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Monday, 6 December 2010

Samuel Johnson: Valediction


Student in His Study: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1628 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Having supported, for two years, the anxious employment of a periodical writer, and multiplied my essays to upwards of two hundred, I have now determined to desist.

The reasons of this resolution it is of little importance to declare, since justification is unnecessary when no objection is made. I am far from supposing, that the cessation of my performances will raise any inquiry, for I have never been much a favourite of the publick, nor can boast that, in the progress of my undertaking, I have been animated by the rewards of the liberal, the caresses of the great, or the praises of the eminent.

But I have no design to gratify pride by submission, or malice by lamentation; nor think it reasonable to complain of neglect from those whose regard I never solicited. If I have not been distinguished by the distributors of literary honours, I have seldom descended to the arts by which favour is obtained. I have seen the meteors of fashions rise and fall, without any attempt to add a moment to their duration. I have never complied with temporary curiosity, nor enabled my readers to discuss the topick of the day; I have rarely exemplified my assertions by living characters; in my papers, no man could look for censures of his enemies, or praises of himself; and they only were expected to peruse them, whose passions left them leisure for abstracted truth, and whom virtue could please by its naked dignity.

Still Life of Books: Jan Davidsz. de Heem, 1628 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Samuel Johnson: from Rambler #208, Saturday, March 14, 1752


TC said...

For those who might share my interest in Johnson:

Later Johnson: The Black Dog

Some Late Johnsoniana

Samuel Johnson: On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet

Samuel Johnson: The Last

Samuel Johnson: The Vulture

Ed Baker said...

across all of this
co:incidence-ly was/am just working on/playing with 2wo "shorties"
con-commitent to Sam:

full moon light
not much & nothing important


full moon
measuring my
by how much time I have to kill

one of these days I'm gonna dive-into Samuel Johnson AND Benjamin Franklin ...



Great! "I have seldom descended to the arts by which favour is obtained" -----


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
plane of ridge, red-tailed hawk calling
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

orthogonal form for example,
follows from the same

uniform motion, equivalence
of moving bodies, one

grey-white clouds reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull flapping toward ridge

TC said...

"I have seldom descended to the arts by which favour is obtained."


I can't tell which I find more amazing, the ability to make sentences like these, or the ability to live up to what they are saying.

"But I have no design to gratify pride by submission, or malice by lamentation; nor think it reasonable to complain of neglect from those whose regard I never solicited."

Anonymous said...

This is so very wonderful. I was tempted to pick a favorite passage, but found it impossible. Last night I read, as I do fairly often, a couple of Dr. Johnson's Prayers (the ones entitled On The Limits Of Knowledge and The Study of Greek and Italian), and they stayed with me, as that entire volume tends to do both for its beauty of expression and what it represents, all this up-and-down day. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The pictures here are splendid and unexpected (mainly, I guess, because I was unfamilar with them; they are beautifully chosen). But it is Samuel Johnson's words and sentences, as you say, that are so profoundly affecting. When I first discovered the Prayers volume on a bookshelf at Cornwall Monthly Meeting in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, many years ago, I had no idea what I would find as I opened the book. (CMM had collected it, I imagine, because the editor, Elton Trueblood was a prominent Quaker in the 1940s-50s.) The prayers are all very similar to this -- every line beautifully written, direct and clearly intended to communicate as fully as possible what was on the author's mind. I experience this as Johnson being in the room with me. How amazing that is.

TC said...


Johnson's prayers, like so much that is good in Johnson, always remind me once again of what it means to be human.

I'm glad you enjoyed the de Heem paintings. We love them!

(What the good doctor would have thought of that young scholar, though, is perhaps another matter...)

Simon M Hunter said...

I haven't liked Johnson for years because of his monstrous attacks on Milton (and in particular Lycidas), for a fuller discussion of which see here.

Having said that I have to admit that the old boy could write...

TC said...

Well, of course, Simon, he did have his famous cankers with Lycidas (but it must be admitted his objection to the entire pastoral mode has reasonable basis, after all), with Gray (who probably deserved the knock), with Donne (who didn't), et al.

But if critical misjudgments were to eliminate critics from our love, which critics would we have left to love?

And your point about the writing being the saving grace would be, for me, THE point.

Today we have many (perhaps too many) critics. Which one(s) can actually write at all, much less as brilliantly as SJ?

Simon M Hunter said...

I can't love SJ. His politics are deeply suspicious; given too much of a free pass because of their distance from us. A man born humble who rose by turning his enormous talent to writing to the benefit of aristocracy, heredity and privilege. In the era of Wilkes and Paine, too.

Writing is the whole point. Yes, so I can enjoy Wagner, but love him...?

TC said...


There is nothing that could please as much as a bit of friendly talk on the subject of Johnson and Lycidas, and to this end it would be good to think others might share our pleasure; but I fear that in the world of this moment there are probably going to be relatively few people to whom Johnson means anything, and but a very small fraction of those to whom Lycidas means anything... duh, wasn't he that Greek dude who like Greeked the big stone up the mountain? Like, what's up with that?

So anyway, in order that all may participate in this symposium, here are Johnson's remarks on Lycidas, the poem (from his Life of Milton):


One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is Lycidas; of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is, we must, therefore, seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough "satyrs and fauns with cloven heel." Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.

In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral: easy, vulgar, and, therefore, disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. When Cowley tells of Hervey, that they studied together, it is easy to suppose how much he must miss the companion of his labours, and the partner of his discoveries; but what image of tenderness can be excited by these lines?

We drove afield, and both together heard, What time the grey fly winds her sultry horn, Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night.

We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks to batten; and, though it be allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found.

Among the flocks, and copses, and flowers, appear the heathen deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus, with a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping; and how one god asks another god what is become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour.

This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverend combinations. The shepherd, likewise, is now a feeder of sheep, and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor, a superintendent of a Christian flock. Such equivocations are always unskilful; but here they are indecent, and, at least, approach to impiety, of which, however, I believe the writer not to have been conscious. Such is the power of reputation justly acquired, that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known the author.

TC said...

All this is as you suggest perhaps a wee bit hard... but then the ad hominem strike with "We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks to batten..." is surely difficult to defend against.

And too, "...a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies."

Not to go too roughly on Milton or his poem. Lycidas I probably knew by heart fifty years ago. (Thank gods for memory loss, the clutter finally becomes terrific.) I sat in the buttery at Christ's, once, admiring Milton's cherry tree. He had been called the Lady of Christ's.

I doubt anyone ever called Johnson a lady, or Wagner either for that matter -- though beyond that, I can't make out many points of resemblance between those two, other than the fact you don't care for either, as of course is your perfect right.