THE LIVES OF THE POETS.
Such was the simple and unpretending advertisement that announced the Lives of the English Poets; a work that gave to the British nation a new style of biography. Johnson's decided taste for this species of writing, and his familiarity with the works of those whose lives he has recorded, peculiarly fitted him for the task; but it has been denounced by some as dogmatical, and even morose; minute critics have detected inaccuracies; the admirers of particular authors have complained of an insufficiency of praise to the objects of their fond and exclusive regard; and the political zealot has affected to decry the staunch and unbending champion of regal and ecclesiastical rights. Those, again, of high and imaginative minds, who "lift themselves up to look to the sky of poetry, and far removed from the dull-making cataract of Nilus, listen to the planet-like music of poetry;" these accuse Johnson of a heavy and insensible soul, because he avowed that nature's "world was brazen, and that the poets only delivered a golden."
But in spite of the censures of political opponents, private friends, and angry critics, it will be acknowledged, by the impartial, and by every lover of virtue and of truth, that Johnson's honest heart, penetrating mind, and powerful intellect, has given to the world memoirs fraught with what is infinitely more valuable than mere verbal criticism, or imaginative speculation; he has presented, in his Lives of the English Poets, the fruits of his long and careful examination of men and manners, and repeated in his age, with the authoritative voice of experience, the same dignified lessons of morality, with which he had instructed his readers in his earlier years. And if these lives contained few merits of their own, they confessedly amended the criticism of the nation, and opened the path to a more enlarged and liberal style of biography than had, before their publication, appeared.
The bold manner in which Johnson delivered what he believed to be the truth, naturally provoked hostile attack, and we are not prepared to say, that, in many instances, the strictures passed upon him might not be just. We will call the attention of our readers to some few of the charges brought against the work now before us, and then leave it to their candid and unbiased judgment to decide, whether the deficiencies pointed out are but as dust in the balance, when brought to weigh against the sterling excellence with which this last and greatest production of our Moralist abounds.
He has been accused of indulging a spirit of political animosity, of an illiberal and captious method of criticism, of frequent inaccuracies, and of a general haughtiness of manner, indicative of a feeling of superiority over the subjects of his memorial.
In the life of Milton his political prejudices are most apparent. It is not our duty, neither our inclination, in this place, to discuss the accuracy of Johnson's political wisdom. We cannot, however, but respect the integrity with which he clung to the instructions of his youth, amidst poverty, and all those inconveniencies which usually drive men to a discontent with things as they are.
Those who censure him without qualification or reserve, are as bad, or worse, on the opposite side.
They accuse him of narrow-minded prejudice, and of bigoted attachment to powers that be with a rancour little befitting the liberality of which they make such vaunting professions. Johnson had a really benevolent heart, but despised and detested the affectation of a sentimental and universal philanthropy, which neglects the practical charities of home and kindred, in its wild and excursive flights after distant and romantic objects. He was no tyrant, even in theory, but he dreaded, and, therefore, sought to expose, the lurking designs of those who opposed constituted authorities, because they hated subjection; and who, when they gained power themselves, proved the well-grounded nature of the fears entertained respecting their sincerity. Johnson was a firm English character, and his surly expressions were often philanthropy in disguise. They have little studied his real disposition, who impute his occasional austerity of manner to misanthropy at heart. The man who is smooth to all alike, is frequently the friend of none, and those who entertain no aversions, have, perhaps, few of the warmer emotions of friendship.
In dwelling thus long on a part of Johnson's character, on which we have elsewhere avowed that we could not speak with perfect pleasure, we are not attempting to vindicate him in all his violent reproaches of those whom he politically disliked. We would, however, wish to deprecate unmitigated condemnation, and also to ask, whether the conduct of those whom he denounced, was not, in its turn, so harsh and arbitrary, as almost to justify the utmost severity of censure. Were they not men who would "scarcely believe in the substance of their liberty, if they did not see it cast a shadow of slavery over others."
