Samuel Johnson, the leading English literary figure of the mid-to-late 18th century, was a writer of exceptional scope: poet, lexicographer, translator, journalist and essayist, travel writer, biographer, editor, and critic . his literary fame has traditionally—and properly—based more on his prose than his poetry. as a result, apart from his two verse satires (1738, 1749), which were early recognized as distinguished achievements, and a few minor pieces, the rest of his poems have generally not been widely known. However, his biographer James Boswell correctly noted that Johnson’s “mind was so filled with images that he could have been perpetually a poet.” In addition, Johnson wrote poetry throughout his life, from when he was a boy at school until eight days before his death, composing in Latin and Greek, as well as English. His works include a verse drama, some longer serious poems, several prologues, many translations, and much occasional light poetry, extemporaneous compositions, or jeux d’esprit. Johnson is a poet of limited range, but within that range he is a poet of great talent and skill.
Johnson, the son of Sarah and Michael Johnson, grew up in Lichfield. His father was a provincial bookseller prominent enough to have served as town bailiff in 1709, the year of Samuel’s birth, but whose circumstances became increasingly difficult as his son grew older. Samuel was a fragile baby, riddled with disease. he contracted scrofula (a tuberculous infection of the lymph nodes) from his nurse, which left him nearly blind in one eye and myopic in the other, deaf in one ear, and with scars on his face and neck from the disease itself and from a operation for it. he too was infected with smallpox. these early, traumatic illnesses heralded the continuing physical malaise and ill-health that would mark his entire life.
Johnson’s household was not particularly happy, as financial difficulties only exacerbated his parents’ incompatibilities. The severe psychological problems Johnson experienced throughout her life were undoubtedly related in part to the troubled domestic situation of her childhood. Johnson’s main advantage from the start was his mind, for the intellectual powers that would amaze his associates throughout his life soon appeared. He excelled at Lichfield Grammar School, which he attended until he was 15.
according to his childhood friend edmund hector, johnson’s first poem, “on a daffodil, the first flower the author had seen that year”, was composed between the ages of 15 and 16 (in 1724). Written in heroic quatrains, the poem is largely an accumulation of traditional lyrical conventions typical of poets from Robert Herrick to Matthew Prior. At times, however, its pondered seriousness, and particularly the melancholic sense of the process and the moral that ends it, suggest some of the points where the poetic forces of the mature Johnson would be concentrated. The poem poses no serious challenge to William Wordsworth, but it’s not an entirely inauspicious start. Hector later told Boswell that Johnson “never really liked” the poem because he didn’t feel it “was … characteristic of the flower.” Significantly, even as a young man, Johnson recognized the need for the concreteness and specificity that his later poems would infuse with the more abstract intellectual conceptions that dominated his early effort.
Johnson spent the next year in Stourbridge. He initially paid an extended visit to his older cousin Cornelius Ford, enjoying the company of this affable, witty and worldly relative and access to a significantly wider social world than life in Lichfield had offered. Johnson later worked at Stourbridge Primary School under the headmaster, John Goingworth. About a dozen of Johnson’s poems from this period survive, mostly translations. Most of them were school exercises, like his translations of Virgil’s First and Fifth Eclogues and the dialogue between Hector and Andromache in the sixth book of the Iliad. Johnson later told Boswell that Horace’s odes were “the compositions in which he most delighted”, and that he had already translated the ode Integer Vitae (I: xxii) before studying with Goingworth. at stourbridge he translated three other odes (ii: ix, xiv and xx) and two epodes of horace (ii and xi). all are capable and fairly accurate performances, though the epods show more energy. The most interesting of his early translations is that of Joseph Addison’s Latin poem “The Battle of the Pygmies and the Cranes” (1698), because it anticipates vigour, sympathetic participation and the resulting moral pathos, and the ability to revive known truths. which are characteristic of Johnson’s best poems.
two more school exercises, “festina lente” (make haste slowly) and “on the feast of st. Simon and Saint Jude,” are original poems. The latter, written in the stanza form that Christopher Smart would employ more than three decades later in the Song to David (1763), is unique among Johnsonian poems for what he calls “ecstatic fury,” and shows his youthful willingness to experiment with the verse. forms and varieties of poetic expression. Despite its interest, it is in many ways the “rude and unpolished song” it claims to be, and suggests that Johnson’s decision to stick to couplets and quatrains was not reckless. Goworth’s preservation of Johnson’s early pieces reflects his high opinion of his student’s talent and ability, and the early poems show an increasing mastery of diction and rhythm. w. Jackson Bate has pointed out that, although they are simple school exercises, they are “as good as the verses written by any great poet of the same age.”
Johnson returned to Lichfield in the fall of 1726 and spent two more years there, working and reading in his father’s bookshop. he once again found a mentor, this time gilbert walmesley, a learned, sophisticated and hospitable lawyer who was clerk of the church court in lichfield. In 1728, when Johnson was nineteen, his parents managed to raise enough money to send him to Pembroke College, Oxford. In his first interview he impressed his tutor by quoting Macrobius, and with the vast knowledge he had accumulated during his years of reading, he continued to impress the members of the college with his intellectual prowess. although he was a fickle and often irresponsible student, he loved college life. His reading of William Law’s An Earnest Appeal to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) during this period led him to think seriously about religion, and he gradually developed the deep, if troubled, acceptance of the Christian faith and its principles that marked his life. .
As a young man in Lichfield, Johnson had first attempted Latin verse in a now-lost poem about the firefly, but several of his Latin poems composed as university exercises survive. Of these, the most important is a translation of Alexander Pope’s Messiah (1712), produced as a Christmas exercise in 1728 at the suggestion of his tutor. Working through Isaiah, Virgil, and Pope, Johnson produced his own 119-line Latin poem with remarkable speed, writing half of it in one afternoon and completing the rest the next morning. This kind of facility in poetic composition was characteristic of Johnson, whether he wrote original poetry or translated, just as he later wrote prose with incredible speed. he could effectively organize and even edit in his mind; He later explained to Boswell that when composing verses, “I have generally had them on my mind, perhaps fifty at a time, pacing up and down my room; and then I have written them, and many times, out of laziness, I have written only half lines”. The Vanity of Human Desires Manuscript (1749) reflects this practice, as the first half of many lines are written in a different ink than the last half.
the messiah translation was enthusiastically received in pembroke. Although existing evidence is conflicting, a close friend said Johnson’s father had it printed without his son’s knowledge and even sent a copy to the pope. Johnson, who had always found it difficult to get along with his father, was furious at the interference, because he had plans of his own to present the poem correctly to the English author. Whatever actually happens in this regard, the translation was Johnson’s first published poem, as in 1731 it was included in a Miscellany of Poems, edited by John Husses, a Pembroke tutor. But when he turned up, lack of money had forced Johnson to leave Oxford and return once more to Lichfield.
Johnson’s early translations and his Latin verse reflect two poetic modes that he would pursue for the rest of his life. other extant poems from his early years show his skills in the kind of occasional or extemporaneous verses that appear in large numbers in his later writings. in addition to the more serious and substantial “ode to friendship”, are the complementary lines “to a young lady on her birthday” and “to miss hickman playing the spinet”, along with “to a lady who leaves her place of residence ”. ” and “about a lady presenting a myrtle twig to a gentleman”, the latter hastily composed to help a friend. A quatrain in Latin, “to laura,” resulted when a friend proposed a line and challenged Johnson in company to finish it; he instantly complied. Finally, an epilogue written for a play performed by young women in Lichfield foreshadows his later plays, while “the young author” prepares for the future treatment of a similar theme in one of his great verse satires. Almost the full range of Johnson’s mature poetic interests is represented in his early pieces.
Unable to return to Oxford due to his family’s increasingly dire financial situation, Johnson lacked an occupation, had no prospects for one and faced a bleak future upon his return to Lichfield. worst of all was his psychological state. for him the early 1730s were a period of despair, a final collapse, and a gradual recovery. indolence had always been a problem for him; in fact, he would haunt him for his entire life. but during this period, despite his best efforts to compose himself and focus his life, he could not break the terrible exhaustion that afflicted him. deeply depressed, paralyzed by fears and fears, he suffered a massive emotional breakdown that lasted for about two years and left him unstable for three more. he later dated his constant health problems from this period, writing in a letter in the early 1970s that “my health has been since my twentieth year that it has seldom afforded me a single day’s ease” (samuel johnson letters, ii :474) . furthermore, during this time he developed convulsive gestures, tics and obsessive gestures which contributed to making his behavior so strange. Johnson was a large, powerful man, but his clumsiness, his scrofula and pockmarks, and his compulsive manner, combined with his scruffy and unkempt clothing, created an initial grotesque impression.
