The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

“On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” is a poetic elegy that celebrates the life, while mourning the death, of Robert Levet (1705-1782), a “lay” physician who for many years lived in Samuel Johnson’s London house and tended the local poor, seldom asking a fee for his services. Johnson, the eighteenth century’s greatest man of letters, was a scholar, a moralist, and a poet of limited range but genuine abilities. When Levet died in 1782, Johnson was near the end of his own long life—a life that brought him the fame and success his talents merited, yet was filled with illness, poverty, and great personal disappointment. It is hardly surprising, then, to find Johnson compressing so much life and thought within a relatively few lines occasioned by the death of a poor, awkward man unknown to the “greater” world of art and letters.

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Johnson’s poem is divided into nine four-line stanzas. The meter is iambic tetrameter; the rhyme scheme is abab. Each stanza is a grammatically self-contained unit that makes a statement not only about Levet and his life, but, by extension, about humanity and the human condition in general.

At a time when poetic diction was tending more and more toward the ornate, “inane phraseology” of which William Wordsworth later complained, Johnson instead chooses a language that is simple, direct, and “common”—a language wholly appropriate to its subject. In a like manner, Johnson foregoes the kind of elaborate imagery that so many earlier elegists had employed to “elevate” their subjects. Johnson’s crowning artistic achievement, completed only a few years before, was a series of biographies of English poets now known as Lives of the Poets (1779-1781). Among the poets Johnson treated was the great John Milton, and one can easily imagine how, following Levet’s death, Johnson’s thoughts would naturally turn to the lofty language and grand images of Milton’s “Lycidas,” thought by many to be the finest English-language elegy ever written. Levet was not what the progressive-minded eighteenth century would call a “great” man, however, and Johnson surely must have felt that a series of highly wrought, “artificial” images would be sadly unsuited to what he saw as the eloquently sincere and uncomplicated statement made by Levet’s life.

Instead, Johnson turns to the kind of simple, concrete imagery that he had employed successfully in his most famous poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749). Moving from “Hope’s delusive mine” in the first stanza to “Misery’s darkest caverns” in the fifth, and on to the moving scene of the breaking of life’s “vital chain” in the ninth, he gives spare, solid images that function to underscore, rather than overwhelm or obscure, Levet’s accomplishments.

Johnson’s strategy is straightforward. Following a general statement about the human condition that is traditionally Christian in its “philosophy” (though certainly not what one would call optimistic: people are all “Condemn’d to Hope’s delusive mine”—a vision of earthly reality as a kind of purgatory), he begins to lay out Levet’s life and character in a way that consistently obliges readers to look beyond the particularities of his existence—a way that obliges readers to see themselves in Levet and, significantly, to ask themselves just how their lives measure up to his.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

“On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” is traditional. It is, in fact, among those poems that anyone familiar with English poetry would immediately assign to the eighteenth century—and probably to Johnson. The consistent use of adjective-noun combinations (“sudden blasts,” “useful care”); the presence of several key personifications (“fainting nature,” “hopeless anguish”); and the carefully balanced phrasing (“The busy day, the peaceful night,” “His frame was firm, his powers were bright”) all indicate Johnson’s commitment to order, form, and tradition.

Yet to speak of Johnson’s poem as traditional is not to devalue it. One must remember that neither the eighteenth century in general nor Johnson in particular embraced the ideas about poetic originality that are valued in the twentieth century. (In Shakespeare’s day, fools or eccentrics were often called “originals.”) To be original was to veer away from the common stream of life; it was, in essence, to abdicate one’s primary responsibility as a writer, which was (as Johnson put it in his celebrated “Preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare”) to present “human sentiments in human language.” Thus, a desire to reach out to as many men and women as possible, not just to a privileged few, can be seen in Johnson’s firm commitment to poetic tradition.

In practical terms, this means Johnson commits himself to rendering Levet’s story as “universal” in scope as possible, in the hope that it might function for all his readers as a moral lesson—indeed, as precisely the kind of biblical parable of which Johnson was so fond. (The parable of the “single talent,” referred to in line 28 and taken from the biblical account in Matthew 25:14-30, was one of Johnson’s favorites. Levet’s story is ultimately an illustration of “The single talent well employ’d.”)

Johnson searches out the most universal, the most “human” concerns—concerns all readers are likely to have shared at some time in their lives. He speaks of life and death, of human cares and anguish, of human virtues and accomplishments, of faith, duty, and compassion, and—though the word is never mentioned—of love.

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Themes