Category Archives: Samuel Johnson

Words Wrought From Melancholia

Are you familiar with melancholia? Is she your dearest friend, who keeps you company through the wee hours of the night or early morning, before the sun has yet risen, and the air is silent and cold–when the entire world, or your small part of it, holds its chill breath before it restarts its mechanistic daily processes? That’s all right, then. You’re in good company with my dear friends from the 18th C, those men and women with whom I idly chat at my chilling early-morning tea parties. Melancholy’s in the pot, and the ghosts and I drink it together.

Samuel Johnson was a classic melancholic, who sighed deeply and claimed, “I write therefore I am alive.” He wrote. He did. And so do I. Together, we make good company. Adam Sisman, a historical biographer, makes my good friend out to be a rock star, however: “His powerful personality, his manifest integrity, his distinctive style, his penetrating intellect, his original ideas, his prodigious learning, his extraordinary versatility, and his imposing figure combined to make him a dominant literary presence” (21). Great! What was in that tea again, the pot Johnson and I were sharing? At least I choose my tea-friends wisely.

By the way, it’s important to note that the above quote can be found in Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Essentially, Sisman waxed all poetic about Johnson in his biography of James Boswell, which is extraordinary that a biographer such as Adam Sisman is able to fill in these details 250 years after Johnson lived. The fact that Sisman wrote such a detailed and personal biography is telling; what is even more telling is that Sisman wrote a biography of a biographer who, in his turn, wrote a biography of a biographer. Fill my cup again, won’t you? I’m feeling a little jittery.

Samuel Johnson advised his friend Mr. Boswell, the Scotsman who really couldn’t help being Scottish, thank you Mr. Johnson, to keep a detailed journal of his life. Due to Boswell’s own intensive melancholic state, he followed Johnson’s advice to the letter, scratching out on paper what no one should have ever known about his life and the lives of others, until, of course, those scratchings were published, thereby giving want-to-know to delicate ladies who otherwise conduct proper, if not delusional, tea parties in the dark hours of dawn. These detailed writings of Boswell, scandalous or not, aided him when he listened far too closely to Johnson’s many opinions, one of which was that biographies should be personal rather than formal. Biographies of famous people ought to only be written by those who had shared a table with the famed person. This personal touch would avoid a distanced chronology of events, instead engaging the reader with the minutia of daily life.

I’m so grateful that Boswell took Johnson’s words to heart–deeply–especially considering their first meeting, which went about like this: “I do indeed come from Scotland,” said Boswell, “but I cannot help it.” Johnson replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help” (22). Johnson, to put it mildly, wasn’t altogether fond of the Scots. And, yet, it was a Scotsman who wrote Johnson’s biography. Johnson, ironically, was a biographer, himself, one who didn’t take his own advice in sharing a meal with the men he wrote about–most likely because he wasn’t quite as delusional as I am, believing dead people to still live in some sense of the word. It was a little too late for him to drop his card by, say, Milton’s house, in hopes of gaining an invite to supper. But Johnson probably wouldn’t have liked Milton much, anyway. Isn’t it far better to remain detached, in order not to know? That’s, after all, why I drink tea with ghosts.

“I write therefore I am alive,” Johnson said. Are you so sure about that? It seems I know you, your dress and habits and manners of speech, because another man wrote to expel his own gloom, to rid himself of the destruction wrought by deep thought and philosophy in the scaffolding of his mind. I know you, Mr. Johnson, because of another man’s melancholy. Huh. I wonder what that says about melancholy. Maybe it would be better to take my teapot and brew it in the land of the living, where I might find true respite by jotting down details of this time and place. Or maybe I should just go to bed.

All quotes taken from Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 2000)


If Life Were a Chiasm, Where Would It End?