After several failed attempts to secure various posts, Johnson was briefly employed in 1732 as vice-principal at Market Bosworth Grammar School in Leicestershire. he hated the job and particularly the head trustee who controlled the school, and resigned over the summer. in the fall he visited his old friend hector in birmingham and lived there for over a year, still trying to settle his mind and his life. In 1734 he succeeded in completing a translation of Father Jeronymo Lobo’s account of the abyssinia, Johnson’s first published book (1735). he had not forgotten poetry. Returning to Lichfield, he published proposals for a subscription edition of the fifteenth-century political writer’s Latin poems, with a history of Latin poetry from the age of Petrarch to politics. like most of his efforts during this bleak period, the project failed.
In July 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Jervis Porter, whom he referred to as “Tetty,” a widow 20 years his senior. To this unusual marriage, which he always described as a love match, she contributed a substantial amount of money, and with it Johnson started a small school in Edial. It opened in the fall with just three students, including David Garrick, who would go on to become the greatest actor of the century. As the school declined rapidly, Johnson decided to try to earn money, and perhaps make a name for himself, by writing a blank verse tragedy, a historical drama along the lines that had popularized Addison’s Cato (1713). Usually a quick writer, this time he was unable to proceed with any swiftness in his ill-fated Irene (not published until 1749). he had completed only half when the school failed. With Tetty’s resources steadily dwindling, he decided to go to London, where he hoped to find work writing for magazines and translating and completing and selling Irene. tetty stayed behind. On March 2, 1737, Johnson and Young Garrick set out for London, sharing a single horse between them. In London and then Greenwich, Johnson continued to work on Irene, but in the summer he returned to Lichfield, and after three months there, he finally finished the drama. There is no evidence to indicate that any other work cost Johnson as much effort as it did Irene. The manuscript of his first draft is preserved, showing his extensive research, his careful organization, and his detailed descriptions of scenes and characters.
Johnson and Tetty returned to London in October, and Johnson tried unsuccessfully to produce Irene. meanwhile, he began working for edward cave at the men’s magazine. In March 1738, his first contribution appeared, an elegant and dignified poem in Latin, “To Sylvanus Urban” (Cave’s editorial pseudonym), which defended Cave against the current attacks by rival booksellers. other poems that year included light companion verses for elizabeth carter and lady firebrace, and latin and greek epigrams for carter, richard savage and thomas birch.
While working for Cave, Johnson also looked for something to write on his own that he could sell. a natural choice was “imitation”, a contemporary popular poetic form. Dryden in his preface to Ovid’s Epistles (1680) had described imitation as a kind of translation, “wherein the translator (if he has not now lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary the words and meaning, but also to abandon both as he sees the occasion; and taking only some general suggestions from the original, to execute the division on the basis, as he pleases.” Johnson himself would define it later in the life of the pope (volume 7 of prefaces, biographical and critical, 1779-1781) as ” a kind of intermediate composition between the translation and the original design, which pleases when the thoughts are unexpectedly applicable and the parallels fortunate. .” Pope, whose imitations of Horace had been appearing during the 1730s, was the acknowledged master of the fashion, which had been widely developed during the Restoration by such poets as Abraham Cowley, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and John Oldham and had also been employed by swift. johnson turned to the latin poet juvenal and imitated his satura iii on urban life in london. at the end of march 1738 he sent a copy of the poem to cave, with a letter in which he claimed to be negotiating for a friend in need who he had actually composed the poem. he even offered to alter any part that cave didn’t like. cave printed london and arranged for it to be published by robert dodsley, who was well known for his skills in promoting poetry. from dodsley, johnson he received 10 guineas for the royalties, because, as he explained to boswell years later, the minor poet paul whitehead had recently gotten ten guineas for one of his pieces, and he wouldn’t settle for less than what whitehead had earned. London was published on May 13, 1738.
in juvenal’s third satire, his friend umbricius pauses at the porta capena arch to launch a diatribe against city life as he leaves rome forever for the deserted cumas. johnson’s thales in london is similarly diverted as he waits on the banks of the thames in greenwich to leave for wales. (Much ink has been spilled on whether or not Thales is inspired by Johnson’s friend Savage, but the best evidence suggests that Johnson did not know Savage at the time he wrote the poem.) Following the example of Pope and others, Johnson insisted that the relevant passages of Juvenal’s satire be published with his own poem at the bottom of the pages, because he believed that part of the beauty of London lay in adapting Juvenal’s sentiments to contemporary themes. therefore, Juvenal’s work provides a natural starting point for evaluating Johnson’s achievement.
Between an introduction and a conclusion, Juvenal’s original satire is divided into two main sections. the first focuses mainly on the difficulties faced by an honest man trying to make a living in the city, while the second part considers the myriad dangers of urban life (falling buildings, fires, crowds, traffic, accidents and crimes). Johnson generally follows Juvenal’s structure, but as he reworks the theme, the sections he retains and the sections he alters reveal his own particular concerns.
johnson, when you want, you can grasp exactly the meanings of juvenal. “Value slowly rises, poverty depressing” is a classic example, as it powerfully reaffirms Juvenal’s “haud facile emergegunt quorum virtatibus obstat / res angusta domi” (it is not easy to move up in the world for those whose difficult domestic circumstances obstruct his skills). ). Johnson can also use balance and antithesis in the couplet to juxtapose for satirical effect in a way reminiscent of Papa; a fawning Frenchman, for example, “will exalt every trifle, worship every vice, / Your taste for snuff, your judgment for a whore.” But Johnson tends to focus neither on the details nor on the close interpretation of Juvenal, and because of his different satirical emphases, London becomes important aspects of his own poem.
First, Johnson’s treatment of country life includes significant additions to Juvenile. Early in London, without any youthful foundation, he adds two lines describing what such hopes to find in the country: “some pleasant bench where the green willows play, / some peaceful valley with the pictures of gay nature.” This couplet sets the tone for Johnson’s later rural depictions. in satura iii juvenal praises the countryside not for its beauty or the ease of life there, but as the only possible alternative to the city. Johnson, however, takes Juvenal’s simple descriptions of country life and produces a combination of an 18th-century garden (with trimmed paths, sustained flowers, directed rivulets, and intertwining arbors) and Miltonic paradise (including music of nature). , healthy breezes, security and morning entertainment). work and night walks). Such idealization of the country is totally incongruous with Johnson’s views; he loved the bustling life of london and, like george crabe, he always emphasized that human unhappiness emanates from the same causes in both the city and the country. His treatment of the country in London reflects prevailing poetic convention rather than conviction; his predominantly conventional to youthful additions in this area highlight the extent to which london is very much the work of an eager-to-please young poet, who toyed with contemporary tastes accordingly.
If Johnson’s additions to Juvenile in rural depictions are significant, his omissions in portraying the miserable lives of the urban poor are even more revealing. “Slow rises worth,” just the poem’s best-known line, has had enough impact to obscure the fact that Johnson’s overall treatment of poverty in London is superficial, particularly when compared to Juvenal’s. It completely omits half of Juvenal’s section on the general powerlessness of the poor to earn a living in the city. In examining urban woes, he omits Juvenal’s sections on crowds, traffic, accidents, and robbery, omits collapsing buildings (although the collapse of old houses was a frequent danger in eighteenth-century London), and condenses the scene of the struggle. In the process, he loses some of Juvenal’s most revealing episodes, because urban life, of course, is made intolerable not so much by big disasters as by incessant little annoyances. The noise, loss of sleep, and difficulty getting from one place to another disappear in Johnson’s version because he’s not interested in the little personal dangers of city life.
However, no one could accuse Johnson of not caring deeply about the conditions of the urban poor. he told boswell that the true test of civilization was a decent provision for the poor, and he personally offered such provision to the unfortunate whenever he could. Although his passages on the London poor are often competent and, at times, eloquent, he drastically condensed Juvenal’s treatment because he wanted to focus his own poem on political rather than personal conditions.
