Monday, March 17, 2014

`Alone and Great'

Clive James takes the title and first line of “Grief Has Its Time” (Nefertiti in the Flak Tower: Collected Verse 2008-2011, 2013) from a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The date is June 2, 1781. Johnson is 72, three years away from his death. The friends visit Welwyn, Hertfordshire, the home of the late poet and cleric Edward Young (1681-1765), author of The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, commonly known as Night Thoughts, a volume illustrated by William Blake in 1797 and much prized by Edward Blunden during the Great War (see his Undertones of War, 1928). The house was now occupied by the late poet’s son, Frederick Young, described by Boswell as “a plain, civil, country gentleman.” Here is Boswell’s account: 

“We sat some time in the summer-house, on the outside wall of which was inscribed, `Ambulantis in horto audiebant vocem Dei;’ [Genesis 3:8: “They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.”] and in reference to a brook by which it is situated, `Vivendi recte qui prorogate horam, &c.’ [Horace, Epistle I.ii.40: “He who puts off the hour of right-living is like the bumpkin waiting for the river to run out…”:  I said to Mr. Young, that I had been told his father was cheerful. ‘Sir, (said he,) he was too well-bred a man not to be cheerful in company; but he was gloomy when alone. He never was cheerful after my mother's death, and he had met with many disappointments.’ Dr. Johnson observed to me afterwards, ‘That this was no favourable account of Dr. Young; for it is not becoming in a man to have so little acquiescence in the ways of Providence, as to be gloomy because he has not obtained as much preferment as he expected; nor to continue gloomy for the loss of his wife. Grief has its time.’ The last part of this censure was theoretically made. Practically, we know that grief for the loss of a wife may be continued very long, in proportion as affection has been sincere. No man knew this better than Dr. Johnson.” 

Johnson is harsh, though he had the tact not to censure Young fils to his face. Like Boswell, we sympathize with Johnson, whose wife, Hetty, had died in 1752. He never stopped grieving. In his “Life of Young,” Johnson writes of deaths that may have inspired “Night Thoughts”:  

“That domestic grief is, in the first instance, to be thanked for these ornaments to our language it is impossible to deny. Nor would it be common hardiness to contend that worldly discontent had no hand in these joint productions of poetry and piety. Yet am I by no means sure that, at any rate, we should not have had something of the same colour from Young's pencil, notwithstanding the liveliness of his satires. In so long a life causes for discontent and occasions for grief must have occurred. It is not clear to me that his Muse was not sitting upon the watch for the first which happened.” 

After quoting “Grief has its time,” James says Johnson was “well aware / It was himself he spoke for.” James extends his sympathy: “Others must /  Be granted full rights to a long despair / Fueled by the ruination of their trust / In a fair world.” This represents a wise maturity we encounter in Johnson and a few other writers and thinkers but seldom in our lives. James recounts meeting an elderly woman at a book-signing. She asks him to dedicate the book to her and her sweetheart killed in World War II. 

“Utmost concision, even in a rage;
Guarding the helpless from experiment;
Stalwart against the follies of the age;
The depth of subtlety made eloquent –” 

“These were the qualities of Johnson’s mind
Even the King felt bound to venerate…” 

At this point, James recalls the serendipitous meeting on Feb. 10, 1767, in the King’s Library, of Johnson, the great lexicographer, and King George III. Boswell tells us the King asked Johnson for his assessment of the comparative worth of the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, the writings of Warburton, Lyttleton and Hill, and the general state of letters in England. The King urged Johnson to “continue his labours” at writing. Johnson replied that “he had pretty well told the world what he knew” and he thought “he had already done his part as a writer.” The King is gracious: “I should have thought so too….if you had not written so well.” James concludes his poem like this: 

“These were the qualities of Johnson’s mind
Even the King felt bound to venerate,
Who entered through the library wall to find
The rumpled, mumbling sage, alone and great.”

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