Posted in book review

‘The Lives of the Poets’, by Samuel Johnson – review

The Lives of the Poets by Samuel Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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.



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Posted in book review, Film Review, Miscellany

Roger Ebert’s Cinema Paradiso

A critic, according to Abraham Lincoln, has a right to criticize, but has a heart to help. Being a critic requires erudition drown upon a wealth of reading combined with a natural sagacity grown from enriched humanity wielded into an alchemy of words. A good critic with a poet’s heart guides the public with a lantern lighting the artist’s labyrinth in his world and helps us see the unseen in the far corner of a maze with a wealth of knowledge, sans arrogance of intelligence as Roger Ebert.

Unlike his other contemporary peers, Ebert was liberal in views, conservative in beliefs, and fair in judgments, the commendable attributes shared by Samuel Johnson, a 17 century English social/cultural critic, essayist, and dictionarian. He wrote a public in his mind and showed no peremptory atmosphere typically attributable to influential critics showing off their mastery of language not accessible to all due to their expensive private high education. Once Ebert trenchantly criticized a specific movie for its crude violence, abject dystopian portrayal of reality, and shuddering absence of humanity. The director of the film remonstrated with him in a public letter that Ebert’s criticism ignored the fact of life, which is akin to earthly circles of hell. Ebert replied to the director that if that was how he looked at the world, then it should not be forced upon the audience’s minds, exerting his raw and one-dimensional creation of reality upon the sentiments and judgments of the audience. Ebert believed that the world was worth living because there’s hope among the odds to sparkle before our eyes with joy flitting at our sides. This belief should be an essence of Arts that gives off beauty, pleasing to our senses that grows into reason. That is the purpose of arts, to which film belongs.

For this reason and my kindred perspectives on films in general, I miss Roger Ebert, although his writings are perennial. He didn’t grandstand with politically charged views on movies. He believed ‘Art is for Art’s Sake’ because films and books and paintings are not to be used as propagandas for a specific party ideology but to be appreciated for the minds’ food. W.H Auden said of his duty as a poet in society was to defend the use of language. I think Roger Ebert as a film critic in society was to defend the use of film as art to give life a shape.

Posted in book review, Miscellany

The Wings of Writing – on reading Samuel Johnson’s essay on writing

Suppose a brownie or a leprechaun I happen to rescue from a Gargamel lookalike wizard insists what my three wishes are as a quid pro quo (depending upon how friendly the fairy is). In that case, I will say forthwith one of them is the Marvel of Writing, which I have lost somewhere in the course of life. I can turn myself into a great writer with the magical pyramid of power from a hodge-podge reality of indigested letters of reality as black as Persian Night.

Johnson’s essay on the role of the scholar evolves from Francis Bacon’s adage: “Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” It rings a bell with the Nietzschean idea of Superhuman, superseding any mortals known for their erudition perennially enshrined in the history of human civilizations. A truly knowledgeable person I principally associate with a great writer can digest what he reads, explain it to others in facile terms, and substantialize it in writing, a mental Osmotic process that nourishes the mind and invigorates the body.

Although I agree with Bacon as Johnson did, I am more with their ancient Greek teacher Socrates. Socrates warned his pupils about regurgitating what they heard from his lectures without putting it in their own words. That was one reason why the great philosopher disapproved of writing practice that had just emerged in his time. Copying letters of others without understanding them on his own would stun the cognitive powers rather than promote a broader and deeper range of cognition. Reading was not as popular in Socrates’ time as in ours because it was at the beginning of the new intellectual dawn of Greek Civilization. So, Socrates was a thinker, neither a reader of texts, nor a writer of tablets. Does this make him less of his students Plato and Aristotle?

Does the amount of reading necessitate that of writing? Wouldn’t too many words go undigested inside and clog the pipes of thoughts when writing? For example, an ambitious amateur writer wants to write as if she were possessed by the spirit of Patience Worth, who transformed an ordinary homemaker into a brilliant writer. She adheres to a writer’s gospel of “Read a lot. Write a lot,” but it is easy to be said than to be done. The more she reads, the worse she writes. She wants to reason the perplexing reason with frustration and disappointment. She feels lost in the middle of midtown Manhattan where there are many streets and avenues but nowhere is her niche. Yet once she gets out of town, the state, the coast, her mind becomes clear, imbued with a fresh breath of inspiration that moves her hands on the keyboards automatically. Contrary to Johnson’s opinion that grandstands with all other established writers and academics, the amateur writer feels liberated from a siege of letters that intimidated her army of thoughts equipped in her design of armors and shields with her coat of arms sovereign and beautiful. Her reasoning power was buried under a chaos of indigested learning.

