A to Z

Ian Hamilton

  • Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt
    Weidenfeld, 960 pp, £22.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 297 84014 2
  • A Critical Difference: T.S. Eliot and John Middleton Murry in English Literary Criticism, 1919-28 by David Goldie
    Oxford, 232 pp, £35.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 19 812379 5

Yalden, Hammond, Stepney, Fenton (Elijah) and Hughes (John): where are you now? Ten of the 52 poets represented in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets fail to make an appearance in the Oxford Companion to English Literature. On its own, of course, this doesn’t prove a thing. At the same time I would guess that these poets are known about today – if they are known about today – simply because they were once biographised by Dr Johnson. Thanks to Johnson, and thanks also to the Dunciad, it has not been easy for minor figures of the 18th century to achieve absolute literary-historical oblivion. Fenton, Hughes et al do seem to have got closer to the final darkness than most other dunces of their day. Let us remember them for that.

Did Johnson, I wonder, know how little lay in store, historically, for his biographers? If he did, it is quite likely that such knowledge would have sharpened his curiosity as to their lives and personalities. Literary failure, after all, was one of his chief fascinations. He knew dudness when he saw it and over the years he was regularly drawn to contemplate the gulf – the yawning, tragi-comic gulf – between authorial achievement and authorial self-ranking. The ‘little lives and little prefaces’ he was asked to provide for a new, multi-volume edition of ‘the English poets’ was sure to offer abundant scope for such a study; abundant freedom, also, since none of the poets under scrutiny was still alive at the time of Johnson’s writing.

Michael Schmidt’s lives of the Poets is not at all like Johnson’s. Indeed, it is by no means certain that Schmidt has taken the trouble to investigate the famous works of his precursor. He seems to think that Johnson’s poets wrote in the 18th century (some did; some didn’t) and that Johnson himself chose his subjects (only four of them, including Yalden, were his choice). So we can pretty much forget about Schmidt’s eye-catching and presumptuous title. What we actually have here is a 900-plus page guidebook to English poetry (or poetry in English) from Langland to the present day: tamely helpful most of the time but spiked here and there with sometimes annoying interjections from our guide. It’s more a book to look things up in than to live with, A to Z. Schmidt talks a lot about continuities but he has no gift for history’s great sweeps and swoops. And as a layer-down of laws, he rarely inspires confidence: he is forever shuttling between received opinion (received, mostly, from his hero, Donald Davie), and ill-balanced subjectivity. Admittedly, Johnson himself was unreliable, but with him we are usually more interested in the judge than we are in those he’s judging. Johnson is a companion we want to see more of; he’s crusty and he makes us laugh. Schmidt, on the other hand, is either gushing or sniping, and when he comes on as a joker we simply want to look the other way. ‘Speke Parrot’, he says, is Skelton’s

masterpiece. The years of learnedness laugh at themselves in obscure references and allusions. He shifts attention from immediate effects to a more integrated poetic language that reflects a mind which, to begin with, seems abandoned to eloquent mania. The parrot who speaks is a polly-glot, stuffed with knowledge.

Is ‘polly-glot’ a misprint? I fear not.

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