Sunday, January 27, 2008

Strachey on Johnson / Johnson on Milton

My biography seminar, which I had at first conceived as a wide-ranging, omnivorous kind of course that would seize and devour all sorts of texts, from Plutarch to Kitty Kelly, has ended up pivoting around a couple of historical moments: the Samuel Johnson/James Boswell nexus of the 18th century, & the Lytton Strachey/Virginia Woolf revolution of the 20th. And of course the fallout from those two moments.

Not that we'll be short of things to talk about. On the contrary, as I've been rereading Johnson & Boswell, I've gotten more & more tempted by the idea of a Johnson seminar one of these years. I'm simply fascinated by the guy – fascinated & repelled, of course: in order to find so many wrong-headed notions stuck in one genius brain you have to go to someone like Milton, or Pound, or – well – Shakespeare. I find Joyce & Zukofsky obsessively fascinating and intellectually congenial; Johnson, like the folks in the last sentence, I find obsessively fascinating & simultaneously repellent.

The 26-year-old Lytton Strachey reviewed a new edition of Lives of the Poets in 1906, & as always managed to get off a few zingers, like this one:
That the Lives continue to be read, admired, and edited, is in itself a high proof of the eminence of Johnson's intellect; because, as serious criticism, they can hardly appear to the modern reader to be very far removed from the futile. Johnson's aesthetic judgmenst are almost invariably subtle, or solid, or bold; they have always some good quality to recommend them – except one: they are never right. That is an unfortunate deficiency; but no one can doubt that Johnson has made up for it, and that his wit has saved all. He has managed to be wrong so cleverly, that nobody minds.
Strachey, in proto-Eliotian fashion, chalks this all down to changes in literary fashion, or in "the mind of Europe": "Our judgments differ from his, not only because our tastes are different, but because our whole method of judging has changed."

A test case, then: Johnson's life of Milton. It's clear that the Doctor hates Milton with a fervent hatred. (I'm reminded of a particularly bitchy passage from Eliot's 1936 essay on Milton: "As a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist's point of view, or from the theologian's point of view, or from the psychologist's point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory.") Johnson dislikes the fact that Milton belonged to no church; he complains that he treated the women in his life as "a Turk"; he loathes his Parliamentary politics, his "acrimonious and surly" republicanism. But what does Johnson have to say about the poetry? Is he truly "never right," or is Strachey just tossing off one of his inimitable generalizations?

It's a mixed score. Johnson is wrong to offhandedly dismiss all of the sonnets (he calls the heartbreaking "Methought I saw my late espouséd saint" a "poor sonnet"). To my mind, he's totally off his gourd in savaging "Lycidas" as "a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." He gives Samson Agonistes much too short shrift, along with all the other brief poems.

But Johnson knew whereupon Milton's reputation would rest, & he knew that Paradise Lost was too grand an achievement ultimately to be undermined by any reservations he had about Milton's politics or personal life. And in the 18 pages he devotes to that epic, there aren't more than a couple of strictly aesthetic judgments with which I don't find myself agreeing. A few Johnsonian zingers:
The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but hsi natural port is gigantick loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but is his peculiar power to astonish.

The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the 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 elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.

The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war in heaven fills it with incongruity; and the book, in which it is related, is, I believe, the favourite of children...
Observations such as these – and there are many more – pace Strachey, haven't aged in the last 230 years. What has gotten a bit stale, however, is the early 20th-century apotropaic reaction against Milton and the entire "grand" tradition in English verse. That moment has passed, along with TS Eliot & all his hegemonic house, in literary-critical circles; but far too many contemporary American poets still seem convinced that even a knowledge of Milton smacks too strongly of some kind of suspicious Anglophilia.

Heaven knows I don't want young poets to start writing like Milton (tho young critics could stand to learn a few things about sentence structure and rhetoric from Johnson); but I do hanker for a bit more of the elevated style in contemporary verse.

5 comments:

Michael Peverett said...

For more on Johnson & his biographers, may I not so modestly commend this?

Wrong and right are tricky terms with critics of Johnson's sort - the wrongness is as valuable as the rightness; each, being memorable, continues to inflect our thinking. And after all, is it so easy as all that to decide which is which? While we find ourselves applauding that passage about elegance and astonishment in Paradise Lost, isn't it nevertheless true that while this is admirable criticism of a Milton seen through Augustan eyes, a more direct engagement with Milton whether through 21st century eyes, or through a deeper understanding of his own times, soon discards Johnson's terms as not quite à propos?

Or of the sentence about Lycidas, after the initial appalled rejection - and having worked out that "disgusting" in Johnson's usage lacks the overt violence that we import into it (he really means something more like "unpleasing" or even "unsatisfactory") - his comment begins to make a point that's at least worth arguing about - that the looseness of metrical form and the ready-to-hand pastoral garb were obstacles then, and even today ask a mild question or two about the nature of Milton's commitment to his subject?

Mark Scroggins said...

Admirably put, Michael. Certainly Johnson is the primary example of what Bloom calls a "strong critic," the actual content of whose judgments are in some ways subsidiary to the drama of judging -- the only sort of critic ultimately worth arguing with.

Strachey's dismissal feels more & more glib and superficial the more I consider it.

Jeane said...

Interesting blog!

Nicholas Manning said...

It's ironic that perhaps the most interesting thing about (the ever-hilarious) Strachey's dig at Johnson is similarly not whether it is right or wrong, but its decadent stylistic flourish. Pot and kettle stuff.

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To my mind, he's totally off his gourd in savaging "Lycidas" as "a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting." He gives Samson Agonistes much too short shrift, along with all the other brief poems.