Although Johnson’s magnanimous advice of the equilibrium of reading, writing, and speaking on a writer’s continuum is respectful and worth reading, its reality is subject to the individual aptitudes of learning, ways of reasoning, and natural dispositions. One may write better because of reading more, while the other has the opposite consequence. A hermit – let us say more realistically, an introvert – is not always an incompetent, anti-social, sullen loner whose airy petulance barricades against others whose intelligence may seem intimidating to be dealt with. I think to write more is far better critical than to read more because writing is a sovereign act of expressing an individual mind and spirit, free from the comparison of the florid words of others with the writer’s own that would dispirit the vivacity of the creative spirit. To conclude, I thank Thomas Mann for his affirmative saying:” Solitude produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry.” Truth is truth to the end of reckoning. Then it is yet another truth of others, not necessarily yours.

Posted in book review, Miscellany

Samuel Johnson Rambles on the practicality of knowledge – essay

Ignorance is the timorous and indolent plight from fear because knowledge is considered to be remotely extensive and inscrutable to be comprehended. It retards the progress of the mind and numbs the sense. Samuel Johnson avers in his weekly essay ‘The Rambler, No. 137’ avers that one remains unenlightened unless he is diligent to search for the origin of wonder with a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of mental progress when confronting the unknown to him. The need for general knowledge, the knowledge that confers Citizenship of the World, is an essential element of human characteristics, and an easy task to fulfill in search of meaning in life.

Johnson’s idea of knowledge is simplicity. It is jettisoned from a concatenation of needless abstrusely sophisticated theories and ideologies. It also chimes the bell with the Renaissance virtuoso Leonard da Vinci’s adage that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication in all principles. However intimidating or formidable the unknown is, the essential feature is simple to understand by way of ‘Divide and Conquer,” a principle that complication is a confederacy of the abstruse that can be broken into parts marked by the gradations from the first agent to the last consequence. The force that breaks the shackle of fear for conquering the unknown huddle is patient diligence armored in confidence. The labor of inquiry for wonder follows natural curiosity and confidence that eclipses the soul’s darkness. It comes to fruition by ceaseless efforts to ascertain the origin of the wonder in simple ways. The English philosopher who also advocated democratic pedagogy, John Locke, affirms that the surest way of thorough comprehension knowledge is to attempt little by way of repetition. For the widest excursions of the mind result from short flights of mental imagery and instant thoughts triggered by neurons fired in our cerebral cortex, which can be transformed into an organization of ideas firmly engraved in the mind.

However, knowledge loses its purpose if it dissipates into the possessor’s cerebral ether or is locked in the mind’s cabinet. It becomes useful and purposeful when put into practice. That is why Johnson gives heed to those who pride themselves in the impressive educational backgrounds and belittle others whose mental capacities they arbitrarily judge ignorable or even ordinary. Knowledge is for share, and it is a duty of a scholar who has a wider variety of knowledge through years of academic endeavors for the common benefits of the world he lives in. As Francis Bacon fittingly concurs, books can never teach the use of books. Generally speaking, it is common for intellectuals, despite their ostensible calls for democracy and justice for all, to live out of touch with the practical realities of life and often regard such matters as trifles. But what is worthy of their glorious learning if it does not accommodate the purpose of life? Johnson criticizes such lofty arrogance of the rarified subset of the general population because they lose their days in unsocial silence and live in the crowd of life without a touch of humanity. It also reminds me of Bacon’s utterance of loneliness in a group as such: “Magna Civitas, Magna solitudo.” In this regard, George Orwell is together with Johnson because they saw the educated’s superciliousness, the intellectuals, who often conferred their knowledge to their honor in the voluntary seclusion.