The accuracy of Boswell’s description of London as “imbued with opposition fire” is clear from the many political references Johnson adds to Juvenal. He expands Juvenal’s introductory section to include nostalgic references to the political and commercial glories of the Elizabethan era and several times in the poem opposes Spanish power. Elaborating on Juvenal’s passage on crimes and jail, he manages to attack Walpole’s misuses of special juries and Secret Service funds, the House of Commons, and the King himself. Johnson never forgets London politics, even when it’s more conventional. for example, the lines about the country include references to the headquarters of a “salaried senator” and the clothing of a “venal lord”.
Johnson’s emphasis on politics in London was undoubtedly due to factors in the contemporary political scene, as well as his personal life at the time. The year 1738 was one of widespread popular unrest, and the nation, already abuzz with Walpole’s court and ministry, was outraged by the supposed Spanish suppression of British trade. Amid the hubbub, Johnson, a newcomer to London, unsure of himself and his ability to succeed anywhere, associated with various anti-government acquaintances while eking out a living in the great capital. Young and frustrated, he was understandably anxious enough to see the current political situation as the direct cause of adverse personal and national conditions. during his first years in the city he produced the most violent political writings of his life. The year after London, he published Norfolcian Marble (1739), a mock prophetic inscription in rhyming Latin verse with a translation and a long commentary attacking Walpole. This satire was so virulent that, according to Johnson’s early biographer, James Harrison, even a government used to invective issued a warrant for his arrest.
London in many places displays Johnson’s technical skill in the use of the heroic couplet. It is an exuberant poem, full of life and good humor. London ultimately doesn’t bring out all of Johnson’s powers, because the satire is weakened in places by the false stances he’s forced into by convention and political issues. But it is an impressive interpretation, and certain passages, such as the description of the dangers of friendship with great men, reflect all the poetic capacity of Johnson. The final lines of this passage show Johnson rising above the specific poetic situation to present the general vision of the moralist. The move from satire to reflection here, backed by widening and stretching from the particular to the general, is characteristic of Johnson at his best. in fact, these movements from satire to meditation and from the particular to the general are combined a decade later with a more mature vision, sometimes wild about life itself but always sympathetic to the struggles of suffering individuals, to Produce the Vanity of Human Desires (1749), Johnson’s second juvenile imitation.
Pope’s One 1738, another of his Horatian imitations, was published, also by Dodsley, a few days after London, and the two poems compared favorably. Boswell reports that the pope himself responded generously to his supposed rival; He asked Jonathan Richardson to try to find out who the new author was, and when told that he was a dark man named Johnson, Pope commented that he would not stay in the dark for long. the popular success of the poem seemed to support the pope’s prediction. within a week a second edition was required, a third came out later that year, and a fourth the following year. It was reprinted at least 23 times during Johnson’s lifetime. However, the political topicality and poetic conventionality that contributed so much to London’s contemporary success considerably reduced its later appeal. its status as one of the major Johnsonian poems has always been secure and its substantial poetic power recognized. but it has also suffered the inevitable comparisons with the vanity of human desires. modern readers have uniformly preferred the second poem for its moral elevation, its more condensed expression, and its treatment of more characteristic Johnsonian themes and ideas. Many of these elements are present in London, but to a lesser degree.
during this first stint in london, it became increasingly clear that johnson’s marriage was in trouble. Bruised by this second marriage to which she had contributed so much and reduced her circumstances so much, Tetty was constantly withdrawing from Johnson and from life in general. Gradually the two began to live apart most of the time, as the tetty steadily deteriorated, and she eventually took refuge in alcohol and opium and in her later years rarely left her bed. Johnson did everything he could to support her, writing furiously and sparing no effort to support her wife. he sometimes walked the streets all night because she didn’t have money for even the cheapest lodging. for the next 15 or 20 years he was a journalist and stunt writer of incredible productivity and variety. He became a trusted assistant to Yield in the Gentlemen’s Magazine from 1738 to the mid-1740s, writing many reviews, translations, and articles, including a long series of parliamentary debates from 1741 to 1744. He helped catalog the enormous library arleiana and worked on the eight volumes of the arleiana miscellany (1744-1746). In addition to a series of short biographies of Cave, he contributed biographical entries to a medical dictionary (1743-1745) by his friend Dr. Robert James, for whom he had composed proposals for the work (1741). his own account of the life of mr. Richard Savage, a short masterpiece of biography, appeared in 1744. In 1745 he published a proposal for a new edition of Shakespeare, composing several observations on Macbeth’s tragedy to illustrate his critical approach. This project did not come to fruition, but a bigger one did. the following year he signed a contract with a group of publishers to produce an English dictionary, which he worked on for the next seven years in the garret of the house he rented at 17 gough square. however, even while working on it, he always continued with many other miscellaneous writing projects.
during these years, johnson wrote substantially more prose than poetry, but had several minor poems published in the men’s magazine. an epitaph on the musician claudy phillips appeared there in september 1740, composed almost extemporaneously and set to music years later. and “to Laura”) and he published them in the magazine in July 1743, along with a Latin translation, described as “the casual amusement of half an hour,” of the pope’s verses in his grotto. When Cave needed a revision of Geoffrey Walmesley’s Latin translation of John Byrom’s “Colin and Phebe” in February 1745, Johnson and Stephen Barrett alternated distiches, quickly passing a sheet of paper between them “like a flyer” across the table. In 1747, when the editor of the magazine’s poetry section was out and the copy available for the May issue was insufficient, Johnson contributed half a dozen poems. most were occasional light pieces written years before, including “the winter walk,” “an ode” to spring, and various companion poems to the ladies, but a more substantial English poem based loosely on the Latin epigraph for sir also appeared. thomas hanmer.
in the same year, johnson also provided a prologue for the celebration of the reopening of the drury lane theater under the direction of his friend garrick. he had already helped garrick by writing a preface to his first play, lethe, for a benefit performance of henry gifford in 1740. the prologue delivered at the opening of the theater in drury-lane was a much more considerable piece. Johnson later said that he composed the entire poem before putting a line on paper and that he subsequently changed only one word, making that alteration only because of Garrick’s protests. Drury Lane’s Foreword offers an overview of the history of English theatre, tracing it from the “mighty strokes” of Shakespeare’s “Immortal” to the “student patience” and “industrious art” of Ben Jonson to the “intrigue” and “obscenity” of the restoration. ingenuity to the playwrights of his time. after decrying contemporary tragedy and a taste for pantomime and farce, he speculates pessimistically about the future of the stage, closing by reminding the audience that “the stage only echoes the public voice” and urging them to “ ask for the reign / of ransom to begin”. d nature, and revive sense.” The prologue is a beautiful poem that reflects premises that Johnson would later employ in dramatic criticism of him, particularly in his Shakespeare edition. when it was published a few weeks after the opening, it did not bear johnson’s name, and the public had to assume that garrick was the author.
in each of the next three decades, johnson wrote a foreword and they can be considered as a group, despite their chronological spread. In 1750, Johnson learned that John Milton’s only surviving granddaughter, Elizabeth Foster, was living in poverty, and he convinced Garrick to put on a benefit of Comus (1637) to help her. The new foreword Johnson composed praises “mighty” Milton’s achievement and the fame he has attained, but Johnson characteristically also praises “his offspring from him” from him Mrs. encourage “the suave merits of domesticity” and “the native charms of humble virtue.” Late in 1767 he wrote a prologue that he had long before promised to Oliver Goldsmith for the comedy of He, the Kind Man (1768). With a parliamentary election looming, Johnson, in a rather grim piece that was unsurprisingly not very popular, compared the pressures on the playwright and the politician to please the rabble. Thomas Harris, the manager of Covent Garden, requested Johnson’s last foreword in 1777 for a performance of Hugh Kelly’s A Word to the Wise (1770) for the benefit of the author’s widow and children. When first produced in 1770, the play had been interrupted by Kelly’s political enemies, and Johnson’s well-received and conciliatory foreword pleaded with the audience that “no resentful petulance invade / The inviolable shadow of the forgotten grave.” All of Johnson’s forewords are the result of the generosity to friends and those in need that was so characteristic of him throughout his life. They are all competent examples of the genre, while the Drury Lane Theater opening poem, and to a lesser extent the Comus Prologue, rise to royal excellence. Drury Lane’s Foreword has long been one of Johnson’s best-known poems.
