Monday, April 16, 2018

`Nothing Else of the Sort'

“I have been reading Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and miscellaneous criticisms of late, and am tremendously impressed by the value of his criticism. He attends especially to the style of the writers criticized, criticizes them in minute detail, and with infallible judgment. There is nothing else of the sort quite as valuable in English. You had better read him.”

The writer is Yvor Winters in 1929, in a letter to one of his students, Henry Ramsey, a poet who went on to be a career diplomat. Lives is a book I frequently browse, at absent moments or between other books. It would be the only work of criticism or biography I would include among my Desert Island Books. Mine is the compact, two-volume Oxford University Press edition (1929), literally a pocket book. The first of the Lives I read was Dryden’s, in a freshman survey class, and the almost gossipy way Johnson mingles criticism, biographical detail and aphoristic observation still thrills me:  

“Perhaps no nation ever produced a writer that enriched his language with such variety of models. To him we owe the improvement, perhaps the completion of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we were taught 'sapere et fari,' to think naturally and express forcibly. Though Davies has reasoned in rhyme before him, it may be perhaps maintained that he was the first who joined argument with poetry. He shewed us the true bounds of a translator’s liberty.”

When I read Dryden, I read Johnson on Dryden, because that was my introduction to the great poet. The same is true of Pope“Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.”

Pope, among the greatest poets in the language, suffered from a form of tuberculosis that left his body stunted and malformed. According to his biographer Maynard Mack, Pope was no taller than four feet, six inches. Johnson’s account is vivid and compassionate: “By natural deformity, or accidental distortion, his vital functions were so much disordered, that his life was a long disease. His most frequent assailant was the headach [sic], which he used to relieve by inhaling the steam of coffee, which he very frequently required.”

[The Winters passage is taken from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000.]

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