« ZurückWeiter »
his prefaces appeared in 1779, and the remaining six in 1781. The greater number of the proof sheets with Johnson's manuscript corrections are in the South Kensington Museum. As he advanced in the composition of the Lives his original scheme expanded. My purpose,' he says, ' 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.' 'Some time in March’he notes in his 'Meditations' for 1781, '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.' (Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 111; iv. 34.)
The 'Lives of the Poets' at once became popular, and their popularity has been permanent. Of all Johnson's works it is the one most read and most quoted. Its success is not difficult to explain. The style is easier and simpler than that of his earlier works, and often reproduces the characteristic flavour of his conversation. The subject, if not entirely new, is perennially interesting, and had never been adequately treated by any other writer. The amount of new biographical material at Johnson's disposal was considerable, and he had applied freely to all persons able to supply him with information. (Johnson's Lives, ed. Cunningham, pp. vii, xv.) Still, it was neither the fulness of the author's knowledge, nor the novelty of his subject, but his excellence as a biographer, which made the 'Lives of the Poets' an English classic. Johnson's conception of the duties of a biographer was liberal and comprehensive. He made no attempt to idealise the men whose lives he wrote, and neither concealed their failings nor palliated their follies. He tried to represent them as they were, and did not consider their looks, or their daily habits, or their personal peculiarities,
as things too trivial for the dignity of biography. His portraits may be sometimes tinged with prejudice, but he always presents us with real men and not with conventional figures. His occasional reflections on manners and morals are acute and entertaining, for his knowledge was not drawn from books only; like Pope ‘he had studied in the Academy of Paracelsus, and made the world his favourite volume."
In the opinion of Macaulay the best of the Lives are those of Cowley, Dryden, and Pope, and the worst is that of Gray. The comparative inferiority of the Life of Milton is not owing to Johnson's defective knowledge of his subject. Certain errors of fact the life of course does contain. In some cases later enquiry has disproved statements received as true when Johnson wrote. The investigations of the genealogists of the present century have superseded his account of Milton's family and pedigree. The researches of Professor Masson amongst the State-papers have revealed the exact history of Milton's Latin secretaryship. The publication of Milton's · Treatise of Christian Doctrine' has thrown new light on the development of his religious opinions. There are however other cases in which Johnson has fallen into error through negligence. He attributes to Ellwood instead of to Phillips the statement that Milton could not endure to hear 'Paradise Regained' judged inferior to ' Paradise Lost,' and expands that statement into the assertion that the poet preferred · Paradise Regained' to 'Paradise Lost.' On another occasion he refers to Phillips as authority for a statement which is made by Birch. He carelessly writes of Milton as making the ten books of 'Paradise Lost' into twelve by the division of the seventh and twelfth. He misdates one of Milton's works, and appears to confound two of his pamphlets into one.
These are trifling slips ; the great defect of Johnson's life of Milton is the persistent depreciation of the poet's character which pervades it throughout. At the time, and ever since, it called forth continual protests. Against the life of Milton,' says Boswell, 'the hounds of Whiggism have opened in full cry.' Horace Walpole writes of Johnson's 'Billingsgate on Milton,' but weakens the force of his censure by confessing in a later letter that he had made a point of conscience of not buying " Johnson's Lives," and had never even dipped into the earlier volumes.' (Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham, vii. 452, 508.) Cowper devotes the whole of one of his letters to Unwin to a detailed criticism of the Life of Milton, and complains that he has belaboured that great poet's character with the most industrious cruelty. As a man he has hardly left him the shadow of one good quality. Churlishness in private life, and a rancorous hatred of everything royal in his public, are the two colours with which he has smeared all the canvas.' (Oct. 31, 1779, to Unwin.) A later editor has also printed the indignant notes which Cowper wrote in the margin of his copy of the Lives. Milton's last biographer describes Johnson as 'employing all his vigorous powers and consummate skill to write down Milton. He undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow to the poet's reputation, and succeeded in damaging it for at least two generations of readers. He did for Milton what Aristophanes did for Socrates, effaced the real man and replaced him by a distorted and degrading caricature.' (Pattison, Milton, p. 219.)
