Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dr. Johnson on Milton... thoughts on obscurities

This is from Johnson's "Lives of the Most Eminent English poets with Observations on their Poetry". Like Hazlitt's "Lectures on the English Poets" it is still thought provoking (and enjoyable) reading. (Though my copy has no notes and Johnson's habit of throwing out Latin tags which are meaningless to me is a good reminder of how definitions of literate and educated have changed. )

"Paradise lost' is one of those books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look else where for recreation; we desert our master and seek for companions.

There are so many poets alive and dead you could replace Milton with in that paragraph if it stopped at the final semi colon.

The index to the "Lives' is an interesting lesson in the realities of fame and reputation. The "Most Eminent English Poets" include Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Rochester, but also Wentworth Dillon, John Phillips, George Stepney, John Pomfret, and the marvelously named Thomas Sprat amongst many other names I'd never even heard of before, let alone read.

William Walsh is another name I'd never heard before, but the index does say of him "known more by his familiarty with greater men than by anything done or written by himself".

You could probably replace his name in that sentence with many others others as well.

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