« ZurückWeiter »
presents us with real men and not with conventional figures. His occasional reflections on manners and morals are acute and entertaining, for his knowledge was not drawn from books only; like Pope ‘he had studied in the Academy of Paracelsus, and made the world his favourite volume.'
In the opinion of Macaulay the best of the Lives are those of Cowley, Dryden, and Pope, and the worst is that of Gray. The comparative inferiority of the Life of Milton is not owing to Johnson's defective knowledge of his subject. Certain errors of fact the life of course does contain. In some cases later enquiry has disproved statements received as true when Johnson wrote. The investigations of the genealogists of the present century have superseded his account of Milton's family and pedigree. The researches of Professor Masson amongst the State-papers have revealed the exact history of Milton's Latin secretaryship. The publication of Milton's “Treatise of Christian Doctrine' has thrown new light on the development of his religious opinions. There are however other cases in which Johnson has fallen into error through negligence. He attributes to Ellwood instead of to Phillips the statement that Milton could not endure to hear Paradise Regained' judged inferior to · Paradise Lost,' and expands that statement into the assertion that the poet preferred 'Paradise Regained' to 'Paradise Lost.' On another occasion he refers to Phillips as authority for a statement which is made by Birch. He carelessly writes of Milton as making the ten books of 'Paradise Lost' into twelve by the division of the seventh and twelfth. He misdates one of Milton's works, and appears to confound two of his pamphlets into one.
These are trifling slips; the great defect of Johnson's life of Milton is the persistent depreciation of the poet's character which pervades it throughout. At the time, and ever since, V it called forth continual protests. "Against the life of Milton,' says Boswell, “the hounds of Whiggism have opened in full cry.' Horace Walpole writes of Johnson's ' Billings
gate on Milton,' but weakens the force of his censure by confessing in a later letter that he had made a point of conscience of not buying “ Johnson's Lives,” and had never even dipped into the earlier volumes. (Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham, vii. 452, 508.) Cowper devotes the whole of one of his letters to Unwin to a detailed criticism of the Life of Milton, and complains that he has belaboured that great poet's character with the most industrious cruelty. As a man he has hardly left him the shadow of one good quality. Churlishness in private life, and a rancorous hatred of everything royal in his public, are the two colours with which he has smeared all the canvas.' (Oct. 31, 1779, to Unwin.) A later editor has also printed the indignant notes which Cowper wrote in the margin of his copy of the Lives. Milton's last biographer describes Johnson as "employing all his vigorous powers and consummate skill to write down Milton. He undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow to the poet's reputation, and succeeded in damaging it for at least two generations of readers. He did for Milton what Aristophanes did for Socrates, effaced the real man and replaced him by a distorted and degrading caricature.' (Pattison, Milton, p. 219.)
The unfairness of Johnson's account lies in the fact that he exaggerates the failings of Milton's private life, and distorts and miscolours the history of his public life. He adopts the harshest accounts of Milton's treatment of his daughters. He accuses him of changing his party for personal motives, and betraying his principles from love of money. If he does not directly assert 'that he interpolated Eikon Basilike for party purposes, he does not shrink from insinuating that he was capable of doing so. This charge of injustice cannot be refuted, as Boswell seeks to refute it, by bringing forward those passages in which Johnson praises Milton in noble and appropriate language. With some parts of Milton's character, with his independence and self-reliance especially, he had full sympathy. But he had
no sympathy with the aims and the principles which filled so large a place in Milton's life, and he did not even take the trouble properly to understand them.
