convened, at which about forty firms were represented; plans were submitted for a more thorough and trustworthy edition, and one of the booksellers, whose name deserves to have been remembered, added the suggestion that Dr. Johnson should be invited to contribute a series of brief biographical prefaces, telling as much, or as little, as he thought fit, of the life and circumstances of his author. Johnson accepted the suggestion; 'proposals' for the new edition were issued early in April; and on Easter Eve, 1777, three of the booksellers, Davies, Strachan, and Cadell, waited on the doctor in his rooms off Fleet Street to arrive at a final understanding of the terms.

They found him in no mood for business controversy. The stern old Churchman was preparing himself for his Easter communion. Those were days, perhaps, of slackened observance, but in the obligations of his faith Dr. Johnson at least was never weak or wavering. On Easter Eve he always took a keen survey of his spiritual progress during the year, and confided to his diary the misgivings which his meditation prompted. 'When I survey my past life,' he wrote upon that very evening, 'I discover nothing but a barren waste of time, with some disorders of body and disturbances of the mind very near to madness, which I hope He that made me will suffer to extenuate many faults and exercise many deficiencies.' In this state of mind, 'unsettled and perplexed,' he made the interruption of the booksellers' visit as short as possible. They proposed to pay him two hundred guineas for his share in the work, and he at once accepted. He ‘had less attention,' says Boswell, 'to profit from his labours than any man to whom literature has been a profession,' and he wished to be alone. The entry in his diary that night seems half to excuse himself for even so short a respite from the duty of meditation. 'I treated,' he says, 'with booksellers upon a bargain, but the time was not long.'

Very shortly after Easter he set to work upon his manuscript, but the scheme, as he originally conceived it, was very different from the finished work as we know it to-day.

The prefaces, it must be understood, were to precede a selection from each poet's work, and the poetry itself was the essential part of the undertaking. Johnson originally proposed to himself a somewhat perfunctory piece of editing. The prefaces were to be brief biographical notes, with a sentence or two of criticism to round them off, keen, terse judgements, unfortified by example or illustration. The arrangement of the extracts was to be in the booksellers' hands, and this in itself deprived the work of some of its editorial interest. If the tradesmen insisted upon inserting the work of a 'dunce', the editor was obliged to acquiesce, though he characteristically preserved to himself the right of saying that the man was a dunce, and having done with it. Johnson suggested the inclusion of Thomson, Blackmore, Pomfret, Yalden, and Watts, but made no effectual objection to the neglect of Goldsmith, while it seems to have occurred to no one that Chaucer, Spenser, Drayton, Herrick, Lovelace, Campion, or Crashaw were worthy to be set by the side of Rochester, Roscommon, Halifax, Garth, and Lyttelton. The chief object was to satisfy the fashion of the time, and Johnson on his part was willing enough to fall in with the general intention.

But when once his pen was at work, ideas began to germinate, and, as the Lives started to grow upon the paper, they assumed a very different shape from the bare, mechanical records he had originally intended. The Life of Cowley, which he finished first, was on a liberal scale, full of detail and rich in dissertation. He had now set himself a model, and, until he began to falter towards the end of his task, he seldom fell short of its due proportion. Cowley was ready for the printer by Christmas, 1777, and Waller, Denham, and Butler before the following Easter. Dryden took him till August, and Milton occupied six weeks' hard work in the winter. It was not till March 1779 that the first part of the work, consisting of twentytwo Lives with the poems attached, was actually published, and he had then been at work nearly two years. In the following autumn he was continually occupied at his

task, and by April had finished Addison, Prior, and Rowe. April 1780 was a hard month, for during its course he polished off Granville, Sheffield, Collins, and Pitt. By this time the work was beginning to grow tedious. During August he 'sat at home at Bolt Court, thinking to write the Lives, and a great part of the time only thinking,' and any ready help that came in his way was eagerly accepted. He copied his Life of Parnell from Goldsmith, entrusted Young to Herbert Croft, and incorporated his own earlier life of Savage, which, excellent as it is and full of the life of the age, was undoubtedly too long and intimate to fall into the general scheme harmoniously. Nevertheless, though he was now disposed to neglect correction and grow careless about detail, he plodded on persistently, and by the Easter Eve of 1781 was able to record in his diary the completion of a task which had led him through the gamut of many emotions. 'I finished the Lives of the Poets, which I wrote in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste.' It is the common burthen of man's working-day; but in this case the fruit of it remains to challenge the criticism of the ages.

