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WILLIAM FITZTHOMAS, Dr. Johnson's Strictures on the Lyric Performances of Gray, 1781

WILLIAM FITZTHOMAS, Dr. Johnson's Strictures on the Lyric Performances of Gray, 1781

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justice. On the perusal, however, of his remarks on the writings of Gray,

I was instantly struck by his unfair, and unusual mode of criticism, as

well as by his total deviation from the common track of popular opinion.

His strictures on Gray, seem to be influenced by, I know not what,

prejudice; and he takes up Gray’s lyricks, apparently, with a fixed

resolution to condemn them.

It was not, altogether, the ambition of erecting a temporary shed,

under the shadow of so noble a structure as that of Dr. Johnson’s literary

reputation, which induced me to offer to the public the following hasty

remarks. A certain love of truth and of justice, even in the meerest trifles,

so natural to the human mind; together with a hope of in some measure

vindicating, the poetical reputation of the late excellent Mr. Gray, from

the too severe, and hyper critical censures of our modern Aristarchus,

has made me a candidate for the immortality of a week; and excited a

desire of adding somewhat to the heap of pamphlets, with which

literature is already so much oppressed.

I shall begin with the Doctor’s remarks on the two Sister Odes;1 upon

which, perhaps on account of their enjoying a peculiar portion of the

public approbation, he seems, in a peculiar manner, to exercise his

critical and dictatorial severity.

Of the first stanza of the ode on the progress of poetry, he observes,

that, ‘Gray seems in his rapture to confound the images of spreading

sound and running water.’ To prevent a frequent and troublesome

application to the poet, I choose to lay the whole passage before the

reader. The ode opens thus:

Awake, Ỉolian Lyre, awake,

And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.

From Helicon’s harmonious springs

A thousand rills their mazy progress take:

The laughing flowers, that round them blow,

Drink life and fragrance as they flow.

Now the rich stream of music winds along,

Deep, majestic, smooth and strong,

Through verdant vales, and Ceres’ golden reign:

Now rowling down the steep amain,

Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:

The rocks, and nodding groves, rebellow to the roar.

In his notes on this stanza, Gray professes that his intention is to imitate

the usual model of all lyric performances, the odes of Pindar. Now it is


Lives, iii. 436–8.



one of Pindar’s well-known and characteristic peculiarities, to incorporate

for the most part his similes, with his subject. Gray therefore as an

imitator, unites the image of poetry, (which as it was of old ever

accompanied and regulated by the lyre, he calls music,) to that of the

simile, a majestic stream of flowing water. He then, in order to shew the

power of poetry in enobling and adorning every subject, metaphorically

describes it as taking its course like a gently-flowing and majestic river,

through verdant vales and Ceres’ golden reign, enriching the adjacent

country with life and fragrance: and lastly to characterise the vehement

and passionate kind of poetry, as rowling down the steep amain, and

causing the rocky banks and pendent groves to rebellow to its roar.

‘But,’ objects the Doctor, ‘where does music, however smooth and

strong, after having visited the verdant vales, rowl down the steep amain,

so as that rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar?’

I have before observed, that this is evidently said of music and poetry

in their primitive conjunction: but let us, for the present, suppose it to be

spoken of music alone. —Can the Doctor, though avowedly insensible of

the effects of music, be likewise so ignorant of the art, as not to know

that there is admissible in it as great a variety of style, as in either of its

sister arts? Are not both ancient and modern musicians allowed the power

of, in some degree, exciting, as well as soothing, the passions of the more

susceptible part of mankind? Is there not a rapid and impetuous style of

music, as well as a grave and equable one? By what image can this

impetuous style of music be, with greater metaphorical propriety,

illustrated, than by the foregoing one! How can the effects of poetry be

more happily typified, than by those of its sister art, music‚ !

