Tuesday, January 05, 2016

`With My Eyes Full'

"I admire Johnson as a man of great erudition and sense; but when he sets himself up for a judge of writers upon the subject of love, a passion which I suppose he never felt in his life, he might as well think himself qualified to pronounce upon a treatise on horsemanship or the art of fortification.”
William Cowper is wrong on nearly all counts, but amusingly so. He makes claims to knowledge he can’t possibly have in the letter he wrote on this date, Jan. 5, in 1782, two years before Johnson’s death. That Johnson loved his wife, Elizabeth Porter Johnson (1689-1752), known to him always as “Tetty,” cannot be doubted. When they married in 1735, he was twenty-five and she was forty-six. Tetty is said to have told her daughter after first meeting Johnson, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Sniggering began almost immediately after the wedding. In his life of Johnson, W. Jackson Bate notes that when older women married younger men in eighteenth-century England, the male partner was judged “an unaggressive type of man—rather mousy, dependent, perhaps slightly infantile. Certainly the idea of such a marriage did not fit one’s notion of Johnson, with his huge, unwieldy frame, his immense physical strength, his courage and rhinocerine laughter, his uncanny incisiveness of mind.” Johnson told his friend Topham Beauclerk: “It was a love marriage upon both sides.”
And yet Macaulay, who was born forty-eight years after Tetty’s death, described her as “a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces.” His verdict was influential and remains so, particularly among those offended by Johnson’s eminence. Defaming a man in matters of love and sex is a favorite tactic of conventional and inadequate minds. Tetty’s epitaph, composed by Johnson, reads “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae [beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful].” John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography of Johnson: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson wrote in a diary:
“Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.”
No, Cowper, a childless bachelor, knew little about Johnson the man and nothing about marital love. Still, the letter he wrote to the Rev. William Unwin is of interest for what it says about the biographies of Pope and Prior in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and for its return to a theme examined here on Sunday:
“[Pope] was certainly a mechanical maker of verses, and in every line he ever wrote we see indubitable marks of most indefatigable industry and labour. Writers who find it necessary to make such strenuous and painful exertions are generally as phlegmatic as they are correct; but Pope was, in this respect, exempted from the common lot of authors of that class. With the unwearied application of a plodding Flemish painter, who draws a shrimp with the most minute exactness, he had all the genius of one of the first masters. Never, I believe, were such talents and such drudgery united.”

1 comment:

Suspirius said...

“Joshua Hawkins” is surely an oxymoron. A more balanced hybrid of the visual and the verbal might be “Thomas Garrick” or “David Rowlinson”.
Isn’t Macaulay merely echoing the caricature of Mrs Johnson offered by David Garrick, while primly omitting the booze? She was “very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks of florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastik in her dress, and affected in her speech and her general behaviour” (quoted by Boswell). Macaulay’s ‘fond of provincial airs and graces’ is equally recycled Garrick, as quoted in Thrale’s Anecdotes: ‘a little painted poppet, of no value at all, and quite disguised with affectation, full of odd airs of rural elegance’. The liberal use of opium-laced cordials is corroborated by the obscurely wise and coarsely kind Dr. Levet, seconded by Tetty's Hampstead housemate, Mrs Desmoulins. There were others too who had the knives out for Tetty even among those who knew her well. Hawkins, who admittedly never met her, is venomous: “the sordidness of his [Johnson’s] apparel and the complexion of his linen” shamed her; she is described as “formosae” only because he was myopic; his exaggerated grief made him ridiculous; the melancholy that seized him is linked to “apparition of his departed wife [which] was altogether of the terrific kind”. Early observers found something suspect about Johnson’s cult of the departed, a guilty retrospective uxoriousness like that Hardy was to feel towards Emma. According to William Shaw, ‘Johnson never knew how dear she was to him, till he lost her’. Perhaps a novelist will one day raise her standard. It’s a pity Beryl Bainbridge never attempted an “According to Tetty”. Elizabetha (antiqua Jarvisiorum gente, Peatlingae, apud Leicestrienses orta), wouldn’t have been able to make anything of the Latin of her own epitaph, but perhaps lying underneath a huge weight she couldn’t comprehend was nothing new. She was witty, we are told, and teased as well as scolded him.