Upon reading Johnson’s essay, I could not help but wholeheartedly agree with the purpose of knowledge and the idea of sharing it with others for the world’s common good. I was also glad to learn that I was not the only one who thought that people with academic credentials were frequently dismissive of the opinions of what they regarded as the mortals of the ordinary among whom I am. Therefore, I hope that the reader who reads this essay of mine should not belittle the soul attempting to obtain the sunshine of the light of letters to understand the world in a perspicuous way to declare to the world that I also can think and express it cogently. That is my essay on knowledge for the purpose of life.

Posted in book review, Miscellany

Samuel Johnson Rambles on Dictatorship over Feelings

VFS109729 Dr. Johnson (1709-84) at Cave’s the Publisher, 1854 (oil on canvas); by Wallis, Henry (1830-1916); 49.5×59.7 cm; Private Collection; English, out of copyright

Temperance is not an abnegation of sensuous pleasure that is innate to our human nature. It is one’s willingness and ability to rein in his or her horse of impulsive id under moderation lest the driver of the mind chariot lose the control and fall by the wayside of life’s journey and leave it in the lurch of spiritual anomy. Yet, to obliterate the pleasure of the taste that our sense requires for nourishing the body and soul will only produce counterintuitive consequences, leading to noogenic neurosis, chronic depression, or existential frustration that life is nothing but a vast vacant lot. That is what Samuel Johnson, one of the great writers of the English language and a trailblazer of the English dictionary, discerned in his brilliantly unbridled and witty essay ‘The Rambler, No. 32, written on Saturday, July 7th, 1750.

Johnson was an intellectual of the best kind: erudite in the scope of knowledge drawn on his wealth of reading, artless in expressing his views on the Pooterish lettered caste that prided themselves on the florid display of arcane words and difficult syntax, and charitable in recognition of the vicissitudes of human life without prejudice. Perhaps, such admirable traits contributed to creating a dictionary of the English language, which required the universal understanding of humanity to comprehend the origins and meanings of a language of any kind. According to Johnson, Stoicism seemed too puffed up with its lofty philosophical principles of restraining feelings that would only beget misapprehension of the old school of thought for denying the most natural human emotions.

Emotions measure changes on a continuum of arousal on the one hand and the pleasantness and unpleasantness on the other. For example, High Arousal and High Unpleasantness produce Fear, whereas High Arousal and High Pleasantness equal to Ecstasy. Low Arousal and High Unpleasantness beget Misery, but Low Arousal and High Pleasantness lead to Satisfaction, which is a positive emotion. It is this physiological state of feeling that Johnson deemed it desirable in the face of existential frustration. One in despair can not eradicate the low tide of an emotional wave but can divert it in a direction that gives a fresh viewpoint on the heart’s malady, thus making life worthwhile to continue with every new try. It is logical reasoning because consciousness predicts the world we live in, a constant revolving hypothesis of reality triggered by neurons in the visual cortex. Since the brain does not have a function to think of itself, it uses a template of emotional scripts based on experience. Thus, instead of willing away unpleasant emotions, one can translate it on a different emotional template, measuring it on the arousal continuum for positive emotional affects. 

While Stoicism advocates the puritanical governance of the sense and taste for Reason’s eminence, humanity’s natural law revolts against the unnaturally philosophical dictatorship under the disguise of decency and propriety. Stoicism is a school of philosophy that distinguishes the cult from “the sensibilities of unenlightened mortals.” Johnson was right in saying that repressed feelings about pain could only lead to a dormant sense of guilt in a denial of physical reality and later erupt into violent tantrums or perverted forms of debauchery. Pain is part of life, and the way to relieve its severity is by way of finding its riddle with fortitude through doing things that channel the concentration on the pain to something meaningfully pleasant, creating a sense of fulfillment. This concept is also parallel to Viktor E. Frankl’s Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy about willingness to meaning in life as a result of responding genuinely and humanly to life’s challenges. Both Johnson and Frankl denied no tactile sense of pain, emotional or physical, and prescribed a palliative solution for mitigating a malady of heart.

Johnson’s essay on criticism on Stoicism agrees with my idea of expressing genuine feelings about sadness to effectively communicate to listeners’ hearts in a compassionately empathic way so that pains will be less burdened, griefs shared in halves, and loneliness complemented in companionship. Likewise, I believe that suicidal feelings arise from that utterly helpless loneliness alienated from the world. They are usually concealed by the actor’s self-made barriers, where the emotions are despotically imprisoned. And I believe that Johnson would have agreed with me.