Friday, November 01, 2013

`We Know We Glow Faintly and Die'

Another contribution to the as-yet-unpublished Anthology of Poems about Samuel Johnson: “From the Diaries of Dr. Johnson” by David R. Slavitt (Vital Signs: New and Selected Poems, 1975). It begins with a fable about a glowworm: 

“The glowworm in the garden made complaint
that the candle in the palace window shone
more brilliantly that evening than his own
light which was faint. 

“He glimmered in the darkness and in doubt,
but a companion glowworm said, `Just wait!
A candle that can burn at such a rate
must soon go out.’ 

“Had the glowworm only known that in the palace
there were dozens of candles, hundreds, and, if required,
thousands more from the chandler, he’d have expired,
burning with malice. 

"Or even, one to one, what was he to feel,
what satisfaction, when the room went dark,
had he suspected that, another spark
of flint on steel 

“would make it burn again? They’re all bad—
comparisons, envy, pride, invidious vying.
There’s a tale of a lightning bug that died, trying
to glow in plaid.” 

We have Boswell to thank for Slavitt’s recovery of the glowworm fable. He recounts an April 27, 1773, visit with Johnson, who chides Oliver Goldsmith for his habit of “attempting to shine in conversation.” Goldsmith’s “putting himself against another,” he says, “is like a man laying a hundred to one who cannot spare the hundred.” Boswell confides to the reader: “Johnson’s own superlative powers of wit set him above any risk of such uneasiness.” Then Boswell tells of the time Goldsmith bragged to Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds how easy it would be to write a “good fable” because of “the simplicity which that kind of composition requires.” Goldsmith notices Johnson “shaking his sides, and laughing,” and objects: “Why, Dr. Johnson, this is not so easy as you seem to think; for if you were to make little fishes talk, they would talk like whales.” Boswell defends Johnson, saying that “though remarkable for his great variety of composition, [he] never exercised his talents in fable.” He continues: 

“I have, however, found among his manuscript collections the following sketch of one: `Glow worm lying in the garden saw a candle in a neighbouring palace,-- and complained of the littleness of his own light;-- another observed--wait a little; soon dark,--have outlasted πολλ [many] of these glaring lights which are only brighter as they haste to nothing.”

Slavitt concludes his poem: 

“And yet the companion was right to speak so to his friend.
Nonsense we can live with is better than truth.
Beauty, wealth, talent, vigor, youth
all come to an end, 

“and if there is some palace conveniently by,
let us imagine calamities, suffering, woe,
whatever will help us outside, where we know we glow
faintly and die.” 

Johnson frequently noted the ubiquity of envy and ingratitude among men and women, in particular among writers of delicate ego and indelicate manners, but never so tersely as in The Idler #32: “All envy would be extinguished, if it were universally known that there are none to be envied.”

[In reference to glowworms, see this.]

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