In the fall of 1748, Johnson had returned to Juvenal, and in the vanity of human desires, an imitation of Juvenal’s tenth satire, he wrote his greatest poem. he later said that he wrote the first seventy lines in one morning, while visiting tetty in hampstead. Like the foreword to Drury Lane, the entire section was composed in his head before he put a line to paper. he also mentioned to boswell in another connection that he wrote a hundred lines of the poem in one day. A receipt in Johnson’s handwriting dated November 25, 1748 assigns the copyright of The Vanity of Human Desires to Robert Dodsley for 15 guineas, and it was published on January 9, 1749. Significantly, it was the first work of johnson in which his name appeared on the cover.
Satura X is Juvenal’s greatest satire, and in the vanity of human desires, Johnson produced a poem of equal worth. He directly shares some of Juvenal’s concerns, as both use the theme of the folly of human desires and requests for wealth, power, long life, and beauty, and at the beginning of each poem both emphasize the importance of using reason to guide the elections. By focusing on various wishes, each poet introduces the theme of the responsibilities inherent in the wishing process. In both x-saturation and vanity of human desires, the fulfillment of the desire is followed by the envy of others and, ultimately, by personal dissatisfaction with gain. Although inherent in Juvenile, this latter theme of the insatiability of the human imagination is emphasized much more in Johnson, who is concerned with general psychological factors, with the human mind and heart, while Juvenile is more interested in specific events and their consequences. influences on individuals. . Johnson expands Juvenal’s initial four and a half lines to eleven lines, to present through moving and crowding imagery the effect and range of emotions produced by the imagination, and also specifically names some of these emotions. By considering each of these wishes later in his poem, he explores the additional theme of his betrayal and betrayal of human best interests.
in the vanity of human desires, johnson followed juvenal’s basic structure, as he had done in london, altering it to emphasize the concerns of his own poem. juvenal’s satura x has 365 lines; That Johnson managed to imitate it in just 368 lines suggests its massive and masterful condensation, particularly as couplet verse often requires expansion and amplification. both poems contain seven sections: an introduction and a conclusion contain five sections on politics, eloquence or learning, war, long life, and beauty. the relative importance of the themes in each poem is clear from the amount of attention the two poets devote to them.
juvenal throughout saturation x emphasizes the physical, the sensual and the licentious, while johnson in the vanity of human desires is more concerned with the spiritual and the psychological. he is not particularly interested in the sins of the flesh. In the section on old age, for example, Juvenal dwells extensively on physical decrepitude, while Johnson refers only briefly to such maladies and presents the greed of an old man, a vice not mentioned by Juvenal. significant differences also appear in the passages about beauty in the two poems. Juvenal features a lengthy section on male beauty, focused on graphic details of outrageous individual misconduct, which Johnson omits entirely, preferring instead to focus on more general human problems. On the other hand, in the passages on feminine neatness, Juvenal is content with brief references to the dangers that beset beautiful women, while Johnson traces the complete moral disintegration of a beautiful young woman using abstract terms (for example, “the guardians yield, by superior force exerted; / by interest, prudence; and by flattery, pride”). The entire passage exemplifies Johnson’s careful development of the theme of the betrayal of human desires, which lead people astray while remaining to the end ignorant of their gradual destruction.
The juvenile speaker becomes the vanity of human desires in the Johnson Scholar, partly for autobiographical reasons. Sometime around the time he left Oxford, Johnson had written a poem entitled “The Young Author”, which in revised form he had published in the Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1743. This poem in many ways anticipates the mature treatment of the search for Renowned scholarship on the vanity of human desires. Hester Thrale (later Piozzi) wrote that years later, reading The Vanity of Human Desires to family and a friend in Streatham, Johnson burst into tears while reading the section on the scholar. the events of his life also dictated a famous emendation in the passage. Johnson had originally listed the problems that beset academic life as “hard work, envy, misery, the garret, and jail.” Boswell indicates that after experiencing difficulties with Lord Chesterfield over his putative patronage of Johnson’s dictionary, Johnson in his 1755 revision of the poem (in Robert Dodsley’s Collection of Various Hand Poems, Volume 4) changed “the garret” to ” the boss”.
in the last passage of his poem, johnson expands on the succinctly abrupt “nil ergo optabunt homines?” of youthful. (Is there nothing, therefore, for which people should pray?) to six lines of deeply moving rhetorical questions about human destiny. this amplification again shows the plethora of emotions produced by the human imagination, and further emphasizes another theme of the poem, the overwhelming human desire to be free from the emotions that simultaneously bind and blind. Juvenal turns flippant, but Johnson turns fervently serious as each advises resorting to prayer. Juvenal’s stoicism and Johnson’s Christianity dominate the endings of their respective poems. both urge leaving individual fate up to heaven, and both affirm that higher powers know what is best for human beings. both poets urge people to pray for resilience, for acceptance of death, and for a healthy mind. (Johnson omits the last half of Juvenal’s famous “mens sana in corpore sano” [a healthy mind in a healthy body], in part because he knew from personal experience that humans can endure despite the most debilitating physical ailments.) he to say that humans themselves can do whatever it takes to have a peaceful life—“monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare” (I am pointing out what you are capable of doing on your own)—while johnson emphasizes the Christian concept of Dependence on God: “Heavenly wisdom calms the mind, / and makes the happiness that it does not find.” Johnson’s final lines emphasize that the human desire to be free from the many treacherous emotions generated by the imagination can only be fulfilled by going beyond the self and mundane concerns and trusting in divine omniscience to compensate for the limitations in human knowledge to bear. to madness.
thus, the vanity of human desires includes both biblical and classical connotations. As its title suggests, it has close affinities with the book of Ecclesiastes and shares many of its themes. The insufficiency of earthly goods and values and the concomitant need for religious faith as the sole bulwark are traditional arguments in Christian apologetics from Augustine on, including Jeremy Taylor and the Renaissance theologians whose works Johnson knew so well, and also William Law. , whose earnest call to a devout and holy life so profoundly influenced the young Johnson.
juvenal in his poetry assumes a dual personality. on the one hand, he writes as a stern moralist who punishes wrongdoing, but he also writes as a rhetorician and particularly as a wit, reveling in invective, exaggeration, and filth. Johnson recognized these two sides when he wrote in The Life of Dryden (Prefaces, Biographical and Critical Volume 1) that Juvenal was “a mixture of gaiety and majesty, of sharp sentences [epigrams] and declamatory grandeur.” Johnson, in his own imitation, chose to reproduce primarily the “majesty” and “declamatory grandeur” of Juvenal. Johnson’s slow, dignified couplets abound in vividly personified abstractions that with characteristic compression give an impression of philosophical generality. the vanity of human desires is marked by a moral elevation and a seriousness that saturation x, in general, does not share. youthful pleasures in the strictly personal; For example, the hilarious conversations that followed the fall of Sejanus vividly depict personal reactions. Johnson, by contrast, does not use dialogue in his poem, as he deals with general human feelings on a broader scale. He, of course, uses individual men and women as examples, and his replacement of Juvenal’s classic personalities with more contemporary figures (Charles XII for Hannibal, for example, and Marlborough and Swift for Marius, Pompey, and the Catilinian conspirators) is masterfully done. However, Johnson does not name people as often as Juvenal does, and in many sections, such as the opening verses on wealth, Johnson deals with generalities while Juvenal freely interjects specific names.
The moral elevation and grand vision so characteristic of the vanity of human desires are a reflection of the ways in which Johnson moves from x-saturation as a basis to take his own poem beyond satire. Johnson’s anger, his aggressiveness, and his capacity for savage and brutal wit made him eminently suited to writing satire, but his satirical impulses were more satisfied in his conversation than in his writing. Ms. Thrale wrote that Johnson did not “encourage general satire” and “disliked” it, a dislike that partly explains his unfairness in rushing into the lives of poets (prefaces, biographicals, and critics). Johnson’s personal struggles with controlling his aggressive tendencies, maintaining good humor, and being kind-hearted made him wary of unleashing a satirical impulse that might be so strong that it could only be destructive rather than constructive. moreover, because he recognized his own pride, fears, vanity, and anxieties, he felt a sympathy for others that prevented him from attacking them too harshly. his keen understanding of his own shortcomings led him to the kind of sense of involvement that makes strong, vicious satire impossible.
