Sunday, July 03, 2011

`Let Us Be as Happy as We Can'

“I have at last finished my Lives [of the Poets], and have laid up for you a load of copy, all out of order, so that it will amuse you a long time, to set it right. Come to me, my dear Bozzy, and let us be as happy as we can. We will go again to the Mitre, and talk old times over.”

That Dr. Johnson should have cherished the company of James Boswell, a dissolute Scottish attorney, will baffle those who prefer life served in pre-digested portions. Friendship doesn’t bother with so banal a quality as compatibility, which often translates into mutual ass-kissing. The essential ingredients seem to be gifts for talking and listening. A friend says something, it reminds me of something else, and the digressions roll with little effort. A shared past helps: “talk old times over.”
In the passage above, Johnson, age seventy-one, is writing to Boswell, age forty, on March 14, 1781. The older man trusts his friend will find amusement in ordering his masterwork. The pitch is flattering, but also sober and realistic. They’ll go t0 the tavern and “be as happy as we can.” The sentences are suffused with affection and knowledge of our evanescence. Johnson was dead less than four years later. In the paragraph preceding the one above, Johnson chides the youngster:
“I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy of misery. What have you to do with Liberty and Necessity? Or what more than to hold your tongue about it? Do not doubt but I shall be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part about you but your affectation of distress."

When Johnson was forty, Boswell’s age when the letter was written, and no stranger to “all this hypocrisy of misery,” he composed another of his masterworks, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Here are lines 305-310:
“Now Kindred Merit fills the sable Bier,
Now lacerated Friendship claims a Tear.
Year chases Year, Decay pursues Decay,
Still drops some Joy from with'ring Life away;
New Forms arise, and diff'rent Views engage,
Superfluous lags the Vet'ran on the Stage,
Till pitying Nature signs the last Release,
And bids afflicted Worth retire to Peace.”

1 comment:

MMc said...

Glad you are back in Texas!