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.’
The literary-critical sections of the Lives enabled Johnson to express and refine taste by making judgments on particular poems. Through these judgments emerge some principles, some preoccupations and some simple prejudices. Some of the principles are themselves effectively metaphysical. He believed that a heterogeneity of elements – the method of metaphysical poetry according to Johnson – was intrinsically prone to cause corruption and impermanence in poems as it was thought to do in physical bodies. Hence modes which bring together contrasting registers – notably burlesque and mock epic – are not of permanent value: ‘Burlesque consists in a disproportion between the style and the sentiments … It, therefore, like all bodies compounded of heterogeneous parts, contains in it a principle of corruption.’ Some of the prejudices are magnificently expressed but perverse. Johnson’s affection for ‘nature’ and for direct expression meant that he hated poems that were encrusted with allusions to pagan deities or rehearsed second-hand pastoral conventions. These were mean, donnish and unnatural, the kinds of thing that someone who had spent his life in a ‘private College’ rather than out in the world might produce. His notorious attack on Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (‘In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new’) is the most extreme manifestation of this prejudice. The inept use of personification can also prompt the cortex-crunching Johnsonian boff to the head: in Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, ‘his supplication to father Thames, to tell him who drives the hoop or tosses the ball, is useless and puerile. Father Thames has no better means of knowing than himself.’
Johnson’s willingness to pick up poetic idols and chop their feet of clay right off was probably not quite what his publishers had in mind for his prefaces, but it makes reading them continually engaging. You’re never quite sure where or when the critical axe will fall. His particular style of iconoclasm was in part the product of his own biography. He was born over his father’s bookshop in Lichfield, where he attended grammar school before going to Oxford. His social awkwardness was profound, and it lies behind his wish to be at once an unassailable authority and a person of earthily rooted good sense. It also influences his taste. A leisured poet, particularly one from a wealthy family, is unlikely to win Johnson’s favour or to be preferred to one who worked hard at his school and then at honing his metre. The way Johnson masks his own modest origins beneath a display of critical fearlessness is also one reason for the exceptional influence of the Lives on English literary criticism. The majority of people who made ‘English’ into an academic subject in the 20th century were grammar-school boys with similar aspirations to be arbiters of taste. Johnson sounded as they would wish to sound: fearless in judgment, unaristocratic yet aggressively free from servility.
Johnson values the natural and imaginative, but he rarely finds these qualities in writers who were not effectively professionals. Indeed aesthetic and commercial value are not for him entirely distinct. The bookseller’s son records in fascinated detail Pope’s negotiations to make himself a small fortune out of his translation of the Iliad, and then, perhaps realising he’s at risk of giving himself away, excuses his fascination: ‘It cannot be unwelcome to literary curiosity, that I deduce thus minutely the history of the English Iliad. It is certainly the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen; and its publication must therefore be considered as one of the great events in the annals of learning.’ Pope, that is, got from his publishers what the translation was really worth.
Poets who praised the rich (and particularly those who praised William III) are usually treated with contempt, unless they were compelled to prostitute themselves by material need. So the wealthy Edmund Waller, who wrote panegyrics to Oliver Cromwell and then praised Charles II, is given faintish praise as a refiner of English verse. During his exile in France, Waller lived ‘with great splendour and hospitality; and from time to time amused himself with poetry, in which he sometimes speaks of the rebels, and their usurpation, in the natural language of an honest man’. Never has ‘sometimes’ been used more lethally: the glittering amateur ‘sometimes’ raises himself from enervated aristocratic trifling to sound like (and Johnson implies he does no more than this) an ‘honest man’. Waller the time-serving panegyrist has lost all but the ability to appear ‘sometimes’ honest, for ‘he that has flattery ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world happen to exalt, must be scorned as a prostituted mind, that may retain the glitter of wit, but has lost the dignity of virtue.’ Dryden, by contrast, who sought to live by the pen, can be forgiven for praising those who could pay him to do so: ‘Dryden has never been charged with any personal agency unworthy of a good character: he abetted vice and vanity only with his pen … His works afford too many examples of dissolute licentiousness and abject adulation; but they were probably, like his merriment, artificial and constrained; the effects of study and meditation, his trade rather than his pleasure.’ To praise as a ‘trade’ is to succumb to necessity; to do it as a ‘pleasure’ is a mark of vice. Johnson records with some satisfaction that Dryden received 250 guineas for 10,000 verses in 1699.
