Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1622 words.)
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