The Doctor then dismisses this stanza, by observing, that, ‘if this be

said of music, it is nonsense; if it be said of water, it is nothing to the

purpose’; and thus leaves us suspended between the horns of an apparent


But to forbid its being said of music in its separate state, is, in a

manner, to interdict the use of all figurative decoration. It is to deny an

artist the assistance of the necessary implements of his trade. We must

all be well aware that this passage, literally understood, is stark nonsense

when applied to either of the arts. —But it is, most evidently, a simile

interwoven with the subject, and by the poet designed to characterise

the more vehement and empassioned kind of poetry, in its original union


The analogical resemblance between these two noble arts, is indeed so perfect, that

music may, with some propriety, be said to furnish a system of colours, for the ornament

of the chiaro-oscuro of poetical sentiment.



with music; and, to a mind not previously and designedly rendered

insensible to its beauty, cannot fail of conveying an image, perfectly

clear and distinct; and ideas, in the highest degree vivid and sublime.

We find the whole of the second stanza of this ode, included in one

general censure: ‘It is unworthy’, says the critic, ‘of further notice.

Criticism disdains to chace a school-boy to his common places’. He pays

not the least attention to the effect of the transition and contrast, both

with respect to the versification, and the subject. He gives us not the

least encouragement to approve of those beautiful lines, with which the

second stanza commences:

Oh! sovereign of the willing soul,

Parent of sweet and solemn breathing airs,

Enchanting shell! the Sullen cares,

And frantic passions hear thy soft controul.

The remaining part of this stanza is a very close imitation*, (not to say

translation) of part of the first Pythian ode of Pindar; and, consequently,

retains a leaven of that mythological fiction, in which all the ancient

poets so greatly delighted. —The Doctor’s observations concerning the

interweaving the old mythology into modern performances, are

undoubtedly just and rational. There is indeed something so puerile,

frigid, and uninteresting in the greater part of the mythological fictions,

as inevitably to repel the attention of every reader, not wholly devoted

to the antique. But there is no general rule without its exceptions: the

fiction before us is so pleasing to the imagination, and the lines it is

contained in, so poetical and animated, that very few classical readers

would, I think, wish this stanza cancelled.

On the third stanza, the Doctor’s strictures are chiefly verbal: and

few, I believe, will choose to contradict Dr. Johnson’s verbal criticism.

He does not, however, dismiss this stanza, without remarking its pleasing

effect on the ear.

I now accompany the critic to the first, of the second ternary of stanzas;

which, as we are informed, ‘endeavours to tell something, and would have

told it, had it not been crossed by Hyperion’. —It is indeed crossed by

Hyperion: but in like manner is the Essay on Criticism, crossed by the

Alpine traveller’, the Campaign, by the destroying Angel;2 and many


The passage imitated by Gray, begins at the latter part of line 11, of Pindar’s first

Pythian, and ends with the beginning of line 21.


Pope’s Essay on Criticism, 1711, ll. 225–32; Addison’s Campaign, 1704, in Works,

ed. G.W.Greene, 1891, i. 187–8. (See Lives, ii. 130–1.)



other excellent poems, by many other excellent illustrative similes. Gray,

to use the Doctor’s expression, here ‘endeavours to tell’, (and to the

greater part of his readers will, I believe, appear actually to enumerate)

the various, and unavoidable evils, the black train of misfortunes incident

to human life: and, from their existence, endeavours likewise to prove

the great utility of poetry, by its well-known power, in some measure

to divert or alleviate them. Which position, (still uniting the subject and

simile) he illustrates by the similitude of the solar light, driving away

the ill-omened birds of darkness, and dispersing the gloom and terrors

of the night. —But this union of the subject and simile seems,

unaccountably enough, for ever to lie in the Doctor’s way; and to prove

an eternal stumbling block to his critical sagacity. If he does not approve

of this union, why does he not tell us so? —But, if we may be allowed

to judge from appearances, the Doctor either does not, or will not,

observe this intentional union.

The remark on the non-dependence of the conclusion on the premises

of the following stanza, is acute and judicious.

Stanza the third ‘sounds big’, as we are informed, ‘with Delphi, and

Egean, and Illissus, and Meander, and hallowed fountain, and solemn

sound’. —If to talk big be a liberty that may be granted to the Muses

at all, it may be allowed, I think, as an exclusive privilege, to the lyric

Muse. Dignified sound, is such a requisite auxiliary to her usual

elevation of sentiment, as to be, in a manner, inseparable from her,

without degrading her to a level with the rest of the choral band. It

cannot, however, be denied by Gray’s greatest admirers, but that he is

too fond of superfluous splendour; of accumulating and crouding his

images; and of overloading his lines with unnecessary, though not

unmeaning epithets. On the Doctor’s observation‚ on the position in the

latter part of this stanza, I must beg leave a little to dilate.

