Tuesday, March 28, 2017

`Vivid Expressions of an Intuitive Judgment'

Some critical judgments by reputable critics defy comprehension. Leslie Stephen finds The Rambler essays “unreadable.” In “Dr. Johnson’s Writings,” a chapter in his four-volume Hours in the Library (1874-79), he writes: “How could a man of real power write such unendurable stuff?” He calls Johnson’s prose style “Johnsonese,” and it’s not intended as a compliment. After noting that Johnson’s favorite book was The Anatomy of Melancholy, Stephen adds:

“The pedantry of the older school did not repel him; the weighty thought rightly attracted him; and the more complex structure of sentence was perhaps a pleasant contrast to an ear saturated with the Gallicised neatness of Addison and Pope. Unluckily, the secret of the old majestic cadence was hopelessly lost. Johnson, though spiritually akin to the giants, was the firmest ally and subject of the dwarfish dynasty which supplanted them.”

Nonsense, of course, but one still reads Stephen and respects him. His own style, on occasion, can sound remarkably modern and un-Victorian (he was the father, after all, of the genuinely unreadable Virginia Woolf). He calls Lives of the Poets “the most readable of Johnson's performances,” and says of Johnson’s conversation:

“The merit of his best sayings is not that they compress an argument into a phrase, but that they are vivid expressions of an intuitive judgment. In other words, they are always humorous rather than witty. He holds his own belief with so vigorous a grasp that all argumentative devices for loosening it seem to be thrown away.”

Stephen prefers Johnson’s conversation to his written work. Boswell’s Johnson has always been known to more readers than the great man’s books. That’s a shame but understandable. The narrative that Boswell frames is irresistible – in Hollywood terms, good man overcomes odds to triumph. We love Johnson because he is like us, only more so. He’s a hero we can imagine being. But his books – the periodical essays, the best of his poems, Rasselas, Lives of the Poets – can change your life. His life and works are interleaved to an unusual and moving degree.      

On this date, March 28, in 1762, Johnson wrote a prayer in his notebook. His wife, Elizabeth Johnson, known as Tetty, had died ten years earlier and he still mourned her. By this time, Johnson had already published his Dictionary; “The Vanity of Human Wishes”; the Rambler, Adventurer and Idler essays; and Rasselas. He begins his prayer conventionally enough: “God grant that I may from this day,” followed by such requests as “Return to my studies” and “Live temperately.” Then Johnson adds:    

“O God, Giver and Preserver of all life, by whose power I was created, and by whose providence I am sustained, look down upon me [with] tenderness and mercy, grant that I may not have been created to be finally destroyed, that I may not be preserved to add wickedness to wickedness; but may so repent me of my sins, and so order my life to come, that when I shall be called hence like the wife whom Thou hast taken from me, I may dye in peace and in thy favour, and be received into thine everlasting kingdom through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord and Saviour. Amen.”

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