Wednesday, July 06, 2011

`A Name for Looking Steadily at Things'

I’ve written before about David Ferry and his devotion to Samuel Johnson, and reported how the poet graciously acknowledged the post. Now I’ve found an essay by Ferry written on the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth and collected in Samuel Johnson After 300 Years (Cambridge University Press, 2009). “What Johnson Means to Me” includes Ferry’s poem “That Evening at Dinner,” which incorporates lines from Johnson’s famed review of a book by the otherwise forgotten Soame Jenyns. Ferry describes the review as “one of Johnson’s greatest essays” – high praise for a lowly book review. 

Ferry’s is the least scholarly, most personal contribution to the Johnson festschrift. He recounts the story of “a friend of ours, an old lady whom we admired,” who slowly fails after suffering a stroke – the story at the heart of “That Evening at Dinner.” Explaining his use of Johnson’s words in the poem, Ferry writes: 

“I’m no good at generalizing and therefore I find it hard to say in short order what it is in Johnson’s writing that has meant the most to me. I find myself going back to particular sentences of his, and to uses I’ve made of them. There’s a poem of mine that’s an example of what I mean. It quotes from two sentences of Johnson’s and, indeed, I think of the poem as a reading of those sentences.” 

The poem is ninety-two lines long, and I suggest you read through the final, humbling line, with its echo of Psalm 102:9 (King James): “For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping.” Here are the closing sentences of Ferry’s essay: 

“Johnson is, to my mind, in his prose and in his verse, one of the masters of pity, unsentimental pity founded on his awareness of our situation in a universe we cannot fully explicate; and it is founded on his awareness that our limitations, our vulnerability, are what we, all fellow creatures, share, the actualities of our natures and of our circumstances. In thinking of Johnson’s writing, pity is a name for looking steadily at things. The evidence is everywhere in him, in the Ramblers, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, in the `Life of Pope,’ in the Tolstoyan severity and sympathy of the `Life of Savage,’ his Hadji Murad.” 

Pity, conventionally understood, is a dangerously seductive emotion. It’s easy to slip into, like a hot bath. It lulls us into self-congratulation and safely distances us from the object of pity. It permits us to do nothing while feeling much. R.L. Barth’s “A Child Accidentally Napalmed” (Deeply Dug In, 2003) indicts poets who comfortably indulge in pity: 

“`Why waste your tears on me? Give over grief.
If I knew horror, yet my life was brief.’
Some poet will perhaps say that for me.
I’d say, `I suffered an eternity.’” 

Ferry specifies Johnson’s sense of “unsentimental pity.” Movingly, he says “pity is a name for looking steadily at things.” Johnson, as always, is a moral realist, skeptical of easy emotion, wary of self-flattering deceptions. Boswell in the Life reports him saying:

"Pity is not natural to man. Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason. We may have uneasy sensations for seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them. When I am on my way to dine with a friend, and finding it late, have bid the coachman make haste, if I happen to attend when he whips his horses, I may feel unpleasantly that the animals are put to pain, but I do not wish him to desist. No, Sir, I wish him to drive on."


mike zim said...

Ferry is profiled in this month's Poetry magazine.
Here's another poem which references Johnson.

Helen Pinkerton said...

R. L. Barth's poem on the child in Vietnam no doubt alludes to Raymond Oliver's translation from the German of Andreas Gryphius, "Epitaph of Marianne Gryphius, His Brother Paul's Little Daughter," who died during the Thirty Years' War. Barth published a collection of Oliver's splendid translations in "To Be Plain" and reprinted this epitaph in his collection, Nine Years After (1989):

Born during flight, beset with swords and fire,
Near death from smoke, my mother's last desire,
My father's chief concern--I pressed toward birth
As violent flames destroyed my native earth.
I saw this world, and soon had said farewell,
For on one day I met all human hell.
If you account by days, my life was brief.
Not if you count how much I knew of grief.