Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson

Article excerpt

Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson By David F. Venturo. Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1999. 335 pp. 38 [pounds sterling].

Almost seventy years, David Venturo reminds us, have elapsed since T. S. Eliot pronounced Johnson a major poet `without any book yet appearing' that deals solely with his poetry (p. 17). One of the virtues of this detailed and fascinating volume is how convincingly it makes us aware of what we have been missing. Indeed, we overlook so much of Johnson's poetic output, thinking in general only of the two famous imitations of Juvenal and of the masterly elegy `On the Death of Dr Robert Levet', that it is like discovering anew a forgotten pleasure to read Venturo's generous discussions of poems from the entire span of his writing career. Johnson, like Thomas Hardy a century and more later, was a natural poet, so much so, suggests Venturo, that his moral severity would not allow him to concentrate his writing in an activity that came so easily to him. He needed to labour at his literary output in order to expiate the guilt of temperamental idleness (pp. 203-04). Given to composing seventy or more lines in his head before committing them to paper, and then perhaps only half-lines, confident that he could recall the whole when needed, his facility developed early, with schoolboy exercises and translations, and stayed with him long, through to the translation of Horace's Ode IV. 7, made in the month before his death. Venturo does ample and proper justice to this full range of Johnson's poetry. The chapters he devotes to the early verse, to the Latin poems, to elegies and epitaphs, to dramatic prologues, and even to occasional extempore, parodic, and complimentary productions, are as full of interest and engagement as those dealing with the acknowledged weightier works. Indeed, for non-readers of Latin, his analysis of the influences on and poetic devices within Johnson's Latin poems will be genuinely instructive, and his appendix of translations a valuable asset. …

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