Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Boswell’s Life of Johnson: 20

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Remedial English Composition; Stickball Coach, Olney Community College; author of Bozzie and Dr. Sam: The Zombies of Hampstead Heath, the Olney Community College Press.

Illustrated by rhoda penmarq for “penmarq spectacular productions™” (lettering by roy dismas, assisted by eddie el greco ). 

to begin at the beginning, click here

for previous chapter, click here

In January, 1749, he published The Vanity of Human Wishes, being the Tenth Satire of Juvenal imitated. He, I believe, composed it the preceding year. Mrs. Johnson, for the sake of country air, had lodgings at Hampstead, to which he resorted occasionally, and there the greatest part, if not the whole, of this Imitation was written The fervid rapidity with which it was produced, is scarcely credible. I have heard him say, that he composed seventy lines of it in one day, without putting one of them upon paper till they were finished.

I remember when I once regretted to him that he had not given us more of Juvenal's Satires, he said he probably should give more, for he had them all in his head;

by which I understood that he had the originals and correspondent allusions floating in his mind, which he could, when he pleased, embody and render permanent without much labour.

Some of them, however, he observed were too gross for imitation.

The profits of a single poem, however excellent, appear to have been very small in the last reign, compared with what a publication of the same size has since been known to yield.

I have mentioned, upon Johnson's own authority, that for his London he had only ten guineas; and now, after his fame was established, he got for his Vanity of Human Wishes but five guineas more, as is proved by an authentick document in my possession.

It will be observed, that he reserves to himself the right of printing one edition of this satire, which was his practice upon occasion of the sale of all his writings; it being his fixed intention to publish at some period, for his own profit, a complete collection of his works.

His Vanity of Human Wishes has less of common life, but more of a philosophick dignity than his London. More readers, therefore, will be delighted with the pointed spirit of London, than with the profound reflection of The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Garrick, for instance, observed in his sprightly manner, with more vivacity than regard to just discrimination, as is usual with wits, 'When Johnson lived much with the Herveys, and saw a good deal of what was passing in life, he wrote his London, which is lively and easy. When he became more retired, he gave us his Vanity of Human Wishes, which is as hard as Greek. Had he gone on to imitate another satire, it would have been as hard as Hebrew.’

But The Vanity of Human Wishes is, in the opinion of the best judges, as high an effort of ethick poetry as any language can shew.

The instances of variety of disappointment are chosen so judiciously and painted so strongly, that, the moment they are read, they bring conviction to every thinking mind.

Were all the other excellencies of this poem annihilated, it must ever have our grateful reverence from its noble conclusion;

in which we are consoled with the assurance that happiness may be attained, if we 'apply our hearts' to piety:

'Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?
Shall dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Shall no dislike alarm, no wishes rise,
No cries attempt the mercy of the skies?
Enthusiast, cease; petitions yet remain,
Which Heav'n may hear, nor deem Religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.
Safe in His hand, whose eye discerns afar
The secret ambush of a specious pray'r;

Implore His aid, in His decisions rest,
Secure whate'er He gives He gives the best.
Yet when the sense of sacred presence fires,
And strong devotion to the skies aspires,
Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;
For love, which scarce collective man can fill,
For patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill;
For faith, which panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind Nature's signal for retreat.
These goods for man the laws of Heaven ordain,
These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain;
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.'

(To be continued, as Sam Johnson continues to bash on regardless.)

part 21

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