Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sam Johnson's Best Poem

My favorite 18th century British poem (not that you asked) is Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes," an imitation of Juvenal's 10th satire and a noble poem of over 360 lines. It is Johnson (1709-1784) at his best: incisive, erudite, and articulate, in full command of rhyming couplets, deploying all his learning.

Aside from this poem, Johnson's poetic opus isn't that impressive, and the one novel-like work he wrote, Rasselas, is quirky. But he's still a remarkable literary figure because of his criticism, biographies of other writers, essays, and a dictionary of the English language--which, astoundingly, he wrote himself, often quoting examples of definitions from memory. No matter how might want to measure it, his intelligence was rare and ferocious. His personality is preserved in Boswell's biography. Although Johnson seems to have been in control of conversation and prose, he was a painfully self-contradictory figure, plagued by nervous disorders, depression, self-doubt, fear, rage, poverty, and procrastination (he wrote some of his best essays in one draft, while the printer waited nervously for him to finish). He was both a rationalist and a Christian, a person of enormous apetites and one of great self-discipline. He could be cruel and sexist, but among his close and genuine friends were an Afro-British man and several women. He's one of the most quotable writers and conversationalists in the language.

A few lines from near the end of "The Vanity of Human Wishes":

Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
Must dull Suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
No cries invoke the mercies of the skies?
Inquirer, cease; petitions yet remain,
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.

"Roll darkling down the torrent of this fate." That's a fine line. Classifying "ignorance" as "sedate": that's a nice move, too. An ignorant citizenship is, arguably, a sedate one.

As usual, Johnson's (and Juvenal's) advice is hard: go ahead and pray, but as for the response (if any): "leave to Heaven the measure and the choice."

My goodness: Johnson's three-hundreth birthday is coming up. --Cause for celebration, but nothing too vain.
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