Johnson at 60

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.

2 replies
  1. Chris Ogden
    Chris Ogden says:

    Yes, have a good birthday Wayne.
    60 seems a long way away for me….
    From a once-resident of Kingston (1970 – 1979 ) now ensconced in London, U.K.

  2. Judith Hazlett
    Judith Hazlett says:

    Have a good day tomorrow, Wayne.

    I like your approach to the day: using it for some thoughtful examination of your future, rather than getting drunk and wallowing in what-has-gone-before.

    We look forward to your next visit to Kingston, and are planning a trip sometime to Ottawa to take you out for a belated birthday dinner.

    And now here is a quote from poet Jason Heroux, the present poet-laureate of Kingston:

    Let your wind
    move its pushcart
    through our aisles

    carrying nothing
    but the scent
    of mint and forgiveness.

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