Tuesday, June 07, 2011

On the Death of Dr. Levet

In order to prove myself worthy of returning to university in order to complete a full time degree I needed to analyse two pieces of literature. These had to consist of one critical essay on a literary text and one analysis of poetry or prose. The pre-requisite was that at least one of the texts needed to be pre-1820.

I've never been one for poetry. I couldn't ever get my head around it and didn't really find anything in it to pique my interest. However, following two days of observations in the schools of a couple of friends it suddenly clicked while I was sitting with a sixthform class discussing Blake's Songs of Experience. Tada - epiphany moment.

Therefore, for the first analysis, I chose Samuel Johnson's poem: On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet.
Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.
The Poetry Foundation are kind enough to provide a copy for your viewing pleasure.

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Analysis of ‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’
In eulogising his friend and dependant, Robert Levet, Dr Samuel Johnson immediately sets out his respect and empathy for Levet and Levet’s work. Johnson titled the poem: Dr Robert Levet, conferring a status upon him that wasn’t legally merited. Levet was a lay physician, oft labelled a quack; he never benefited from formal medical training and even Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, referred to him as “... his humble friend Mr. Robert Levet” (Boswell, p.102).

It can be argued that his age and the loss of his closest friends to death made Johnson nostalgic; he longs for Levet and weights the poem in his honour. From the moment Levet descends to the grave he is, “Officious, innocent, sincere, Of ev’ry friendless name the friend.” demonstrating, “His vig’rous remedy display’d.” There is a definite sense that Johnson feels Levet was underestimated in life and his portrayal of Levet’s “power of art without the show” cries out that here is a man who did what he did and refused to draw attention to it.

Johnson is not simply beatifying Levet. He is at once stating Levet’s shortcomings, though these are touched upon only briefly and tempered by the adjectives that conflict with the descriptions in line 10, “Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;” Levet is portrayed as something of an anti-hero in these manners – traits we wouldn’t otherwise attribute to a saint. Johnson however, goes further by speaking out against what he felt was the needless snobbery of Levet’s naysayers, “Nor, letter'd arrogance, deny , Thy praise to merit unrefin'd.”

Whatever Levet’s shortcomings, Johnson resolutely denies that there are any in Levet’s empathy and diligence to his patients. Levet, Johnson summarises in the sixth stanza, attended to every need as soon as it was requested, “No summons mock'd by chill delay,” He wasn’t motivated by greed, “No petty gain disdain'd by pride,” and had “modest wants” supplied by “the toil of ev’ry day”, in the form of food and drink. As Hibbert describes: “The poor people whose unlicensed doctor he was could rarely afford his modest fees and he would accept their offer of a drink instead.” (Hibbert, p.83). This added to Johnson’s affection for Levet and ironically Levet’s dependency on him. It has been observed that “medicine was something of a lottery in the mid-eighteenth century” (Martin, p.184), especially for the unlicensed, as Levet was.

This exalting of Levet renders a second layer to the poem, which contains references to life as a purgatory, “Condemn’d to hope's delusive mine, As on we toil from day to day,” and an underworld, “In misery's darkest caverns known”. “Misery’s darkest caverns” refers to where London’s underbelly of poor dwelled. Levet cared for them and Johnson highlights the lowly despair of “hopeless anguish” and “lonely want” where Levet’s “useful care was ever nigh”. It is between the allusions to purgatory and the underworld where much of the poem affects a despairing tone with its “fainting nature” and “hov’ring death”, where Levet had spent much of his 80 years battling death and nature. It is a mirror on Johnson’s personal feelings about whether his own life amounted to anything near Levet’s righteousness. “[Johnson] reproaches the author himself, who has squandered multiple talents” (Lipking, p.293).

Talk of Levet’s physical death, “See Levet to the grave descend;” echoes the sentiment of descending to the underworld, but by the seventh stanza and through the process of expounding Levet’s virtues Johnson touches upon a favourite biblical parable of his (the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25: 14-30) and the tone shifts, “And sure th' Eternal Master found, The single talent well-employ'd.”

Johnson admits that Levet was obscure in his mannerisms, coarse in conversation, and unrefined in his person, but he believes that actions speak louder than words, and when he details that Levet’s “virtues walk’d their narrow round” he is setting a broader tone: one of judgement.

Johnson considers Levet to be that single talent well-employed that he doubts exists in himself. In that belief Johnson raises Levet up, as if pronouncing a benediction upon him for Levet’s good works; his actions and not his words. Johnson alludes to hellfire and flesh rotting away, “Then with no throbbing fiery pain, No cold gradations of decay,” These are fates reserved for those of us who do not meet the standards of Levet’s commitment to others. Levet’s soul however, Johnson tells us, is freed and he is resurrected.

This conviction in Johnson is further expressed in a journal entry for 20th January 1782 in which he recorded Levet’s funeral and commented: “May God have had mercy on him. May he have mercy on me.” Johnson bestows power on Levet over himself, perhaps believing that men of charity would be the judge of other men. This strong position held by Johnson shines all the brighter for having immortalised Levet as he has. Even Thackeray in his discourse on the “Four Georges” wrote, “Do you remember the verses the sacred verses which Johnson wrote on the death of his humble friend Levett? ... Whose name looks the brightest now, that of Queens-
berry the wealthy duke, or Selwyn the wit, or Levett the poor physician?” (Thackeray, 1864). Thackeray echoes Johnson’s strongly held belief that one Levet is worth a great many gentlemen of higher social standing.

Finally, rhythm and warmth pervades the poem. The cadence of the adjective-noun couplings: “sudden blasts... slow decline... obscurely wise... coarsely kind... fainting nature... hov’ring death... vig’rous remedy” and so on, carry the poem’s beat. The poem is written in iambic tetrameter, lending the stanzas a warm and thoughtful rhythm that is both traditional and familiar, much like a heartbeat. It marks the passages as both laden with regret and resolute in their conviction.

Johnson’s eulogy of Dr Levet is a resounding cry of loss and regret as well as a challenge to the bigotry which pervades amongst the gentry. Allusions to the underworld in which we find ourselves and the nature of good deeds which raises us up are illustrated in a man who embodies, in spirit if not decorum, everything godly. That Johnson has chosen to immortalise a commoner and otherwise unremarkable man in this way may speak more of Johnson’s personal grief than real saintliness. However, he is sermonising. He is trying to evoke self awareness in the reader. We ask ourselves if we have done all we can to be spoken of so highly when it is our turn.

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