Monday, October 12, 2009

The Mind of Samuel Johnson

[I]t is the mind which knows the power of its own potentially disruptive propensities that needs and demands to be disciplined."
--Donald Davie

"If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth."
--Samuel Johnson, "On Biography"

I first became interested in Samuel Johnson while reading Simon Winchester's excellent The Professor and the Madman,an insightful book that traces "a tale murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary." Winchester discusses Johnson as a preeminent academic, a scholar whose research, poetry, and criticism shaped the English language and epitomized 18th century thought. This portrait piqued an interest that grows yearly.

Johnson's commentaries on form and style are built upon an adherence to classic Greek and Roman literature and how those literatures have affected classic British literature. This observance of form and and conformity to established modes, attract me. I'm not sure why; I enjoy writers who use old methods to approach new things. Literary antitheses--both in authors and their works--add complexity to that which may already be fascinating.

In The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell describes Johnson as "sufficiently uncouth," but his disheveled appearance belied his strict attention to intellectual and scholarly order. In fact, Boswell remarks that all of his" slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk." This contrast between a messy, disarranged exterior and an orderly, encyclopedic intellect reflects the complexities of a man born to write poetry but who lived in an age of prose.

I just hope the next time I get to teach his life and works, I will pass on to my students the fascination I have with the "glittering eminence" of Dr. Johnson.

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