Thursday, October 26, 2023

'His Empty Heart is Full at Length'

Two-hundred-fifty years ago, in the late summer and fall of 1773, Dr. Johnson and Boswell made their grand tour of Scotland, including the Hebrides, and both would publish accounts of their adventures. Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland appeared in 1775. Several chapters are devoted to their stay on Col (now spelled Coll), an island in the Inner Hebrides, home to the Macleans. Johnson met with Hector Maclean, the minister on the island, briefly offended him, then mended relations: 

“His conversation was not unsuitable to his appearance. I lost some of his good-will, by treating a heretical writer with more regard than, in his opinion, a heretick could deserve. I honoured his orthodoxy, and did not much censure his asperity. A man who has settled his opinions, does not love to have the tranquility of his conviction disturbed; and at seventy-one it is time to be in earnest.”


In my lexicon, if not Dr. Johnson’s, it’s best to avoid earnestness and not to confuse it with benign seriousness. In his Dictionary he defines earnest as “ardent in any affection; warm; zealous; importunate.” I’m wary of zealotry too. Seriousness is earnestness minus the element of self-seriousness. Taking oneself seriously (as opposed to one’s work and other obligations) is like driving a tank through a bog. You will get bogged down.


Today I join the Rev. Maclean by reaching the age of seventy-one, seriously. Johnson’s about half-right when it comes to opinions. We have entered an era when people no longer seem to have convictions or substantiated beliefs. Rather, they opine and substitute pre-fabricated slogans for thought, and turn their opinions into trophies and weapons. Thus far for me, aging has been a process of mellowing, of excusing myself out of formerly important arguments and trying to be more forgiving. I remember what my old friend Gary Dumm said half a century ago when someone was making a jerk of himself: “He’s just a human.” Johnson puts it like this in a December 7, 1782 letter to Boswell:


“I am afraid, . . . that health begins, after seventy, and often long before, to have a meaning different from that which it had at thirty. But it is culpable to murmur at the established order of the creation, as it is vain to oppose it. He that lives, must grow old; and he that would rather grow old than die, has God to thank for the infirmities of old age.”


I’m celebrating my birthday appropriately – working, taking care of routine business, dinner with family. No pyrotechnics. And I’m reading a couple of good books. For once, Yeats wasn’t raging when he wrote this:


“When a man grows old his joy

Grows more deep day after day,

His empty heart is full at length,

But he has need of all that strength

Because of the increasing Night

That opens her mystery and fright.”

[For Thomas Parker: twice.]


Tim Guirl said...

As always, Dr. Johnson hits the nail on the head with surgical precision when he writes about old age. And a happy 71st birthday to you.

Richard Zuelch said...

A very happy birthday, Patrick. May you still be writing this blog 30 years from now!

I'm exactly 10 days behind you. I'll be 71 on November 5.

Thomas Parker said...

I will refrain from asking how many times a night you have to get up to pee and simply thank you for all the pleasure you've given me here at AE and wish you a happy birthday, with many more to follow.

Jack said...

I have enjoyed your writing for many years. Happy birthday and still many years till you reach 120.

Andrew Rickard said...

Many happy returns, Patrick.

John said...

Happy Birthday Patrick. Thanks for all the pleasure you give.

Thomas Parker said...

You're doing better than I am, Mr. K, and I'm only sixty three!

mike zim said...

Happy Birthday, and a hearty toast to many more.

Thanks to one of your proddings, I'm rereading Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands, and am now at Talisker in Sky, which he visited just prior to Col/Coll, which you excerpt.
A favorite:
"The great effect of money is to break property into small parts. In towns, he that has a shilling may have a piece of meat: but where there is no commerce, no man can eat mutton but by killing a sheep."