Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: Criticism on Principle

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Dr Johnson’s witty and penetrating critical biographies of the great and good

By 1779, Samuel Johnson had attained that title by which he would become familiarly known: ‘Dr Johnson’. He wasn’t ‘doctored’ when he completed his most defining work (‘defining’ in every sense), the Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. But when he came to write his Lives of the Poets, just five years before his death, he had become the era’s most celebrated man of letters, with an annual pension from the state to honour his services to scholarship and literature, and a reputation – and, indeed, a celebrity status – that continues to dwarf that of all other eighteenth-century writers. Who can picture Henry Fielding, or envisage Samuel Richardson? But Johnson, with his one-line pronouncements on everything from London to literature, death to dictionaries, remains remarkably alive to us.

Samuel Johnson wrote, and edited, a great deal, and in a wide variety of genres: poems, a novel (Rasselas, supposedly to pay off his mother’s funeral expenses), plays (although his drama Irene had a rather muted premiere on the stage), essays on social and political issues, and, of course, the Dictionary. He was also an influential literary critic: Sir Christopher Ricks, perhaps the greatest and most lauded living literary critic, embodies Johnson’s commitment to literary principles in our own time. And as with Ricks’s work, Johnson’s prose crackles with wit. And each page of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets demonstrates the same keen discernment. Johnson makes us think about what he’s saying, and take it seriously, even when we disagree with him.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of his Lives of the Poets (1779-81), The Lives of the Poets A Selection (Oxford World’s Classics), is an abridged version of the much longer collection of essays Johnson wrote. It’s a beautiful edition that has all of Johnson’s ‘best bits’: the famous essay on the now-not-so-famous Abraham Cowley, in which Johnson popularised the term ‘metaphysical poets’ (but employing it as a term of disparagement); his measured praise for Milton’s Paradise Lost, about which he famously declares that nobody ever wished it to be longer than it is; and his essay on Alexander Pope.

Each of Johnson’s ‘Lives’ is an example of critical biography, with the biography coming first, followed by a critical appraisal of the poet’s works. And seldom has the word ‘critical’ been more apt. Reading the Lives of the Poets, one begins to wonder exactly what poetry Johnson does like. Milton’s Lycidas, regarded by many as one of the greatest elegies in the English language, meets with Johnson’s disapproval:

[T]he diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of ‘rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel.’ Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.

Johnson is a hard critic to please, and there are few poems which meet with his complete satisfaction; the vast majority are found to be deeply flawed in some way. Of Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes’, he asserts: ‘The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend,” but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been “gold,” the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.’

Johnson is frequently entertaining in this selection, and often astute: like the best literary criticism, he encourages us to see new things in the poetry, and when he does praise a composition, one feels that the poem has earned it. (As Johnson said elsewhere, ‘He who praises everybody praises nobody.’) His life of Richard Savage is overlong, given Savage’s reputation now, and Dryden is accorded far more word-space than we would probably now consider him worthy of. But even when the poet or poetry under discussion is less familiar to us, Johnson’s critical judgment makes the reading worth the effort. This fine edition of The Lives of the Poets A Selection (Oxford World’s Classics) is the best place to begin exploring Johnson’s formidable critical reputation.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

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