The life and work of one writer, born more than three-hundred years ago, reliably inspires in readers a sense of human solidarity and moves us to concur with his second-greatest biographer:
“The deeper secret of his hypnotic attraction, especially during our own generation, lies in the immense reassurance he gives to human nature, which needs—and quickly begins to value—every friend it can get.”
That’s W. Jackson Bate in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Samuel Johnson (1977). One never reads such things about Shakespeare or Milton, and the distinction I’m making is not qualitative but a matter of kind. Johnson reads like a friend, a confidante, in a way the others never could. Online, in just the last week:
Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti recounts his rereading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson by sharing favorite passages.
Nige at Nigeness remembers Hodge, Johnson’s “sable” cat re-immortalized in Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Michael Billington in the Guardian reports on a dramatization of Johnson, based on Boswell, staged in the great man’s house on Gough Square, off Fleet Street, in London.
On Sunday, a copy of Mind and Blood: The Collected Poems of John Finlay (1992) arrived from the University of San Diego via interlibrary loan. The editor, David Middleton, notes that among Finlay’s “heroes of the mind” were Odysseus, Oedipus, Solon, “the exiled Ovid,” “a Benedictine monk,” Johnson, Audubon, Henry James and Sherlock Holmes – an apt gathering worthy of admiration.
Included from Finlay’s 1988 collection The Salt of Exposure are translations of two Latin poems by Johnson. The first, “After Samuel Johnson’s Latin Poem to Thomas Lawrence, M.D.,” is addressed to Johnson’s personal physician, a Latin scholar and president of the Royal College of Physicians. Bate calls Lawrence (1711-1783) “a high-minded and sweet-natured man” in whom Johnson felt comfortable confiding. Here is the poem:
“By your life, then, will you confess
Yourself with crude mobs who attack
The wise, who call their power a fake—
Loud braggart fleeing in distress,
Whose only wounds disgrace his back?
“You live through evils none ensures
His life against, from which we find
The holy and the brave do not escape.
You have the skill of potent cures,
But miss those purges of your mind.
“Throughout the tediousness of night,
Blind opened depths for anything,
Throughout the unworked hours of day,
Cares blot out your paternal sight
And to your core distraction bring.
“More than enough of grief at length
Is paid. Raise yourself up from gloom.
You hold the means and know the way.
The healing art, dead sages’ strength
Demand from you their life and room.
“Sacrifice some human things to God.
Let faith be grace to the tough truss
Of steel men have—do not inveigh.
You bleed on strangest ground unshod.
Come home to your strong mind and us.”
The poem is an exhortation to courage and perseverance, perhaps addressed by Johnson, famously plagued by melancholy, to himself: “Raise yourself up from gloom.” The second poem translated by Finlay, “After Samuel Johnson’s Summe Pater,” proposes a solution to despair and Johnson’s lifelong fear of madness – his bulwark of religious faith:
“Father most strong, whatever You intend
As to my body’s fate—but Jesus, plead—
Do not destroy my mind. Can I offend
In begging life in me for Your own seed?”