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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 109-115
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Lives and Dislikes:
Johnson's Lives of the Poets
Johnson's praise of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is famous.
In the character of the Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader. . . . The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo . . . Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.
This final paragraph of the Life of Gray, as Roger Lonsdale points out with repeated emphasis in his vivid and learned edition of the Lives of the Poets, was intended by Johnson to be the closing words "not merely [of] 'Gray' itself, but his entire survey of English poetry." This intention was the more remarkable because, as Lonsdale describes it, "the real ending in terms of composition is the defiant last paragraph" of the Life of Pope:
It is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, Whether Pope was a poet? otherwise than by asking in return, If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found? To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer, though a definition which shall exclude Pope will not easily be made. Let us look round upon the present time, and back upon the past; let us enquire to whom the voice of mankind has decreed the wreath of poetry; let their productions be examined, and their claims stated, and the pretensions of Pope will be [End Page 109] no more disputed. Had he given the world only his version [of Homer], the name of poet must have been allowed him: if the writer of the Iliad were to class his successors, he would assign a very high place to his translator, without requiring any other evidence of Genius.
These comments are on a more considerable poet than Gray, and one whom Johnson admired greatly. They are also, as Lonsdale stresses, the last words actually composed for the Lives of the Poets. They are similarly fervid, which makes Johnson's intention to conclude the volumes with the remarks on Gray's Elegy, rather than with his actual final words in Pope, all the more striking, though the ultimate arrangement of the Lives by date of death would have precluded that anyway. Even so, the conclusion to Pope does not provide a grand finale to the Lives or even this Life. The paragraph is followed by a recycling of Johnson's old essay on Pope's Epitaphs (1756), which would have also blunted its impact. This attenuated closure also has something in common with that of Gray. Ironically, the undermining of a stirring climax was replicated in the final placing of the Life of Gray. Johnson's plan was subverted by the same "reordering of the biographies by date of death," which gave the final place to Johnson's condescending and lukewarm biography of George Lyttelton, which provides an anticlimax to what would have been a triumphal exit.
Or would it? Both finales, apart from being undercut by circumstances, confer Johnson's supreme critical accolade, an affirmation of great poetic powers, ratified by "the voice of mankind" or the "common reader," fitting not only for the close of an individual Life, or even the great enterprise of the Lives. The final sentence of Gray, "Had Gray written often thus . . . ," suggests reservations, but who would guess, if the story had not become celebrated, that it concludes a biography full of dislike and contempt for its subject? As is often the case, Johnson's highest praise is not only conferred on those he least admired, but may itself closely resemble some contemptuous dismissals: the Elegy is praised for finding...