Robert Potter's attack on Doctor Johnson
Robert Potter, the eighteenth century poet and translator of the Greek tragedians, has been described by C.B. Tinker as one of a group of men "who detested Johnson and were detested by him". After the death of the great man they were "ready to flame out into abusive retort"1 to any praise of him. There is undoubtedly evidence of a degree of personal animosity between the two men, and Potter did go on publicly to deride Johnson's literary criticism in two of his publications. Nevertheless Tinker's assessment is an over-simplification so far as it represented the views of Potter. For in spite of everything, he never lost his admiration for Johnson's genius.
In 1778 Dr Johnson had described Potter's widely acclaimed translation of Aeschylus as 'verbiage'2 (a word which is not to be found in his dictionary), and soon afterwards he publicly snubbed the poor country curate, when they were introduced by Mrs Montagu at one of her literary assemblies.3 On another occasion Susan Burney recorded Johnson's mockery of Potter's attempts at blank verse.4 Potter, who had suddenly found fame in his late fifties, was initially overawed by the great man, but was stung by Johnson's ungracious treatment. Eventually he became so infuriated by the account of Thomas Gray (whom Potter had known and respected whilst at Cambridge) published in Johnson's Lives of the poets, that he joined in the chorus of disapproval that followed the appearance of this work.
Johnson had attacked Gray's poetry in terms that many considered to be unnecessarily biased and personal.5 His main objections were on linguistic grounds, claiming that Gray's language was "too luxuriant", criticising his fondness for words "arbitrarily compounded". Potter therefore sought to answer these criticisms, and defend his late friend's use of the Pindaric ode, in An inquiry into some passages in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the
poets: particularly his observations on lyric poetry, and the
odes of Gray, which appeared in 1783.6
Potter's Inquiry was the last of a series of such pamphlet attacks on Johnson's Lives, between 1780 and 1783; it was also one of the more measured and well argued of them. Potter displays considerable knowledge of contemporary poetry and criticism and provides a brief critical survey of the whole work, giving Johnson credit where he feels it is due. He refers to "the many just observations, the solid sense, the deep penetration" which are to be found in the Lives.7 At the same time he criticises Johnson's treatment of both Milton and Lyttelton, whilst reserving his most detailed strictures for the account of Gray.
There has however been some debate as to whether this contribution to the controversy was entirely Potter's own responsibility, or whether it should rather be seen as the final shot in a concerted campaign against Johnson. If the latter was the case, it might be asked who was the instigator?
Writing a decade after the events in question, Boswell had no doubts on this matter:
Whilst the world in general was filled with admiration of Johnson's Lives of the Poets, there were narrow circles in which prejudice and resentment were fostered, and from which attacks of different sorts issued against him. By violent Whigs he was arraigned of injustice to Milton; by some Cambridge men of depreciating Gray; and his expressing with a dignified freedom what he really thought of George, Lord Lyttelton, gave offence to some of the friends of that nobleman, and particularly produced a declaration of war against him from Mrs Montagu, the ingenious Essayist on Shakespeare, between whom and his Lordship a commerce of reciprocal compliments had long been carried on. In this war the smaller powers in alliance were led to engage, at least on the defensive...8
Mrs Montagu had befriended and patronised Potter following the publication of Aeschylus late in 1777. She had encouraged him to produce the annotations to this work and even paid for them to be printed and distributed to subscribers.9 She had also encouraged him to undertake the translation of Euripides the second and final volume of which was completed late in 1782 and published the following year. Potter refers to her twice in his Inquiry, describing her as "a fine writer", and subsequently rather ludicrously as one of "the two best Critics of this or any other age". Thus Potter appears to have been one of "the smaller powers in alliance [who] were led to engage" by their influential patron.10
Boswell's story also had currency at the time; Horace Walpole wrote of Potter's work in a letter to the poet William Mason, "It is sensibly written, is civil to Johnson and yet severe; but though this is the declared intention, I have heard that the true object was to revenge the attack on Lord Lyttelton at the instigation of Mrs Montagu, who has her full share of incense".11
However the charge has been emphatically denied by Elizabeth Montagu's biographers. Reginald Blunt, for example, states that she has been "unfairly represented by her critics as the instigator and the ring-leader of the violent attacks on Johnson".12 In support of this claim, he quoted a passage from a letter she wrote to Mrs. William Robinson in June 1783.
