(Note: The quotes below are from the Bohn's Standard Library version of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets, edited by Mrs. Alexander Napier. The rights-free version of the text is available for download on Google Books.)
One of my favorite contemporary authors, William Gibson, famed for his cyberpunk Neuromancer novel, has said, on some You Tube post I saw from him from around the time, I think, of the release of his novel Spook Country, that he believed that the idea of "cool" came as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
I actually just did some hunting and found the YouTube post: William Gibson on Cool
"Cool" -- that modern idiom of fashionable approval which rules so much of our lives -- is a big theme in Gibson's work. His main character in the novel Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard, I believe, has the job of being a "Coolhunter," a real-world job, apparently, where a person is assigned to judge the "coolness" of a product or logo -- i.e. its acceptability by a wide audience.
As I understood Gibson, "cool" was a term that came with the Industrial Revolution, with machines, and with the accompanying concepts of effortlessness. If something is cool, it is, in some way effortlessly effective. You have power without having to raise your body temperature. Or, possibly, you exert your own social power without necessarily having to raise the body temperature of others.
What Gibson said made a lot of sense to me -- that is, if I understood it correctly, which -- knowing me -- isn't always certain! But I still agree with Gibson in a lot of ways about this idea.
But I was actually surprised, on reading through the first half of the second volume of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets, to find hints or clues to the possibility that "cool" really came about through Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the creators of the daily journals "The Tatler" and "The Spectator."
The "Tatler" was the first of the two papers to be created, and it was made as a direct response to the condition of English manners. England had long been torn apart by Civil Wars which largely centered around factions of religion -- despite what all of their causes may have been.
Even after the Civil Wars, Reformation, and Restoration, there were still revolutions. Cromwell murdered Charles I. Cromwell was defeated and Charles II took over the throne. This was the period of Restoration. But after Charles II died, King James II took over the throne. Suddenly there was more religious strife in England: King James II brought Catholicism back to England.
King William removed King James II from the throne, and the Anglican religion was again restored to England. Queen Anne succeeded King William. By this time, the confict in England had turned from one of religion to one of parties. The Whigs were set up in opposition to the Tories. And I really can't say what the one stood for and what the other stood for. But it seems to me that the main point was, if you were a Whig, you hated the Tories, and if you were a Tory, you hated the Whigs.
I believe that Samuel Johnson felt that English thought had become lopsided. Almost all the focus of English people was on these very high-level issues. And almost everybody had access to these issues, regardless of whether they could understand the issues. This was because propaganda was constantly being spread. And the propaganda, if not actually in daily papers, was being circulated in papers just as cheap as daily papers.
So this cheap, widely-circulated information, about very high-level issues and nothing else, was becoming the cultural staple of the world. As Johnson says:
"This mode of conveying cheap and easy knowledge began among us in the Civil Wars, when it was much the interest of either party to raise and fix the prejudices of the people."
"Hitherto nothing had been conveyed to the people, in this commodious manner, but controversy relating to the Church or State; of which they taught many to talk, whom they could not teach to judge."
So plenty of people were learning about these high-level topics, but nobody was learning how to acquire the temperance of wit and wisdom that would help them really understand how to judge and make decisions on these topics.
Joseph Addison and Richard Steele saw the situation in their age and hoped to remedy it. They wished to create a cheap, daily paper that would follow in the manner of Casa and Castiglione, people who, in Johnson's words, taught:
"the minuter decencies and inferior duties, to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are rather ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation."
These lessons, Johnson argues, would be taught by a "master of common life," which England did not yet have. Before being a judge of higher-level ideas, one might do well to be a common judge of propriety -- an "arbiter elegantarium."
Johnson expresses his belief that daily papers are the best vehicle for the propagation of education in this sphere:
"For this purpose nothing is so proper as the frequent publication of short papers, which we read not as study but as amusement. If the subject be slight, the treatise likewise is short."
With short papers like this, Johnson says, "The busy may find time, and the idle may find patience."
The real strength, as Johnson seems to have seen it, with the pamphlets of the Civil War controversists, was that they provided "cheap and easy knowledge" (though I'd probably put "knowledge" in its own set of quotes). But this "cheap and easy knowledge could be put to better use. As Johnson says:
"An instructor like Addison was now wanting, whose remarks being superficial, might be easily understood, and being just, might prepare the mind for more attainments."
