Essay on Poetic Theory

from Lives of the Poets (1779)

by Samuel Johnson
The “Prospect of Eton College” suggests nothing to Gray, which every beholder does not equally think and feel. His supplication to father Thames, to tell him who drives the hoop or tosses the ball, is useless and puerile. Father Thames has no better means of knowing than himself. His epithet “buxom health” is not elegant; he seems not to understand the word. Gray thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use: finding in Dryden “honey redolent of Spring,” an expression that reaches the utmost limits of our language, Gray drove it a little more beyond apprehension, by making “gales” to be “redolent of joy and youth.”

. . . My process has now brought me to the wonderful “wonder of wonders, the two sister odes; by which, though either vulgar ignorance or common sense at first universally rejected them, many have been since persuaded to think themselves delighted. I am one of those that are willing to be pleased, and therefore would gladly find the meaning of the first stanza of “The Progress of Poetry.”

Gray seems in his rapture to confound the images of spreading sound and running water. A “stream of music” may be allowed; but where does music, however “smooth and strong,” after having visited the “verdant vales, rowl down the steep amain,” so as that “rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar?” If this be said of music, it is nonsense; if it be said of water, it is nothing to the purpose.

The second stanza, exhibiting Mars’s car and Jove’s eagle, is unworthy of further notice. Criticism disdains to chase a school-boy to his common-places.

To the third it may likewise be objected, that it is drawn from mythology, though such as may be more easily assimilated to real life. Idalia’s “velvet green” has something of cant. An epithet or metaphor drawn from Nature ennobles Art; an epithet or metaphor drawn from Art degrades Nature. Gray is too fond of words arbitrarily compounded. “Many-twinkling” was formerly censured as not analogical; we may say “many-spotted” but scarcely “many-spotting.” This stanza, however, has something pleasing.

Of the second ternary of stanzas, the first endeavors to tell something, and would have told it, had it not been crossed by Hyperion: the second describes well enough the universal prevalence of Poetry; but I am afraid that the conclusion will not rise from the premises. The caverns of the North and the plains of Chili are not the residences of “Glory and generous Shame.” But that Poetry and Virtue go always together is an opinion so pleasing, that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true.

The third stanza sounds big with “Delphi,” and “Egean,” and “Illisus,” and “Meander,” and “hallowed fountains” and solemn sound; but in all Gray’s odes there is a kind of cumbrous splendour which we wish away. His position is at last false: in the hue of Dante and Petrarch, from whom we derive our first school of poetry; Italy was overrun by “tyrant power” and “coward vice;” nor was our slate much better when we first borrowed the Italian arts.

Of the third ternary, the first gives a mythological birth of Shakespeare. What is said of that mighty genius is true; but it is not said happily: the real effects of this poetical power are put out of sight by the pomp of machinery. Where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless; the counterfeit debases the genuine.

His account of Milton’s blindness, if we suppose it caused by study in the formation of his poem, a supposition surely allowable, is poetically true, and happily imagined. But the car of Dryden, with his two coursers, has nothing in it peculiar; it is a car in which any other rider may be placed.

“The Bard” appears, at the first view, to be, as Algarotti and others have remarked, an imitation of the prophecy of Nereus. Algarotti thinks it superior to its original; and, if preference depends only on the imagery and animation of the two poems, his judgment is right. There is in “The Bard” more force, more thought, and more variety. But to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace was to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent and unconquerable falsehood. Incredulus odi [not believing it, I hate it—ed.].

To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant’s bulk by fabulous appendages of specters and predictions, has little difficulty, for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvelous. And it has little use; we are affected only as we believe; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined. I do not see that “The Bard” promotes any truth, moral or political.

His stanzas are too long, especially his epodes; the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasure from their consonance and recurrence.

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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