Friday, November 02, 2012

`Johnson Was in Full Song'

On the front of the postcard is a fresh-faced John Milton painted in oils, the work of an unknown artist dating from around 1629 that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. John Aubrey writes of Milton: 

“His harmonicall and ingeniose Soul did lodge in a beautifull and well-proportioned body. He was a spare man. He was scarce so tall as I am (quaere, quot feet I am high: resp., of middle stature). He had abroun hayre. His complexion exceeding faire -- he was so faire that they called him the Lady of Christ's College. Ovall face. His eie a darke gray.” 

On the back of the card, my customary correspondent, an attorney in Dallas, transcribes a passage from the Memoirs of Hannah More (1835): 

“Johnson was in full song and I quarreled with him sadly. I accused him of not having done justice to the `Allegro’ and the `Penseroso.’ I praised `Lycidas,’ which he absolutely abused, adding, if Milton had not written the Paradise Lost, he would have only ranked among the minor poets; he was a Phidias that could cut a `Colossus out of a rock, but could not cut heads out of cherry stones.’” 

No other message, not even a signature – one of my erudite and cryptically minded readers. The passage in More’s memoirs is dated 1781, the year Johnson published The Lives of the English Poets in six volumes. This is classic Johnson, pugnacious and contrary. In his “Life of Milton,” he famously complained of “Lycidas” that “the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing," and concluded, “in this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new.” Elsewhere in her memoir, More, an admirer and friend of Johnson, calls him “that parsimonious praiser!” 

More follows the Milton anecdote with another recollection that involves Johnson, but only indirectly. She writes: 

“Boswell brought to my mind the whole of a very mirthful conversation at dear Mrs. Garrick’s, and my being made, by Sir William Forbes, the umpire in a trial of skill between Garrick and Boswell, which could most nearly imitate Dr. Johnson’s manner. I remember I gave it for Boswell in familiar conversation, and for Garrick in reciting poetry.” 

Picture the scene: Garrick and Boswell doing impressions of Dr. Johnson. One wonders whether they imitated his mumbling and tics, the “compulsive mannerisms” noted by W. Jackson Bate that some scholars have diagnosed as symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. And was Johnson present during this charade, or was it ever described to him? In a 1776 entry, More confesses, “I have got the head-ache today, by raking out so late with that gay libertine Johnson.” And Bate reports in his biography: 

“Time and again, when he was with others, he could climb out of the prison house of self that he so loathed, and emerged with an exuberance and a childlike love of fun for which, said Mrs. Thrale, she never saw an equal.”

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