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Poet on Poet of the Week on Thursday, 21 September 2017

Samuel Johnson

Clive Wilmer

Dr Johnson (1709-84) is one of the giants of our literature, but his poetry has been
overshadowed by his prose and the fame of his conversation and personality. This may be
because he wrote very few poems, and most of them are occasional or freely translated from
Latin. Yet at its best his verse is magnificent. If the epigrammatic closure of his couplets
announces Pope as his master, it also points to the differences between them. Where Pope is
waspish, mordant and suavely elegant, Johnson is grave, compassionate and severe. His poetic
style has the same sturdy eloquence as his prose and has been praised for observing the prose
virtues, though this should not blind us to his poetic qualities, above all memorability and
concision.

Johnson's masterpiece, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes', and the earlier 'London' are satires on
modern life adapted from the Roman poet Juvenal. In both, Johnson's Christian stoicism and the
kindliness of his nature mitigate the Roman's proverbial ferocity while, if anything, increasing
the severity. Both also provide occasions for reflections on English history and, through Thales,
the angry satirist of 'London', Johnson gives expression to his own wounded patriotism. There is
patriotism, too, in his prologue to the play A Word to the Wise, written for a benefit
performance after the playwright's death. Here, weighing Christian charity against the importance
of critical judgement (no light matter in his eyes), Johnson provides a warming example of his
deep and subtle morality. The moving tributes to Claudy Phillips, an itinerant violinist, and
Robert Levet, an aged physician whom Johnson supported financially, fix a similar generosity in
lapidary forms. Finally, from the last month of Johnson's life comes a translation of Horace,
which typically turns a classical model towards his own concerns: here with mortality and the
ineluctable passing of time.



London: A Poem
In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal
 (lines 19-82)

While Thales waits the wherry that contains
Of dissipated wealth the small remains,
On Thames's banks, in silent thought we stood,
Where Greenwich smiles upon the silver flood:
Struck with the seat that gave Eliza birth,
We kneel, and kiss the consecrated earth;
In pleasing dreams the blissful age renew,
And call Britannia's glories back to view;
Behold her cross triumphant on the main,
The guard of commerce, and the dread of Spain,
Ere masquerades debauch'd, excise oppress'd,
Or English honour grew a standing jest.

A transient calm the happy scenes bestow,
And for a moment lull the sense of woe.
At length awaking, with contemptuous frown,
Indignant Thales eyes the neighb'ring town.

Since worth, he cries, in these degen'rate days
Wants ev'n the cheap reward of empty praise;
In those curs'd walls, devote to vice and gain,
Since unrewarded science toils in vain;
Since hope but sooths to double my distress,
And ev'ry moment leaves my little less;
While yet my steady steps no staff sustains,
And life still vig'rous revels in my veins;
Grant me, kind Heaven, to find some happier place,
Where honesty and sense are no disgrace;
Some pleasing bank where verdant osiers play,
Some peaceful vale with Nature's paintings gay;
Where once the harrass'd Briton found repose,
And safe in poverty defy'd his foes;
Some secret cell, ye pow'rs, indulgent give.
Let - live here, for - has learn'd to live.
Here let those reign, whom pensions can incite
To vote a patriot black, a courtier white;
Explain their country's dear-bought rights away,
And plead for pirates in the face of day;
With slavish tenets taint our poison'd youth,
And lend a lie the confidence of truth.

Let such raise palaces, and manors buy,
Collect a tax, or farm a lottery,
With warbling eunuchs fill a licens'd stage,
And lull to servitude a thoughtless age.

Heroes, proceed! What bounds your pride shall hold?
What check restrain your thirst for pow'r and gold?
Behold rebellious virtue quite o'erthrown,
Behold our fame, our wealth, our lives your own.
To such, a groaning nation's spoils are giv'n,
When publick crimes inflame the wrath of Heav'n:
But what, my friend, what hope remains for me,
Who start at theft, and blush at perjury?
Who scarce forbear, tho' Britain's court he sing,
To pluck a titled poet's borrow'd wing;
A statesman's logic, unconvinc'd can hear,
And dare to slumber o'er the Gazetteer;
Despise a fool in half his pension drest,
And strive in vain to laugh at Clodio's jest.

Others with softer smiles, and subtler art,
Can sap the principles, or taint the heart;
With more address a lover's note convey,
Or bribe a virgin's innocence away.
Well may they rise, while I, whose rustic tongue
Ne'er knew to puzzle right, or varnish wrong,
Spurn'd as a beggar, dreaded as a spy,
Live unregarded, unlamented die.

*

An Epitaph on Claudy Phillips, a Musician

Phillips, whose touch harmonious could remove
The pangs of guilty pow'r, and hapless love,
Rest here distress'd by poverty no more,
Find here that calm, thou gav'st so oft before.
Sleep, undisturb'd, within this peaceful shrine,
Till angels wake thee, with a note like thine.

