Introductory Essay to London: A Poem and The Vanity of Human Wishes by Samuel Johnson
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168 ] Introductory Essay to London: A Poem and The Vanity of Human Wishes by Samuel Johnson1 There is an essay to be written on the quotations which Sir Walter Scott used for the chapter headings of his novels, to illustrate the wide reading and critical good taste of that novelist. It is a great many years ago – about thirty years ago – that I was struck by a quotation of four lines; I cannot now remember at what chapter of which of Scott’s novels it is placed: His fall was destin’d to a barren strand, A petty fortress, and a dubious hand; He left the name, at which the world grew pale, To point a moral, or adorn a tale.2 It was not for a good many years after, that I read The Vanity of Human Wishes, but the impression which the whole poem made upon me was only a confirmation of the impression which the four lines had made upon me long before. These lines, especially the first two, with their just inevitable sequence of barren, petty, and dubious, still seem to me among the finest that have ever been written in that particular idiom.3 It is as dangerous to generalize about the poetry of the eighteenth century as about that of any other age; for it was, like any other age, an age of transition. We are accustomed to make a rough tripartite division between the poetry of the age of Pope, the poetry of sentimental philosophizing – Thomson, Young, Cowper – and the early Romantic movement. What really happened is that after Pope there was no one who thought and felt nearly enough like Pope to be able to use his language quite successfully; but a good many second-rate writers tried to write something like it, unaware of the fact that the change of sensibility demanded a change of idiom. Sensibility alters from generation to generation in everybody, whether we will or no; but expression is only altered by a man of genius. A great many second-rate poets, in fact, are second rate just for this reason, that they have not the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive that they feel differently from the preceding generation, and therefore must use words differently. In the eighteenth century there are a good many second-rate [ 169 Introductory Essay to London poets: and mostly they are second rate because they were incompetent to find a style of writing for themselves, suited to the matter they wanted to talk about and the way in which they apprehended this matter. In such a period the poets who are still worth reading may be of two kinds: those who, however imperfectly, attempted innovations in idiom, and those who were just conservative enough in sensibility to be able to devise an interesting variation on the old idiom. The originality of Gray and Collins consists in their adaptation of an Augustan style to an eighteenth -century sensibility.4 The originality of Goldsmith consists in his having the old and the new in such just proportion that there is no conflict; he is Augustan and also sentimental and rural without discordance. Of all the eighteenth-century poets, Johnson is the nearest to a die-hard. And of all the eighteenth-century poets, Goldsmith and Johnson deserve fame because they used the form of Pope beautifully, without ever being mere imitators. And from the point of view of the artisan of verse, their kind of originality is as remarkable as any other: indeed, to be original with the minimum of alteration, is sometimes more distinguished than to be original with the maximum of alteration. Certain qualities are to be expected of any type of good verse at any time; we may say the qualities which good verse shares with good prose.5 Hardly any good poet in English has written bad prose; and some English poets have been among the greatest of English prose writers. The finest prose writer of Shakespeare’s time was, I think, Shakespeare himself; Milton and Dryden were among the greatest prose writers of their times.6 Wordsworth and Coleridge may be cited, and Keats; and Shelley – not I think in his correspondence, but certainly in his “Defence of Poetry.”7 This is not a sign of versatility but of unity. For there are qualities essential to good prose which are essential to good verse as well; and we may say positively with Mr. Ezra Pound, that verse must be at...


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