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sect with the most severe precision the unmeaning nonsense and cold extravagances of the writers whom he has so oddly styled the “metaphysical poets,” though he could ill appreciate their occasional flashes of genuine inspiration ; and no critic has written more sensibly upon the character of Pope and Dryden. But Milton, and Gray, and Collins were out of his jurisdiction. They made an appeal to his taste and imagination that he could not answer. He had no eye for their richly colored visions, and no ear for their divinest music. He was proof against the " chanting ravishment” that “would take the prisoned soul" of a more sensitive critic and "lap it in Elysium.” Speaking entirely from his own feelings, he closes his review of Paradise Lost with the gothic assertion that its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure.
Of the Lycidas, which is so full of rich and varied melodies, he was of opinion that the diction was harsh and the numbers unpleasing. He once told Anna Seward that
he would hang a dog that read that
twice.” “ What then,” said Anna, "must become of me, who can say it by heart, and who often repeat it to myself with a delight which grows by what it feeds on?" “ Die,” said Boswell's Bear, in a surfeit of bad taste*.” This is surely, not only what the lady calls it, “ awful impoliteness," but a melancholy proof of Johnson's utter insensibility to some of the most exquisite charms of verse. He who could praise so highly the regular notes of Pope, had no ear for the varied movements of the majestic Milton. Of Milton's Sonnets (some of which are of such incomparable force and beauty) te has observed that “ of the best it can only be said that they are not bad.” Beattie tells us Dr. Johnson confessed to him that he never read Milton through till he was obliged to do it, in order to gather words for his Dictionary; and that he spoke “ very peevishly" of the “ Masque of Comus,” in which are
* Dr. Joseph Warton has remarked, that "he who wishes to know, whether he has a true taste for poetry or not, should consider, whether he is highly delighted or not with the perusal of Milton's Lycidas.'
Strains that might create a soul
Of Collins, Johnson's unfavorable judgment is well known. With all his partiality and tenderness for the man, he had no feel. ing for the poet. He thought his poetry was not without some degree of merit, but confessed that he found it unattractive. “ As men,” said he, are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure ;"—and this is said of the finest ode-writer in the language--one of the most poetical of poets. The author of the Ode to Evening, a poem that floats into the reader's mind like a stream of celestial music, is pronounced harsh and prosaic in his diction. The high tone of Gray's lyric muse, and his exquisite versification, were lost upon the patron of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret and Yalden*. When some one spoke to him of Chatterton, he exclaimed indignantly, “Talk not to me of the powers of a vulgar uneducated stripling.” What would he have said of Burns ?
Dr. Johnson was one of the best of the commentators upon Shakespeare, and yet this is saying little in his favour ; “ Bad is the best ;” Pope was one of the worst, which is saying not a little against him. He pronounced Shakespeare's style the style of a bad age, and observed, in reference to Sackville's Gordobuc, that the writers of a succeeding age might have improved by copying from this drama a propriety in the sentiments and a dignity in the style which are essential to tragedy. Shakespeare ought to have studied Sackville as his model !! Johnson's remarks and explanations, are generally sensible and clear, and his preface to
* The Poets in Dr. Johnson's collection were all selected by the book. sellers, with the exception of Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret and Yalden, who obtained admittance on the especial recommendation of the Doctor, as he himself tells us in his Life of Dr. Watts. Spenser and Shakespeare were excluded!
Shakespeare's plays is a noble piece of writing ; but he never seems to enter thoroughly into the soul of that mighty poet. He could explain an obscure passage more readily than he could feel a fine
He who thought a dirty street in London was a more agreeable prospect than the most romantic landscape in the world, and who was so insensible to the charms of music, as to wonder how any man of common sense could be so weak and foolish as to own its influence over his feelings, and could never for a moment give up the reins of his imagination into his author's hands and be "pleased he knew not why and cared not wherefore,” was not likely to comment upon Shakespeare in a worthy spirit. A critic who would rightly estimate the miraculous productions of that glorious bard, should have an eye for all the loveliness of nature, and an ear for all melodious sounds. Not only his corporeal organs but all his intellectual faculties should be peculiarly sensitive and alert, or he can never clearly recognize the exquisitely perfect correspondence between the page of Shakespeare and “ all the mighty world of eye and ear.” Pope, also, was rather too much of a town wit and fashionable satirist to enjoy and appreciate the great poet of universal nature,
“ Who was not for an age, but for all time."
