“Or should I gird myself, and bravely beard
Death in its den with nothing but a pen
In hand, and scribble like a harmless drudge?
Sir: failing this, I could go cobble words
Again—that charmless work of crippled men
Who see the world…and wish it unabridged.”
The words are Samuel Johnson’s, translated from the Latin by Len Krisak. The poem is “Γνώθι σεαυτόν [Gnothi Seauton] (Post Lexicon Anglicanum Auctem et Emendatum)” – “Know Thyself (After the Revision and Correction of the English Dictionary).” In his translation, Krisak titles it “Know Yourself.” The six-line stanza above is the last of twenty in Krisak’s version, collected in Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (edited by Bob Barth, 1987).
In 1771-72, Johnson prepared a revised edition of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). He turned sixty-three while editing the work that assured his eminence in literary history – a bittersweet task. W. Jackson Bate writes in Samuel Johnson (1977):
“In concluding this revision—for there was very little likelihood he would ever make another—he was giving a final farewell to the only thing he had done, as he himself viewed his life, that no one else in the English language had done…”
Johnson composed his poem in December 1772, after a visit to Lichfield, his birthplace. Bate calls it “a very private poem, for which he instinctively fell back on Latin to give himself formal distance.” “Know Yourself,” like Tristram Shandy and much of Beckett, is built on the conceit of writing as a stay, ultimately futile, against mortality.
Krisak uses “beard” in the archaic sense of confront or stand up to. In his Dictionary, Johnson defines it as “to oppose to the face” – in this case, the face of Death. “Harmless drudge,” of course, is Johnson’s self-deprecating definition of “lexicographer”: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.” Krisak uses “cobble words” to mean write or revise what is already written – a Johnsonian turn, suffused with the writer’s humility in the face of his craft. Johnson defines this sense of “cobble” as “To mend anything coarsely; to do or make clumsily.” This most learned of men proposes self-knowledge as a corrective or antidote to pride in learning (in Krisak's translation):
“All the scholar’s sweet rewards
Have passed me by, and I myself forbid
Myself the happy fruits of life. I am
My own stern Justice—Judge of Words.”