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 century.
As interesting as the list of those included in the volumes is the roll call of those omitted. Readers in the 18th century took offense at what they considered the rough style and lack of decorum of many writers regarded today as masters of literature. Since Johnson wanted to please his contemporaries, he intentionally left out great poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, and even William Shakespeare.
Burke, John J., Jr., and Donald Kay. The Unknown Samuel Johnson . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. An overview of Johnson’s method and style of writing. Makes a distinction between professional writing...
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