The ever-so-faint trace of vulgarity, even of uppity priggery, beneath the sonority of Johnson’s prose is always complemented and often dissipated by his radiant fairness. He does not simply balance a good life against corrupt verses, or set a clause of praise against a clause of condemnation. He is just supremely aware of human imperfection. For this reason his Lives are not a collection of Olympian judgments on mortal folly. They are more like the work of an Olympian incarnate: Johnson does not simply aspire to godlike purity of judgment, but knows fleshly pain too. He has experienced the distractions of domestic life and understands what it is to be embodied and in need. Johnson’s very robust form of humanity goes along with a distinctive view of moral psychology, which is a vital element in the Lives. Johnson believed that the intellect without sociable interchange or occasional enforced periods of reflection will rust into melancholy. Experience has a general tendency to become a chaotic and unregulated sequence of ideas, and ideas received in the past tend to fade unless regularly refreshed. Each person is subject to these general laws of the mind, and each person also has a disposition to decline into his particular set of vices. Each of us, however, has a sluggish but voluntary power to arouse ourselves from both our collective and our individual weakness.
That moral psychology (itself not entirely unpriggish, since it goes along with a deep hostility to aristocratic leisure and to self-indulgences of all sorts) underpins many of the ethical judgments in the Lives, and indeed runs through the detail of its phrasing. Pope was ‘fretful, and easily displeased, and allowed himself to be capriciously resentful’. That phrase ‘allowed himself’ is absolute Johnson: Pope’s failure to correct his own inclination to be fretful turns his natural disposition into a moral failing. In a similar way Swift, towards whom Johnson is generally hostile, condemned himself to eventual madness by his refusal to participate in society: ‘His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.’ The sentence is so damning because it makes no reference to Swift’s own agency. He failed to prevent himself from becoming an isolated curmudgeon because he allowed his passions to drive his behaviour into a loop of decline, and that way madness lay: ‘His ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away, and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness.’ Even this judgment, severe though it may be, is not simply cruel or inhumane: Johnson saw in Swift’s mental decline a parallel to his own battles with ‘vile melancholy’, which he sought to alleviate by the therapy of activity. Swift’s final illness was a mortal and moral hell which has its roots in voluntary weakness, and was a fate which Johnson could imagine as his own.
There are few lives so bad that Johnson cannot imagine that they could be his. The truly brilliant ‘Life of Savage’ describes a man whom he knew well compulsively repeating a cycle of behaviour. The natural affability of Savage won him friends; his loquacity tried their patience and deprived them of sleep; his impecuniosity relieved them of their funds; his profligacy ensured those funds were dissipated, with the result that they were friends no more. Feckless and exiled to Bristol, Savage declined into debt. His virtues were an openness to conversation and scrupulosity in correcting proofs; his chief vice was an inability to jolt himself out of his disposition to spend, to drink, to talk, to waste himself and time. This, the earliest written of the lives, carries an urgent moral lesson in how mental self-regulation can fail, and how a poet attempting to live by the pen can decline into penury and death. Never extenuating but never carping at faults, Johnson describes the slippage of a mind into catastrophe, and he describes it in such a way that you could imagine it happening to anyone, including the author.
This gives to Johnson’s Lives the cardinal virtues and saving graces of humanity and charity. And those virtues are assisted by his tendency to separate biography from literary-critical judgment. A person who wastes his life in drink or malice does not necessarily have to write poems that display those failings. Johnson is also quite willing to praise a single poem by someone who seldom raises himself beyond the pretty or the elegant. At such moments he is not just allowing that a bad poet can have his day: he often seems to be shaking himself out of the routine drudgery of digesting the facts, rephrasing the narrative and countermanding the judgments of the biographical encyclopedias, in order to awake into pleasure and often into joy at a fine set of verses. This gives the Lives their own curious rhythm, which is perhaps the greatest pleasure of reading them through, and which (one imagines) was the rhythm of Johnson’s own mind. Every so often he scours off the rust that accumulates in the soul from repeatedly enacting a cycle of biographical paraphrase, judicious moral assessment and literary critical condemnation, simply to glory in a poem. It’s usually at these moments of self-awakening that Johnson is at his most remarkable as a critic.
