In 1777, Johnson was commissioned to write brief lives as prefaces to a new collection of works of popular poets. He produced instead more than 50 biographies of English writers in vogue during the second half of the 18th century. While many of these authors are seldom read today, quite a few important figures are included. John Milton, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and Abraham Cowley head the list of poets. Johnson also includes men who wrote poetry but who are acclaimed today for works in other genres: essayist Joseph Addison, satirist Jonathan Swift, and dramatists William Congreve and John Gay.
Johnson’s method in most of these biographies is to chronicle the poet’s life, then offer a critical assessment of his work. Drawing on many firsthand accounts and on his own prodigious memory, Johnson offers lively character studies of many important figures of the age. Equally important are his critical comments. His judgments display the particular prejudices of the century: Strong (but unforced) rhyme, high moral tone, and elevated language all receive high praise. Johnson shows great insight, however, into the strengths and limitations of most poets whose work he reviews. The significance of his commentary can best be seen in a single example. In his essay on Cowley, he dismisses the 17th century Metaphysical Poets as inferior artists. That judgment stood until T. S. Eliot’s celebrated revaluation of the Metaphysicals in the early 20th...
The essays contained in Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets were composed as prefaces to a large collection of the works of English writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and they are therefore primarily critical rather than biographical. Johnson related the known information about the lives of his subjects, but he was content to rely on facts gathered by earlier biographers, reserving his original thoughts for his critical commentary.
The more than fifty essays vary greatly in both length and detail. Johnson wrote extensive studies of men such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, John Milton, and Jonathan Swift, whereas he only briefly summarized the achievements of minor figures whose names subsequently vanished from all but the pages of detailed literary histories. It is a tribute to the soundness of Johnson’s judgment that the writers whom he considered important are those whose works continue to be highly regarded.
The collection is among Johnson’s best, most readable works. The language he uses is characteristically stately, but his style is less formal than in some of his earlier writing. He occasionally departs from the easy narrative flow to offer a striking rhetorical passage in which balanced phrases and carefully constructed comparisons make his critical judgments memorable. One of his most famous “set pieces” is his contrast of the writings of Dryden and Pope: The style of Dryden is capricious and varied, that of Pope is cautious and uniform; Dryden obeys the motions of his own mind, Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden is sometimes vehement and rapid; Pope is always smooth, uniform, and gentle. Dryden’s page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope’s is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe, and levelled by the roller.
Most of the essays in The Lives of the Poets follow the same structural pattern. Johnson begins with an account of his subject’s family and education, then summarizes the main events of his life and gives brief notes on the times and circumstances of the composition and publication of his major works. The biography concludes with critical commentary on specific poems and a final assessment of the poet’s literary talents and faults.
Johnson’s moral and literary standards formed a strong foundation for all his writings, and both the biographical and the critical portions of The Lives of the Poets reveal their author’s characteristic point of view. The biographical sketch of a popular Restoration dramatist, for example, begins with this statement: “Of Thomas Otway, one of the first names in the English drama, little is known; nor is there any part of that little which his biographer can take pleasure in relating.”
The characters and personalities of the poets were far more interesting to Johnson than facts and dates. He had begun his career as a biographer with a searching study of the motives that shaped the life of his friend Richard Savage, and in The Lives of the Poets he often manages to convey the essential qualities of a subject in a few words. Writing of the charming, if somewhat irresponsible, author of The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), he notes: “[John] Gay is represented as a man easily incited to hope, and deeply depressed when his hopes were disappointed. This is not the character of a hero, but it may naturally imply something more generally welcome, a soft and civil companion.”
Johnson’s insights into the human personality are shown especially clearly in his life of Pope. He brings the brilliant, ambitious, often ailing and bad-tempered poet vividly before the reader, chiding the excessive sensitivity that made Pope viciously attack critics of his writing in satirical works such as The Dunciad (1728-1743) and led him to hold grudges against his “enemies”...