A postcard arrived this week with an aerial view of Hampton Court Palace in Middlesex on the front. I knew immediately it was from a reader in Dallas perfectly capable of writing e-mails but who enjoys the old-fashioned pleasure of writing, mailing and savoring his addressee’s anticipated receipt of a hand-written greeting in the mailbox. He writes:
“You’ve only got a few days to prepare for Samuel Johnson’s 300th birthday. If I could find a grassy slope nearby that I knew to be uninfested with fire ants, I’d roll down in his honour.
“Hampton Court, I know, is nowhere near Lichfield [Johnson’s birthplace], but it’s the closest place depicted on any postcard in my possession.”
He reminds us of Johnson’s fondness for the seemingly un-Johnsonian lark of rolling down hills, described here. Today we celebrate the birthday of this assumption-defying man, but let’s not permit the man to eclipse the writer of “peerless prose / with its lapidary dominoes / augustly toppling, clause after clause," as the poet Ben Downing writes in “On First Looking into Bate’s Life of Johnson” (collected in The Calligraphy Shop). Downing proceeds to recognize Johnson’s “fine solicitudes,” though I can’t think of another writer, except perhaps Chekhov, whose life vies so fiercely and justifiably with his work for our attention.
Downing goes on to describe Johnson as “Half slob, half saint” – in other words, a man whose genius and goodness we can almost imagine emulating. The appropriate way to celebrate Johnson’s tercentenary is to read his words, beginning with a passage from a letter he wrote to his friend Hester Thrale in 1773:
“Boswell, with some of his troublesome kindness, has informed this family, and reminded me that the eighteenth of September is my birthday. The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress. But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted. With this I will try to be content.”
Let’s count the ways in which this brief excerpt is exceptionally good, and good in a way quintessentially Johnson’s own: “troublesome kindness” (readily decodeable, if we’ve read Boswell’s diaries and Life); the unconsummated dalliance with self-pity; “a life diversified by misery”; “the sluggishness of penury”; and after lament, redemption: “But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted.” Note, too, the length of the sentences: 22 words; 25; 45; 16; eight. Plot it as a bell curve of rising and falling emotion.
The final sentence turns on “try.” Two quietly emphatic iambs follow. Another great critic, Christopher Ricks, rightly makes much of Johnson’s linguistic/moral finesse (from “Samuel Johnson: Dead Metaphors and `Impending Death’” in The Force of Poetry):
“There is, as is natural in a great writer, a congruence of life and literature, so that the phrasing which Johnson uses when speaking of our sense of mortality applies as truly to our sense of language: `This conviction, however forcible at every new impression, is every moment fading from the mind’ (The Idler No. 103, 5 April 1760). So too with `the great art of piety,’ which resembles the art of literature, and consists in `the perpetual renovation of the motions of virtue’ (The Rambler No. 7, 10 April 1750).”
In Johnson’s hands, prose is a well-calibrated instrument of thought and feeling. He is us, if only we were more compassionate and fierce, learned and humble, and always more articulate. When Johnson writes, “With this I will try to be content,” I think of Eliot in “East Coker”: “For us, there is only the trying.”