1777 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Warton

Samuel Johnson, 1777; Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791); ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 3:179-81.



He observed, that a gentleman of eminence in literature had got into a bad style of poetry of late. "He puts (said he) a very common thing into a strange dress till he does not know it himself, and thinks other people do not know it." BOSWELL. "That is owing to his being so much versant in old English poetry." JOHNSON. "What is that to the purpose, Sir? If I say a man is drunk, and you tell me it is owing to his taking too much drink, the matter is not mended. No, Sir, — has taken to an odd mode. For example, he'd write thus:

Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out life's evening gray.

Gray evening is common enough; but evening gray he'd think fine. — Stay; — we'll make out the stanza:

Hermit hoar, in solemn cell,
Wearing out the evening gray;
Smite thy bosom, sage, and tell,
What is bliss? and which the way?

BOSWELL. "But why smite his bosom, Sir?" JOHNSON. "Why to show he was in earnest," (smiling). — He at an after period added the following stanza:

Thus I spoke; and speaking sigh'd;
—Scarce repress'd the starting tear;—
When the smiling sage reply'd—
—Come, my lad, and drink some beer.

I cannot help thinking the first stanza very good solemn poetry, as also the three first lines of the second. Its last line is an excellent burlesque surprise on gloomy sentimental enquirers. And, perhaps, the advice is as good as can be given to a low-spirited dissatisfied being: — "Don't trouble your head withsickly thinking: take a cup, and be merry."