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I am desirous to say a few words on the arduous task I have undertaken. I am called upon to show that the subject I have chosen required a new attempt to put it in its true light. The lives already given to the public of the immortal author of · Paradise Lost' are numerous. It may seem ungracious to speak of my predecessors, if not with unqualified praise; yet it is necessary.
The foundation of all the Memoirs of the Poet is that which was written by his nephew Edward Philips : his personal knowledge of the bard gives authenticity to all he relates; but it is a piece of biography brief and bare. How much more interesting it would have been, had it been written in the amiable and sentimental, though half-gossiping style of old Isaac Walton !
Toland took up the subject, and collected much useful matter; but he was a heavy writer, who never enjoyed much favour with the public. The
Life by Fenton the poet is too meagre to satisfy a moderate curiosity.
Dr. Birch was a laborious searcher into minute facts among original documents ; but had neither the power of reflection, criticism, nor style.
Bishop Newton was a classical scholar, of excellent taste and judgment; but was, for the most part, languid and feeble.
Peck was a mere antiquary ; toilsome, but tasteless, frivolous, weak, and absurd.
We now come to one who has been thought the giant of biography-Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was undoubtedly a man of admirable talents ; of great sagacity; of powers of criticism subtle, strong, and original; of acute knowledge of human nature; of nice observation; of great experience, both in manners and in literature; and of a virtuous, conscientious, and religious mind : but he had his foibles, his blind prejudices, and his perverse and excessive humours. In politics he was a bigot; in sensibility, and poetical taste he was hard, and one “ who could not, or would not hear.” His • Life of Milton,' by some strange chance, yet keeps its hold at least on a part of the public; but as it is flagrantly dero
gatory to the unrivalled bard's fame, both as a poet and as a man, it has appeared to me not only a pleasure, but a duty, to endeavour to counteract its poison. Many will deem the attempt bold and presumptuous: I care not; my. arrow is shot, and I will endure the consequence with calmness and fortitude.
But it will be objected to me that this duty has been already performed by others. Let me enter into a little explanation on that subject. - Johnson has generally the reputation of strong, pure, and elegant language. In his • Life of Milton' he is sometimes vulgar and coarse. His manner is dogmatical and pedantic ; but the matter of his criticisms is worse than his style. He affects to be humorous or witty, where he is often only pompous and malicious. The observation made by Coleridge in his • Table-Talk,' on the style of his • Rambler,' is often true here.* Johnson abounded in verbiage--even in his latter writings. There are those, who still believe that in soundness of criticism he is almost infallible; and that they, who defend the higher flights of
* See Quarterly Review,' Feb. 1835.
imagination, have airy notions, the effects of whim and false pretension ;—that Milton may be ingenious and fantastic,—but that solid sense is with Johnson. When common intellects have the authority of a man of Johnson's literary reputation for this sort of ordinary matter-of-fact taste, they nurse themselves in it with a triumphant scorn of their opponents. But what can rich and accomplished minds say of him, who could find no true poetry in Lycidas?
Johnson's political hatred to Milton was neither rational nor moral. Milton might carry his love of democracy much too far: I, for one, assuredly think so.—His defence of the people for their decapitation of Charles I. brings no justification to my mind. But to doubt that he acted on conscientious principles, is to have no faith in human protestations or human virtue. If Milton was a bigoted democrat, Johnson was a most bigoted and blind royalist. There is not a particle of benevolence or candour in this furious and bitter piece of biography of the celebrated critic; nor is there any research; nor is the narrative well put together. There are not even many splendid passages, which commonly occur in other