Poets and Dunces

I’ve had very little time for reading or writing, but wanted to make a few notes on Samuel Johnson’s study of Alexander Pope (1688-1744), found in his Lives of the English Poets. It is the longest of his literary biographies—just over one hundred pages in the Everyman edition—making it even more detailed than his famous life of Richard Savage. It is perhaps his greatest study. There is much that Johnson tells us about his subject:

Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.

There is also much that Johnson tells us about the world at large. While discussing the structure of one of Pope’s philosophical poems, he offers this tangential and sage witticism:

Aristotle is praised for naming fortitude first of the cardinal virtues, as that without which no other virtue can steadily be practised; but he might, with equal propriety, have placed prudence and justice before it, since without prudence fortitude is mad; without justice, it is mischievous.

Pope’s famous Dunciad was typical of his contentious personality. The poem parodied the leading English literary “dunces”: writers and critics who opposed Pope in the past or incurred his enmity and disrespect. The first editions of the poem were highly allusive as to objects of the author’s ridicule, and so their identities and reputations might have remained safe with the general public. But as Johnson explains:

If therefore it had been possible for those who were attacked to conceal their pain and their resentment, The Dunciad might have made its way very slowly in the world. This, however, was not to be expected: every man is of importance to himself, and therefore, in his own opinion, to others, and, supposing the world already acquainted with all his pleasures and his pains, is perhaps the first to publish injuries or misfortunes which had never been known unless related by himself, and at which those that hear them will only laugh; for no man sympathises with the sorrows of vanity.

It is an object lesson in the value of patience, detachment and humility, since vanity is almost always its own undoing. Pope, for his part, coasted through life by dint of superior talent. Yet he paid a price for his arrogance in terms of damaged relationships and a tarnished reputation. Like most men (who are not outright scoundrels), the poet had his virtues and was capable of loyalty and generosity. Nevertheless he led a highly imperfect and peevish existence that perhaps invites more pity than admiration.

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