191. (Samuel Johnson)

Samuel Johnson has never held me in magnetic thrall as he does so many of the critics I admire. He seems so thoroughly of another world of poetry and taste. What to do with those critical judgments that seem to rest on an entirely foreign notion of what poetry should do and be? If I could make sense of one of these, reading Johnson generously here, then maybe the rest would fall into place.

Here then is Johnson in “The Life of Dryden,” of the most energetic of the Lives of the Poets:

It is a general rule in poetry that all appropriated terms of art should be sunk in general expressions, because poetry is to speak an universal language. This rule is still stronger with regard to arts not liberal or confined to few, and therefore far removed from common knowledge; and of this kind certainly is technical navigation. Yet Dryden was of opinion that a sea-fight ought to be described in the nautical language; ‘and certainly,’ says he, ‘as those who in a logical disputation [dispute] keep to [in] general terms would hide a fallacy, so those who do it in any poetical description would veil their ignorance.’

Let us then appeal to experience; for by experience at last we learn as well what will please as what will profit. In the battle his terms seem to have been blown away; but he deals them liberally in the dock:

‘So here some pick out bullets from the side,
Some drive old okum thro’ each seam and rift:
Their left-hand does the calking-iron guide,
The rattling mallet with the right they lift.

‘With boiling pitch another near at hand
(From friendly Sweden brought) the seams instops:
Which, well laid [paid] o’er, the salt-sea waves withstand,
And shake them from the rising beak in drops.

‘Some the gall’d ropes with dawby marling bind,
Or sear-cloth masts with strong tarpawling coats:
To try new shrouds one mounts into the wind,
And one below, their ease or stiffness notes.’

I suppose here is not one term which every reader does not wish away.

His digression to the original and progress of navigation, with his prospect of the advancement which it shall receive from the Royal Society, then newly instituted, may be considered as an example seldom equalled of seasonable excursion and artful return.

One line, however, leaves me discontented; he says, that by the help of the philosophers, 

‘Instructed ships shall sail to quick commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied.’

Which he is constrained to explain in a note, ‘By a more exact measure of longitude.’ It had better become Dryden’s learning and genius to have laboured science into poetry, and have shewn, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.

For readers of twentieth and twenty-first century poets, Johnson’s pronouncement against Dryden’s use of “terms of art” is near incomprehensible. We, after all, cherish the particular, the idiosyncratic, the variegated, the minute, the heterogenous, the heteroglossic in our poetry. Ours is an era that recognizes poetic force in the opening of “On a Raised Beach” by Hugh MacDiarmid:

All is lithogenesis—or lochia,

Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,

Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,

Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,  

Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,  

Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,  

Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,  

I study you glout and gloss, but have

No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again  

From optik to haptik and like a blind man run  

My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,  

Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles,

Bringing my aesthesis in vain to bear,

An angle-titch to all your corrugations and coigns,  

Hatched foraminous cavo-rilievo of the world,  

Deictic, fiducial stones. Chiliad by chiliad  

What bricole piled you here, stupendous cairn?  


We might think, with good reason, that fashions change. But Johnson does not only indicate preference; he provides a “general rule” for all poetry. And put simply a corollary of that general rule is that there are classes of language that are the right stuff for a great deal of poetry. Elsewhere, famously, Johnson censures Shakespeare for giving Macbeth the word “knife” at a moment of heightened drama; his disdain for the lowly associations of the word sullies a moment of high poetic intensity. That instance, we can perhaps dismiss as snobbery, or as Johnson’s unwillingness to accept that Shakespeare may have wanted for Macbeth’s words to lurch all of a sudden.

