The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 26. Equipoise of biography and criticism
The most obvious features of The Lives of the Poets is the equipoise of biography and criticism. Johnson states the facts simply, but connects them with his impression of the writer, and, when he passes to the examination of poems, he is still thinking of their relation to the writer’s personality. He finds the man behind the work. The truth is that he was much more interested in the man than in that part of him which is the author. Of “mere poets,” he thought little; and, though he championed the dignity of authorship, he claimed for it no exclusive privileges, nor held that the poet was a man apart to be measured by standards inapplicable to other men. If the enduring freshness of The Lives of the Poets is due to any one quality more than to another, it is to Johnson’s inexhaustible interest in the varieties of human nature. As detailed biographies, they have been superseded, though they remain our only authority for many facts and anecdotes, and include much that had been inaccessible. He made researches; but they were limited to his immediate needs. It is often easy to trace the sources of his information. He criticised Congreve’s plays without having read them for many years, and he refused for a time to hear Lord Marchmont’s recollections of Pope. Though, in general, he welcomed new details, his aim was to know enough to describe the man and to bring out his individuality in the estimate of his work.