The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)