A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Samuel Johnson – Overdue

On occasion I have mentioned in passing my indebtedness to Samuel Johnson for his invention, but up until now never paid him proper homage. The Rambler was among the first magazines in the English language, and thus one of the first in the world. It ran from 1750 until 1752, and was never well loved. Unlike other magazines of its day–such as The Tatler (1709-1711), The Spectator (1711-1712) and The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1922)–Johnson’s The Rambler used a heavily latinate diction and tackled weighty themes. In the early 18th century, like today, magazines tended to be filled with politics and fluff; Johnson’s insistence on following his poetic sensibilities over his practical ones meant that his magazine never found a substantial audience. It’s an old story: if you want fame, chase the children, but if you want immortality, chase the dead. Of course, it’s not difficult to understand why one would be more popular than the other; what’s difficult to understand is how the latter ever leads to the former. Under what moon do the dead become children?

I don’t know. But I’ll keep looking.

Now, lest you think Johnson was just another wide-eyed poet following his muse into indifferent poverty, let me elaborate: Johnson was a narrow-eyed poet following his muse into a battle against poverty. Unlike most other writers of his day whom we still read, such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, Johnson was without means for most of his life. His father’s financial ruin prevented him from finishing his Oxford education, and he did not enjoy the patronage necessary to write untethered from worldly ambitions. Johnson wrote for his bread and was often disdainful of those scholars and philosophers whose concerns take them so far from the world that they’ve as much influence on its gravity as a feeble and distant star.

Johnson’s ambition to earn his bread was so great that he took on the unfathomable task of writing an authoritative dictionary of the English language–alone. In nine years he completed the most widely used dictionary in the English-speaking world until the The Oxford English Dictionary was finished in 1928. Let me repeat that: he wrote a dictionary. A dictionary. An A-Z, etymological enormity that pioneered the usage of quotations as definitional supports. And during that time, he still managed to write several essays and poems. He was, by any accounting, a genius.

Sometimes the choice to pilfer Johnson’s creation throws my own into absurd relief. My foolish scrivening. Too sly. Too slight. But there’s nothing quite so self-indulgent as public lament when the lamentation is existential, so when I can’t quite muster the forte to launch myself against the armies of melancholy, I will, from time to time, like all DJ’s, replay some greatest hits. They won’t be mine, of course–propriety and good sense rightly restricts my vanity; they will be Johnson’s, the original Rambler–which I can happily reprint, since the copyright has long expired.

So, without further or sufficient adulation, here is Johnson’s translation of Horace’s Odes, IV.7

The snow dissolved no more is seen,
The fields, and woods, behold, are green.
The changing year renews the plain,
The rivers know their banks again,
The spritely nymph and naked Grace
The mazy dance together trace.
The changing year’s successive plan
Proclaims mortality to man.
Rough winter’s blasts to spring give way,
Spring yields to summer’s sovereign ray,
Then summer sinks in autumn’s reign,
And winter chills the world again.
Her losses soon the moon supplies,
But wretched man, when once he lies
Where Priam and his sons are laid,
Is naught but ashes and a shade.
Who knows if Jove, who counts our score,
Will toss us in a morning more?
What with your friend you nobly share
At least you rescue from your heir.
Not you, Torquatasf, boast of Rome,
When Minos once has fixed your doom,
Or eloquence, or splendid birth,
Or virtue shall replace on earth.
Hippolytus unjustly slain
Diana calls to life in vain,
Nor can the might of Theseus rend
The chains of hell that hold his friend.

Sometimes when I’m beleaguered with doubt, it’s helpful to remember that all men, and women too, have exerted in vain against their substantial limitations. Even Johnson. Even Horace. Even Theseus, the slayer of minotaurs, could not return his friend from the kingdom of cinder and bone. And yet, Johnson wrote a dictionary. He wrote a dictionary.

A dictionary.

And that’s my cue to go.

3 Responses to Samuel Johnson – Overdue

  1. Those “substantial limitations” even hindered great men like Leonardo Da Vinci. I’ve been reading Freud’s psychological take on Da Vinci, and he points out the great inventor seemed to never quite finish anything, as though the risk of imperfection were too great. From Freud’s POV, as Da Vinci began investigating the world as a scientist (as a means of understanding it as a painter), he began to unravel the infinity of the universe. The burden of communicating all of that was too great for him, says Freud.

  2. I love Samuel Johnson. I considered naming my blog The Rambler at one point. Not only did he write a massive dictionary, but it contains over 116,000 quotations from classic English literature. 116,000! He wrote many of the entries by interpreting how authors like Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, and Milton used the terms. Genius! I’ve been posting quite a bit on Johnson of late. Here’s a link:


  3. fred houpt says:

    I chanced upon Johnson’s translation of the Ode of Horace just a few days ago. I found it to my great delight in a new used copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, book 1, that I purchased at a local book store. My own first copy, dating back to the 70’s….has finally fallen to pieces. In looking for the section on Johnson, I saw the Ode, read it and was instantly taken by a few of the images that just leapt out at me. The idea of…Jove tossing us about…was remarkable. The lines “Where Priam and his sons are laid./Is nought but Ashes and a Shade” incredibly beautiful. I’m a big Johnson fan and have read two fantastic bios on him in the last year or so. I was also delighted to come across this web site today. Look forward to reading from time to time.

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