EXPANSIVE POETRY ONLINE
A Journal of Contemporary Arts 

 

  Joseph S. Salemi

 DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON: THE POETRY OF A PROSE STYLIST
 

 

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Doctor Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is a literary and scholarly giant. In his day he bestrode the English world of letters in much the same way as T.S. Eliot or Edmund Wilson did in the twentieth century. Besides being a skilled poet in the Augustan style, he was a perceptive critic, a gifted translator, a biographer, editor of The Rambler, a novelist and composer of travelogues, an active journalist and essayist, a writer of prefaces and political pamphlets, and a playwright—a dazzling array of activities, all of which are overshadowed by his completion of the Herculean task of compiling the first truly scientific Dictionary of the English Language. With Sir Joshua Reynolds, he presided over the important literary salon called “The Club,” as well as the weekly intellectual discussions held at the home of Mrs. Hester Thrale. Compared to the pathetic rabbits that populate our contemporary literary scene, Samuel Johnson is an eighteen-point stag. His energies were simply phenomenal, and his achievements matched them.

He is disliked today (and consciously disregarded by a politically correct academia) because he was a solid Tory who made no bones about his views or his attitudes. An anecdote is told that once when Johnson conversed with a liberal, he dismissed the man with these trenchant words: “Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig. Good day.” If only we had more tough-minded persons of that kidney nowadays! Johnson was a rock of certitude, and he did not tolerate fools.

Johnson’s greatest achievements are in the realm of prose. I think it no hyperbole to say that he single-handedly established the criteria for decorous and proper writing in English; and without his example our language would never have attained the level of excellence, precision, lucidity, and sharpness that have been the signs of carefully written English since the end of the eighteenth century. Other writers could compose as well as he did, but it was Johnson—with his torrent of first-rate essays and commentaries—who set the standard that has always been used by our best prose stylists. Nevertheless, in this brief portrait I propose to deal exclusively with his English poetry, as I have done with my other subjects of study.

Johnson was born in Staffordshire, the son of a humble bookseller. As an infant he was sickly, and was not expected to live long. But he survived several bouts of illness, and soon developed into something of a child prodigy, with an uncanny ability to memorize and recite long passages of prose and verse easily. He was skilled in Latin by the age of six, and by the time of his fifteenth birthday he was composing excellent verse in both Latin and English. At nineteen he matriculated at Pembroke College, Oxford. Johnson mastered both French and Greek during his short time at university, but his family’s poverty compelled him to leave without taking a degree, after less than two years of study.

Although Johnson was a man of letters right down to the marrow of his bones, he took a rather hard-boiled stance towards the writing profession in general. He is famous for the wry remark that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” He was never totally secure financially, and often composed under the pressure of deadlines and need. His famous (and highly popular) moral apologue Rasselas was composed in a week of furious writing, as a way to earn money to pay for his mother’s funeral expenses. In a world where copyright protections were minimal and authors often worked for simple fixed fees, Johnson always had to be ready with his pen.

Let’s take a look at a poem of his that touches upon his somewhat cynical view of an author’s predicament. Here is the beginning of his poem “The Young Author,” written when he was still quite new to the profession:

When first the peasant, long inclin’d to roam,
Forsakes his rural seats and peaceful home,
Charm’d with the scene the smiling ocean yields,
He scorns the flow’ry vales and verdant fields;
Jocund he dances o’er the wat’ry way,
While the breeze whispers and the streamers play.
Joys insincere! thick clouds invade the skies,
Loud roars the tempest, high the billows rise,
Sick’ning with fear he longs to view the shore,
And vows to trust the faithless deep no more.
So the young author, panting for a name,
And fir’d with pleasing hope of endless fame,
Intrusts his happiness to human kind,
More false, more cruel than the seas and wind.