The unfairness of Johnson's account lies in the fact that he exaggerates the failings of Milton's private life, and distorts and miscolours the history of his public life. He adopts the harshest accounts of Milton's treatment of his daughters. He accuses him of changing his party for personal motives, and betraying his principles from love of money. If he does not directly assert that he interpolated Eikon Basilike for party purposes, he does not shrink from insinuating that he was capable of doing so. This charge of injustice cannot be refuted, as Boswell seeks to refute it, by bringing forward those passages in which Johnson praises Milton in noble and appropriate language. With some parts of Milton's character, with his independence and self-reliance especially, he had full sympathy. But he had no sympathy with the aims and the principles which filled so large a place in Milton's life, and he did not even take the trouble properly to understand them.
Johnson's reputation as a critic has been less durable than his popularity as a biographer. The critical writing of one age rarely satisfies another. But superannuated though some of his criticism may be, there is much in it of permanent value. ‘His criticisms,' says Macaulay, ‘are often excellent, and even when grossly and provokingly unjust well deserve to be studied. They are the judgments of a mind trammelled by prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and acute. They therefore generally contain a portion of valuable truth which deserves to be separated from the alloy; and at the very worst they mean something, a praise to which much of what is called criticism in our time has no pretension.' (Macaulay, art. Samuel Johnson, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) ithe great merits of Johnson's criticism are its independence and its sincerity. He is never awed into approval of the defects of a great writer, but judges the immortals with all the freedom of an equal. He never affects to admire anything which he does not sincerely feel to be admirable, says honestly what he thinks, and gives reasons for his opinions. To everything he impartially applies the same standards, and tests all varieties of poetry by their conformity to the rules of truth and common sense. I It was one of his favourite critical maxims that the basis of all excellence is truth. He praises one of Gray's Odes because it is at once rational and poetical.' He complains that another does not promote any truth, moral or political.' Johnson's love of logical consistency appears in his exposure of the fallacies of Pope's ‘Essay on Man.' His hatred of insincerity inspires his condemnation of Cowley's 'Mistress' and Hammond's Elegies. For many of the received conventions of poetry,
both as to form and style, he had no respect. Pindarics and Pastorals, 'descriptions copied from descriptions, imitations borrowed from imitations, traditional images and hereditary similes' shared the same censure. In his criticism of 'Lycidas' he allowed his dislike to the conventional framework of Milton's poem to run away with him. The pastoral form had been vulgarised by a century of imitators, until, as he observes, the intelligent reader sickened at the mention of crooks and pipes. Nor was he altogether wrong when he detected a certain lack of genuine affection in Milton's lament for King, for there is far more tenderness in Milton's grief for the loss of his friend Charles Diodati. But he failed to perceive the real feeling which does find utterance in parts of ' Lycidas,' saw nothing in Milton's passionate indignation against the corrupt clergy but inveterate malignity to the church, and did not notice that when the poet lamented the death of the scholar whose laborious days had missed their earthly guerdon, he was thinking of his own labours also, and of what might be their fate too. In the same manner Johnson failed to appreciate either the style or the versification of 'Lycidas.' In all questions of diction and metre he followed the traditions of Dryden and Pope. Pope, he said, had left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version might be said to have tuned the English tongue, for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, had wanted melody. So, with his ears trained to Pope's music and Pope's phrases, he found the diction of 'Lycidas' and 'Comus' harsh, and the numbers unpleasing and unmusical. No doubt the mixture of longer and shorter verses, and the irregular recurrence of the rhymes which he noted in 'Lycidas,' reminded him of Pindarics. His criticism of the Sonnets was equally unhappy: all that could be said of the best of them was that they were not bad. This almost matches the observation of Steevens that an Act of Parliament would be required to make people read