*

The Vanity of Human Wishes
The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated

 (lines 99-120; 135-64; 191-222; 343-68)

      In full-blown dignity, see Wolsey stand,
Law in his voice, and fortune in his hand:
To him the Church, the Realm, their pow'rs consign,
Thro' him the rays of regal bounty shine,
Turn'd by his nod the stream of honour flows,
His smile alone security bestows;
Still to new heights his restless wishes tow'r,
Claim leads to claim, and pow'r advances pow'r;
Till conquest unresisted ceas'd to please,
And rights submitted, left him none to seize.
At length his Sov'reign frowns - the train of state
Mark the keen glance, and watch the sign to hate.
Where-e'er he turns he meets a stranger's eye,
His suppliants scorn him, and his followers fly;
At once is lost the pride of aweful state,
The golden canopy, the glitt'ring plate,
The regal palace, the luxurious board,
The liv'ried army, and the menial lord.
With age, with cares, with maladies oppress'd,
He seeks the refuge of monastic rest.
Grief aids disease, remember'd folly stings,
And his last sighs reproach the faith of kings.

[...]

      When first the college rolls receive his name,
The young enthusiast quits his ease for fame;
Through all his veins the fever of renown
Burns from the strong contagion of the gown;
O'er Bodley's dome his future labours spread,
And Bacon's mansion trembles o'er his head;
Are these thy views? proceed, illustrious youth,
And virtue guard thee to the throne of truth,
Yet should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat,
Till captive science yields her last retreat;
Should reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty doubt resistless day;
Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor praise relax, nor difficulty fright;
Should tempting novelty thy cell refrain,
And sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
Should beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from letters to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail.
See nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's life and Galileo's end.

[...]

      On what foundation stands the warrior's pride?
How just his hopes let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him, and no labours tire;
O'er love, o'er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquer'd lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific scepters yield,
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their pow'rs combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign;
Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain;
'Think nothing gain'd, he cries, till nought remain,
On Moscow's walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky.'
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern famine guards the solitary coast,
And winter barricades the realms of frost;
He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay; -
Hide, blushing glory, hide Pultowa's day:
The vanquish'd hero leaves his broken bands,
And shews his miseries in distant lands;
Condemn'd a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
But did not chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound?
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destin'd to a barren strand,
A petty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name, at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.

[...]

      Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?
Must dull suspence 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?
Enquirer, cease, petitions yet remain,
Which Heav'n may hear, nor deem religion vain.
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heav'n the measure and the choice.
Safe in his pow'r, whose eyes discern 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 fourth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;
For love, which scarce collective Man can fill;
For patience sov'reign o'er transmuted ill;
For faith, that panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind Nature's signal of retreat:
These goods for Man the laws of Heav'n ordain,
These goods he grants, who grants the pow'r to gain;
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.

*

Prologue to Hugh Kelly's A Word to the Wise

This night presents a play, which publick rage,
Or right, or wrong, once hooted from the stage;
From zeal or malice now no more we dread,
For English vengeance wars not with the dead.
A generous foe regards, with pitying eye,
The man whom fate has laid, where all must lie.
To wit, reviving from its author's dust,
Be kind, ye judges, or at least be just:
Let no resentful petulance invade
Th'oblivious grave's inviolable shade.
Let one great payment every claim appease,
And him who cannot hurt, allow to please;
To please by scenes unconscious of offence,
By harmless merriment, or useful sense.
Where aught of bright, or fair, the piece displays,
Approve it only - 'tis too late to praise.
If want of skill, or want of care appear,
Forbear to hiss - the poet cannot hear.
By all, like him, must praise and blame be found;
At best, a fleeting gleam, or empty sound.
Yet then shall calm reflection bless the night,
When liberal pity dignify'd delight;
When pleasure fired her torch at virtue's flame,
And mirth was bounty with a humbler name.

*

On the Death of Dr Robert Levet

Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,
      As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
      Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
      See LEVET to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
      Of ev'ry friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills affection's eye,
      Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, letter'd arrogance, deny
      Thy praise to merit unrefin'd.

When fainting nature call'd for aid,
      And hov'ring death prepar'd the blow,
His vig'rous remedy display'd
      The power of art without the show.

In misery's darkest caverns known,
      His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,
      And lonely want retir'd to die.

No summons mock'd by chill delay,
      No petty gain disdain'd by pride,
The modest wants of ev'ry day
      The toil of ev'ry day supplied.

His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
      Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th'Eternal Master found
      The single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
      Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
      Tho' now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
      No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
      And free'd his soul the nearest way.

*

Translation of Horace: Odes IV, vii

(Diffugere nives)


The snow dissolv'd no more is seen,
The fields, and woods, behold, are green,
The changing year renews the plain
The rivers know their banks again
The spritely nymph and naked grace
The mazy dance together trace.
The changing year's successive plan
Proclaims mortality to Man.
Rough Winter's blasts to Spring give way
Spring yields to Summer's sovereign ray
Then Summer sinks in Autumn's reign
And Winter chills the world again
Her losses soon the moon supplies
But wretched Man, when once he lies
Where Priam and his sons are laid
Is nought but ashes and a shade.
Who knows if Jove who counts our score
Will toss us in a morning more?
What with your friend you nobly share
At least you rescue from your heir.
Not you, Torquatus, boast of Rome,
When Minos once has fix'd your doom,
Or eloquence, or splendid birth
Or virtue shall replace on earth.
Hippolytus unjustly slain
Diana calls to life in vain,
Nor can the might of Theseus rend
The chains of hell that hold his friend.
Taken from 'Poets on Poets'...
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