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JOHNSON'S "LIVES OF THE POETS" COMPLETED-JOHN NICHOLS-THE VARIOUS READINGS IN "THE LIVES" - COWLEY-WALLER-MILTON-DR. TOWERS' REMARKS ON THE WRITINGS OF JOHNSON-DRYDEN-POPE-BISHOP WARBURTONDR. BROOME - LORD SOMERVILLE-ADDISON-PARNELL-BLACKMORE-AMBROSE PHILIPS
CONGREVE-TICKELL-AKENSIDE-LYTTELTON-MISS BOOTH BY-HERBERT CROFT-YOUNG'S "NIGHT THOUGHTS"-SWIFT-REV. JOSEPH SPENCE-ATTACKS ON "THE LIVES OF THE POETS."
1781, Johnson at last completed his "Lives of the Poets," of which he gives this account:- "Some time in March 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." In a memorandum previous to this, he says of them :-" Written, I hope, in such a manner as may tend to the promotion of piety."
This is the work which, of all Dr. Johnson's writings, will perhaps be read most generally, and with most pleasure. Philology and biography were his favourite pursuits, and those who lived most in intimacy with him, heard him upon all occasions, when there was a proper opportunity, take delight in expatiating upon the various merits of the English Poets; upon the niceties of their characters, and the events of their progress through the world which they contribute to illuminate.
His mind was so full of that kind of information, and it was so well arranged in his memory, that in performing what he had undertaken in this way, he had little more to do than to put his thoughts upon paper, exhibiting first each poet's life, and then subjoining a critical examination of his genius and works. But when he began to write, the subject swelled in such a manner, that, instead of prefaces to each poet of no more than a few pages, as he had originally intended,' he produced an ample, rich, and most entertaining view of them in every respect. In this he resembled Quintilian, who tells us, that in the composition of his Institutions of Oratory, "Latius se tamen aperiente materiâ, plus quàm imponebatur oneris sponte suscepi." The booksellers, justly sensible of the great additional value of the copyright, presented him with another hundred pounds, over and above two hundred, for which his agreement was to furnish such prefaces as he thought fit.
This was, however, but a small recompense for such a collection of biography, and such principles and illustrations of criticism, as, if digested and arranged in one system by some modern Aristotle or Longinus, might form a code upon that subject, such as no other nation can show. As he was so good as to make me a present of the greatest part of the original and indeed only manuscript of this admirable work, I have an opportunity of observing with wonder the correctness with which he rapidly struck off such glowing composition. He may be assimilated to the Lady in Waller, who could impress with "Love at first sight:"
"Some other nymphs with colours faint,
And pencil slow, may Cupid paint,
She has a stamp, and prints the boy."
That he, however, had a good deal of trouble, and some anxiety in carrying on the work, we see from a series of letters to Mr. Nichols, the printer, whose variety of literary inquiry and obliging disposition ren
1 His design is thus announced in his Advertisement :-" The booksellers having determined to publish a body of English Poetry, I was persuaded to promise them a preface to the works of each author; an undertaking, as it was then presented to my mind, not very tedious or difficult. My purpose was only to have allotted to every poet an advertisement, like that which we find in the French Miscellanies, containing a few dates, and a general character; but I have been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure."-BoSWELL.
2 Thus: "In the Life of Waller, Mr. Nichols will find a reference to the Parliamentary History, from which a long quotation is to be inserted. If Mr. Nichols cannot easily find the book, Mr. Johnson will send it from Streatham."
"Clarendon is here returned."
"By some accident, I laid your note upon Duke up so safely, that I cannot find it. Your informations have been of great use to me. I must beg it again; with another list of our authors, for I have laid that with the other. I have sent Stepney's epitaph. Let me have the revises as soon as can be. Dec. 1778."
