Johnson on Dryden and Pope
This work argues that a misunderstanding of the structure and content of Johnson's literary biography has prevented us from seeing that the Lives of Dryden and Pope are profound and challenging criticism. Inappropriate generic and historical criteria have been imposed on the Lives of the Poets so that the relation between biography and criticism has falsely been seen as discontinuous, and, concomitantly, Johnson's central, animating critical value of Nature has been defined solely in terms of neoclassical formalism, or, at best, associated with psychological value. As a preliminary to a discussion of the Lives of Dryden and Pope I demonstrate how (i) Johnson focuses in Nature an experience of life which is distinguished from the commonplace but which is also deeper than psychology; and (ii) that Nature is rooted in a religious experience associated but not absolutely equated with Christianity and which provides Johnson with a conception of memory to mitigate his sceptical sense of the discrepancy between the intentions and achievements of a writer. With reference to the Lives of Milton, Butler, Rochester and Parnell, I discuss how the structures of the Lives work to trace the way a poet realises his own genius, and how Johnson's thought operates redemptively to establish a memory for the poet who does not. Two large, related chapters apply this knowledge of Johnson's literary biography in detailed analysis of his encounter with the lives and works of Dryden and Pope. Modern and contemporary criticism is compared to Johnson's understanding of Dryden's translations -- in which, I argue, Johnson finds Dryden's genius most fully realised -- and of Pope's Rape of the Lock and Iliad Book I, and what they reveal of Pope's mind and his relation to his art. These Lives indicate (i) that the continuity of past with present embodied so attractively in Dryden's translations is informed by his Catholicism and reveals Nature; and (ii) that Pope's sacrifice of Nature maintained the integrity of his personal character-and offered the age a refinement it sought -- but also revealed a split between art and Nature -- not characteristic of Dryden -- which made civilized writing problematic. In conclusion I briefly draw out Johnson's general historical position represented by his comparison of Dryden with Pope, as he looked back on the Lives of the Poets and on the previous century.