The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 12. Johnsons Earlier Verse
His school verses, which were preserved by the pride of a teacher and the admiration of a friend, and printed by Boswell, are of little interest except in relation to his later work. They show the study of The Rape of the Lock and the translation of Homer, and they occasionally indulge in the liberties of Dryden’s triple rime and alexandrine—liberties from which Johnson afterwards refrained, though he came to say that the art of concluding the sense in couplets “has perhaps been with rather too much constancy pursued.” The piece entitled “The Young Authour” is a first study for the great passage in The Vanity of Human Wishes on the scholar’s life, and, in the the music of the metre, and in the turn and balance of the expression, already discovers the quality of his mature verse. He acquired a reputation for ease in writing and for readiness to help a friend in need. His verses Written at the request of a gentleman to whom a lady had given a sprig of myrtle were remembered as having been made in five minutes, and those To Miss Hickman, playing on the Spinnet, or others like them, led the girl’s father to opine that their author could write about anything. What he called “the endearing elegance of female friendship” had been, long before he met Mrs. Thrale, an effective spur to his facility. Some of the pieces written while he was still in search of occupation in the midlands afterwards found their way into The Gentleman’s Magazine and Mrs. Williams’s Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766). None of them is more characteristic than Friendship, An Ode. On the other hand, the collected editions include several pieces clearly not his. He could not have written To Lyce, an elderly Lady. It is no less certain that, though he did write some verses To Stella, the chance that a piece is addressed to Stella is not, as his editors seem to have believed, an argument of his authorship. His early poems have still to be discriminated; but their chief interest will always be that they were written by the author of London and The Vanity of Human Wishes.