Page images
PDF
EPUB

consist. He appears to have admired Dryden as much as he could admire any author. He rather sees than appreciates the sublime beauties of Milton. Tickell’s • Elegy on Addison' he silently prefers to Milton's · Lycidas.' He does not delight in fiction or in blank verse, but likes sterling sense expressed in vigorous English, and in English hexameters with rhyme. Poetry, in his eyes, was not poetry as it appeared to Gray

“ Truth severe in fairy Fiction drest ”—

but was valuable chiefly for the quantity it contained of solid reasoning. When he fails to convince us, he always leaves us with

a favourable opinion of his good sense ; for even when wrong, ! he is still sagacious and penetrating, and the reader never

loses the presence of a clear intellect. Wherever the world has dissented from his judgments, the world is still -curious to preserve his opinions; and where understanding alone is sufficient for poetical criticism, the decisions of Johnson are generally right. Indeed, the judgment of the world is that of Byron. * Johnson," writes the noble poet, “strips many a leaf from every laurel ; still Johnson's is the finest critical work extant, and can never be read without instruction and delight.”

It has been often said, but by no writer more strongly than by Ben Jonson, to whom his great namesake bore so many resemblances, that to judge of poets is not the faculty of all poets, but only of the best of poets. Nor is Johnson to be rejected even by this test; he has a right to be heard on a poetical question, for he is most assuredly a poet. His · Vanity of Human Wishes,' his · Prologue for Garrick,' and his · Lines on Levett,' would do honour to any name in our literature. He gives (I feel and regret) a most undue preference to blank verse over rhyme, and is too uncompromising an advocate for the school of Dryden and Pope ; yet when his principles are understood, it is easy to read him without falling into his errors. When Lord Chesterfield was told during his Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland that his coachman was a Roman Catholic, and went every Sunday to mass, “ Does he indeed ?” replied his Lordship; “I will take good care that he shall never drive me there.” The characteristic rejoinder of the witty nobleman deserves to be remembered on other occasions than where servants are concerned.

The style of Johnson in his “Lives' is freer from inflation and sesquipedalian terms than the other works of their writer. His sentences are seldom long; they are close, forcible, and sounding. His manner is his own; as he spoke he wrote, for just conceptions are seldom without the very words required to give them utterance. The style throughout is peculiarly good Johnsonian, modulated to a march never monotonous. It is free from the strut of Robertson or the pomp of Gibbon, is familiar without grossness, dignified without ostentation, and easy without labour.

He wrote with great facility, and from the nearness of his vision in a manner almost peculiar to himself. It was his habit to form each sentence in his mind before committing any portion of it to paper. “Qf composition,” he says, “there are different methods. Some employ at once memory and invention, and with little intermediate use of the pen form and polish large masses by continued meditation, and write their productions only, when in their own opinion they have completed them.”9 His style attained in this way that certain roll and balance so characteristic of him. The original MS. of his · Life of Pope' (now in Mr. Dillon's possession) fully confirms the statement of his biographer. The corrections are very few in number, and yet from the proof sheets of the work quoted by Boswell (the originals of which are now in Mr. Daniel's keeping) it is clear that he was a pains-taking corrector of his own writings, weighing the full meaning of every word, and altering with a precision that supplies a useful lesson to the most experienced.

Curiosity is always alive to learn what prices were received by writers for works that reflect credit on our literature. Johnson's original agreement for the Lives was two hundred guineas; and for this sum he was to part with the entire copyright. The success of the work, and Johnson's enlargement

Life of Pope.

[graphic]

of the design, induced the booksellers to add one hundred guineas more, and after a brief interval a second one hundred guineas, so that the sum he received was four hundred guineas. “I always said,” he observed to Nichols, “ that the booksellers were a generous set of men. Nor, in the present instance, have I reason to complain. The fact is, not that they have paid me too little, but that I have written too much.” In this payment the Life of Savage' is not included : this was an early work, for which he received fifteen guineas.

In the present edition I have sought to substantiate doubtful information and to correct what is wrong in matters of fact, leaving points of taste as much as possible to the reader's own good judgment to receive or to reject. In particular passages, however, I have at times allowed some authors of undoubted reputation to combat an opinion in a note, while I have invariably sought to give any new facts of moment which the industry of others may have brought to light, or my own inquiries have enabled me to elicit. The quotations I have collated with care: some were corrupt from the first, and others had become so from the habit of reprinting not from the last edition which passed under the author's own eye, but from the last in order of publication. In short, I have, I believe, treated the book as a friend to whom I had many obligations, and whose injunction, “ be kind to my remains," it was a duty to fulfil.

Johnson was not over-fond of dates—I have therefore silently corrected many of his errors, and added to the text (in square brackets) other dates, likely to prove of use to the reader.

Of the new information to be found in this edition, procured by my own industry alone, I hope to say something before the third and last volume. In the mean time I may be permitted to relate an anecdote connected with literature and with this book. When my father was a common stone-mason in the town in which Robert Burns died, he made his way on foot to

10 Let me give two instances in an extract from one of Cowley's letters, “ All people upon the place incline to that of union;" so says Johnson: but Cowley wrote opinion. “Virgil has told the same thing to that purpose;" so says Johnson: but Cowley wrote told me something.

Edinburgh, foreseeing a better outlet for his genius than his native place was likely to afford. With the characteristic prudence of his countrymen he carried money with him. His hunger and his thirst were both for books. When his labours of the day were over (he wrought in Edinburgh as a mason) he would repair to a sale-room kept by old Blackwood (afterwards eminent as a publisher), where books were sold at night by cheaper advances in price than those now in use. For three shillings and eleven pence he bought Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Poets’ in four volumes, then comparatively a dear book. As he was carrying off his purchase he was accosted by a gentleman who, arriving too late for the sale, offered a handsome per centage to the mason for the acquisition he was carrying delighted away. The offer was politely refused, much, as I have heard my father relate, to the surprise of the gentleman, who looked at his mason's apron and his purchase with mixed and increasing surprise. From this acquisition (gained by the sweat of the brow, in later years honoured with a better binding) my father learned much, and I have learned something. The reader who delights in biography and has any liking for the notes that follow will excuse this anecdote. To my father's cheap but highly-prized acquisition the public is mainly indebted for a good work (the Lives of the British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), and in that edition I first read Johnson, and determined twenty years ago to become his editor.

PETER CUNNINGHAM.

Kensington, Sept. 21, 1854.

« PreviousContinue »