On His Deathbed, Johnson Celebrates Youth’s Vitality And Spirit

It is right that youth should celebrate its vigor.  We do it a grave injustice by shackling its natural ebullience, by attempting to douse its fires with an excess of admonitions and restrictives.  Let it, as far as health and safety will permit, taste the light of the open sky, the airs of unexplored mountains, and the swift currents swirling along tropical beaches.  For in our elder years we will recall these liberating sensations with an intensity that sustains life itself.

To crush youth’s healthy spirit, to shackle its innocence and daring with unreasonable rules and soul-killing punishments:  these are unforgivable crimes.  Is it any accident that, as Samuel Johnson neared death in 1784, he “repeated with great spirit a poem” that he had composed years before for a youth who had just achieved manhood?  I do not think so.  As a man’s final hours draw near, he is pulled back decades to the recollections of his early years.  This poem, says Boswell, was composed on the occasion of a young man’s (Sir John Lade) coming of age; it was, he says, a poem “conveyed in a strain of pointed vivacity and humour, and in a manner of which no other instance is to be found in Johnson’s writings.”  Some may see in these lines a satirical laugh at frivolous expenditure, and I suppose that may be one interpretation.  But to me they are more than this.  For my part I prefer to see them as a celebration of youthful effervescence and vitality.  The verses are as follows:


Long-expected one-and-twenty,

Ling’ring year, at length is flown;

Pride and pleasure, pomp and plenty,

Great *****, are now your own.


Loosen’d from the Minor’s tether,

Free to mortgage or to sell,

Wild as wind, and light as feather,

Bid the sons of thrift farewell.


Call the Betseys, Kates, and Jennies,

All the names that banish care:

Lavish of your grandsire’s guineas,

Shew the spirit of an heir.


All that prey on vice or folly

Joy to see their quarry fly;

There the gamester, light and jolly,

There the lender, grave and sly.


Wealth, my lad, was made to wander,

Let it wander as it will;

Call the jockey, call the pander,

Bid them come and take their fill.


When the bonny blade carouses,

Pockets full, and spirits high–

What are acres?  What are houses?

Only dirt, or wet or dry.


Should the guardian friend or mother

Tell the woes of wilful waste;

Scorn their counsel, scorn their pother–

You can hang or drown the last.


That a sick man in his seventies, on the threshold of death, would recall and repeat these lines fondly to those at his bedside, is a poignant thing.  He never wrote anything wiser.  Only one who had lived a full life could have composed such lines; and only one who harbored no regrets could have allowed his dying lips to utter them.


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