“It is a matter of indifference to me whether I think with the world at large or not, but I wish my friends to be of my mind.”
In William Cowper’s case, that mind was rigged with boobytraps. He was periodically quite mad and confined to mad houses, places more like prisons than hospitals in eighteenth-century England. Writing to his friend the Rev. William Unwin on this date, January 17, in 1782, Cowper is complaining about Dr. Johnson’s treatment of Matthew Prior in his Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). “I am glad we agree in our opinion of king critic,” writes Cowper, “and the writers on whom he has bestowed his animadversions” – that is, Johnson’s sometimes harshly disapproving criticisms.
I’m not here to dispute Cowper’s dismissal of Johnson or Johnson’s dismissal of Prior, a minor poet whose work I don’t know well. What pleases me is that good readers and critics can be wrong (Johnson was often interestingly wrong), disagreement can be a form of celebration and no one is compelled to agree with anyone. Literature is a vast conversation of overlapping voices, some worthy of attention and others we’re compelled to ignore. What I love is the autonomy of sensibility, the freedom to read as we wish and come to our own conclusions. Prior is not a gentleman in Johnson’s view but he has no wish to cancel him from consideration:
“I have been assured that Prior, after having spent the evening with Oxford, Bolingbroke, Pope, and Swift, would go and smoke a pipe, and drink a bottle of ale, with a common soldier and his wife, in Long-acre, before he went to bed; not from any remains of the lowness of his original, as one said, but, I suppose, that his faculties,
“‘Strain’d to the height,
In that celestial colloquy sublime,
Dazzled and spent, sunk down, and sought repair.’”
A nice touch by Johnson: he quotes Milton, another poet about whom he was famously contrary, in muted defense of Prior. Literature is not about consensus. Readers must do the hard work of making up their own minds. A herd is a good thing if you’re a buffalo, though it’s prudent to remember what happened to them. Like our cave-dwelling forebears, too many readers and critics huddle in the dark with only their collective fear to keep them warm. And how do they cope with fear? With self-centeredness and its fraternal twin, anger. Too many claim a mere opinion as their own only because it comes pre-approved.
Johnson sometimes reminds me of Nicolás Gómez Dávila, the Colombian aphorist known as Don Colacho: “The individual seeks out the heat of the crowd, in this century, to protect himself against the cold emanating from the corpse of the world.”