A piece of literature may be judged in two ways, absolutely or relatively; and, while it is true that every work of art has eventually to make its appeal absolutely and in isolation, it is even truer that the formative value and influence of art can only be appreciated when we can consider it relatively and in its own place and period. And true as this is of all art, it is particularly true of criticism, which can, of course, only proceed in accordance with the standards of its time, and which, of all forms of literary expression, shifts its ground most rapidly and is subject to the most disconcerting changes of front. It is impossible, then, to estimate Johnson's work in the Lives of the Poets with any degree of certainty without considering both the circumstances under which it was produced, and the standards of judgement to which it was addressed. We have considered some of the external circumstances of its production; let us look at them a

little more closely, and especially with reference, at first, to the biographical and historical part of the work. Here it is that Johnson may be most easily criticised, and here, perhaps, he has been less intelligently appreciated.

Johnson was sixty-eight years old when he began the Lives of the Poets, and seventy-two when he completed them. During those four years he gathered the material for the composition of some fifteen hundred closely printed pages, and set forth the Lives in a style which is, under all circumstances, uniformly animated, witty, and picturesquely incisive. That in itself, to begin with, is no small tour de force for a man who was already reaching the end of the allotted span of human existence. But there is much more than this to be remembered. Johnson was working almost entirely without assistance in the shape of records and of documents. The Duke of Newcastle did indeed lend him the manuscript of Spence's Anecdotes, which was continually at his elbow, and there were occasional biographical articles by inferior pens to which he could refer; but, for the most part, he worked entirely without books, gathering his information from first sources, supplementing these by his own abundant memory, and illuminating all that he remembered by the light of a clear and effulgent style, of a sparkling but always restrained and dignified humour. The result is that, despite the usual number of inevitable inaccuracies, the poor and insignificant array of miscopied dates which arid dictionaries exist to correct, we have in these pages a picture of the literary life of the eighteenth century unequalled for variety and colour, an insight into the poetical ambitions of the period unparalleled for sympathy and judgement. These Lives form the Record Office of the literature of that golden age of prose and reason'-a treasure-house where nothing is faded or musty or of tedious import, but every page alight with wit and wisdom and understanding.

The narrative charm of the Lives is indeed, if one of the most superficial, at the same time one of the most irresistible of their attractions. Johnson loved a good story, and, when he found one, he let it take its place in his

biography, embellished with some touch of his broad humanity and unfailing choice of the effective word. The Lives are full of pictures, some romantic, some lurid enough, of the way the world went in the eighteenth century; and none of the biographies are better in this respect than that of Savage, which presents a perfect gallery of literary life à la mode, a series of studies that might have served as an accompaniment to some new collection from the brush of Hogarth. The Life of Savage, it has already been remarked, was written for separate publication, and revived to take its place in the present series largely in order to save its writer trouble. Critics have pointed out again and again that it is out of scale with the rest, giving far too much importance to a minor talent: and all this is true. But who would willingly lose it from its place, with its cynical pictures of Steele and Savage in the tavern, or of Merchant and Gregory in the coffee-house, or (to speak more generally) with its richly coloured panorama of the 'life behind the scenes' along the purlieus of Fleet Street two hundred years ago? The narrative, here and elsewhere, may be shown to have its inaccuracies. Johnson may have written 'Duke' of Dorset instead of Earl, may have made Roscommon live into the reign of James, and have forgotten that Addison ever printed his poem to Sacheverell. This is the sort of error that a certain kind of criticism is eager to fall upon; but, after all, a footnote will set it right at once. And Johnson himself never valued his work on the purely formal estimate; he was never, as Boswell records, in any great hurry to alter a date or correct a mis-statement. He looked to the whole rather than to the part, and by the effect of the whole he is abundantly justified. Further than this, many of the Lives still remain the principal authority upon their subjects. Later research has discovered little new that is of importance concerning Garth and Hammond, 'Rag' Smith and Rochester; while even Waller and Prior are dealt with nowhere so intimately as in his glowing pages. And glow they do indeed, with the heart of life and the quick fire of sympathy: living pieces of literature

« VorigeDoorgaan »