The Lives of the Poets, By Samuel Johnson

Christopher Hirst
Friday 24 July 2009 00:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

In his fine and moving biography of Johnson, the novelist John Wain described The Lives of the Poets as "Johnson's gentlest, most companionable work... I have been reading it for 30 years and can testify that in all that time I have never known the day or the hour when I failed to find interest, instruction, amusement somewhere in their pages."

Written when Johnson was in his late sixties, several of the subjects were, as Wain noted, "poets of Johnson's own culture, [which] gives to his judgements the sparkle of immediate interest".

The startling detail, such as Jonathan Swift's "kind of muddy complexion, which, though he washed himself with oriental scrupulosity, did not look clear", is reminiscent of Boswell's Life of Johnson. Johnson's insights, as in his account of the vicious cycle that trapped Swift ("His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude, and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity"), are vivid and succinct.

Sometimes, they are splendidly droll, as in Johnson's observation of his spendthrift friend Richard Savage, whose pension might have "kept an exact economist from want", but was "very far from being sufficient for Mr Savage, who had never been accustomed to dismiss any of his appetites without the gratification which they solicited."

Though this selection of 10 of poetry's big guns (Milton, Dryden, Pope) omits the briefer lives that Wain relished, it is a good way to commence a lifetime's enjoyment.

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