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Monday, June 30, 2014

Samuel Johnson on the Virtues of Country Life

The sylvan splendors of Lichfield, England
Samuel Johnson's hometown

In The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson, Rasselas’ advisor Imlac has counseled the prince on the value of knowing his own mind. Disturbed by his recent experiences in the city, Rasselas travels into the country. He has heard of a hermit whose virtue has won praise for miles around. Perhaps this man can teach him principles and disciplines that can lead to lasting happiness.

Accompanied by Imlac and the princess Nekayah, Rasselas treks through verdant fields, where sheep feed without concern, and the shepherds guard them. Such idyllic splendor overwhelms Imlac. “This,” said the poet, “is the life which has been often celebrated for its innocence and quiet; let us pass the heat of the day among the shepherds’ tents, and know whether all our searches are not to terminate in pastoral simplicity.”

When they question the shepherds, they realize that peace and tranquility do not necessarily accompany such a simple existence. The shepherds resent their lowly status, and curse the aristocracy, whom they blame for their economic hardship, exile from society, and political impotency. Their vitriol astounds Imlac and Rasselas. Still, the princess holds out hope that she might find joy and satisfaction among people who grow their own flowers, who love to wander through the fields and woods, breathe in the cool, fresh breeze, listen to a gentle stream coursing over stones, and adore the sheep they tend.

Her wish is soon granted. Their journey to the hermit leads them into the woods, where they find twisting walkways cut through tall, healthy trees. Flowers tussle in a riot of colors from well tended planting beds. Tree limbs have been artfully woven together. Water from a nearby stream babbles over rocks. Then, in a scene reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, in which Bilbo and the dwarves discover the woodland elves in Mirkwood Forest, Rasselas, Imlac, and the princess enter a grove where young men and women dance to spritely music. 

They are welcomed into a stately palace, where the master offers them every luxury. After several days there, the master confides that a powerful man known as the Bassa envies his prosperity. Up until now, the princes of Egypt have sheltered him, but he knows this cannot last forever, as the princes need money to sustain their power and the splendor of their courts. Thus, the master has sent the majority of his wealth into another country. The instant his spies report that royal favor has turned from him to the Bassa, he will flee from his fine palace, and consign himself to exile.

Troubled by this discovery, Rasselas, Imlac, and Nekayah continue their journey. Soon they reach the hermit, who tells them that he was once a great warrior. When he tired of the constant clash of battle, he fled his enemies for the silence and seclusion of this cave. For many years he found serenity there, but now he is bored, and wishes to leave! Or, as he puts it: I am sometimes ashamed to think that I could not secure myself from vice but by retiring from the exercise of virtue, and begin to suspect that I was rather impelled by resentment than led by devotion into solitude. The hermit digs up what treasures he brought with him, and accompanies the trio back to Cairo.

England overflows with scenic splendor. Bewitching woods, rich pasturelands, and forbidding caves beckon the visitor. Her landscape suggests that, outside the larger cities, life might consist of nonstop tranquility. Yet one of her favorite sons, Samuel Johnson, tells us that, even there, life in the country can never be carefree. 

Still, Samuel Johnson wrote The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia in 1759. A lot can change in two hundred-and-fifty years, right?

Dragon Dave

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