His edition of the Prince of dramatic poets has fallen into deserved oblivion. He did not even understand or admire the more artificial, but yet manly and vigorous Ben Jonson. Spence tells us that Pope thought the greater part of that Dramatist's productions, poor “ trash.”
But “ Rare Ben” himself, though a good poet, was a bad critic. He said of Spenser, that “ his stanzas pleased him not, nor his manner,” and that “ for some things he esteemed Donne the first poet in the world.” Shakespeare, he thought, " wanted art, and sometimes sense”—and why? because he made a blunder in Geography!! In the Winter's Tale he made Bohemia a maritime
country ;-little dreaming that an error of locality would deduct from the miraculous truth of his delineations of the human heart.
The melodious Waller saw nothing in Milton but an old blind school-master, who had written a dull poem, remarkable for nothing, but its length; and Milton himself preferred the glittering conceits of Cowley to the manly energy and truth of Dryden, whom he pronounced a good rhymist, but no poet. But Dryden, also, with all his real merit as a poet, was a critic whose decisions are never to be relied on ; partly because he was prejudiced, partly because he was, comparatively speaking, deficient in imagination and sensibility, and partly because he was a most unblushing adulator. He thought “the matchless Orinda,” Catherine Philips, was a great poetess. In this opinion, however, he does not stand alone. Cowley (who deemed Chaucer an old-fashioned wit not worth reviving) wrote an ode to her memory, in which the follow. ing lines occur :
“ But if Apollo should design
The certain proofs of Orinda's wit
And Thomas Rowe thus speaks of her, in an Daphne."
“ ORINDA came To ages yet to come an ever glorious name!" Dryden asked the permission of Milton to turn his Paradise Lost into rhyme!
Aye, young man," said the venerable old bard, " you may tag rhymes to my verses.” On the subject of Milton's blank verse Dryden speaks out very plainly in his dedi.
cation to Juvenal, Neither will I justify Milton for his blank verse, though I may excuse him by the example of Hannibal Caro, and other Italians, who have used it, for whatever the causes he alledges for the abolishing of rhyme, (which I have not now the leisure to examine) his own particular reason is plainly this, that rhyme was not his talent ; he had neither the ease of doing it, nor the graces of it.” In this same dedication he tells Lord Halifax, one of the smallest of the minor poets, that he is “ the restorer of poetry, the greatest genius, and the greatest judge.” Well might Pope exclaim,
“ Let but a Lord once own the happy lines
How the wit brightens, how the style refines !" Halifax himself must have blushed at Dryden's praises. He could hardly have been so ludicrously ignorant of his own real character as a writer, as to receive the following eulogies as no more than a just tribute to his merit.—“There is more salt in your verses than I have seen in any of the moderns, or even of the ancients.”—“ Your lyric poems are the delight and wonder of this age, and will be the envy of the next.”. I may be allowed to tell your Lordship, who by an undisputed title are the King of Poets, what an extent of power you have,” &c. “I must say, with all the severity of truth, that every line of yours is precious.” “ In tragedy and satire, I offer myself to maintain against some of our modern critics that this age and the last, particularly in England, have excelled the ancients in both those kinds; and I would instance Shakespeare in the former, and your Lordship in the latter.” This is really astounding nonsense, whether it be regarded as a piece of flattery so extravagant as to look like insult, or as an honest criticism written with all the severity of truth! Dryden, in his complimentary verses to Roscommon (another noble poet), does not hesitate to say that
Scarce his own Horace could such rules ordain,