Dr. Johnson is an authentic literary voice of his time. He is called the prime minister of literature and the literary dictator of the eighteenth century. Carlyle honoured him by calling him a ‘national hero’. He had a great deal of courage and conviction and was a man of robust commonsense. Though he carried his criticism to extremes yet he was impartial and vigorous. He thrilled his readers with his witty remarks.
He was a literary sensation of his time. He laid down values if not the literary laws. Though Nature could not give him by way of handsomeness, yet he enriched the literary aesthetics with the opulence of a Sultan. He voiced middle-class aspirations. He was a beloved of the English because he catered to their taste.
After the death of Pope in 1744, Dr. Johnson (1709-84) emerged as ‘the undisputed arbiter’ of literary taste of age. With him, says George Watson, “English Criticism achieves greatness on a scale that any reader can instantly recognize.” F. R. Leavis rightly observes : “Johnson’s criticism, most of it, belongs with the living classics : it can be read a fresh every year with unaffected pleasure and new stimulus. It is alive and life-giving.” C. H. Firth regards much of criticism as one of permanent value’, and Mary Lascelles calls him “a movement on the part of that volume of waters whose capacity for motion is inexhaustible.”
His criticism bears the weight of his massive personality and the vigour of his powerful mind. A rationalist by temperament, he refused to pay blind homage to any critical cult. “I cannot receive my religion from any human hand,” he wrote in one of his letters. He possessed a sanity of outlook and a catholicity of mind, rarely found in any other English critic of his age. His unflinching faith in reason and common sense, his fundamental respect for the voice of the people, his healthy pragmatic approach to critical problems, his delightfully balanced style are some other qualities of Dr. Johnson as a critic. He emphasized the necessity for judging a work of art as a whole, or again, the need for taking into account historical considerations in forming literary judgement. He based his practice upon the rule derived from the ancients, but he was no slavish follower of the rules. He was able to rise above the literary convention. He accepted rules only as a conventional check upon licence and whenever he found them unsuitable for modern conditions as in the case of the unities of time and place he cast them aside. He accepted truth and reason and nature as the basis of his criticism, suggested that time was a test of literary value, emphasized the necessity of judging a work of art as a whole with its historical perspective in mind.
Johnson was pre-eminently a scholar, widely read in classical and contemporary literature. Like Bacon he could have said to have taken all knowledge as his province. Oxford‘s honorary doctorate, compilation of such a big dictionary were no accidents. With his erudite learning he combined an immense experience of the world and knowledge of men. His memory was astonishingly retentive. He could cite passage after passage from English and Classical poetry without having had to look at the text. His tremendous mental vigour was combined with his powerful expression. He could say things with great force and precision, without mincing words. He was one of the most clear-headed persons of the Age of Reason.
Some of the other qualities that elevate him to the rank of a great critic and lend a distinctive note to his criticism are: his humanistic outlook on life and literature, his unflinching faith in reason and common sense, his fundamental respect for the voice of the people, his healthy pragmatic approach to critical problems, and above all his delightfully balanced
style. T. S. Eliot describes him as “a man who had a specialized ear for verbal music.”
Estimating the general achievement of Johnson as a critic, Atkins says : “More successful in dealing with the Augustans than with earlier or later poets, and with prose work rather than with poetry, he opened up new ground with what is in effect the history of a whole century of English poetry; and while many of his judgements hold good today, they are presented in a style, rhetorical and antithetic it may be, yet always clear,
forceful and often picturesque Johnson reminds us that literature, whatever else it may be, is a vehicle of rational thought and articulate emotion that it is subject to no rigid moral requirements, but is essentially an uplifting power enabling men ‘to enjoy life or to endure it’, thus making
a contribution to the art of living Yet it is as a master who helped in changing the current of critical ideas that he figures in critical history. Having made use of psychological tests and having revealed incidentally the limits of the prose understanding for critical purposes, he unconsciously prepared the way for the later triumphs of those who riade imagination or the higher reason their criterion of poetic values. And for this and other reasons his claims to greatness as a critic admit of no dispute; even though he was one who, “attaining his full purpose, lost himself in his own lustre.”
By temperament and practice, by the influence of the spirit of his age, by the company he kept, by the books he read, by the climate in which he grew, he is very much a neo-classicist. There is in his critical approach a predominance of the traditional values and classical dogma, His love of reason, rationalism, grandmanliness, finish, perfection, correction, preference of intellect to emotion, anti-romantic attitude, emphasis on morality, urbanity and chastity of diction and style, clarity of mind, love of form, harmony and accuracy, liking for convention and universality are some prominent features that make him a neo-classical critic. Yet he is for liberty whenever need be. He does not follow classicism blindly. He adopts a pragmatic approach. He rebels against the set rules and canons whenever he feels the need to do. Many a time he gives an evidence of an unresolved tension between the neoclassical conscience and the liberating impulse.
