The unrequited loves of Dr Johnson

Dr Samuel Johnson, LLD

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?

17 thoughts on “The unrequited loves of Dr Johnson

    • Do you think so, really? Perhaps this is in danger of getting too personal, if it isn’t already, but I’m inclined to think that hopeless love, for most of us, is built into the order of things.

  1. Was this impossible, unequal love romantic? Is this more an existential love, a love of intellectual curiosity that is frustrated by the limits of the ability of the human mind to comprehend the Universe in it’s totality? That sense of impossibility provided by the mind encountering a concept or fact of nature that it cannot grasp?

    Am I just reading too far into this???

    • Yes. But there’s a difference too. Hal and Sir John *were* pals for a time, then Hal cast him off. But Chesterfield was always everything Sam wasn’t and never could be: noble, rich, good-looking, easy in company, and above all, thoroughly pleased with himself. For a man like Sam to admit he had a crush on a man like Phil shows immense force of character.

      • Completely different
        But it triggered this involuntary ” link”
        In my head web

        Suggests another rejection
        A once open door
        No matter what of “value”
        to the inner bleeding passions
        Might lie thru it
        Is Now and forever shut

  2. Isn’t it the case that Chesterfield was so impressed with Johnson’s rebuke that he left the letter open in his entrance hall for his visitors to peruse?

      • Maybe, but that suggests that the letter was published or expected by Chesterfield to be published. I thought that it was a private communication that could easily have been burned and forgotten and would have been had not Chesterfield thought it too good to perish.

        Any info about that?

        • As far as I know it was never published until Jamie’s bio came out. But it was a small world. The Earl would certainly have expected word to get out. Particularly since SJ’s letter is clearly a very thought-out, literary exercise, and it responded to an affront — or what SJ thought was an affront — very publicly given, namely the Earl’s rather self-congratulatory reviews.

    • Ah there’s always the ” full story”

      Maybe jon’s point

      We choose we edit
      We ourselves retain and retell to ourselves
      The sharpest deepest cutting nuggets

    • Perhaps chesterfield
      In his ” pretense of remote carelessness ”
      Shrewdly took his worthy peers
      For what they were
      ever eager barracuda

      Seeing the letter displayed

      They’d swim right past such complexity

      After all
      Such a commoner’s pathetic letter
      Is forever
      risibly ” sport-able “

  3. Johnson’s confession is all the more surprising because of his unillusioned view of patronage:

    “There mark what ills the Scholar’s life assail,
    Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail.”


    “Patron: Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”

    These lines were amended as they stand after his experience with Chesterfield.
    He had solicited patronage out of mere necessity. How, then, did he reconcile himself to it? Perhaps for someone as bearishly contrarian as Johnson, with all his troubled strength of mind, the only way to suffer a patron was to grow to love him.

  4. I always wondered what a blogger would say to this Dr. J quote: “No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

    “Send money”, is excluded

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