James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

Finally we get to the happy year 1763, when Boswell met his hero. It happened in a bookshop of a Mr Davies, who was also an actor and whose bookshop Johnson sometimes frequented. One afternoon, when Boswell is drinking tea with the Davieses, Johnson comes in. The introduction is made and Boswell observes Johnson looks very much like in the portrait by Joshua Reynolds (I suppose he means the one below, as he refers to Johnson reposing there, not to the more popular one of him reading.) Boswell asked previously his host not to reveal that he’s Scottish, knowing Johnson’s dislike of Scots, Mr Davies teasingly reveals it, and Boswell adds, hoping to turn it into a joke “I come from Scotland, but I can’t help it”, to which Johnson retorts, with his usual quickness, that a great many of his countrymen can’t help it, either. The conversation turns to Garrick refusing to give Johnson tickets to a play, because he knows he can sell them very profitably. Boswell tries to insert himself in the conversation, saying that he’s sure Garrick wouldn’t refuse  Johnson such a trifle. Johnson doesn’t take it very well and tells Boswell he’s known Garrick longer than Boswell has. Boswell is somewhat crest-fallen, but then the conversation goes quite well, even when on occasions he is left alone with Johnson.

A few days later he asks Davies whether it would be OK for him to visit Johnson at his apartment, and Davies says sure. On the 24th of May (Boswell remembers the  date like others remember the date of their first kiss) he visits Johnson and is somewhat taken aback by the slovenliness of his dress (he has no slippers but wears unbuckled shoes at home), but when Johnson starts talking, he forgets his misgivings. In a flashback he recollects a conversation with a fellow Scotsman Dr Blair, who visited Johnson with another clergyman Dr Fordyce. Songs of Ossian were then a hot topic, Johnson being one of the very few people who didn’t believe in their authenticity and didn’t think highly of them, so when Dr Fordyce asks him whether he thinks any modern man could write them, he answers disparagingly “many men, women and children”. He doesn’t know that Dr Blair has just published a paper comparing Ossian with Homer and Vergil, and when he learns about it, he is displeased at giving offence unintentionally, but also thinks the men were asking for it, leading him on in this way.

Back in the present, there are also other guests with Johnson, and when they leave, Boswell also rises to go, but Johnson presses him to stay. The conversation, of which Boswell kept notes, thus starting his habit of noting down everything Johnson said, turns to madness. Johnson uses the example of his friend the poet Christopher Smart, to claim that symptoms of madness are often just small deviations from the regular custom; for instance Smart, seized by religious mania, took to praying in the streets, but as Johnson says, it’s greater madness not to pray at all, and yet a great deal of such people are not put in the asylum. Here Boswell cuts to a later conversation between Johnson and Dr Burney (Frances Burney’s father). Burney asks Johnson how Smart is doing, Johnson says sadly there is not much hope for recovery, but he doesn’t think Smart should be shut up. He never posed any harm: he wanted people to pray with him and he didn’t like clean linen “and I hold no great passion for it”.


Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Pope” (the end)

Pope kept on revising and improving his works even after they were printed, in later editions. In acquired knowledge, Johnson believes Dryden was superior to largely self-educated Pope. The rest of the excerpt runs along the lines of Dryden being more natural and expansive, Pope more controlled and reserved. Dryden’s prose is like naturally undulating fields, while Pope’s is like a manicured lawn. Finally, when it comes to genius, Johnson gives the primacy to Dryden, but only very narrowly. “Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it.”

Samuel Johnson – “Lives of the Poets” “Pope” (fragments)

After a holiday break I’m back to posting. When describing Pope’s methods of working, Johnson emphasizes his good sense, or the ability to see what to do and what to avoid, but also his ambition which made him (a word he doesn’t use, but that’s the gist) workaholic and perfectionist. Johnson quotes various anecdotes to corroborate that, like that Pope never sent anything to the printer on which he hadn’t worked for at least two years, or like the story Johnson himself heard from Pope’s publisher, how he gave a heavily edited manuscript, asked for a fair copy, and when this copy was sent back for the final printing, it as heavily edited as well.In this respect he’s different from Dryden, on whom he modelled himself, because Dryden produced  very quickly and couldn’t be bothered to return to his older texts. Of course, as Johnson observes, Pope could afford that because he was financially independent, and so he could take his sweet time, and also didn’t have to do “topical” poetry about current events. He wrote poetry all the time and as soon as he had a brilliant thought, wrote it down, in order to incorporate it perhaps in some of his poems. He practically used only one verse form, but this allowed him to achieve perfection in this one verse. I

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

The fault which Milton of course could not avoid is that none of us can ever be in  Adam and Eve’s position, so the readers cannot really empathize with them. Like with historical movies, we know exactly how it is going to end, so there’s no excitement there. And since all the events are on this cosmic scale, it’s difficult to engage with them, too. But Johnson emphasizes that whatever could be done on the basis of the slim scriptural framework, Milton did it. And then he writes a paragraph which is so brilliant I have to copy it in its entirety.

But original deficiency cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. ‘Paradise Lost’ is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.

The final paragraph emphasizes Milton’s originality, claiming that even though he didn’t invent the genre of the epic poem, of all the epic poets he was the one least indebted to Homer or to any other epic poet.


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

Johnson continues to heap praise on Paradise Lost and honestly, it’s not very thrilling. The old question how much of the probable and marvellous should be in the epic poem is settled, because everything in PL is both marvellous and more than probable, strictly true (Johnson does not admit any other point of view). The plot is complete and there are no digressions like in Homer, and the few in the several invocations are actually very pleasing, because they tell us more about Milton himself. The epic poem should have a hero and Johnson argues Adam is one, even though he’s fallen, because the hero does not mean out of definition somebody unvanquished. It’s hard to judge its depiction of human manners because there was no society (if I catch Johnson’s drift), but some sentiments are well-observed. Summing up, Johnson says that Milton could write well about smaller things, but his real genius lay in writing about things larger-than-life. In the next short excerpt Johnson says that now he is going to speak about very few faults of Paradise Lost, but like in the previous part of his essay he is not going to use too many quotations. In the part praising Milton he refrained from quoting because he would have to copy most of the poem, and now in the part about Milton’s weaker points he is not going to do it either, “for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honor of our country?”

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.”