« PreviousContinue »
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, “ Latiùs fe tamen aperiente materia, plus quàm imponebatur oneris Sponte suscepi.” The booksellers justly sensible of the great additional value of the copy-right, 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 recompence for fuch a collection of biography, and such principles and illustrations of criticisin as, if digested and arranged in one system by some modern Aristotle or Longinus, might form à code upon that subject such as no other nation can fhew. As he was fo 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:"
That he, however, had a good deal of trouble and some anxiety in carrying on the work, we see from a series of his notes to Mr. Nichols, the printer,
“ 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 honeft desire of giving useful pleasure." .
• 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 authours, 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 fent 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." Vol. II, Yy
: whose variety of literary inquiry and obliging disposition, rendered him very useful to Johnson. Mr. Steevens appears, from the papers in my poffesfion, 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 pastages.
It is not my intention to dwell upon cach 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 observa-tions 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 one of his excellent prefatory discourses to his Plays, 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, 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”, that « amendments are seldom made without some token of a rent;” but I do not find that this is applicable to prose. We shall see that though his amendments in this work are for the better, there is nothing of the pannus ajutus; the texture is uniform, and indeed what has been there at first, is very seldam unfit to have remained.
“ Please to get me the last edition of Hughes's Letters; and try to get Dennis
Blackmore, and upon Cato, and any thing 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 inclosed. Of Gay's Letters I see not that any use can be made, for they give no information of any thing. That he was a member of the Philosophical Sociсty is something; but surely he could be but a corresponding momber. 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, feems juftly to think that every fragment of fo great a man is worthy of being preserved. . 3 Life of Sheffield. 4
Various reading's 4 in the Life of COWLEY.
| Ætat. 72.
“ All [future votaries of] that may hereafter pant for solitude. .“ To conceive and execute the [agitation or perception] pairs 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 publick 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 isued, 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 language is richer and capable of more beauty of expression, by having a greater variety of synonimes.
His dissertation upon the unfitness of poetry for the aweful subjects of our holy religion, though I do not entirely agree with him, has all the merit of originality, with uncommon force of reasoning.
Various readings in the Life of WALLER.
[After] paying a fine of ten thousand pounds.
4 The original reading is enclosed in brackets, and the present one is printed in Italicks.
He Y y 2
1781. " He that has fattery ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world Aiar. 77. happen to exalt, must be [confessed to degrade his powers] Scorned as a Ætat
« The characters by which Waller intended to distinguish his writings are [elegance] fprightliness and dignity.
“ Blossoms to be valued only as they [fetch] foretell fruits.
[His] Some applications [are sometimes] may be thought too remote and unconsequential.
“ His images are [sometimes confused] not always distiner.”
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 5."
5 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 authour; who I cannot however but admire for his liberality in speaking thus of my illustrious friend :
“ He possesed extraordinary powers of understanding, which were much cultivated by study, and ftill more by meditation and reflection. His memory was remarkably retentive, his imagina. tion uncommonly vigorous, and his judgement keen and penetrating. He had a strong sense of the importance of religion ; his piety was fincere, 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."
That a man, who' venerated the Church and Monarchy as Johnson did, 1781. should speak with a just abhorrence of Milton as a politician, or rather as a Ætat. 72. daring foe to good polity, was surely to be expected; and to those who censure him, I would recommend his commentary on Milton's celebrated complaint of his situation, when by the lenity of Charles the Second, “A lenity of which (as Johnson well observes) the world has had perhaps no other example; he, who had written in justification of the murder of his Sovereign, was safe under an Act of Oblivion.” No sooner is he safe than he finds himself in danger, fallen on evil days and evil tongues, and with darkness and with danger compass’d'round. This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved compasion; but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful and unjust. He was fallen, indeed, on evil days; the time was come in which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of evil tongues to complain, required impudence at least equal to his other powers : Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow, “ that he never spared any asperity of reproach, or brutality of insolence.”
I have, indeed, often wondered how Milton, “ an acrimonious and surly Republican,” a man “who in his domestick relations was so severe and arbitrary," and whose head was filled with the hardest and most disinal tenets of Calvinisin, should have been such a poet ; should not only have written with sublimity, but with beauty, and even gayety ; should have exquisitely painted the sweetest sensations of which our nature is capable ; imaged the delicate raptures of connubial love ; nay, seemed to be animated with all the spirit of revelry. It is a proof that in the human mind the departments of judgement and imagination, perception and temper, may sometimes be divided by strong partitions ; and that the light and shade in the same character may be kept so distinct as never to be blended.
In the Life of Milton, Johnson took occasion to maintain his own and the general opinion of the excellence of rhyme over blank verse, in English poetry, and quotes this apposite illustration of it by “an ingenious critick," that it seems to be verse only to the eye'. The gentleman whom he thus characterises is (as he told Mr. Seward) Mr. Lock, of Norbury Park, in Surrey, whose knowledge and taste in the fine arts is universally celebrated; with.
• One of the most natural instances of the effect of blank verse happened to the late Earl of Hopeton. His Lordship observed one of his shepherds poring in the fields upon Milton's “ Paradise Loft ;” and having asked hiin what book it was, the man answered, “ An't please your. Lordship, this is a very cdd sort of an authour : he would fain rhyme, but cannot get at it.”