His fall was destined to a barren strand,
A pretty fortress, and a dubious hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral, or adorn a tale.
– The Vanity of Human Wishes
It is dangerous to generalize about the poetry of the eighteenth century as about that of any other age; for it was like any other age, an age of transition. We are accustomed to making a rough tripartite division between the poetry of the age of Pope, the poetry of sentimental philosophizing and the early Romantic Movement. What really happened is that after Pope there was no one who thought and felt nearly enough like Pope to be able to use his language quite successfully; but a good many second rate writers tried to write something like it, unaware of the fact that the change of sensibility demanded a change of idiom. Sensibility alters from generation to generation in everybody, whether we will or no; but the expression is only altered by a man of genius. A great many second rate poets, in fact, are the second rate just for this reason, but they have not the sensitiveness and consciousness to perceive that they feel differently from the preceding generation, and therefore must use words differently. In the eighteenth century, there are a good many second rate poets: and mostly they are the second rate because they were incompetent to find a style of writing for themselves, suited to the matter they wanted to talk about and the way in which they apprehended this matter.
In such a period the poets are still worth reading may be of two kinds: those who, however imperfectly, attempted innovations in idiom, and those who were just conservative enough in sensibility to be able to devise an interesting variation on the old idiom. The originality of Gray and Collins consists in their adaptation of an Augustan style to an eighteenth-century sensibility. The originality of Goldsmith consists in his having the old and new in such just proportion that there is no conflict; he is Augustan and also sentimental and rural without discordance. Of all the eighteenth-century poets, Johnson is the nearest to a die-hard. And all of the eighteenth century, Goldsmith and Johnson deserve fame because they used the form of Pope beautifully, without ever being imitators. And from the point of view of the artisan of verse, their kind of originality is remarkable as any other: indeed, to be original with the minimum of alteration is sometimes more distinguished than to be original with the maximum of alteration.
Certain qualities are to be expected of any type of good verse at any time; we may say the qualities which good verse shares with good prose. Hardly any good poet in English has written bad prose, and some English poets have been among the greatest of English prose writers. The finest prose writer of Shakespeare’s time was, I think, Shakespeare himself; Milton and Dryden were among the greatest prose writers of their times. Wordsworth and Coleridge may be cited, and Keats and Shelly-not I think in his correspondence, but certainly in his Defence of Poetry. This is not a sign of versatility but of unity. For there are qualities essential to good prose which are essential to good verse as well; and we may say positively with Mr Ezra Pound, that verse must be at least as well written as prose. We may even say that the originality of some poets has consisted in their finding a way of saying in verse what no one else has been able to say except in prose written or spoken. Such is the originality of Donne, who, though employing an elaborate metric and an uncommon vocabulary, yet manages to maintain a tone of direct informal address. The talent of Dryden is exactly the same: the difference is only that the speech which he uses is that of a moral formal age. Donne makes poetry out of a learned but colloquial dialogue speech, Dryden out of the prose of political oratory: and Pope out of the most polished drawing-room manner. And of Goldsmith and Johnson we can say the same; their verse is poetry partly because it has the virtues of good prose.
Those who condemn or ignore en bloc the poetry of the eighteenth century on the ground that it is ‘prosaic’ are stumbling over the uncertainty of the meaning of the word ‘prosaic’ to arrive at exactly the wrong conclusion. One does not examine a great deal of the inferior verse of the eighteenth century to realize that the trouble with it is not prosaic enough. We are inclined to use ‘prosaic’ as meaning not only ‘like prose’, but as ‘lacking poetic beauty’ and the Oxford and every other dictionary give us warrant for such use. Only, we ought to distinguish between poetry which is like good prose, and which is like bad prose. And to have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry.
If you look at the bad verse of any age, you will find most of it lacking in the virtue of prose. When there is a period of good verse, it has often been priced by a period in which verse was bad because it was too poetic, too artificial; and it is very commonly followed by such another period. The development of blank verse in the hands of Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries was the work of adapting a medium which, to begin with, was almost intractably poetic so that it could carry the burdens and exhibit the subtleties of prose; and they accomplished this before prose was highly developed. The work Donne, in a lesser form, was the same. It has prose virtues, and the heavy toil of his minor imitators was wholly to degrade the idiom of Donne into a lifeless verse convention. Speech meanwhile was changing, and Dryden appeared to cleanse the language of verse and once more bring it back to the prose order. For this reasom=n he is a great poet.
The idiom of Augustan age could not last, for the age itself could not last. But so positive was the culture of that age, that for many years the ablest writers were still naturally in sympathy with it; and it crushed a number of smaller men who felt differently but did not dare to face the fact, and who poured their new wine-always thin but sometimes of good flavour-into the old bottles. Yet the influence of Dryden and Pope over the middle of the eighteenth century is by no means so great, or so noxious as has been supposed. A good part of the dreariest verse of the time is written under the shadow of Milton
Far in the watery waste, where his broad wave
From world to world the vast Atlantic rolls,
On from the piny shores of Labrador
To froze Thule east, her airy height
Aloft to heaven remotest to Kilda lifts
(Mallet: Amyntor and Theodora)
Thus far of beauty and the pleasing forms
Which man’s untortured fancy, from the scenes
Imperfect of this ever-changing world
Creates, and views, enamoured.
