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Monday, April 24, 2006

Regularly the mind's works do not mount up

Here's one more selection for the online shrine to Samuel Johnson, Perfectionist. I really did cry a little as a I typed this out, so there may be some typos left.

Know Thyself
After Enlarging and Correcting the English Dictionary
(translated from Latin by John Wain, also found in the Oxford World Classics edition ofMajor Works of Samuel Johnson)

Scaliger, when with scant sense of achievement he had scrawled
his lexicon's last page, after prolonged toil, loathing
the mindless menial grind, the small problems piled into mountains,
in hate groaning, he gave his thought to guide grave judges
that the penal system should prescribe for all hard prisoners
found guilty of devilment, the drudgery of making a dictionary--
one punishment, for the most impenitent, all punishments compounding!

How right he was, that rare man, erudite, lofty, rigorous,
worthy of weightier work, better able to serve the world
by enchanting the ear with antique heroisms, or the bards' ecstasies;
the shifting sands of governance, the swirl of the shining spheres
his mind could read and unriddle, and the vast earth's revolving.

A large example is dangerous. The dunciad of learned dolts presume
to glare and grumble, presenting their case, princely Scaliger
as if it were yours, master. Let each mind his measure!
I, at least, have realised that to be your rival (in rage
or in knowledge) was never part of my nature. Who can know why?
Is it the lazy flow of my chill blood, or the long idle years that I lost?
or was I just bundled into the world with a bad brain?

As soon as your sterile work was over, and the stiff word-stubble
you had pushed through, peerless Wisdom the goddess into her pure
arcanum accepted you, while all the arts applauded,
and the world's words, their voices so long at variance,
now home from exile joyfully rang about you, gentle master, their joiner.

As for me, my task finished, I find myself still fettered to myself:
the dull doom of doing nothing, harsher than any drudgery,
stays with me, and the staleness of slow stagnation.
Cares beget cares, and a clamouring crowd of troubles
vex me, and vile dreams, the sour sleep of an empty mind.
What will refresh me? The rattle of all-night roisterers,
or the quiet of solitary spaces? Oh, sleep, sleep, I call,
lying where I fret at the lingering night, but fear day's cold finger.

Trembling, I trudge everywhere, peering, prying, into everything, trying
passionate to know if somewhere, anyhow, a path leads up to a more perfect pasture,
but glooming over grand schemes I never find my growing-point,
and am always forced finally to face myself, to own frankly
that my heart is illiterate, and my mind's strength an illusion
I labour to keep alive. Fool, a mind not fuelled by learning
slides into a morass. Stop the supply of marble
to Phidias our fertile sculptor, and where are his forms and faces?

Every endeavour, every avenue, ends in frustration always,
closed in by lack of cash, bound up by a costive mind.
Ah, when that mind reckons up its resources, the sheaves of reason
stacked high, matter for self-satisfaction, are conspicuously absent:
nor does creations' great king from his high castle
send down daily supplies to ensure its survival.

Regularly the years mount up, regularly the mind's works do not mount up:
as for the frills and the friendly honours, fruits of a useful life,
its own harsh judgment forbids it that harmless enjoyment.
Turning to survey its territory, that night-shadowed tundra,
the mind is full of fear--of ghosts, of the fleeting glimmer
of the thin shadows of nothing, the absence of shapes, the shimmer.

What then am I to do? Let my declining years go down to the dark?
Or get myself together, gather the last of my gall,
and hurl myself at some task huge enough for a hero?
And if that's too much, perhaps my friends might find me
some dull, decent job, undemanding: like making a dictionary....

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