Samuel Johnson, 1709–84

'Samuel Johnson', by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas, 1756–1757. 1276 mm x 1016 mm. National Portrait Gallery, London.

‘Samuel Johnson’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Oil on canvas, 1756–1757. 1276 mm x 1016 mm. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The small off-white cardboard
plaque says that you were
plagued with nervous tics,
a victim of melancholia, and
a bit of a gasbag.
That may be true.
But Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92)
has made you appear
already in your Hades;
ashen, and clad in rags
already the colour of
the dust (of which you were formed
and to which you have long returned),
and all but abandoned for the
company of friends who gave you life;
and forgotten but for
the Dictionary that bears your name.
Certainly, you now hang alongside
a most uninteresting tribe,
and unaware, it seems, that
the adventurous and handsome Joseph Banks
hangs not 30 metres from you
in the next room, and that
the inspiring Charles Kingsley – and his fishing pole –
hangs on the wall in the room above.

– Jason Goroncy

14 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson, 1709–84

  1. Nice poem, Jason. When I was in the UK in 2007 we discovered we were in Johnson’s home town, and visited the house he’d grown up. An interesting man, with a difficult life in some ways. A gasbag, I guess – prolific might be more appropriate, and of course, we see a lot of his personality through the eyes of Boswell, who might also be regarded as a gasbag…
    How much of of Johnson is actually Boswell’s colouring of him, I wonder?

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  2. Just a question: the lines –
    and all but abandoned for the
    company of friends who gave you life;
    puzzle me a little…you don’t mean ‘by the company’ do you?

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  3. She’s nearly 7, but her teachers inform me that she’s reading at the level of an 8-9 year old. I reckon that that’s as revealing of NZ school standards as it is of her love of reading. That all said, her father would be delighted to help her through a Crowl tome.

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  4. Good! I’ll keep you informed of its progress. Yes, I think love of reading pushes a child ahead far more quickly than anything teachers can teach: some of my grandchildren are the same, reading well ahead of their actual age. (They take after their grandfather, naturally!)

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  5. I am going to have to read more of your poetry. This poem, to me, is a reflection on the vagaries of fame. Johnson was an intellectual’s intellectual during his time, perhaps a gasbag as the cardboard plaque says, but I would not really say so. He was vital and alive and endlessly filled with an intellectual energy. Still, in the end,
    Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92)
    has made you appear
    already in your Hades;
    ashen, and clad in rags
    already the colour of
    the dust (of which you were formed
    and to which you have long returned),
    and all but abandoned for the
    company of friends who gave you life;
    and forgotten but for
    the Dictionary that bears your name.
    He is placed with his equally vibrant friends also hanging on walls, remembered, importantly in a way, but still forgotten, an “unimportant tribe” in modern currency:
    unaware, it seems, that
    the adventurous and handsome Joseph Banks
    hangs not 30 metres from you
    in the next room, and that
    the inspiring Charles Kingsley – and his fishing pole –
    hangs on the wall in the room above.
    There is a humbling aspect to the poem, a warning aspect, but also a philosophical dimension: Where does the vibrancy of a Samuel Johnson go? All the work he labored over so prodigiously? All the friends he had? We have? Good things to contemplate as we are so seriously engaged with our own world.

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  6. @ Thomas: thanks for your encouraging comment. It’s always fascinating to me to see what others notice. That’s part of arts’ allure and livingness.

    @ Mike: I’m rethinking your ‘by the company’ suggestion …

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  7. Okay…just re-reading it now I think I’ve misinterpreted ‘for the company.’ Is it the ‘rags’ that are all but abandoned? If that’s the case, then ‘for the company’ makes sense. If it’s Johnson himself who’s ‘all but abandoned’ then that’s where I’d get the meaning of the ‘by the company.’

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