Essay on Poetic Theory

from Lives of the Poets (1779)

by Samuel Johnson


Known as the most significant literary figure of the mid to late 1700s, poet, novelist, translator, lexicographer, editor, biographer, and critic Samuel Johnson is best known for his literary criticism and his work on the two-volume A Dictionary of the English Language, in Which the Words are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers; to Which are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar (1755).

Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, which is commonly known as the Lives of the Poets, appeared in 1781 as the preface to a selection of work by the approximately fifty poets featured. None of the all-male poets featured were still alive at the book’s publication; all wrote between the 1660s and the 1770s. While Johnson selected a few of the poets in the collection (Isaac Watts, Sir Richard Blackmore, John Pomfret, Thomas Yalden, and James Thomson), most were chosen by the booksellers who suggested and organized the collection.

Johnson’s note on each poet is typically composed of three components: a biography gleaned primarily from secondary sources, a brief characterization of the poet, followed by Johnson’s substantive critical perspective on the poet’s work as a whole. The lives range in length from a few pages to a full volume. The collection had initially been planned as a slim volume, but upon completion the collection spanned 66 volumes: ten volumes of Johnson’s notes, and another 56 of the poets’ work. While Johnson wrote additional literary criticism, this is considered the central collection of his critical work. Johnson died in 1784, three years after the collection’s completion.


He was at this time [1624, aged fifteen] eminently skilled in the Latin tongue; and he himself by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian [Angelo Poliziano (1454–94), poet and scholar—ed.] had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity; but the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley. Of the powers of the mind it is difficult to form an estimate; many have excelled Milton in their first essays who never rose to works like Paradise Lost. . . .

His next production was “Lycidas,” an elegy written in 1637 on the death of Mr. King, the son of Sir John King, secretary for Ireland in the time of Elizabeth, James, and Charles. King was much a favorite at Cambridge, and many of the wits joined to do honor to his memory. Milton’s acquaintance with the Italian writers may be discovered by a mixture of longer and shorter verses, according to the rules of Tuscan poetry, and his malignity to the Church by some lines which are interpreted as threatening its extermination. . . .

For the subject of his epic poem, after much deliberation, “long choosing, and beginning late,” he fixed upon Paradise Lost; a design so comprehensive that it could be justified only by success. He had once designed to celebrate King Arthur, as he hints in his verses to Mansus; but “Arthur was reserved,” says Fenton, “to another destiny.”

. . . Of the English poets he set most value upon Spenser, Shakespeare, and Cowley. Spenser was apparently his favorite; Shakespeare he may easily be supposed to like, with every other skilful reader, but I should not have expected that Cowley, whose ideas of excellence were different from his own, would have had much of his approbation. His character of Dryden, who sometimes visited him, was that he was a good rhymist, but no poet.

In the examination of Milton’s poetical works I shall pay so much regard to time as to begin with his juvenile productions. For his earlier pieces he seems to have had a degree of fondness not very laudable: what he has once written he resolves to preserve, and gives to the public an unfinished poem, which he broke off because he was “nothing satisfied with what he had done,” supposing his readers less nice than himself. These preludes to his future labours are in Italian, Latin, and English. Of the Italian I cannot pretend to speak as a critic, but I have heard them commended by a man well qualified to decide their merit. The Latin pieces are lusciously elegant; but the delight which they afford is rather by the exquisite imitation of the ancient writers, by the purity of the diction, and the harmony of the numbers, than by any power of invention or vigour of sentiment. They are not all of equal value; the elegies excel the odes, and some of the exercises on Gunpowder Treason [the foiled Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605—ed.] might have been spared.

The English poems, though they make no promises of Paradise Lost, have this evidence of genius, that they have a cast original and unborrowed. But their peculiarity is not excellence: if they differ from verses of others, they differ for the worse; for they are too often distinguished by repulsive harshness; the combinations of words are new, but they are not pleasing; the rhymes and epithets seem to be laboriously sought and violently applied.

One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is “Lycidas”, of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. What beauty there is we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of “rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel.” Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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Samuel Johnson, the premier English literary figure of the mid- and late eighteenth century, was a writer of exceptional range: a poet, a lexicographer, a translator, a journalist and essayist, a travel writer, a biographer, an editor, and a critic. His literary fame has traditionally—and properly—rested more on his prose than on his poetry. As a result, aside from his two verse satires (1738, 1749), which were from the . . .

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