"I have sent Philips, with his epitaphs, to be inserted. The fragment of a preface is hardly worth the impression, but that we may seem to do something. It may be added to the life of Philips. The Latin page is to be added to the Life of Smith. I shall be at home to revise the two sheets of Milton. March 1, 1779."
dered him useful to Johnson. Mr. Steevens appears, from the papers in my possession, to have supplied him with some anecdotes and quotations; and I observe the fair hand of Mrs. Thrale as one of his copyists of select passages. But he was principally indebted to my steady friend, Mr. Isaac Reed, of Staple-inn, whose extensive and accurate knowledge of English literary history I do not express with exaggeration, when I say it is wonderful; indeed his labours have proved it to the world; and all who have the pleasure of his acquaintance can bear testimony to the frankness of his communications in private society.
It is not my intention to dwell upon each of Johnson's Lives of the Poets," or attempt an analysis of their merits, which, were I able to do it, would take up too much room in this work; yet I shall make a few observations upon some of them, and insert a few various readings.
The Life of Cowley he himself considered as the best of the whole, on account of the dissertation which it contains on the Metaphysical Poets. Dryden, whose critical abilities were equal to his poetical, had mentioned them in his excellent dedication of his Juvenal, but had barely mentioned them. Johnson has exhibited them at large, with such happy illustration from their writings, and in so luminous a manner, that indeed he may be allowed the full merit of novelty, and to have discovered to us, as it were, a new planet in the poetical hemisphere.
It is remarked by Johnson, in considering the works of a poet,1 that "amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent;" but I do not find that this is applicable to prose.2 We shall see that though his amendments in this work are for the better, there is nothing of the
"Please to get me the last edition of Hughes's letters; and try to get Dennis upon Blackmore, and upon Cato, and anything of the same writer against Pope. Our materials are defective."
"As Waller professed to have imitated Fairfax, do you think a few pages of Fairfax would enrich our edition? Few readers have seen it, and it may please them. But it is not necessary."
"An account of the lives and works of some of the most eminent English poets. By, &c. The English Poets, biographically and critically considered, by SAM. JOHNSON.'Let Mr. Nichols take his choice, or make another to his mind. May, 1781."
"You somehow forgot the advertisement for the new edition. It was not enclosed. Of Gay's letters I see not that any use can be made, for they give no information of anything. That he was a member of a Philosophical Society is something; but surely he could be but a corresponding member. However, not having his life here, I know not how to put it in, and it is of little importance."
See several more in "The Gentleman's Magazine," 1785. The editor of that Miscellany, in which Johnson wrote for several years, seems justly to think that every fragment of so great a man is worthy of being preserved.-BoswELL.
1 Life of Sheffield.-BoswELL.
2 See, however, p. 15 of this volume, where the same remark is made, and Johnson is there speaking of prose. In his Life of Dryden, his observations in the opera of " King Arthur," furnish a striking instance of the truth of this remark.-MAlone.
pannus assutus; the texture is uniform: and indeed, what had been there at first is very seldom unfit to have remained,
Various Readings 1 in the Life of COWLEY.
"All [future votaries of] that may hereafter pant for solitude.
"To conceive and execute the [agitation or perception] pains and the pleasures of other minds.
"The wide effulgence of [the blazing] a summer noon."
In the Life of Waller, Johnson gives a distinct and animated narrative of public affairs in that variegated period, with strong yet nice touches of character; and having a fair opportunity to display his political principles, does it with an unqualified manly confidence, and satisfies his readers how nobly he might have executed a Tory history of his country.
So easy is his style in these Lives, that I do not recollect more than three uncommon or learned words; one, when giving an account of the approach of Waller's mortal disease, he says, "he found his legs grow tumid;" by using the expression his legs swelled, he would have avoided this; and there would have been no impropriety in its being followed by the interesting question to his physician, "What that swelling meant? Another, when he mentions that Pope had emitted proposals; when published, or issued, would have been more readily understood; and a third, when he calls Orrery and Dr. Delany, writers both undoubtedly veracious; when true, honest, or faithful might have been used. Yet it must be owned that none of these are hard or too big words: that custom would make them seem as easy as any others; and that a
The original reading is enclosed in crotchets, and the present one is printed in italics.-BosWELL.
