Essay on Poetic Theory

from Lives of the Poets (1779)

by Samuel Johnson
Sometimes he concludes a period or paragraph with the first line of a couplet, which, though the French seem to do it without irregularity, always displeases in English poetry.

The alexandrine, though much his favorite, is not always very diligently fabricated by him. It invariably requires a break at the sixth syllable; a rule which the modern French poets never violate, but which Dryden sometimes neglected:

And with paternal thunder vindicates his throne. . . .

 

“LIFE OF THOMAS GRAY” (1779; EXCERPT)

In this year (1742) Gray seems to have applied himself seriously to poetry; for in this year were produced the “Ode to Spring,” his “Prospect of Eton,” and his “Ode to Adversity.” He began likewise a Latin poem, De Principiis Cogitandi.

In . . . retirement he wrote (1747) an ode on “The Death of Mr. Walpole’s Cat”; and the year afterwards attempted a poem of more importance, on “Government and Education,” of which the fragments which remain have many excellent lines.

His next production (1750) was his far-famed “Elegy in the Church-yard,” which, finding its way into a Magazine, first, I believe, made him known to the public. . . .

In 1757 be published “The Progress of Poetry” and “The Bard,” two compositions at which the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement. Some that tried them confessed their inability to understand them, though Warburton said that they were understood as well as the works of Milton and Shakespeare, which it is the fashion to admire. Garrick wrote a few lines in their praise. Some hardy champions undertook to rescue them from neglect, and in a short time many were content to be showed beauties which they could not see.

Gray’s reputation was now so high, that after the death of Cibber, he had the honor of refusing the laurel [the Poet Laureateship—ed.], which was then bestowed on Mr. Whitehead. . . .

As a writer he had this peculiarity, that he did not write his pieces first rudely, and then correct them, but labored every line as it arose in the train of composition; and he had a notion not very peculiar, that he could not write but at certain times, or at happy moments; a fantastic foppery; to which my kindness for a man of learning and of virtue wishes him to have been superior.

Gray’s Poetry is now to be considered; and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name, if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life.

His “Ode on Spring” has something poetical, both in the language and the thought; but the language is too luxuriant, and the thoughts have nothing new. There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives, derived from substantives, the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank; but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied Spring. The morality is natural, but too stale; the conclusion is pretty.

The poem “On the Cat” was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle, but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza “the azure flowers that blow,” show resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the Cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense, but there is good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines,

What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?

the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend,” but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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Biography

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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