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As he wrote a great number of verses, hie sometimes by chance made good ones, though he did not know it."
He was no admirer of blank verse, and said, " it always fails, unless sustained by the dignity of the subject. In blank verse, the language suffers more distortion, to keep it out of prose, than any inconvenience or limitation to be apprehended from the shackles and circumspection of rhymne.”
Lady Miller's collection of verses by fashionable people, which were put into her vase at Batheaston villa, near Bath, in competition for honorary prizes, being mentioned, he held them very cheap : Bouts rimés,” said he,“ is a mere conceit, and an old conceit now; I wonder how people were persuaded to write in that manner for this lady.” Boswell named a gentleman of his acquaintance, who wrote for the vase. JOHNSON. “ He was a blockhead for his pains.” Boswell. “ The duchess of Northumberland wrote.” Johnson. “ Sir, the duchess of Northumberland may do what she pleases; nobody will say any thing to a lady of her high rank : but, I should be apt to throw ******'s verses in his face."
Mr. Murphy mentioned Dr. Johnson's having a design to publish an edition of Cowley. Johnson said, he did not know but he should ; and he expressed his disapprobation of Dr. Hurd, for having published a mutilated edition under the title of Select Works of Abraham Cowley. Mr. Murphy thought it a bad precedent ; observing, that any author might be used in the same manner; and that it was pleasing to see the variety of an author's compositions at different periods.
On a subsequent occasion, he said, “ I was angry with Hurd about Cowley, for having published a selection of his works; but, upon better considera. tion, I think there is no impropriety in a man's publishing as much as he chooses of any author, if he does not put the rest out of the way. A man, for instance, may print the odes of Horace alone.” He now seemed to be in a more indulgent humour than when this subject was discussed between him and Mr. Murphy.
Johnson one day gave high praise to Dr.Bentley's verses in Dodsley's collection, which he recited with his usual energy. Dr. Adam Smith, who was present, observed, in his decisive professorial manner,
Very well-very well.” JOHNSON. “ Yes, they are very well, sir; but you may observe in what manner they are well. They are the forcible verses of a man of a strong mind, but not accustomed to write verse ; for there is some uncouthness in the expression."
Boswell related a dispute between Goldsmith and Mr. Robert Dodsley, one day when they and he were dining at Tom Davies's, in 1762. Goldsmith asserted, that there was no poetry produced in this age. Dodsley appealed to his own Collection, and maintained, that though you could not find a palace like Dryden's Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, you had vil. lages composed of very pretty houses; and he men-, tioned particularly, The Spleen.” Johnson. “I think Dodsley gave up the question. He and Gold. smith said the same thing; only he said it in a softer manner than Goldsmith did; for he acknowledged that there was no poetry, nothing that towered above the common mark. You may find wit
and humour in verse, and yet no poetry, Hudibraç has a profusion of these ; yet it is not to be reckoned a poem. The Spleen, in Dodsley's collcction, on which you say he chiefly rested, is not poetry.” Boswell.“ Does not Gray's poetry, sir, tower above the common mark ?" JOHNSON. “ Yes, sir; but we must attend to the difference between what men in general cannot do if they would, and what every man may do if he would. Sixteen-string Jack towered above the common mark.” Boswell. “ Then, sir, what is poetry?” JOHNSON. “ Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is."
Boswell. “ You have read Cibber's Apology, sir?” JOHNSON. “
'Yes, it is very entertaining; but, as for Cibber himself, taking from his conversation all that he ought not to have said, he was a poor creature. I remember, when he brought me one of his odes, to have my opinion of it, I could not bear such nonsense, and would not let him read it to the end; so'little respect had I for that great man ! (laughing.) Yet, I remember Richardson wondering that I could treat him with familiarity.”
Another time : “ Colley Cibber, sir, was by no means a blockhead; but, by arrogating to himself too much, he was in danger of losing that degree
of estimation to which he was entitled. His friends gave out that he intended his Birth-day Odes should be bad; but that was not the case, sir; for he kepo them many months by him, and, a few years before he died, he showed me one of them, with great solicitude to render it as perfect as might be; and I made some corrections, to which he was not very willing to submit. I remember the following couplet, in allusion to the king and himself:
Ferch'd on the eagle's soaring wing,
The lowly linnet loves to sing. Sir, he had heard something of the fabulous tale of the wren sitting upon the eagle's wing, and he had applied it to a linnet. Cibber's familiar style, however, was better than that which Whitehead has assumed. Grand nonsense is insupportable. Whitehead is but a little man to inscribe verses to players.
“ Sir, I do not think Gray a first-rate poet. He has not a bold imagination, nor much command of words. The obscurity in which he has involved himself will not persuade us that he is sublime. His Elegy in a Church-Yard has a happy selection of images, but I don't like what are called his great things. His ode, which begins
Ruin seize thee, ruthless king!
Confusion on thy banners wait!
has been celebrated for its abruptness, and plunging into the subject all at once. But such arts as these have no merit, unless when they are original. We admire them only once; and this abruptuess.
has nothing new in it : nay, we have it in the old song of Johnny Armstrong :
Is there ever a man in all Scotland,
From the highest estate to the lowest degree, &c.
And then, sir,
Yes, there is a man in Westmoreland,
And Johnny Armstrong they do him call.
There now, you plunge at once into the subject,
Though, fann'd by conquest's crimson wing,
They mock the air with idle state."
Bonnell Thornton had just published a burlesque Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, adapted to the ancient British music, viz. the salt-box, the Jew's harp, the marrow-bones and cleaver, the humstrum or hurdygurdy, &c. Johnson praised its humour, and seemed much diverted with it. He repeated the following passage :
In strains more exalted the salt-box.shall join,
* " In 1769, I set for Smart and Newbury, Thornton's burlesque Ode on St. Cecilia's day. It was performed at Ranelagh in masks, to a very crowded audience, as I was told ; for I then resided in Norfolk. Beard sung the saltbox song, which was admirably accompanied on that in,