2 The name of Waller has been justly celebrated by Pope, and the elegance and ease which he imparted to English versification, at an early period of our literary history, render the praise not undeserved:
"And learn to praise the easy vigour of a line,
Where Denham's strength and Waller's sweetness join."
The life of Edward Waller was an eventful one. He was born at Coleshill, in Warwickshire, in 1605, entered Parliament in his eighteenth year, and was deeply engaged in the great political struggles of Charles I. with his Parliament. At one time he was sent to the Tower, and condemned to be hanged for conspiring to deliver the City of London to the king; but saved himself by an abject submission and a liberal distribution of money, and went into temporary exile. His prolific muse afterwards celebrated, with equal power and genius, the praises of Cromwell, of Charles II., and of James. After the Restoration he was elected to Parliament, where, by his eloquence and wit, he was the delight of the House of Commons. He died in 1687, at the age of eighty-two.—ED.
8 This is the Rev. Patrick Delany, who was the author of a work entitled "Observations on Lord Orrery's Remarks on the Life and Writings of Swift," on which Dr. Johnson (vol. iii. p. 168) bestowed his commendations. It was published in 1754, and excited considerable attention at the time. He was born in Ireland in 1686, and had the reputation of being a scholar and a versatile writer. In 1732 he published "Revelation examined with Candour." In 1738 appeared his "Reflections upon Polygamy," and shortly afterwards his "Life of David," From Lord Carteret he was so fortunate as to receive some valuable church preferment. He died in 1768.—Ev.
language is richer and capable of more beauty of expression by having a greater variety of synonymes.
His dissertation upon the unfitness of poetry for the awful subjects of our holy religion, though I do not entirely agree with him, has all the merit of originality, with uncommon force and reasoning.
Various Readings in the Life of WALLER.
"Consented to [the insertion of their names] their own nomination.
"[After] paying a fine of ten thousand pounds.
'Congratulating Charles the Second on his [coronation] recovered right. "He that has flattery ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world happen to exalt, must be [confessed to degrade his powers] scorned as a prostituted mind. "The characters by which Waller intended to distinguish his writings are [elegance] sprightliness and dignity.
"Blossoms to be valued only as they [fetch] foretell fruits.
"Images such as the superficies of nature [easily] readily supplies.
"[His] Some applications [are sometimes] may be thought too remote and unconsequential.
"His images are [sometimes confused] not always distinct.”
Against his Life of Milton, the hounds of Whiggism have opened in full cry. But of Milton's great excellence as a poet, where shall we find such a blazon as by the hand of Johnson? I shall select only the following passage concerning " Paradise Lost:"
"Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked his reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current, through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future generation."
Indeed even Dr. Towers, who may be considered as one of the warmest zealots of the Revolution Society itself, allows that "Johnson has spoken in the highest terms of the abilities of that great poet, and has bestowed on his principal poetical compositions the most honourable encomiums."1
See "An Essay on the Life, Character, and Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson," London, 1787; which is very well written, making a proper allowance for the democratical bigotry of its author, whom I cannot however but admire for his liberality in speaking thus of my illustrious friend :—
"He possessed extraordinary powers of understanding, which were much cultivated by study, and still more by meditation and reflection. His memory was remarkably retentive, his imagination uncommonly vigorous, and his judgment keen and penetrating. He had a strong sense of the importance of religion; his piety was sincere, and sometimes ardent; and his zeal for the interests of virtue was often manifested in his conversation and in his writings. The same energy which was displayed in his literary productions was exhibited also in his conversation, which was various, striking, and instructive; and perhaps no man ever equalled him for nervous and pointed repartees.
"His Dictionary, his moral Essays, and his productions in polite literature, will convey useful instruction, and elegant entertainment, as long as the language in which they are written shall be understood."-BoзWELL.