Tuesday, January 08, 2013

`He Corrected Death in Its Declensions'

At last, another poem about Dr. Johnson, this one by the Irish poet Michael Longley. “Homage to Samuel Johnson” is from his Poems 1963-1983 (The Gallery Press, 1985): 

“The Hebridean gales mere sycophants,
So many loyal Boswells at his heel—
Yet the farflung outposts of experience
In the end undo a Roman wall, 

“The measured style. London is so far;
Each windswept strait he would encompass
Gives the unsinkable lexicographer
His reflection in its shattered glass. 

“He trudges off in the mist and the rain
Where only the thickest skin survives,
Among the rocks construes himself again,
Lifts through those altering perspectives 

“His downcast eyes, riding out the brainstorm,
His weatherproof enormous head at home.” 

“There was no place to go but his own head
Where hard luck lodged as in an orphanage
With the desperate and the underfed. 

“So, surgeon himself to his dimensions,
The words still unembarrassed by their size,
He corrected death in its declensions, 

“The water breaking where he stabbed the knife,
Washing his pockmarked body like a reef.” 

 “The unsinkable lexicographer” recognizing his reflection in the storm-tossed Scottish sea suggests a deep, sympathetic understanding of Johnson. For all his ailments, physical and otherwise, Johnson was a rugged man of courage and strength. He and Boswell toured the latter’s native Scotland in 1773. Johnson published his account of the visit, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, in 1775. Boswell’s A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. came out in 1785, one year after Johnson’s death. He documents Johnson’s philosophical acceptance  of unpleasant weather, noting on Sept. 30: 

“There was as great a storm of wind and rain as I have almost ever seen, which necessarily confined us to the house; but we were fully compensated by Dr. Johnson’s conversation.” 

And Johnson observes of a traveler: 

“If he finds only a cottage, he can expect little more than shelter; for the cottagers have little more for themselves: but if his good fortune brings him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay.” 

Picturing Johnson in Scotland, one thinks of Lear on the heath. Longley writes “There was no place to go but his own head,” suggesting Johnson’s depression and lifelong fear of madness. In Rasselas, Imlac may speak for his creator: “Disorders of intellect ... happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state.” 

The second section of Longley’s poem describes Johnson on his death bed, slashing his leg to relieve the swelling from dropsy. Longley’s phrasing, “So, surgeon himself to his dimensions,” recalls Eliot’s in the “East Coker” section of Four Quartets: “The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part.” He weaves images from writing, lexicography and the sea into his final lines.  

On this date, Jan. 8, in 1751 (also a Tuesday), Johnson published The Rambler #85, ostensibly devoted to the virtues of exercise and physical activity (always, for Johnson, an antidote to idleness and depression): 

“But such is the constitution of man, that labour may be styled its own reward; nor will any external incitements be requisite, if it be considered how much happiness is gained, and how much misery escaped, by frequent and violent agitation of the body.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

God, I love the Great Cham. Isn't it wonderful that the other Great Sam loved him too?