Sometimes, indeed, he can seem to be pulling literary criticism towards a new age. The rather undistinguished life of William Congreve provides the best example of this. Johnson begins coasting in neutral, as he runs through the events of Congreve’s life, capably digested from the Biographia Britannica and other familiar sources, and then confesses (as he does with refreshing frequency), ‘of his plays I cannot speak distinctly; for since I inspected them many years have passed.’ But then there is a turn. He declares: ‘if I were required to select from the whole mass of English poetry the most poetical paragraph, I know not what I could prefer to an exclamation in The Mourning Bride,’ in which Almeria describes a ‘tall pile;/Whose ancient pillars rear their marble heads,/To bear aloft its arch’d and ponderous roof … It strikes an awe/And terror on my aching sight.’ Johnson then says: ‘he who reads those lines enjoys for a moment the powers of a poet; he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with great increase of sensibility.’ The vocabulary here is familiar: ruins, terror, sensibility were all commonplaces of the criticism and the poetry of the period. Johnson, though, was writing his Lives only a couple of decades before the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which Wordsworth announced that ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.’ The old cliché is that Wordsworth’s Preface marked a radical change in the way people thought about poetry: the emotions and memories of the poet become paramount. But like many self-proclaimed innovators, Wordsworth was more revisionary than revolutionary. He takes up Johnson’s extraordinary passage on the power of memory to give a new energy to old emotions, transfers that power from reader to poet, and declares a new age. Johnson (who for Wordsworth embodied the ideas of an old and outworn critical tradition) had more or less got there first.
The ‘Life of Congreve’ quickly returns to earth with a judgment that suggests a volume being tossed into the out-tray or across the room. Congreve’s ‘petty poems are seldom worth the cost of criticism: sometimes the thoughts are false, and sometimes common.’ But among these drab pieces of routine lies the exception, the moment of glorious awakening that makes a critic want to read. Works of the imagination are for Johnson by nature impossible to predict, and the salutary wonder they create is rooted in their inscrutable origins: they ‘are often influenced by causes wholly out of the performer’s power, by hints of which he perceives not the origin, by sudden elevations of mind which he cannot produce in himself, and which sometimes rise when he expects them least’.
Johnson’s love of these strange fits of passion is profound, and it makes nonsense of the simple-minded view of him as a stodgy Augustan dogmatist. He would have snorted loudly if anyone had called him a romantic soul trapped in a gouty corporeal form, but that description is more accurate than he would have liked. His admiration of ‘sudden elevations of mind’ is why he generally finds far less to commend in writers who are persistently smooth than in those who have both heights and depths. When he says of Joseph Addison that ‘his page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendour,’ he uses his barbed and balanced style to insinuate that Addison was an over congenial mediocrity, too smooth to surprise. His preference for Dryden over Pope has a similar origin: Dryden’s ‘page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation’ while ‘Pope’s is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and levelled by the roller.’ Mechanised correctness is for Johnson a virtue, but a small one. A poet who both falls and soars is for him the real thing. Dryden ‘delighted to tread upon the brink of meaning, where light and darkness begin to mingle; to approach the precipice of absurdity, and hover over the abyss of unideal vacancy’. That description deliberately recalls the moment in Paradise Lost when Satan proceeds out of hell and over the seething mass of Chaos and elemental confusion into which he could drop without end. The Romantic Johnson sees the poet as one who both soars and drops, and who is a lesser poet if he avoids all flight in order not to risk a fall.