(Akenside: Pleasures of the imagination)
But besides this Miltonic stuff, which is respectable only because Cowper, Thomson, and Young made this line the vehicle for reflection and for observation of nature which prepared the way for Wordsworth; and besides the innumerable Odes, of which none but Gray’s and Collins’s are remembered, there was a considerable output of five-foot couplets of which one can only say that this form of verse is hardly more unsuitable for what the man had to say than any other would have been. Of such is the Botanic Garden and its competitors.
Who that beholds the summer’s glistening swarms,
Ten thousand thousand gaily glided forms,
In the violet dance of mixed rotation play,
Bask in the beam, and beautify the day…
(Brooke: Universal Beauty)
This is decadence. The eighteenth century in English verse is not, after Pope, Swift, Prior, and Gray, an age of courtly verse. It seems more like an age of retired country clergymen and schoolmasters. It is cursed with a Pastoral convention- Collins’ Eclogues are bad enough, and those of Shenstone consummately dull- and a ruminative mind. And it is intolerably poetic. Instead of working out the proper form for its matter, when it has any and informing verse with prose virtues, it merely applies the magniloquence of Milton or the neatness of Pope to the matter which is wholly unprepared for it; so that what the writers have to say always appears surprised at the way in which they choose to say it.
In this rural, pastoral, meditative age Johnson is the most alien figure. Goldsmith is more a poet of his time, with his melting sentiment just saved by the precision of his language. But Johnson remains a townsman, if certainly not a courtier; a student of mankind not of natural history; a great prose writer; with no tolerance of swains and milkmaids. He has more in common in spirit with Crabbe than with any of his contemporaries; at the same time, he is the last Augustan. He is in no way an imitator of Dryden or Pope; very close to them in idiom, he gives his verse a wholly personal stamp.
The two satires, which follow are Johnson’s only exercises in this genre. London appeared in 1738; The Vanity of Human wishes in 1749. To my mind the latter is the finer poem; but both of them seem to me to among the greatest verse satires of English or any other language, and so far as comparison is justifiable, I do not think that Juvenal, his model is any better. They are purer satire than anything of Dryden or Pope, nearer in spirit to the Latin. For the satirist, in theory, a stern moralist castigating the vices of his time or place; and Johnson has a better claim to this seriousness than either Pope or Dryden. In the hands of Dryden, the satire becomes almost the lampoon; and Dryden had a special gift for farce. Pope also is more personal than the true satirist. In one way, Johnson goes back to an earlier tradition; however inferior as satires Marston’s or even Halls’s maybe to Johnson’s, they are surely much nearer to the spirit and intention of Juvenal than are those of Dryden and Pope. Dryden, is in the modern sense, humorous and witty; Pope in the modern sense witty though not humourous; Johnson neither humorous nor witty in this sense, has yet ‘the proper wit of poetry’ as the seventeenth century and the Augustan age had it also. I can better expose this by a few quotations than by a definition.
There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want the patron, and the jail.
Condemned a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose, and slaves debate.
Fate never wounds deeper the generous heart,
Then when a blockhead’s insult points the dart.
Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast.
Provokes, a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
The precision of such verse gives, I think, immense satisfaction to the reader: he has said what he wanted to say, with that urbanity which contemporary verse would do well to study; and the satisfaction I get from such lines is what I call the minimal quality of poetry. There is much greater poetry than Johnson’s; but after all, how little, how very little, good poetry there is anyway. And the kind of satisfaction these lines give me is something that I must have, at least, from any poetry in order to like it. It is the certainty, the ease with which he hits the bull’s eye every time, that makes Johnson a poet. The blundering assaults of his contemporary- Churchill- a man of by no means poor abilities-do does not make poetry; Churchill gives us an occasional right line, but never a right poem. And the verse of Johnson has the good qualities of his own best prose, and of the best prose his time. Bolingbroke, for instance, at his best, has some of the same merits.
Those who demand of poetry, a daydream, or metamorphosis of their one feeble desires and lusts, or what they believe to be ‘intensity’ of passion, will not find much in Johnson. He is like Pope and Dryden, Crabbe and Landor, a poet for those who want poetry and nothing else, some stay for their own vanity. I sometimes think that our own time, with its elaborate equipment of science and psychological analysis, is even less fitted than the Victorian age to appreciate poetry as poetry. But if lines 189-220 of The Vanity of Human Wishes are not poetry, I do not know what is.
*This essay first appeared, under the title ‘Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes’ as the introduction to the Haselwood Books edition, 1930. It is reprinted in English Critical Essays, Twentieth Century, selected by Phyllis M. Jones.