam / In high meridian Splendor glows, / And when pale CYNTHIA’s maiden Gleam / O’er Night a silver Mantle throws’ (13). In the ‘Life of Dr Thomas Parnell’ which Oliver Goldsmith provided for a new edition of Parnell’s Poems on Several Occasions (1770), Goldsmith asserts that by the time a poet is famous, it is usually too late to know the details of his character: ‘the dews of the morning are past, and we vainly try to continue the chace by the meridian splendor’. And not unnaturally, all these serious uses give rise to increasing instances of ‘meridian splendor’ being used not for its powerful imagery, but as a hyperbolical cliché. There is in The Scots Magazine, of December 1742, a satirical letter ‘from a Schoolmaster to his Patron’, in which the patron is advised that his various unparalleled personal qualities ‘have diffused such an epidemic notion of benevolence to mankind, together with the candour and resplendency of your origin, which shines with such a peculiar, pellucid, meridian splendor and reflection, … lineally darted from those dazzling and resplendent identidem oriental and occidental constellations, whose brightness and divine eminency, as well as humane clemency, shine with such a conspicuous glory and unparalleled lustre …’ (v. 4: 555). In the final issue of Arthur Murphy’s political paper, The Test (no. 35; 9 July 1757), the writer asks and claims, ‘Why then, it will be said, lay down a paper in it’s meridian splendor? because the ends proposed by it have been effectually attained’. A satirical piece in the London Magazine, of August 1772, called ‘The Sale by Auction: A Dream’, says of the ministry, ‘It was but yesterday they shone in meridian splendor: it was but yesterday they trampled upon England, and set her laws and patriots at defiance.’ (41: 361). In these and other instances we see the expression being treated as a known commonplace, quoted self-consciously and ironically. So, Sir John Hawkins may in his Life of Johnson simply have been using the expression in this latter capacity, as a commonplace. But I would not want to dismiss the possibility of the influence of Thomas Secker. Hawkins, like Johnson, enjoyed pious reading, and could easily have been acquainted with The Nonsuch Professor, in which the expression ‘meridian splendour’ seems to have been coined, and within which the author plays with the image so incessantly and to such fervent and pious effect. If Hawkins was knowingly using the expression ‘meridian splendor’ from Secker, then it is possible that he was not simply describing the sunniness of Johnson’s countenance, but was alluding to Johnson actively performing his faith, by innocently flouting over-scrupulous convention. One of the many reasons that Johnson is still so admired, not only in his writings but in his biography, is that he was a true bohemian, but without the decadence, vice or desire to affront the bourgeoisie with which bohemianism is usually associated. As the ‘unclubbable’ Hawkins depicts Johnson demonstrating the virtues of moderation in the midst of joyful socialising and celebration, it would be nice to think that even he could see and admire that ‘singular’ quality in his old friend. Footnotes 1 Duncan Isles, ‘Johnson and Charlotte Lennox’, The New Rambler (June 1967), 34–48; vid. 42. My thanks to John W. Byrne for supplying me with this text. 2 Sir John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. O M Brack, Jr. (Athens, GA, 2009), 172. 3 The quotations are taken from the first edition, William Secker, The Nonsuch Professor in his Meridian Splendor: or, The Singular Actions of Sanctified Christians (London: Printed by M.S. for Thomas Parkhurst, 1660), and reproduce various eccentric or inconsistent spellings and punctuation. 4 I found twenty-two in all, most of them by using the online device Google Books Ngram Viewer, which enables users to search for words and phrases in the text corpora of works printed between 1500 and 2008 that have been digitized by Googlebooks. Many thanks to John Preston for technical assistance. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 20, 2018
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