I have just recently finished writing a book about pessimism. Spare me the jokes, please. “A book about pessimism? Oh, that’ll never sell . . .” etc. By way of background research into some of the leading lights (darks?) of pessimism, I read Dr. Johnson’s magnificent long 1749 poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” all the way through with attention. That led me on a journey back through time, from which I have only just returned. Here is my trip report.
Johnson’s poem is in Mona Wilson’s 1951 Harvard University Press selection of his writings. Ms. Wilson annotates nothing, though, so I had to resort to the Internet to find out, for example, whom Johnson meant by “the bold Bavarian” who “in a luckless Hour, / Tries the dread Summits of Cesarean Pow’r.” (It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VII.)
The poet’s aim is to disillusion us. Wealth? Political power? Military or intellectual glory? Long life? Beauty? Empty, all of them! After 344 lines of this, having reduced the reader to trembling nihilism, Johnson perks up with an appeal to faith, though of a stoical, almost fatalistic kind:
Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice.
. . .
Pour forth thy Fervours for a healthful Mind,
Obedient Passions, and a Will resign’d. . . .
Insha’Allah. To be fair to the great moralist, Johnson was a natural depressive, plagued by fears of madness, suicide, and — depending on his precise mood — either hell or blank annihilation. At the time he wrote “The Vanity of Human Wishes” he was struggling with his monumental Dictionary of the English Language while trying to support a high-maintenance wife who had gone sexually cold on him and who was sinking into hypochondria and alcoholism.
The subtitle of Johnson’s poem is “The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated.” I knew of course that Juvenal was one of the Roman authors, and had very dim memories of construing bits and pieces of him in high-school Latin back in the Pleistocene Epoch. How close was Johnson’s imitation? I wondered.
Not feeling up to 300-odd lines of raw Latin, I at first went looking for translations. The Tory editor William Gifford had done one in 1800 that had drawn praise even from radical William Hazlitt, his bitterest enemy. (Gifford on Hazlitt: “the slanderer of the human race.” Hazlitt on Gifford: “His notions are low, upstart, servile.”) Dryden had turned out a translation in 1693. I downloaded both Gifford and Dryden from the Internet — how easy everything is nowadays! — and did some comparative reading.
#page#Dryden was just phoning it in, though it’s hard to blame him for that. He was 62 when he did the translation, and had lost all his government sinecures through having converted to Roman Catholicism at the worst possible moment. Class will show, though, and he’s still by far the better poet of the two. Of handsome young men who rebuff the advances of older women, he says: “’Tis dangerous to deny the longing dame; / She loses pity, who has lost her shame.” Plonks Gifford: “A woman scorn’d is pitiless as fate, / For then the dread of shame adds stings to hate.”
You can spend only so much time with this stuff before curiosity wins out over fear of Latin. I got myself a Loeb Classical Library edition of Juvenal, with Latin on the left-hand pages and an English prose translation on the right. The translator was George Gilbert Ramsay, whose preface is dated 1918. Mulier saevissima tunc est / cum stimulos odio pudor admovet, goes the cougar warning in Latin: “Never is a woman so savage as when her hatred is goaded on by shame,” Ramsay translates. I wrestled briefly and futilely with the Latin — shouldn’t cum take the ablative? — before paging back to check some obscurities in Gifford and Dryden.
I was a bit surprised at Ramsay’s prudishness when dealing with the debilities of old age. “All pleasures of the flesh have been long forgotten,” he tells us, then skips the next four and a half lines completely, jumping straight to the geezer’s loss of hearing. (Gifford fills the gap: “Or if, through the long night he feebly strives / To raise a flame where not a spark survives . . .” etc.) I thought the Loebs were franker than that. Certainly the translated text in the Loeb Suetonius gives unsparing coverage to the depravities of the emperor Tiberius.
Ramsay also declines to be helpful on the punishment for adultery (mugilis intrat) in Juvenal’s line 317, which will baffle a reader not familiar with the ancient world’s tolerance of sexual revenge for sexual crimes. It seems odd to use a fish for this purpose; but in Athens they used a radish, which is even odder.
The Tenth Satire is, says Ramsay, “a profoundly depressing and pessimistic poem.” Indeed it is. If Johnson’s closing lines sound Islamic, Juvenal’s are positively Buddhist. Pray to the Roman gods, he tells us, for (in Dryden’s translation)
A soul, that can securely death defy,
And count it nature’s privilege, to die;
Serene and manly, harden’d to sustain
The load of life, and exercis’d in pain:
Guiltless of hate, and proof against desire.
I wonder if this was even sincere. Did an educated Roman of Juvenal’s age — he was in his fifties, at least, when he wrote the Tenth — even believe in the rather cheesy Roman pantheon, which at that point included four dead emperors, their personal foibles well known to their fellow citizens? Didn’t Gibbon famously tell us that the various modes of worship in ancient Rome “were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”?
It was curious to dive back 19 centuries like this and engage with a mind no different from one’s own pondering human universals: avarice, ambition, old age, power, glory, sex. We know next to nothing about Juvenal, says Ramsay. Even his dates are uncertain by a decade or two (probably about A.D. 60–130). He wrote of futility; his writing somehow survived through dark centuries; a poet picked it up, then another poet, then an editor, then a freelance essayist. Doesn’t all that disprove his main thesis? I wonder what he would have said.