Great writers are not necessarily great people in the integrity of their characters, which perhaps most of us know, and yet cannot help but associate the excellence in letters with the personal attributes of the writers simply because we are enchanted and gobsmacked by the mind. Samuel Johnson, an eminent English cultural critic of the 18th century, also knew about these somewhat restively volatile facts about famous writers and poets of his time. The result was these entertaining and informative composite biographies of the poets of his time with his trenchantly honest eyes and esteemed erudition to disembarrass the person of the poet from the genius of the poetry.
Originally written as a referencing preamble to an edition of The Poets of Great Britain complete from Chaucer to Churchill, Johnson’s supplementary prefaces became so popular that the booksellers decided they were worthy of separate publication under the subject title of this review. And there were reasons that make Johnson’s biographies of the eminent poets attractive among the insipid panegyrics to the famous. A good bio is read in a way a good novel or short story is enjoyed with characters that are differentiated from the common because of their recalcitrant individualism that gets away with the intellectual attraction and personal flairs despite their flaws. In this regard, Johnson’s wit and sagacity play an essential role in being an objective judge of the characters and their works to the extent that none of his subjective poets could escape from his hawk-eyed criticism, be that ever great or small. Johnson’s biography resembles Herodotus’ parataxis in narrating the accounts of people and events. It consists of a summary of the subject’s life; accounts of their personalities and analyses of their works. The individual narrative account became a history of the poet, which showed something about his work and indicated the person himself.
For example, Johnson’s take on John Milton was so freshly revealing that it upended my view on the creator of The Paradise Lost. I used to think of Milton as a benevolent-looking wise poet whose blindness didn’t stun his will to knowledge and creativity and whose fatherly tenderness toward his daughters encouraged them to be his eyes and hands when the visions of the world became blackout totally for the poet. Instead, Milton was one of those who clamored for the liberty of others but did not grant liberty to others. He was an arrogant intellectual who disparaged the works of others whom he regarded as less intellectually esteemed than his standard, which was despotically biased in terms of impressive academic credentials. Milton’s poetry was intrinsically intellectual and not for the light-hearted pleasure of the heart roving through the meanders of fairyland. His elevated soul ascended in the sphere of the Form, the perfect beauty that was unattainable in this real world.
Johnson also cast somewhat contradicting masks on the creator of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. Like Ben Jonson’s iconic characters in his plays, Johnson’s Swift appeared to be both miserly and munificent, flaunting and humble, aloof and social. I particularly liked Swift because, unlike other writers of his time and of our time, he was not an ace student with flying colors on academic subjects. Swift was, however, a great student of learning, always pursuing and laboring to learn however long it might take. He was a man of industry and diligence, which made him all the more human and imitable because his genius was hard-won, not easy born. Methinks that Swift’s resilient spirit tinged with feistiness for an Anglican Church priest had to do with his Irishness. He was an Irish man at heart, in nature and soul. Johnson also attributed the protean imaginativeness and admiring independence of ideas to his Irishness that resulted in wondrous creatures during Gulliver’s travels.
There are other poets than Milton and Swift in the book, and you do not have to read about them all if you are unfamiliar with them or their works because that would go against Johnson’s purpose of the writing. Or you can read the book as an admirer of Johnson’s signatory witty and erudite writings from which you can learn a lot about his subjects and himself. The book serves as an eighteenth-century intriguing exclusive close-up documentary. It is about celebrity poets whom someone like Johnson, who was something of Roger Ebert in the criticism of the art of literature, could unpick and reconstruct as they might have been sans the mindless blinded paeans to their works without even being read. Undoubtedly, Johnson’s views on the poets have been and will be subject to criticism too, but his writings piled with a bonfire of splendidly sparkling expressions and apposite vocabulary drawn on his natural faculty of mind are nonetheless worthwhile to spend your time reading.