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Eighteenth-Century Life 31.3 (2007) 76-84

Annotated Immortality:
Lonsdale's Johnson
Reviewed by
Philip Smallwood
University of Central England
Samuel Johnson. The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets: With Critical Observations on Their Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2006). Vol. 1, Pp. 464. £85. ISBN 0-19-928479-2; vol. 2, Pp. 448. £85. ISBN 0-19-928480-6; vol. 3, Pp. 488. £85. ISBN 0-19-928481-4; vol. 4, Pp. 680. £85. ISBN 0-19-928482-2

For Matthew Arnold, writing in the High Victorian period, Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets could still convey powerfully a critical and biographical experience of profound humanistic value for the student of literature and of life. In his preface to The Six Chief Lives (London, 1879), Arnold claimed that Johnson's essays were the most humanely informative introduction for beginning readers of English poetry, and indeed constituted an education, as much moral and intellectual as biographical and critical, this on account of the moral and intellectual quality of the human being behind them: "The more we study him," wrote Arnold, "the higher will be our esteem for the power of his mind, the width of his interests, the largeness of his knowledge, the freshness, fearlessness, and strength of his judgements" (xxiv).

T. S. Eliot has in the twentieth century praised the unfading relevance of Johnson's criticism, and a succession of modern scholars has perpetuated a [End Page 76] reception tradition that also argues for Johnson's presence and pertinence (the writings of Leopold Damrosch, Jr., Fred Parker, and Greg Clingham come to mind). The importance of the Lives, as a founding text of English literary biography and criticism, may in these terms yet lack general accreditation (if the work is seen as hermetically sealed within the historical past). But where else in the history of criticism do we find an engagement with poets and poetry at such a level of commitment to the human common ground? In what other text does a critic of the eighteenth century—or any period—seem so evidently to be speaking out of the past directly to us, in language unburdened by jargon and expressive excess? Where else are literary criticism, biography, and a knowledge both of books and humankind so closely combined? It is not merely, then, the vast scale of the enterprise that makes editing the fifty-two "lives" of Johnson's Lives of the Poets so potentially demanding a task, a labor that cannot be reduced to routines of period specialization. Herculean and Johnsonian drudgery are doubtless involved, but the largest of issues in criticism, critical history, literature, and literary history are also at stake, and our present assumptions about the meaning of these terms are brought into play. Roger Lonsdale's four-volume, Clarendon Press edition of The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets: With Critical Observations on Their Works is extremely handsome, and makes its long-awaited debut pending the Yale edition of the Lives. The advent of the Lonsdale edition is by a wide range of criteria arguably the most important happening in the history of Johnson's literary and critical reception for a significant number of years, and its extended relevance, I would suggest, might be seen as a response to criticism's need to redeem its history for the present. The value to be placed upon Johnson's critical writings for readers of poetry depends in part upon the poets he is writing about, and in an ideal world where critical writing of the past and present can be brought before the same tribunal of judgment, the re-presentation of the Lives in this new edition ought have far-reaching ramifications for the traditions of criticism today.

Form and meaning, dress and substance, are often closely connected in editorial projects of this kind. Lonsdale's large-scale edition (of well over 2,000 pages) has on first inspection the effect of embedding Johnson more deeply within longstanding and familiar contexts of eighteenth-century literary and Johnsonian studies...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3192
Print ISSN
0098-2601
Pages
pp. 76-84
Launched on MUSE
2007-11-08
Open Access
No
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