Johnson ultimately felt more comfortable as a moralist than a satirist. Bate has called Johnson’s signature procedure in many of his great writings “manqué satire” or “frustrated satire,” a process in which satirical potential is dissipated through understanding and compassion. bate describes it as “a drama of thought and expression that always moves from the reductive to the explanation and finally to something close to the apology”. Johnson’s tendency to employ manqué satire shows up in some London spots, but in that poem his youthful exuberance and shyness, along with his political focus and reverence for contemporary poetic practices, led him to a greater proportion of royal satire. the fact that the vanity of human desires is much more of a manqué satire than satire explains much of its power.
juvenal’s stated goal in his satires was to shame the men of his time for the vices they practiced in their private lives, but johnson’s breadth of thought and feeling took him well beyond the tactics and themes of youthful. In The Vanity of Human Desires, Johnson deals with a human problem more pervasive, more insidious, and more important than deliberate wrongdoing, because ultimately he focuses on the mistakes people are led to inadvertently commit. intentional vice chosen for pleasure can be mercilessly punished, but the ignorance that leads people to pursue unworthy ends and thus lose their potential as human beings cannot be effectively combated with mere invective. To meet the challenge of this ignorance, Johnson employs the satirical mode but elevates it above the petty limitations of bitter humor, vile invective, and somber epigrams directed at individuals to embrace humanity as a whole with sympathy and sense of sympathy. participation, so that you can offer your corrective vision. the poem’s affinities with tragedy are, in some ways, stronger than its ties with satire.
Bate has also noted that The Vanity of Human Desires ushers in a brilliant decade of moral writing for Johnson, noting that these writings could be described as “an extended prose application” of the poem. in his periodic essays—in The Wanderer (1750-1752), the Adventurer (1753-1754), and the Idle Man (1758-1760, collected 1761)—he deals collectively and individually with the same mess of human emotions and their betrayal. that outlines in the poem. Rasselas, the Prince of Abyssinia (1759) also deals with similar themes in detail. The Vanity of Human Desires stands on its own as a main poem and can also work as an excellent introduction to these writings. But more than this, in the context of Johnson’s work as a whole, this poem, as a condensed presentation of the themes that Johnson explores in all of his writing, is a good introduction to the dominant concepts of Johnson’s thought as a moralist and as a moralist. a humanist.
commenting that the vanity of human desires “has less common life, but more philosophical dignity” than london, boswell noted that more readers would be delighted by the latter’s “sharp spirit” than by the “deep reflection” of london First. It accurately reflected the general eighteenth-century reaction to the poem. Johnson’s contemporaries admired his youthful second imitation, but his response was muted. As Boswell reports, Garrick jokingly remarked that “when Johnson lived a lot with the Herveys and saw a lot of what was going on in life, he wrote his ‘london’, which is lively and easy. when he withdrew further, he gave us his ‘vanity of human desires’, which is as harsh as Greek. if he had continued to imitate another satire, he would have It’s been as hard as the Hebrew.” Modern critics comparing the two poems have come to exactly the opposite conclusion, universally praising The Vanity of Human Desires as Johnson’s greatest poem.
As for the supposed third garrick satire that would have been “hard as hebrew”, johnson never wrote poems of this type again. Once, when Boswell lamented that Johnson hadn’t imitated more of Juvenal’s satires, Johnson responded that he “probably should give more, because he had them all in his head.” Boswell took the answer to mean that he “had the originals and the corresponding allusions floating around in his mind, which he could, when he pleased, incorporate and make permanent without much work.” (Characteristically, Johnson added that some of Juvenal’s satire was “too crude to imitate”). In the following years, he continued to write some poetry and composed many jeux d’esprit with friends, but his main works would be in prose.
in 1749, garrick, as manager of drury lane theatre, was finally able to produce johnson’s irene. He assembled a strong cast, including himself, prepared a magnificent set and costumes, and fought fiercely with Johnson over alterations to make the play more suitable for actual performance. Although Johnson complained that Garrick “wants me to make Mahomet go crazy, so he can get a chance to shake his hands and kick his heels”, he eventually relented, also allowing Garrick to retitle him Mahomet and Irene. Johnson was in the audience in a scarlet waistcoat with gold lace when the curtain rose on the evening of February 6, 1749.
Johnson based Irene on a story from Richard Knolles’ The General Historic of the Turkes (1603), substantially altering Knolles’ account to create a drama of temptation that would instill moral truths. In Johnson’s version, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Sultan Mahomet falls passionately in love with the beautiful Greek Irene, a Christian captive. he wants her to be his queen, but demands that she first renounce her religion for his. Urged to Christian fidelity by her virtuous aspasia, Irene falters, while a mutiny breaks out between Mahomet’s officers and certain Greeks. Irene ultimately chooses earthly rewards over spiritual ones, but after wavering once more, she dies when slander leads Mahomet to believe she is treacherous.
Though not without suspense and psychological complexity, Irene remains static, rigid, and stylized like most of her forerunners in the genre. Deliberately indistinct in time and place, its effects are also remote, as Johnson tends to describe emotions rather than represent them through the actions of characters. but it is above all in poetry, particularly in its versification, where irene fails. Johnson’s blank verse functions as unrhymed couplets, and despite its lofty and often eloquent style, the monotonous regularity of its meter detracts from the point. The results of his efforts with Irene undoubtedly contributed to Johnson’s later critical view that blank verse was best avoided, except for exceptional talents like Milton.
garrick managed nine performances of irene, so johnson was able to receive three times the authors’ designated third-night earnings. The reception was never enthusiastic, although audience response improved after the first night, when Garrick’s unfortunate decision to strangle Irene onstage created such an uproar that her death had to be moved offstage, as had been intended. Johnson original. Johnson eventually got nearly £300 from Irene, including the proceeds from the play’s production and publication. No one revived the play during Johnson’s lifetime, and it has apparently not been produced since. Years later, according to Boswell, when informed that someone named Pot had called Irene “the greatest tragedy of modern times,” Johnson replied, “If Pot says so, Pot is lying.” at another point, while friends were reading the play aloud, he left the room and, when asked why, he simply replied: “I thought it was better.” modern critics and readers have uniformly agreed with assessments of it, largely because of the difficulties in blank verse and the problems inherent in the genre. irene remains the least read of johnson’s major works.
many find the essence of johnson in the series of moral writings he composed during his 40 years, from the vanity of human desires, through the essays he wrote for three different periodicals, and ending with rasselas. In these works, Johnson’s own experiences of suffering and endurance, his extensive knowledge of human nature, his psychological insight, and his enduring honesty and sympathy came together to face life as it is in order to help his readers through it. A great literary figure, Johnson was also pre-eminently a moralist. from 1750 to 1752 every tuesday and saturday he wrote the rambler, his own periodical series and his favorite of all his works. Originally each rambler’s mottos and quotes were untranslated, but when an Edinburgh edition with translations appeared, Johnson added them in his revised edition (1756). About 250 of these were in verse, of which Johnson himself produced over 60, completing the rest from Friends and Contemporaries, from Dryden’s translations of Virgil and Juvenal, from Philip Francis’s versions of Horace, and from other sources. . Some of the translations were reprinted in the Gentlemen’s Magazine in October 1752. The selection ended with Johnson’s own translations of verses by Boethius and Lucan, the mottos before Ramblers 7 and 12, and with Johnson’s wish ” will please the world with more of his poetic compositions.” but he seems to have been writing little poetry at the time, although in April of the same year he had revised his university translation of the messiah before it was published in the gentlemen’s magazine with the pope’s poem in parallel columns.
A year after finishing The Voyager, Johnson contributed essays to another journal, The John Hawkesworth Adventurer. it is believed that he was responsible for selecting various mottos and also for translating them and other quotes like he did in the rambler. Johnson’s last series of essays, The Idler, was contributed to a weekly newspaper (The Universal Chronicle) and was written in an easier style than his earlier pieces, as Johnson consciously attempted to replicate Addison and Steele’s lighter tone. Johnson engaged the hiker and his contributions to the adventurer in part to ease his monotony with the dictionary, while the idler provided breaks from his work on shakespeare. he also wrote essays to earn money. but also, in all three series he was concerned with causing a serious moral impact.
