Friday, April 06, 2018

`Just Jokes and Small Talk'

In an issue of The Sewanee Review from 1986 I found a poem by Robert Cording, “Dr. Johnson: From the Western Isles,” included in Cording’s first collection, Life-list (Ohio State University Press, 1987). It retells a scene briefly mentioned by Johnson in The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775):

“We landed at Port Re, so called, because James the Fifth of Scotland, who had curiosity to visit the Islands, came into it. The port is made by an inlet of the sea, deep and narrow, where a ship lay waiting to dispeople Sky, by carrying the natives away to America.”

Johnson’s book documents the eighty-three days in the summer and fall of 1773 he and Boswell spent in the latter’s homeland. Boswell wrote his own account of the visit, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, published in 1785, the year after Johnson’s death. Here is Boswell’s version of the same scene: “Last year when the ship sailed from Portree for America the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off. This year not a tear is shed. The people on the shore seemed to think they would soon follow.”

Cording’s poem, narrated in blank verse by Johnson, begins with a scene that might have taken place in London: “Last night I suffered the squalor / Of another hut without enjoying the compensation / Of another world.” This is an embattled, Lear-like Johnson. Cording’s Johnson focused on the ship and its American-bound cargo:

“I write from the harbor of Portree,
A deep inroad of sea. A ship, its full
Young profile stamped against the penury
Of this region, lies in wait: it will carry
Away the natives to America, leaving behind
The vacancy of the rook’s voice . . .”

Like Poland for later generations, Scotland is often the punch line for Johnson’s jokes: “What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?” But his judgment of the country is more nuanced than his reputation suggests. Cording’s Johnson empathizes with the families of Scots fleeing poverty and boarding the ship:

“But nothing is more unjust
Than to charge others for those traits
Which lie only too deeply in oneself:
This ship brings all too close my exotic fictions.
I have found no savage virtues, no happy Arcady,
But only miserable and ignorant human beings . . .” 

For Johnson, the ship becomes an emblem of hope and futility. Cording’s poem concludes:

“I should confess that I would have liked to see
This ship set sail. I doubt
That any man can escape the happiness
Of a ship, its masts and spars enlarged
By the commonwealth of sails. I have often watched
A ships stately pace plot the future, all forgotten
In the sails’ waxing brightness; and then
Turned away before the horizon was only water.”

Cording bases his poem on a small incident in a large life, and yet gives us a deeply and sympathetically imagined Johnson. I looked further and found that Cording returned to Johnson in “Much Laughter,” first published in The Paris Review in 2004. The poem comes with a sort of stage direction, referring to the title: “Boswell’s only note after an evening with Dr. Johnson.” Johnson, being human, was enormously complicated and contradictory. If he is remembered as a depressive forever in fear of losing his sanity, he was also very funny and blessed with the gift of hilarity. Cording writes: “Just those two words for a night / When everything else slipped into the vacancies / Of the unrecorded.” The poem is surely based on this passage in Boswell’s Life, referring to an evening in May 1775:

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, ‘much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. 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.’”

Cording nicely recounts the other Johnson and complements his earlier poem:

“But on this particular evening, happiness must have
Arrived when he least expected it. A few hours
When everyone’s burdens were shouldered, when
There was no tomorrow sprouting its thousand forms
Of grief and humiliation and defeat. Just jokes
And small talk, and wine sweetened with oranges
And sugar tumbling down the doctor’s throat.”

1 comment:

slr in tx said...

"No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned."

It may well be, however, that the privations of Scotland outweighed the prospect of nautical entombment.