So cheap and easy information, with just thoughts added, would be a cheap and easy knowledge which could actually help people. Johnson doesn't seem to think being superficial is so bad. And he doesn't seem to think that easy lessons, "Dummies' Guides," I guess we might call them, are so bad. He also doesn't think too lowly of a middle path for morality -- not too high, and not too low:
"As a teacher of wisdom, [Addison] may be confidently followed... His morality is neither dangerously lax, nor impractically rigid. All the enchantment of fancy, and all the cogency of argument, are employed to recommend to the reader his real interest, the care of pleasing the Author of his being."
And this quality, I believe, leads thematically into the passage where Johnson actually uses the epithet "cool":
"It has been suggested that the Royal Society was instituted soon after the Restoration, to divert the attention of the people from publick discontent. The 'Tatler' and 'Spectator' had the same tendency: they were published at a time when two parties, loud, restless, and violent, each with plausible declarations, and each perhaps without any distinct termination of its views, were agitating the nation; to minds heated with political contest, they supplied cooler and more inoffensive reflections; and it is said by Addison, in a subsequent work, that they had a perceptible influence upon the conversation of that time, and taught the frolick and the gay to unite merriment with decency; an effect which they can never wholly lose, while they continue to be among the first books by which the sexes are initiated in the elegances of knowledge."
In my opinion, Johnson's ideal of "coolness" would be more directed toward domesticity, which I believe was taken as an ideal for people after Queen Elizabeth's time, and was embodied as a wise way of living by John Milton. But it also shows itself in Addison, as Johnson says:
"His humor... is so happily diffused as to give the grace of novelty to domestic scenes and daily occurrences."
Johnson's praise for most of the poets in the whole work, as I've read it so far, has been when the verse is elegant, spritely, easy, lively. The greater poets are marked for copiousness of sentiment or force of imagination. But, especially with drama, one great theme of praise from Johnson depends on how well the writer portrays domestic scenes.
Thus, with Nicholas Rowe, Johnson says that Rowe's play Tamerlane, an allegorical play comparing King William's feats with those of Tamerlane, is not understandable. But of Rowe's play The Fair Penitent, Johnson says it is:
"One of the most pleasing tragedies on the stage... The story is domestick, and therefore easily received by the imagination, and assimilated to common life; the diction is exquisitely harmonious, and soft or spritely as occasion requires."
Again, Johnson comments on Rowe's play Jane Shore:
"This play, consisting chiefly of domestick scenes and private distress, lays hold upon the heart. The wife is forgiven because she repents, and the husband is honored because he forgives. This therefore is one of the pieces which we still welcome on the stage."
But what's also interesting to me about the long passage above is what Johnson says about the Royal Society: that it was set up to divert people from discontent after the Restoration. The Royal Society was started by a group of intellectuals in England who, after the Restoration, met on a regular basis to hold discussions on philosophy and science.
Here is another interesting example of people trying to spread knowledge about something other than Anglicans, Papists, and Puritans, or Whigs and Tories. The members of the Royal Society were trying to give the English people a broader base of knowledge. A broader base of knowledge would help people make wise decisions.
The history of the Royal Society was written by Thomas Sprat, who also wrote the Life of Abraham Cowley for the edition of Cowley's poems which was printed after Cowley's death.
Now, in Samuel Johnson's terms, I've come to think of Abraham Cowley as a kind of bellwether for the English poets. Joseph Addison has one aspect of "cool" -- the aspect of elegance and effortlessness.
But for Johnson, effortlessness and elegance are typically products of coming of good breeding. People who don't come of good breeding can be brilliant, geniuses, even terrific statesmen. But they can't be "cool" in the sense of doing things elegantly and effortlessly. I'm not sure why this would be the case.
Abraham Cowley, in my opinion, might stand for the kind of "coolness" we think of with rock stars. His verses are wild and free. His style of Pindaric Odes was, for his time, the epitome of poetic freedom. And many people who wrote poetry mimicked his style.
This wild side to coolness is not in Johnson's definition of coolness. And, in fact, Johnson -- though he seems to revere Cowley more than he'd like to admit -- seems to judge a poet by how he acts in relation to Cowley.
