Friday, November 11, 2011

`But Words He Loved and Mastered'

Early in the life of Anecdotal Evidence, I proposed that someone assemble an anthology of poems about Henry James, starting with Auden’s elegy to the “Master of nuance and scruple,” and now I suggest a second festschrift, a gathering of verse about Samuel Johnson. His life of scholarship, labor, torment and triumph supplies ample material for good poems.

I’ll get things started with Ben Downing’s “On First Looking into Bate’s Life of Johnson” (The Calligraphy Shop, 2003), which lauds his “peerless prose / with its lapidary dominoes / augustly toppling, clause after clause.” Johnson shows up in several poems by David Ferry, and in Howard Baker’s “Samuel Johnson,” which suggests “We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”

A reader who identifies himself as Donald volunteered a poem in a comment on last Sunday’s post. “Samuel Johnson Talking” is by R.F. Brissenden (1928-1991), an Australian previously unknown to me, and carries the subtitle “Two things he was afraid of--madness and death...”:

“His great body shambled, groaned and stank,
Kicked stones, climbed mountains, rolled through
London streets;
Or snorted clumsy joy between the sheets
With ageing Tetty. When he ate and drank
Sweat dewed the straining forehead. Every breath
With every year grew harder: the huge frame,
Always ungovernable, in the end became
An enemy he hated more than death.

“But words he loved and mastered: when he talked
Confusion died; the world grew still to hear
His voice commanding chaos into art.
Language became the tight-rope which he walked
Above the mindless rush of guilt and fear
That thundered like Niagara in his heart.”

The final line in the first stanza reminds us of Johnson’s final coherent words, as reported by his friend and biographer Sir John Hawkins, which remind us of the gladiator’s salutation to Caesar: “Iam moriturus” – “I who am about to die.” In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes a scene shortly before his death:

“Bloated with dropsy, Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”

Johnson ranks among those writers whose life, at least for some readers, eclipses the work. That’s the curse of being the subject of the greatest of all biographies, but in Johnson both life and work are inextricably bound together, compelling and worthy of lifelong study. Brissenden brings his poem back to the work – “when he talked / Confusion died” and “His voice commanding chaos into art.”

Go here for an archive of poems and prose about Johnson from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and please pass along additional contributions to the Johnson anthology.

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