The ‘Life of Milton’ in particular presents rising and falling as two interdependent elements in poetic excellence. That life has irritated many readers, largely because in it Johnson is at his most unreconstructedly and provocatively Tory and contrarian. Milton is described as having the ‘political notions’ of an ‘acrimonious and surly republican’, which were founded on ‘an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence’. Moreover his works display ‘something like a Turkish contempt of females’. But the portrait is not simply hostile. Part of what Johnson admires in Milton is his unconfessed frailty, the depths that lurk beneath the heights. He has satirical fun when Milton returns from his Italian journey in order to fight for the liberty of the state and ends up as a schoolmaster: ‘Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who hastens home, because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding school.’ Despite ‘vapours’, with its suggestion of anaemic ladies on chaises-longues, this is a backhanded compliment: for Johnson a schoolmaster was infinitely preferable to a rebel.
The criticisms of Milton are throughout not quite what you would expect from a simple Tory. He does not attack Milton for refusing to attend church later in his life because that meant he was not a good Anglican. Instead he says that ‘religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by Faith and Hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind, unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example.’ Milton’s nonconformity was not a problem in itself. Indeed Johnson insisted that the nonconformist poet Isaac Watts should be included among the Lives. The criticism of Milton here derives from Johnson’s psychology: Milton failed to realise that ideas, especially the abstract ideas of religion, must be ‘reimpressed’ on the mind to stop them fading away. Regular public worship is valuable not because it enforces conformity, but because it refreshes the mind and prevents it slipping into error and oblivion.
Anyone who reads the ‘Life of Milton’ for the first time would expect Johnson to rough up Paradise Lost as well as ‘Lycidas’. He does land a few punches. But the principle of surprise animates these lives. Milton’s epic is described as ‘a poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind’. It might take a moment for this to sink in. The surly and acrimonious republican wrote a work which is second among the productions of the human mind (which must mean third overall, the Bible being superhuman), second, presumably, to Homer’s Iliad. This is more than Johnson simply striving to be fair: he has such a strong moral commitment to ‘sudden elevations of mind’ that he is prepared to present an author’s life as almost ceaselessly wrong-headed, and yet allow the miracle that verse soars beyond the life.
Johnson found writing the Lives hard work, and the rhythms and pressures of that labour run through every aspect of them – their moral judgments, their critical appraisals, their structure and their surprisingly frequent errors. There is no more heartfelt sentence in the work than this: ‘To adjust the minute events of literary history is tedious and troublesome; it requires indeed no great force of understanding, but often depends upon enquiries which there is no opportunity of making, or is to be fetched from books and pamphlets not always at hand.’ An editor of the Lives must know what Johnson knew about his subjects, and what he did not know but probably should have known. Readers will want to have errors of fact noted and their genesis explained, and so the editor must also be aware of what’s presently known about each of Johnson’s authors. Add in the fact that several of the Lives were extensively revised by their author in proof, and a couple incorporated materials Johnson wrote years before, and it becomes not entirely surprising that this smart Yale edition has itself eaten up several lifetimes. It began in 1955 under the editorship of Frederick Hilles. He died 20 years later, leaving the task to John Middendorf, who died while these volumes were being copy-edited. Like Johnson before him he delegated: several of the most substantial lives (Milton, Dryden, Savage, Addison, Young) were edited by other scholars in order to enable the completion of the whole.
The long and painful genesis of this edition should inspire charity in the most captious of critics. Between the work of different editors seams are inevitably visible. Habits of annotation differ, sometimes cross-references are wanting, a name thought worthy of an explanation by one editor is passed over in silence by another. Through the interstices slip a handful of errors that are less severe than many of Johnson’s: few will be bothered by a momentary confusion between Milton’s university exercises, or ‘prolusions’, and his Poems of 1645, or by similar trivia. The chief problem with the edition is that it appears four years after a work of awe-inspiring excellence, Roger Lonsdale’s edition of Johnson’s Lives for the Clarendon Press. The Yale editors, with their legacy of scholarship from the 1950s, have not been able to incorporate Lonsdale’s findings, and their generally illuminating commentary is not sufficiently strong to dispel the long shadow which he casts over their work. At twice the price and a third as long again as the Yale Lives, the Clarendon edition might perhaps be regarded as a venture on a different scale; it is certainly in a different league.