Mr Potter has also ably vindicated his friend Mr Gray's Odes; &c., from cruel and unjust criticism, and this is done with great wit, taste and good manners - ingredients rarely put into the bitters of criticism. Modern wits and modern orators are apt to fall into the Billingsgate style; and from every kind of chastisement made more severe and outrageous than the fault it should correct, one takes the part of the culprit against the harshness of the corrector.13
Similarly Blunt quoted a letter written by her to Lord Hardwicke where she claimed to have been much entertained by the chastisement from the Doctor's Scotch adversary,14 but preferred Mr Potter's vindication, who "has used the rod so mercifully and after having fully proved the doctor guilty of envy and ignorance, that the reader takes it up where he lays it down, and the poor Doctor will have a lash through the whole".15 This evidence might suggest that Potter rather wrote the work on his own volition, although perhaps realising it would meet with the approval for his friend and patron. This interpretation seems to be supported by Potter's text in which the defence of Lyttelton was only incidental; it was Gray whom he wished to champion.
In 1936 Herbert G. Wright, published a detailed study of the text of Potter's Inquiry, together with that of another later critical work by this author The Art of criticism; as exemplified in Dr. Johnson's lives of the most eminent English poets (London, 1789). Whilst Wright accepted "it is quite probable that the defence of Lyttelton was one of Potter's motives", he went on to say "it would be wrong to conceive of him as a mere hireling, who did the bidding of fashionable and aristocratic circles."16
Wright did not however have access to Potter's surviving correspondence, much of which was unpublished and in private hands, and which gives a number of clues to his motives. Whilst Potter's letters do not go so far as to confirm the rumour of an orchestrated campaign, they do indicate that Mrs Montagu was not merely a passive onlooker to his publication.
Potter's Inquiry originated from work which he had undertaken early in 1779, prior to the publication of Johnson's attack on Gray. The publication of his 'annotations on Aeschylus' in the autumn of 1778 had brought Potter to the attention of Hans Stanley, Privy Councillor and Member of Parliament for Southampton. Stanley was then preparing his own translation of Pindar's Odes, and looking for someone to oversee his work and prepare the accompanying annotations and introduction. The two men were introduced by the Honourable Charles Townsend, a mutual acquaintance, and agreed to collaborate on the project.17
Potter did not consider Stanley to be a man of great poetic talent, but the prospect of gaining an influential patron with power to provide him with promotion to a better living was too good to turn down. Writing to Mrs Montagu in June 1779 he said
I find that Gentleman sensible, a good scholar, well acquainted with his author, and patient under my animadversions; as far as it lies in my poor ability his work shall be kept free from faults; but I fear it will want that rich stream of music which ought to flow deep, majestic, smooth, and strong; he may drive the car of Pindar without overturning it, but he has not
The Coursers of ethereal race,
With necks in thunder cloath'd and long-
Although the collaboration between Stanley and Potter was a success and the work was complete by September 1779, the translation was never published. In a fit of depression, which was apparently a family trait, Stanley took his own life by slitting his throat.19 As Potter gloomily reported to his nephew 'the day before I expected him in town the public papers announced his death: so that I not only lost an handsome present, but all my hopes of future preferment'.20 He had no choice but to return to translating Euripides, which task had been set back by nearly a year.
No more was heard of this project until the end of 1782 following the publication of the second volume of Euripides, by which time the final volumes of Johnson's Lives had also appeared. Potter now considered that his career as a translator of Greek dramatists was at an end, since Francklin's translation of Sophocles was readily available. He now wished to turn his attention to lyric poetry, where he hoped to combine his earlier work on Pindar with an essay on contemporary lyricists, which would include a defence of his late friend Thomas Gray. He announced his plans in a letter to Elizabeth Montagu 12 December 1782 :
... my next attempt will be a most beautiful Ode of Pindar, merely for the sake of a preface inquiring into the nature of the sublime lyric compositions of Antient Greece, and pointing out the unrival'd excellence of Mr Gray among the moderns; it will be no difficult task to show that Dr Johnson has no portion nor sense of that aetherial flame, which animates true genius to make daring incursions into unexplored regions of invention, and boldly to strike into the pathless sublime. Were he content to be only dull in himself, one might bear with him; but he is the cause also that dullness is in other men, through the undeserved reverence which the public has long been taught to pay to his dictates; nay, what is worse, with a gigantic insolence he pulls down established characters, and suffers no fame to live within his baleful influence.
He doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
I wish I may have enough of the vivida vis animi to execute this to my own satisfaction, that I may dare to show it you when I come to town;21
By the time this work appeared the following May (1783), after his visit to Mrs Montagu, it had fundamentally changed from a translation of Pindar with an essay supporting Gray, into a direct attack on Johnson's Lives of the Poets.22 There is no question but that it is entirely Potter's work, but a letter written two months later confirms that Mrs Montagu did have a hand in shaping the finished publication.
It is a singular pleasure to me to find that my little publication is so well received; I must think the better of the Public, a sensation agreeable enough, for favouring an attempt to vindicate the injured reputation of persons who were ornaments to their country: I have done an act of justice, I have obliged some persons whom I wish to oblige, I have gratified my own mind, which is the finest thing in the world, and, what weighs with me more than all this, I am honoured with your approbation. To your judicious and animated criticisms I am greatly indebted, I freely availed myself of them; they are igneus vigor, the aetherial spirit which give light and life to my mass;...23
Whether she went further and financed the publication of the fifty page pamphlet, as she had with his notes of Aeschylus, is not known. As the curate of a Norfolk parish, and a country schoolmaster with a large family, Potter was continually short of money, even though by then he had earned a considerable literary reputation.
The publication also seems to have gained Potter influential friends in some other unexpected quarters. A year after its publication, he received a very pleasing letter from the politician Thomas Pitt, recently elevated to become first Baron Camelford,
with his thanks for my defence of his friend Mr Gray, and his uncle Lord Lyttelton. I knew nothing of Lord Camelford or his connections, nor did I expect the thanks of any many alive for the mention I had made of Lord Lyttelton; I knew him to be a great man, I believed him to be a good man; therefore I should have been wanting to virtue and the public had I omitted so fair an occasion of vindicating such a character from a wanton and illiberal aspersion.24
Johnson appears to have foreseen and welcomed the controversy surrounding his work for, in his opinion "the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works".25 According to Boswell,
These minute disturbances gave not the least disturbance to Johnson. He nobly said, when I talked to him of the feeble, though shrill outcry which had been raised. 'Sir, I considered myself as entrusted with a certain portion of the truth. I have given my opinion sincerely; let them shew me where they think me wrong.'26
Six months after Johnson's death, Potter gave a frank account of his feelings towards the great man in a letter to his nephew:
.... Two years ago I published, with my name to it, "An inquiry into some passages in Dr Johnson's Lives of the Poets; particularly his Observations on Lyric Poetry, and the Odes of Gray." pr. 2s. 6d. This was well received; in it you will find a just estimate of the great man's merit, and the epigram you ask for;27 I do not send it, because I would not have a sarcasm spread without my reasons for it, and my acknowlegement of his extraordinary abilities. Dr. Johnson was a very singular character; his virtue & firmness in the cause of religion entitle him to high commendation, but good manners might have made his good morals more amiable. I think not highly of his learning, but very highly of his understanding; as a critic; he is to be read with caution; his strong sense often directs him right, he is then great; but his prejudices mislead his judgement; in his temper he was benevolent, in his life charitable even to an extreme; in his writings he is sour, contemptuous and malignant; with these faults, if he had not great virtues he would have been insufferable; with these virtues, if he had not great faults he would have been highly respectable; nay with all his faults he commanded respect.28
Potter retained an interest in, and respect for, Johnson's work, but deplored the publication of some of the memoirs in the years immediately after his death.
