Notes and Documents
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Notes and Documents

[Editors’ Note: Henry Bradley was the second editor (after Sir James A. H. Murray) of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (later titled the Oxford English Dictionary), and was Tolkien’s supervisor during the years that he worked on the Dictionary (1919–1920). This brief memorial on the occasion of Bradley’s death first appeared in the Bulletin of the Modern Humanities Research Association for October 1923. To put Tolkien’s words in their proper context, we have asked Professor Tom Shippey to comment on Bradley as a philologist, and Peter Gil-liver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, to assess Bradley’s importance to the Dictionary. The Editors are grateful to the Tolkien Estate for allowing Tolkien Studies to reprint this text.]

Henry Bradley 3 Dec., 1845 – 23 May, 1923.1

In little more than a year English scholarship and letters have suffered three grievous losses. By the death on May 23rd of Dr Henry Bradley we lost not only one of the first scholars of our time, and an authority on the English language who had achieved a position of unique eminence and supremacy, but one of the widest known and most loved of personalities who had made a deep impression on the imagination of all students of English. In spite of his nearly seventy-eight years his death came as an unexpected blow, so much had one come to think of “Bradley” as a monument that would ever tower upon the horizon, living and active yet perennial and unchanged, a mind possessed of a youth and vigour superior to the body’s infirmities. Now one more editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, once “New” now old-established though unfinished treasure-house, has laid down the pen in the midst of his work, leaving in its pages his own chief monument and the principal record of those brilliant qualities upon which his fame rests.

Others that knew him longer and better have already written in his praise and to one of the younger generation, that counts itself supremely fortunate in having known something of Bradley’s last years of undiminished energy, little remains save to offer a more slender tribute to the name that will rank among the foremost in scholarship and philology in either the nineteenth or the present century.

The Making of English has traveled far and come into some strange hands; long ago it penetrated here and there even into the fastnesses [End Page 141] of “classical sides.” To one who once knew only this of all his work, and pictured its author as a young enthusiast, there remains a vivid memory of seeing for the first time from far down the hall the gray beard of Bradley at Exeter high-table in the days before Magdalen claimed him. To see him working in the Dictionary Room at the Old Ashmolean and to work for a time under his wise and kindly hand was a privilege not at that time looked for.

It was at the Dictionary Room that one discovered a part of his secret in the wholehearted delight in his work that, when in health, he preserved so fresh beyond the term of seventy years. There it appeared that his delight in the nugae, the jests, the minor hunts and tours-de-force of English studies, was no chance characteristic unrelated to the whole: all his work seemed to be to him a noble and absorbing game played with all his faculties by one who had a complete control over its technique and a complete knowledge of its complex rules; it seemed that from the beginning he must have played with zest and with consummate ease. To praise of his achievement and self-carven career he objected: “What I have done is to do what I most like doing, and to work at the work I care for.” For this reason Bradley who in his own line had been accorded a pedestal, of an eminence that sometimes lifts the idol somewhat out of the reach of the supplicant, was one of the most kindly and friendly of men to even the merest beginner who in any small degree...


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