Johnson seems to have been exasperated by the feeling that his work was never fully appreciated or rewarded. His embittered response to the Earl of Chesterfield, who gave support for Johnson’s great dictionary project only when the task was nearing completion, is well known. Like many writers, Johnson was touchy on the subject of his merits, and took lack of recognition badly. Here’s a passage from his “London: A Poem,” wherein the speaker talks of that city with disgusted contempt:

Since Worth, he cries, in these degen’rate Days,
Wants ev’n the cheap Reward of empty Praise;
In those curs’d Walls, devote to Vice and Gain,
Since unrewarded Science toils in vain;
Since Hope but sooths to double my Distress,
And ev’ry Moment leaves my Little less;
While yet my steady Steps no staff sustains,
And Life still vig’rous revels in my Veins;
Grant me, kind Heaven, to find some happier Place,
Where Honesty and Sense are no Disgrace.

Johnson was subject to deep bouts of depression and melancholy, no doubt aggravated by his sense that his literary merits were either ignored or taken for granted. This ingrained pessimism is apparent in almost all that he wrote, most vividly in his most celebrated poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” This 368-line excursion in perfect heroic couplets takes its inspiration from the bitter tenth satire of Juvenal, a Roman author whom Johnson favored. The ancient Latin satire ranges over many human curses: our failure to distinguish good from evil; the dangers of wealth; the snares of power, eloquence, and military glory; the cares of old age; the transience of beauty. It ends with a stoic plea for endurance, courage, the suppression of our passions, and manly fortitude and virtue. Johnson follows this model, but enfleshes his poem with instances and examples drawn from his own time—in particular the world of London—and he avoids the intense rancor that Juvenal exudes.

Johnson begins his poem with a somewhat detached and philosophical tone, in the phlegmatic manner characteristic of an Englishman:

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
And treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Johnson felt keenly the tyrannical power that gold wielded in London, the mercantilist capital of the nascent British empire. Surrounded by avarice, social-climbing, the temptations and intrigues of the royal court, the machinations of corrupt politicians, and a city in the grip of lucrative international commerce, he could not help thinking of the Latin dictum Auri sacra fames quid non? (“O cursed hunger for gold, what will you not do?”) Here is his judgment in the poem:

But scarce observ’d the Knowing and the Bold,
Fall in the gen’ral Massacre of Gold;
Wide-wasting Pest! that rages unconfin’d,
And crouds with Crimes the Records of Mankind,
For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the Hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heap’d on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Danger gathers as the Treasures rise.

London in Johnson’s day was the central locus of British power, with King, Parliament, courts, military, high society, fashion-and-luxury industries, and a robust body of merchants and shippers turning the city into a hotbed of acquisitiveness, display, and status-seeking. Johnson’s description of the place is vivid, but contemptuous:

Unnumber’d Suppliants croud Preferment’s Gate,
Athirst for Wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th’ncessant Call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
On ev’ry Stage the Foes of Peace attend,
Hate dogs their Flight, and Insult mocks their End.
Love ends with Hope, the sinking Statesman’s Door
Pours in the Morning Worshiper no more;
For growing names the weekly Scribbler lies,
To growing Wealth the Dedicator flies,
From every Room descends the painted Face,
That hung the bright Palladium of the Place,
And smoak’d in Kitchens, or in Auctions sold,
To better Features yields the Frame of Gold.

These longer poems of Johnson give readers the picture of a solemn authority figure, one who is aloof, derisive, condemnatory, and somewhat cold. Johnson could indeed be of that ilk, as his biographer Boswell notes in many anecdotes and quotations. And as a serious satirist, Johnson was bound to come across as rather stern and magisterial. And yet not all of his poetry is of that nature. He could be complimentary and gentle, as in “To a Young Lady on her Birthday,” as these first six lines show:

This tributary verse receive, my fair,
Warm with an ardent lover’s fondest pray’r.
May this returning day for ever find
Thy form more lovely, more adorn’d thy mind;
All pains, all cares, may favouring heav’n remove,
All but the sweet solicitudes of love.

In fact, many of Johnson’s poems are addressed to women—always in the courteous and highly laudatory manner of one who realizes he can expect very little from them by way of romance. He married a well-to-do widow twenty-one years his senior, probably out of financial necessity. When his wife died, he spent many years of chaste devotion to the wealthy Mrs. Thrale, only to be dumbfounded and disappointed when she married someone else after her husband’s death.

