Sudden Elevations of Mind

Colin Burrow

  • The Works of Samuel Johnson, Vols XXI-XXIII: The Lives of the Poets edited by John Middendorf
    Yale, 1696 pp, £180.00, July 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 12314 2

Most literary criticism is ephemeral, too good for wrapping up chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing. Very little English literary criticism has lasted as long or worn as well as Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. It shaped the canon of English poetry and set the terms for critical discussion of Donne, Milton, Dryden, Swift and Pope over at least two centuries. This is all the more amazing given that its own life began effectively with a commercial problem. In 1777 the Scottish printer John Bell was flooding the London market with cheap editions of English poets, in defiance of the copyright interests of English publishers. A consortium of London stationers decided to blow Bell out of the water with a set of editions of significant English poets that was intended to run from Chaucer to the present day, though this was eventually slimmed down to a canon of 52 poets from Abraham Cowley (1618-67) to George Lyttleton (1709-73). Johnson, by then 68 and the grand old man of English letters, was asked, for a modest fee of 200 guineas (‘no man but a blockhead’ etc), to add value and authority to the enterprise by providing a short preface to each poet’s work. Being short the prefaces would be quick to write. Being Johnsonian they would also be inimitable by Scottish upstarts and other commercial rivals.

The ‘little lives’, as Johnson called them, rapidly ballooned into little volumes. Concision gave way to curiosity, and curiosity to copiousness. Johnson regarded biography as something closer to conversation than to the accumulation of detail: ‘Lives can only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing every day less, and in a short time is lost for ever.’ He made some inquiries of people who knew the more recent authors in his collection, and made brief trips to Oxford to discover information about the long dead, but he was not by instinct a digger after fact. The convenience of working to a publisher’s deadline allowed him to work chiefly from printed sources. His staples were the multi-volume biographical dictionaries that had appeared through the mid-18th century, such as the Biographica Britannica and the General Dictionary, though he also made use of the biographies which were, by the early years of the century, routinely prefixed to volumes by poets from past generations. He also scoured his bottom drawer for material. The longest of the lives, that of Richard Savage, was substantially a reprint of a monument to a feckless and garrulous friend that Johnson had published in 1744. Johnson’s critique of Pope’s epitaphs from 1756 was appended to his ‘Life of Pope’, even though it provides an incongruously waspish conclusion to what is otherwise an enthusiastic essay in appreciation. He also did some delegation in order to complete the work. The life of Edward Young was written by Herbert Croft, who was more diligent than his master in unearthing facts, but whose pastiche of the Johnsonian style painfully illustrates how hard that style is to emulate.

Even with these short cuts, and even with the assistance of the aspiring young antiquary John Nichols, Johnson could not keep pace with the expectations of the commercial press. The prefaces, indeed, became postfaces: the first 22 lives appeared in 1779, after the volumes of poems to which they were supposed to be prefixed had been printed. Johnson toiled over the remaining 30 lives for the next couple of years: ‘My Lives creep on,’ he said in May 1780. In March 1781 the work was done. In the ‘Life of Pope’, Johnson described how the translation of the Iliad took longer than its author expected: ‘Indolence, interruption, business, and pleasure, all take their terms of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can, and ten thousand that cannot, be recounted.’ That sentence, which all publishers should frame and hang above their desks, was a reflection on his own progress. Johnson rebuked himself repeatedly for idleness and vacancy of mind, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone else could have achieved as much in twice the time it took him. The complete Lives were printed as a free-standing collection in 1781, and were duly pirated by the Dublin presses (the 18th-century equivalent of dodgy Russian file-sharing servers) a couple of years after that.

The Lives were not originally designed to be read through as a collection. In some of them Johnson is shifting copy, rapidly and sometimes carelessly assimilating his sources. The usual pattern is to relate the facts of the life (with often a warm effusion on the author’s schoolmaster, a breed for which Johnson carried lasting affection), then to give an analysis of the author’s character, followed by an assessment of the verse. These three sections are usually distinct, and each has its own formulae. When Johnson has nothing to say in the literary-critical section of a life he will accuse an author of overusing triplets or Alexandrines, or of being merely pretty. He sometimes delivers the squelch complete, as when he says of the unfortunate George Granville: ‘His little pieces are seldom either spritely or elegant, either keen or weighty. They are trifles written by idleness and published by vanity.’ In others he spreads his wings to an extent that must have made his publishers quail, though mostly these are the moments that have given the Lives their lasting value. The first life in the collection, that of Abraham Cowley, includes Johnson’s classic excursus on ‘a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets’, which describes a tradition and then relentlessly anatomises its faults: ‘The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.’

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