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Ode on Dr Levett

by Sangharakshita

Some hyphens are missing from this file
Levett Seminar file 1, edited copy
Chairmen's Seminar: 12/12/1984, at Padmaloka
`On the Death of Dr Levett': by Samuel Johnson
Present: Sangharakshita, Ratnavira, Aryamitra, Susiddhi, Subhuti, Kulamitra, Vessantara,
Padmaraja, Devamitra, Tejananda, Devaraja, Vajrananda, Dipankara.
Transcribed and edited by Joyce R. Mumford
Further editing by Subhadra
Retyped by Paul Melior
[f1 p2]
On the Death of Mr Robert Levett Practiser in Physic
Condemned to Hope's delusive mine,
So on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts or slow decline
Our social comforts drop away.
Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levett to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.
Yet still he fills affection's eye,
Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.
When fainting nature called for aid,
And hovering death prepared the blow,
His vigorous remedy displayed
The power of art without the show.
In Misery's darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish poured his groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.
No summons mocked by chill delay,
No petty gain disdained by pride;
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.
His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.
The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm his powers were bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.
Then with no fiery throbbing pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way.
Samuel Johnson
[f1 p3]
Sangharakshita: We have already studied one poem by Dr Johnson the Ode to Friendship and
so I thought that this poem, Johnson's Lines on the death of Dr Robert Levett might make a
suitable companion piece. I also thought it would be suitable to study the text of a poem by
Dr Johnson inasmuch as tomorrow will be the two-hundredth anniversary of his death; and
this poem seemed the right length for two study sessions [i.e. a weekend]. As I think we will
see, the subject matter links up, to some extent at least, with that of the Ode to Friendship.
The Ode to Friendship seems to have been written when Johnson was quite young, perhaps
even before he left Lichfield for London, whereas the lines of the death of Levett were written
towards the very end of his life. It is significant that both poems have to do with friendship;
the first in a rather idealistic, general way, but the last deals with an actual friend and is
written on the occasion of Levett's death. It is interesting to see who that friend was, because
he was a quite unprepossessing character. He was not young or good-looking; he was a very
old man, even older than Johnson, and he had lived in Johnson's house for twenty years. He
was not at all an attractive character. Very few people, apart from Johnson, seemed to see any
good in him at all. But that was characteristic of Johnson, because he had at all periods of his
life especially after his wife's death quite a collection of odd and difficult characters living in
his house, whom only he would put up with; and Levett was one of the less obnoxious of
them. I thought I would read an account of Levett, just to give you a bit of background, and
also to underline the fact that it is possible to develop very warm feelings of friendship
towards someone who is not, superficially, a very attractive person. Friendship, especially
when continued over the years, goes beyond such considerations. There are a number of
accounts of Levett from different sources, and I am going to read the oldest one I have, which
is, I think, in some ways the best. It is from Hawkins' Life of Johnson, which came out before
Boswell's, and has only been reprinted once, but it is a very interesting account of Johnson's
life from a rather different point of view [from Boswell's]. I am not going to read all that
Hawkins says about Levett it is rather long but I am at least going to read an account which
Hawkins quotes from The Gentleman's Magazine, published shortly after Levett's death,
together with a letter of Johnson's to Dr Lawrence, notifying his death. The Gentleman's
Magazine writes: Mr Levett, though an Englishman by birth, became early in life a waiter at a
coffee-house in Paris. The surgeons who frequented it, finding him of an inquisitive turn and
attentive to their conversation made a purse for him and gave him some instruction in their
art. They afterwards furnished him with the means of other knowledge by procuring him free
admission to such lectures in pharmacy and anatomy as were read by the ablest professors of
that period. Hence his introduction to a business which afforded him a continual, though
slender, maintenance. Where he spent the middle part of his life is uncertain. He resided,
however, above twenty years under the roof of Johnson, who never wished him to be regarded
as an inferior or treated him like a dependant. He breakfasted with the Doctor every morning,
and perhaps was seen no more [f1 p4] by him till midnight. Much of the day was employed in
attendance on his patients, who ere chiefly of the lowest rank of tradesmen. The remainder of
his hours he dedicated to Hunter's lectures and to as many opportunities of improvements he
could meet with on the same gratuitous conditions. 'All his medical knowledge', said Johnson,
' and it is not inconsiderable was obtained through the ear: though he buys books, he seldom
looks into them or discovers any power by which he can be supposed to judge of an author's
merit.' Before he became a constant inmate of the Doctor's house, he married, when he was
near sixty, a woman of the town who had persuaded him, notwithstanding their place of
congress was a small coal-shed in Fetter Lane, (Laughter) that she was nearly related to a man
of fortune but was injuriously kept by him out of large possessions. It is almost needless to
add that both parties were disappointed in their views. If Levett took her for an heiress who in
time might be rich, she regarded him as a physician already in considerable practice.
Compared with the marvels of this transaction, as Johnson himself declared when relating
them, the tales in the Arabian Nights Entertainments seem familiar occurrences. Never was
infant more completely duped than our hero. He had not been married four months before a
writ was taken out against him for debts incurred by his wife. He was secreted, and his friends
then procured him a protection from a foreign minister. In a short time afterwards, she ran
away from him and was tried, providentially in his opinion, for picking pockets at the Old
Bailey. Her husband was with difficulty prevented from attending the court in the hope she
would be hanged. She pleaded her own cause and was acquitted. A separation between this
ill-starred couple took place and Dr Johnson then took Levett home, where he continued till
his death, which happened suddenly without pain, January 12th, 1782. His vanity in
supposing that a young woman of family and fortune should be enamoured of him, Dr
Johnson thought, deserved some check. As no relations of his were known to Dr Johnson, he
advertised for them. In the course of a few weeks an heir at law appeared and ascertained his
title to what effects the deceased had left behind him. Levett's character was rendered
valuable by repeated proof of honesty, tenderness and gratitude to his benefactor that is,
Johnson As well as by an unwearied diligence in his profession. His single failing was an
occasional departure from sobriety. Johnson would observe he was perhaps the only man who
ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence. He reflected that if he refused the gin
or brandy offered him by some of his patients he could have been no gainer by their cure, as
they might have had nothing else to bestow on him. This habit of taking a fee in whatever
shape it was exhibited could not be put off by advice or admonition of any kind. he would
swallow what he did not like, nay, what he knew would injure him, rather than with an idea
that his skill had been exerted without recompense. Had, said Johnson, all his patients
maliciously combined to reward him with meat and strong liquors instead of money, he
would either have burst like the dragon in the Apocrypha through repletion, or been scorched
up like Portia by swallowing fire. But let not from hence an imputation of rapaciousness be
fixed upon him. Though he took all that was offered him, he demanded nothing from the poor
nor was known in any instance to have enforced the payment of even what was justly his due.
[f1 p5] His person was middle-sized and thin; his visage swarthy, adust and corrugated; his
conversation, except on professional subjects, barren. When in dishabille he might have been
mistaken for an alchemist whose complexion had been hurt by the fumes of the crucible and
whose clothes had suffered from the sparks of the furnace. Such was Levett, whose whimsical
frailty, if weighed against his good and useful qualities, was floating atom, dust that falls
unheeded into the adverse scale, nor shakes the balance by ringing it. To this character I here
add ...

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