Sunday, April 03, 2016

`The Annual Renovation of the World'

Dr. Johnson the nature writer? One might as well speak of Sappho the metallurgist or George Eliot the bongo player, right? Johnson is a writer readers think they long ago dispensed with by filing him away in a drawer labeled “Moralist” or “Harmless Drudge.” It’s prudent to recall he took a spirited amateur’s interest in such varied disciplines as chemistry, medicine, anatomy and astronomy, and wrote in The Rambler #103: “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” Didn’t Johnson urge the poet to “not number the streaks of the tulip”? He did, but in the same passage in Rasselas he encourages the poet “to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind,” which calls for a naturalist’s eye.                                                                                                                                                 
A dedicated city dweller, a devout if tortured Christian, the most bookish of men, Johnson had the misfortune to be born too early to qualify as a Romantic with a capital “R.” He didn’t swoon at the sight of a skylark nor yearn for its “harmonious madness.” Elsewhere, Shelley asks: “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Keeping his eye on the human, Johnson answers (in The Rambler #80): “Spring is the season of gaiety, and winter of terror; in spring the heart of tranquillity dances to the melody of the groves, and the eye of benevolence sparkles at the sight of happiness and plenty: in the winter, compassion melts at universal calamity, and the tear of softness starts at the wailings of hunger and the cries of the creation in distress.” Johnson lived in the benighted days before central heating and Gore-Tex. He suffered in winter and rejoiced in spring, and saw in them more than planetary motion. In The Rambler #5, published on this date, April 3, in 1750, he writes: 

“There is, indeed, something inexpressibly pleasing in the annual renovation of the world, and the new display of the treasures of nature. The cold and darkness of winter, with the naked deformity of every object on which we turn our eyes, make us rejoice at the succeeding season, as well for what we have escaped as for what we may enjoy; and every budding flower which a warm situation brings early to our view is considered by us a messenger to notify the approach of more joyous days.”

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