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Alan Jacobs

Man of Sorrows

Samuel Johnson and the power of sympathy.

Three hundred years ago a man was born in England who came to be one of the great masters of English literary culture. Although his doctoral degree was only honorary, once he held it, he was known, consistently and reverently, as Doctor. More comically, but no less reverently, someone called him the Great Cham of Literature—cham, being an old form of khan, was meant to suggest the man ruled over the realm of letters like an oriental despot. This is perhaps fitting for a writer who took it on himself to produce the first truly complete dictionary of the English language. He wrote memorably in almost every literary genre and was astonishingly productive. His pronouncements—on literature, primarily, but also, as the mood struck him, on morals, metaphysics, and female preachers—were oracular, frequent, and faithfully recorded for posterity by his disciples. He was a large and powerful man, with a commanding voice. He "talked for victory," as he put it, arguing fiercely, and he rarely lost. But he was generous and loving toward his friends and wonderfully compassionate to all who suffered. He was, in almost every sense of the word, great.

Three hundred years ago a man was born in England who lived a long but generally unhappy life. He nearly died at birth and survived childhood illnesses with damaged eyesight and—a result of incompetent surgery—a scarred face and body. Because he was poor, he came to Oxford University as a servitor (a student who waited on other students in exchange for a reduction in fees), but, even so, by the end of a year, he was out of money and had to leave school without a degree. He seems to have suffered repeated bouts of depression. He was self-accusing and self-loathing, believing himself to be lazy and unproductive. His many strange tics strongly suggest he had Tourette's syndrome. He married a woman far older than he, to the disgust of her family. He failed as a provincial schoolmaster, thereby losing his wife's money. He then went to London and struggled for years to make a living, often not knowing the source of his next meal. The death of his wife grieved him deeply, and when years later he fell in love with another woman, she shocked him by marrying an Italian music teacher and effectively cutting off contact. His last years were mostly lonely and miserable, dominated by the depression he called "the black dog." Although in those years he became a more devout Christian, he frequently expressed a great fear of dying and subsequent damnation. Not long before his death, he said he had lived "a life radically wretched."

Both these paragraphs describe the same man: Samuel Johnson, possibly the most vibrant personality in the history of English literature and as great a man of letters as his nation will ever produce. It is astonishing that one man could be all these things, do all these deeds, feel all these feelings. No wonder that on his death a friend wrote, "He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up.—Johnson is dead.—Let us go to the next best: There is nobody;—no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson."

Johnson is so distinctive, and so vastly complex in his thoughts and works, that it is nearly impossible to come to a clear, settled judgment about him. Insofar as he has a place in the public mind today, it is as "Doctor Johnson," who dictated the laws of his monarchy of letters and spoke chiefly in aphorisms: "He who is tired of London is tired of life." "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." "A second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."

But this is a grossly misleading picture. For one thing, Johnson the talker—holding forth with his big cup of tea and his cat on his lap, or kicking a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley's insistence that ideas alone are real—is so vivid a presence that Johnson the writer gets crowded out. The man alone in his room, sweating to meet the week's deadline, is not so commanding a figure. Paul Fussell understood this and wrote one of the best books on Johnson—Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing—to give proper representation to the man who earned his bread with his pen, by the sweat of his brow.

And yet Johnson the talker is so confident, so assured, so lapidary. Monsieur Jourdain in Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had been speaking prose for forty years without even knowing it. Samuel Johnson most emphatically spoke prose, or so the records of those who knew him suggest: His sentences emerge perfectly formed, seeming to illustrate in their cadences the virtues of classical order. One discerns in Johnson's talk—and in much of his written work, too, though it's not so surprising there—a mind that has a place for everything and everything in its place. He spoke, it seems, largely to share the inestimable blessings of perfect mental symmetry with any nearby mortals.

But such order as Johnson's style displays was hard earned, and it was much more difficult to achieve than it appears. In many of his aphorisms, something dark lurks: the fearful condition of being "tired of life," the tough drudgery of writing, the disappointments of marriage. The rhetorical balance of his clauses, the measured pace of his verse, the firmness of his opinions—they were a kind of bulwark that Johnson had to build against the titanic strength of his passions. And if Johnson was talking, he was in the presence of others, not alone with the black dog.

Thus his constant praise of friendship: "I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance." "If a man does not make new acquaintances as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone; one should keep his friendships in constant repair." "To let friendship die away by negligence and silence is certainly not wise. It is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of the weary pilgrimage." "The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal." To the careless reader these may seem merely a set of sententious maxims, but listen to the words that provide a ground bass to the recitative: lost, left alone, die away, negligence, weary pilgrimage, gradual decay. Friends were lifelines for Johnson, and in his last illness he had a particular terror of being without them.

Johnson's sufferings had the rare effect of creating in him a deep sympathy for the suffering of others. Despite his poverty he often took into his home people who were even worse off. In later years, when he had more money, he supported a whole household of waifs and strays. He felt that he was deficient in pity and, indeed, that we all are: "Pity is not natural to man," he once told James Boswell. "Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel. Pity is acquired and improved by the cultivation of reason. We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them."

And, in Johnson's view, if pity must be acquired, woe to those who do not seek to acquire it. One of his fiercest essays is a long review of a book called Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, by an armchair philosopher named Soames Jenyns. Johnson explains that Jenyns is a best-of-all-possible-worlds kind of optimist: "He is of opinion, that there is some inconceivable benefit in pain, abstractedly considered; that pain, however inflicted, or wherever felt, communicates some good to the general system of being, and, that every animal is, some way or other, the better for the pain of every other animal."

Johnson's exasperation at this notion exceeds measure:

How the origin of evil is brought nearer to human conception, by any inconceivable means, I am not able to discover. We believed, that the present system of creation was right, though we could not explain the adaptation of one part to the other, or for the whole succession of causes and consequences. Where has this inquirer added to the little knowledge that we had before? He has told us of the benefits of evil, which no man feels, and relations between distant parts of the universe, which he cannot himself conceive. There was enough in this question inconceivable before, and we have little advantage from a new inconceivable solution.

"The only end of writing," Johnson concludes, "is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it." Jenyns' incompetent book does neither of these. Instead, by recommending a placid indifference to suffering, it relieves no one and magnifies frustration.

Johnson's sufferings had the rare effect of creating in him a deep sympathy for the suffering of others.

Through all Johnson's writing—his verse, his essays, his biographies, even his literary criticism—there echoes this deep recognition of the varieties of human suffering and its intransigence. Writing about King Lear, he comments, "I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor." That he felt this way is noteworthy; that he made, in a work of deep scholarship, such a personal confession is remarkable. But that is typical of Johnson. The lovely, calm rhythm of the prose can scarcely contain the emotional agitation of the thought.

Few people need the consolation of Christian faith more than Johnson did, but, then, few could have as much difficulty receiving it. As strongly as he lashed himself for his indolence in writing, he was fiercer still in his condemnation of his religious life. "I have made few improvements," he wrote in his journal on his fifty-sixth birthday. "Since my resolution formed last Easter I have made no advancement in knowledge or in goodness; nor do I recollect that I have endeavored it … . I have done nothing, the need of doing therefore is pressing, since the time of doing is short." Four years later he wrote, before going to bed, "On this day little has been done and this is now the last hour. In life little has been done, and life is very far advanced. Lord, have mercy on me."

In these moods, and in others, Johnson made a habit of writing prayers after the manner of the great collects of the Book of Common Prayer. Some of these match the collects of Thomas Cranmer in depth and wisdom and eloquence. When his mother's maid, Catherine Chambers, was dying, Johnson came to her bedside and prayed:

Almighty and most merciful Father, whose loving-kindness is over all thy works, behold, visit, and relieve this thy Servant, who is grieved with sickness. Grant that the sense of her weakness may add strength to her faith, and seriousness to her Repentance. And grant that by the help of thy Holy Spirit after the pains and labours of this short life, we may all obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ our Lord, for whose sake hear our prayers. Amen.

He added in his journal, "I then kissed her. She told me that to part was the greatest pain that she had ever felt, and that she hoped we should meet again in a better place. I expressed with swelled eyes and great emotion of tenderness the same hopes. We kissed, and parted. I humbly hope, to meet again, and to part no more."

We are very far here from the Great Cham of Literature. It is characteristic of Johnson that the sufferings of this poor woman—who, as a mere servant, would have been ignored utterly in her dying by many men of that time—brought forth from him not only eloquence but also warmheartedness. It is also characteristic that as he prayed for her, he also prayed for himself, since he knew he was in need of the same mercy.

Friends reported that in the last weeks of his life, as he slowly declined toward death, Johnson was finally granted peace and the conviction that he was reconciled to God. He was also comforted to learn that his friends planned to bury him in Westminster Abbey. Some years later, a statue of Johnson was placed in St. Paul's Cathedral; its imposing form and classical drapery lead some visitors today to assume the person depicted is a saint, perhaps St. Paul himself. Actually, the statue seems to evoke a Roman ruler—a Mediterranean, if not an oriental, despot: a Great Caesar of Literature. I would be inclined to protest that representation of Samuel Johnson were it not for the Greek inscription on the scroll he holds, which reads, roughly, "May he receive among the blessed fit requital for his troubles."


Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans).

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