Thus, Johnson says of Sprat:
"He considered Cowley as a model; and supposed that, as he was imitated, perfection was approached. Nothing therefore but Pindarick liberty was to be expected. There is in his production not want of such conceits as he thought excellent; and those of our judgment may be settled by the first that appears in his praise Cromwell, where he says that Cromwell's 'fame, like man, will grow white as it grows old.'"
That dizzingly wide conceit makes me giggle every time I read it. And, for some reason, that's exactly why I think it's good. But I think that comes from listening to rock music, which is full of dizzying conceits -- when it's good.
But Johnson does seem to equate a love for Cowley with a love for licentiousness. The first poet in the second volume of the Lives, Edmund Smith, is probably -- morally -- the wildest person in the whole first half of the volume. I'd assume he's probably the wildest of all the poets in the second volume -- but I'm not into the second half yet.
Edmund Smith went to Christ Church in Oxford and was so ill-behaved there that he basically got expelled -- *after* he was a Bachelor! But Christ Church, Johnson claims, had such indulgence toward geniuses, that it kept him on until he'd finally just gotten so wild and rowdy that Christ Church had at last, in 1705, to kick Smith out altogether.
Smith came to London and was treated well there by a number of people who also appreciated genius. He wrote some really good works, including his Phaedra and the elegy to his good friend John Philips. But he continued in his wild ways.
In fact, in London, Smith became known as Captain Rag -- a name he received from the habit he had of never paying any attention to his dress. Captain Rag became in his own right, as a second persona for Smith, a legend in London.
Nevertheless, Smith was a genius, albeit a fiery, impulsive one, as Johnson points out in this quote:
"One practice he had, which was easily observed: if any thought or image was presented to his mind that he could use or improve, he did not suffer it to be lost; but, amidst the jollity of a tavern, or in the warmth of conversation, very diligently committed it to paper."
As well as being impulsive, Johnson quotes one man, Gilbert Walmsey, as saying of Smith, or the Captain: "Rag was a man of great veracity."
Captain Rag proposed to write a play about Lady Jane Grey. One of the patrons of his genius, a Mr. George, allowed Rag to live with him in Wiltshire for quiet and concentration. However, at this point, Smith's over-indulgence, if not his licentiousness, was fatal:
"Here he found such opportunities of indulgence as did not much forward his studies, and particularly some strong ale, too delicious to be resisted. He ate and drank till he found himself plethorick; and then, resolving to ease himself by evacuation, he wrote to an apothecary in the neighborhood a prescription of a purge so forcible, that the apothecary thought it his duty to delay it till he had given notice of its danger. Smith, not pleased with the contradiction of a shopman, and boastful of his own knowledge, treated the notice with rude contempt, and swallowed his own medicine, which, in July, 1710, brought him to the grave."
So this wild poet, really the last wild poet of the era, a poet of William's and Anne's reigns, but more like the poets from the days of Charles II, is characterized by Johnson as poor, wild, licentious, and over-indulgent. And -- who does he take as his model?
"He has several imitations of Cowley."
"The simile by which an old man returning the fire of his youth is compared to Aetna flaming through the snow, which Smith has used with great pomp, is stolen from Cowley, however little worth the labor of conveyance."
But the most interesting character given by Johnson in conjunction with Johnson's admiring distaste for Cowley is that of Matthew Prior.
Matthew Prior was born in 1664 in Dorsetshire. Little is known about his family. But Johnson assumes that Prior's father was a "Joiner in London." In Johnson's mind, this would equate Prior's father, I'd assume, with one of Bottom's theatre company in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Only, in the play, the position is charming, where in Johnson's reality, it's slightly disgusting.
Matthew Prior was a man of incredible gifts. And Prior's life is a story of rising through the ranks, to become an incredibly important statesman.
In the beginning, Prior was a poet in King William's era. Johnson seems pretty certainly to claim that King William himself was not a great patron of the arts. But, according to Johnson, many of the most powerful people of William's court were patrons of poets.
Prior, along with Montague, later the earl of Halifax, wrote the comic response to Dryden's "Hind and the Panther," the "City Mouse and the Country Mouse." This got both Montague and Prior preferments at court, although Montague saw his preferments first.
