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Samuel Johnson, Vies des poètes anglais

Choix des textes, traductions et présentation, trad. Denis Bonnecase et Pierre Morère. Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2015. 652 pp. ISBN 978‑235821-108-6
Howard Weinbrot
p. 309-312
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JOHNSON, SAMUEL. – Vies des poètes anglais. Choix des textes, traductions et présentation, trad. Denis Bonnecase et Pierre Morère. Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2015. 652 pp. ISBN 978‑235821-108-6

Texte intégral

1Professors Denis Bonnecase and Pierre Morère have made a major contribution. Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1779-81) are available to French readers for the first time in over 160 years. The Vies des poètes anglais are Britain’s most important omnibus contribution to literary criticism, literary theory, biography, and the development of national poetic canons. They illumine Johnson’s vast contributions to these, and other, aspects of eighteenth-century thought and culture.

2Johnson was admired in France from the inception of the Rambler in 1750. This was followed by praise of the Dictionary (1755), Rasselas (1759), his edition and Preface to Shakespeare (1765), and consequent abbreviated translations of the Life of Richard Savage (1744) between 1765 and 1771. By 1779 French readers had long recognized Johnson’s achievements, including his life-writing. Pierre Rousseau’s Journal encyclopédique acknowledged the first installment of the Lives of the Poets’ sixty volumes, when its lives still were prefaces biographical and critical. Rousseau sees “un jugement impartial qui présente leurs [the poems’] beautés sur la même ligne que leurs défauts” (6.2 [1779]: 277). The Journal soon reviews the next two volumes of the “belle collection” and notes that the lives “ne méritent pas moins d’éloges pour la saine critique qui y règne” (6.3 [1779]: 458). Such affirmations encouraged publication of one volume of Johnson’s Vies des poëtes Anglois les plus célébres in 1823 and the completed set in 1843. We now have a much-needed modern translation of nineteen lives. Bravissimo.

3The helpful Introduction stresses Johnson’s enduring reputation, his major influence in the second half of the eighteenth century and his distinction as one of Britain’s great poet-critics. He was as warm a student of life as a student of learning, and used each to great effect in his life and art. The Lives often reflect Johnson’s personal traits, including his sympathy for the poor, the helpless, the slaves in the West Indies (19), and poets suffering from poverty or varied illnesses – but not to those who caused their own grief. One thinks of Collins in the first and Rochester in the second group. The translators move deftly into the Vies des poètes’ other defining traits – one of which is the moral basis both of art and of criticism. Johnson almost always stresses “la piété et la moralité des poètes dont il brosse le portrait” (14). He nonetheless is tolerant of religions other than his own Anglican church (16) and recognizes the breadth of agreement within Christian sects.

4Johnson’s guiding aesthetic concept is adherence to nature, which allows him to censure the pastoral as “artificiel et trop éloigné de la nature et […] de la vie réelle en général” (17). Experience, recognition of the realities of life as transformed in art, is a secular balance to his emphasis upon piety and virtue. Examining the text as text allows Johnson to distinguish between the man and his work. Waller is a wretch; but his poetry’s polished verse leads to the later perfection in Dryden and Pope. Nor does a good life denote good poetry (21) as, I suggest, with Sir Richard Blackmore. Johnson dislikes John Milton’s personality and his republicanism, but he knows that Paradise Lost “parmi les créations de l’esprit humain […] peut prétendre à la première place” (184). The translators know that for Johnson “La vie influe sur l’œuvre, mais elle n’est pas l’œuvre. Son point de vue est celui du moraliste, jamais celui du prédicateur” (43).

5The Introduction includes useful discussions of some especially prominent sections of the Vies des poètes – the metaphysicals, analysis of wit, Milton and the sublime, and Pope’s poetry as “un sol fertile cultivé avec soin” to reflect both nature and art (40). By the Introduction’s conclusion a reader is likely to turn to the lives and find instruction and delight from Johnson and his “rôle éminent de critique, son écriture pleine d’autorité,” his “lucidité [... et] stature imposante” (44).

