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  1. Lives of the English Poets is probably the only work of Johnson’s likely to be read today beyond academic circles. Despite the fact that he was in his sixty-eighth year when he began the task of writing the lives of fifty-two poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, his ‘little Lives and little Prefaces’ display a wealth of sparkle and critical insight. We can almost feel Johnson enjoying his fusion of precise fact and carefully weighed opinion - not to say personal prejudice. Even if some of the poets are dull, Johnson here is never dull. It was the kind of undertaking for which Johnson by nature and temperament was ideally suited; that is it required meticulous research, a slavish dedication to ploughing through many minor and often inferior works and a lively interest in the vagaries of human conduct. As with the seven-year compilation of his Dictionary, here again in the Lives one feels Johnson’s underlying need to provide a touchstone, an element of stability, as well as a service to the nation and posterity. Lives of the Poets is not merely a memorial to fifty-two English poets, but a memorial to Johnson himself. Perhaps more than any other writer Johnson is conscious of the passing of time, of the futility of human effort in the face of the eternal, of the vanity of human wishes. ‘Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death,’ he writes in The Idler in 1759: 'The life which made my own life pleasant is at an end, and the gates of death are shut upon my prospects.’ All that a mere human can do in the face of such vast emptiness is to hope and pray, and commemorate the passing of those who have gone before. Johnson’s letters, diaries, sermons and essays are replete with such threnodies as we find in his sermon on his wife’s death in 1752. This lament on Tetty’s death, delivered not at her funeral service, which he did not attend, and not published in his lifetime, is more a meditation on mortality than a celebration of her life. Thus the undelivered sermon warns the phantom congregation: ‘Let those who entered this place unaffected and indifferent, and those whose only purpose was to behold this funeral spectacle, consider, that she, whom they thus behold with negligence, and pass by, was lately partaker of the same nature with themselves; and that they likewise are hastening to their end, and must soon, by others equally negligent, be buried and forgotten!’ Although Johnson declares that ‘Nothing excites a man to write but necessity,’ and that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ the fact that he was prepared to accepted a mere two hundred guineas for the massive undertaking of the Lives suggests that he wrote because he loved writing biography for its own sake, rather than for purely mercenary motives. True, for most of his life he was dogged by poverty and his pen was ever his fortune; however, we never find him haggling and he relished celebrating the lives of those, like Savage, of a carefree disposition, rather than, for instance, the puritanical Milton. That Johnson, who enjoyed the company of ordinary as well as extraordinary men, was more likely to befriend a poor man than a rich one is typified in his generous bequest to his servant, Frank Barber. Indeed, Johnson finds that the celebration of great men is frequently misplaced. In The Adventurer (No 99, 1753-4) he refuses ‘to vindicate the sanguinary projects of heroes and conquerors, and would wish rather to diminish the reputation of their success.’ He goes on to vilify Caesar, Catiline, Xerxes, Alexander the Great and Peter the Great, wishing them ‘huddled together in obscurity or detestation.’ And in ‘The Vanity’ he tells us ‘Great Xerxes comes to seize the certain prey/And starves exhausted regions in his way.’ His contempt for vain memorials is epitomised in Rasselas, in Imlac’s contempt for the Pyramids, ‘which appear ‘to have been erected only with that hunger of the imagination which preys incessantly upon life.’ However, Imlac may well be voicing only one side of Johnson’s view of memorials. The Lives of the Poets are testimony to the author’s need to record meticulously the thoughts, feelings and tempers of the poets in their everyday doings. These are the best kind of memorials for him: sincere tributes in words, rather than graven images. For, irrespective of public esteem, a man’s thoughts and words are for Johnson always worth preserving. ‘In a man’s letters . . . his soul lies naked.’ And, as Boswell believed when pursuing him for copy for the biography, ‘he was secretly pleased to find so much of the fruit of his mind preserved.’ One suspects that it is the flamboyant and insincere lying epitaphs of ‘great’ men that incur his displeasure. In a similar way he deplores the fulsome dedications and panegyrics common at the time – though often essential for patronage. Of Richard Savage’s dedications he declares, ‘his compliments are constrained and violent, heaped together without the grace of order, or the decency of introduction: he seems to have written his panegyrics for the perusal only of his patrons, and to imagine that he had no other task than to pamper them with praises however gross, and that flattery would make its way to the heart without the assistance of elegance or invention.’ It often seems that for Johnson a man’s own words and deeds are his best memorial. Hence his passion for recording the exact details of the lives he commemorated and his need to keep, as far as possible, to the original words of Shakespeare in his edition of the Works. And in his advice to biographers he reminds them that ‘chronology is the eye of history’ for ‘every Man’s life is of importance to himself. Do not omit painful casualties or unpleasing passages, they make the variegation of existence.’ And some there be, which have no memorial We may wonder why Johnson included in his Lives such minor figures, both in quality and quantity of output, as Halifax and Thomas Parnell. Indeed he commences his Life of Parnell with hesitation and reluctance: ‘The Life of Dr Parnell is a task which I should very willingly decline.’ He then goes on to commend not Parnell himself but his previous biographer Oliver Goldsmith, ‘a man of such variety of powers, and such felicity of performance, that he always seemed to do best that which he was doing; a man who had the art of being minute without tediousness, and general without confusion; whose language was copious without exuberance, exact without constraint, and easy without weakness.’ Thus the typical Johnsonian rhetoric; but what about the eponymous Parnell, known latterly as the Father of the Graveyard Poets? In a work that, in the Everyman edition, devotes 100 pages to Pope and 83 pages to Dryden, it is perhaps fitting that Parnell should be allocated a mere two pages, giving the bare outline of his life and works. After all, Parnell only published nine poems in his lifetime. But then why then include him at all? In his debates with Boswell over the moral qualities of the various poets in the Lives and the possible dangers of celebrating those whose habits were vicious, Boswell recalls Johnson’s remark that ‘Addison and Parnell drank too freely.’ But Addison, eminent politician and editor of the Spectator, is awarded a more than respectable 42 pages; Parnell ‘too much a lover of the bottle’ must be satisfied with just a couple. Clearly, then, it seems not to be his addiction to alcohol, but the paucity of his output that results in Parnell’s curtailed biography. Yet Boswell himself was puzzled by his mentor’s omission of the Latin epitaph in his Life of Parnell: Qui sacerdos pariter et poeta, Utrusque partes ita implevit, Ut neque sacerdoti suavitas poetæ, Nec poetæ sacerdotis sanctitas deessset.’ Johnson can of course turn a neat Latin quatrain, but he is reluctant to indulge in pious and lying epitaphs for the undeserving. As with Stepney, who ‘apparently professed himself a poet’ and whose juvenile compositions ‘make grey authors blush’, so here: ‘The general character of Parnell is not great extent of comprehension, or fertility of mind. Of the little that appears, still less is his own.’ In fact, much of Johnson’s Life of Parnell is taken up with exposing the subject’s borrowings and plagiarisms. He is nevertheless noted in the great work, not commended, but, rather, remembered as a man for having lived at all. Occasionally one feels that, as regards his own family, Johnson, rather than celebrating their lives, would rather wipe their names from the slate of memory. This is certainly true of his brother Nathaniel, and, to a lesser extent, of his wife Tetty. Having run up debts, failed in business and been found to have cheated customers, Nathaniel was to his brother a pariah, fit only for transportation to America. Death spared him this ignominy, but even before Natty’s funeral, Johnson had set out for London with his tragedy Mahomet and Irene in his pocket. To Mary Prouse who later wrote to him seeking information about Natty, he merely confessed that ‘he was my near relation.’ He wanted no memory of and no memorial to his failed brother. Johnson’s comparative neglect of his mother has been remarked on by many of his biographers, but even more striking is his attitude to his wife, Tetty, whom he praised and effusively prayed for only after her death. The fact that he did not attend her funeral has been already noted, but the distance between the couple was not simply one of a twenty-year age gap and for some time the separation of their respective locations. Mrs Johnson (formerly Porter, neé Jervis) was a rich, plump widow with three children, who came to the marriage with a dowry of £600. The marriage was obviously one of convenience and in a sense no marriage at all. He confided to Boswell, ‘My wife told me I might lye with as many women as I pleased, provided I loved her alone.’ Put simply, Johnson had a predilection for younger girls and needed an independent life in the city; Tetty sought a support, a companion and a man of literary promise to flatter her vanity. In this she was disappointed and, after a life of addiction to the bottle, died an opium addict. As with Nathaniel, she needed and received no engraved memorial – not until some thirty years later in Johnson’s final days. ‘I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful,’ Johnson declares in his Rambler essay, No 60. Indeed, we continually find Johnson celebrating the humble as opposed to the great, the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary, and the natural against the supernatural. He is a great retriever of scraps that others would barely deign to notice. The drudgery of compiling catalogues is as important to him as the study of literary history. Little things count. Typically, he refers modestly to his finest work as ‘little Lives and little Prefaces.’ Johnson is forever engaged on the dual task of preservation and annotation of works and lives that he would not willingly let die. Were it not for Johnson we would hardly know of that man of fashion ‘ostentatiously splendid in dress’ William Walsh, whose main claim to fame lies in his acquaintance with Dryden and Pope, and whose work ‘seldom rises higher than to be pretty.’ Whatever its value as literary criticism, Lives of the English Poets remains a great work of preservation and celebration. Johnson can hardly bear to think of a man’s passing without a word of commemoration. ‘It is unpleasing to think how many names, once celebrated, are since forgotten,’ he says, taking time out from his earnest biography of Dryden and lamenting that ‘Of Newcastle’s works nothing is now known but his Treatise on Horsemanship.’ And his account of Edmund Smith (of whose life ‘little is known; and that little claims no praise but what can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous purpose’) concludes with an encomium to his friend and boyhood mentor Gilbert Walmsley. There being so little to commend in the work or character of Smith, Johnson indulges himself in an ubi sunt of his boyhood hero: ‘At this man’s table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr James, whose skill in physic will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend: but what are the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.’ But their name liveth for evermore At the end of his life Johnson wrote epitaphs for his father, his mother and his brother. He directed that these be engraved on ‘deep, massy and hard stone’ and placed in St Michael’s Church in Lichfield. Writing to Lucy Porter the week before his death he tells her of the stone he had laid over her mother’s grave in Bromley. The Latin inscription, translated for Lucy, celebrates Tetty as ‘a Woman of beauty, elegance, ingenuity and piety.’ Boswell had described her as ‘very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks, of a florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials, flaring and fantastic in her dress, and affected both in her speech and her general behaviour.’ Of course, an epitaph’s function is to memorialise the dead, rather than to tell the truth. Mendacity is permitted and to a large extent expected. But a biographer has totally other obligations, as Johnson points out in Rambler, No 60: ‘If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.’ Samuel Johnson’s own life and work are surely perpetual reminders of this obligation.
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