1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Thomas Green, 3 October 1798; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 103-04.



Finished a cursory perusal of Johnson's Lives of the Poets, with a view to the principles on which his critical decisions are founded. — Under Cowley, he defines genius, "a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction:" and wit, "a combination of dissimilar images; or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike." The object of the poets of the metaphysical race, he states to be, to excite surprise, and not delight; and to exercise the understanding, not to move the affections. — In his remarks on Milton, he defines Poetry, "the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason." Epic Poetry, he says, "undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting manner." In treating of the Paradise Lost, he considers 1st, the Moral, 2dly, the Fable, 3dly, the Characters, 4thly, the Probable and Marvellous, 5thly, the Machinery, 6thly, the Integrity or Unity, 7thly, the Sentiments, 8thly, the Images, 9thly, the Similies, 10thly, the Diction, and 11thly, the Versification. Here was an inviting opportunity to open the fountains of criticism; but it is unhappily passed over: the end of Poetry, he observes indeed, is pleasure; but in what that pleasure consists, from whence it is derived, and by what eternal and immutable laws its communication is restricted, he is absolutely silent. — Of Dryden, he remarks, that he seems unacquainted with the human passions in their pure and elemental state; and, on this account, is rarely pathetic. — To Pope he gives, "in proportions very nicely adjusted, all the qualities that constitute genius — Invention, Imagination, and Judgment:" and to Thomson, "that poetical eye, which distinguishes, in every thing presented to its view, whatever there is on which imagination delights to be detained." — Of Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination, he observes, that the subject includes all images that can strike or please, end thus comprises every species of poetical delight. — These are slender gleanings: yet I cannot discover that Johnson has farther unfolded his principles of criticism. He had probably digested them into no very exact scheme in his own mind; but trusted, to what he knew would rarely fail him — his immediate sagacity whenever an occasion for critical exertion occurred.