Montague went on to become a great patron for poets, introducing Joseph Addison to Court. Addison, in addition to creating the "Tatler" and "Spectator" with Steele, as well as writing such great works as "Rosamund" and "Cato," rose through the ranks himself, eventually becoming Secretary of State. This was largely thanks to Montague.
Montague also saw dramatist William Congreve's talents later on and gave Congreve preferments that basically lasted him all through his life.
But Montague was the son of an earl, while Prior was the son of Snug. Nevertheless, he and Montague both received preferments. Prior's position sent him to The Hague, where Prior acted as secretary to the embassy when "an assembly of princes and nobles, to which Europe has scarcely seen anything equal," was forming a plot against King Louis of France.
This plot didn't acutally work out. But King William himself was so impressed with how Prior conducted himself during this that he made Prior one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber. And, as Johnson says of Prior, "he is supposed to have passed some of the next years in the quiet cultivation of literature and poetry."
Prior had a great admiration for King William. Prior was, Johnson says, "professedly encomiastic." He seemed to have no problem with writing poems to flatter people. But his poems to King William, Johnson says, were genuine:
"King William supplied copious materials for either verse or prose. His whole life had been action, and none ever denied him the resplendent qualities of steady resolution and personal courage. He was really in Prior's mind what he represents him in his verses; he considered him as a hero, and was accustomed to say, that he praised others in compliance with the fashion, but that in celebrating King William he followed his inclination."
Nevertheless, as Johnson describes King William as "resplendent," it must also be remembered that he described King William as no great patron of the poets. King William's life of "action" was, I believe, a bit repugnant to Johnson, just as Prior's upbringing was.
Prior ended up serving as an ambassador on a number of occasions in France. Prior performed so well that he was remembered fondly at the French Court.
When Queen Anne took the throne, England was so overwhelmed with war that an ambassador, a person mainly used, in Johnson's mind, for drawing up treaties, wasn't of much use.
But finally Queen Anne wanted peace with France. She sent Prior to France. Prior brought back some French ambassadors. Queen Anne, these ambassadors, and Prior, all met in Prior's house to come up with a treaty for peace. This led to the Conferences of Utrecht, in 1712, which were supposed to lead to peace. But things still moved slowly.
Queen Anne sent Bolingbroke as ambassador and Prior as a private representative to make peace in France. Bolingbroke had to go back to England. Shrewsbury was sent to France to accompany Prior. But he didn't want to work with somebody so mean-born as Prior. So he left. Prior was left to himself and took the role of ambassador.
Prior must have done a good job as ambassador: when Queen Anne made a misstep in some diplomatic move, the former ambassador, Bolingbroke, wrote this message to Prior:
"Dear Mat, hide the nakedness of thy country; and give the berst turn thy fertile brain will furnish thee with to the blunders of thy country-men, who are not much better politicians than the French are poets."
He had such an intimate relationship with the French court that once, when Prior returned to England, King Louis sent Queen Anne this message:
"I shall expect, with impatience, the return of Mr. Prior, whose conduct is very agreeable to me."
But Queen Anne died, the Tories lost power in England, and Prior found himself out of favor -- while he was still in France! He wasn't getting paid. He was incurring debts. He was finally recalled to England. But he couldn't leave France until he'd paid his debts. But he wasn't getting paid so he could pay his debts, "though," as Johnson says, "his old friend Montague was now at the head of the Treasury."
On returning to England, Prior found himself put under house arrest. According to the Whigs now in power, Prior's having held the conference between the French and Queen Anne in his own house was considered an act of treason. Prior was put on trial and imprisoned for a little over two years. Finally, a while after an Act of Grace had been enstated by King George, Prior was granted freedom.
Prior was left with next to nothing to live on. However, Prior's friends, including the poet Jonathan Swift, and lord Herley, helped Prior put together a volume of his poetry, which he sold on subscription, gathering two-thousand pounds from the sales. Lord Herley doubled this sum so that Prior could buy Dora-hall, where he spent the remainder of his life in quiet and contemplation.
This story is very much like the story of Cowley -- not quite the story of Cowley as Johnson tells it -- but the story of Cowley as gleaned from various bits of Johnson, Sprat, and the scholars.
