Wednesday, March 14, 2018

`He Was Dull in a New Way'

One might make a rubber stamp with these words on the business end: “He was dull in a new way.” Keep it handy, by the chair or bed where one customarily reads, and make sure the ink pad remains in working condition. You would be performing a public service. Imagine innocently stumbling upon a poem by, say, Philip Levine or Elizabeth Alexander. Please, think of the children. Should they be misled into believing prose is poetry and political blather is thought? Reach for the stamp, and don’t confuse it with censorship. One would never think of tearing the page from the binding, but a tactful touch of the stamp would give our most vulnerable readers fair warning. Consider it a variation on the surgeon general’s warning on a pack of cigarettes.

The words, of course, are Dr. Johnson’s. The date is March 28, 1775. He and Boswell, as the latter recounts in the Life, are dining at Mr. Thrale’s. As usual, Boswell is baiting and Johnson is biting:

“He attacked [Thomas] Gray, calling him `a dull fellow.’ Boswell: `I understand he was reserved, and might appear dull in company; but surely he was not dull in poetry.’ Johnson: `Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.’”

If you need details, Johnson marshal’s plenty of evidence in his “Life of Gray.” I remain fond of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” though my fondness is sentimental. Even Johnson concedes the poem has its moments. In the final paragraph, Johnson explains why, and formulates one of his most memorable mots:

“In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning `Yet even these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.”

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