Johnson was not suited for love. He had many health problems throughout his life—scrofula, gout, dropsy, asthma, and a variety of other lesser afflictions that left him disabled and convalescent for long periods. He was tall, but prone to stoutness, and suffered from some nervous tics. His appearance and disposition were not of a nature to endear him to the ladies, and he was well aware of it. But he was unfailingly gallant to them in his verse. There is a wistfulness in this poem written to Miss Hickman, the eighteen-year-old daughter of an early benefactor:

Bright Stella, form’d for universal Reign,
Too well You know to keep the Slaves You gain.
When in Your Eyes resistless Lightnings play,
Aw’d into Love, our conquer’d hearts obey,
And yield, reluctant, to despotick Sway.
But when your Musick sooths the raging pain,
We bid propitious Heav’n prolong your reign,
We bless the Tyrant, and we hug the Chain.

The name of Stella was a standard poetic pseudonym used by poets of that time to address a real or fictional love (along with many other feigned names, such as Delia, Phyllis, Laura, Cynthia, Thalia, and the like), and he uses it in several poems. Johnson may not have meant any actual woman, but just an ideal or imagined love. In the following poem (“The Winter’s Walk”), he combines his typical pessimistic gloom with a wish for the relief of feminine comfort and solace:

Behold my fair, where-e’er we rove,
What dreary prospects round us rise,
The naked hills, the leafless grove,
The hoary ground, the frowning skies.

Nor only through the wasted plain,
Stern winter, is thy force confest,
Still wider spreads thy horrid reign,
I feel thy pow’r usurp my breast.

Enliv’ning hope, and fond desire,
Resign the heart to spleen and care,
Scarce frighted love maintains his fire,
And rapture saddens to despair.

In groundless hope, and causeless fear,
Unhappy man! behold thy doom,
Still changing with the changeful year,
The slave of sunshine and of gloom.

Tir’d with vain joys, and false alarms,
With mental and corporeal strife,
Snatch me, my Stella, to thy arms,
And screen me from the ills of life.

No essay on Johnson’s poetic ability would be complete without consideration of the man’s prodigious skill in translation. He could handle not just Latin and Greek, but also French, Spanish, and Italian. One testament to this fluent linguistic gift is his English version of Joseph Addison’s Latin poem Pygmaiogeranomachia (“The Battle of the Pygmies and Cranes”). Johnson completed the 170-line translation in 1726, when he was a student of seventeen at Stourbridge School in Worcestershire. Here’s the beginning:

Feather’d battalions, squadrons on the wing
And the sad fate of Pygmie realms I sing.
Direct O Goddess, my advent’rous song;
In warring colours shew the warring throng;
Teach me to range my troopes in just array
Whilst beaks and swords engage the bloody fray
And paint the horrors of the dreadfull day.

How many seventeen-year-olds can write heroic couplets that sophisticated? None today, I suppose—but even in Johnson’s better-educated times the skill must have been a rarity. More remarkable is the fact that the young Johnson took a non-rhyming Latin poem and rendered it into mellifluously rhyming English.

Johnson’s long translations from Horace, Virgil, Boethius, and Euripides are just as polished and satisfying, but I would like to present a few of the countless snippets of classical verse that he would include from time to time in his essays in The Rambler as epigrams or mottoes. I’ve prefaced each with the original Latin, followed by a literal English translation of my own, and then Johnson’s rendering:

1) Terra salutiferas herbas, eademque nocentes,
     Nutrit, et urticae proxima saepe rosa est.
[from Ovid]

(Earth nourishes health-giving plants, and also harmful ones, and the rose is often near the nettle.)

Johnson:
          Our bane and physic the same earth bestows,
          And near the noisome nettle blooms the rose
.

2) Caelum non animum mutant. [from Horace]

(They change their sky, not their spirit.)

Johnson:
        Place can be chang’d, but who can change his mind?

3) Nulla fides regni sociis, omnisque potestas
    Impatiens consortis erit.
[from Lucan]

(There is no trust in rule with allies, and all shared power will be unendurable.)