The 1750s were years of both triumph and pain for Johnson. in 1752 tetty died and johnson was devastated. for many years, at regular intervals, he inserted prayers for her into her journals. In 1755 Oxford awarded her an MA in her honor for The Dictionary of the English Language. This monumental work appeared that same year and, as noted in its preface, the achievement was Johnson’s alone: “The English Dictionary was written with little help from scholars and without patronage from the great; not in the soft darkness of retirement, or under the shelter of academic gazebos, but in the midst of discomfort and distraction, in sickness and pain. The Dictionary established Johnson’s reputation, but he still lacked financial security. In the year following its publication, he was arrested for debt, saving himself on a loan from Samuel Richardson. to earn money he kept writing. for over a year he was involved in editing and writing articles and reviews for a new newspaper, the literary magazine, and also composed many prefaces and dedications to the works of his friends as favors. Like Johnson’s impromptu writings in the 1740s, the quality of these short-lived writings was unusually high, reflecting an extraordinary range of knowledge. In 1756, 10 years after he first proposed to edit Shakespeare, he signed a contract with the publisher Jacob Tonson to prepare an edition in 18 months. but the project dragged on, and in 1758 johnson was once more arrested for debts, this time saved by tonson. early the following year he learned that her mother was seriously ill and, in order to get money to visit her and also to help with her medical bills, he composed rasselas on weekday afternoons. The last of his great moral writings of the 1750s, this generic amalgamation of short story, novel, and essay turns the popular form of the Eastern short story into a serious didactic and philosophical vehicle. Johnson’s relationship with her mother had always been problematic, as he had never been to see her in the two decades since her departure from Lichfield. she died before he could leave london.
In 1762, Johnson was awarded a pension of £300 a year by the government for his services to literature. the pension freed him from the endless work he had been forced to work for so long, finally giving him financial security. a year later he met boswell for the first time, and in 1764 johnson’s famous club, known simply as “the club”, had its initial meeting. Originally proposed by Joshua Reynolds, the club eventually included the most distinguished and talented men of the day, including Goldsmith, Garrick, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon. In 1765 Trinity College, Dublin awarded Johnson an LL.D. fee
After decades of hardship, life finally seemed to offer Johnson stability and even some solace. but the enormous effort and willpower he had continually expended to survive and excel had taken a fierce toll. In the early 1760s the same kind of depression and weariness that had paralyzed him after leaving Oxford began to recur with increasing severity, and he found himself less and less able to function. in 1764 he was perilously close to another collapse, and he would continue in this fragile state for years to come. He, with enormous effort, managed in 1765 to complete the Shakespeare edition that he had contracted with Tonson in 1756. The 18 months stipulated in the contract, too optimistic from any point of view, had been lengthened to nine years. Despite his gloomy state of mind, the superb preface he wrote for the issue was one of his greatest works of literary criticism. Furthermore, when the work appeared in October 1765, he had already met the friends who would eventually allow him to recover and continue.
On January 9, 1765, Johnson’s friend Arthur Murphy introduced him to Henry and Hester Thrale. Thrale was a well-educated and fashionable man with a fortune from the family brewery; his wife was witty, charming, and intelligent. Johnson got along well with them and they began seeing him regularly. Ms. Thrale was a woman of wide literary interests, who had been composing poems and translations since she was a child. Johnson, who planned to translate Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (c. AD 520), immediately involved her in the project. she assigned him to make an ode for each Thursday, when he and the thrals met for dinner, and he made some of the odes himself. still others where they worked together. They stopped abruptly when Johnson found out that a poor author was doing the same job, because he didn’t want to diminish the other translator’s profits.
in 1766 johnson asked mrs. thrale for the verses she could insert to help fill a volume she was preparing of the poems of anna williams. Blind Miss Williams, originally a friend of his wife, was among the assorted recluses of the Johnson household, a group of living examples of Johnson’s charity toward the unfortunate. Since Miss Williams’s verses were scarce both in quantity and quality, Johnson revised them for publication and added some of his own lighter poems that might sound like his own to his miscellanies, which appeared on April 1, 1766. He told her to boswell that in his revision of one of his poems (“on the death of stephen grey”) only two of his original lines remained, and in others he made substantial modifications. Among the poems he contributed from him are his early ode to friendship, the epitaphs on Philips and Hanmer, and several of his light verses of praise for the ladies. His poem “The Ant,” based on Proverbs 6:6, opens the volume. previously unpublished, it was probably written shortly after he had completed his rambling essays; an appendix to wordsworth’s preface to lyrical ballads (1802) quotes it rather unfairly to illustrate the “wacky and absurd” characteristics of poetic diction.
during the second year of his friendship with johnson, the thrals grew increasingly concerned as his condition worsened. when they called on him one morning in June 1766 and found him in a terrible state, they immediately removed him to his beautiful estate in streatham for care. In this luxurious setting, Johnson slowly began to improve, and as he did over this period, he gradually became an integral part of the Thrale family. the thrales gave him his own rooms both in streatham and in their town residence in southwark next to the brewery. For the next 16 years, Johnson generally spent more time with them than in his own home. Ms. thrale later wrote that she “to some extent, with mr. Thrale’s help, saved from anguish at least, if not worse, a mind far beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. the only aspect that she perhaps exaggerates is the contribution of her husband.
mrs. Thrale took care of Johnson, keeping him company, listening to his problems, taking care of his illnesses, sharing his confidences and calming his fears. the sympathy, understanding and affection that she so generously extended to him were fully reciprocated. She had led a rather restricted and isolated life since her marriage, and Johnson expanded the dimensions of her world, encouraging her intellectually and attracting her distinguished friends to Streatham. the two collaborated on everything from chemical experiments to charity projects. Ms. Thrale was the most conscientious mother, and Johnson became actively involved with the Thrale children, playing with and educating them. The eldest daughter’s birthday was the day before Johnson’s, and every year the Thrals celebrated both with a huge party. A very important part of the family, she vacationed with the Thrals in Brighton and also traveled with them to Wales (1774) and France (1775).
The direct result of such an environment was the return of Johnson’s stability; Important spin-offs were various writing projects. Ms. thrale wrote that “to the help we gave him, to the refuge our home gave his restless fantasies, and to the efforts we took to calm or suppress them, the world is perhaps indebted for the three political pamphlets, the new edition and correction from his dictionary, and by the lives of the poets, who I think would hardly have lived, and retained his full faculties, to have written, had unceasing care not been exercised at the time of his first coming to be our constant guest in the country; and several times after that.” Henry Thrale was an active member of Parliament, and from the beginning of their friendship Johnson had composed election speeches for him. One of Johnson’s political pieces, The Patriot (1774), was a short election pamphlet composed for Thrale in one day. In the early 1770s, Johnson also wrote three other polemical pamphlets: The False Alarm (1770), arguing for the House of Commons’ exclusion of John Wilkes; reflections on the latest transactions regarding the Malvinas Islands (1771), opposing the war with Spain over the disputed territory; and taxation no tyranny (1775), responding to the resolutions of the American Continental Congress. Joseph (Giuseppe) Baretti, an Italian critic and friend of Johnson’s, who was then living in England and acting as tutor to the children of the Thrals, later indicated that the Thrals urged Johnson to compose these pieces, and that the latter two were written just because baretti and mrs. thrale challenged johnson by placing bets.
it was the prospect of his journey to wales with the family that prompted johnson to write his voyage to the western isles of scotland (1775), his account of the gritty and exciting three-month tour of the region he had undertaken with boswell in 1773. using the letters he had written on the trip to mrs. thrale to jog his memory, he completed the book of travels in 20 days in June 1774, though it was not published until the following January. But his most important output was The Lives of the Poets, which began in 1777. When a group of London booksellers decided to publish an elaborate edition of the works of the English poets from the 1660s, they asked Johnson to write brief preliminary biographies for each. of the poets in the collection. In Johnson’s hands this basically commercial project became a landmark in English literary criticism. some of the pieces were brief, but the lives of the major poets were long and detailed, with a biographical section, a brief character sketch of the poet, and a critical appraisal of the works. The Pope’s life has always been considered the best, but each of the prefaces contributes to the cumulative effect of the entire collection, which offers a wealth of biographical and critical insights that give an unparalleled overview of Augustan literary culture. there could be no more fitting final achievement for one of that tradition’s masters.
mrs. Thrale, the central figure in the stabilization of Johnson’s life during this period, also played a role in the history of his poetry from the time of their joint translations of Boethius. Since she loved poetry and wrote it herself, she was naturally interested in Johnson’s. she stimulated her poetic abilities in many different ways. she one night she accompanied her to an oratory at the covent garden theater. generally prone to speaking loudly during performances which she was unable to hear well in any case, mrs. To Thrale’s relief, he was uncharacteristically quiet that night. She thought Johnson for once was listening to the music, but as soon as they got home, she recited “In Theatro,” a Latin poem she had composed during the oratorio. he then challenged her to translate it before breakfast the next morning.
