Troublesome Kindness

You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I’m sick of both.

—Samuel Johnson to James Boswell

Samuel Johnson was born on this day in 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The annual birthday celebrations in Johnson’s hometown will be especially festive in this tercentenary year, though Johnson himself was famously unenthusiastic about such things. In a letter written to Hester Thrale just after his sixty-fourth birthday, Johnson sourly notes the day’s passing:

Boswell, with some of his troublesome kindness, has informed this family, and reminded me that the eighteenth of September is my birthday. The return of my birthday, if I remember it, fills me with thoughts which it seems to be the general care of humanity to escape. I can now look back upon threescore and four years, in which little has been done, and little has been enjoyed, a life diversified by misery, spent part in the sluggishness of penury, and part under the violence of pain, in gloomy discontent, or importunate distress. But perhaps I am better than I should have been, if I had been less afflicted. With this I will try to be content.

The English poet and diplomat Matthew Prior died on this day in 1721. Prior was a popular writer in his day, but Johnson was not much of a fan. He describes Prior as a poet to whom “words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly.” Prior’s attempts at satire showed merely that “the spangles of wit which he could afford he knew how to polish.” His attempts at love poetry showed a man “trying to be amorous by dint of study.” Prior even failed at being immoral: When Boswell commented that the critic Lord Hailes had censured some of Prior’s poems for being too sexual, Johnson dismissed both poet and reader: “There is nothing in Prior that will excite to lewdness. If Lord Hailes thinks there is, he must be more combustible than other people.” Below, Prior’s “A True Maid,” the sort of poem that set Lord Hailes aflame:

No, no; for my virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I’ll die:
Behind the elms last night, cried **bleep**,
Rose, were you not extremely sick?

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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