Monday, October 11, 2010

"That Bodleian Mind!"

Samuel Johnson published his last great work, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, between 1779 and 1781. William Cowper writes to his friend the Rev. William Unwin on March 21, 1784, nine months before Johnson’s death:

“I am very much the biographer's humble admirer. His uncommon share of good sense, and his forcible expression, secure to him that tribute from all his readers. He has a penetrating insight into character, and a happy talent of correcting the popular opinion, upon all occasions where it is erroneous; and this he does with the boldness of a man who will think for himself, but, at the same time, with a justness of sentiment that convinces us he does not differ from others through affectation, but because he has a sounder judgement.”

No matter how eccentric Johnson’s judgments sometimes seem -- on Tristram Shandy: “Nothing odd will do long” – we defer to his “sounder judgement.” We extend him the courtesy of consideration, for even when wrong, Johnson is usefully wrong. Later in the same letter Cowper says, “I do not think him always just,” citing his assessments of Milton and Prior. Such lapses in Johnson, the poet reminds us, are not “through affectation.” Too many critics are poseurs, pandering and posturing to please their constituencies. As Cowper notes, Johnson possesses “the boldness of a man who will think for himself.” He writes of consequential matters, not parochial dustups, and his judgments are suffused with human understanding. In his chapter on the Lives in Samuel Johnson (1977), W. Jackson Bate writes:

“What we are dealing with is the rare ability, which was to become more rare with another generation, to look on literature as one example—one of several—of what mankind can do, and to prize and evaluate it accordingly. The sense of its value is further heightened by Johnson’s inability to forget how precarious this, like all other human achievement, really is: how quickly it can be lost, how difficult it can be to retain.”

A great critic is a moralist in disguise. Bate goes on to commend Johnson for sustaining “the dignity of literature in a way that self-defeating attempts to isolate it--to fence it off as a special preserve—can never succeed in doing." Johnson is the opposite of parochial. I happened upon “Samuel Johnson” by Wiley Clements, originally published in time for Johnson's tercentenary:

“The minds of some men are familiar lands
With mountains, rivers, moors, long winding roads,
Meadows, forest tracks and desert sands,
Vipers and hornets, scorpions and toads.
His mind was like a thundering sky at times,
A tempest, tidal wave, a storm at sea;
Again it was a campanile of chimes,
A quiet lake, a zephyr on the lea,
A picture gallery, a treasury
Of antique volumes curiously clept,
The archive of a scholar's memory
In which the whole of English speech was kept.
In company, if wit and sense declined,
What vast supply in that Bodleian mind!”

I love “that Bodleian mind!”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

A great Johnsonian building up of forces – the critic expands from common sense to sound judgment to independence to broad-mindedness to moral elevation and finally to the nature that's unleashed from within great written works.

Every age has its critic to remind the glassy-eyed vapor eaters that “la vie est courte, l'art est long” – one who is so fatigued from having read everything there is to read that turning the next leaf of the latest precious journal is an effort worthy of Sisyphus, but who, like Sisyphus, perseveres, because it may be the promised sublime that's on that page. I'd hate to think today’s version of “le porte-parole exemplaire” would be that heartless ninja chick at the New York Times, but we live in that different age foreseen by Johnson. Literature, as you suggest, has been safely penned off into a reservation – a situation in which any self-respecting litterateur would want to escape, to a world grown colder, where all the old hostilities are gone along with any sense of noble caring for an adversary – where one is a vagabond without portfolio. So you write a literary blog? How nice – my daughter has one on spiders. What room is there here for judgment, which speaks from one's discernment for others, when the court itself is a beautiful ruin where tours are mixed with aa meetings and Tuesday night soup kitchens? The moral challenge Johnson poses for us is to embrace this new world with the same gusto and high-mindedness as we do the one embossed in gold in air-sealed vaults. As for how we actually do this, well, for that we're on our own, as usual.