Thursday, March 27, 2014

`A Stern and Gloomy One Certainly'

Rare is the reader or critic who can savage a writer, carefully cataloging his failures, while coolly valuing his accomplishments. One such is Yvor Winters. He lauds “Church Monuments” as among the great poems in the language while dismissing much of the rest of George Herbert’s work as “cloying and almost infantile pietism.” For many of us, admiration is likelier to devolve into uncritical fandom, and criticism into whole-hog banishment. A critic who resembles Winters, at least in her laser-guided specificity, is the forgotten poet Anna Seward (1747-1809), known as the “Swan of Lichfield,” who writes of Dr. Johnson two weeks after his death:   

“It is right that mankind should form a just, rather than a partial and dazzled estimate of exalted genius. Such exclusive and hyperbolic praise is now poured on the public ear, concerning an illustrious, but a very mixed character, as seems likely to produce ideas of a judgment which could not err, and of a virtue which could not flatter.” 

In the same memorial, Seward says “the faults of his disposition have disgraced much of his fine writings,” but describes “The Vanity of Human Wishes” as “a much finer satire than the best of Pope’s.” I don’t make a case for Seward as a major critic. Rather, I admire her acuity and nimbleness of thought, and hope to learn something from it. Of all Johnson’s works, Seward most valued his poetry. In a 1787 letter to William Hayley (Letters of Anna Seward: Written Between the Years 1784-1807, 1811) she praises Johnson’s “nervous and harmonious versification…a quick and vigorous imagination, elevated sentiments, striking imagery and splendid language,” and adds: 

“Of the author who possessed those great essentials, it is surely not too much to say that he might, had he chose it, have been perpetually a poet—a stern and gloomy one certainly; but yet a poet, a sublime poet, however the want of tender sensibilities might have closed all the pathetic avenues against his muse.” 

And yet Seward detested Johnson’s masterpiece, Lives of the Poets (1779-81), sounding remarkably like recent advocates of kinder, gentler book reviewing. In a 1789 letter to the Rev. Thomas Whalley, a minor poet, she accuses Johnson of “malice” in writing his “Life of Milton,” refers to his “contempt for the sweet, the matchless Lycidas,” and claims he is “perpetually stimulated by rival-hating envy.” In another seeming reversal, in a 1795 letter to William Seward (no relation) she praises Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), saying he “elevated the style of prose composition much above the water-gruel mark. His splendid example demonstrates, that efflorescence and strength of language united, are necessary to form the perfection of writing in prose as well as in verse.” 

In 1796, Seward wrote a letter to the Dewar Club, a literary society once frequented by Johnson. She denied being the author of an epitaph about Johnson published in several newspapers, but goes on to bitchily eviscerate him: 

“I have had frequent opportunities of conversing with that wonderful man. Seldom did I listen to him without admiring the great powers of his mind, and feeling concern and pain at the malignance of his disposition. He would sometimes be just to the virtues and literary fame of others, if they had not been praised in the conversation before his opinion was asked:--If they had been previously praised, never.”

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