Johnson's reputation as a critic has been less durable than his popularity as a biographer. The critical writing of one age rarely satisfies another. But superannuated though some of his criticism may be, there is much in it of permanent value. 'His criticisms,' says Macaulay, 'are often excellent, and even when grossly and provokingly unjust well deserve to be studied. They are the judgments of a mind trammelled by prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and acute. They therefore generally contain a portion of valuable truth which deserves to be separated from the alloy; and at the very worst they mean something, a praise to which much of what is called criticism in our time has no pretension.' (Macaulay, art. Samuel Johnson, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) The great merits of Johnson's criticism are its independence and its sincerity. He is never awed into approval of the defects of a great writer, but judges the immortals with all the freedom of an equal. He never affects to admire anything which he does not sincerely feel to be admirable, says honestly what he thinks, and gives reasons for his opinions. To everything he impartially applies the same standards, and tests all varieties of poetry by their conformity to the rules of truth and common sense. It was one of his favourite critical maxims that the basis of all excellence is truth. He praises one of Gray's Odes because it is at once rational and poetical.' He complains that another does not promote any truth, moral or political.' Johnson's love of logical consistency appears in his exposure of the fallacies of Pope's 'Essay on Man.' His hatred of insincerity inspires his condemnation of Cowley's ‘Mistress' and Hammond's Elegies. For many of the received conventions of poetry, both as to form and style, he had no respect. Pindarics and Pastorals, 'descriptions copied from descriptions, imita
tions borrowed from imitations, traditional images and hereditary similes' shared the same
In his criticism of 'Lycidas' he allowed his dislike to the conventional framework of Milton's poem to run away with him. The pastoral form had been vulgarised by a century of imitators, until, as he observes, the intelligent reader sickened at the mention of crooks and pipes. Nor was he altogether wrong when he detected a certain lack of genuine affection in Milton's lament for King, for there is far more tenderness in Milton's grief for the loss of his friend Charles Diodati. But he failed to perceive the real feeling which does find utterance in parts of ' Lycidas,' saw nothing in Milton's passionate indignation against the corrupt clergy but inveterate malignity to the church, and did not notice that when the poet lamented the death of the scholar whose laborious days had missed their earthly guerdon, he was thinking of his own labours also, and of what might be their fate too. In the same manner Johnson failed to appreciate either the style or the versification of 'Lycidas.' In all questions of diction and metre he followed the traditions of Dryden and Pope. Pope, he said, had left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegances to posterity. His version might be said to have tuned the English tongue, for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, had wanted melody. So, with his ears trained to Pope's music and Pope's phrases, he found the diction of 'Lycidas' and 'Comus' harsh, and the numbers unpleasing and unmusical. No doubt the mixture of longer and shorter verses, and the irregular recurrence of the rhymes which he noted in ‘Lycidas, reminded him of Pindarics. His criticism of the Sonnets was equally unhappy : all that could be said of the best of them was that they were not bad. This almost matches the observation of Steevens that an Act of Parliament would be required to make people read Shakspere's Sonnets. Johnson was more in his element when criticising 'Paradise Lost'than when dealing with Milton's
minor poems. Those little pieces, he said, might be dispatched without much anxiety, a greater work called for greater care. For the most part his criticism is based on the rules laid dowr. by Aristotle in his 'Poetics,' but he follows them without servility. Of English critics he cites Bentley and Dryden, but only to differ from them. Addison he frequently quotes with approval, and in his life of that author defends him against the existing generation, which had begun to dispute his claims to be considered as a critic at all. They condemned his criticism as tentative or experimental rather
st than scientific,' 'deciding by taste rather than principles.' Against these attacks Johnson justifies Addison : ‘Had he presented Paradise Lost to the public with all the pomp
of system and severity of science, the criticism would perhaps have been admired, and the poem still have been neglected ; but by the blandishments of gentleness and facility he has made Milton an universal favourite with whom readers of every class think it necessary to be pleased.' (Lives of the Poets, ii. 406; ed. 1794.) In his own criticism of Paradise Lost' he is very often in agreement with Addison. Instances of this, and cases in which their opinions differ, are pointed out in the notes to the present edition. Johnson also refers to Voltaire's criticisms of 'Paradise Lost,' contained in a dissertation on epic poetry attached to the 'Henriade,' and had perhaps read the article 'Epopée' in the Dictionnaire Philosophique, where Voltaire again discusses Milton's epic. He was in agreement with Voltaire when he censured the allegory of Sin and Death, and condemned the materialism of the war in Heaven, and included both in his catalogue of the defects of Paradise Lost.' These lists of faults and defects are an essential part of Johnson's system of criticism. He did not seek to appreciate but simply to judge. He held it to be the business of the critic to point out impartially the faults of a great work, just as it was the business of the biographer to point out the faults of a great author. But in his criticism of Milton's poetry there is no sign of the prejudices which