Walter Raleigh finds it ‘a book of wisdom and experience, a treatise on the conduct of life, a commentary on human destiny.’ George Watson says that ‘in the Lives he is creating the foundations of the nineteenth-century school of historical criticism by elevating the literary life to a new critical eminence.’ The Live of the Poets, to quote John Bailey, is Johnson’s last, longest, and most popular work’. Referring to the content of the book Macaulay says, ‘the remarks are eminently shrewd and profound. The criticisms are often excellent, and even when grossly and provokingly unjust, well deserve to be studied. For, however, erronous they be, they are never silly. They are the judgement of a mind tramelled by prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and acute. They, therefore, generally contain valuable truth which deserves to be separated from the alloy; and at the worst, they mean something, a praise to which much of what is called criticism in our times has no pretensions.’
There is no element of exaggeration in the statement that the Lives of the Poets was the crown of Johnson’s achievement. The combination of biography and criticism that we find in this collection of fifty-two literary biographies, is something new in critical history. The historical as well as the intrinsic worth of the book is so great that critics have lavished praises and encomiums on it without much reservation. Saintsbury calls it ‘one of the most fortunate books in English literature.’
For various reasons many defects have crept into the Lives. As the Lives were written in four years—an average rate of about one Life a month, Johnson must have written at a terrific speed and a certain degree of’ haste’ is discernible throughout. The work could not afford to be equal consistently and throughout. Referring to this huge medley of writers on whom Johnson planned to write is well put by Southey : “The poets before the Restoration were to Johnson what the world before the Flood was to historians.” The cumulative effect of all these limitations is that the work is unequal. The serene mood of Johnson to which he attained towards the closing years of his life is reflected in his portrayal of the Lives. John Bailey points out that “the Lives were written at his ease, with his pension in his pocket, with the booksellers at his feet, with the consciousness of an expectant and admiring public outside” This complacent attitude of mind accounts for a certain degree of superficiality which is evident. By this time his beliefs and ideas were largely established and ossified and hence no fresh and assididus approach is noticeable : “They were written from a full mind and with a glowing pen, at a time when Johnson’s critical opinions had long been formed and when he was quite indisposed to renew the detailed labours of the Dictionary.”
Watson points out that the structure of the book is a tripartite one : biography, character, criticism. The life begins with a chronological account of the poet’s life—ancestry, birth, education, etc. Johnson’s remarks on the writing of biography are significant. Most biographies of his day he describes as ‘barren and futile.’ He says that critic’s duty is ‘to reveal character in the light of illuminating details of daily life.’ ‘It is much better, he adds ‘that caprice, obstinacy, frolic and folly, however, they might delight in the description, should be silently forgotten, than by wanton merriment or unseasonable detection and a pang should be given to widow or friend’. The largest part is covered by this section. The second section is the shortest and deals with a brief character of the poet— his appearance and temperament. The third is purely critical. This formula has been strictly followed throughout the book.
However, it can be seen that the Lives are more biographical than critical. John Bailey says “the art of biography is that of giving life to the dead; and that can only be done by the living. No one was ever more above than Johnson.” Watson holds that Johnson is not a very biographical critic. In the modern terms, the Lives fall badly between two schools : those who, like the New Critics between the wars, prefer their criticism devoid of biography, complain that Johnson is largely biographical; and those who accept the critical relevance of some biographical facts will wonder why Johnson uses his facts so little….He is rather a critic who has discovered that criticism may usefully be practised as an appendage to biography.’
As regards the defects of the book, almost the same blemishes— likes, dislikes, taste, temperament, faith, and idiosyncrasy, passion and prejudice—are noticeable as we find in his general approach to criticism. Saintsbury observes : “Here and there extra-literary prejudice—political, ecclesiastical, as in the case of Milton; partly moral, partly religious, and, it is to be feared, a little personal, in as that of Swift—distorted the presentation.” Some of these Lives are a remarkable piece of criticism. The Life of Milton, for instance, is a ‘monumental example of the characteristic triumph and failures of Johnson’s historical sense.’ Johnson was indeed the most perfect exponent of the Augustan poets. The characteristic tone of the Lives shows that they are essentially a study of the Augustan mode in English poetry and the Lives of Dryden and Pope are its real glories.’
We need not repeat the opinions of Johnson about some of the great poets as they have been given in the general discussion of Johnson’s applied criticism. However an extract, may be given so as to illustrate Johnson’s way of criticism :
The style of Dryden is capricious and varied, that of Pope is cautious and uniform; Dryden obeys the motions of his own mind, Pope confines his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden is sometimes vehement and rapid; Pope is always smooth, uniform and gentle. Dryden’s page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe and levelled by the roller.
Bearing in mind the multifarious aspects of the Lives we may say in the words of Walter Raleigh that “the Lives are the maturest and strongest of Johnson’s works.” “For all these reasons,” states John Bailey “the Lives of the poets will always be eagerly read by those who wish to understand a great man and a great period of English literature. His work closes an age; it is the Temple of immortality of the great Augustans, and when it was published, already Burns and Blake, Crabbe and Cowper were beginning to write. With them came in new ideals, destined to affect both criticism and biography.” With Johnson came an era to a close yielding place to a new one.
It is, therefore true that Johnson’s Lives is the richest, most beautiful, and indeed most perfect production of Johnson’s Pen, as stated by Boswell. All other critical works of Johnson fade when compared to this.