Sunday, October 19, 2008

`Interest, Instruction, Amusement'

In his life of Samuel Johnson, John Wain describes The Lives of the Poets as “Johnson’s gentlest, most companionable work.” I learned this happy truth decades ago and keep my compact, two-volume Oxford University Press edition (1929) on the shelf beside my office door, so I’m never at a loss for an obliging companion. On Saturday, preparing to drive my middle son to ballet class, I grabbed the second volume to keep me company in the waiting room for 75 minutes. I’ve read six of Richard Stark’s wonderful Parker novels in recent weeks and felt the need for something a bit more substantial. Besides, a ballet school is an alien ecosystem to a person of my temperament and dimensions, and I knew I could rely on Johnson’s life of Pope:

“Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.”

Johnson manages to be funny while expressing compassion for the enormously difficult Pope, who suffered from a form of tuberculosis that left his body stunted and malformed. According to his biographer Maynard Mack, Pope was no taller than 4 feet, 6 inches. Johnson again:

“By natural deformity, or accidental distortion, his vital functions were so much disordered, that his life was a long disease. His most frequent assailant was the headach [sic], which he used to relieve by inhaling the steam of coffee, which he very frequently required.”

One might argue that our life, regardless of health, is always “a long disease,” though that would have been difficult to accept as I watched my son and his fellow dance students explode from their studio and cavort down the hall to the waiting room where I was sitting. They looked at once tender and immortal. Back home I returned with gratitude to Wain’s life of Johnson:

“I have been reading the Lives of the Poets for thirty years, and can testify that in all that time I have never known the day or the hour when I failed to find interest, instruction, amusement, somewhere in their pages. Armed with the two modest volumes into which modern publishing has obligingly published them (there are two cheap editions and they are both in two volumes), the longest railway journey, the dreariest wet evening in a country hotel, have no terrors. Here is the fine flower of Johnson’s critical thinking; a showcase of his opinions about everything under the sun, and a wealth of personal reminiscences and striking vignettes. His vast range of anecdote supplies incident after incident that stay in the memory. Otway choking to death on a piece of bread! John Philips as a schoolboy having his hair combed `hour after hour!’ Dryden signing a contract to produce 10,000 lines of verse for £300 pounds! Gay, invited to read his poem to the Princess of Wales, approaching her with such a low bow that he stumbles and knocks over a Japanese screen, to the accompaniment of screams from the Princess and her ladies! Swift washing himself `with oriental scrupulosity’ to try to clear his `muddy complexion!’ Lyttleton with his `slender uncompacted frame’ and `meagre face!’”


Nige said...

'tender and immortal' - yes...

Amateur Reader said...

My two little volumes of "Lives of the Poets" have literally been to Timbuktu and back.