Analysis of "To Sir John Lade, On His Coming of Age" Poetry
Dr. Samuel Johnson was best known as a critic, but his poetry, according to Harold Bloom in "The Western Canon," was "powerful . . . wisdom literature." "To Sir John Lade, On His Coming of Age" is not only a poem about life changes, but it also includes the wisdom that should presumably come with those changes. Johnson being Johnson, he cannot resist piling on the ironies.
The poem is in four-line stanzas, each moving to a different stage of revelation. The first gives effusive congratulations to young Lade in his new "long-expected" adulthood, having passed a "lingering" year of anticipation; the poet hints at massive benefits in the "pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty" the youth now owns. Already, Johnson shifts the tone to a mocking one; the alliteration seems a childish game. The second stanza hints at the divided nature Lade has inherited: He is "free to mortgage and to sell," which sounds responsible, but he is "wild as wind and light as feather," a Peter Pan who will never grow up.
Hints of Darker Future
Now Johnson unleashes numerous verbal ironies, all disguised as sage advice. He urges Lade to gather frivolous women and lavish his "grandsire's guineas" upon them, to "show the spirit of an heir," as if wasting fortunes was a princeling's vocation. He advises that "wealth . . . was made to wander" and urges Lade to let jockeys and panderers "take their fill," as if gambling and womanizing were charities in need of contributions. Johnson further denigrates the values of his generation by adding "when the bonny blade carouses . . . What are houses? Only dirt, or wet or dry," saying the young lord should live only for today -- which is, of course, the opposite of Johnson's true beliefs.
A Final Irony
Johnson reserves his most savage prediction -- and more alliteration -- for the poem's final stanza. He tells the youth to ignore the "woes of wilful waste" that parents predict, since Lade "can hang or drown at last": His "wet or dry" house will be a noose or a damp grave. Johnson's poem exemplifies irony, having told his young charge the exact opposite of the fatherly advice that should be given -- perhaps because he knew that young people ignore such advice.
Life Imitates Art
The real Sir John Lade did ignore the poet. He led a life that fulfilled Johnson's every prediction, becoming a "notorious rake" who ran through the family estate in a generation. It's possible that the young baronet, upon reading Johnson's commemorative work, decided to let life imitate art; it may have been obvious to Johnson that Lade's fate was already in sight. Whatever the reason, Johnson's poetry creates a third title for him in addition to those of critic and poet -- that of fortune-telling prophet, which takes the idea of wisdom literature beyond known experience.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.