The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Lives of the Poets
LIVES OF THE POETS. The ‘Lives of the Poets,’ the “most memorable of Johnson's literary works,” is an established English classic. It is so ranked in spite of inequalities and numerous defects resulting from Johnson's predilections and methods of work. Early in 1777, to meet the competition of the Martins, Edinburgh publishers, the leading booksellers of London were under the necessity of bringing out an edition of the English poets. Johnson was selected to write what he himself called “little lives and little prefaces” to such “a little edition.” It was at first the intention to begin with Chaucer. That the collection did not begin with Chaucer, that it included such inferior poets as Broome, Duke, Granville, Hughes, Sheffield, Edmund Smith and Stepney, while Carew, Crashaw, Herbert, Herrick, Lovelace, Marvell and Vaughan were omitted, is doubtless due to the fact that Johnson did not care to undertake the task of treating periods for which he had no particular liking and with which he was not thoroughly familiar. So far as possible he confined himself to the poets of the classical school. Forty-eight of the 52 poets were named by the booksellers; Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret and Yalden were added upon the request of Johnson. There is little doubt that the booksellers would have been glad to follow any suggestions that Johnson cared to make. The “little” work originally contemplated steadily grew. “My purpose,” he wrote, “was only to have allotted to every poet an advertisement . . . containing a few dates, and a general character; but I have been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure.” The ‘Lives’ were written at intervals between July 1777 and March 1781.
Johnson did not follow modern methods of research; he wrote from a full mind, took what easily came to hand and gave little thought to what he could not find. Of mere details, he was impatient: “To adjust the minute events of literary history,” he asserted in the life of Dryden, “is tedious and troublesome: it requires indeed no great force of understanding, but often depends upon inquiries which there is no opportunity of making, or is to be fetched from books and pamphlets not always at hand.” Not all of the narratives were written for the purpose in hand, nor were all the result of Johnson's own labors. The ‘Life of Savage’ had been published in 1744. The ‘Life of Edward Young’ was written at Johnson's request by Herbert Croft. The ‘Life of Butler’ was derived from a comparison of accounts given by an unknown writer of doubtful authority, and by Anthony Wood. The ‘Life of Parnell’ is an abstract from the narrative by Goldsmith. Of Edmund Smith, Johnson says: “I shall subjoin such little memorials as accident has enabled me to collect.” He confessed at the close that he had written “dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigor and haste.” His standards of criticism, those of the classical school, prevented him from doing full justice to such poets as Milton, Collins and Gray. Against the defects of work so produced, the general reader should be warned. “With its slips and errors uncorrected,” says J. Churton Collins, “and read without guidance, no unfitter book could be placed in any reader's hands; properly edited, and with a proper commentary, no book more serviceable.”
What, then, is the value of such a work? It is manifold. For one thing, Johnson killed forever the merely panegyric type of biography. “We have had enough honeysuckle lives of Milton,” he said; “mine shall be in a different strain.” In none of the narratives is he merely a praiser or a fault-finder; he strikes a sane balance. The greatest value of the whole lies not alone in the facts, although students must always reckon with Johnson for certain facts, many of which, but for him, might have been lost. It does not depend upon the mere methods of biography, which in many respects might have been improved. Its greatest value arises from the fact that we are therein given the last judgments of a great literary dictator. The ‘Lives of the Poets’ is the product of Johnson's privileged old age. He had read much, experienced much, thought much. We are enabled to listen to the mature mind of one great literary man delivering itself in regard to other literary men, small as well as great. The ‘Lives’ are thus invaluable as documents of that school of classical criticism so well represented by Johnson. They are equally invaluable for the element of philosophical comment which runs throughout. “His work closes an age; it is the Temple of Immortality of the great Augustans, and, when it was published, already Burns and Blake, Crabbe and Cowper, were beginning to write.”
Two of the best critical articles are J. Churton Collins' “Dr. Johnson's ‘Lives of the Poets’ ” (in Quarterly Review, Vol. CCVIII, pp. 72-97); and Chapter 6 of Prof. Walter Raleigh's ‘Six Essays on Johnson.’