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Richard Blackmore, (who, though he shines in his poem called “ Creslion,” has written more absurdities in verse than any writer of our country,) and my success will be secured. (Letter to Newton, Sept. 18. 1781.)
I am glad to be undeceived respecting the opinion 1 had been erroneously led into on the subject of Johnson's criticism on Watts. Nothing can be more judicious, or more characteristic of a distinguishing taste, than his observatious upon that writer; though I think him a little mistaken in his notion, that divine subjects have never been poetically treated with success. A little more Christian knowledge and experience would perhaps enable him to discover excellent poetry, upon spiritual themes, in the aforesaid little Doctor. I perfectly acquiesce in the propriety of sending Johnson a copy of my productions; and I think it would be well to send it in our joint names, accompanied with a handsome card, and such an one as may predispose him to a favourable perusal of the book, by coaxing him into a good temper; for he is a great bear, with all his learning and penetration. (Letter to Newton, Oct. 4. 1781.)
687. Cowper on the “ Lives of the Poets.” Last night I made an end of reading Johnson's Prefaces. I am very much the biographer's humble admirer. His uncommon share of good sense, and his forcible expression, secure to him that tribute from all his readers. He has a penetrating insight into character, and a happy talent of correcting the popular opinion upon all occasions where it is erroneous; and this he does with the boldness of a man who will think for himself, but, at the same time, with a justness of sentiment that convinces us he does not differ from others through affectation, but because he has a sounder judgment. This remark, however, has his narrative for its object, rather than his critical performance. In the
latter, I do not think him always just, when he departs from the general opinion. He finds no beauties in Milton's Lycidas. He pours contempt upon Prior, to such a degree, that were he really as undeserving of notice as he represents him, he ought no longer to be numbered among the poets. These, indeed, are the two capital instances in which he has offended me. There are others less important, in which I am less confident that he is wrong. (Letter to Unwin, March 21. 1784.)
688. Cowper': Epitaph on Dr. Johnson.
689. Dr. King on Johnson's English. (1) It is a great defect in the education of our youth in both the Universities that they do not sufficiently apply themselves to the study of their mother tongue. By this means it happens, that some very learned men and polite scholars are not able to express themselves with propriety in common conversation, and that when they are discoursing on a subject which they understand perfectly well. I have been acquainted with three persons only who spoke English with that eloquence and propriety, that if all they said had been immediately com. mitted to writing, any judge of the English language
(1) (From Dr. William King's “ Anecdotes of his own Times," 8vo. 1819.)
would have pronounced it an excellent and very beauti. ful style — Atterbury, the exiled bishop of Rochester; Dr. Gower, provost of Worcester College ; and Samuel Johnson.
690. Gray on " London.” " London " is one of those few imitations that have all the ease and all the spirit of the original. The same man's verses at the opening of Garrick's Theatre are far from bad. (Letter to Walpole.)
691. Richardson and Fielding. Gray was much pleased with an answer which Dr. Johnson once gave to a person on the different and comparative merits of Fielding and Richardson. “Why, Sir, Fielding could tell you what o'clock it was; but, as for Richardson, he could make a clock or a watch.” (Matthias's Gray.)
692. Johnsori on Newton. One of the most sagacious men in this age, who continues, I hope, to improve and adorn it, Samuel Johnson, remarked in my hearing, that if Newton had flourished in ancient Greece, he would have been worshipped as a divinity. How zealously then would he be adored, if his incomparable writings could be read and comprehended by the Pundits of Cashmere or Benares ! (Sir William Jones, 1785.) 693. Dugald Stewart on the “ Lives of the Poets.” (1)
It is a melancholy fact with respect to artists of all classes ; — painters, poets, orators, and eloquent writers;
that a large proportion of those who have evinced the soundest and the purest taste in their own productions, have yet appeared totally destitute of this power, when they have assumed the office of critics
(1) [From the Philosophical Essays.)
How is this to be accounted for, but by the influence of bad passions (unsuspected, probably, by themselves) in blinding or jaundicing their critical eye? In truth, it is only when the mind is perfectly serene, that the decisions of taste can be relied on. In these nicest of all operations of the intellectual faculties, where the grounds of judgment are often so shadowy and complicated, the latent sources of error are numberless; and to guard against them, it is necessary that no cir. cumstance, however trifling, should occur, either to discompose the feelings, or to mislead the understanding.
Among our English poets, who is more vigorous, correct, and polished, than Dr. Johnson, in the few poetical compositions which he has left? Whatever may be thought of his claims to originality of genius, no person who reads his verses can deny, that he possessed a sound taste in this species of composition; and yet, how wayward and perverse, in many instances, are his decisions, when he sits in judgment on a political adversary, or when he treads on the ashes of a departed rival! To myself, (much as I admire his great and various merits, both as a critic and a writer,) human nature never appears in a more humiliating form, than when I read his “ Lives of the Poets ;" a performance which exhibits a more faithful, expressive, and curious picture of the author than all the portraits attempted by his biographers ; and which, in this point of view, compensates fully by the moral lesson it may suggest, for the critical errors which it sanctions. The errors, alas! are not such as any one who has perused his imitation of Juvenal can place to the account of a bad taste ; but such as had their root in weaknesses which a noble mind would be still more unwilling to acknowledge. If these observations are well founded, they seem to render it somewhat doubtful, whether, in the different arts, the most successful adventurers are likely to prove, in matters of criticism, the safest guides ; although Pope appears to have considered the censorial authority as their exclusive prerogative:
« Let such teach others, who themselves excel,
And censure freely who have written well."
694. Byron on the “ Vanity of Human Wishes.”
Read Johnson's “ Vanity of Human Wishes” — all the examples and mode of giving them sublime, as well as the latter part, with the exception of an occasional couplet. I do not so much admire the opening. I remember an observation of Sharp's (the Conversationist, as he was called in London, and a very clever man) that the first line of this poem was superfluous, and that Pope (the best of poets, as I think) would have begun at once, only changing the punctuation
« Survey mankind from China to Peru." The former line, " Let observation,” &c. is certainly heavy and useless. But 't is a grand poem true! - true as the tenth of Juvenal himself. The lapse of ages changes all things
time - language the earth the bounds of the sea the stars of the sky, and every thing about, around, and underneath”. man, except man himelf, who has always been, and always will be, an unlucky rascal. The infinite variety of lives conduct but to death, and the infinity of wishes lead but to disappointment. (Life and Works, vol. v. p. 66.)
695. Byron on the “ Lives of the Poets." Johnson strips many a leaf from every laurel. Still, his “ Lives of the Poets" is the finest critical work extant, and can never be read without instruction and delight. The opinion of that truly great man, whom it is the present fashion to decry, will ever be received by me with that deference which time will restore to him from all. (Ibid. vol. vi. p. 376.)