Johnson Dies in December

Johnson was 75 years old when in died in 1784. Even apart from his failing health, it was a troubled and turbulent year for him, one of dramatic changes and actions. It’s as if everything was starting to fall apart anyway, so death near the end of the year was the logical conclusion. He seemed to sense the end coming. On July 6 he began writing in Latin what he called his “Aegri Ephemeris,” or Sick Man’s Journal. He kept at it for over four months, detailing his various illnesses, but finally stopped it on November 8.

One huge blow to him in his final months was not physical but emotional: the end of his friendship with Hester Thrale (see more here). She had married an Italian man named Gabriel Mario Piozzi whom Johnson disapproved of, and he sent her a very harsh letter expressing his feelings:

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.

He was frankly wrong to pass such judgment. Thrale had been his friend for almost twenty years and during many of them she let him stay with her and her first husband at their house. She in effect broke off the friendship, defending herself with dignity:

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.

This was July, and he wrote to her later, after the marriage had occurred, pleading with her to at least remain in England. She did not, and in September moved to Italy.

As he sensed death approaching, he remained lucid enough to think about what he wanted kept and not kept, what he wanted known about himself or not. Unfortunately for those of us who would like to know every detail we can about Johnson’s life, in his final days he began destroying biographical papers — actually burning them. As one of his biographer’s says, he had “stated several times that the contemplation of his past filled him with misery, whereas there was hope in the future.” (1)

He did make some visits to friends, even outside of London, during his last months, but ultimately of course he was on his way to death. B. L. Reid describes the last days:

When Dr. Brockelsby, in answer to Johnson’s direct question, tells him that he cannot recover without a miracle, he replies at once: “Then I will take no more physick, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.” In this resolution he persisted. Of course. The holy sacrament is brought to him at home. On Monday, December 13, young Miss Morris comes to beg his blessing. Johnson turns himself in bed and says, “God bless you, my dear.” He did not speak again, and he died that evening without stress or struggle. (2)

And of course, 235 years and 5 days later, we will mark his death.

(1) Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2010)

(2) B. L. Reid, “How to Die: The Example of Samuel Johnson,” Sewanee Review 85:4 (fall 1977).

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