Formal Verse Imitation and the Rhetorical Principles of Imitation in the Neo-Latin Poetry of Samuel Johnson

By Venturo, David F. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Formal Verse Imitation and the Rhetorical Principles of Imitation in the Neo-Latin Poetry of Samuel Johnson


Venturo, David F., Studies in the Literary Imagination


Born in 1709, Samuel Johnson grew up with and maintained a lifelong interest in English formal verse imitation, as both poet and critic. He was familiar with its history and personally witnessed the genre's extraordinary peak in popularity in the 1730s, thanks largely to Pope's splendid Imitations of Horace, which was published to much acclaim just as Johnson was beginning his career as a professional writer, indeed, Johnson earned his earliest literary recognition with the publication of London (1738), a verse imitation of Juvenal's Third Satire, and solidified that reputation a decade later with the publication of The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), written in imitation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire. Moreover, Johnson maintained a lively critical interest in the genre throughout his career. From the Rambler essays (1750-52) to the Lives of the Poets (1779-81), Johnson offers an abundance of occasional commentary, most of it consistently and rather sharply critical of formal verse imitation.(1)

Less well known, even to scholars, is that Johnson's interest in verse imitation was not restricted to English. As Robert DeMaria, Jr., helpfully reminds us, Samuel Johnson was a lifelong participant in the Late Latin culture of eighteenth-century Europe (xi). His practice as a neo-Latin poet was profoundly affected by the conventions and tradition of English verse imitation. Indeed, Johnson strove not only to emulate Pope by imitating Juvenal as Pope had imitated Horace, but also to emulate the accomplishments of such neo-Latin humanists as Buchanan, the Scaligers, Erasmus, Heinsius, and Burman. His neo-Latin imitations, as the selected readings that follow later in this essay will attest, reveal Johnson's coming to grips with classical, patristic, and neo-Latin or humanistic predecessors.

One needs to be careful, however, in discussing Johnson's Latin poetry specifically in terms of formal verse imitation. Johnson never claims, when writing Latin verse, to be writing formal verse imitation. In Latin, he never carefully updates a particular ancient poem, substituting references to modern persons and events for those that appear in the classical original. Nevertheless, he relies on many of the conventions familiar to him from his experience with the English verse imitations of such poets as Rochester, Oldham, and Pope. Sometimes, for example, he constructs a Latin poem around a series of references or allusions designed to evoke the poetry of a classical, patristic, or neo-Latin precursor. Sometimes Johnson relies on a meter associated with a particular classical or patristic genre, poet, or poem. Sometimes Johnson employs diction or subject matter in order to evoke a particular period.

Beyond the formal, poetic conventions, Johnson acquired a habit of mind--a process, of sorts--for dealing with his poetic precursors when writing English verse imitations that he also used when writing Latin poetry. The process consists of two parts. First, as Johnson writes, he enters into the moral ethos and philosophical values of the antecedent poet, striving to assume the identity and values of that poet. But then, having made this attempt at Negative Capability, Johnson begins to reassert his own identity and values, usually--but not always--in opposition to those of his model. Thus, Johnson establishes a moral and critical dialectic between himself and his Latin poetic model that mirrors the dynamics he establishes in his English verse imitations between himself and his classical predecessors.

Johnson uses all of these devices in writing his Latin verse imitations. Sometimes he organizes a neo-Latin poem around allusions to both neo-Latin and classical sources. In the case of "[GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]," for instance, Johnson relies on a nexus of allusions to Virgil's Aeneid to create a playfully mocking contrast between the tribulations of the epic hero, Aeneas, and the Johnsonian anti-hero who has just endured the revision of the fourth edition of his Dictionary. …

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