On this day in 1784 Samuel Johnson died, at the age of seventy-five. The details of Johnson's last years have been told According to Queeney (Beryl Bainbridge, 2001) or Mrs. Thrale or Fanny Burney or Boswell or later biographer-critics, but his large personality seems to escape, or confound, any one perspective. According to Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, 1994), Johnson may be beyond reach in all ways: "There is no bad faith in or about Dr. Johnson, who was as good as he was great, yet also refreshingly, wildly strange to the highest degree."
That Johnson was strange to himself and others may be the determining factor of his life. His wife died early -- she was alcoholic and disinterested years before -- and Johnson's famous literary clubs and tours and relationships reflect his need to find outlets for his restless mind and long nights. Society was lined up to host, or listen to, or just look at him, though both sides were ambivalent. So many got a return look, says Mrs. Thrale, from eyes "of a light blue Colour ... so wild and at Times so fierce," that "Fear I believe was the first Emotion in the hearts of all his beholders." Johnson found folly wherever he went, and even Mrs. Thrale could jump at his manner of disclosing it. When she had once lamented her cousin's death in America, he chided, "Prithee, my dear, ... have done with canting: how would the world be the worse for it, I may ask, if all your relations were at once spitted like larks, and roasted for Presto's supper?"
Mr. Thrale, Johnson's friend and benefactor, was a wealthy brewer. He provided Johnson with not merely a permanent room at his country estate -- Johnson had his own house in London, however full of oddballs and charity cases -- but with ballast for his eccentricities. This meant clean clothes and a "company wig," the latter handed to Johnson before dining and taken away after, lest he forget he had it on, and singe yet another with his late night reading candle. It also meant Mrs. Thrale, who would serve four-a.m. tea to soothe his insomnia and, unlike her husband, was vivacious enough to offer companionship. (Many found Mr. Thrale dull, though Johnson defended him: "His conversation does not show the minute hand, but he strikes the hour very correctly.") Johnson's mind was susceptible to "disordered" bouts, and he would sometimes attempt to calm himself through mathematics -- Mrs. Thrale says that she once found him in his room making calculations to discover if the national debt "would, if converted into silver, serve to make a meridian of that metal, I forget how broad, for the globe of the whole earth." She also says that she was given the knowledge and care-taking of Johnson's secret back-up plan for a mental breakdown, should tea and mathematics fail: "the Fetters & Padlocks will tell Posterity the Truth," one journal entry reads.
The darker, sexual reading of their relationship is unlikely, but when Mr. Thrale died even Boswell, showing more of his own personality than Johnson's, enjoyed speculating. These are the opening stanzas of his "Ode by Dr. Samuel Johnson to Mrs Thrale Upon Their Supposed Approaching Nuptials":
If e'er my fingers touched the lyre
In satire fierce or pleasure gay,
Shall not my Thralia's smiles inspire?
Shall Sam refuse the sportive lay?
My dearest darling, view your slave,
Behold him as your very Scrub,
Ready to write as author grave,
Or govern well the brewing tub....
Mrs. Thrale was in her early forties at this point, Johnson his early seventies. When she took up with daughter Queeney's Italian music tutor, and withdrew her company and her house, Johnson's despair was heartfelt -- "Do not neglect me, nor relinquish me. Nobody will love you better or honour you more...." -- and unrelieved. Then his last old friends died, and his health problems mounted, and no resolve "to pass eight hours every day in some serious employment" seemed enough. He even went to a fancy ball: "It cannot be worse than being alone."
But his standards had always been high. "Be well when you are not ill," he told Boswell, "and pleased when you are not angry." He also told Boswell, "The act of dying is not of importance.... A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.'" So he struggled on, reading the bible, translating Horace, refusing the prescribed opium, lancing his legs with scissors to relieve his dropsy, calling out "I will be conquered, I will not capitulate," until he called out "Iam moriturus." If these are indeed the traditional last words of the Roman gladiators, the speaking of them might confirm Boswell's description of life as Johnson fought it:
His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgment, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like wild beasts of the Arena were all around in cells ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens, but not killing them, they were still assailing him.