Wednesday, June 16, 2021

'The Last Steps of an Inoffensive Life'

In January 1759, Lucy Porter wrote to Samuel Johnson that his mother, age ninety, was gravely ill. Lucy was the daughter of Tetty, Johnson’s wife, who had died in 1752. She lived with Johnson’s mother, Sarah, in Lichfield. Johnson learned on January 23 his mother was dead. In one of the four letters Johnson wrote to Sarah after learning of her illness, he says: 

“You have been the best mother, and I believe the best woman, in the world. I thank you for your indulgence to me, and beg forgiveness of all that I have done ill, and all that I have omitted to do well.”


Johnson leaves much unsaid. There is grief and guilt but little love. Johnson had removed himself from Sarah’s life for her final twenty-one years. As John Wain writes in his biography: “I do not think that love, in any sense in which I understand the term, was effectively present among the bundle of emotions which Johnson felt for his mother.” He had faithfully supported her financially and after learning of her final illness he raised twelve guineas and sent them to her. He also wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia in a single week, sold it to a publisher for one-hundred pounds, and used the money to defray the cost of his mother’s funeral. Wain writes of Rasselas: “Pithy, economical, fast-moving, written at a very high level of energy, it leaves one feeling challenged, stimulated and generally keyed up for life.” This novel-like composition – W. Jackson Bate describes it as “a philosophical story in the popular form of the ‘Eastern tale’” -- is probably the work by Johnson I have reread most often.


Johnson wrote another, less well-known work around the time of his mother’s illness and death -- The Idler #41, published January 27, 1759. There is no overt mention of Sarah, except for  a general reference to “his parent or his friend,” though the essay is titled “Serious reflections on the death of a friend.” Johnson might, at several removes, be writing of Sarah here:


“The loss of a friend upon whom the heart was fixed, to whom every wish and endeavour tended, is a state of dreary desolation, in which the mind looks abroad impatient of itself, and finds nothing but emptiness and horrour. The blameless life, the artless tenderness, the pious simplicity, the modest resignation, the patient sickness, and the quiet death, are remembered only to add value to the loss, to aggravate regret for what cannot be amended, to deepen sorrow for what cannot be recalled.”


In 1987, R.L. Barth published a chapbook of translations by various writers from Dr. Johnson’s Latin poems. I’ve never seen this chapbook, though I have the revised edition Bob published in 1995. Included in the earlier version but not in the later is “On the Death of His Mother,” translated by my late friend D.G. Myers. Bob sent me the poem on Monday. David’s translation is preceded by a reference to the Idler essay cited above:


“If you have tears, whoever you may be,

Enough to drop for mourners filing by,

Then let this train be your last cause for grief;

The last steps of an inoffensive life.”

[Dave Lull to the rescue again: “13 epigrams.”]

1 comment:

Edward Bauer said...

It's difficult to believe that David Myers has been dead for nearly seven years. I read everything he posted, on his blog and at Commentary. What a mensch. And the greatness of Samuel Johnson needs no comment.