Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 1 (1792)

My latest dip into the western canon is the first of twelve volumes of the Works of Samuel Johnson, as compiled and edited by his contemporary and friend, Arthur Murphy, in 1792, eight years after Johnson's death.

About half of this first volume is dedicated to Murphy's lengthy biographical essay on Johnson, in which he sets the record straight on Johnson's life after the publication of a previous biography that he felt misrepresented his friend. Murphy's biography sometimes goes a little overboard with praise, but for the most part seems to be a fair impression of Samuel Johnson as a man and doesn't hide all his warts and flaws. Johnson's slow and often poverty-striken rise from the son of a bookseller to England's most well-known man of letters makes for interesting reading, and Murphy hits all the literary high points of Johnson's career, including the extended Dictionary project.

Johnson comes through in the biographical essay mostly through quotes from his letters and publications. Here, for example, is Johnson's take on having to write a regular column in one of his magazines (advice which may also apply to the occasional blogger): "He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topic, till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgement to examine or reduce."

The rest of this first volume is dedicated to Johnson's poetry, including two longer poems, a five act tragedy in verse, and a series of shorter poems and epitaphs (including about 30 pages of poems in Latin). The strongest section for me was the tragedy, Irene, which is beautifully written and appropriately tragic. Definitely something worth reading out loud.

And as someone who recently had her 35th birthday, this jaunty poem really spoke to me:

To Mrs. Thrale on completing her thirty-fifth year
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;
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.

My copy of this book is a direct reproduction of the 1792 edition, so it includes archaic typographic conventions like the long s (those s's that look like f's), which take some getting used to (and also makes the word sun-beams look like fun-beams, which never stops making me laugh). My only problem with this edition is that in some cases the text in this reproduction is very light, and that combined with the old typography can make certain lines very difficult to read.

My first dip into the life and works of Samuel Johnson was a success -- only 11 more volumes to go! (Hopefully containing a little less Latin.)

No comments: