03 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (23)

‘There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail, / Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail’ … the former prison cells in the Guildhall in Lichfield (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.

I have been in Lichfield these days, walking the same streets and paths and lanes that Johnson knew as a child growing up in this city. This morning [3 March 2016], I am continuing to read his poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes,’ which both Walter Scott and TS Eliot considered to be Johnson’s greatest poem.

Johnson wrote ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1749 while he was completing A Dictionary of the English Language, and it was the first published work to include his name on the title page.

In this poem, Johnson draws on his own experiences when, in Lines 151-160, he describes the life of the scholar and the difficulties facing the writer who depends on the generosity of a wealthy patron:

Should Beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter’d heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor Melancholy’s phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the doom of Man revrs’d for thee:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the Scholar’s life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jayl.

In the original version of the poem, lines 159-160 read:

There mark what ill the Scholar’s life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret and the Jayl.

Johnson retains the word “garret” in the first published edition of the poem. However, after the failure of Lord Chesterfield to provide financial support for his Dictionary in 1755, Johnson included a mordant definition of “patron” in his Dictionary:

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

At the same time, he revised line 160 in this poem to reflect his disillusionment with Chesterfield, so that these two lines would read:

There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail.

TS Eliot quoted these and other lines from ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in 1930 in an Introductory Essay, and said: “The precision of such verse gives, I think, an immense satisfaction to the reader; he has said what he wanted to say, with that urbanity which contemporary verse would do well to study; and the satisfaction I get from such lines is what I call the minimal quality of poetry.”

Yesterday’s reflection.

Continued tomorrow.

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