"A fine rhetorical study."
Examining the psychological and philosophical doubt that lay at the heart of Johnson's character and intellect, Martin Maner reveals in the biographical studies of Savage, Swift, Milton, and Pope an ingrained pattern of dialectical argument and a skeptical attitude toward evidence--a method that involves the reader in judgments about the poets as it conveys Johnson's own understanding of truth. In the Life of Savage, Johnson moves from thesis to antithesis, generating out of opposing emotional responses--irony and sympathy, ridicule and pathos-an understanding of the man. Dialectically undercutting the conclusions of previous biographers of Swift and Milton, Johnson fashions a new, somewhat acidic estimation of Swift and a portrait of Milton that engages contemporary questions of the probable and the marvelous. The Life of Pope, Johnson's greatest dialectical achievement, alternates between blame and praise, public and private realms, weaving tone, context, and analogy into great, contrasting patterns of inquiry and judgment.
Establishing the centrality of a dialectical method in the Lives of the Poets, Martin Maner links the rise of biography as well as Johnson's interest in the form to the shift in epistemology brought about by empiricism. In the new patterns of thought of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, biography--the estimation of a life through sifting of historical events and evidence--was the most philosophical of endeavors, and Johnson its greatest practitioner.
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