Sunday, June 10, 2018

'It Is No Wonder that Children Go Mad'

No other poem by Dr. Johnson or by any other eighteenth-century poet do I read so often as “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749). It is a masterwork and I know some of its lines by heart. Johnson was working in a fashionable poetic form known as “imitation.” His source text is Juvenal’s “Tenth Satire.” Poets could assume readers knew the Greek or Roman originals, and would enjoy the substitution of contemporary references. A vicious satirist, Juvenal was ripe for modern fun and games, as human folly and corruption never go out of fashion. Less often do I read “London” (1738), Johnson’s imitation of Juvenal’s “Third Satire.” In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1974), John Wain writes of it:

“This is a ferocious attack on Rome—its corruption, its vice, its physical unpleasantness. Juvenal is a highly scurrilous writer who likes abuse for its own sake. Johnson is not. He raises the tone a good deal, cutting out the scabrous detail, preferring lofty rebuke to pelting abuse. But, that apart, he sets about London as heartily as Juvenal had set about Rome. He speaks of it as a doomed city. Corruption, spreading from the top, has gone down to the very foundations.”

When I want scabrous detail I read Swift or Martial, or a closer-to-literal translation of Juvenal. Johnson’s mockery is barbed but never off-color:

“Of all the Griefs that harrass the Distrest,
Sure the most bitter is a scornful Jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the gen’rous Heart,
Than when a Blockhead’s Insult points the Dart.”

In Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (2007), on April 2, 1985, Davenport writes to his friend and publisher: “A Juvenal couldn’t believe our world. It is no wonder that children go mad. I have no gizzard for shouting at fools and criminals; born an ostrich, which I sadly forget.”

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