Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 440 words.)