"The Most Fatal of All Faults": Samuel Johnson on Prior's Solomon and the Need for Variety; Matthew Prior's "Solomon on the Vanity of the World."

By Davis, Matthew M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

"The Most Fatal of All Faults": Samuel Johnson on Prior's Solomon and the Need for Variety; Matthew Prior's "Solomon on the Vanity of the World."


Davis, Matthew M., Papers on Language & Literature


As literary critics we are always tempted to blur the categories of instruction and pleasure, to conclude that a work of literature is aesthetically excellent simply because we find it ideologically excellent. Perhaps no literary critic has ever managed to keep these two categories completely separate: our aesthetic judgments are always partially informed by our ideological beliefs. But the influence of ideological beliefs on aesthetic judgment is a matter of degree. Some critics are virtually incapable of detecting faults in works which flatter their own ideological principles; others are more willing to "divide against themselves" and concede the aesthetic shortcomings of their ideological favorites.

In this essay I wish to argue that Samuel Johnson falls into the second category. Johnson's remarks on Matthew Prior's Solomon provide a striking proof that Johnson was not automatically pleased with a work of literature which confirmed his own world view. It would be hard to find a poem that is closer to Johnson's ideological views than Prior's Solomon, and yet Johnson does not allow this ideological affinity to overpower his aesthetic sense. He praises Prior's poem for its instructive excellence, but he damns it for its aesthetic shortcomings, especially its tediousness and lack of variety. Johnson's comments on Solomon are interesting in their own right, but they also provide a key which can help us understand a number of his other critical verdicts, as well as his approach to criticism in general.

As the title suggests, Prior's Solomon on the Vanity of the World (1708) has a great deal in common with Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes (1749).(1) Both are Christian philosophical poems, heavily influenced by Ecclesiastes and the Preacher's lament that "All is vanity." Both are written in heroic couplets, and both offer sweeping surveys of life. Johnson "Survey[s] Mankind from China to Peru" (2) and concludes that man "Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good" (10). Prior's Solomon "considers Man through the several Stages and Conditions of Life" (Argument to Book III) and concludes that "We pursue false Joy, and suffer real Woe" (I.13).

There are also a number of remarkable local similarities between these two poems. Johnson examines the trials and tribulations of eminent men and gives five English examples: Wolsey, Villiers, Harley, Wentworth, and Hyde (99-134) . Solomon does the same, but he gives five Biblical examples: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David (III.347-466). Both Johnson and Solomon conclude that "no Rank, no Station, no Degree" can escape the "contagious Taint of Sorrow" (III.249-50) .

Johnson observes that wealth cannot buy peace of mind: "Wealth heap'd on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys, /The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise" (27-28). Solomon likewise finds that wealth is not "the potent Sire of Peace" he had hoped it would be (III.245) . The philosopher-king builds elaborate mansions and palaces, but he finds that "all the various Luxe of costly Pride" (II.14) cannot drive away unhappiness:

To my new Courts sad Thought did still repair;

And round my gilded Roofs hung hov'ring Care.

In vain on silken Beds I sought Repose;

And restless oft' from purple (,ouches rose. (II.53-56)

Many men seek military glory, but Johnson recognizes that military triumphs generally benefit individuals rather than nations:

The festal Blazes, the triumphal Show,

The ravish'd Standard, and the captive Foe,

The Senate's Thanks, the Gazette's pompous Tale,

With Force resistless o'er the brave prevail....

Yet Reason frowns on War's unequal Game,

Where wasted Nations raise a single Name,

And mortgag'd States their Grandsires Wreaths regret

From Age to Age in everlasting Debt. (175-78, 185-88)

Solomon describes how the victorious general returns from war "with Conquest on his Brow," "Captive Generals" tied to his chariot, and "Joyful Citizens" echoing his victories (III. …

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