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Johnson’s Hints for the Life of Pope

I SHALL preserve a literary curiosity, which perhaps is the only one of its kind. It is an original memorandum of Dr. JOHNSON’s, of hints for the life of POPE, written down as they were suggested to his mind, in the course of his researches. The lines in italics, Johnson had scratched with red ink, probably after having made use of them. These notes should be compared with the life itself. The youthful student will find some use, and the curious be gratified in discovering the gradual labours of research and observation; and that art of seizing on those general conceptions which afterwards are developed by meditation, and illustrated by Genius. I once thought of accompanying these hints by the amplified and finished passages derived from them: but this is an amusement which the reader can contrive for himself. I have extracted the most material notes.

This fragment is a companion-piece to the engraved fac-simile of a page of Pope’s Homer, given in a previous part of this work.

That fac-simile was not given to show the autograph of Pope—a practice which has since so generally prevailed—but to exhibit to the eye of the student the fervour and the diligence required in every work of genius: this could only be done by showing the state of the manuscript itself, with all its erasures, and even its half-formed lines; nor could this effect be produced by giving only some of the corrections, which Johnson had already, in printed characters. My notion has been approved of, because it was comprehended by writers of genius; yet this fac-simile has been considered as nothing, more than an autograph by those literary blockheads, who, without taste and imagination, intruding into the province of literature, find themselves as a awkward as a once popular divine, in his “Christian Life,” assures us certain sinners would in paradise—like “pigs in a drawing-room.”

POPE.

Nothing occasional. No haste. No rivals. No compulsion.

Practised only one form of verse. Facility from use. Emulated former pieces. Cooper’s-hill. Dryden’s ode.

Affected to disdain flattery, Not happy in his selection of Patrons. Cobham, Bolingbroke.1

Cibber’s abuse will be better to him than a dose of hartshorn.

Poems long delayed.

Satire and praise late, alluding to something past.

He had always some poetical plan in his head.2

Echo to the sense.

Would not constrain himself too much.

Felicities of language. Watts.3

Luxury of language.

Motives to study—want of health, want of money—helps to study—some small patrimony.

Prudent and frugal—pint of wine.

LETTERS.

Amiable disposition—but he gives his own character. Elaborate. Think what to say—say what one thinks. Letter on sickness to Steele.

On Solitude. Ostentatious benevolence. Professions of sincerity.

Neglect of fame. Indifference about everything.

Sometimes gay and airy, sometimes sober and grave.

Too proud of living among the great. Probably forward to make acquaintance. No literary man ever talked so much of his fortune. Grotto. Importance. Post-office, letters open.

Cant of despising the world

Affectation of despising poetry.

His easiness about the critics.

Something of foppery.

His letters to the ladies—pretty.

Abuse of Scripture—not all early.

Thoughts in his letters that are elsewhere.

ESSAY ON MAN.

Ramsay missed the fall of man.

Others the immortality of the soul. Address to our Saviour.

Excluded by Berkley.

Bolingbroke’s notions not understood.

Scale of Being turn it in prose.

Part and not the whole always said.

Conversation with Bol. R. 220.4

Bol. meant ill. Pope well.

Crousaz. Resnel. Warburton.

Good sense. Luxurious—felicities of language. Wall.

Loved labour—always poetry in his head.

Extreme sensibility. Ill-health, head-aches.

He never laughed.

No conversation.

No writings against Swift.

Parasitical epithets. Six lines of Iliad.5

He used to set down what occurred of thoughts—a line—a couplet.

The humorous lines end sinner. Prunello,6

First line made for the sound, or v. versa.

Foul lines in Jervas.

More notice of books early than late.

DUNCIAD.

The line on Phillips borrowed from another poem. Pope did not increase the difficulties of writing. Poetæ pulorum.


1 He has added in the Life the name of Burlington.

2 In the Life Johnson gives Swift’s complaint that Pope was never at leisure for conversation, because he had always some poetical scheme in his head.

3 Johnson in the Life has given Watts’s opinion of Pope’s poetical diction.

4 Ruffhead’s Life of Pope.

5 In the Life Johnson says, “Expletives he very early rejected from his verses; but he now and then admits an epithet rather commodious than important. Each of the six first lines of the Iliad might lose two syllables with very little diminution of the meaning; and sometimes after all his art and labour, one verse seems to be made for the sake of another.”

6 He has a few double rhymes; but always, I think, unsuccessfully; except one in the Rape of the Lock.—Life of Pope.


Editor’s Notes

 § In later editions of the Curiosities, the following is appended to the last of the footnotes above:

Mrs. Thrale, in a note on this passage, mentions the couplet Johnson meant, for she asked him: it is
The meeting points the fatal lock dissever
From the fair head—for ever and for ever.