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.