Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dr. Johnson is picky, or, What else is new?

As I read a bit of William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity today, I enjoyed the following passage, which shows the similar, if, in this case, opposed, types of rigor brought to bear on poetry by Empson and Samuel Johnson:
It is usual, of course, for a poet to feel his subject is a good one because it throws light on matters of another sort, because it illustrates life, or what not; such an unexpressed ambiguity is a very normal feature of good poetry. Often what on a first reading seems faulty or irrelevant has been put in to insist on this feeling; that is not to say it is not genuinely faulty, because unnecessary. Dr. Johnson's objections to Gray's Cat can, I think, only be answered in this way.
Selina, the cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines--
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat's averse to fish?
the first refers merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat.
The Doctor complains here that the separation is too neat, which is true enough; but since cat and nymph have been confused in the first part of the verse,it is a relief to the reason (such as he would have been the first to admit into poetry) that they should be separated at the end of it. As to the violence done to language, it is justified by a sort of honesty, because we are meant to be so conscious of it; that we are asked to make that collocation is the point of hte poem; and Johnson's pretty distinction between merely and only is unfair, because both nymph and cat are the main subject.
I rarely spend time on thoughts of an afterlife, but I do enjoy imagining a heavenly coffee-house encounter between the two in which they--while agreeing with Gray that "one false step is ne'er retrieved," and that one should "be with caution bold"--could hash out their different opinions of his execution of his theme.

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