Wednesday, December 13, 2017

`The Lustre of Their Lives'

“The death of great men is not always proportioned to the lustre of their lives. Hannibal, says Juvenal, did not perish by a javelin or a sword; the slaughters of Cannae were revenged by a ring [containing poison]. The death of Pope was imputed by some of his friends to a silver saucepan, in which it was his delight to heat potted lampreys.”

Readers who judge Dr. Johnson a humorless scold are advised to consider the possibility of Alexander Pope’s death by eel, raised in Johnson’s “Life of Pope.” The reference to Hannibal is taken from Juvenal’s tenth satire, the one adapted by Johnson as “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in which he turns the Carthaginian general into Charles XII of Sweden. In Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), Johnson likewise recounts the grotesque and possibly apocryphal death of a more obscure poet, Thomas Otway (1651-1685):

“He went out, as is reported, almost naked, in the rage of hunger, and, finding a gentleman in a neighbouring coffee-house, asked him for a shilling. The gentleman gave him a guinea; and Otway, going away, bought a roll, and was choked with the first mouthful.”    

Sadder is the fate of John Hughes (1677-1720), whose life and death Johnson treats as an allegory on human wishes. Hughes’ work for the stage had never been popular. In February 1720, his final tragedy, The Siege of Damascus, was produced at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and opening night was a smash. Hughes, sick in bed with consumption, was given the happy news, and died. Johnson writes: “He lived to hear that it was well received; but paid no regard to the intelligence, being then wholly employed in the meditations of a departing Christian.”

Readers will associate Johnson’s lifelong death preoccupation with Philip Larkin’s, in particular “Aubade.” The difference is critical. For Larkin, death is nullity, oblivion: “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Johnson, a “departing Christian,” thought otherwise. Boswell recounts a conversation Johnson had at age seventy-five, shortly before his death on this date, Dec. 13, in 1784:  

“JOHNSON. `As I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.’ (Looking dismally.) DR. ADAMS. `What do you mean by damned?’ JOHNSON (passionately and loudly). `Sent to hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.’”

Johnson’s death mingled grotesquery with nobility. In his final months, he suffered from general circulatory disease, made evident six months earlier by a stroke; chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accompanied by growing breathlessness; congestive heart failure, the cause of Johnson’s fluid retention; and rheumatoid arthritis. His friend and biographer Sir John Hawkins reports Johnson’s final coherent words were Iam moriturus (“I who am about to die”), an echo of the gladiators’ salute to Caesar: “Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant.” In Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (1998), Lawrence Lipking describes the scene shortly before his death:

“Bloated with dropsy [edema], Johnson tries to discharge the water by stabbing his legs with a lancet and scissors until the bedclothes are covered with blood. He even reproaches his surgeon for not daring to delve far enough.”

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