On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet

by Samuel Johnson

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Themes and Meanings

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It is not unusual for an elegist to move quickly beyond his or her subject in pursuit of grander things. In “Adonais,” for example, poor John Keats is soon forgotten as Percy Bysshe Shelley takes off on an exalted tour of the universe (which turns out, essentially, and not without some irony, to be Shelley’s own mind). Johnson, however, never forgets Levet. The meaning he seeks inheres in Levet, in a sense is Levet.

What Johnson saw so clearly in this reserved, humble, and uncouth man may puzzle readers. It certainly puzzled Johnson’s friends, most of them upper-class literati who wondered, for example, what pleasure the greatest conversationalist in England could possibly find in taking morning teaevery morning—with a man who seldom said a word.

Answers to such questions can only involve speculation, but it is probably safe to say that Johnson—a man whose entire life can be regarded from one perspective as a continual search after spiritual truth—saw spiritual truth in Levet. Three days after Levet’s death, Johnson concluded a diary entry briefly describing the funeral with these telling words: “May God have mercy on him. May he have mercy on me.”

What Johnson saw—or hoped to see—in the parable of Levet’s life was the possibility of God’s mercy and the hope of heaven. Throughout most of his life, Johnson was plagued by what his contemporaries called melancholy and what we would describe as depression. In his darkest moments, and in spite of his strong Christian beliefs, Johnson was tortured by religious doubts, not so much about the existence of God, but doubts about his own worthiness as a beneficiary of God’s mercy. His doubts compelled him to weigh continuously his own spiritual worth (his journals and diaries are full of moments of painful self-examination), but his own immense honesty stopped him short of reading the world only in terms of his own doubts. Instead, he searched the lives and experiences of others for confirmation that life not only had meaning, but was also, in a sense, a spiritual pilgrimage with an attainable goal.

Levet’s humble pilgrimage through life was for Johnson a meaningful example, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684, by John Bunyan) in miniature, that was able to bolster his faith and bring him spiritual comfort. As readers see Levet work his way day after day through the London slums (“misery’s darkest caverns”), selflessly dispensing his “useful care,” they see he is walking a “narrow round” that is actually an upward spiral: When death “frees” his soul, it is called home “the nearest way.”

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