|Lesson from History
copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
1 April 2006
Some works seems central to our notion of English
literature and yet are seldom read. They are nearly all prose
and nearly all non-fiction. For Hazlitt and de Quincey we rely
on a selection of famous essays. Pepys is lucky: the Latham
edition of the diaries is relatively inexpensive and easily
Samuel Johnson's celebrated Lives of the Poets,
in its original form as first published in 1779 to 1781, requires
a bookcase of its own, because the lives were conceived by the
book trade as prefaces to the works of the poets. I have an
incomplete set dated 1790, running to 75 volumes. I've owned
it since I was a child and like it very much, but it is only
useful to consult the texts of obscure 18th-century poets.
The Lives themselves (there are 52) have only
once been seriously edited, in a three-volume edition of a century
ago. Now Roger Lonsdale, an authority on the period, has published
a tremendous four-volume scholarly text, with very full notes
and an introduction which is a book in itself (Oxford University
Press). Here are some observations prompted by that introduction.
"The penury of English biography,"
a phrase found on the first page of Johnson's first life, of
Cowley, refers to literary biography: there was little of it
that Johnson admired, apart from Isaac Walton's Lives, which
he loved, and Colly Cibber's autobiography, which amused him.
But there was a vigorous biographical tradition he did not have
to consider, dealing with famous and notorious characters. When
people talk as if Boswell and Johnson invented biography, they
often mean literary biography. They forget what Defoe stood
In Johnson's day it was a fresh thought, and
Johnson argues it freshly, that the life of a writer might in
itself be interesting. But such a life could only be successfully
written by someone who had known his subject well (the classical
formulation is: someone who had known him as Pylades knew Orestes
- as the hero's constant companion). "Nobody can write
the life of a man," said Johnson, "but those who have
eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him."
Johnson's famous life of Savage, written long
before the other poets' lives, is the only one that exemplifies
this theory of biography, because it derived from that sort
of daily acquaintance. Johnson makes matters difficult for himself
(in attaining intimate knowledge of a subject) by mocking the
view that in a man's letters "his soul lies naked, his
letters are the only mirrour of his breast, whatever passes
within him is shown undisguised in its natural process."
The quotation comes from a beautiful and profound letter to
Hester Thrale, dated 27 October 1777.
One should be sceptical about the self-presentation
writers of letters indulge in. One should be sceptical in general:
"Distrust is a necessary Qualification of a Student of
History." One should expect in coming close to an author
to make dismaying discoveries, since the better part of a writer
is in his books. Johnson describes the disillusionment a biographer
can expect: "A transition from an author's books to his
conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city,
after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires
of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine in it the residence
of splendour, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have
passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages,
disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions,
and clouded with smoke."
The first readers of Johnson's Lives found
it a pity that the poets were such an obscure bunch. It was
the publishers (and copyright) who determined who were included
- my respect for them increased the more Lonsdale explained
how the project was handled. This was a commercial publishing
project, but not cynically executed. Johnson had assistance,
and depended on certain reference books, to a greater extent
than understood in the past. Knowing this does not diminish
our respect. As Johnson said, "If nothing but the bright
side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency,
and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing."