Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reflections on Johnson 2

Johnson being now established as one of my very favorite authors, I was especially excited when I returned to London in 2001 to finally go and see the house in Gough Square where I could imagine myself imbibing something of the atmosphere of 18th century London, which I consider myself as being able to do without too elaborate a concatenation of circumstances. I entered Johnson's Court and found the house, along with the famous statue of Hodge the cat (though Hodge almost certainly never lived in the house at Gough Square). However it was closed for renovations. We eventually carried on to Lichfield, where Johnson's birthplace was open, and which I will recapitulate in a later section.

In 2004 I 'studied' the Preface to Shakespeare and the poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes". (I have read other essays and poems of Johnson's too for purposes of general amusement, without attempting, I suppose, to engage them as objects of study. I am especially fond of "The Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane Theater, 1747", though I like all his poetry generally.) This is from the notes I took on the Preface at the time:

Clear and even inspiring little treatise on the excellences and spirit (best spirit) of literature. Humor and wisdom augmented by learning and understanding are so much more attractive than mere dogged cleverness. He is able to admire and appreciate Shakespeare while still relating to him as a man, acting himself a man and giving the reader the benefit of the doubt as to being something of the kind as well. This in large part accounts for his (Johnson's) attractiveness as a writer. For W.S.'s excellence does lie primarily in his naturalness and liveliness rather than as a chiseled, precariously preserved intellect of the high modernist/post-modernist model.

I will add that in his prose, though Johnson says many times that the object of writing is to instruct and inform, he does not to my mind ever come across as condescending to his reader, certainly compared to almost all modern writers, though I am aware he had somewhat of this reputation in his own time. However, I think perhaps due to the rigor and high quality of his social intercourse, he was able to develop a style in which he is able to imagine and address the reader as a person at a level of understanding and knowledge comparable to himself, or at least to that of people who were actually his friends. American writers in particular, many of whom probably have gone through their entire lives without having a natural, easy social type conversation as an equal with another human being on the intellectual matters most dear to them, are prone to write as if most readers were not merely idiots, but scarcely conceivable to the author as members of the same human species. They write ever for authorities instead of for men and women.

As a poet I do not think it can be said that he is underrated or undervalued, his poetry still being readily available in print, but it (the poetry) is also not much talked about. His longer efforts build up a tremendous head of steam and pull one along through them with great force. In his best poems his lines, images, narrative and ideas are in each separate part almost uniformly strong, which is an exceedingly difficult effect to produce. A comparable strength of intellect and handle on the form of a poem and the English language as well as the histories of both combined in the same author is rare. Stevens or Pound would be the most recent English language poets that I would confidently say had similar levels of skill in all these various particulars. I suppose it is true that Johnson lacks sublimity, which is not an inconsiderable deficiency, though many of his points are notable for the elegance of their conception (as well as the force of their execution).

I was going to reproduce some favorite quotes from the Preface that I notated but I am not at home and I left the book there so I will skip it and move on to something else.

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