Her trip to Scotland with Boswell resulted in three more Latin poems: an ode to the Isle of Skye, verses on Inchkenneth, and an ode to Mrs. thrale the poem a “thralia dulcis” (sweet [lady] thrale) describes her thinking of her often while he is in a strange and remote land, wondering what he is making of her and hoping she will remember him. the climactic image emphasizes her admiration for her: “meritoque blandum / thraliae discant resonare nomen / littora sciae” (deservedly may the shores of heaven learn to resound the enchanting name of [lady] thrale). Written in Skye on September 6, 1773, the ode was included in a letter to Henry Thrale sent from Inveraray on October 23. Johnson refused to give Boswell a copy, but told him that Mrs. Thrale could give her one if she wanted.
with mrs. Thrale, Johnson always felt free to indulge the playful side of her nature, and she especially noted the talent she had shown throughout her life in making impromptu verse. Ms. Thrale recorded that even Baretti, for whom Johnson had written verse, conceded that Johnson could improvise poetry “as well as any Italian among us, if he pleases,” agreeing that he possessed an “almost Tuscan power of improvisation.” on her trip to france with the thrales she made humorous french distiches about the towns they visited. in the morning of the lady. When Thrale turned 35, she walked into her room and complained that no one sent her verses anymore because she was 35, even though Swift’s Stella had received them until she was 46. At that point, Johnson improvised and recited a poem with “thirty and five” as the rhyming word on alternating lines, ending with “and those who wisely wish to marry, / Must look to thrale at thirty-five”. As Mrs. Thrale was writing the verses, Johnson commented: “and now…you can see what awaits a dictionary maker for poetry; you can see that the rhymes are executed exactly in alphabetical order.”
with johnson and mrs. thrale in the same home, poetry became an integral part of everyday life. streatham rang with constant improvisations; the group played with poetry as only those who care deeply about it can. when mrs. thrale’s eldest daughter was trying to decide whether she should wear a new hat to dinner at mrs. Elizabeth Montagu’s, Johnson immediately yelled, “Do my dear,” and provided a quatrain. he also improvised verses for fanny burney, who joined him and mrs. thrale in producing alternate lines for an impromptu elegy on “a woman of the people.” There were also many impromptu translations, reflecting Johnson’s linguistic skills as well as his poetic abilities: the opening Spanish ballad “Rio Verde,” a burlesque of verses by Lope de Vega, Italian verses by Metastasio and Baretti, the Latin epigram of du bellay in a dog and French lines from benserade. often when mrs. thrale mentioned her fondness for certain verses, she instantly translated them for him. at other times, his praise of a particular translation would lead him to show that he himself could do better.
Johnson also wrote more serious translations during his years with the Thrals. In 1777 he translated into Latin a song from Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler (1653). a year later he announced to mrs. thrale that he had translated Anacreon’s “dove” (ode ix) into English, saying: “if you get the pen and ink, I’ll repeat it to you… directly.” noticing that it had been one of his childhood favorites that continued to please him, he told her that he intended to translate it when he was 16 years old and that he had never started doing it until he was 68. always ready to help his friends. , he provided both Latin and English versions of an epilogue for performances of Baretti’s musical adaptation of Horace’s Carmen Seculare (1779). Earlier that year he had translated a favorite passage from Euripides’ Medea for Dr. general history of music by charles burney (1776-1789). Shortly thereafter he produced a second translation of the same lines mocking the pompous and clumsy style of Robert Potter, a contemporary translator of Aeschylus. The next morning, at breakfast in the Streatham Library, he and Mrs. thrale presented the burlesque version as potter’s work to burney, who had come to visit. After reading a single Burney stanza, according to an August 1, 1779 letter from his daughter Susan de El, he exclaimed that the verses were “worse than the potter,” and like Johnson and Mrs. Thrale burst out laughing, Burney commenting that the lines defeated Potter with his own weapons. at some point johnson returned to the passage to seriously translate it again, this time into latin.
Johnson’s skill at impromptu poetic caricatures delighted his friends in Streatham and elsewhere, but the objects of it were often not so appreciative. In fact, Johnson refused to allow Burney to take a copy of Burlesque of Potter because an earlier experience with Bishop Thomas Percy had made him hesitant to allow such verses to circulate. in his diary mrs. Thrale had copied a parody of the modern ballad of Percy the Hermit of Warkworth (1771), which Johnson produced one day in Streatham, and Boswell recorded another on the same subject that was being widely quoted. percy was angry for a while, although apparently he soon calmed down; However, there is a third similar skit that Johnson improvised in Percy’s presence. Johnson had urged Percy to publish The Relics of Old English Poetry (1765), his famous collection of ballads, and during a visit to him in Northamptonshire had written a dedication and also helped with the glossary. But when Percy decided to compose an original ballad, and when others began to praise its “simplicity” and treat it as a serious poetic achievement, Johnson mocked Percy while he ridiculed what he considered literary affectation. He treated Thomas Warton in a similar manner, though having learned from experience with Percy, he was more tactful. In 1777, when Warton’s poems were first published, Johnson told Mrs. Thrale had “written verses to abuse them” and warned him not to mention parodies: “because I love Thomas, look at him, though I laugh at him.” Johnson disliked what he considered the unnecessary obscurity and old-fashioned diction in the poetry of Warton and others like him, and he derided this artificiality. later with boswell he improvised a ridiculous second parody of warton that both boswell and mrs. thrale finally transcribed.
with mrs. thrale, johnson felt free to share any poetic forays he might make. After his irresponsible and hapless nephew John Lade came of age in 1780, Johnson sent her what he described in a letter of introduction as a “brief congratulatory song,” a set of amusing satirical quatrains. the kind of relationship they had is suggested by her comments in the letter, in which she warned him not to show the verses to anyone, adding that “it is strange that [the poem] should enter anyone’s head”. he also comments: “I hope you read it candidly, it is, I think, one of the author’s first essays in that way of writing, and a beginning must always be treated with tenderness.” Three weeks before he died, Johnson repeated the poem “with great spirit” to some friends, noting that he had never given away more than one copy. the “short song” resembles the verse of a.e. housman’s a shropshire lad (1896), although no specific indebtedness has been established.
mrs. Thrale carefully preserved “a short congratulatory song,” as he did with all of Johnson’s poems. Even a couplet as insignificant as the Latin motto he composed for the neck of Joseph Banks’ traveling goat did not escape his watch. Sometimes Johnson dictated his poems to her for his journals. other times he would record his impromptu verses from memory, rescuing for posterity the ephemeral jeux d’esprit of streatham evenings that could so easily have been lost. Although not over the literary importance, these light verses illuminate the playful, playful side of his personality, an element of his character that is revealed in few other places with the same kind of impact. Ms. Thrale also questioned Johnson on various early works, and identifications of him are often the only authority for some of his minor verse. Because her interest extended to all of her poems, not just those composed in the years that she knew Johnson, Mrs. the thrale records are one of the main sources of information on her poetry.
the golden life in streatham began to fade in 1779, when henry thrale suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. concern for him obscured the next two years until his death in 1781. although afterwards mrs. Thrale continued to do much for Johnson, he recognized that the conditions of his life had altered in such a way that they were gradually driving her away from him. for many reasons mrs. thrale was finding their relationship increasingly difficult to maintain. In particular, her growing attraction to Gabriel Piozzi, her daughters’ music tutor, encouraged her to see new possibilities for future happiness. Johnson, increasingly ill, was hurt and bewildered by his ties to Mrs. thrale loosened.
