Wednesday, June 10, 2015

`Soft Smiles and Easy Sonnets'

“You may find among us what you will leave behind, soft smiles and easy sonnets.”

Gruff, ursine Johnson proves charming and solicitous. What motivates such bonhomie? Friendship, of course, one of his enduring themes. As he tells Boswell: “A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.” The sentence at the top is addressed to his friend Giuseppe Marc’Antonio Baretti, the Italian-born man of letters, in a letter written on this date, June 10, in 1761. Like Johnson, Baretti was a lexicographer, author of the standard Italian-English dictionary of the day. He had returned to his native Italy, and would spend four years there and on the road visiting Spain, France and Portugal, a journey that resulted in his four-volume Lettere famigliari, much favored by Johnson. Johnson is a graceful letter writer, enquiring after Baretti before speaking of himself:

“I know my Baretti will not be satisfied with a letter in which I give him no account of myself: yet what account shall I give him? I have not, since the day of our separation, suffered or done any thing considerable. The only change in my way of life is, that I have frequented the theatre more than in former seasons. But I have gone thither only to escape from myself.”

Forever bemoaning his idleness, Johnson would live another twenty-three years. Behind him were the Dictionary, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” his three sets of periodical essays, and Rasselas. By Johnson’s standards, 1761 was a fallow time, though he worked fitfully on his edition of Shakespeare. Ahead lay A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Lives of the Poets. In Johnson we suspect friendship is less an antidote to loneliness than to a greater sense of desolation. To call him “depressed” tells us nothing. Co-founder of The Club, Johnson remained convinced of his own unclubbability. He continues in his letter to Baretti:    

“I hope you take care to keep an exact journal, and to register all occurrences and observations; for your friends here expect such a book of travels as has not been often seen. You have given us good specimens in your letters from Lisbon. I wish you had stayed longer in Spain, for no country is less known to the rest of Europe; but the quickness of your discernment must make amends for the celerity of your emotions. He that knows which way to direct his view, sees much in a little time.”

In 1769, after a street fight in London in which Baretti fatally stabbed one of his three attackers, he was arrested and charged with murder. Johnson, Burke, Goldsmith, Reynolds and Garrick, among others, acted as character witnesses at his trial. Boswell reports: “Johnson gave his evidence in a slow, deliberate, and distinct manner, which was uncommonly impressive.” The jury acquitted Baretti on the grounds of self-defense.

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