Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Milton” (ctd.)

The next excerpt is about “Paradise Lost”, about which Johnson is much more complimentary than “Lycidas”. He calls it “a poem which considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind.” (I wonder which was the first “with respect to performance” for Johnson?) The rest of the essay is not that interesting so far and I’m afraid I find Johnson disliking something intensely more enjoyable. He claims, in line with all the other critics of his era, that epic poetry is the pinnacle of literary achievement because it has to unite all the skills of the poet: book learning, technical skill, knowledge of human emotions etc. He quotes a French critic René Le Bossu  who claimed that the epic poet should first find the moral of his work and then work up to it and says Paradise Lost is the only epic poem which actually meets this requirement, because in all the others the moral is just incidental. The subject of the epic poem should be great and Milton’s subject is the greatest possible, and even his least powerful characters – the first parents – are superior to ordinary people. Johnson praises Milton for giving individual features to his characters, for instance the angels, and defends him from some critics who claimed that Satan’s speeches are too impious to even cross the mind of a religious man. Johnson believes Satan is just wicked enough to be a credible, you know, devil, but his speeches are too general to be offensive. He also praises the development of Adam and Eve, from innocent to tormented to repentant and reconciled, and the fact that “both before and after the Fall, Adam’s superiority is diligently sustained” (but of course).


Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Milton”

We kick off with Johnson’s very enjoyable hatchet job on “Lycidas”, which offended a lot of Milton’s fans, both his contemporaries and later. The excerpt begins with a claim that technically “Lycidas” is no good, so whatever beauty there is, should be looked for in the sentiments it expresses – but it has no real passion, because a poet feeling real grief has no time to look for learned images from classic mythology. “In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting”, fulminates Johnson. He proves it by quoting as an example three particularly tortuous lines in which Milton compares himself and Edward to King to two shepherds tending their flocks. Johnson thinks this simile is so distant from the actual lives of these men it’s useless. The whole pastoral machinery of nymphs and ancient gods is dismissed by Johnson as stale. He also finds it irreverent that Milton mixes his metaphors, comparing King both to a real shepherd – well, to as real shepherd as can be found in pastoral poetry and to a shepherd in the spiritual sense, meaning he was a clergyman and thus a pastor. But Johnson admits this irreverence could be an unwitting mistake on Milton’s part. He thinks “Lycidas” is praised only because Milton is considered to be a great poet on the strength of his later works and he delivers this final blow: “Surely no man could have fancied that he read “Lycidas” with pleasure had he not known its author.”

Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” – “Cowley”

The title here is somewhat misleading, as the excerpt from “Life of Cowley” does not refer to the poet per se, but contains Johnson’s views on metaphysical poetry. And he doesn’t care much for it. The metaphysical poets, as he sees them, tried only to show off their learning, so they didn’t write poetry, but only verses, and even those verses were not smooth or melodious. So they were not great poets, but could they be considered great wits? If we take Pope’s definition of wit, “that which has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed,” then no, because they wrote about such outlandish things and ideas that nobody ever had thought so before them. But if we define wit as the ability to see similarity in very dissimilar things, then sure, they have more than enough of it. They can’t move the affections of their readers because their poetry is too analytical and cold, and they are unable to describe great and sublime things, either, because they deal with minute particulars. But, Johnson grudgingly admits, sometime they happened across an unexpected truth in their false conceits, and at least one thing can be said for them, nobody could become a metaphysical poet without much study.

Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (the end)

The last excerpt is Johnson’s essay on King Lear, which he values very highly. Some people complain, he says, that Lear’s conduct is not very credible, but Johnson’s line of defence is “different times”. Shakespeare based his story on the legend of the ancient British king, even though he fudged the timeline a bit by introducing dukes and earls,  and perhaps today such a story could happen in Guinea or Madagascar. Joseph Warton, who wrote an essay on King Lear for Johnson’s journal The Adventurer, criticised the introduction of Edmund’s plotline and also the cruelty of the play. As for the latter, Johnson agrees with Warton that the scene of blinding Gloucester is too cruel, but probably calculated to appeal to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He defends Edmund’s plotline, saying that it provides a foil to Lear’s daughters (unkind daughters  – unkind son), and by killing them all in the end provides an appropriate moral.

