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Chapter 12 - Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: A Guided Tour

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2022

Greg Clingham
Affiliation:
Bucknell University, Pennsylvania
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Summary

This “guided tour” of the Lives of the Poets explores Johnson’s criteria for poetry, starting from his discussion of the metaphysical poets. What Johnson says about Gray’s Elegy is related to the commemorative impulse in the Lives. The ironic vision of the Life of Savage is argued to underlie that comedic understanding of the complex relation between writing and life that frequently surfaces elsewhere. Four major writers then get special attention, in which literary appreciation and quasi-personal relationship go hand in hand. Johnson’s intensely held ambivalence about Paradise Lost pays reluctant tribute to Milton’s own capaciousness of mind. Swift’s rigor toward himself and others is met by Johnson’s correspondingly acerbic, unforgiving account. Dryden’s roving, fluid, omni-curious intelligence, his hospitality to the occasional and contingent, is matched by the relaxed generosity and miscellaneousness of Johnson’s Life of Dryden, as contrasted with the careful scrutiny afforded to the life and work of the self-aware, self-critical, aspiring Pope.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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