Can anyone follow Dr Johnson's 'Lives of the English Poets'? Kate Clanchy finds essential reading in Michael Schmidt's scholarly attempt.
WHEN Doctor Johnson started writing his Lives of the English Poets in 1779, he was quite clear in his intentions. He was putting poets in their places - in their proper seats in the literary canon and in their historical settings - so that the common reader could appreciate their work.
This was a moral and commercial undertaking, as sales of the work and the understanding of the audience would be improved by Doctor Johnson's explanations.
It was the kind of enterprise, in short, which would have boggled a modern focus group, scored zero on audience demographics, and probably never got past the proposal stage.
It's difficult to see how Michael Schmidt's compendious volume did either. After all, it sweeps from the 14th century to the present without presenting any information about poets or poems that is not already available in guides, companions, encyclopedias, or increasingly, on all-singing, all-graphic-producing CD-Roms.
Nor does it seek an audience by presenting new or saucy insights into the biographies, proposing an entirely new canon, representing or re-presenting a special interest group, or by pursuing a particular theory. Schmidt relies instead, like Dr Johnson, on the depth and breadth of hisknowledge, and his excellence as a reader.
But it is exactly this old-fashioned scholarliness that makes the book a delight to read. Schmidt's judgments are as fearlessly opinionated as Dr Johnson's, but rooted in an understanding of the reader's emotional response to a poem.
Thus, he sadly admits it is now "impossible not to think ungenerously of Dryden", before spending half a chapter persuasively setting him in a pivotal role in English verse.
His summaries, particularly of hoary early monsters such as Piers Plowman, are illuminating and enticing. Above all, Schmidt's close readings show how the architecture of verse creates its meaning and how that architecture changes with the language and events of its time.
The biographies and history are wound round these readings and summaries, making it clear that, for Schmidt, to write a poem is to engage fully with history and language, and therefore easily the most thrilling things the poets will ever do.
In this light, even stiff figures such as "Moral Gower" suddenly appear rounded, foregrounded and as colourful as Byron.
Schmidt also possesses some distinctly un-Johnsonian virtues. He does not, for a start, believe women's poetry has anything to do with a dog walking on its hind legs. He includes women poets in great numbers across the whole historical sweep, acknowledges as a simple matter of fact the many factors that conspire to hinder their writing, and then judges them as poets with the same yardstick he applies to the men.
Thus he waxes lyrical over Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Daryush, radiantly demonstrates the genius of Emily Dickinson, but remarks sternly of the early American poet Anne Bradstreet, that "her poems cannot be made any better than they are".
Nor is he prejudiced against Scots. Robert Henryson and William Dunbar appear in all their serious, difficult, glory; Robert Burns is portrayed as neither a tea-towel poet nor a socialist flag-waver but as a gifted artist with a varied output.
Schmidt is inclusive, in fact, of all sorts of poetry in English - a special pleasure of this volume is the way the story of American, Australian and Caribbean poetry is presented as one integrated, interdependent narrative. Thus can we read about Walt Whitman with Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson with Christina Rossetti, or, in more recent times, about Derek Walcott with Seamus Heaney, and understand the poets' sometimes unlikely influences, and their places in all-English poetry rather than merely within national boundaries.
This book will surely create its own audience. It can be read headlong on a journey or browsed through. It is accessible enough for the general reader, learned enough for the specialist. It would make a potted degree course for the hard-pressed student or, in the course of a weekend, turn a callow A-level student into a university's ideal English candidate.
I hope all this makes pots of money for Weidenfeld andNicolson. They have done Dr Johnson an honour by taking a risk purely on quality of reading and writing. But then, as Schmidt, a publisher himself, reminds us, publishers are the unsung heroes of English literature.