“Unlike some intelligent people Max was extremely sensible. He surveyed the world with a realistic gaze that made him as impervious to nonsense as Dr Johnson himself, however much it was accepted by respectable or fashionable opinion.”
So writes David Cecil, biographer of Max Beerbohm, in his introduction to Selected Prose, an anthology of Beerbohm’s work published in 1970. The judgment is accurate and interesting because it’s not the fashionable opinion about Beerbohm, who, usually, when considered at all, is dismissed as a frivolous entertainer. Sometimes frivolity, as Johnson knew, is a weighty matter.
The same charge has been leveled against Kay Ryan, who steadily, off in the margins and late in life (she turns sixty-five later this year) has turned herself into one of our finest poets. Her work is free of cant, a favorite Johnsonian derision. Consider “No Rest for the Idle” (from Flamingo Watching, 1994):
“The idle are shackled
to their oars. The waters
of idleness are borderless
of course and must always
be plied. Relief is foreign
on this wide and featureless
ocean. There are no details:
no shores, no tides, no times
when things lift up and then
subside, no sails or smokestacks,
no gravel gathered up and spit back,
no plangencies, no seabirds startled:
the weather, without the Matthew Arnold.”
If the final line with its accompanying off-rhyme doesn’t make you laugh, I’m sorry. Seldom has the grinding dullness of idleness, “life retarded by the vis inertiae,” as Johnson put it, seemed so funny. Ryan’s poem is likelier to steer us from idleness than one of Poor Richard’s bromides. Johnson had a burning fear of idleness and saw it as a step away from madness. It’s also an insidious deceiver, especially in newsrooms and government offices. In The Idler #31, Nov. 18, 1752, Johnson writes:
"Idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected; for, being a vice which terminates in itself, it may be enjoyed without injury to others; and it is therefore not watched like fraud, which endangers property; or like pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another's inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore nobody is busy to censure or detect it."
Johnson writes from intimate experience. Note the wit of “nobody is busy to censure or detect it.” A friend of Dr. Johnson’s, Boswell reports, said “his laugh was that of a rhinoceros.” That is, presumably, powerful, occasionally intimidating, seldom idle.
[ADDENDUM: On Nov. 16, 1850, eighteen months after he published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and four years before he published Walden, Thoreau writes in his journal: "I feel ripe for something, yet do nothing, can't discover what that thing is."]