Friday, July 12, 2019

'Individual Rather Than Societal Reform'

On this date in 1784, Dr. Johnson writes in a letter to the Rev. Thomas Bagshaw of Bromley: “Perhaps you may remember, that in the year 1753, you committed to the ground my dear wife. I now entreat your permission to lay a stone upon her; and have sent the inscription, that, if you find it proper, you may signify your allowance.”

Elizabeth Porter Johnson, always “Tetty” to her husband, married him in 1735 when Johnson was twenty-five-year-old Oxford dropout and she was a forty-six-year-old widow. When they had first met three years earlier, Tetty told her daughter Lucy: “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” No one but the couple approved of the marriage and many snickered. When Tetty died at age sixty-three, Johnson was disconsolate and mourned for the remainder of his life. John Hawkins says in his 1787 biography: “The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends; it was of the blackest and deepest kind.” In 1764, twelve years after his wife’s death, Johnson writes in a diary:

“Having before I went to bed composed the foregoing meditation and the following prayer, I tried to compose myself but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, dear poor Tetty, with my eyes full.”

In his letter to Bagshaw, included by Boswell in his Life, Johnson writes: “You will do me a great favour by showing the place where she lies, that the stone may protect her remains.” Here is the epitaph he composed for Tetty’s stone: “Formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae ([dedicated to, or for] the beautiful, elegant, talented, dutiful).”

Johnson is the most sympathetically fallible of men. His life and work are inseparable, and his concerns are practical, not theoretical. Barton Swaim writes in his review of Peter Martin’s anthology of Johnson’s work:

“Johnson was more concerned with morality than with politics; he cared about individual rather than societal reform, and so could never be the father, or even the uncle, of any variety of political conservatism. . . .  Johnson’s is a moral and intellectual, not a political, conservatism, but it is no less relevant for that. If there is any truth to Michael Oakeshott’s claim that conservatism is a disposition rather than a creed, that disposition was given its fullest and most memorable expression in the works of Samuel Johnson.”

[See Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti for clarification way beyond my capacity.]

No comments: