Introduction: Samuel Johnson (1709 -1784) is an English writer who has made lasting contributions to English literature as a literary critic and biographer. He had once told a Scottish biographer James Boswell, “The biographical part of literature is what I love most.” Here Samuel Johnson is presented as a biographer and critic with reference to his essay “Life of Cowley.”
Samuel Johnson as a biographer: Biography is a story of a person’s life written by someone else. It has long been one of the most popular forms of prose writing. Writing a good biography is one of the most challenging tasks. It follows some basic rules.
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Maintenance of objectivity and balance: Dr. Samuel Johnson has always attempted to be objective and balanced while writing biography. His tactful narrative skill satisfies reader’s curiosity and creates a thirst for reading to gain further understanding. “Life of Cowley” follows a three-part plan such as Johnson’s accounts, Cowley’s suggestive and evocative biography and summary of the main features of his writings. Thus, Johnson maintains objectivity and balance as a landmark biographer.
Representation of facts: A good biographer presents the facts about a person’s life. This information includes how the writer influenced his literary period that is why Johnson mentions that Cowley was influenced by John Donne and influenced his period with metaphysical concept though the biographer does not hesitate to find faults. As Abraham Cowley is a real character of English literature, Johnson’s presentation of facts about the life and writings of Cowley out and out bears the sign of a best biographer.
Interpretative nature: Most biographies are interpretative, and Dr. Johnson’s life of Cowley is no exception. Johnson not only presents facts but also explains what those facts mean. On his essay on Cowley, Johnson has defended Cowley’s neutrality as a captive. But in defending Cowley, Johnson never loses his objectivity and balance although there was scarcity of research materials.
Narrative force: The narrative force along with psychological reality provides a lively flavor. Johnson’s “Life of Cowley” has the magical narrative force of a good novel. Critics have categorized Johnson as a classical biographer. At the very outset of the essay, Johnson defines genius and describes the process how Cowley became “irrecoverably a poet. Such aphoristic expressions provide a classical status to this piece of biography.
Reference of other writers: Johnson’s essay “Life of Cowley” is a part of the great volume “The lives of the Poets” which comprises of forty-two lives. “The Lives of the Poets” exhibits Johnson’s critical power and prejudices. In his essay, Johnson mentions about Milton, Dryden and Pope who are the most substantial poets of English literature. He closely considers the poems of Donne too. So, as a biographer, Johnson is not only perfect but also influential.
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Johnson as a critic: Literary criticism is the discussion of literature including description, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of literary works. To put it differently, Literary criticism means the art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works. In the essay “Life of Cowley”, Johnson talks about the metaphysical poets followed by an examination of Cowley’s major works.
Cowley as metaphysical poet: Johnson first tries to categorized Cowley as a metaphysical poet because Cowley in his poems has used simile, metaphor, conceit and other style which are like the metaphysical poets.
“Wit like other things, subject by their nature to the choice of man,
has its changes and fashions, and, at different times, takes different forms.”
Finding faults: Finding faults for evaluation and judgement is an important aspect of literary criticism. Johnson as a critic has not given discount to William Shakespeare let alone Cowley. He defines metaphysical poetry with fault.
“The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”.
Besides, Johnson asserts that the metaphysical poets have failed to attain the sublimity of art. According to Johnson, the metaphysical poets never tried to understand the greatness of thought. The conceit used by them is packed up with drawbacks. In the modern age, Johnson is vehemently opposed by T. S. Eliot.
Positive sides: Literary criticism does not discover only the negative sides of the literary works. Positive sides are equally asserted. Johnson praises Cowley as a love poet and compares him with Petrarch, an Italian poet and sonneteer. A love poet Cowley is able to play the role of psychologist.
Conclusion: now we can conclude that Johnson as a biographer and critic has enhanced the potential of English literature. As a critic, Johnson is such a genius that nobody cannot reject his opinions completely. Even T. S. Eliot has shown respect for Johnson’s evaluation of metaphysical poets.
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