Wednesday, May 24, 2017

`I Felt No Little Elation'

“He received me very courteously; but, it must be confessed, that his apartment, and furniture, and morning dress, were sufficiently uncouth.”

That final adjective has a long, elastic history. Today uncouth suggests coarse, crude, ill-mannered, loutish. In Beowulf it meant “unfamiliar, unaccustomed, strange” (OED). By the eighteenth century the word had morphed into “awkward and uncultured in appearance or manners.” Both meanings apply as Boswell uses it to describe Dr. Johnson. The occasion, on May 24, 1763, is Bowell’s first visit to Johnson’s living quarters. Eight days earlier occurred the momentous first meeting of future biographer and subject at the bookshop of Thomas Davies. Boswell was twenty-two; Johnson, fifty-three. In his Life, Boswell observes of that first visit:

“His Chambers were on the first floor of No. 1, Inner-Temple-lane, and I entered them with an impression given me by the Reverend Dr. Blair, of Edinburgh, who had been introduced to him not long before, and described his having ‘found the Giant in his den;’ an expression, which, when I came to be pretty well acquainted with Johnson, I repeated to him, and he was diverted at this picturesque account of himself.”

Often, Johnson was likened, even by friends and admirers, to some extra-human creature, a giant or beast. In his Life, on May 17, 1775, Boswell writes: “Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’” The disparity of body and mind confounds us. An intelligent man ought to look intelligent, but Johnson resembled a shrewd grizzly bear. Boswell nicely captures the dissonance:

“His brown suit of cloaths looked very rusty; he had on a little old shrivelled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.”

We shouldn’t confuse Johnson’s dishabille with the messy affectations of a hipster.  He had other things, not bohemian provocation, on his mind. Johnson’s manners, in fact, were superb, when he wished them to be. He was a true democrat in the moral and social sense, without snobbery or pretensions in a resolutely class-ridden society. In that first meeting he speaks to Boswell of his friend Christopher Smart, the mad poet, and reveals some of his own fears:

“‘Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.’”

Johnson famously adds: “. . .  I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else.’” Boswell hardly believes his good fortune:

“Before we parted, he was so good as to promise to favour me with his company one evening at my lodgings; and, as I took my leave, shook me cordially by the hand. It is almost needless to add, that I felt no little elation at having now so happily established an acquaintance of which I had been so long ambitious.”

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