“The Down of Plenty”

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 …

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