Wednesday 23 August 2023

Levet: 'Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind'

 On Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp mentions W.E. Henley's anthology Lyra Heroica: A Book of Verse for Boys. This was one of my father's favourite books, and I still have his copy of the 1940 reprint, bought during his wartime service and inscribed 'E.R. Andrew. 99579, R.E.M.E.' It even carries the label of the bookshop where he bought it – the Modern Library & Stationery Store, Jaffa and Haifa. As an anthology, it's not a bad introduction to English poetry, from Shakespeare and Drayton to Kipling and, yes, Henley. While the celebration of 'the dignity of resistance, the sacred quality of patriotism' is everywhere apparent, there are many poems with nothing of patriotic sinew-stiffening about them. Opening the book at random, I found this by Samuel Johnson, under the title 'The Quiet Life'. It is more usually known as 'On the Death of Dr Robert Levet', and it touchingly celebrates the life of a good man...

Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
    As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
    Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
    See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
    Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
    Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
    Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting Nature called for aid,
    And hovering Death prepared the blow,
His vigorous remedy displayed
    The power of art without the show.

In Misery’s darkest cavern known,
    His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish poured his groan,
    And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mocked by chill delay,
    No petty gain disdained by pride,
The modest wants of every day
    The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walked their narrow round,
    Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
    The single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
    Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
    Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
    No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
    And freed his soul the nearest way.

Robert Levet was one of the little community of misfits and unfortunates that Johnson gathered around him. 'Levet is a brutal fellow,' Johnson remarked to Boswell, 'but I have a good regard for him, for his brutality is in his manners and not in his mind.' Johnson admired Levet for his piety and his devotion to ministering to the medical needs of the poor (though he was barely qualified). This admiration of course baffled Boswell, who described Levet as 'of strange grotesque appearance, stiff and formal in his manner, and seldom said a word while any company was present'. Levet's patients often had nothing to pay him with but gin, so he often came home quite drunk – 'perhaps the only man,' said Johnson, 'who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence.' 
Levet makes a memorable, if mute, appearance in Beckett's fragmentary drama Human Wishes, set in the household of Dr Johnson: 

Enter LEVETT, slightly, respectably, even reluctantly drunk, in great coat and hat, which he does not remove, carrying a small black bag. He advances unsteadily into the room & stands peering at the company. Ignored ostentatiously by Mrs D (knitting), Miss Carmichael (reading), Mrs W (meditating), he remains a little standing as though lost in thought, then suddenly emits a hiccup of such force that he is almost thrown off his feet. Startled from her knitting Mrs D, from her book Miss C, from her stage meditation Mrs W, survey him with indignation. L remains standing a little longer, absorbed & motionless, then on a wide tack returns cautiously to the door, which he does not close behind him. His unsteady footsteps are heard on the stairs. Between the three women exchange of looks. Gestures of disgust. Mouths opened and shut. Finally they resume their occupations.

Mrs W:  Words fail us.

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