Cowley distinguished himself intellectually and became a favorite at court. He was sent on dangerous missions to deliver messages during the Civil Wars. He eventually followed the Queen to France, where he became her official letter-writer. But when he returned to England he was put in prison. He was basically, thereafter, put under house arrest.
When the Restoration occurred, Cowley would have been forgotten altogether, had it not been for his friends, who helped him get a place to live in peace and contemplation for the remainder of his years.
The difference is that Prior was a bit more active than Cowley -- and that he had a bit less poetic talent. Nevertheless the story is similar: a mean-born man proves himself and rises through the ranks to become trusted to royalty.
Johnson mentions Cowley in conjunction with Prior on three occasions. In the first, he says that Prior's poem cycle "Amorous Effusions" "have the coldness of Cowley, without his wit."
Johnson often talks about Cowley being emotionally cold. I think this is a compensating reaction to what Cowley really is in a lot of cases: explosively hot.
In the next instance, Johnson says that in his poem "Solomon," Prior perhaps "thought, like Cowley, that hemistichs ought to be admitted into heroic poetry."
But the most telling paragraph on Prior by Johnson is this:
"Some of his poems are written without regularity of measures; for, when he commenced poet, we had not recovered from our Pindarick infatuation [which, in Johnson's mind, is Cowley's direct responsibility]; but he probably lived to be convinced that the essence of verse is order and consonance."
In other words, Prior grew up mean-born, like Cowley, but he attained some elegance in his later age.
This might seem like an unfair equivalence of terms. But I think I'm right in making it. When Johnson talks about Prior's character he says that nobody ever spoke bad about Prior's character. But he then turns around to say of Prior that:
"Tradition represents him as willing to descend from the dignity of the poet and the statesman to the low delights of mean company. His Chloe [in the "Amorous Effusions" poem cycle"] was sometimes ideal; but the woman with whom he cohabited was a despicable drab of the honest species. One of his wenches, perhaps Chloe, while he was absent from his house, stole his plate and ran away."
Johnson mentions that some people have tried to guess why Prior would like "the low delights of mean company." The people guess that Prior had spent so much of his time in extremely lofty intellectual pursuits that he could only relieve himself by spending time with people who were not so morally lofty. It would be a kind of Jungian compensation.
But Johnson thinks this idea is just silly. Prior was mean-born. So of course he'd love "the low delights of mean company." As Johnson concludes Prior's life:
"A survey of the life and writings of Prior may exemplify a sentence which he doubtless understood well, when he read Horace at his uncle's; 'the vessel long retains the scent which it first receives.' In his private relaxation he revived the tavern, and in his amorous pedantry he exhibited the college. But on higher occasions and nobler subjects, when habit was overpowered by the necessity of reflection, he wanted not wisdom as a statesman, nor elegance as a poet."
So Prior, as a mean-born vessel, always will "retain" the "scent" of a mean-born vessel. And Johnson's quality of a mean-born genius, versus a high-born genius, in my opinion, is that the high-born genius can do things with ease and measure, while mean-born geniuses take effort to achiever their greatness, and never do it with satisfactory measure.
This idea, I think, is exemplified in the following passage:
"His diction, however, is more his own than that of any among the successors of Dryden. ... His phrases are original, but they are sometimes harsh; as he has inherited no elegances, none has he bequeathed. His expression has every mark of laborious study; the line seldom seems to have been formed at once; the words did not come till they were called, and were then put by constraint into their places, where they do their duty, but do it sullenly. In his greater compositions there may be found more rigid stateliness than graceful dignity."
Matthew Prior's Life ends on the same note as William Congreve's Life, which directly follows Prior's in Johnson's book. But in Congreve's Life, the paragraph is in praise of Congreve as being the person finally to help the English poets break free of Cowley's style, rather than a criticism, like in Prior's case, for being influenced by it:
"Yet to [Congreve] it must be confessed that we are indebted for the correction of a national error, and for the cure of our Pindarick madness. He first taught the English writers that Pindar's odes were regular; and though certainly he had not the fire requisite for the higher species of lyric poetry, he has shown us that enthusiasm has its rules, and that in mere confusion there is neither grace nor greatness."