Gray’s position is, briefly, this: After descanting on the natural

connection between poetry, liberty, and all the nobler virtues, and its

abhorrence of, and desertion from all those countries in which tyrant

power and coward vice prevail, he exemplifies by a cursory view of the

present state of those countries in which poetry once particularly

flourished, and by its emigration from Greece to Italy, and from Italy

to England, as each became unworthy of its independent dignity and


His observation is this: Gray’s ‘position is at last false: in the time of Dante and

Petrarch, from whom he derives our first school of poetry, Italy was over-run by tyrant

power and coward vice; nor was our state much better when we first borrowed the Italian




immaculate purity. —The thought is ingenious, and the attempt laudable;

and must give the highest pleasure to every true lover of the fine arts:

and if it be difficult to support this position by historical fact, it is, in

my opinion, no less difficult by the same method to overthrow it.

It is certain that poetry is a shrub which has sometimes taken root,

and put forth its fairest blossoms in a barren and, apparently, ungrateful

soil. Poetical genius seems, on a retrospect, to have started up casually,

as it were in the course of nature, without much dependence on the

moral or political state of the countries to which it owed its origin. There

have, no doubt, been times in which poetical merit has been particularly

encouraged; and poetry, of course, more cultivated by ambitious

pretenders. There have, we know, been times in which it has even been

admitted to a share in the legislature: but in general it may be said of

genius, that as no encouragement whatever can originally produce it, so

no discouragement or difficulties can extinguish its noble ardour, when


In England, it is particularly hard to point out the golden age of

poetry: its greatest poetical luminaries have, for the most part, appeared

singly; they have not often shone in constellations of uniformly diffused

lustre. But it will somewhat tend to the support of Gray’s hypothesis,

if we remark, that the more noble and original works, those which bid

the fairest for immortal praise, were mostly produced in ages

conspicuous for the exertion of the nobler virtues; and in countries

distinguished by an unremitting ardour for liberty and independence.

The Doctor’s remarks on the first of the third ternary of stanzas are

eminently judicious, and unexceptionably just.

It is observable of the next stanza, that our great critic has singled out

for commendation almost the only thing that former critics have chosen

to reprobate. This thing is the poetical account of Milton’s blindness.

Whether it be commended justly, or not, it is certain a reader of very

moderate abilities and poetical experience may decide. —With regard to

the car of Dryden, I can by no means agree with the Doctor, that it will

suit every rider. Gray, as he tells us in his notes, means here to characterise

the sounding energy and stately march of Dryden’s versification: and he

has done it very happily and discriminatively in the following lines:

Behold where Dryden’s less presumptuous car,

Wide o’er the fields of glory, bear

Two coursers of ethereal race,

With necks in thunder clothed, and long-resounding pace.



Can these lines, with equal propriety, be applied to Waller, Prior,

Addison, or even Pope himself? Surely not!

We are now arrived at the concluding stanza, of which the Doctor,

apparently, unwilling to praise where he cannot blame, says nothing at

all. Few readers, however, of any poetical discernment or feelings, will,

I think, acquiesce in this neglect. Few, but those of the dullest heads and

coldest hearts, can, I am persuaded, read this part of the ode, without

feeling in a peculiar manner, the effect of the transition, the beauty of

the imagery, and the glowing warmth of the diction. —The circumstance

of Dryden’s having written but one ode of the sublime and truly lyric

kind, and suddenly withdrawing his masterly hand from those chords

he knew so well to strike, is here exquisitely expressed by the image

of a musician, unexpectedly pausing in the midst of his strain:

Hark, his hands the lyre explore!

Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o’er

Scatters from her pictured urn

Thoughts that breathe and words that burn.

But ah! ’tis heard no more—

The remainder of the stanza must necessarily appear feeble after

animation like this!

I cannot help remarking here, that the Doctor’s critical process with

Gray, differs, considerably, from that which he makes use of towards

every other writer. He is with Gray more verbal, logical, and minute,

where these critical niceties ought, in reason, least of all to be practised.

