This week, Birmingham City University in conjunction with Birmingham Book Festival celebrated the tercentenary of the life of Samuel Johnson with an event entitled Now and in Time. Johnson, born in Lichfield in 1709, wrote extensively on a huge range of subjects, which were well-reflected by Professor Philip Smallwood’s discussions of Johnson, and in the readings from Johnson’s works. It is difficult not to be delighted by Johnson’s aphorisms, such as “A man of genius has been seldom ruined, but by himself” – there are plenty more here – you’ll be surprised how many are familiar to you, such as that second marriages are “the triumph of hope over experience”. This event, though, demonstrated how much more there is to Johnson than his pithy soundbites; Professor Smallwood highlighted the modern resonance of “Late Transactions Concerning Falkland’s Islands”, in which Johnson asks: “what continuance of happiness can be expected, when the whole system of European empire can be in danger of a new concussion, by a contention for a few spots of earth, which, in the deserts of the ocean, had almost escaped human notice, and which, if they had not happened to make a seamark, had, perhaps, never had a name!”
Other pieces, such as “The Life of Richard Savage”, show Johnson as shrewd observer of character, painting such a picture of his friend that one cannot fail to feel one knows the man; “To Mrs Thrale, On Completing her Thirty-Fifth Year” is both touching and (mostly) hilarious – as well as written extempore, which shows the genius as well as the humanity of Johnson:
Oft in danger, yet alive,
We are come to thirty-five;
Long may better years arrive,
Better years than thirty-five.
Could philosophers contrive
Life to stop at thirty-five,
Time his hours should never drive
O’er the bounds of thirty-five.
High to soar, and deep to dive,
Nature gives at thirty-five; 10
Ladies, stock and tend your hive,
Trifle not at thirty-five;
For, howe’er we boast and strive,
Life declines from thirty-five;
He that ever hopes to thrive,
Must begin by thirty-five;
And all who wisely wish to wive
Must look on Thrale at thirty-five.
For those who, like myself, spend much time commenting on other people’s artistic endeavours, Johnson has some salutory words in The Idler No. 60 – which show, perhaps, just how much he is the writer’s writer:
“Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expence. The power of invention has been conferred by Nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom Nature has made weak, and Idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critic.”
When reading history, especially history of ideas, I always think it would have been great to have been a brilliant person back then and back there. I want to have published one thousandth of his work!
But the reality is that Johnson suffered terribly from physical and mental diseases. That he functioned despite Tourettes, terrible skin diseases, crippling depression, gout, half blindness and other conditions is a testament to his endurance!
Perhaps an even worse threat, ready to claim him at any time, was poverty. He was constantly bailed out of his debts by well wishers, but it was not a way to live.
Thanks for your comment – I didn’t realise quite what a difficult life he’d had, though I did read that he wrote Rasselas in the evenings of one week to pay the expenses of his mother’s funeral. He was indeed a remarkable man!