With respect to Johnson's powers as a critic, we confess that he had but little natural taste for poetry, as such; for that poetry of emotion which produces in its cultivators and admirers an intensity of excitement, to which language can scarcely afford an utterance, to which art can give no body, and which spreads a dream and a glory around us. All this Johnson felt not, and, therefore, understood not; for he wanted that deep feeling which is the only sure and unerring test of poetic excellence. He sought the didactic in poetry, and wished for reasoning in numbers. Hence his undivided admiration of Pope and the French school, who cultivated exclusively the poetry of idea, where each moral problem is worked out with detailed, and often tedious, analysis; where all intense emotion is frittered away by a ratiocinative process. Johnson, we repeat, had no natural perception nor relish for the high and excursive range of poetic fancy, and the age at which he composed his criticisms on the English poets, was far advanced beyond that when purely imaginative poetry usually affords delight. Hence, no doubt, proceeded his capricious strictures on the odes of Gray to which we, with painful candour, advert. In criticism and in poetry, for indignation only poured forth the torrent of his song, he kept steadily in view the interests of morality and virtue: these he would not compromise for the glitter of genius, and for their maintenance of these, the main objects of his own life and labour, he praised many an author whom other more courtly critics have thought it not cruelty to ridicule. He sums up his eulogium on a poet with the reflection, that he left
No line which, dying, he could wish to blot.
Johnson has also not escaped animadversion for entitling his collection The Lives of the English Poets, when he has taken so confined a range. It must be remembered, that he only professed, in the first instance, to prefix lives to the works which the booksellers chose to publish; he was, therefore, confined to a task, at which he more than once expressed his repugnance to Boswell. It should also, in fairness to his memory, be borne in mind, that he wrote, as he confesses in his preface, from scanty materials, and on various authors. It was very easy, therefore, for each successive biographer, who devoted his time to the collection of memoirs for some single individual, to point out inaccuracies in Johnson's general statements; and very natural, also for one who had contracted an affection for the subject of his labours, by continually having him present in his thoughts, to carp at all those who were not as alive to the merits, and as blind to the defects of his idol as himself. But Johnson, feeling a manly consciousness of ability, which he affected not to hide, was not dazzled by the lustre of brilliant talents, and was far too honest to veil from public view the faults and failings of the sons of genius. This he did not from a sour delight in detecting and exposing the frailties of his fellow men, but from a belief that, in so doing, he was promoting the good of mankind. "It is particularly the duty," says he, "of those who consign illustrious names to posterity, to take care lest their readers be misled by ambiguous examples. That writer may justly be condemned as an enemy to goodness, who suffers fondness or interest to confound right with wrong, or to shelter the faults, which even the wisest and the best have committed, from that ignominy which guilt ought always to suffer, and with which it should be more deeply stigmatized, when dignified by its neighbourhood to uncommon worth: since we shall be in danger of beholding it without abhorrence, unless its turpitude be laid open, and the eye secured from the deception of surrounding splendour." "If nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown," he once remarked to Malone, "we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." It was this conscientious freedom, we believe, that has, more than any other cause, subjected the Lives of the Poets to severe censure. We readily avow this our belief, since we are persuaded that it is now generally admitted by all, but those who are influenced by an irreligious or a party spirit. We might diffuse these remarks to a wide extent, by allusions to the opinions of different authors on the Lives, and by critiques on the separate memoirs themselves; but we will not longer occupy our readers, since the literary history of the Lives has been elsewhere so fully detailed, and is now so almost universally known.
What we have already advanced, has chiefly been with a view to invite to the perusal of a work, which, for sound criticism, instructive memoir, pleasing diction, and pure morality, must constitute the most lasting monument of Johnson's fame.
[Footnote 1: See sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poetry.]
[Footnote 2: See vol. vi. 153.]
[Footnote 3: Rambler, 164.]
[Footnote 4: See Malone's letter, in Boswell, iv. 55.]
[Footnote 5: See Boswell; Dr. Drake's Literary Life of Johnson; and, since we dread not examination, Potter's Inquiry into some Passages in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Graves's Recollections of Shenstone; Mitford's preface to Gray's works; Roscoe's preface to Pope's works, &c.]