He is less observant of the versification and imagery; and for the most

part declines giving us either a general, or comparative character of the

pieces under inspection.

[examines Johnson’s comments on The Bard.]

I am now arrived at the end of my collateral remarks: and hope I

have, to the reader’s satisfaction, shown the visible injustice of some of

the great critic’s remarks, and the no less visible futility of others. The

Doctor dismisses these odes with a general observation, which would,

I think, be rendered more just, and characteristic of the poet’s merit,

were it invertedly parodied in the following manner:

These odes are distinguished by splendid accumulations of the most graceful

ornaments; they strike no less than please: the images are amplified by an

imagination eminently poetical; the language is, for the most part, void of

harshness. The mind of the writer seems to glow with that enthusiasm, which



ever will be deemed by frigid critics unnatural, in proportion as it is unusual,

or unknown to them. He has a kind of native dignity, and is tall without walking

in stilts. His art and his struggle are but little visible, disguised under the

becoming veil of ease and nature.

I cannot take leave of the reader without subjoining an observation,

which, no doubt, has occurred to many.

After all these remarks, these severe strictures, I much suspect, that

the Doctor offers us but an artificial copy of his sentiments, with regard

to this truly elegant and original writer. Is it reasonable to imagine,

considering the well-known taste and discernment of Dr. Johnson, that

he should really be so callous to that beautiful simplicity which runs

through many of Gray’s productions? Or, considering his just, and truly

discriminated decisions on the merits of every other writer, that he

should really be so insensible to the inexpressible dignity and animation

which reign in these particular odes? —It seems most probable,

therefore, that the Doctor, looking upon the great, and almost

unexampled reputation of this writer as somewhat superior to his real

merit, might think that he was doing the public a piece of service, by

‘bending the twig the contrary way’; and, by confining Gray’s fame

within its proper bounds, render it more solid and durable. —If this were

his design, it must be, I think, the general opinion, that he has greatly

over-acted his part in the critical drama.


56. Unsigned review, Annual Register

1782, xxv, 203–8

Text from second edition, 1791, 203–4.

This review of the second group of Lives provides a representative

journalistic stock-taking of the undertaking as a whole.

Though the merits of this learned performance have been long since the

subject of discussion, and its reputation be established on the most

universal applause, yet the uniformity of our plan, and the respect due

to a name so justly celebrated, require that we should connect with our

former remarks some observations on the last six volumes of this

valuable work.

Perhaps no age or country has ever produced a species of criticism

more perfect in its kind, or better calculated for general instruction, than

the publication before us: for whether we consider it in a literary,

philosophical, or a moral view, we are at a loss whether to admire most

the author’s variety and copiousness of learning, the soundness of his

judgement, or the purity and excellence of his character as a man.

It is surely of importance to the rising generation to be supplied in

the most elegant walk of literature with a guide, who points out what

is beautiful in writing as well as in action, who uniformly blends

instruction with amusement, who informs the understanding, and

rectifies the judgement, while he mends the heart.

But notwithstanding the general popularity of this performance, and

an uncommon degree of decision in its favour, it was not to be expected

that a work of this nature, indeed that any work, should pass totally

without exception, or without censure. In some instances it has divided

the opinions of the learned, in a few it has provoked the severity of

criticism; with what propriety the public have judged from the pamphlets

that have appeared, particularly in defence of Gray. That the doctor was

not over zealous to allow him the degree of praise that the public voice

had pretty universally assigned him, is, we think, sufficiently apparent.

Partiality to his beautiful elegy, had perhaps allotted him a rank above



his general merits: that justice was the object of the biographer, we

cannot doubt; but in combating opinions we suppose to be erroneous,

we are extremely subject to fall ourselves into the opposite extreme, and

to this we are inclined to attribute whatever deviations from the general

accuracy of the author may be met with in the course of this work. In

this opinion we are confirmed by instances on the other side, where the

doctor seems to give hyperbolical praise to names, which had perhaps

been suffered to lie under too much neglect and oblivion. Whether the

origin of something like an attachment to a particular set of notions, or

a set of men, may be explained upon this principle, we leave our readers

to determine. That our learned author’s judgement has been warped on

some subjects, where party has an influence, is the opinion of probably

the greater number of his admirers; and if it be true, it is a decisive

argument to show the prevalence of prejudice, and that the strongest

understanding is not always proof against its inroads.

