Johnson and English Poetry before 1660

Johnson and English Poetry before 1660

Johnson and English Poetry before 1660

Johnson and English Poetry before 1660

Excerpt

Johnson's Dictionary embodies a personality; this differentiates it from all others. We can trace his progress so closely at times that we almost surprise him among a jumble of books, turning with an outflung arm to his assistants, or handing over with a contemptuous shrug his copy of the 1736 edition of Skelton, after marking in black lead pencil the passage he has chosen. Not the Preface alone, but the choice of illustrative quotations, the very definitions of words reflect his character and personal tastes. We may read his reminiscences of the lexicographer's trials in the Rambler, his letters pleading with friends for the loan of more books or explaining to Mr. Millar his difficulties with his amanuenses and get an extraordinarily clear picture of him at work on his vast undertaking, struggling to overcome his discouragements and his constitutional inertia; but we can learn all that from the Dictionary itelf. The study of his methods, of the editions he used for quotation, and particularly of his mistakes brings him startlingly close.

If Johnson's personality is everywhere evident in so barren a task as a dictionary, we can more readily understand its predominance in all his work and why a knowledge of his personality is essential before we judge anything he ever said or wrote. This is particularly true of his literary criticism. A creative mind has a natural tendency to impress its own image upon any metal, alloy or pure; and in this instance the personal element is emphasized by a peculiar train of circumstance.

Consider how many of Johnson's critical dicta were uttered in the course of ordinary conversation, taken down and preserved by Boswell, Fanny Burney, Mrs. Thrale, and others, or were dashed off in haste for a Rambler and sent along to the printer without so much as a rereading. Johnson over a period of years trained himself untiringly to think and speak and write with care and accuracy, so revision with him in a sense was not necessary; but, thanks to the zeal of his friends, no critic in English literature has had to stand so much responsibility for remarks made frequently in a burst of irritation, stung perhaps by one of Boswell's . . .

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