Johnson:
        No faith of partnership dominion owns;
        Still discord hovers o’er divided throne
s.

Notice how perfect, how apt, how completely felicitous each of Johnson’s renderings is! He captures the essential meaning of the Latin original, and at the same time produces an English version that is as natural and fluent as a sylvan brook. Many a poet has been a faithful translator, but only a gifted few have this capacity for producing an effortless and seamless metamorphosis from one language into another.

Johnson’s one dramatic work, the play Irene, was a modest success, and was produced by David Garrick in 1749 at a Drury Lane theater. It is mostly in blank verse, with some rhyme scattered here and there. I can only quote one speech by the heroine as a sample of its style:

Ambition is the Stamp impress’d by Heav’n
To mark the noblest Minds, with active Heat
Inform’d they mount the Precipice of Pow’r,
Grasp at Command, and tow’r in quest of Empire;
While vulgar Souls compassionate their Cares,
Gaze at their Height and tremble at their Danger:
Thus meaner Spirits with Amazement mark
The varying Seasons, and revolving Skies,
And ask, what guilty Pow’rs rebellious Hand
Rolls with eternal Toil the pond’rous Orbs;
While some Archangel nearer to Perfection,
In easy State presides o’er all their Motions,
Directs the Planets with a careless Nod,
Conducts the Sun, and regulates the Spheres.

These are stately, marmoreal verses, strongly magisterial and didactic. They are not quite the thing we expect from a female character. But they do reveal Johnson’s sturdy, solid, conservative, moralistic side. He never could totally lay aside that element of his personality, which permeates almost everything he wrote. But I would like to end by quoting a surprisingly different kind of poem, written by him in 1776, when he was sixty-seven. It is “To Mrs. Thrale on her Thirty-Fifth Birthday.” Johnson’s relationship with Hester Thrale has been discussed endlessly, but what is indisputably evident is his deep devotion to her, his pleasure in her company, his dependence on her and her husband’s steady hospitality and support, and his utter desolation over their broken friendship after her second marriage to Gabriele Piozzi. Despite the great difference in their ages, Johnson felt a closeness to Mrs. Thrale, as this somewhat wistful poem in monorhyme evinces:

Oft in Danger yet alive
We are come to Thirty-five;
Long may better Years arrive,
Better Years than Thirty-five;
Could Philosophers contrive
Life to stop at Thirty-five,
Time his Hours should never drive
O’er the bounds of Thirty-five:
High to soar and deep to dive
Nature gives at Thirty-five;
Ladies—stock and tend your Hive,
Trifle not at Thirty-five:
For howe’er we boast and strive,
Life declines from Thirty-Five;
He that ever hopes to thrive
Must begin by Thirty-five:
And those who wisely wish to wive,
Must look on Thrale at Thirty-five.

This is a touching tribute to an honored and close friend, but it also carries an unspoken declaration of something deeper than friendship: an unattainable wish for love, and a profound sense of the inevitable passage of time. The break with Mrs. Thrale, the close of the literary gatherings at her home, and the end of the invitations and dinners that he so loved—these were the backdrop of Johnson’s final, sad, and lonely years.

It is said that Samuel Johnson is the second most quoted writer in the Anglophone world, after Shakespeare. Can it be doubted? He published The Rambler from 1750 to 1752, bringing out 208 separate issues. Each issue had a single polished essay, and all but four of them were written by Johnson alone. Every essay is a masterpiece of English prose, and all of them together constitute a treasury of perceptive comment, sound judgment, and moral wisdom. In the last issue, Johnson took leave of his readership with the following words:

I have laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. Something, perhaps, I have added to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence.

Those are the words of a true giant. His contribution to the majesty, authority, and pre-eminence of the English tongue is no less than that of Cicero to classical Latin, or Dante to Tuscan. His monumental Dictionary set a standard for prescriptive usage that lasted for two hundred years, until the triumph of a debased lexical relativism in the 1960s. We all know Johnson for his elegant and precise prose, but are less familiar with his poetry. I hope we will get to know him as well for his crystalline verse.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.  His upcoming book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming.

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