Robert Cording

Much Laughter

Boswell’s only note after an evening with Dr. Johnson.
Nothing about the food, the wine, the subjects
Of that night’s passions. Nothing even about
The weather—rain most likely, the damp seeping
Under doors. Just those two words for a night
When everything else slipped into the vacancies
Of the unrecorded. That’s all that’s left. We know
Now the more complete story that Boswell chose
Not to tell: the good doctor’s wearied martyr’s gaze
As he walked the alleyways where the poor remained
Poor, the blind, blind, where the only lesson learned
From suffering was how much better it would be
Not to suffer. We know, too, that Johnson wanted
About this time to rest in God and yet could not
Imagine how to surrender himself to a future
He couldn’t anticipate; he couldn’t help but believe,
To his dismay, that all life needed to go wrong was
The hope it would go right. Too many could not see
How evil fouled the gears of the century’s benign God.
He was headed for another breakdown; Mrs. Thrale
Had already been secretly entrusted with a padlock
And chain to restrain his fits when the time came.
But on this particular evening, happiness must have
Arrived when he least expected it. A few hours
When everyone’s burdens were shouldered, when
There was no tomorrow sprouting its thousand forms
Of grief and humiliation and defeat. Just jokes
And small talk, and wine sweetened with oranges
And sugar tumbling down the doctor’s throat.
A night, perhaps, when all the timorous and beaten
Faces suddenly brightened in their common temple
Of laughter. A night when even a stray black dog
Might have been allowed to lick clean a patron’s
Greasy hands and warm its flea-bitten belly
Near the fire. A night caught in the genius and irony
Of Boswell’s two words—what they left unsaid
And what they say, the simple phrase like a pardon
After our sins have been listened to one by one,
And there is nothing left to remember but “much
Laughter” after another day on earth is done.

Robert Cording
“Much Laughter” is from Common Life (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and first appeared in The Paris Review.