I’m a nerd who reads nearly every day. I read it when I’m feeling low and tired and frustrated. I read it when I need inspiration. The other day, I read a book excerpt on Wired about dyslexia. Aside from knowing a few people over the years who suffered from this disability, I wasn’t too familiar with the brain processes that cause the condition. According to the authors of Dyslexic Advantage (the authors were interviewed in a separate article here), dyslexic individuals have brains differently wired from the average person.

This got me thinking about chiasmus and mirror ideas. I have them, you know, and I’m not alone. Did you know Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards, as if he was writing in a mirror? Some experts believe he was dyslexic. Okay, I don’t and can’t do that because I’m clearly not dyslexic. Nor am I an artist or a genius by any stretch of imagination. It wouldn’t even occur to me to write backwards, but when I began to study classic rhetoric, the device I fell in love with, that resonated with my thinking, was chiasmus. For more about chiastic expressions, see Dr. Mardy, whose newsletter I’ve been receiving via e-mail for about four years now.

I don’t need an excuse to think of chiasmus. Neither do you. If you read the Bible, an understanding of chiastic expressions is paramount to understanding ancient literary thinking patterns. With our western linear thought processes, many of us fail to understand what’s going on in certain biblical stories, such as the creation account in Genesis. As I was searching for an image for this post, I serendipitously discovered this site: Chiasmus Studies. While I’ve simply made it a hobby to find chiastic expressions and ideas in the Bible, the man who runs this site has made it an area of serious study. Check it out. It’s exciting stuff.

What is a chiasm? you ask (because you didn’t go to Dr. Mardy’s site). Simply put, a chiastic phrase is one in which the words of one phrase mirror the words in the next: By day the frolic, and the dance by night. Day mirrors night, and frolic mirrors dance. This line of poetry, by the way, is from Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes. Samuel Johnson is well-known for his chiasms. A chiastic passage would be shaped similarly, but the mirroring is of ideas and not just words: A-B-C-X-C-B-A. Each letter represents an idea, with the central or final idea occurring at X. The X is the climax, so to speak. The passage then works its way back to the beginning.

Why all of this nonsensical rhetoric, and what does it have to do with dyslexics? I don’t have a clue. I’m guessing, though, that dyslexics have a unique ability to understand chiastic thought processes. And you know what else? I empathize with intelligent people who are trapped inside stupid people. I am was. I was the stupid kid, the one who fell apart at the sight of story problems and couldn’t process instructions and couldn’t cope with school in general. I couldn’t succeed, just like many dyslexic children. Yet as an adult, I intrinsically understand chiasmus. Go figure. This post has no other reason, except la razón de ser.

p.s. Next week, I’ll be out of town, but will cull some posts from my first blog, The Female Quixote.


Pleased With His Ingenuous, Open Way

Here is one of my favorite pieces of James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763: 

I then told my history to Mr. Johnson, which he listened to with attention. I told him how I was a very strict Christian, and was turned from that to infidelity. But that now I had got back to a very agreeable way of thinking. That I believed the Christian religion; though I might not be clear in many particulars. He was very much pleased with my ingenuous open way, and he cried, “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you.” He then confirmed me in my belief by showing the force of testimony, and how little we could know of final causes; so that the objections of why was it so? or why was it not so? can avail little; and that for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious.

One of the most famous parts of this journal, or of any of Boswell’s journals, is his initial meeting with Samuel Johnson, who would become a great friend and mentor to Boswell. This particular journal also happens to be the one that is most widely available. Many of his more than thirty years worth of diaries are available only if you hunt for them, or are willing to pay a high price (Abe Books is the place for used volumes no longer in print). I’m slowly, but surely collecting all of Boswell’s writings (B&N has several free e-texts, happily, though only of his travel journals and the Life of Johnson).

What fascinates me about this exchange with Samuel Johnson is the way Boswell reveals his heart for Christianity, as well as his willingness to question his faith. In his journal at large, he also reveals his failure to adhere to any moral convictions. Boswell regularly falls into fits of melancholy, picks up prostitutes in back alleys, and then ends his weeks of despondency and hedonism by sitting in church pews or having meals with the stalwart Johnson.

