This month we take a look at chiasmus in the life and work of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the legendary English lexicographer and man of letters. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why. If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments will make this a better site for other visitors in the future.
Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is a giant in literary history. His 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the first comprehensive dictionary of any language ever published. A voluminous writer himself, Johnson is known to the world primarily through the book of another man, Scottish writer James Boswell. In 1791, Boswell published the most famous biography ever written, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell's Life minutely detailed conversations with Johnson, revealing his verbal facility, trenchant wit, storehouse of knowledge, and remarkable conversational abilities. For two centuries, The Life of Samuel Johnson has been so popular that the words we most associate with Johnson come from the biography and not his own works.
No man has ever had a deeper love of language than Samuel Johnson, so it's not surprising to discover that chiasmus shows up frequently in his conversations as well as in his written works.
This was one of a handful of quotes that piqued my interest in the subject of chiasmus ten years ago. I originally found it in Herbert Prochnow's 1942 book The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest. During my research, I discovered another version in Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Discussing Alexander Pope's poem, The Rape of the Lock, Johnson wrote, "In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."
In a story that is probably apocryphal, Johnson received a manuscript from an aspiring writer who was seeking the great man's opinion of his work. After some time, the anxious young writer received the following reply, which has become regarded as one of the most memorable put-downs in literary history:
A couple centuries later, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan borrowed the sentiment: "As usual the Liberals offer a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound."
Struggling writer John Gay had shopped his play, The Beggar's Opera, around to a number of London theaters, only to have it rejected again and again. Finally, he took it to theatrical producer John Rich, who saw the play's potential and decided to produce it in 1729. After it became a big hit, many Londoners, including Johnson, were heard repeating the following remark:
As a critic, Johnson often wrote about the literary life, and some of his best observations about writers and writing were in chiastic form:
In Boswell's Life, people learned more about Johnson than any other literary figure of the time, including his private observations about public figures of the day and his public pronouncements on what many regard as private and personal subjects.
Here Johnson is referring to Lord Chesterfield, a man he originally admired but eventually grew to despise. At about the same time Johnson made this remark, the acerbic English poet Alexander Pope wrote a somewhat similar line about Shakespearean scholar Lewis Theobald: "A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits." Whether Johnson influenced Pope, or vice versa, I don't know.
I'm an avid "napophile" and take a siesta almost every day, so I was especially taken with this remark when I first discovered it. Now, thanks to Johnson, when people ask me if I take naps, I'm prone to answer, "Yes, but it's probably more accurate to say that naps take me."
This famous piece of Johnsonian advice was undoubtedly inspired by English writer, Robert Burton (1577-1640), who had written in his classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, "Be not solitary, be not idle."
Here Johnson suggests that greatness—especially when it comes suddenly—can have a detrimental effect. His observation captures an unfortunate phenomenon that has been played all too often with actors, musicians, writers, and others who've been catapulted a little too quickly to fame and fortune.
Unfortunately, the world did not seek Johnson much during his lifetime. By 1759, at age 50, he was a respected intellectual. His famous Dictionary had been in publication nearly five years and he had been awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. Despite his literary reputation, however, he struggled to make ends meet. In 1759, his mother died and Johnson wrote the moral fable Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia in one week to defray the funeral expenses. In 1760, George II ascended to the throne and granted Johnson a pension of 300 pounds a year for life, finally assuring him financial security. All three of the following quotes come from Rasselas:
In the foregoing observation, temerity, which is still a reasonably common word, means "rashness, reckless boldness." Scrupulosity is rarely used these days (even though scrupulous is still around), and refers to "the condition of having scruples or principles." In this observation, though, Johnson was using an earlier sense of the word: "careful, cautious, and prudent."
This is another extremely popular Johnson quote, possibly inspired by a somewhat similar chiastic sentiment from the first century B.C. Roman writer, Publilius Syrus, who wrote: "When you are in love you are not wise; or, when you are wise you are not in love." While Syrus's point is that love and wisdom are incompatible, Johnson is saying something different—that love can have the paradoxical effect of raising the foolish to new heights of wisdom and plummeting the wise to new depths of foolishness.
Johnson wrote this in a prologue for the 1747 opening of the Drury Lane Theatre in London. The observation has a special salience for performers, suggesting that actors who live to please can only make a living if they succeed in pleasing their audiences. To me, the saying might almost be considered an Actor's Creed.
This comes from a 1760 essay, "On the Bravery of the English Common Soldiers." Throughout history, chiasmus has been used numerous times to make chiastic comparisons between people of different countries, often in a self-serving way. The English have been especially fond of comparing themselves chiastically to the French, and examples can be found in the writings of almost all great English writers.
Written in 1788, this observation on the distinction between labor and exercise helps explain why two activities that both involve strenuous physical exertion can result in one being viewed as positive and the other negative.
This fascinating observation is a great illustration of the problem many "cultured" people have when meeting new people. Initially, they tend to be impressed by the demeanor of rich, well-socialized people, and turned off by the lack of social graces on the part of lower-class people. As time passes, however, the high-class folks often begin to fall from grace, while the lower class folks emerge as very fine people whose only problem is that they're a little rough around the edges.
A very similar observation has been found in the writings of English writer Joseph Addison (1672-1719). It's likely that Johnson's observation was inspired by—some might even say stolen from—Addison's earlier thought: "He who would pass his declining years with honor and comfort, should, when young, consider that he may one day become old, and remember when he is old, that he has once been young."
It's possible that Addison got the idea for his observation from an English proverb that was well established by 1670, when John Ray published his English Proverbs: "They who would be young when they are old, must be old when they are young."
We move toward completion of this month's feature by presenting ten more chiastic quotes from Johnson, all without any further commentary.
And, finally, here's a great chiastic quote not by Johnson, but about him. It's from Margaret Boswell, the wife of Johnson's biographer, James Boswell: "I have seen many a bear led by a man, but I never before saw a man led by a bear."
While Johnson is remembered for being a great wit and wordsmith, he was also a big, physically awkward man who could be slovenly in appearance and uncouth in language.
Mrs. Boswell was not pleased with the influence Johnson had on her husband, and this was how she chose to express her feelings after a recent Johnson visit to their home.
And so we end this examination of chiasmus in the life and works of Samuel Johnson. In our next edition, we take a look at a chiastic Mystery Man, who I will only describe at this point as "The Talented Mr. Ridley."