David Myers has posted thirteen epigrams he published twenty-five years ago with R.L. Barth. All are admirably concise, some amusing, others touching. Among the latter is “Dr. Johnson on the Death of His Mother,” with the accompanying reference, “Idler, 41” – that is, the essay Johnson published in The Idler on Jan. 27, 1759, six days after the death of Sarah Johnson at age ninety. Here’s Myers' poem:
“If you have tears, whoever you may be,
Enough to drop for mourners filing by,
Then let this train be your last cause for grief:
The last steps of an inoffensive life.”
The essay is remarkable for its calm philosophical gaze in the midst of overwhelming grief. Self-pity is absent. This is the Johnson who reliably inspires us as readers and fellow human beings. Myers' poem recalls this sentence from Johnson’s essay:
“The blameless life, the artless tenderness, the pious simplicity, the modest resignation, the patient sickness, and the quiet death, are remembered only to add value to the loss, to aggravate regret for what cannot be amended, to deepen sorrow for what cannot be recalled.”
A quiet, dignified tribute without straining after sentiment or significance, in which common words express deep feeling without getting in its way. In the ten days between learning of his mother’s illness and hearing of her death, Johnson wrote her four letters. Of them, John Wain in his biography writes:
“All these letters have been quoted and reproduced innumerable times, and could well be reproduced again now, but that they are so personal, so agonized, that it seems an intrusion to set them up in cold print for any casual eye to read.”
Wain reproduces one, the last (Boswell began including all four in the third edition of his Life), which begins: “Neither your condition nor your character make it fit for me to say much.” All involved -- Johnson, Wain, Myers -- are heroically tactful in their reticence.
Boswell reminds us he spoke with William Strahan, the printer for Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, composed in one week in the immediate wake of his mother’s death. Johnson, Boswell reports, wrote it to “defray the expense of his mother’s funeral, and pay some little debts she had left.” In Rasselas he writes:
“...in the decline of life shame and grief are of short duration; whether it be that we bear easily what we have borne long; or that, finding ourselves in age less regarded, we less regard others; or, that we look with slight regard upon afflictions to which we know that the hand of death is about to put an end.”
Johnson, the most quintessentially human of writers, was no blockhead.