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1781. Lucian of the ancient Sage, “αριςον ων οιδα εγω φιλοσο
» Ætat. 72.
φων γενομενον, the best philosopher whom I have ever seen or known."
IN 1781, Johnson at last completed his “Lives of the Poets," of which he gives this account : “ Some time in March 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.
7 This is the work, which of all Dr. Johnson's writings will perhaps be read most generally, and with most pleasure. Philology and biography were his favourite pursuits, and those who lived most in intimacy with him, heard him upon all occasions, when there was a proper opportunity, take delight in expatiating upon the various merits of the English Poets : upon
the niceties of their characters, and the events of their progress through the world which they contributed to illuminate. His mind was so full of that kind of information, and it was so well arranged in his memory, that in performing what he had undertaken in this way, he had little more to do than to put his thoughts upon paper ; exhibiting first each Poet's life, and then subjoining a critical examination of his genius and works. But when he began to write, the subject swelled in such a manner, that in(stead of prefaces to each poet, of no more than a few pages, as he had originally intended, he produced
6 Prayers and Meditations, p. 190. 7 Ibid. 174. • His design is thus announced in his Adrertisement : “ The Booksellers having deterinined to publish a body of English Poetry,
an ample, rich, and most entertaining view of them 1781. in every respect. In this he resembled Quintilian, Ætat.72. who tells us, that in the composition of his Institutions of Oratory, “ Latiùs se 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 such a collection of biography, and such principles and illustrations of criticism, as, if digested and arranged in one system, by some modern Aristotle or Longinus, might form a code upon that subject, such as no other nation can shew. As he was so 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:”
“ Some other nymphs with colours faint,
And pencil slow, may Cupid paint, - And a weak heart in time destroy ;
“ She has a stamp, and prints the boy." I was persuaded to promise them a preface to the works of each authour ; an undertaking, as it was then presented to my mind, not very tedious or difficult.
“ 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 honest desire of giving useful pleasure."
That he, however, had a good deal of trouble, and Ætat, 72.
some anxiety in carrying on the work, we see from a series of letters to Mr. Nichols the printer, whose variety of literary enquiry and obliging disposition,
9 'Thus:-"In the Life of Waller, Mr. Nichols will find a reference to the Parliamentary History, from which a long quotationi 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
I must beg it again; with another list of our authors, 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 sent 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."
“ Please to get me the last edition of Hughes's letters ; and try to get Dennis upon Blackmore, and upon Cato, and any thing of the same writer against Pope. Our materials are defective.”
“ As Walier professed to have imitated Fairfax, do you think a few pages of Fairfas 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 San. Joinson.'-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 enclosed. 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 a Philosophical Society is something; but surely he could be but a corresponding member. 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, seems justly to think that every fragment of so great a man is worthy of being preserved."
rendered him useful to Johnson. Mr. Steevens ap- 1781. pears, from the papers in my possession, to have sup
Ætat. 72. plied him with some anecdotes and quotations; and I observe the fair hand of Mrs. Thrale as one of his copyists of select passages. But he was principally indebted to my steady friend Mr. Isaac Reed; of Staple-inn, whose extensive and accurate knowledge of English literary History I do not express with exaggeration, when I say it is wonderful; indeed his labours have proved it to the world ; and all who have the pleasure of his acquaintance can bear testimony to the frankness of his communications in private society.
It is not my intention to dwell upon each 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 observations upon some of them, and insert a few yarious 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 his excellent Dedication of his Juvenal, 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, and 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
I Life of Sheffield.
1781. made without some token of a rent;" but I do not
find that this is applicable to prose. We shall see Ætat. 72.
that though his amendments in this work are for the better, there is nothing of the pannus assutus; the texture is uniform: and indeed, what had been there at first, is very seldom unfit to have remained.
Various Readings in the Life of Cowley.
“ All [future votaries of] that may hereafter pant for solitude.
“ To conceive and execute the [agitation or perception] pains 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
? [See, however, p. 10, of this volume, where the same remark is made, and Johnson is there speaking of prose. In his Life of Dryden, his observations in the Opera of " King Arthur" furnish a striking instance of the truth of this remark. M.]
3 The original reading is enclosed in crotchets, and the present one is printed in Italicks.