1788 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Richard Graves, in Recollections of some Particulars in the Life of the late William Shenstone (1788) 107-11.



Here, however, I cannot but express my surprise at Dr. Johnson's declared aversion to pastorals in general; a species of poetry which has been cultivated by men of the finest taste in the politest ages of the world. Solomon's Epithalamium is confessedly in that style; Theocritus, the greatest master in that branch, flourished in the refined court of Ptolemy Philadelphus; Virgil in that of Augustus; Pope and Philips wrote pastorals in the beginning of this century, which I am inclined to think our only truly classical or Augustan ate. In short, whether that purity of manners, or those beautiful Arcadian scenes, which are the subject of pastoral poetry, ever really existed or not, the ideas of rural innocence and simplicity are so congenial to the human mind,, in its uncorrupted state, that, in spite of ridicule, they will always please the generality of mankind.

This disrelish of pastoral poetry then, in Dr. Johnson, must probably be ascribed chiefly to the peculiarity of his circumstances and situation in life. Born in the city of Litchfield; confined in his youth, the season of fancy, in a bookseller's shop in Birmingham; after a short stay in the university, transplanted to the metropolis, there drudging for the press, and hackneyed in the ways of men, what leisure, or inclination could such a man have to attend to or study the beauties of nature, and the pleasures of a country life?

In short, without the least intention of detracting from Dr. Johnson's merit in other respects, the learned Doctor's aversion to pastorals, brings to my mind a distich on the horse of a very worth Canon of C. C—, written by a young man in the wantonness of youth:

Bred in HIS paddock, in HIS stable born,
What strange ideas must he have of corn!

Thus parodied:

Bred up in Birmingham, in Litchfield born,
No wonder rural beauties he should scorn.

[Author's note: If what Sir John Hawkins mentions be fact, that Dr. Johnson could not "distinguish objects at any distance," nor consequently enjoy a rural prospect, this may still further account for his dislike of pastoral poetry.]

But the Doctor's violent antipathy to "blank verse" is still more unaccountable, and is the reverse of what one would have expected from a man of his rough, masculine genius, and who is distinguished more by his great sense, than by the delicacy of his taste; and who, one would have thought, should have preferred the majesty of blank verse, and varied pauses, to the jingling of rhyme; "a fault avoided by the learned ancients, both in poetry and prose," as Milton observers.