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.




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