[the remainder of the review consists chiefly of quotation.]


57. Robert Potter, Inquiry into some passages

in Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets


Extracts from pp. 1–7, 14–16, 36–8.

The Revd Robert Potter (1721–1804) was a country clergyman,

schoolmaster, and translator of Aeschylus; he acknowledged

Johnson’s literary distinction but regretted his insensitivity to

writers such as Gray, Collins, and Shenstone. See Introduction, pp.

19, 30.

Just Criticism, directed by superior learning and judgement, and

tempered with candor, must at all times have an happy influence on the

public taste, and of course be favourable to the interests and credit of

literature…. Every age is not so happy as to produce an Addison; yet

the present age owes much to the vigorous and manly understanding of

Dr. Johnson: this truly respectable writer was early and deservedly

distinguished by his great abilities, and the public has so long been

habituated to receive and submit to his decisions, that they are now by

many considered as infallible. Some years ago he wrote the life of

Savage, a man neither amiable nor virtuous, but of a singular character

formed from singular circumstances of distress, which never happened

before, probably will never happen again in the life of any other man:

undeserved distress has a claim to pity; and pity has always in it some

mixture of love, which wishes to palliate the failings of the unfortunate

sufferer; Dr. Johnson has the feelings of humanity warm at his honest

heart; he has therefore with a free and spirited indignation stigmatized

the unnatural mother, and to her unrelenting cruelty ultimately refers the

faults of the unhappy son, faults which truth would not allow him to

suppress, nor his virtue incline him to defend. In his account of Savage

as a Poet, he places his genius in the fairest light, and makes just

apologies for his inaccuracies. This little tract was written with an

animated glow of sentiment, a vigorous and clear expression, and a

pleasing candor sometimes perhaps stretched a little beyond the line of



judgement: it pleased; it must always please: no wonder then that the

public expressed no small degree of satisfaction, when it was known that

this celebrated author was engaged in writing the Lives of the most

eminent English Poets, with critical observations on their works; much

was expected from his knowledge and judgement; but high raised

expectations are frequently disappointed: in these volumes, amidst the

many just observations, the solid sense, and deep penetration which even

his enemies must admire, his warmest friends find some passages which

they must wish unwritten or obliterated.

It is not my intention to follow the Biographer through all the lives

he has written; but, after a few cursory remarks, these pages will be

confined to his observations on Lyric Poetry, particularly on the Odes

of Mr. Gray. As I shall have frequent occasions to dissent from the

Critic’s judgement, I shall give my reasons freely and firmly, but with

great respect to his understanding and virtues.

‘With the political tenets of the writer, I have nothing to do; my

business is with his criticism:’1 yet it were to be wished that the spirit

of party had not been so warmly diffused through this work; it is often

disagreeable, but in the Life of Milton it is disgusting: not that I am

inclined to defend the religious or political principles of our great poet;

I know too well the intolerant spirit of that liberty, which worked its

odious purposes through injustice, oppression, and cruelty: but it is of

little consequence to the present and future ages whether the author of

Paradise Lost was Papist or Presbyterian, Royalist or Republican; it is

the Poet that claims our attention: if however in the life of Milton it were

necessary to take notice of the part he bore in those disastrous times,

it might have been more eligible to have imitated the moderation of

J.Philips, who, though he wrote more than seventy years nearer those

times, when the facts were yet fresh on mens memories, checked his

expression of the abhorrence of them, through respect to his master, with

this beautiful apostrophe,

And had that other Bard,

Oh, had but he, that first ennobled song

With holy raptures, like his Abdiel been,

’Mongst many faithless, strictly faithful found;

Unpity’d he should not have wail’d his orbs,

That roll’d in vain to find the piercing ray,


Cf. ‘With the philosophical or religious tenets of the author I have nothing to do;

my business is with his poetry’ (Life of Akenside), Lives, iii. 417.


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WILLIAM FITZTHOMAS, Dr. Johnson's Strictures on the Lyric Performances of Gray, 1781

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