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  • The Mind in Motion
  • Jennifer Snead (bio)

Throughout the biographical sections of the Lives of the English Poets, Samuel Johnson took pains to include, among those "minute details of daily life" that are so important to Rambler 60's examination of biography's appeal to readers, the specifics of how poets work: how they read, what they read, when; how often they wrote, at what time of day, how many lines per day. Wherever his sources would invest the process of poetic composition with superstition, superhuman talents, or supernatural inspiration, Johnson supplies a demythologizing corrective. To Philips's allegedly firsthand observation that John Milton never wrote during the summer, for "his vein never happily flowed but from the Autumnal Equinox to the Vernal; and that whatever he attempted at other times was never to his satisfaction," Johnson appends a tart rejoinder: "This dependence of the soul upon the seasons, those temporary and periodical ebbs and flows of intellect, may, I suppose, justly be derided as the fumes of vain imagination . . . the author that thinks himself weatherbound will find, with a little help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted."1 Richardson's awestruck relation of Milton's uneven, possibly heavenly bursts of inspiration—"he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he make; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with an impetus or oestrum, and his daughter was immediately called to secure what came"—is dismissed as hardly a "deviation from the common train of Nature"; rather, "something of this inequality happens to every man in every mode of exertion, manual or mental. The mechanick cannot handle his hammer and his file at all times with equal dexterity; there are hours, he knows not why, when his hand is out" (1:139).

Joseph Addison, even while traveling—according to Tickell—"not only collected his observations on the country, but found time to write his Dialogues on Medals, and four acts of Cato," an account Johnson qualifies pragmatically with "perhaps he only collected his materials, and formed his plan" (2:86). On [End Page 173] the legend of Matthew Prior's propensity to seek low company to repair his strained faculties after conversing with luminaries like Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, Johnson scoffs: "Poor Prior! why was he so strained, and in such want of repair, after a conversation with men not, in the opinion of the world, much wiser than himself? But such are the conceits of speculatists, who strain their faculties to find in a mine what lies on the surface" (2:200). Johnson's commentary on his sources repeatedly underscores not a poet's differences from the rank and file but his similarities: poetry is a form of labor like any other, subject to the vicissitudes of fatigue, laziness, and diligence. It is as much an attempt to haul the figure of the poet down from the heights of Parnassus, into the same sphere as the rest of humanity, as it is a critique of the biographers who would place and keep him there.

As I have argued elsewhere,2 Johnson's biographical sketches in the Lives of the English Poets are as concerned with the manner in which biography is written and transmitted as they are about the matter of any given poet's life. He collects contradictory accounts, corrects them against one another when he can, and often allows those contradictions to stand. He compares, weighs, and questions his sources without insisting on false combinations or resolutions, and points out the propensity for such combinations and resolutions among previous biographers, as with Tickell on Addison or Richardson on Milton, or the conjectures of Prior's "speculatists." Throughout Johnson models for his readers a process of reading that enables them to learn not only the details of a poet's life but also the susceptibilities to wonder, pride, or affection that govern the ways these details are told.

Harriet Kirkley's A Biographer at Work: Samuel Johnson's Notes for the "Life of Pope" (Lewisburg, 2002) amply demonstrates Johnson's critical stance toward the biographical sources he used to compose the "Life of Pope." The book...


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pp. 173-179
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