There are advantanges and disadvantages to joining Samuel Johnson’s deadline-jamming rush through the English poets with his life of William Congreve, playwright, poet and social climber. Johnson displays throughout this biography what makes any critic great: the urge to praise, despite all. He also demonstrates the great critic’s professional hazard, beating on a door that later generations not only open but make pointless by removing the walls as well.
Congreve was a clever man — practically a Mozartian wunderkind of comedy — who ranked literature lower than the social status that came to an author of a popular play or flattering poem. Once literature had delivered him a trading post in Jamaica, he gave up on it. His style of life would have struck Johnson like a toothache and in return Johnson gets in plenty of good Johnsonian kicks. They’re fun. But posterity doesn’t want to be told by the past what it doesn’t need to know. As Renata Adler put it:
In literary criticism, polemic is short-lived, and no other essay form becomes as quickly obsolete as an unfavorable review. If the work under attack is valuable, it survives adverse comment. If it is not, the polemic dies with it.
What Johnson chiefly likes about William Congreve is that he wasn’t someone else — as an Englishman abroad might compliment his disgusting Turkish dish by saying at least its better than that awful Greek crap he had the week before. Congreve was a lot of things Johnson despised, but his main merit for Johnson’s was not being the poetic equivalent of awful Greek crap, the vogue for Pindaric poetry of the late 1600s. Those who still feel strongly about how awful Pindarique Odes have an amazing rallying cry in the Life of Congreve. What a rally it will be. Eight people in glasses gathered in a church hall in Lewisham. The other topic of conversation: How much noisier auto-driven omnibuses are than horse-drawn ones.
Next up: Congreve’s Beatles-like early career.
“Let’s say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing: either the last known copy of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?” asks Sheldon Flender of his fellow bohemians in “Bullets Over Broadway.” It’s a terrifying dilemma, although its terror assumes that people wouldn’t remember one of the most memorized writers there has ever been. A Shakespeare-less universe is unimaginable. On the most basic level, what would people say in those moments when we say “To Be or Not To Be”? What would people do when they want to crack a joke near a skull? What would “Brave New World” be called?
In fact, I suspect we’d soon get over it. True, there is a fairly startling drop in quality between the 100th best work of literature and the 101st (a distance equivalent to the drop from Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” to his not-bad but not-great “Adventures of Philip“). But so much of the canon’s greatness comes from the time we spend studying it and admiring it. Not all of it, but definitely some of it. If Shakespeare were to disappear, we’d still have Milton. We wouldn’t have Brave New World, but we’d still have “Look Homeward, Angel” as a title. And we’d also still have Marlowe and Jonson, who would most likely be the greatest beneficiary of a vanished Shakespeare. Jonson’s plays take time to like, time that we now dedicate to the tail end of Shakespeare’s canon.
And I think that applies to periods of 100 years in one country as much as it does to all the time in the world. You can knock the top few works out — the essentials — and be left with new essentials — a rich and important corpus that rewards study and delivers beauty at roughly the same degree. Samuel Jonhson’s Lives of the Poets, to me, presents the best test case for my little theory. Its index is disturbing: there’s so much space he is dedicating to poets that barely anyone cares about any more. According to my theory, that’s because Johnson only had about 200 years of what you might call modern poetry to discuss — a mere five generations of poets. As more poets emerged to grab our attention, the others got pushed aside.
It could well be, of course, that those poets deserved to get lost. The rhyming pentameters of the eighteenth century gave poetic license to a lot of lazy, overblown rhetoric. But still, it’ll be good to see what gems Johnson has in store, as well as to dig out some Johnsonisms. (I will post any good Johnsonisms on twitter in the meantime.) This is British literature, 1600-1800 without Milton, Shakespeare, Marvell, Swift, Pope, Gay or Gray. Let’s see how it looks.
FIRST UP: CONGREVE!
UPDATE: Here’s the first installment on Congreve.