Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson

19 June: Wickedness takes the short cut

At the Last Supper scene from Strasbourg Cathedral, Judas is to the right of centre, grasping his moneybag. He has just received the piece of bread from Jesus, to the left, who has his hands clasped, his eyes turned heavenward. How did the betrayal that is about to occur come about? It doesn’t feel to me like just one more venial peccadillo, but perhaps it did to Judas. Maybe the venial peccadilloes, his stealing from the common purse, paved the way for the big one.

Here is an extract from Boswell, reporting a conversation on Skye in which Dr Johnson, The McCleod of McCleod, Rev Donald McQueen, and Boswell himself discussed human wickedness.

JOHNSON. ‘Cunning has effect from the credulity of others, rather than from the abilities of those who are cunning. It requires no extraordinary talents to lie and deceive.’

This led us to consider whether it did not require great abilities to be very wicked.

JOHNSON. ‘It requires great abilities to have the POWER of being very wicked; but not to BE very wicked. A man who has the power, which great abilities procure him, may use it well or ill; and it requires more abilities to use it well, than to use it ill. Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing. It is much easier to steal a hundred pounds, than to get it by labour, or any other way.

‘Consider only what act of wickedness requires great abilities to commit it, when once the person who is to do it has the power; for THERE is the distinction. It requires great abilities to conquer an army, but none to massacre it after it is conquered.’

From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.

More than once I have heard a preacher say that Judas was taking a short cut, contriving a showdown with the authorities that Jesus would surely win, a coup d’etat. But Jesus was not one for political short cuts; he was not a lazy thinker. Thirty pieces of silver could have been earned by hard work or by betrayal. Perhaps the moment of truth for Judas came as he kissed his master, and suddenly realised how wrong a turning he had made.

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3 May: In the Gloom of the Evening.

Doctor Johnson is on his travels in the Isle of Skye, in Autumn of the year 1773. The places named were homes of the local gentry who unfailingly welcomed Johnson and his friend James Boswell.There were no roads on Skye at this time and a trusted guide was absolutely necessary for safety.

More than 200 years later, I cannot help but think of the violence, terror and uncertainty that so many unwilling travellers have experienced in recent months, and the welcome they have received from strangers in their unexpected hour of need. Let us hope and pray that a ‘degree of cheerfulness’ may be granted them through the kindness of others, enabling them to sustain their children and vulnerable dependents.

In our way to Armidel (Armadale) was Coriatachan, where we had already been, and to which therefore we were very willing to return.  We staid however so long at Talisker, that a great part of our journey was performed in the gloom of the evening. 

In travelling even thus almost without light thro’ naked solitude, when there is a guide whose conduct may be trusted, a mind not naturally too much disposed to fear, may preserve some degree of cheerfulness; but what must be the solicitude of him who should be wandering, among the craggs and hollows, benighted, ignorant, and alone? The fictions of the Gothick romances were not so remote from credibility as they are now thought. 

In the full prevalence of the feudal institution, when violence desolated the world, and every baron lived in a fortress, forests and castles were regularly succeeded by each other, and the adventurer might very suddenly pass from the gloom of woods, or the ruggedness of moors, to seats of plenty, gaiety, and magnificence.  Whatever is imaged in the wildest tale, if giants, dragons, and enchantment be excepted, would be felt by him, who, wandering in the mountains without a guide, or upon the sea without a pilot, should be carried amidst his terror and uncertainty, to the hospitality and elegance of Raasay or Dunvegan.

Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland by Samuel Johnson.

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30 March: Skating and skimming across the abyss.

Reverend Robert Walker skating.

Boswell tells us in Volume V of his Life of Johnson that, ‘Dr Erskine and Mr Robert Walker, two very respectable ministers of Edinburgh, supped with us,’ meaning Dr Johnson and himself. This was on Wednesday November 10th, 1773, shortly before Johnson returned to London after his tour of Scotland including the Hebrides, but not forgetting Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Enlightenment.

In his collected works appears the following verse, in French, followed by Johnson’s translations, firstly the ‘considered’ version followed by an impromptu version, already scanning and rhyming.

I like the image of lightly skimming over pleasures, enjoying them for a while, then hasting away from what could be a dangerous abyss for the less wary. Not a bad ideal for Lent or any time.

Translation of the Following Lines, written under a print representing persons skating.

