Thursday, 6 September 2012

On the Death-Mask of Samuel Johnson

Silent in the toils of death
Sweet pugnacious Johnson lies,
No disturbance of a breath
Mars the thinking in his eyes.
Hard at work and hard at thought
Somewhere he makes headway with
Problems how a soul should live –
Once the teacher, now the taught.

Through the window in the street
Sooty sparrows feed and fight,
Citizens on business meet
To gull each other day and night.
Johnson and his commonsense,
Treating with the tragic muse,
Goes unnoticed by the queues
Wailing for their rightful pence.

Forms decay and mobs go out
Roaring that the streets are theirs,
Protest stumbles into rout,
Looters grab their fairer shares.
Ugly prophets, lithe of voice,
Put their callous point of view:
“Beat your neighbour – when you do
Make it plain you had no choice.”

Yet for all this public noise
Nothing is so altered that
Miseries give way to joys:
Every beggar has his hat,
Every child a bite of food,
But before a cheer can rise
Someone finds with angry cries
A violation of the good.

Johnson, Savage and the rest,
Walking London streets at night,
Talked till dawn about the best,
Argued Tory points of right;
Wary of what pundits bring
They agreed to drink a toast
When they might afford the cost,
“Gentlemen, God bless the King!”

From this death-mask learn who can
What it is to cleave to sense,
What it is to trust in man
Always in the present tense.
Underneath the soul there lies,
Sudden as a gloomy pit,
Chaos where no lamps are lit
And Deviation ever cries.

There the lost are self-condemned,
Driven on their violent way,
On a journey without end
From the simple light of day;
They who with their Judas’ pence
Rattling in their cartridge case
Jeered at Reason to its face
And scorned to kick the stone of Sense.

Teach me, Johnson, that I might,
Standing in the market square,
Shun the false alarms of night
And the gibes of people there;
Go bareheaded to the truth
Whilst the storms of daily news
Harden into misplaced views,
Unafraid to ask for proof.

© June 1981

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