My obsession with James Boswell is difficult to explain, but it has something to do with his paradoxes, which get at the heart of the human condition. Boswell defines himself as an outsider, even while supping with numerous friends and literary acquaintances. Boswell tells the truth about himself, even when the truth is repulsive. But mostly, I appreciate him because he’s the embodiment of the Bible verse, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). For that, Johnson, who was no less human than Boswell, but was more mature, was a stable influence in Boswell’s intellectual world.

And–as an image of Johnson’s maturity–I’d like to highlight this sentiment of his: for his part he thought all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agreed in the essential articles, and their differences were trivial, or were rather political than religious. Thank you, Mr. Johnson. I find the unity movement of Christianity to be a tiresome affair–a tiresome, political affair. I’m frustrated when those involved in this movement highlight the differences between denominations and desire to bring all Christians together under one banner. The differences, according to Johnson, are trivial. They’re trivial enough that the gospel continues to go forth, despite the lack of unity.

As far as Boswell’s soul, I can’t make any claims about it. I can only read his words and surmise and feel wretchedly bad at his depravity, his honesty, and his continuous attempts at bravado, despite his overarching humility and lack of confidence.


To a Young Lady, on Her Birthday, by Samuel Johnson

I’ve chosen this poem for the kick-off to national poetry month, because April 1st is also my daughter’s 13th birthday:
This tributary verse receive, my fair,
Warm with an ardent lover’s fondest prayer,
May this returning day for ever find
Thy form more lovely, more adorn’d thy mind;
All pains, all cares, may favouring heaven remove,
All but the sweet solicitudes of love!
May powerful nature join with grateful art,
To point each glance, and force it to the heart!
O then! when conquer’d crowds confess thy sway,
When even proud wealth and prouder wit obey,
My fair, be mindful of the mighty trust,
Alas! ’tis hard for beauty to be just.
Those sovereign charms with strictest care employ;
Nor give the generous pain, the worthless joy;
With his own form acquaint the forward fool,
Shown in the mimic glass of ridicule:
Teach mimic censure her own faults to find,
No more let coquettes to themselves be blind,
So shall Belinda’s charms improve mankind. 
p.s. Painting by Hogarth, The Graham Children. I have three daughters and one son, just like the Grahams, except my son is the youngest. The cat looks suspiciously like ours, as well. This is actually a very sad painting because the baby had died by the time Hogarth painted it. But I meant for it to be a happy image, and I’m certain Hogarth did, too, in his attempt to capture the joy of the moment.

The Curmudgeon Strikes Again

I’m an unrepentant curmudgeon, I’m sorry to say. After “one of those days” my persnicketiness has been blunted by two glasses of wine, yet won’t put itself nicely to bed. Notice my passive voice. I’m not responsible–oh, no, not I! My only desire now is to hurl some insults at my blog readers. Not merely any insults, but the best kind, found right from the pages of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

All right, you fustian fubs, I’m going to frenchify your giddybrained giglets. You oysterwenches, give me your noddle and leave off your noious nonsense. Snivel, snivel, sneak up you smellfeasts! Flagitious flashers of finical fatwits!

Wow! I feel so much better. So relaxed. Thanks, Samuel Johnson. Didn’t I claim him as my historical soul mate? Curmudgeons we are; together we’ll be in heaven. Won’t that be fun? I won’t tell him of my Celtic heritage, nor let on that I’ve never lived in London. He might sneer at me if I did, tell me to go eat my oats, or worse yet, try to fig me. Ha! I’ll let you readers look that one up.  Oh, come on, it’s not dirty, you little drabs!!

I almost feel like adding a yo-ho-ho, but I’ll leave that kind of language for Daniel Defoe, or for when I have a bigger bottle of gin in the cupboard.

Cheers! Now it’s your turn to lambaste me with your best insults. What’s that, you draffy dolts? Not up for it, you say? Hit me with your best shot!