Monday, March 07, 2005

From Dr. Johnson's pen

I have a great reverence for the written word, and from time to time come across a passage of unusually fine writing that grabs and holds my attention, and makes me want to savor it as I would a meal at the Grotta Guelfa in Florence. Now that I have a way to do so, I will want to share some of these passages with you, as I come across them in the course of my extensive reading. I found one such nugget over the weekend. At the moment, I am rereading Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, one of my all-time favorite books, which is rightly esteemed as a classic of English literature, and is considered by many to be perhaps the finest biography ever written. This passage appears in a footnote in Boswell's masterpiece, and is taken from Dr. Johnson's famous account of his tour of the Hebrides.

Parenthetically, I wish to add a personal note. In October, 1994, my wife, son, and I spent a few days with my older sister Sheila, who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (My wife is also named Sheila, which creates a bit of confusion at times when they are together.) I love history, and Sheila's home is located within a few miles of four major Civil War battlefields. One morning at around 8:00, she dropped me off at the Chancellorsville battlefield, which I had wanted to visit. When she asked what time she should pick me up, I said 5:00 or so would be fine with me. I think she wondered what there was about this place that could possibly keep me occupied for an entire day, but in fact there was plenty. I walked perhaps 10 miles that day, sometimes through woods, sometimes on roads, and sometimes along the still-visible Confederate trenches, stopping at every historical marker I passed, drinking in the atmosphere, and pondering the great cataclysm that had taken place there some 131 years previously. One of the spots I visited was the site of the final bivouac Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson ever had together, on the night of May 1-2, 1863, just hours before Jackson was fatally shot in the dark by one of his own men. I wanted to walk the entire 12-mile route Jackson and his men took in their famous flanking maneuver that caught Joseph Hooker completely by surprise, but alas, I ran out of time for that. I mention all of this because in reading this passage, I sense that Dr. Johnson would have understood why I felt a need to spend hours on end roaming around this battlefield.

With all that as backdrop, here is the quote:

"We were now treading that illustrious island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me, and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy, as may conduct us, indifferent and unmoved, over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. The man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona."

Boswell adds the following commentary, to which I add my concurring voice:

"Had our Tour produced nothing else but this sublime passage, the world must have acknowledged that it was not made in vain. Sir Joseph Banks, the present respectable President of the Royal Society, told me, he was so much struck on reading it, that he clasped his hands together, and remained for some time in an attitude of silent admiration."

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