As I post this blog entry, I myself am about 20 hours from turning 60, and so in thinking about my own life I also thought about Johnson’s at the same age.

He was 60 in 1769. By that time, he had published most of the major works of his life — his influential edition of Shakespeare’s plays had been published only four years earlier — and ahead of him were some interesting political pamphlets and two more major works: his account of his trip to the Scottish Hebrides with Boswell, and his series of short biographies which we now generally refer to as the Lives of the Poets. In his personal life, Boswell was still around of course and he had established a close friendship with Hester Thrale, whom he’d met in 1765, and at whose house he spent a lot of his time.

His health was starting to decline, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. He’d had a major illness, both physically and mentally, in early 1766. Peter Martin writes:

One day near the end of June they found him imploring a guest to pray for him “in the most pathetic terms.” Shocked, Thrale “involuntarily lifted up one hand to shut his mouth.” Then and there, Mrs Thrale decided to take over, removing him from his “close habitation in the court” and whisking him off to Streatham Park where for three months she nursed him until his physical (if not mental) health returned.

For sure, he did recover physically: he was a big and strong man, and had a sturdiness about him that always seemed to get him back on his feet. Mentally, as Martin implies, not so much. Perhaps worse for him than visible outbursts was the constant melancholy, which often saw him shutting himself off in his room at the Thrales’.

I also thought of Jonathan Swift even before I got out of bed today, and his famous ( but somehow also little-known) resolutions for when he would become old. He wrote them when he was in his early 30s, but even though my friends assure me that 60 is not old — we have agreed that it is neither “the new 40” nor “the new 50” and so I am compromising at “45” — they’re still fascinating to read, with that great tone of Swift’s of simultaneously writing about something important to him, but not quite taking it seriously:

Not to marry a young Woman.

Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.

Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.

Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.

Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.

Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.

Not to be covetous.

Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.

Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.

Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.

Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.

To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.

Not to talk much, nor of my self.

Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.

Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare.

Not to be positive or opiniative.

Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.

I agree with most of these but disagree strongly with some (“Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly”). But I can mostly relate to the last one, in my modern interpretation of it: as I turn 60, I’ll set some standards and rules for myself, but won’t over-criticize myself if I fail regularly with some of them and occasionally with others.

Well, enough about sex (here, here!), for now.

One of Johnson’s closest friends in his latter years, and frankly one that accommodated him (literally and figuratively) and put up with a lot of his idiosyncrasies, was Hester Thrale. He met her for the first time in 1765, when he was 55 and she was 23, and their long and close friendship ended in 1784, only about five months before his death. The end was ugly, and heart-breaking to anyone who knows how much they had shared as friends, and it was also categorical. Johnson expressed himself harshly to her in a letter, and her reply to him effectively put an end to everything. Johnson was hurt and perhaps jealous in his letter, and Thrale was also hurt in hers as well, but she maintained her dignity and integrity.

The issue was simple: she had decided to marry Gabriel Piozzi, a “singer and composer … who [had] taught the girls [her daughters] singing and encouraged them to translate Italian poetry.”1 Johnson was livid when he found out about it, and sent her this letter:

If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married; if it is yet undone, let us once more talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness: if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do no further mischief. If the last act is yet to do, I who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served you, I who long thought you the first of humankind, entreat that, before your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you. I was, I once was

Madam, most truly yours,

Sam: Johnson

I will come down, if you permit it.

Thrale’s response was:

I have this morning received from you so rough a letter in reply to one which was both tenderly and respectfully written, that I am forced to desire the conclusion of a correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer. The birth of my second husband is not meaner than that of my first; his sentiments are not meaner; his profession is not meaner, and his superiority in what he professes acknowledged by all mankind. It is want of fortune then that is ignominious; the character of the man I have chosen has no other claim to such an epithet. The religion to which he has always been a zealous adherent will, I hope, teach him to forgive insults he has not deserved; mine will, I hope, enable me to bear them at once with dignity and patience. To hear that I have forfeited my fame is indeed the greatest insult I ever yet received. My fame is as unsullied as snow, or I should think it unworthy of him who is henceforth to protect it.

I write by the coach the more speedily and effectually to prevent your coming hither. Perhaps by my fame (and I hope it is so) you mean only that celebrity which is a consideration of a much lower kind. I care for that only as it may give pleasure to my husband and his friends.

Farewell, dear Sir, and accept my best wishes. You have always commanded my esteem, and long enjoyed the fruits of a friendship never infringed by one harsh expression on my part during twenty years of familiar talk. Never did I oppose your will, or control your wish; nor can your unmerited severity itself lessen my regard; but till you have changed your opinion of Mr. Piozzi let us converse no more. God bless you.

Johnson did write a letter in reply — “What you have done, however I may lament it, I have no pretence to resent, as it has not been injurious to me: I therefore breathe out one sigh more of tenderness, perhaps useless, but at least sincere,” it says in part — but the damage had been done, and their friendship was ruined. I’ve always found this one of the saddest exchanges and one of the worst things that ever happened during Johnson’s life — a life that had many sad things in it.

Johnson’s letter to Thrale, July 2, 1984. (Image from Harvard University, Houghton Library [here])
  1. Martin, Peter. Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008)