Thursday, June 15, 2017

`There Is Something Wrong'

A poet whose name I had never heard before Wednesday, April Bernard, includes “Found Sonnet: Samuel Johnson,” in her latest collection, Brawl & Jag (W.W. Norton, 2016). The words are drawn from The Rambler #5. Her alterations to Johnson’s text are indicated in brackets:

“[. . . w]hen a man cannot bear his own company
there is something wrong. He must fly
from himself, either because he feels a tediousness
in life from the equipoise of an empty mind,
which, having no tendency
to one motion more than another,
but as it is impelled by some external power,
must always have recourse to foreign objects;
or he must be afraid of the intrusion of [some] unpleasing ideas,
and[,] perhaps[,] is struggling to escape
from the remembrance of a loss, the fear of a calamity,
or some other thought of greater horro[u]r.

“A French author has advanced this seeming paradox,
that very few men know how to take a walk [. . .].”

Bernard borrows most of her found poem from the tenth paragraph of Johnson’s essay. The final two lines, the punch line (with italics added by Bernard), are from the thirteenth paragraph. The reader senses that Bernard wants to turn Johnson’s meditation on the vanity of human wishes into a joke aimed at those wacky Frenchmen. In his edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, George Birkbeck Hill quotes the sonnet’s opening lines in a footnote devoted to Johnson’s abhorrence of being alone. He includes a connection that hadn’t occurred to me:

“Cowper, whose temperament was in some respect not unlike Johnson’s, wrote:--`A vacant hour is my abhorrence: because, when I am not occupied, I suffer under the whole influence of my unhappy temperament.’ Southey’s Cowper.” Compare this with Johnson as quoted by Hester Thrale in her Anecdotes (1786): “Remember that the solitary mind is certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad: the mind stagnates for want of employment, grows morbid, and is extinguished like a candle in foul air.”

Bernard is interested in none of this. Consider the remainder of her sonnet’s final line as it appears in Johnson’s essay: “. . .  and, indeed, it is true, that few know how to take a walk with a prospect of any other pleasure, than the same company would have afforded them at home.” Johnson’s words in The Rambler #5 are prose, as is Bernard’s poetry. She’s not a poet and seems to take no pleasure in language or thought. And, I’m disappointed to learn, she teaches at my alma mater, Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

[I wrote about David Ferry’s recycling of Johnson in his poems here.]

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