A minor attraction of the Thrale family for Johnson was undoubtedly that it allowed him to escape the incessant bickering of the strange and pathetic assortment of people he kept under his own roof. among this group that, according to mrs. thrale, “shared his bounty and increased his filth,” was dr. Robert Levet, whom Johnson had known since 1746. A clumsy and taciturn man, he had a large medical practice among the widely scattered poor people in London’s slums, serving them devotedly for minimal wages. On January 17, 1782 Levet died suddenly of a heart attack. Johnson told a friend that just the night before he had been thinking that wherever he moved in the future, or however he lived, he would strive to stay around him. sometime during the next three months, while trying to come to terms with another loss, he composed “on the death of dr. robert level.” His first and only serious elegy, the poem displays all the techniques characteristic of Johnson’s best verse.
firmly anchored in the particular, the poem offers an honest description of levet, “darkly wise and rudely kind,” the possessor of “unrefined merit.” Johnson refuses to exaggerate or exaggerate. at the same time, the accurate portrayal of a friend is embedded in commentary on the broader conditions of human life itself, be it the inevitable limitations of “learned arrogance” or the beneficent influence of “unique talent well spent.” (With his keen awareness of his own powers and abilities and his lifelong feeling that his achievements had not lived up to his potential, Johnson was always haunted by the Biblical parable of talents.) In addition to these signature moves between the specific and the specific. In general, the poem on leve displays powerful imagery (“the deceitful mine of hope”) and personified abstractions that retain a concrete vivacity (“death” breaking “at the same time the chain of life”) always typical of poetry. Johnson in his prime. finally, “on the death of dr. Robert Levet” reflects the precise attention to word meanings characteristic not only of Johnson’s poetry, but of all of his writing. In describing levet as “officious,” for example, Johnson is drawing on the original meaning of the word, which is “servable,” “obedient,” or “full of kind trades.” Simple but economical, spare but full of feeling, this elegy suggests some of the reasons why Johnson reacted so strongly against Milton’s Lycidas (1638) and criticized Milton’s artificiality and insincerity so vehemently. Widely reprinted after Johnson first composed it, “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” has continued to be widely anthologized and has always been one of Johnson’s best-known poems.
later in 1782 mrs. Thrale, who was planning a trip to Italy without Johnson, rented Streatham for three years. johnson was devastated to leave the place for what he suspected would be the last time. Ms. Thrale retired to the bathroom to agonize over whether or not she should marry Piozzi; As much as she had come to love him, she recognized the scandal that a marriage to an Italian Catholic who was not her equal in economic and social status would create. While she was away from her, Johnson suffered a stroke in June 1783. Although the two kept in touch for the next year, she informed him only at the last minute (June 30, 1784) of her plans to marry piozzi an angry exchange of letters dissolved the friendship that had sustained them for so long.
In addition to writing his own poems, Johnson was generous throughout his life in helping others with his works. The earliest known substantial revision he made was for Samuel Madden’s Boulter’s Monument, which appeared in 1745. As Boswell reports, Johnson said he “erased many lines” in it, and while Madden did not acknowledge Johnson’s help within the volume , he thanked him more substantially with ten guineas. Boswell mentions Johnson’s revisions for the poet Mary Masters, and Johnson also gave John Hawkesworth a couplet for his tragedy, Edgar and Emmeline (1761). In the process of assisting Garrick with an epitaph on William Hogarth that the painter’s wife had requested, he produced stanzas of his own superior to Garrick’s final version inscribed on the monument. Goldsmith enlisted Johnson’s help with Traveler’s Proofs (1764), to which Johnson contributed at least nine lines, including four of the five couplets at the end. He also composed the final two couplets for El Pueblo Desierto del Orfebre (1770). In early 1776, Johnson came to tea with Hannah More and that evening made some changes to Sir Eldred, his recently published tale of him, and wrote an additional stanza for him. James Grainger sent him the Second Canto of the Sugar Cane (1764), and Crabbe got Joshua Reynolds to send the Village Manuscript (1783) to Johnson, who returned it with some suggested alterations. He also read and revised the poems of Reynolds’ sister, Frances, particularly changing some bad rhymes. Given the number of people eager for Johnson to read his work and his characteristic generosity, he undoubtedly provided a great deal of poetic assistance of which no record survives.
in the 1780s, most of johnson’s own poems were in latin. for years he had instinctively turned to Latin to write poems centered on his most personal concerns; he apparently provided a certain formal distance that he needed to feel comfortable writing about such topics. two of his best and most revealing Latin poems are occasional musings. the impressive and moving “gnothi seaton (post lexicon anglicanum auctem et emendatum)” — know thyself (after english dictionary revision and correction) — is dated December 12, 1772, when he was 63 years old. Johnson had worked sporadically for well over a year (summer 1771-October 1772) on revisions to the fourth edition of his dictionary, and he recognized that this edition would probably be the last he would prepare. The first half of the poem focuses on Joseph Scaliger, the Renaissance scholar who turned from his Arabic dictionary to more important tasks. A contrasting sequel considers Johnson’s own situation, his indolence, melancholy, and relentless search for peace and relief, as he ponders what he must do in the time he has left. “In rivum a mola stoana lichfeldiae diffluentem” (by the river, in stowe mill, lichfield, where the streams meet) was composed on one of his visits there in his later years. disturbed to find the place where he had swum as a child sadly upset, he nostalgically recalls his beauty and his youthful experiences when his father taught him to swim. Johnson never wrote poems in English that reflected the kind of deep personal feelings that appear in these two poems.
Several Latin poems are connected in various ways to health issues. While confined for eye trouble in 1773, Johnson addressed a Latin poem in hexameters to Dr. thomas laurence, his doctor, and also wrote another short poem about regaining the use of his eyes. Other Latin verses to Laurence also survive, ranging from a two-line note summoning him to attend a friend, to an ode to him. When Johnson suffered a paralytic attack that briefly deprived him of his ability to speak during the night of June 16, 1783, he immediately set about composing a sentence in Latin verse to assess for any mental damage. as he explained a few days later in a letter to mrs. thrale, “the lines weren’t very good, but I knew they weren’t very good: I did them easily and concluded that my faculties weren’t impaired.”
On other occasions, Johnson also used Latin verse as a way to test and control his mind. Towards the end of his life he apparently amused himself by translating numbers into Latin hexameters, and used the numerical calculations in Thomas Templeman’s A New Survey of the Globe (1729) for a fragmentary “geographica metrica”. Throughout his life, Johnson had enjoyed composing and translating Latin epigrams; During his early years in London he had made translations into Latin verse of two entries from the Greek Anthology (circa AD 900) in his “Essay on Epigraphs” for the Gentleman’s Magazine (1740). In the winter of 1783-1784, in order to pass the long sleepless nights, he again took up the task of converting many of the epigrams in the anthology into Latin.
aside from his early and uncharacteristic “at the party of st. Simon and Saint Jude”, Johnson’s poems on religious themes are all in Latin. Well aware of the gulf between the demands of the subject and the limits of human understanding and capacity, as a critic, particularly of the lives of poets, he was generally negative about religious verse and the prospects for success in it. His own devotional poems, marked by earnestness and humility, were composed sporadically throughout his life, but most of them cluster in his later years. Many are occasional, such as those composed on Christmas Day (1779, 1782) and Good Friday (1781) and the short poem on hope written on Easter Wednesday, 1783. In addition to a version of Psalm 117 and the longer ” christianus perfectus”, there are several meditations and seven prayers in Latin, most of them based on the collects of the book of common prayer. in the opinion of david nichol smith (in “the poems of samuel johnson”), these lines “preserve for us in sufficient number to class [johnson] as a religious poet, albeit a minor one”.
Appropriately, Johnson’s last extant poem in English, composed in November 1784, was a translation of a Horacean ode on human mortality. Johnson had come a long way since his first school translations of the poet he loved. Eight days before his death, when on December 5, 1784, he received the sacrament for the last time, he composed his last poem, a loose paraphrase in Latin of the Communion service collect. >
Johnson’s contemporaries buried him in the poet’s corner in westminster abbey, near the foot of the shakespeare monument. under the statue of him in st. in the cathedral of san pablo they placed the word “poet”. His poetry was generally rejected and despised during the 19th century, but in the following century interest in it began to revive and the reaction became much more positive. Donald Greene and John A. Vance’s 1987 Bibliography of Johnsonian Studies shows that between 1970 and 1985 the most popular area of study among all the genres in which Johnson wrote was his poetry. Among writers of heroic couplets, Johnson ranks with Goldsmith just below Pope and Dryden as masters of the form. More generally, Johnson’s overall stature as a poet depends on the amount of emphasis the individual critic places on poetic range and scope and on the uniformity of excellence across many works. t.s. Eliot, for example, wrote in “Johnson as Critic and Poet” that an author’s claim to be a great poet “can, of course, be established by a long poem, and when that long poem is good enough, when it has within himself the unity and variety of his own, we do not need to know, or if we do know we do not need to value much, the other works of the poet. I myself should consider Samuel Johnson a great poet for his sole testimony to the vanity of human desires.” But whatever Johnson’s final classification, the importance of his poetry both in the context of his own literary output and in the broader context of his time is unquestionable.