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Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Some Late Johnsoniana


File:Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds 2.png

September 12 1783
Anna Williams was buried
who'd sat up blind to
drink tea with him
in the small hours
mournful conversation
"I do not know
that I have anything
to forgive you
I have set my house in

113 sq. inches


hot sleepless
disturbed at night
got up & slept in a chair


was dejected
prostrate mind
opium lassitude
but remembered
the Latin word
for gooseberries

File:Gooseberry Crompton Sheba Queen RHS.jpeg

Samuel Johnson: Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775
Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa), "Crompton's Sheba Queen": hand-coloured engraving after a drawing by Augusta Innes Withers, from John Lindley's Pomological Magazine (1827-28): image by BernardM from Royal Horticultural Society Diary 2004, 2008


TC said...

A bit more Johnsoniana...

human being said...

ahhh... the things we remember and the things we forget...

Joe Safdie said...

So in my older years I'm finding great solace in the 18th century writers -- Johnson, of course, but also Pope, who probably had the best "chops" ever, writing, as he had to, in those insane heroic couplets. The end of The Dunciad still sends chills up my spine. It was the most determinedly secular period of English letters, also the most publicly referential, and the prose! Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones . . . yes, I'm off the Romantics for good now. Well, except for Keats. And a few things of Coleridge . . . anyway, really enjoy these sporadic blasts from the past . . .

TC said...


I am at the stage of the "game" (life) at which the struggle to remember a seemingly familiar word can sometimes be like climbing a mountain, and often forgetting exactly which mountain it is you are climbing... so I can identify with Johnson's minor elation (in his private journal) at overcoming the obstacles of deteriorating brain plumbing by remembering the Latin word for gooseberries.

I find many aspects of him so openly and revealingly *human"... not least his concern and compassion for Mrs. Williams.

TC said...


I hear you. I think it was around 1820 that things started falling apart. For good. Yet here we mill about amid the detritus, adding to it.

billymills said...

Lovely, Tom. I can imagine Lorine N. admiring this.

TC said...

Thanks Billy.

Yes, the small things.


Ah, thanks for this -- "dejected/ prostate mind/ opium lassitude/ ... gooseberries" (wow!) Long live the good Doctor.

Rachel Loden said...

The gooseberries nail it. Lovely.

TC said...

Thanks Stephen and Rachel.

Now it can be told. I harbour great anachronistic affection for Samuel Johnson. And for Anna Williams. And for Augusta Innes Withers too, for that matter.

I believe gooseberries are as tart as they appear.

(A. has a wonderful Kiwi pronunciation of their name: "GOOZ'bries".)

"Dejected/prostrate mind" I do understand. (But "prostate mind", let's not go there!) Lassitude, likewise. Opium lassitude, though... all I can say is, history, bring it on!

TC said...

A bit more on Anna Williams, for those who maybe interested.

The blind granddaughter of Milton... Dare we say she may have been his equal in scholarship?

When the masque of Comus was performed for her benefit at Drury Lane, Johnson contributed a Prologue, to be spoken by Garrick, and employed all means at his disposal to enlarge the audience. Greater love, & c.

A.W. was also a poet. And a pretty good one at that. She wrote pastoral verses in favour of healthy relations between the sexes, and against nunneries.

What is it made that century so much better able to acknowledge human nature in its full embracing complication?

A.W. was also the first person to describe the emanation of sparks from an electrically charged human body.

This work came in her twenties, when she still had her sight. The sensitivity appears to have only increased with age. Evidently, like many blind people, she had a greatly enhanced sense of touch, as, for example, in the sparking of a kiss.

How wonderful those late night tea conversations with Johnson must have been. One likes to imagine the odd spark or two, advancing years notwithstanding, as would be no more than natural.

‘Her curiosity was universal, her knowledge was very extensive, and she sustained forty years of misery with steady fortitude. Thirty years and more she has been my companion, and her death has left me very desolate’.

I shouldn't wonder.

emmet said...

Dear Tom, Nice to come upon yr blog and to discover two of my favorite things, Anna Williams and Cahokia. But yr reference to Anna is not correct - nor was Frank Kermode. She has always been my favorite figure of the family Johnson and as you will recall I am credulous but she is not. Was not either. Below is a swift script I had with Jerry Goldberg who is as well versed as anyone on Johnson and his extended range of friends. I send you my love. Richard

This is really amazing. In his letter to the Gent. Mag, promoting the benefit, Johnson characterized Eliz. Foster as Milton”s only surviving descendent.

From: Richard Aaron

Dear Jerry,
Frank Kermode is under the same illusion:

Johnson was for thirty years a benevolent friend of Milton’s blind but learned granddaughter, the remarkable Anna Williams.

From: Bilha Goldberg

Dear Richard, Contemporary poet Tom Clark is mistaken. Milton’s granddaughter was Mrs. Elizabeth Foster (see Courtney & Smith, p. 36-37). Apparently I don’t have a copy of the separate publication but the text is reproduced in the Gentleman’s Magazine for April 1750 and in Pearch’s Collection of Poems (1770) if you wish to read the prologue. Jerry

From: Richard Aaron []
Sent: Saturday, October 01, 2011 2:21 PM

Subject: Anna Williams

Dear Jerry,
Delighted to have come upon references to Anna Williams from the on line blog of contemporary poet Tom Clark. I do not recall knowing that Anna was related to Milton?

TC said...


Lovely you have settled in there so close to Cahokia.

How quaint and surprising to be considered a contemporary poet, while one still has the chance.

It's an honour also to be caught up in a confusion with Frank Kermode:

"Johnson was for thirty years a benevolent friend of Milton’s blind but learned granddaughter, the remarkable Anna Williams. When Milton’s masque Comus was performed for her benefit at Drury Lane, Johnson, again a generous enemy, contributed a prologue, to be spoken by Garrick, and did what he could to swell the audience."

I think FK and I may have been put wrong by the same curious coincidence.

In 1750, a benefit performance of Comus was played to assist Elzabeth Foster, Milton's granddaughter, who had married a Spitalfields weaver and kept, on her own, a small chandler's shop near Shoreditch.

Six years later, a benefit performance of two dramatic works by Aaron Hill -- Merope and The Englishman in Paris -- was staged, upon Johnson's instigation, by Garrick at Drury Lane to assist Anna Williams.