Tuesday, September 15, 2015

`Our Social Comforts Drop Away'

“Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,  
  As on we toil from day to day,   
By sudden blasts or slow decline
  Our social comforts drop away.”

I was indifferent to Johnson’s “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet,” while appreciating the poet’s compassion for one of life’s lost souls. Johnson had met Levet in 1746, thus beginning another of his unlikely friendships (Levet was laconic; Johnson, effusive and conversation-loving). Boswell described him as “an obscure practitioner of physick among the lower people.” In his biography of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate writes of Levet:

“Since his return [from France], he had developed a wide practice among the London poor, walking long distances every day, from Houndsditch, near one end of the city, to Marylebone, at the other, ministering to them for a small fee, or, if they could not afford that, for anything they felt they could give him. Often this was no more than a drink of gin or brandy. Rather than go away unrewarded — though he never demanded payment — Levet would quietly swallow the drink, though he really did not want it; and he would occasionally end up drunk (`Perhaps the only man,’ said Johnson, `who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence’).”

Levet died at age seventy-seven of a heart attack in Johnson’s home on Jan. 17, 1782, and Johnson soon wrote the poem. Bate notes its “calm Horatian style,” and observes: “If it is a lament for this dutiful, awkward, and conscientious man, it is also a lament for life — for common humanity, and for the effort that human beings try to make, in this strange purgatory of our lives, to fulfill moral values and ideals.” Johnson himself was seventy-two and would be dead in less than three years. Only as I have gotten older has “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” become essential, even more than the poem I have always judged his finest, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” In eight stanzas he packs much of what he has learned from a life of concentrated feeling and thought. There’s no padding to fill out the lines, no straining after sentiment. In our age of regimented medicine, think of Levet’s style of care:No summons mock’d by chill delay, / No petty gain disdain’d by pride, / The modest wants of ev’ry day / The toil of ev’ry day supplied.”

Thanks to a suggestion from Micah Mattix, I started reading Frank Cioffi: The Philosopher in Shirt-Sleeves (Bloomsbury, 2015), a biography by David Ellis of the late American philosopher best known for debunking the fantasies of Freud and his followers. Ellis begins his book by quoting the opening lines of the Levet elegy (by “the ever-cheerful Samuel Johnson”), and follows with this:

“As a realist as well as a pessimist, Johnson knew that when we lose someone we care about, as he had, we tend to focus not on what the person concerned might have felt about losing his or her life (a difficult if not impossible enterprise), but on the difference that loss makes to us: the diminutions in our `social comforts.’”

No comments: