Tuesday, October 17, 2017

`I Hope to Mend'

“Either my temperament is changing or I am drying up—I don’t know which—but somehow a page or two pumps me quite dry nowadays. Still, like Dr. Johnson, `I hope to mend.’”

In the fall of 1898, Edwin Arlington Robinson is apologizing to his friend Edith Brower for announcing his intention to write shorter letters. In the preceding year and a half he has self-published his first volume of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), followed by The Children of the Night (1897). In his previous letter to Brower (Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Letters to Edith Brower1968), he speaks of “going, I expect, into winter exile.” He was preparing two more books, Captain Craig and Isaac and Archibald, that later were combined into one volume and published in 1902 as Captain Craig, a Book of Poems. Robinson was feeling the pressure, and tells Brower he plans to devote less time to letters and more to writing poems. Apparently, she felt snubbed.

The Johnson allusion is a minor mystery. I find two uses of “I hope to mend,” neither in a major work. One wonders how Robinson remembered it. On Jan. 24, 1778, Johnson writes a chatty, affectionate note to Boswell, who later included it in his Life. He tells his friend: “You always seem to call for tenderness.  Know then, that in the first month of the present year I very highly esteem and very cordially love you.” Here is the pertinent portion:

“You have ended the negro’s cause much to my mind. Lord Auchenleck and dear Lord Hailes were on the side of liberty. Lord Hailes’s name reproaches me; but if he saw my languid neglect of my own affairs, he would rather pity than resent my neglect of his. I hope to mend, ut et mihi vivam et amicis.”

“The negro’s cause” refers to the case of Joseph Knight, a slave bought in Jamaica by a Scottish landowner. After protracted litigation, the court ruled that Scots law did not recognize slavery and Knight was, in effect, set free. Johnson and Boswell helped prepare the case in Knight’s defense. (See this lecture.) Bruce Redford, editor of the five-volume Letters of Samuel Johnson, translates the Latin as “in order that I may live both for myself and for my friends.” Redford adds: “SJ seems to be recalling and amplifying a fragment of Horace, et mihi vivam (Epistles, I.xviii.107).”

The second appearance of “I hope to mend” is found in a March 2, 1782 letter to Lucy Porter, the daughter of Johnson’s late wife Hetty. He and his housemates are ill, and Dr. Levet has died: “So uncertain are human things.” He writes: “Such is the appearance of the world about me; I hope your scenes are more cheerful. But whatever befalls us, though it is wise to be serious, it is useless and foolish, and perhaps sinful, to be gloomy.” Johnson then apologizes to Lucy, the step-child he always felt closest to:

“Forgive me, my dear love, the omission of writing; I hope to mend that and my other faults.”

[Dave Lull, naturally has found a third instance of "I hope to mend," in a letter to Boswell dated Dec. 23, 1775.]

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