Saturday, July 25, 2009

The End of Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin.

Johnson's prayer on his sixtieth birthday (1769) recorded his horror once again that he was not achieving anything and that his physical recovery was slow; "My days are easier, but the perturbations of my nights is very distressful. I think to try to lower my diet. I have grown fat too fast. My lungs seem encumbered, and my breath fails me, if my strength is in any unusual degree exerted, or my motion accelerated'. Such worries bred fears of an unprepared death that cropped up frequently in his letters: 'though I feel all these decays of the body, I have made no preparation for the grave. What shall I do to be saved?' Boswell's compelling passage on 26 October describing Johnson's mind in combat with itself is the most vividly terrifying ever written by someone who had the chance to study him closely:

His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgment, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him. To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, 'No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives...It will do him no good to whine."

Brave but desperate words. Boswell was in forbidden territory but foolishly persisted talking about death; "He was so provoked, that he said,' Give us no more of this", and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; showed an impatience that I should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me, sternly, "Don't let us meet tomorrow."

Johnson passed away late in 1784, after a long struggle with the infirmities of old age. It is unclear how soon before Johnson died he came to a strong faith or 'conversion' that the afterlife would not, as he feared all his life, hold any terrors for him. Whenever that was, it is at least clear that he defiantly and frantically, even violently, fought the battle against death.

To begin with, he burned his papers, not the act of a man at peace with himself. Brocklesby reported that eight of ten days before he died, 'low and desponding', he cried out to him part of Macbeth's speech that begins with, "Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?'. And when five days before his death John Ryland attempted to comfort him that there was great hope for everyone in the afterlife, Johnson replied quickly, "Yes, we have hopes given us; but they are conditional, and I know not how far I have fulfilled those conditions."

What he most definitely did not want to hear were compliments on what a virtuous life he had led. Furthermore, the story Boswell told about his signing off medicine once Dr. Brockesby told him only a miracle would save him, clearly misrepresents what happened since he took plenty of medicine afterward and resorted to other physical means to recover.

Nichols told Boswell that less than a week before his death Johnson had such little fear of the pain of a needed surgical puncture of the revived sarcocele that when Brockesby began to take his pulse he grabbed his wrist and 'gave him a great look of contempt, and ridiculed the judging of his disorder by the pulse. Instead, he asked 'if puncture would not relieve him' and when Brockesby advised that Cruikshank was the best judge, Johnson shouted, 'How many men in a year die through the timidity of those who they consult for health! I want length of life and you fear giving me pain, which I care not for."

Johnson tried to bully Cruikshank, too, when he appeared later, but the surgeon refused to pierce the sarcocele. Then he commanded him to make incisions in his legs to release the pressure of the hateful dropsy. The surgeon was again afraid a 'mortification' might set in from any deep penetration of the knife and was in the process of merely lancing the surface of the legs when Johnson cried out again, "Deeper, deeper; I will abide by the consequence; you are afraid of your reputation but that is nothing to me..I would give one of these legs for a year more of life'...he is supposed to have said.

His truly terrifying and courageous act came on the morning of his last day of life. From his servant's report, Windham recounted what happened:

He had compelled Frank to give him a lancet, and had besides concealed in the bed a pair of scissors, and with one or the other of these he had scarfied himself in three places, two in the left leg, etc. On Mrs Desmoulins making a difficulty of giving him the lancet, he said, 'Don't you, if you have any scruples; but I will compel Frank... He then made the three incisions of which one in the leg was not unskillfully made; the other in the leg was a deep and ugly wound from which, with the others, they supposed him to have lost nearly eight ounces of blood.

Soon after that, Johnson took scissors and 'plunged them deep in the calf of each leg. He was so convinced dropsy was the root cause of most of his illness that he was determined to do anything in his power to get rid of it. If the butchering of his own body did not hasten his death, the experimental drug, digitalis, which he was given that last day in a major overdose, did.

The final high drama of the death scene occurred on 13 December. Johnson slepted for most of the day, taking some milk which he complained had not been given to him properly, and blessing a Miss Morris who had come off the street totally unexpected to receive his benediction, but otherwise speaking to nobody. Nobody spoke to him because he seemed in a type of doze, breathing in short, regular breaths. Shortly after seven in the evening he took his last breath, awakening from his doze just seconds before to say to Sastras 'iam mortiturus' ('now I am about to die').

Hamilton said of Johnson what all the Johnsonians felt when it sank in that they no longer had with them the literary colossus who had touched and altered English life and the literary landscape so considerably in the last half of the century as well as their own lives in deeply personal ways:

"He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendancy to fill up.- Johnson is dead- Let us go to the next best:- there is nobody;-no man can be said to put you in the mind of Johnson."


  1. Johnson was a very large and athletic man with many eccentricities.

    'It is now widely suspected that his movement disorders were symptoms of what has become known as as the neurological disease that some now call Tourette's Syndrome, except without the extremes of profanity that often characterize it.

    By the time Boswell had met Johnson, it is possible that these jerks, gesticulations and other movement disorders ha become more astonishing to onlookers than in earlier years:

    'while taliking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth, sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, 'too, too, too': all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look but frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.."

    in 1775 Guiseppe Baretti described him as 'my British sack of learning...a nasty old man, a giant in both body and mind, always absent-minded, fierce, touchy, dirty, full of unpleasant habits, always shifting his body when he is seated, and always moving his jaw like an ox chewing the cud; but he is rightly believed to possess more learning than any other man in this kingdom, he is feared and respected by all, perhaps more than he is loved."

    Poltically, Johnson was something of a hybrid, a high churchman with 'low ' Tory sentiments who never-the-less circulated freely with the powerful and wealthy patrons of the Whig party, while remainly primarily tuned to the practices and sentiments of simpler town folks and their worlds, to Christian virtues and associations, and to the beauties and solidarity of rural market towns."

    He opposed slavery and Empire- the meddling with and conquest of indigenous peoples- though he had no sympathy for the demands of the American colonists for Independence; their demands for 'freedom' he considered a form of intolerable hypocracy. He despised the 'demogoguery' of John Wilkes but, surpisingly, found his company amicable when they were finally brought together for dinner through the conivance of Boswell.

  2. 'Samuel Johnson; A Biography" by Peter Martin; Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA. 2008

    Although losing much favor during the Romantic era of the 19th century, interest in Johnson's work revived in the 20th. His preface to his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare is quite masterful. Today, his style is commonly regarded as quite difficult but is really not any more so than, for example "The Federalist Papers". A remarkable man in a remarkable age!