Well, who is this person who could have cured England of low-born Cowley's "Pindarick madness?" William Congreve, who, as Johnson says, was "descended from a family in Staffordshire, of so great antiquity that it claims a place among the few that extend their line beyond the Norman Conquest." A well-born, high-born Englishman -- with an important father as well.
Congreve's life, like Milton's (for the most part), and like Dryden's, was all about writing. His writing was recognized by Montague, then Halifax. Congreve was given easy work so that he could continue writing comfortably. And he didn't seem to have ambitions above his easy positions. He wasn't like Addison, and he wasn't like Prior.
He was, then, a high-born man of ancient stock who lived a somewhat domestic life, focused on studying. It was this kind of personality that produced poetry which managed to break free of that wildness which Johnson seems to characterize directly with Cowley.
But there are some other interesting things that Johnson says about Congreve's style of writing:
"Congreve has merit of the highest kind; he is an original writer, who borrowed neither the models of his plot, nor the manner of his dialogue."
Apparently the highest-born man we've seen so far, in Johnson's cosmology, would have the highest merit. But in the following passages, we see how Johnson equated Congreve's poetry with an aristocratic style of wit, which I find very interesting:
"He formed a peculiar idea of comick excellence, which he supposed to consist in gay remarks and unexpected answers; but that which he endeavored, he seldom failed of performing... his personages are a kind of intellectual gladiator.
"His comedies have, therefore, in some degree, the operation of tragedies; they surprise rather than divert, and raise admiration oftener than merriment. But they are the works of a mind replete with images, and quick in combination."
This sounds very much like something Camille Paglia, in her book Sexual Personae, might say about Oscar Wilde. In her book, Paglia describes Wilde's wit as a kind of belief in order. The wit in Wilde's work is a kind of worship of style. Style provides lines, order, and beauty, and protects, it seems, Wilde's male consciousness from the threats of the disorder of the primeval female unconscious of his anima.
Many people see in Wilde's work a kind of cynicism toward society, fashion, and style. But Paglia believes that Wilde worships society and rules, and believes in their power to protect. He desperately believes in style. And, as a part of worshipping society and style, Wilde seems to believe in the necessity of hierarchies. Wilde believes in aristocracy, in elitism, to the point of cruelty -- or, at least, he did -- before he got thrown in prison.
Congreve's writing style seems to match Wilde's style. But anecdotes from his life also seem to match this belief in hierarchy. He wished to be known, not as a poet, but as a part of the social hierarchy. He wanted to be stylish. As Johnson relates:
"He treated the Muses with ingratitude; for, having long conversed familiarly with the great, he wished to be considered rather as a man of fashion than of wit; and, when he received a visit from Voltaire, disgusted him by the despicable foppery of desiring to be considered not as an author but a gentleman; to which the Frenchman replied, 'that if he had only been a gentleman, he should not have come to visit him.'"
Nevertheless, it is this "despicable fop" who has apparently delivered England from low-born Cowley's clutches. Just like Milton was nothing more than a silly boarding-school teacher.
And I think this is where I would put a kind of disconnect between the concept of "cool," as Johnson left it for posterity, and "cool" as we see it now. Cowley was obviously cool. He drove people wild with his poetry. And everybody thought his Pindarick style was the only way to write poetry for a long time. But Cowley's cool was so hot that Johnson thought it was ice-cold.
On the other hand, Addison's cool was dignified and mild. It was refined and aristocratic, highly learned, but superficial, easy to digest, not overly thoughtful. And Congreve took this to an even more refined level.
For Johnson, "cool" had to be elegant and effortless. But nothing could be effortless unless it came from a mind that was so high-born that elegance would inherently require no effort.
Addison does have one aspect of cool -- because being effortlessly elegant is a part of being cool. But Cowley has the other aspect -- the aspect of being able to be wildly, almost absurdly active and imaginative. Congreve, like Wilde, almost combines these two things. Oscar Wilde probably gets closer than William Congreve.
What I think the Industrial Revolution added to the concept of "cool" was that it probably combined the elements of Addison with the elements of Cowley.
As technology becomes more and more a part of our lives, it is assumed, more of the aspects of our lives will become effortless and elegant. As the same time, as technology develops, the things we think of nowadays as only imaginary will become more and more practical. So as our imagination becomes freer, so will our practical world become wider and fuller.