“The shabbiest of English eccentrics, Dr Johnson, was also the most dutiful of Tories, who abhorred nothing more than the libertinous affectations of the self-appointed wit. A great poet in his own right, he saw poetry as continuous with morality, a sphere not of license but of restraint and judgment, the ultimate aim of which was to uphold the decencies which make life in society worthwhile.”
In England: An Elegy (2001), Sir Roger Scruton aligns himself with one of the summits of the English conservative tradition. If such a tradition were a church, Johnson would number among its saints. Libertinous is the adjective form of libertine. The OED defines it as “dissolute, licentious.” In his Dictionary, Johnson defines libertine as “licentious; irreligious.” Scruton’s larger point is that the conventional notion of artist as bohemian rebel was late to arrive in England, and signals a break from what had been the norm.
Johnson’s life represents a mingling of poverty-induced bohemianism (“the shabbiest of English eccentrics”) and a dignified respect for tradition. Scruton identifies an “anti-bohemian respectability” strain among such modern writers as T.S. Eliot, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and such composers as Vaughan Williams and Edmund Rubbra:
“—all of them respectable citizens, often with conservative, even reactionary, opinions, upholders of the moral order, and unassuming members of the long-suffering middle class. This anti-bohemian respectability was not a novel feature of the national culture. The leading artistic spirits among Englishmen have almost always been prepared not only to belong to the respectable classes, but also to defend the values which make respectability respectable.”
In the post-Romantic era, especially since the rise of Modernism early in the twentieth century, the public has come to expect adolescent thought and behavior from writers and other artists, and the self-indulgent artistic types have obliged them. They may not produce much of lasting value but they reliably supply endless gossip-fodder. Johnson knew the type intimately in the person of his friend the poet Richard Savage (c. 1697-1743), an alcoholic who fatally stabbed a man during a brawl. For details see Richard Holmes’ Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (1993). Johnson loved Savage as a friend and published his biography of the poet in 1744. He remained loyal to Savage’s memory but never denied his failings:
“His friendship was therefore of little value; for though he was zealous in the support or vindication of those whom he loved, yet it was always dangerous to trust him, because he considered himself as discharged by the first quarrel from all ties of honour and gratitude, and would betray those secrets which, in the warmth of confidence, had been imparted to him. This practice drew upon him an universal accusation of ingratitude: nor can it be denied that he was very ready to set himself free from the load of an obligation, for he could not bear to conceive him self in a state of dependence; his pride being equally powerful with his other passions, and appearing in the form of insolence at one time, and of vanity at another.”
Scruton died on this date, January 12, in 2020, at age seventy-five.