Thursday, October 11, 2012

`Strong in His Cheerfulness'

Dr. Johnson knew Oliver Edwards (1711-1791) from a distance at Pembroke College, the way we know the harmlessly dull fellow down the hall in our dormitory. After Oxford, Edwards practiced for many years as a solicitor in Barnard’s Inn, and retired to live on a sixty-acre farm near Stevenage in Hertfordshire. What little we know of Edwards suggests he was a man with an un-Johnsonian gift for contentment, for enjoying life without complication. Johnson and Edwards met again on a Good Friday almost half a century later, on April 17, 1778, when Johnson and Boswell went to services at St. Clement’s. In his essay “A Philosopher That Failed” (A Little of Everything, 1912), E.V. Lucas recounts their one-hour reunion, documented by Boswell in the Life, saying it gave Edwards “time to make his one deathless remark. By virtue of that remark he lives, and will live.”
Boswell assures us it was “a delightful day” and Lucas makes the point that when Edwards woke that morning and “donned his grey clothes and his curly wig,” he had no way of knowing he was about to be immortalized. Johnson did not recognize him. Lucas calls Edwards “a talkative, friendly, and not easily daunted man,” who promptly started a conversation with the famous pair, unintimidated by Johnson’s eminence. Boswell says Edwards “accosted [him] with familiar confidence.” At Johnson’s house, Boswell reports Edwards saying of their days at Pembroke:

“Sir, you would not let us say prodigious at college. For even then, Sir (turning to me), he was delicate in language, and we all feared him.”

Later, after Edwards has departed, Johnson tells Boswell: “Sir, they respected me for my literature, and yet it was not great but by comparison. Sir, it is amazing how little literature there is in the world.” Boswell refers to Edwards’ “delightful bluntness.” We know this sort of bluff fellow, innocently forthright and plain-speaking. He tells Johnson he regrets not studying longer and becoming a parson, and Johnson counters that the life of a parson is not as easy as it might appear. “I would rather have Chancery suits upon my hands than the cure of souls.” Johnson recalls drinking ale with Edwards and sharing lines of poetry. In reply, Edwards utters his “deathless remark”: “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Boswell observes:

“Mr. Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr. Courtenay, Mr. Malone, and, indeed, all the eminent men to who I have mentioned this, have thought it an exquisite trait of character. The truth is, that philosophy, like religion, is too generally supposed to be hard and severe, at least so grave so as to exclude all gaiety.”

Rather disappointingly, Boswell never reports Johnson’s reaction to Edwards’ remark. The conversation moves on to marriage, drinking and eating. Johnson expressed indifference to eating supper and Edwards replies, “For my part, now, I consider supper as a turnpike through which one must pass in order to get to bed.” 

Boswell might have made fun of Edwards for his apparent simplicity and refusal to put on air. To his credit, he refrained, at least in his book, from ridiculing the solicitor. Johnson is stung by Edwards’ parting reference to their ages (Johnson is sixty-nine years old), and Boswell calls his old school fellow “a weak man.” Johnson agrees and says, rather unfairly, “Yes, here is a man who has passed through life without experience,” but adds, “yet I would rather have him with me than a more sensible man who will not talk readily. This man is always willing to say what he has to say.” 

Lucas chides Johnson and Boswell for their assessment of Edwards. Perhaps he was unimaginative, complacent and unsophisticated. But his remark about “cheerfulness always breaking in” is a priceless reproach to the proudly miserable, those who smugly wear unhappiness like a colorful ribbon. Lucas has the last word: “Edwards was a strong man – strong in his cheerfulness and his transparency.”


Anonymous said...

From Wittgenstein's war diaries:

"Do your best. You cannot do more. And be cheerful. Be content with yourself. Because others will not prop you up or at most only for a short time (then you will become burdensome to them). Help yourself and help others with all your strength. And at the same time be cheerful."

Finn MacCool said...

The phrase of Edwards has found its way into pop culture via Leonard Cohen, who gets the provenance quite wrong:

The troubadour of gloom continues: "I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I've always been free from hope. It's never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we're invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful." This graduate of McGill University adds: "I think that it was Ben Jonson who said, I have studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through."

From "The Joking Troubadour of Gloom," Daily Telegraph, April 26, 1993.