Two Warnings and a Guide-Star

By John Hertz:  I’m a fan of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), poet, playwright, essayist, conversationalist, biographer, critic, editor, lexicographer.

With that wide range he was what was long called a man of letters.

Now and then come his politics, or his religion, which I don’t much agree with, but I don’t read books to be agreed with.

He writes wonderfully (literary present tense), and his perception is penetrating.

Lives of the English Poets (1781) is his last project; some say his greatest, which luckily I don’t have to decide.

Samuel Johnson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

While looking up something else I re-read his Life of Milton (1608-1674).  Three things struck me particularly.

Two Warnings

“It has been observed that those who most loudly clamor [SJ wrote clamour] for liberty do not most liberally grant it.”

This is a pit along today’s road too.  Let us take care not to fall into it.

“Those who have no power to judge of past times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions.”


A Star

Here he is discussing “Paradise Lost” (1674; incidentally, he didn’t much agree with Milton’s politics or religion).  What he credits Milton with achieving is a star we may well follow – and at our best we do.

The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite…. [His] delight was to sport on the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He [went] out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel … to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action…. But he could not always be in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility.

Wishing you the same.

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