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).

Johnson was notoriously hard on himself. Not in the sense that he doubted his intelligence or his ability to write or debate, for example, but more in the sense of himself as a person, his morality, his character, his traits. Often near the end of the year (but sometimes also throughout the year or on an anniversary or birthday), he would generally write about having been lazy and unproductive during the past year, asking God to forgive him, and vowing to try to do better in the year to come. This is the prayer he wrote January 1, 1757, “at 2 in the morning”:

Almighty God, who hast brought me to the beginning of another year, and by prolonging my life invitest to repentance, forgive me that I have misspent the time past; enable me, from this instant, to amend my life according to Thy holy word; grant me Thy HOLY SPIRIT, that I may so pass through things temporal, as not finally to lose the things eternal. GOD, hear my prayer for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

There’s a feeling of harshness to himself about it, a kind of flagellation: I have been bad, forgive me, God, and I will try to be better. He was sincere and believed what he was saying, and his relationship to his God was often expressed in this way of not living up to the ideals implicit in religious belief.

On his birthday, September 18, that same year, the theme continues:

Almighty and most merciful Father, by whose providence my life has been prolonged, and who hast granted me now to begin another year of probation, vouch safe me such assistance of Thy HOLY SPIRIT, that the continuance of my life may not add to the measure of my guilt; but that I may so repent of the days and years passed in neglect of the duties which Thou hast set before me, in vain thoughts, in sloth, and in folly, that I may apply my heart to true wisdom, by diligence redeem the time lost, and by repentance obtain pardon, for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. Amen.

This is typical, thanking God for the bare fact of keeping him alive (!), and then talking about his own perceived sloth and folly and “time lost.” The idea of having wasted time recurs in the prayers. He was generally a productive man but evidentally either never saw himself that way, or concentrated more on the difference between the ideal of perfection he assigned to himself in God’s eyes, rather than on the messy practicality of being a human, which of course will entail a little laziness and slacking off in the best of us during the course of any year.

You could probably make an argument that it is his aspiring to an ideal that in fact helped him get so much done, so that in a way he has it all backwards: it’s not that he doesn’t achieve enough against some impossible ideal, but rather that the ideal is an inspiration that helps him get a lot done in spite of all the other demands and obstacles that any life offers a person. It’s too bad he couldn’t feel better about what he did manage to get done.

I took the afternoon off on Wednesday and went to a spa. First time in my life for any such thing (and I just turned 60 a couple of weeks ago). I wandered around in a bathrobe and partook of the various luxurious offerings: large outdoor hot tubs, saunas that drained me, a (ahem) “foot treatment,” and a massage. There was also a relaxation dwelling with a fire going in the middle and I was able to sit alone in a sort of swing and rock back and forth for a while in total quiet solitude. It was a lot of self-pampering for a humble librarian.

I took my Kindle along with me and as I had a smoothie and a bowl of soup at the cafe, I read a little more in Leo Damrosch’s great new book. It happened to be the part where he is talking about Johnson’s relationship with the talented but troubled poet Richard Savage. Johnson had certainly experienced poverty in his own life but he had come to London from Lichfield and made money at the Gentleman’s Magazine and from some relatively minor publications. Savage was always poor and never hesitated to ask to borrow from friends. Alas he often didn’t pay it back and, alas and alack, often squandered it too. But Johnson could relate to poverty. Damrosch quotes him:

In the prospect of poverty there is nothing but gloom and melancholy. The mind and body suffer together; its miseries bring no alleviations; it is a state in which every virtue is obscured and in which no conduct can avoid reproach; a state in which cheerfulness is insensibility, and dejection sullenness, of which the hardships are without honour, and the labours without reward.

Johnson of course went on to write his own biography of Savage, where he defended him against those who might make too easy a judgment. This is Damrosch’s account of the two friends’ parting and Savage’s death:

Savage eventually accepted enough money from friends to live frugally in the country, “and parted from the author of this narrative with tears in his eyes.” He got as far as Bristol, ran into debt, and was consequently imprisoned. There he fell ill and died. There is pathos in Johnson’s account of his last recorded words: “The last time that the [jail] keeper saw him was on July the 31st, 1743, when Savage, seeing him at his bed-side, said, with an uncommon earnestness, ‘I have something to say to you, Sir;’ but after a pause, moved his hand in a melancholy manner, and finding himself unable to recollect what he was going to communicate, said, ‘’Tis gone.’ The keeper soon after left him; and the next morning he died, at the age of forty-six.” Johnson concludes the story with a challenge to the reader: “Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will a wise man easily presume to say, ‘Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.’”

Empathy for poverty was a theme through Johnson’s life. He let some of the down and out stay for short or long periods at his home. And of course he famously laid into Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, in which Jenyns demonstrated little understanding for the effects of poverty on a person. It reminds me of George Orwell’s description of the “dull evil cloud of unemployment” which can prevent writers from doing any writing even though they have all that time on their hands:

To write books you need not only comfort and solitude — and solitude is never easy to attain in a working-class home — you also need peace of mind. You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.

Johnson often got things written even with the cloud hanging. It wasn’t until he got his pension and started living with the Thrales near the end of his life that he really had dependable comfort. He would have been a great one to talk to in the locker room at the spa the other day …

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)