Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519
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 and academic critique, and declares The Lives of the Poets to be an instance of the former.
Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. The Uses of Johnson’s Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976. A detailed look at what Johnson had to say about the poets featured in The Lives of the Poets and the application of his critiques to subsequent literary studies.
Hardy, J. P. Samuel Johnson: A Critical Study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. An examination of Johnson’s critical abilities. Focuses on his artistry in the critical genre rather than on the historical value of his work.
Nath, Prem, ed. Fresh Reflections on Samuel Johnson: Essays in Criticism. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1987. A broad range of critical essays dealing with Johnson’s writings, with particular emphasis on his critical style in The Lives of the Poets.
Wain, John, ed. Johnson as Critic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Concerned primarily with the factual accuracy of The Lives of the Poets. Explores Johnson’s critical expectations, his idealism, and the assumptions about poetry that he shared with his contemporaries.