Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reflections on Johnson 1

Having finished the Life of Johnson on Sunday, I am going to clog up cyperspace a bit with my own history with this legendary duo. Parts 1 and 2 will be devoted to me and Johnson, Part 3 to Boswell, and Part 4 to a account of my 2001 pilgrimage to Lichfield, perhaps even with my very own tourist photos if I can figure out how to do that.

I do not remember exactly when I became conscious of the figure of Samuel Johnson. He was not particularly well-known or prominent in our household, and I don't think it was much before I was twelve or fourteen that I became aware that he was the subject of a famous, but very long and very old biography, and I still did not have any idea why anyone would have written about him anyway. This was before I had even read Dickens or knew any basic English history, so the impression I had of Johnson, if any at all, was that of a stuffy, scholarly type from a faraway time and place. His very name struck me, in the early 1980s, as hopelessly and embarrassingly whitebread (mine being nearly as bad in that regard I was extra sensitive about the matter). He aroused no interest in me. I am not sure how much my father knew about him, but as his tastes ran more towards political history, war, exploration, etc I am pretty certain he hadn't read either Johnson or Boswell. I remember asking him once who Samuel Johnson was, since the Life was a part of most series of classics that I liked to collect at flea markets and the like at that time, which he scoffed at dismissively, saying "No one reads that anymore," adding too that Johnson had not liked Americans, which, being a great patriot, especially where the generation of the founding fathers is concerned, he took as a personal offence. I have heard him on other occasions denounce English books of the period as being unreadable because there is "too much damn Latin" in them, which would certainly apply to Boswell, though he never failed on the other hand to extol the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton on the grounds of their superior learning and deep understanding of the Greek and Roman classics compared to modern leaders.

Having passed through high school without ever perusing a page or handling a volume of either Johnson or his biographer, I proceeded on to a college that if it is well-known for anything is well-known for an almost perverse and willfull anachronistic biblophilia, where I don't believe I heard either the name of Johnson or Boswell uttered once in four years, though the English literature section of the library at least had much material on and many editions of the works of both. Since I killed a lot of time in that section over the years after dinner waiting for it to be late enough to start drinking it is probable that I at least looked into one or other of the books then, though I do not remember anything gripping me. They had the Yale edition of Johnson's complete works with illustrated plates on the title pages. I remember looking at the famous Reynolds portrait of the elephantine Johnson in one, and in another I believe an illustration of the great man leaving the drawing room on the occasion of his perceived snubbing by Lord Chesterfield (seeing as I am referring to this episode 250 years after the fact, by way of an artwork, is it any wonder why otherwise rational people harbor ambitions of literary fame?).

I graduated, and then began my current reading list the year I was 24, though it would yet be 4 years before I would get to anything by Johnson. When I was 26 I finally made it to London for the first time, where, in wandering about the City, I could not help taking note of the signs for Johnson's house in Gough Square, though not having read him at the time I did not venture to even look at the house, intending to preserve that pleasure for a time when it would have more moment to me, though even then I still did not have a clear idea of the massive figure Johnson still makes in the English literary imagination. In 1996 the London of my imagination was primarily Dickensian, with a little Bloomsburyan/Edwardian channeling around Hyde Park and Marylebone and Victoria, and what I knew from the Restoration and 18th century authors coming to life only in the City churches and oddly enough in walking along the banks of the river. Finally, on March 6, 1998, I commenced reading The Lives of the English Poets.

The Lives of the Poets is one of the most entertaining, as well as instructive books, both historically and literarily speaking, that I have ever read. By instructive I do not mean that Johnson is the most accurate recorder of facts or that his criticism is perfect upon all occasions. He does something that is perhaps equally as important, demonstrates what a collectively shared history and literature of an outstanding quality means to a society, and the men in it, over a fairly extended period; that England would not be England, and all that proceeded from this circumstance even after the age of Johnson, without its poets; and that any human mind ignorant of poetry and the poetic heritage of his own language at the very least can make little claim to wholeness.

Here are a few favorite quotes and word choices/phrases from the Life of Cowley:

'the mist of panegyric'
'The true genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.'
'the morose Wood'
'the courtly Sprat'
'...instead of seeking shelter in America, wisely went only so far from the bustle of life that he might easily find his way back, when solitude should grow tedious.
'a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets'
'The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor.'
'...the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.' (regarding the thoughts of the metaphysical poets)
'nature and art are ransacked'
'wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature'
'Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before'
'confused magnificence'
'A lover, burnt up by his affection, is compared to Egypt'
'The lover supposes his lady acquainted with the ancient laws of augury and rites of sacrifice'
'Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?'
'A coal-pit has not often found its poet; but that it may not want its due honor, Cleveland has paralleled it with the sun.
'Their expressions sometimes raise horror, when they intend perhaps to be pathetic.'
'unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle'
'I know not whether Scaliger himself has persuaded many readers to join with him in his preference of the two favorite odes, which he estimates in his raptures at the value of a kingdom.'
'His elegy on Sir Henry Wotton is vigorous and happy, the series of thoughts is easy and natural, and the conclusion, though a little weakened by the intrusion of Alexander, is elegant and forcible.'
'even the morality is voluptuous'
'Finding himself able to live in the greatest extremities of love, he concludes the torrid zone to be habitable.'
'sluggish frigidity'
'The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically, expressed by Casimir'
'The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin'
'Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being.'

I will break this post off here.

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