Sur un mince cristal l'hiver conduit leurs pas,
  Le précipice est sous la glace:
  Telle est de nos plaisirs la légère surface:
Glissez, mortels; n'appuyez pas.

 O'er ice the rapid skater flies,
  With sport above, and death below;
Where mischief lurks in gay disguise,
  Thus lightly touch and quickly go.


Impromptu Translation of the same.

O'er crackling ice, o'er gulfs profound,
  With nimble glide the skaters play;
O'er treach'rous pleasure's flow'ry ground
  Thus lightly skim, and haste away."

(from Volume 1, The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes)

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22 March: Excuses for what we know to be wrong.

It’s the eighteenth century, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell’s tour around the Hebrides has been curtailed by the weather. Boswell had enjoyed more than one glass of his host’s hospitality on Saturday evening, and woke up with a hangover, barely conscious. No minister, so no Sunday service, but conscience was to catch up with him, though he tried to wriggle out of it. But finally he was honest with himself and the reader.

I took my host’s advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson’s room, and taking up Mrs M’Kinnon’s prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, ‘And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess.’ Some would have taken this as a divine interposition.

This was another day of wind and rain; but good cheer and good society helped to beguile the time. I felt myself comfortable enough in the afternoon. I then thought that my last night’s riot was no more than such a social excess as may happen without much moral blame; and recollected that some physicians maintained, that a fever produced by it was, upon the whole, good for health: so different are our reflections on the same subject, at different periods; and such the excuses with which we palliate what we know to be wrong.

From “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.” by James Boswell.

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26 February: Samuel Johnson on Spring.

 Samuel Johnson wrote poetry as well as dictionaries - and all manner of literature that paid his way. Here in an extract from 'Irene' he reflects on Spring in England.  In the moonlight nature looks new from the maker's hand. Let's pray this Lent for an awareness of being created by a smiling, unoffended God, and be grateful for his ever-ready forgiveness. Irene means peace.

And let's look for a darker sky than in a well-lit street to see how the moon spreads her mild radiance!
 
See how the moon, through all th' unclouded sky,
Spreads her mild radiance, and descending dews
Revive the languid flow'rs; thus nature shone
New from the maker's hand, and fair array'd
In the bright colours of primeval spring;
When purity, while fraud was yet unknown,
Play'd fearless in th' inviolated shades.

This elemental joy, this gen'ral calm,
Is, sure, the smile of unoffended heav'n.

From Irene by Samuel Johnson.

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18 February: Changeable Skies and Uncertain Seasons.

Winter’s Afternoon, Old Ruttington Lane.

Another visit to the eighteenth century in the company of Doctor Johnson and James Boswell.

In The Idler, No. II, Johnson shews that ‘an Englishman’s notice of the weather is the natural consequence of changeable skies and uncertain seasons… In our island every man goes to sleep unable to guess whether he shall behold in the morning a bright or cloudy atmosphere, whether his rest shall be lulled by a shower, or broken by a tempest. We therefore rejoice mutually at good weather, as at an escape from something that we feared; and mutually complain of bad, as of the loss of something that we hoped.’

Boswell for once is quoting from Johnson’s written words rather than conversation. I found this text on the same day in winter that I took the photograph. My father called the piercing of clouds by sunbeams such as we see here ‘The Gate of Heaven’. A saying worth recording, as Boswell would no doubt have agreed.

I am reminded of the line of Chesterton: ‘The gates of heaven are lightly locked.’ But do we look up to see them? Dare we set a toe over the threshold, pausing even for a moment, to catch a glimpse of glory? What does the voice from the cloud tell us? I found myself hurrying the next moment, as my grandson’s school bell had rung and he would soon be out, scanning the playground for his adults. But the moment stayed with me.

From “Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784” by James Boswell

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13 February: A Motto to live by.

317px-Philip_Doddridge.jpg (317×479)
Philip Doddridge D.D.

How are you doing with those New Year’s Resolutions? Read on for some encouragement!

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are in Skye, made very welcome by a local chief, but unable to move on because the weather was too bad for sailing or rowing, and of course Calmac steamships had not yet appeared. Here is Boswell describing one of their conversations. Doctor Doddridge was a non-conformist minister and hymn writer who died in 1751, 22 years before the friends’ tour of Scotland. More of Boswell’s idiosyncratic spellings.

