Sunday, April 05, 2015

`When We Shall Do No More'

“This secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful.”

On this date, April 5, in 1760, Dr. Johnson published The Idler #102, the final installment in his final sequence of periodical essays, following The Rambler (1750-52) and The Adventurer (1753-54). Boswell tells us The Idler had “less body and more spirit” than The Rambler: “It has more variety of real life, and greater facility of language. He describes the miseries of idleness, with the lively sensations of one who has felt them; and in his private memorandums while engaged in it, we find `This year I hope to learn diligence.’” Johnson was fifty when he published the final Idler, and would live another twenty-four years. Still ahead were A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, his Shakespeare and the Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets – more than sufficient to ensure eminence had he written nothing else.

Another writer might have used the completion of an undertaking such as The Idler as an excuse for self-congratulation or a sentimental swan song. For Johnson, one of life’s smaller conclusions is a reminder of the big one awaiting all of us. With age, and often unknowingly, we accumulate lasts – our last child born, the last visit to a favorite city, our last reading of Gibbon or Proust. As a Christian writing during Holy Week, Johnson writes less with dread than with a not always consoling sense of hope. Indirectly, he urges gratitude on the rest of us: “. . . we must do another thing for the last time, before we consider that the time is nigh when we shall do no more.”

No comments: