02 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (22)

‘Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate, / O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate’ … gargoyles on Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

The Johnson Society, which is based in Lichfield, has over 600 members across the UK and worldwide. The Johnson Society is hosting its Annual Lecture at 7.30pm. this evening [2 March 2016] in the Methodist Church, Tamworth Street, Lichfield, when Professor Tiffany Stern of Oxford University speaks on: ‘Garrick, Johnson and Not-Shakespeare.’

I am back in Lichfield these days for a family visit and some family meals, and I am staying in the ‘Saint Chad’ room in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn on Stafford Road, with a view from my window this morning across the city towards the three spires of Lichfield Cathedral. Today [2 March 2016] is the Feast Day of Saint Chad, the patron saint of Lichfield. It was celebrated in Lichfield Cathedral last Sunday [28 February 2016] with the Choral Eucharist, at which the preacher was Bishop Christopher Foster of Portsmouth, Solemn Evensong and Shrine Prayers, and again yesterday with the Solemn First Evensong of Saint Chad.

Today, Saint Chad’s day is being celebrated in the cathedral at Morning Prayer (7.30 a.m.), the Eucharist (12.30), and Festal Evensong and Procession (5.30 p.m.), with the installation of prebendaries and the commemoration of benefactors.

Saint Chad’s Head Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While I am in Lichfield this week, I am reminded how Samuel Johnson once said:

I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.

During these few days, I am walking the same streets and paths and lanes that Johnson knew as a child growing up in this city. But none of these is as dreary to tread as the paths that Johnson describes in the poem I am reading this morning.

Both Walter Scott and TS Eliot considered ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ to be Johnson’s greatest poem. Samuel Beckett was a devoted admirer of Johnson and at one point filled three notebooks with material for a play about him, which he named Human Wishes after Johnson’s poem. However, Beckett abandoned the play after he completed the First Act.

Johnson wrote ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated’ in 1749 while he was completing A Dictionary of the English Language. It was the first published work to include Johnson’s name on the title page.

As the subtitle suggests, this poem is an imitation of ‘Satire X’ by the Latin poet Juvenal. The poem focuses on human futility and humanity’s quest after greatness like Juvenal, but Johnson concludes that Christian values are important to living properly.

‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ is a poem of 368 lines, written in closed heroic couplets. Johnson loosely adapts Juvenal’s original satire to demonstrate “the complete inability of the world and of worldly life to offer genuine or permanent satisfaction.”

The opening lines (1-10) announce the universal scope of the poem, as well as its central theme that “the antidote to vain human wishes is non-vain spiritual wishes”:

Let Observation with extensive View, Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

‘To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide’ … walking along the anything-but-dreary pathway on Cross in Hand Lane, close to where I am staying near Lichfield this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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