Dr Dodridge being mentioned, [Johnson] observed that ‘he was author of one of the finest epigrams in the English language. It is in Orton’s Life of him. The subject is his family-motto, Dum vivimus, vivamus*; which, in its primary signification, is, to be sure, not very suitable to a Christian divine; but he paraphrased it thus:

  Live, while you live, the EPICURE would say,
  And seize the pleasures of the present day.
  Live, while you live, the sacred PREACHER cries,
  And give to God each moment as it flies.
 
  Lord, in my views let both united be;
  I live in PLEASURE, when I live to THEE. 

(from The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by James Boswell)

*While we are alive, let us live!

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11 February: What is amiss, let us amend.

A queue for covid vaccinations at Lichfield Cathedral. TB.

Feb. 11, 1784.

TO MRS. LUCY PORTER, IN LICHFIELD.

MY DEAREST LOVE,

I have been extremely ill of an asthma and dropsy, but received, by the mercy of GOD, sudden and unexpected relief last Thursday, by the discharge of twenty pints of water[11 litres]. Whether I shall continue free, or shall fill again, cannot be told. Pray for me.

Death, my dear, is very dreadful; let us think nothing worth our care but how to prepare for it: what we know amiss in ourselves let us make haste to amend, and put our trust in the mercy of GOD, and the intercession of our Saviour.

I am, dear Madam,

Your most humble servant,

SAM. JOHNSON.

Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784″ by James Boswell.

Lucy Porter was Johnson’s stepdaughter; he had married her widowed mother but she had died after just a few years. Although he lived and worked in London – the man who is tired of London is tired of life is his saying – he kept in touch with family and friends in Lichfield, his home town, including Lucy. At the time of writing he was an old man and sick; dropsy is now called oedema, a swelling of soft tissue especially in the legs, and may be an indication of heart failure – so carrying 11 kilos of extra weight in fluid was not good. Johnson does not say how his relief was brought about.

But his heartfelt love for his stepdaughter shines through, as well as his apprehension of death and judgement.

What is amiss, let us amend.

Amen to that!

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26 December: Happy Families

Here is Saint Francis, witnessing the life of the Holy Family by CD

Did it make you squirm when well-meaning priests or other adults urged us as children to be ‘like the Holy Family’. If we were, it was never for long – rarely if ever were we free from petty jealousies or quarrels, despite my father’s holding to the motto, ‘the family that prays together, stays together’, which is not totally untrue in our case, decades past childhood. Perhaps we have been blessed, guided and defended more than we generally acknowledge.

A silent ‘thank you’ for that grace on this, the feast of the Holy Family, which is usurping Saint Stephen’s day.

Following the death of his close friend Mr Thrale, Doctor Johnson realised that he would be seeing much less of the Thrale family. He composed this prayer on the last occasion that he stopped over at the house they were putting on the market, where he had spent many happy days.

To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, 
I commend this family. 
Bless, guide, and defend them, 
that they may so pass through this world, 
as finally to enjoy in thy presence 
everlasting happiness, 
for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen

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14 December: Johnson on Winter.

A festive fire at the Turnstones’ a few years ago.

Festive fires are few and far between these days, but ‘Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high, Light up a constellation here’, as Samuel Johnson says. It will soon be Christmas. We have our constellation of fairy lights, now what would he have made of that?

Well, we nor more than Johnson, should not submit to a dreary winter’s tale: it will soon be Christmas! Let’s use each transient hour to restore the spring in our own – or other people’s hearts. It is the time of Joy.

But many are in danger of death in regions where conflict has led to famine, cold, sickness and separation from family and friends. Let us not bar the door of our hearts to them!

Winter

Haste, close the window, bar the doors,
  Fate leaves me Stella, and a friend.

In nature’s aid, let art supply
  With light and heat my little sphere;
Rouse, rouse the fire, and pile it high,
  Light up a constellation here.


Let musick sound the voice of joy,
  Or mirth repeat the jocund tale;
Let love his wanton wiles employ,
  And o’er the season wine prevail.

Yet time life’s dreary winter brings,
  When mirth’s gay tale shall please no more
Nor musick charm—though Stella sings;
  Nor love, nor wine, the spring restore.


Catch, then, Oh! catch the transient hour,
  Improve each moment as it flies;
Life’s a short summer—man a flow’r:
  He dies—alas! how soon he dies!”

(from The Works of Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., in Nine Volumes.

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