Thursday, May 06, 2021

'So Untam’d, So Turbulent a Mind'

The first lines of Edwin Muir’s “Reading in Wartime,” both downbeat and content, grabbed me: “Boswell by my bed, / Tolstoy on my table.” You can sing it, probably as a blues. The next lines turn maudlin and Muir peters away his opportunity. He recovers somewhat midway through the poem when he returns to his writers:   


“Boswell's turbulent friend

And his deafening verbal strife,

Ivan Ilych's death

Tell me more about life,

The meaning and the end

Of our familiar breath,

Both being personal,

Than all the carnage can.”


Muir seems unable to resist preachiness. His diction falters. Strife is off, as is carnage, both overheated, but his choice of turbulent to describe Dr. Johnson is just right. I think of a river in spring, swollen with melted snow, crashing over stones. In physics, turbulent suggests barely contained chaos – a characterization of Johnson the man himself might have accepted. In his Dictionary he defines the word as “tumultuous; violent,” and gives two citations, both attributed to Dryden. The first is from his translation of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire, and refers to Hannibal:


“What wondrous sort of Death has Heav’n design’d,    

Distinguish’d from the Herd of Humane Kind,

For so untam’d, so turbulent a Mind!”


The second citation, though attributed by Johnson to Dryden, seems to have been taken from a two-volume poem, Cyder (or Cider), published in 1706 by John Philips:


“Nor need we tell what anxious cares attend

The turbulent mirth of wine, nor all the kinds

Of maladies that lead to death’s grim cave,

Wrought by intemperance.”


In his “Life of Philips,” Johnson calls Cyder “his greatest work” and says it was “received with loud praises, and continued long to be read, as an imitation of Virgil’s Georgick, which needed not shun the presence of the original.” Johnson seems to have found little to value in turbulence. He associates it with pointless, frenetic activity. In The Idler No. 31 he writes: “As pride sometimes is hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry.”

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