Wednesday, November 16, 2011

`His Old Man's Thoughts Like Embers'

Helen Pinkerton tipped me off to another poem about Samuel Johnson, found in a book she is reading for review – Under the Pergola (Louisiana State University Press, 2011) by Catharine Savage Brosman. "Dr. Johnson in the Hebrides" has six eight-line stanzas and is too long to quote in full, but Helen expresses a fondness for the final stanza that I share. Here’s part of it:

“Then to Oban and Glasgow,
leaving the prison of the isles, the water’s hazards,
turning home, his old man’s thoughts like embers,
ruddy in the sunset’s radiance, brighter still
in darkness—deepening, illuminating times
that would not be again, an old and honest order
lost, life mostly gone, but washed and fired by grace.”

Johnson was sixty-three when touring Scotland in 1773 with Boswell, and would live another eleven years. In an earlier passage, Brosman writes: “Worn by work, by words, / yet he had not tired of London, Litchfield, Streathem, / nor of life.” She silently echoes Johnson’s declaration in Boswell’s Life: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

More than most people in our time and even his, Johnson contemplated his mortality. He found it a subject of bottomless terror and fascination, and it fueled his life, as did the fear of madness. His appetite for life was directly proportional to his dread of death – a rare sort of human algebra. Boswell asks, as reported in the Life: “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” Johnson replies: “So much so, Sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” Brosman’s stanza is tactful. The closest she gets to writing “death” is “life mostly gone,” a Beckett-like phrase. Her best image: “his old man’s thoughts like embers.” That is, softly glowing, providing dim illumination but still likely to flare and burn. More than twenty years before the journey to Scotland, Johnson writes in The Rambler #111:

“A perpetual conflict with natural desires seems to be the lot of our present state. In youth we require something of the tardiness and frigidity of age; and in age we must labour to recall the fire and impetuosity of youth; in youth we must learn to respect, and in age to enjoy."

Despite his reputation for gloom and ferocity, Johnson was a world-class enjoyer. Brosman, who cites John Wain’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography as her source, writes in the second and third stanzas:

“…he sought a time and place
half-known, remote: wild prospects, feudal law,

“savage battles in the glens, fierce independence,
Stuart pride, and landscapes like no other, stony, harsh,
and mountainous, with treeless wastes for miles,
and then the sea.”

That reads like an external reflection of Johnson’s internal landscape.

1 comment:

Andrew MacGillivray said...

Is the last stanza primarily – or even really at all – about Johnson's consciousness of his own deepening darkeness? Or do they express his ambivalence concerning the overthrow of the old social order in the Highlands, the decay of the clan system ('an old and honest order'), depopulation ('life mostly gone') and the loss of Scotland's religious heritage (the 'grace' of the final line)? I don't think the lines fully make sense unless they are read in this way. In John Wain’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography, Brosman will also have read this passage (p. 313):
'As he took his place in the Newcastle coach and turned his face away from Scotland, his mind was heavy with impressions, facts, ideas, sadness. He was far too sensitive not to realize that that the Highlands and Islands, which had given him so many unique experiences and valued memories, lay in a melancholy shade. The whole region was at the beginning of a steep decline. Ahead lay three successive waves of misfortune: first depopulation and abject poverty; second the stockbrokers joining the express trains from Euston and King's Cross to spend a few days blazing away at deer and grouse and employing their betters as 'ghilllies'; and finally, the unspeakable havoc and degradation of the tourist industry, the caravans and hotdog stands which have sprung up where Johnson and Boswell rode and talked'.
Johnson himself is no less forthright:
“The clans retain little now of their original character, their ferocity of temper is softened, their military ardour is extinguished, their dignity of independence is depressed, their contempt of government subdued, and their reverence for their chiefs abated . . . To hinder insurrection, by driving away the people, and to govern peaceably, by having no subjects, is an expedient that argues no great profundity of politicks. To soften the obdurate, to convince the mistaken, to mollify the resentful, are worthy of a statesman; but it affords the legislator little self-applause to consider where there was formerly insurrection, there is now a wilderness.”
Johnson returns to London rather chastened, cleansed of much of his earlier chauvinism, and more conciliatory and humanely sympathetic towards the Highlanders. His 'old man's thoughts' on this occasion at least are less personal than cultural. In 'A Journey to the Western Isles' Johnson brings his own 'great profundity of politicks' to bear in order to illuminate 'times that would not be again'.