At last we’re getting a real winter storm: dark clouds all day long; an early dusk; constant rain all afternoon and evening, sometimes light, sometimes heavy; occasional gusts of wind driving the rain against the skylights of our little second floor apartment. A perfect evening to read Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson.
I’ve gotten to the point in the biography where Bates describes what Johnson was like when he had just turned fifty: his wife dead; his great dictionary done; well over a million words written and published (half a million alone in his reporting on Parliamentary debates), most of it ghost-writing or anonymous hack work that paid little; and he has always struggled financially, has been arrested for debt, and wears clothes that a homeless person might wear. But however skillfully Bates tells Johnson’s tale of middle age, Johnson himself told it better, more concisely, more pointedly, in this essay from December of 1759:
We do not indeed so often disappoint others as ourselves. We not only think more highly than others of our own abilities, but allow ourselves to form hopes which we never communicate, and please our thoughts with employments which none ever will allot us, and with elevations to which we are never expected to rise; and when our days and years are passed away in common business, or common amusements, and we find at last that we have suffered our purposes to sleep till the time of action is past, we are reproached only by our own reflections; neither our friends nor our enemies wonder that we live and die like the rest of mankind; that we live without notice, and die without memorial; they know not what task we have proposed, and therefore cannot discern whether it is finished. —The Idler, no. 88.