Monday, April 15, 2013

Turning to Johnson

From W. Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson: A Biography:
Because he was so susceptible to symbols, his impulse had always been to deny their power over the imagination and to try to put them at arm's length. The dignity of human nature required this if one was to remain a "free agent." Typical was the way he would dismiss the effect on us of the seasons ("imagination operating on luxury"). But now, in many ways, he was changing--not changing in his character but in what he said or admitted.

As November came to Litchfield, which he could reasonably doubt that he would ever see again, he felt the poignance of autumn as never before. One of Horace's odes especially (IV, vii) haunted him--the one in which the large revolving changes of nature, destroying and re-creating, are contrasted with the hopes and destiny of short-lived man. Before Johnson left Litchfield he translated it into English verse. The snows of winter--the ode begins--are melting as spring returns. The fields and woods are again green. But the human being, after entering his own winter, will not return. He will be like those millions of others who have entered the night--"ashes and a shade." The ode, in its clear-eyed existential honesty and mellow acceptance, typifies what Johnson had prized in Horace when he was a boy at Stourbridge--a union of qualities he had associated with Cornelius, who had seemed to the half-blind, half-deaf, awkward youth such a model of grace and classical acceptance of fact. Of the many translations of this famous ode, none catches the spirit of Horace more closely. At moments it is even more condensed than Horace. "Each revolving year," says Horace, "each hour that snatches the day, bids us not to hope for immortal life." Johnson wrote, "The changing year's successive plan / Proclaims mortality to man." Yet this is balanced by a flourish of stoic gaiety that goes beyond Horace. "Who knows whether the gods," asks Horace, "will add tomorrow's time to the sum of today?" In Johnson this becomes: "Who knows if Jove who counts our score / Will toss us in one morning more?"

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