Thursday, December 13, 2012

`Bring a Powerful Eloquence to Our Deadened Tongues'

In his final days, when not gasping for breath or sodden with opium, Samuel Johnson wrote poems in Latin and translated epigrams from the Greek Anthology into that language. Boswell reports:

“During his sleepless nights he amused himself by translating into Latin verse, from the Greek, many of the epigrams in the Anthologia. These translations, with some other poems by him in Latin, he gave to his friend Mr. Langton, who, having added a few notes, sold them to the booksellers for a small sum, to be given to some of Johnson's relations, which was accordingly done; and they are printed in the collection of his works.” 

On Dec. 5, 1784, while suffering from emphysema, bronchitis, congestive heart failure, edema, rheumatoid arthritis and the aftereffects of a stroke, Johnson wrote a ten-line Latin poem he titled, in English, “Prayer.” Here is a prose translation by Niall Rudd (Samuel Johnson: The Latin Poems, 2005), who judges it Johnson’s final Latin poem and probably the last poem in any language he ever wrote: 

“Almighty God, to whom the dark recesses of our hearts are open, who no worry, no desire escapes, from whom sinners in their sly deceit conceal nothing, who seeing all things, rulest all things everywhere; by thy divine inspiration cast out the earthly filth from our minds, so that holy love may reign within. Bring a powerful eloquence to our deadened tongues, so that thy praises may sound from all men’s lips. Through the blood by which he atoned for all peoples and all ages may Christ consent to earn these blessings on our behalf.” 

Much tormented by the proximity of death, uncertain of an afterlife, fearful of eternal damnation, Johnson rallies in praise of God and offers up a rousing writer’s prayer: “Bring a powerful eloquence to our deadened tongues.” On the same day Johnson composed a prayer in English which reads, in part: “Almighty and most merciful father…forgive and accept my late conversion, enforce and accept my imperfect repentance…Bless my Friends, have mercy upon all men.” At the end, Johnson knows little peace or consolation. Jeffrey Meyers, whose life of Johnson is subtitled The Struggle (2008), movingly writes: “Johnson fervently believed mere existence was so much better than nothing, or nothingness, that he preferred to endure agonizing pain than not exist at all." Often in Johnson’s final years, when he withdrew in public from conversation, this most bookish of men relieved his unhappy silence by whispering Claudio’s words from Measure for Measure: 

“Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod.” 

Johnson in the face of death was not fearless but maintained his dignity and even nobility, a virtue unrecognized today. In the final sentence of his Johnson biography, W. Jackson Bate writes: “With all the odds against him, he had proved that it was possible to get through this strange adventure of life, and to do it in a way that is a tribute to human nature.” Samuel Johnson died on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784, age seventy-five. 

[Go here to read another of Johnson’s late Latin poems as translated by David Ferry.]

1 comment:

D. G. Myers said...

Here’s another of Johnson’s Latin poems, in a translation by somebody or other:

Dr. Johnson on the Death of His Mother

Idler, 41

If you have tears, whoever you may be,
Enough to drop for mourners filing by,
Then let this train be your last cause for grief:
The last steps of an inoffensive life.