Poetry Corner: In Which the Great Cham Anticipates Housman

Anyone who has spent much time here in my internet home is aware of my admiration for Samuel Johnson. After all, I’m on my second custom-made SJ T-shirt, and I reveled in the chance to teach a lot of his work when I did the Restoration/18th-C. course a couple of years back.

But as one might expect, I’ve not read everything the man wrote — and if we believe Boswell’s reports, neither did Johnson himself. So from time to time, I crack open my collection of the major works more or less at random and read something new.

Today I decided to look at a couple of the shorter poems. Like most people, my focus on Johnson’s work has been the prose — the essays, Rasselas, the Lives of the Poets. Of the poetry, I was most familiar with his Vanity of Human Wishes and “Verses on the Death of Dr. Levet.” But today, I happened across “A Short Song of Congratulations”, a poem he wrote on the occasion of the 21st birthday of a young man named John Lade. Having turned 21, Lade came into a substantial inheritance, which he would eventually squander. Lade also happened to be a relative by marriage of Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), the woman who probably was the closest thing to Johnson’s Muse, and whose kindness to him did a great deal, I suspect, to keep him alive. Johnson apparently though Lade was something of a lunkhead, but offered him some rather ironic advice.


A painting of Sir John by Joshua Reynolds, via Wikipedia

What struck me about the poem (which seems to have been a spontaneous bit of extemporanea in a letter from Johnson to Thrale) is how much it reads like Housman. I just read on Wiki that Johnson’s poem influenced Housman’s Shropshire Lad, but I’ll have to pursue that information farther down the line. As it is, read Johnson’s poem and admire the wit, the grace, and how deftly he inserts the dagger:

LONG-EXPECTED one and twenty
Ling’ring year at last has flown,
Pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty
Great Sir John, are all your own.

Loosen’d from the minor’s tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell,
Wild as wind, and light as feather
Bid the slaves of thrift farewell.

Call the Bettys, Kates, and Jenneys
Ev’ry name that laughs at care,
Lavish of your Grandsire’s guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

All that prey on vice and folly
Joy to see their quarry fly,
Here the gamester light and jolly
There the lender grave and sly.

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
See the jocky, see the pander,
Bid them come, and take their fill.

When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high,
What are acres? What are houses?
Only dirt, or wet or dry.

If the Guardian or the Mother
Tell the woes of willful waste,
Scorn their counsel and their pother,
You can hang or drown at last.


If Johnson hadn’t been a hero of mine before I read this, he would be now.


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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