I have seen what surely no man ever wished to see, Sir John Hawkins' "Life of Johnson." How I hate a dull, cold fastidious friend, who writes with the blackest water of Styx, held in an ass's hoof! I wonder they do not make a Bishop of this fellow. Poor Johnson! Under the idea of praise, how is his honest fame degraded by the injudicious and injurious accounts given of him by his friends!29
Likewise his assessment of Boswell's life was
In a former publication this fellow was a playful puppy, and diverted us with his tricks; he is now grown a great dog, and what is worse, a dull dog. He has finely worried his illustrious friend. Johnson is Falstaff's great basket-hilted sword; Bozzy is his dagger.30
Potter went on to complete the trio of Greek tragedians by translating Sophocles in 1788. After publishing this work he at last achieved financial security through ecclesiastical preferment to a Prebend's stall in Norwich Cathedral. The following year he published a far more substantial critical appraisal of Johnson entitled The Art of Criticism. However he was now in his late sixties, and produced a rambling and rather repetitious work, far less balanced and effective than the earlier Inquiry.31
1. C.B. Tinker 'Introduction' in James Boswell, Life of Johnson, (Oxford, 1969), xiv.
2. Boswell, Life of Johnson, 920.
3. E.H. Barker, Literary anecdotes and contemporary reminiscences of Professor Porson and others, (London, 1852), I. 1-2.
4. Letter from Susan Burney to Fanny Burney, 1 August 1779, The early diary of Frances Burney, 2v. (London, 1889), II. 256-8.
5. For an analysis of Johnson's criticisms see James E. Swearingen, 'Johnson's "Life of Gray"', Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 14 (1972) 283-302.
6. An inquiry into some passages in Dr. Johnson's Lives of the
poets: particularly his observations on lyric poetry, and the
odes of Gray, (London, 1783). Potter's holograph manuscript of is in the National Library of Wales, Ms 12499C.
7. For a detailed analysis of the text see Herbert G. Wright, 'Robert Potter as a critic of Dr Johnson' Review of English studies, XII, (1936), 305-321.
8. Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1114.
9. See David Stoker, 'Greek tragedy with a happy ending: the publication of Robert Potter's translations of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles' to be published Studies in Bibliography 46, (1992).
10. On reading this and other references to Mrs Montagu in his 'Life of Johnson, Potter commented "I wish to cudgel Boswell for his abuse of her." (Letter to Edward Jerningham 30 January 1792, Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his friends: a series of eighteenth century letters, (London, 1919), 371).
11. Horace Walpole's Correspondence, ed. W.S. Lewis (Oxford, 1937-), XXIX, 308-9
12. Reginald Blunt, Mrs Montagu, "Queen of the Blues": her letters and friendships from 1762 to 1800, 2 vols. (London [n.d.]) II., 163.
14. J. Thomson Callender, The deformities of Dr Samuel Johnson, selected from his works, (Edinburgh, 1782).
15. Reginald Blunt, Mrs Montagu, "Queen of the Blues", II. 164
16. Wright, 'Robert Potter as a critic of Dr Johnson' 307.
17. National Library of Wales Ms. Wigfair 81, contains Potter's notes and the drafts of several letters relating to this matter.
18. Letter to Elizabeth Montagu 28 June 1779 (Huntington Library MO 4160). The quotation (slightly misquoted) is from Gray's Progress of Poesy, and refers to the horses driving Dryden's car.
19. Horace Walpole's Correspondence, ed. W.S. Lewis XXVIII, ***.
20. Letter to John Conway Potter, N.L.W. Ms. 12433, letter 8.
21. Huntington Library MO 4164. The quotation is from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, I. ii.
22. 'The ninth Pythian ode of Pindar translated' was however included as an appendix to the work (pp.39-50).
23. Letter to E. Montagu July 1 1783 (Huntington Library MO 4165).
24. Letter to E. Montagu April 3 1784 (Huntington Library MO 4166).
25. Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1012.
26. Boswell, Life of Johnson, 1114.
27. Potter's epigram derives from his astonishment that Johnson could praise such minor poets as Blackmore, Yalden and Pomfret, whilst criticising Pope and Gray.
Yon Ass in vain the flow'ry lawns invite;
To mumble thistles his supreme delight.
Such is the Critic, who with wayward pride
To Blackmore gives the praise to Pope denied;
Wakes Yalden's embers, joys in Pomfret's lay,
but sickens at the heav'n-strung lyre of Gray.
28. Letter to John Conway Potter 25 May 1785 (N.L.W. Ms. 12433, letter 21).
29. Letter to Edward Jerningham 23 March 1787, Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his friends, 358
30. Letter to Edward Jerningham 30 January 1792, Lewis Bettany, Edward Jerningham and his friends, 371.
31. Wright, 'Robert Potter as a critic of Dr Johnson', 309-11.