More on Johnson

Based on what I’ve read so far in The Life of Johnson, Johnson was a lovely letter writer, although an unreliable one. Boswell includes quite a few of his more interesting letters — both business ones and personal ones — and in the personal letters he’s always apologizing for taking so long to write. Here are a couple passages I particularly liked, both written to his friend Joseph Baretti who was currently living in Milan:

My vanity, or my kindness, makes me flatter myself, that you would rather hear of me than of those whom I have mentioned, but of myself I have very little which I care to tell. Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend has changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction. My daughter-in-law, from whom I expected most, and whom I met with sincere benevolence, has lost the beauty and gaiety of youth, without having gained much of the wisdom of age. I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is, at least, such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart.

This is so typical of Johnson, I think; it’s a very sad passage, very beautifully written. If you’ve read Rasselas (and if not, why not?) the tone may feel familiar. Here is another typical passage:

I know my Baretti will not be satisfied with a letter in which I give him no account of myself; yet what account shall I give him? I have not, since the day of our separation, suffered or done any thing considerable. The only change in my way of life is, that I have frequented the theatre more than in former seasons. But I have gone thither only to escape from myself … I am digressing from myself to the play-house; but a barren plan must be filled with episodes. Of myself I have nothing to say but that I have hitherto lived without the concurrence of my own judgement; yet I continue to flatter myself, that, when you return, you will find me mended. I do not wonder that, where the monastick life is permitted, every order finds votaries, and every monastery inhabitants. Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance. They are glad to supply by external authority their own want of constancy and resolution, and court the government of others, when long experience has convinced them of their own inability to govern themselves.

There is much in this passage that strikes a chord with me, from living “without the concurrence of my own judgement,” to the desire to mend, to recognizing the attractions of having someone else order your life for you. I don’t really want another person or an institution to order my life for me, but I do understand what he means by “the tyranny of caprice and chance.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “More on Johnson

  1. What a lovely last passage. I think I do too much ordering of my life, and am too shy of caprice and chance. That balance is so difficult to strike. I have a nasty feeling that I would have been the person chivvying Johnson along and reminding him of everything he had to do that day! However, one can still live like this and manage to live ‘without the concurrence of my own judgement’. That’s the holy grail of existing, I think.


  2. Those are great letter excerpts! Even when we write letters these days we certainly don’t write them like that. I have not read Rasselas before and have never considered reading it. Should I?


  3. I feel like the modern day variation on this–I am always tardy on my emails and then I have done or suffered nothing considerable either! I also have not Rasselas. Perhaps I should–even Jane Eyre’s friend Helen Burns did as a schoolgirl…


  4. Oh, yes, do I understand “the tyranny of caprice and chance,” and yet defining insanity in true Freudian fashion, I repeat the same actions over and over again to fight my fears in these matters, expecting different results. And oh, do I know how this feels: “Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known.”


  5. Yes, Litlove, I’d do a lot of reminding and pestering too I think; it IS a difficult balance to strike. Stefanie and Danielle, I love Rasselas and do recommend it. It’s short and so wouldn’t be much of a time commitment, and it’s quite beautiful. It’s more of a fable or parable than novel, about the search for happiness. Emily, isn’t that sentence just right?


  6. I had no idea–that’s interesting that that is what Helen is reading in Jane Eyre (the nice thing about reading a book twice–picking up new details!).


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