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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4 thoughts on “On His Deathbed, Johnson Celebrates Youth’s Vitality And Spirit

  1. I enjoyed your restraint in this essay. So many times, I enjoy overembellished interpretations of life. You’ve become the seasoned rider that knows just when to hold it back and when to let the thoroughbred run for the roses.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A poignant rebuke to the “youth is wasted on the young” mentality. So often we are in such a hurry to press what we call ‘responsibility’ on the young, and young men in particular. “What are you going to do with your life?” – and the appropriate answer might be “How about live just it?”

    We all had our chance, if one wasted theirs, don’t begrudge another. The “56” in my moniker is my year of birth, so I have a lot more summers behind me than ahead. Looking back, I feel some pangs, some longing, but overall a wistfulness which, if it isn’t quite ‘joy’, has a pleasantness to it.

    If I may, some may find this worth a listen – an old R&B song form 1968 called “Be Young, Be Foolish Be Happy”. Somehow I missed this one when it was a minor hit in 1968; I heard it for the first time in the summer of 2017 and it made me smile.

    Not quite as profound as Dr. Johnson perhaps, but I think he’s approve.

    Liked by 1 person

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