January 16, 2018

Samuel Johnson in Devon

On this day in 1762, Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds departed on their six-week trip to Devonshire, an excursion that has proven rich in Johnsonia. The holiday was made possible by the impoverished and very Tory Johnson having recently received a government pension from the ruling Whigs. This was the Party which had suffered Johnson's widely-quoted definition of "pension" in the Dictionary: "An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent [equal value of work]. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." Supporting definitions establish "pensioner" as "a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master" and "Whig" as "the name of a faction" -- as opposed to "Tory," defined as "one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the State and the apolitical hierarchy of the Church of England." That Johnson was willing to accept the money and the criticism -- "I wish my pension were twice as large that they might make twice as much noise" -- reflects his enjoyment of controversy as well as his financial need.

He also needed a getaway. His later "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life" has become tourist brochure material, but his earlier poem "London" included other observations:
    ...For who would leave, unbrib'd, Hibernia's Land, Or change the Rocks of Scotland for the Strand?
    There none are swept by sudden Fate away,
    But all whom Hunger spares, with Age decay:
    Here Malice, Rapine, Accident, conspire,
    And now a Rabble Rages, now a Fire;
    Their Ambush here relentless Ruffians lay,
    And here the fell Attorney prowls for Prey;
    Here falling Houses thunder on your Head,
    And here a female Atheist talks you dead....
Devon was to be relief from personal woes, too -- the habits of melancholia, procrastination and widowhood squalor which would have him rising at noon (to put on, poorly, last week's clothes) and still dining at 3 a.m. "Give me the Grace to break the chain of evil custom," he wrote in a diary prayer at the time, "Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth."

Some habits went to Devon with him. One hostess, filling Johnson's teacup for the eighteenth time, exclaimed, "What! another Dr. Johnson?" and received, "Madam, you are rude" in return. But the sights and new society did seem to help. When asked during a gathering at one stop why his Dictionary had defined "pastern" as the knee of a horse (it is part of the foot), Johnson replied, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance." On that same evening, and though a portly fifty-three-year-old in booklover shape, he challenged a young lady's boast that she could outrun anyone present:
    The lady at first had the advantage; but Dr. Johnson happening to have slippers on much too small for his feet, kick'd them off up into the air, and ran ... leaving the lady far behind him, and ... returned, leading her by the hand, with looks of high exultation and delight.

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