»  Samuel Johnson's "On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet"


On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet

by Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784


•  Background

This elegant, moving poem was written early in 1782, when Johnson (1709-84) was 72 years old. It is "very Johnson," a sort of concentrated essence of this brilliant, gloomy, fascinating man. I cannot do better than quote at length from W. Jackson Bate's fine 1975 biography of Johnson.

[Pages 270-271]   Robert Levet, whom Boswell describes as "an obscure practitioner of physick among the lower people," was a ruggedly honest and silent man, whom Johnson first got to know in 1746 … [H]e was later to prove — and would remain for the rest of his life — a comfort and reassurance to Johnson in what would have otherwise been a painfully lonely life at home. Born in Yorkshire of poor parents, he worked in London, probably as a servant, and then in Paris, where, as a waiter in a coffeehouse, he caught the interest of some French surgeons who patronized the place, and through them was allowed to attend lectures on pharmacy and anatomy. Since his return, he had developed a wide practice among the London poor, walking long distances every day, from Houndsditch, near one end of the city, to Marylebone, at the other, ministering to them for a small fee, or, if they could not afford that, for anything they felt they could give him. Often this was no more than a drink of gin or brandy. Rather than go away unrewarded — though he never demanded payment — Levet would quietly swallow the drink, though he really did not want it; and he would occasionally end up drunk ("Perhaps the only man," said Johnson, "who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence"). An account of him in the Gentleman's Magazine (1785), after his death, describes him as a thin, middle-sized man, with a swarthy and "corrugated" face …

After Johnson became famous, most of the people getting to know him — particularly if they were affluent and of some social position — were fascinated by the inmates and pensioners of his household, and would try to get Johnson to tell about them. They were particularly curious about Levet, who, with his stiff silence and "uncouth" manner, seemed the opposite of all that Johnson enjoyed in company. Whoever called on Johnson around midday, said Hawkins, "found him and Levett [sic — JD] at breakfast, Johnson in dishabille, as just risen from bed, and Levett filling out tea for himself and his patron alternately, no conversation passing between them." Johnson's new friends were aware of the principal explanation for the presence of Levet, as well as the others — Johnson's charity toward the unfortunate. As Goldsmith said, when Boswell (1763) was questioning him about Levet, "He is poor and honest, which is recommendation enough to Johnson." In addition, a few were aware what it meant to Johnson not to go back to an empty house. But Johnson also found Levet a stabilizing influence. Here was a man who, despite serious disadvantages, performed a useful and charitable function not impulsively or occasionally but with unwavering constancy. It was an example to frail human nature of what could be done …

 … … …

[Pages 562-563]   Suddenly, on January 17 (1782), Johnson's friend of thirty-five years Robert Levet died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven. Only the night before, as Johnson told Bennet Langton, he had been thinking "with uncommon earnestness, that however I might alter my mode of life, or whithersoever I might remove, I would endeavor to retain Levett [sic — JD] about me." …

In the weeks ahead … he wrote a restrained poem, "On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet." It is in the calm Horatian style he had come to love as a boy at Stourbridge. If it is a lament for this dutiful, awkward, and conscientious man, it is also a lament for life — for common humanity, and for the effort that human beings try to make, in this strange purgatory of our lives, to fulfill moral values and ideals. The situation of man is put at the outset in a short phrase, "Hope's delusive mine." We are like slaves condemned to dig in the mines. For we are working in the dark, forced to take our chance on what we may find; and the mine is "delusive" because it will never really yield what the heart had hoped. The image of a mine or cave has an archetypal richness: the cold, crowded cellars in the London slums into which Levet, with his sturdy trudge of several miles each day, would descend to minister to the sick poor ("In misery's darkest caverns known, / His useful care was ever nigh"); the caverns of the human mind itself, in which hope haunts incentive and from which the sense of duty and responsibility emerges to help us march through life; and, finally, the grave into which this responsible man — "Of every friendless name the friend" — has now made his final descent …

What is most striking about the poem, and the reason it is so often reprinted in anthologies, is the amount of thinking about life condensed and held in balance with a deep, dignified, and accurate feeling directly engaged with real and daily things. By "accurate" is meant that the writer is not pretending to feel more than he does. Because he is not overstating, there is a solidity and rightness about what he does say … The conception of this ordinary man, now dead, becomes a paradigm for humanity. The grief is sublimated to a general statement in which moral virtue, humble or great, walks in the midst of life, fulfilling the parable of the talents that always haunted Johnson …

•  Notes

Some slight changes of meaning between Johnson's time and ours need to be noted. "Officious" (line 7) did not mean then, as it usually does now, "volunteering one's services when they are neither wanted nor needed." It simply meant "eager to perform an office" — that is, a duty, or a kindness. "Art" (line 16) is used in the original sense of a learned skill. The "Nor X nor Y" construction in line 26 would nowadays be "Neither X nor Y." "Forc'd" (last line) I think carries something of the horticultural meaning — the idea being acceleration of a natural process.


•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

Condemn'd to hope's delusive mine,
    As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline
    Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
    See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
    Of ev'ry friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills affection's eye,
    Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, letter'd arrogance, deny
    Thy praise to merit unrefin'd.

When fainting nature call'd for aid,
    And hov'ring death prepar'd the blow,
His vig'rous remedy display'd
    The power of art without the show.

In misery's darkest caverns known,
    His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,
    And lonely want retir'd to die.

No summons mock'd by chill delay,
    No petty gain disdain'd by pride,
The modest wants of ev'ry day
    The toil of ev'ry day supplied.

His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
    Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th' Eternal Master found
    The single talent well employ'd.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
    Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
    Tho' now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
    No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
    And forc'd his soul the nearest way.