Johnson then addresses the question of Cordelia’s death. A very minor poet called Nahum Tate produced in 1681 his own adaptation of King Lear with a happy ending and this was the only version produced on the English stage until 1823, when the great tragedian Edmund Kean put his foot down and restored Shakespeare’s original to the stage. Johnson seems to have mixed feelings on this subject: he quotes Addison’s essay from The Spectator, criticising Tate’s version, but then he quotes John Dennis (better known as the object of Pope’s satire), who claimed that Addison criticised Tate only because in his tragedy Cato, which was going to have its premiers soon after this issue of The Spectator was published, the virtuous hero dies as well. Johnson writes that a “play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good” because such is life, but he is not certain that a play where justice triumphs must be out of thedefinition worse or less pleasing for the audience. (Well, in the original Lear the wicked do not exactly prosper, either. I guess it’s moral is “we’re all screwed”.) He adds on a personal note that many years ago, when he read King Lear for the first time, he was so shocked by Cordelia’s death that he couldn’t bring himself to reading these last pages again until working on the present edition. Oh, Samuel, you big softie, you.

Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (ctd.)

If people know that theatre is only make-believe, why do they care? Well, for the same reasons they like to look at the pictures of beautiful landscapes or read books; they are not transported bodily into the beautiful scenery or to the setting described in the book, but they like to imagine what it would be like to be in this place. And theatre gives delight precisely because it’s make-believe: we wouldn’t like to see the carnage at the end of an average tragedy if it were real. Theatre is just like reading books but on stage, and while comedies often seem funnier in actual theatrical productions than when being read, tragedies often fall short, as few actors can come up with the sublimity imagined by the readers. Did Shakespeare know about all the three unities and chose to ignore two of them, or did he just not know them? The answer actually doesn’t matter, but Johnson likes to think that also in Shakespeare’s times there were plenty of people who were only too happy to point out his shortcomings to him and he just ignored them. At the end Johnson adds carefully that maybe there are people who can give him better reasons for the necessity of keeping the unity of time and place, but he couldn’t find any. The writer who will manage to write an excellent play with all the three unities will deserve as much praise as the architect who built a citadel with all the architectural orders, without sacrificing its efficiency as a fortress.

The next excerpt is a very short introductory note to Twelfth Night, in which Johnson praises the play for its elegance, but says that Aguecheek, being apparently dim-witted by nature, is not the appropriate target of comedy, unlike Malvolio, who is brought down by his pride (a vice which could and should be corrected). He also faults the play for the marriage of Olivia, because he doesn’t find the story very credible.

Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (ctd.)

Dr Johnson asks then why, among all these faults, he didn’t name the one critics liked in his times most to pick on, that is the old bore of the three unities of time, action and place.  As for historical plays, Johnson thinks that they, being neither tragedies nor comedies, are under no obligation to stick to any of these rules. As for other plays, Shakespeare does preserve the unity of action no worse than many other playwrights. And then Johnson proceeds to demolish the whole dogma about the unity of time and place, on which especially French poets liked to harp on. Their point was that allegedly the audience could not understand  how one stage could represent various places many miles away from one another and how within a few hours whole years could pass. This would be true, Johnson argues, only if the member of the audience really thought that when he went to the playhouse, he really went to Egypt, but such a deluded person could easily imagine themselves to be transported to Rome in the next act. But of course the audience consists of sane people, who know that they are in the theatre and the people on stage are actors. If they can imagine this stage to be Egypt and the people on it characters from ancient history, they can also easily wrap their minds about the change of location. And it’s even easier with time, because time is more even more malleable to human imagination.

Samuel Johnson – “The Preface to Shakespeare” (ctd.)

The second excerpt starts with Johnson saying that great as Shakespeare is, he has his fault, and mine oh mine, how many faults he finds. Firstly, as could be predicted, he is not moral and didactic enough for Johnson. His plays are full of factual errors and anachronisms, like Hector quoting Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida. His plots are loose-limbed and often hurried when nearing the end. His comedy is coarse. His tragedies are great when he writes simply and from the heart, but the harder he tries, the more tedious he gets. Hamlet’s soliloquy is for contemporary theatre the equivalent of Mona Liza, so universally celebrated that it’s hard to really hear it, but for Dr Johnson Shakespeare’s “declamations” are “cold and weak”. He often struggles with a thought he can’t express well instead of just dropping it, and the style often doesn’t match the idea expressed. And – here I have to agree with Johnson – Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like.