Wednesday 28 March 2018

Johnson's 'Lives of the Poets' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On the 20th of March, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to get a dose of the good doctor himself.

Clutching copies of the ‘Selected Lives’ the conversation wheeled through topics as diverse as the mechanics of eighteenth century copyright, the footballer Gazza and the contents of Thomas Gray’s small clothes - and all of it relevant.

It seemed quite clear that poetry simply doesn’t hold the same place in modern discourse as it did in the eighteenth century. In the coffee houses, people used to read it aloud to each other, to debate poems and rate poets. Poetry was used to mark state occasions, to thank friends and to flirt. The appointment of the Laureate became a subject of much discussion and speculation. From a relatively young age, boys were made to translate Latin poetry, then Grecian into English. A poem could even scandalise and publicise, it could go viral. 

So it makes sense the London publishers, who had finally been challenged, beaten and forced to accept the idea that perpetual copyright was not a thing, wanted to hold onto their poems. In a move to oust cheaper, Scottish editions of poetry, a massive consortium of booksellers decided to  pool their resources and to get studious, authoritative lives of all the poets from Mr Preface himself, Samuel Johnson. 

He promptly took the commission and, enjoying himself so much, created some of the first(ish) literary biographies. His discussion on Metaphysical poets, or the structure of ‘Paradise Lost’ or the merits of Dryden vs Pope are still some of the starting places from which modern critics must go. What’s more, they can still surprise.

A member noted how pleasant it was to be with Johnson, how his flow of verbiage has a comforting streak - and there were many incidences of Johnson delivering zingers against his subjects. Milton is wonderfully put down by a line describing him, ‘trying to be funny’, Gray writes like a man ‘with a kind of strutting dignity, like a man walking on tiptoe’. Dyden’s words seem to ‘drop by chance’ whereas Swift ‘talks big when he says nothing’. 

Johnson’s criticism holds up too. His discussion on ‘Paradise Lost’ was so insightful and well explained that members regretted that their A-level teachers hadn’t given them a copy of Johnson’s analysis back in the day. Johnson was so engaging about the poem that two of the members were sent straight to ‘Paradise Lost’ (one person completed it. I sadly, did not).

However, the star of the night, the Life we kept looping back to was Johnson’s life of Richard Savage. I did a review of it on here six years ago, it being the first piece of Johnson I ever read, and I loved it so much it spurred me on to read much, much more. 

Written much earlier than the other lives, this is written by young, skeletal Johnson. The thirty year old who was told he would be better off as a market porter. The man forced to become a writer because there was nothing else he was trained to do. This was written by Johnson the political thinker, the rebel; a man who, despite being poorer than everyone around himself, knew himself to be cleverer -just like Savage.

Savage was a poet who befriended the young Johnson when they both wrote copy for Cave’s’ Gentleman’s Magazine’. Savage claimed to be the illegitimate child of Earl Rivers and the then Lady Macclesfield, who rejects and persecutes him. Johnson uses this to base the whole reading of Savage’s life, telling it as one full of brushes with greatness, almost success but ultimately success frustrated at the last moment. 

He seems a strange kind of person for Johnson to write about, even stranger that they were friends. Savage was a dissolute, sponging man filled with pride, who was better at writing about virtue than living it but there was something about Savage’s ability to carry on cheerfully and regardless that seems to hugely impress the neurotic Johnson.

The intimate nature of it, the small personal details and the way he builds an astonishingly clear picture of an utterly irritating yet charming man make it soar over the others. Johnson may have opinions on Milton and Swift and Pope (and my goodness, he does) but it doesn’t have the immediacy of the Savage piece. I’ve had people like Savage kip on my sofa, people with talents who are entertaining but who also feel they deserve to be supported by everyone else because of those talents. Not only do I feel I know Savage, but I share as mixed a relationship with him as Johnson did, all because of that lovely writing.

Overall, this may be my least favourite Johnson performance. I find the subject of poets and their lives too narrow and although Johnson can (and does) create some wonderful quotes and moments from the subject, it doesn’t let him really stretch his legs and go romping.

Next Dr Johnson Reading Circle we will be reading Richard Holmes’ ‘Age of Wonder’ but followers of the Grub Street Lodger will get a sneaky peek at Holmes and a little more of Savage when I look at his 1993 book, ‘Dr Johnson & Mr Savage’.

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