Shown above is the most touching image there is of a man whom I love deeply, and venerate to the extent of my capacity for veneration: Dr Samuel Johnson, LLD.
My reading list is more or less a treadmill: I have my faves, and I revisit them. Every so often I add one to the rotation, but it’s the faves who give me the greatest pleasure.
I’ve been revisiting Dr J lately, and I’m bowled over, as I always am, by Boswell’s improbable artistry: How could such a goofball write one of the five or six most lovable works of prose ever? SJ and Jamie and Joshua R and Nollie Goldmsith — they’re like Huck Finn and co. in wigs and broadcloth.
But Boswell doesn’t need any encomia from me; everybody knows how great he was. In a strange way, his genius and his personality have somewhat eclipsed those of his subject: the tortured, ungainly, haunted Sam, a man great enough in his own weird way to attract the veneration of a man himself as unexpectedly great as Jamie.
Everybody who ever took an English course knows Dr J’s letter to Lord Chesterfield. There’s a standard narrative about its significance: the bourgeois publishers and their Grub Street hacks — like Dr J — break the power of aristocratic patronage.
Well, of course it didn’t work quite that way. But it’s a good story, and there’s a grain of truth in it.
Still, what strikes me now, reading it for the Nth time, is how heartbroken it is. There’s a little isolated paragraph, which I daresay most readers just skip over, thinking that it’s just an ornamental Classical tag:
The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks.
This is a reference to a pastoral poem, specifically to Virgil’s 8th Eclogue, all about lovesick shepherds and cruel nymphs:
Nunc scio, quid sit Amor. Duris in cautibus illum
aut Tmaros aut Rhodope aut extremi Garamantes
nec generis nostri puerum nec sanguinis edunt.
Roughly: Now I know what sort of thing Love is. Among the unyielding boulders he was born; mount Tmaros or Rhodope or the uttermost Garamantes brought him forth, no child of ours, one not of our blood.
An odd reference in a letter to a non-patron, innit?
I think ole Sam, in spite of his prideful tone in the famous letter, is letting us know — and is not ashamed to let us know, if we could only catch the hint — how much he loved, and hoped, and how deeply he was crushed. Love, for Heaven’s sake! The love of a shepherd for an unyielding, inacessible nymph! And the awful Lord Chesterfield, that Philistine complacent beeyotch, its object! And a great man like Sam its subject!
Love is a cruel god, and he delights in humbling the mighty. I don’t know whether to admire Sam more for picking himself up after his heartbreak; or for acknowledging it so frankly.
Or for feeling it in the first place. Is there anything more brave than admitting — even, or rather especially, to yourself — an impossible, unequal love?