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