Sunday, September 06, 2015

`One of the Murmurers at Fortune'

“Of his life, little is known; and that little claims no praise but what can be given to intellectual excellence, seldom employed to any virtuous purpose.”

As an epitaph, one could do worse – as the recipient, I mean, not the composer. The latter, Samuel Johnson in his Lives of the English Poets, labors to be fair with Edmund Smith (1672-1710), who might have been erased from literary memory without Johnson's salvage job. In the chapter “Shakespeare and Johnson” in Latest Readings (Yale University Press, 2015), Clive James cites the blandly surnamed Smith as one of the “unrecognizable” poets Johnson reclaims. “Johnson had good things to say about Milton and Dryden,” James tells us, “but he also had good things to say about Smith.” It couldn’t have been easy. Here is a sample of Smith’s A Poem on the Death of Mr. John Philips”: 

“Once on thy Friends look down, lamented Shade,
And view the Honours to thy Ashes paid;
Some thy lov'd Dust in Parian Stones enshrine,
Others immortal Epitaphs design;
With Wit, and Strength, that only yields to thine:
Even I, though slow to touch the painful string,
Awake from slumber, and attempt to sing.”

In 1709, one year after Smith’s translation of Racine’s Phaedra (probably his most noteworthy accomplishment) was produced, his friend Philips (author of the splendidly  titled Splendid Shilling, a Milton burlesque) died of tuberculosis at age thirty-two. Smith wrote a heartfelt elegy which, for this reader, is almost unreadable. Johnson says of the poem: “. . . justice must place [it] among the best elegies which our language can shew, an elegant mixture of fondness and admiration, of dignity and softness. There are some passages too ludicrous; but every human performance has its faults.” 

James is correct in his characterization of Johnson as a critic. He works to find worth – “good things,” as he says -- in the almost worthless. One wonders if Johnson’s soft heart betrayed him, touched as he was by Smith’s devotion to his friend.   And yet it was Johnson in his “Life of Milton” who called another elegy, “Lycidas,”easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.” Consistency is not among the essential virtues of a critic. As suggested earlier, Johnson may disapprove of Smith the man even more than Smith the poet: “With all his carelessness and all his vices he was one of the murmurers at Fortune; and wondered why he was suffered to be poor when Addison was caressed and preferred; nor would a very little have contented him, for he estimated his wants at six hundred pounds a year.” This is gossip as criticism, and very amusing, though James redirects our attention: 

“But Smith had a certain renown for his poetic abilities, and Johnson did not disagree. Johnson said that Smith had all the talents, but achieved nothing with them . . . Johnson’s specific criticism, full of detail about technical points, abounds with general topics that lead you into questions about the creative life. Nor was `Dictionary Johnson’ ever quite the strict academician that you might have expected from his reputation for whipping the ignorant.”

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