  • 1  For Young see, Dr. Johnson’s Table Talk: Or, Conversations of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL. D (Lond (...)
  • 2  James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford: Claren (...)

6This is an important and welcome work, within which there are some matters that want reconsideration and for which I offer collegial exchange. What is the English copy-text for these Vies des poètes anglais? It includes the “Avant-Propos de l’Auteur à la Troisième Édition,” so perhaps the translators use the third edition of 1783. If so, why? Their discussion of the “Life of Milton” well captures Johnson’s joint admiration for Paradise Lost and his awareness of its necessary limitations as a human construct (198). He never, though, expresses “répulsion” toward it or allows his dislike of Milton’s republicanism to color his admiration for the poem (41). Boswell was not Johnson’s “premier biographe” (13). His 1791 volumes were preceded by fourteen short memorials, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) and Sir John Hawkins’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1787). Johnson’s “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” (“le patriotisme est le dernier refuge du gredin”) does not distinguish between “le patriotisme authentique” and “un chauvinisme étriqué, arriviste et hypocrite” (19). Johnson alludes to the self-styled “Patriots,” the post-1725 Whig opposition to the Walpole administration whose policies they deplored. Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) hardly are a “nouvelle orientation” to the creative process (36, 36 n. 1). Johnson heard Young read his book to Samuel Richardson, and “was surprised to find him receive as novelties what I thought very common maxims.”1 Johnson did not wander the streets with Richard (not Robert, 9) Savage because he had no money and was embarrassed to be supported by his wife’s modest fortune. By 1738 he had enough hack work from the Gentleman’s Magazine to keep him and Tetty in respectable lodgings. The translators overstate the power of mid-eighteenth-century “mécènes toujours aristocrates” (10). Now, Johnson says, an author courts the public not the grandees: “A man goes to a bookseller and gets what he can. We have done with patronage.”2

7I hope that Bonnecase and Morère abandon their fallible guide to Johnson’s criticism – René Wellek’s 1955 conceptually anorexic chapter in the History of Modern Literary Criticism. He places Johnson in a purgatory of “neo-classicism” that is not yet ready to launch Johnson into the heaven of “Romanticism.” This antiquated categorizing yields Wellek’s bizarre notion that Johnson does not distinguish between life and art (28) and the translators’ concept of Johnson and “neo-classic rules.” They rightly say that (most!) rules are not important to Johnson, for whom flexibility of mind is a defining trait. He would not have recognized the power of critical sanctity: “Peu lui importent, au fond, les sacro-saintes règles néoclassiques” (42).

  • 3  Elie Catherine Fréron, Lettre VIII in L’Année littéraire (1783), 6: 150, on Jean-Pierre Louis, mar (...)

8These reservations do not diminish my admiration for so helpful an Introduction to the Vies des poètes anglais. The translation should be welcome to the French general reader, students of biography, and students of British poetry and critical theory. Bonnecase and Morère implicitly encourage further study of Johnson’s many other works in many genres that so justify his reputation. Samuel Johnson left for France on 15 September 1775. Thanks to Bonnecase and Morère he returns for an extended visit, makes new friends and fulfills Fréron’s prediction in 1783. The Vies des poètes constitutes an “Ouvrage charmant, in 4 vol & qui est fait pour être goûté en France, s’il y est introduit par un bon interprète.”3 C’est bien dit et bien fait.

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1  For Young see, Dr. Johnson’s Table Talk: Or, Conversations of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL. D (London, 1785), 197.

2  James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1934-50) 5: 59.

3  Elie Catherine Fréron, Lettre VIII in L’Année littéraire (1783), 6: 150, on Jean-Pierre Louis, marquis de Fontanes, translation of Pope’s Essay on Man.

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Howard Weinbrot, « Samuel Johnson, Vies des poètes anglais », XVII-XVIII, 73 | 2016, 309-312.

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Howard Weinbrot, « Samuel Johnson, Vies des poètes anglais », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 73 | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 avril 2017. URL :

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Howard Weinbrot

The University of Wisconsin, Madison

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