More productive, I think, would be to see in Johnson’s criticism an underlying view about what poetry does to language. Without needing to define poetry or to define the proper response to poetry (and Johnson’s deference to the “common reader” and public opinion grants that the responses might be unexpected, clashing with an individual mind and sensibility), he can nonetheless posit that poetry is poetry because of what happens to language in a poem. The point is I think everywhere implicit in Johnson’s criticism, and he probably would have scoffed at any metaphysical account of the phenomenon, but language that “enlarges the comprehension and enlivens the fancy,” as language in poetry does, must undergo some sort of change. Coleridge, whose mind was drawn to metaphysics, is not much clearer on the point and strongly resembles Johnson in the passages of the Biographia where he takes Wordsworth’s “accidental” language to task: such language, says Coleridge, resists the necessary idealizing force of poetry. For Johnson, such an “idealizing” for is “generalizing.”

It would be wrong, I think, to simply see this as another instance of the inevitable tension between the particular and the universal; it is more accurate to see it as an instance of Johnson’s and Coleridge’s coming together in an acknowledgement that, when it comes to our words, “the chains rattle,” whether we would have them rattle or not; we are constrained by words and cannot ignore those constraints, be they matters of convention, connotation, erudition, or politics.

If we hold that something does happen, or does seem to happen, to words in great poems—be it a charge of semantics, a precision of orientation, an opening out to ambiguities, a recalibration of primary and secondary senses, an ironic emphasis of meaning, a transfiguration into symbol, or whatever else—then it seems worth asking whether it is in the nature of all words to undergo such a change. And though in principle, especially after the poetic monuments of the twentieth century, and after the prose monuments that seem as freighted with intelligence and power as poetry, it seems natural to say that any word can be acted upon, closer reflection of individual instances will lead us nearer to Johnson. I would take Wallace Stevens’ poetry to be exemplary for scrupulously excluding what cannot be charged; Ezra Pound, on the other hand, makes a point of asking us to encounter things that are not charged, that remain intractable to the word-work of a poem. That is not a failure on Pound’s part, but the success depends on our noticing that intractability, the difference of some lines and sections from others, and then asking what he gains by including it.

If Johnson’s judgment and the judgment of moderns is not a difference of whether there are limits to what a poem can work on, is it a difference of what work a poem should do, or what work a poem should do most of the time? Here, too, I think it is easy to think of our sense of poetry as catholic and expansive and to forget the great satirical verse of Swift or Pope, whose force depends in part in the intractability of (often scatological) words and phrases.

I am not so sure Johnson is as distant in his judgment of Dryden’s lines, or even Shakespeare’s “knife” than he initially seemed. In either case, whether we agree with him in assessing the relation of the word to the whole of the work, the assessment of the words themselves, the sense of the weight that they carry, the resistance to poetry they entail, is incontrovertible.

“To poetry” invites a wince: Johnson says repeatedly in the Lives that he will not judge poems except by literary standards. Literature, though, the best critics from Coleridge to Empson remind us again and again, depends on and responds to the uses and turns of language that take place in every part of life that is not literature. Moreover, the same critics, and many more, remind us that the beliefs and cares and awareness of the world that animate the language in a work of literature are beliefs and cares and awareness of the world that are ethical and philosophical beyond literature alone; we cannot assess the former without any reference to that broader horizon. Could Johnson be denying all of this? He could be. But he is not. When Johnson says that he intends to discuss and judge works as literature he means that he wants to discuss how well they take language and do to it whatever it is that poetry does to language: “redeem,” “charge,” “enliven,” “transfigure.” To describe any single event, we require a metaphor that might be unsuitable for any other, but the family of metaphors suggests a common investment of force, securing a word’s lodging in the arbitrary, artificial, and artful conventions of a poem. For Johnson to discuss and judge authors and works narrowly, on literary grounds, he is discussing their sensitivity to the recalcitrance of language and their means and success in responding to it, and overcoming it, or having good reason for not doing so. The crux, then, in the passage on Dryden comes not at the start but at the end, where Johnson explains why a technical footnote attached to the poem disappointed him, despite his earlier complaint against the excess of technical terms: It “had better become Dryden’s learning and genius to have laboured science into poetry, and have shewn, by explaining longitude, that verse did not refuse the ideas of philosophy.” It is within the power of poetry, he says, to move even the ideas and language of science and philosophy, if need be.



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