Even a man of voluminous gravity,
The monumental lexicographer
Who labored in inconvenience and distraction,
In sorrow, sickness, and slovenly poverty
Unaided by the learned or the great,
A man of girth and passionate appetite
Who relished with dispatch and enormous zest
Huge stacks of pancakes, bottomless pots of tea,
Along with whatever conversational thrust
Kept the mind nimble and the spirit light,
Delaying the final, agonizing hour
When he lumbered off to bed, always alone,
To self-recrimination in pitch dark,
Contains in his heart of hearts a little boy
Who played and played all day, without a thought
Of duty or expectation or penury
Or wasted years diminishing all the time.
Not to idealize childhood, least of all his:
Barely alive at birth, too weak to cry,
Infected in infancy by tubercular milk,
Rendered half blind, half deaf, with an open wound
Stitched in his little arm for his first six years
(An issue, with so much else, he learned to ignore),
Scarred by the scrofula, and further scarred
By being cut sans anesthesia,
He wasn’t a pretty sight, but bore it all,
The constant pain, the perpetual awkwardness,
The fretting of parents, and the feckless taunts
Of boys who could play ball and ridicule
The rawboned, driveling prodigy in their midst,
And grew to be a man of great physical strength
Despite his pitiful incapacities.
The body had its struggles. So did the mind.
The photographic memory, the sheer
Celerity and clarity and taut
Engagement with the question, small or large,
Be it some pressing affair of state, or some
Domestic crisis pressing upon the heart
Of one he loved, encompassing his point
With honesty and syntax and good sense,
Such gifts the mind deployed with bravery
While poised above a vertiginous abyss
Opening wide within, a whirligig
Of deep afflictions and anxieties:
Depression, sloth, despair, paralysis,
An “inward hostility against himself”
In which his massive critical faculty
Would pulverize his puny self-regard,
And, worst of all, pure terror at the dark
Encroachments of what seemed insanity.
Now, in his middle fifties, the shadows lengthen,
“A kind of strange oblivion” overspreads him.
Beset by horrors and perplexities
The clicks and spasms and clucking of Tourette’s
Markedly worsen as the great man sinks
Deeper in torpor, till guilt at time misspent
Freezes and harrows him, transfixed, become
A spectator at his own stunned debacle,
Tortured by scruples like pebbles in his shoes.
He’s written nothing for years, and Shakespeare waits,
Promised and paid for but beyond him still
(What infinite riches, and what little room),
As vast resources of intelligence
Fritter away from faulty “character,”
And reason flickers, dying, all but snuffed
Out by the listless drift of hopelessness.
His friends try to distract him, to little avail,
With a club, a trip to the country, anything . . .
He visits Lincolnshire with Bennet Langton
In January 1764.
He’s on his best behavior, charming both
His young friend’s parents and their visitors.
One fine, dry afternoon, windless and clear,
They set out walking on the Lincolnshire wolds.
Only the groundsel’s in bloom, a tentative yellow,
As they amble past tufts of grouse scrub, furze, and thorn,
But the air has a pleasing crispness, with a rich,
Effluvial hint of leaf-mold or of wood-rot.
The hills are varied by streaks of yellowish red
Which vaguely correspond to, lower down,
The low, red roofs of occasional cottages.
Everything’s very still. There are just three birds:
A fluttering brace of fieldfares (or are they redwings?),
Plus a lone kestrel, hovering for a vole.
They reach the top of an impressive hill.
Admiring its steepness, suddenly Johnson declares
He has “not had a roll for a long time.”
Against the objections of the company
He divests himself of pencil, keys, and purse,
Lies down at the edge, and, after a turn
Or two, is off and tumbling and picking up speed
Flattening the flora in his path
While sending up puffs of chalk dust, now he’s chuckling
As his weight propels him and his heaviness
Precipitating his new view revolves
As sky and earth wheel round in blue-brown circles
And happiness is merely being alive,
As if the good life really were this easy,
As if the nightmare of his coming breakdown
Had no more substance than a child’s bad dream.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 9, on page 25
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