That he has certain weaknesses too, cannot be denied. He was preoccupied with his peculiar ‘stock-responses’ to literature. He had a specialized ‘ear (for the ‘recurrence of settled numbers’, but he was deaf to all other subtle rhythms of the English language. His myopic vision made him insensible to the beauties of nature. His judgement was sometimes vitiated by his preoccupation with morality. His fault was that “he failed to distinguish between morality in the widest sense and mere didacticism.” His range of poetic taste was also narrow. He was against all emotionalism and the higher flights of imagination. He warned the poet not to “number the streaks of the tulip” but to “rise to general and transcendental truths.” He was against sacred poetry, as he said :”The ideas of Christian theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament; to recommend them by tropes and figures is to magnify by a concave mirror the sidereal hemisphere.” If one were to go by Johnson’s tastes, one will have to debar a major part of English poetry from one’s definition of the ‘term’. Some critic have fault with his ‘ear’ and ‘taste’ while others have denounced him for his rigid moral and religious attitudes. To some his critical code is conventional and narrow, while to others he appears to be a man of inexorable partialities.
His method is nothing if not magisterial. He treats poets as schoolboys to be corrected. He takes for granted certain fixed rules and passes sentence on every work of art accordingly. His judgment remains essentially dogmatic and traditional and we find him distributing praise or blame to poets “with the confident assurance of a school master looking over a boy’s exercise” (John Bailey).
His critical manners and theories were limited by classical prejudices. He could not appreciate blank verse. Milton, Gray and Collins certainly do not deserve the judgement that he passed upon them. He was singularly deficient in aesthetic sensibility. He had no ear for music and no eye for the beauty of nature. He found the music of Lycidas harsh, and “one blade of grass” for him was “like another”. He could appreciate only the regular, mechanical and monotonous beat of the heroic couplet, and closed his eye and ear to the beauties of the blank verse. Poetry for him was a “cunning craft” and not an expression of the human soul, or a spontaneous over-flow of powerful feelings.
Much of Johnson’s criticism is vitiated by his extra-literary prejudices. Johnson was Tory, and Tory Prejudices coloured his literary criticism. He could not appreciate Milton, for the poet was a Republican. His criticism of Gray and Collins is lacking in kindness. A thick veil hides the future from his gaze, conceals the coming of Romanticism.
But his limitations should not make us forget that he was trained in ‘great positive tradition.’ His limitations, as F. R. Leavis has said, “are commonly both misunderstood and overstressed.” As a practical critic he made use of the biographical, historical and comparative methods of criticism. In the field of biographical criticism “his achievement is to turn the literary life into a vehicle of criticism.” Here is a beginning of a method which was later developed by the nineteenth century of critics like Sainte-Beuve. In the field of historical studies also his contribution is significant, he has rightly been called by Watson “the true father of historical criticism in English.” His use of the comparative method of criticism is nowhere better illustrated than in his life of Pope. He was the first English critic to attempt a systematic work, the Lives of the Poets.-Th’is work is a kind of a history of the English poetry upto his time. His work on metaphysical poets and Shakespeare too is of very much permanent value.
Sir Joshua Reynolds remarked that no one had liked Johnson “the faculty of teaching inferior minds, the art of thinking.” He left his subject-matter of criticism more respected and better understood. “The services Johnson rendered to Shakespeare are only second to those he rendered to the language in which Shakespeare wrote.” His Preface to Shakespeare was pronounced by Adams, “the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in my country.” As mentioned by John Bailey, the world cannot show “any sixty pages about Shakespeare exhibiting so much truth and wisdom as these.” At every step he tries the dramatist by the tests of time, nature and universality and finds him supreme. He was the first not only to emphasize and apply historical and comparative point of view in criticism but was also first to emphasize that it was in interrogation and not in emendation that the real duty of the critic lay. It is in a masterly way that he penetrates the thickest of obscurities raised by Shakespeare’s language and goes straight to the heart of his meaning. He reveals himself to be a master of the rare art of prose paraphrase of poetry. He rids himself of traditional Shakespeare worship and is bold enough to enumerate his faults. To quote John Bailey again, “Shakespeare has had subtler and more poetical critics than Johnson; but no one has equalled the insight, sobriety, lucidity, and finality which Johnson shows in his own field.”
“He was a poet and, no doubt, his poetieal experience assisted his criticism : but he did not write, like Dry den, as an artist examining another artist’s methods. He wished to form his readers’ judgement, to qualify their minds to think justly about Poetry, and his appeal is, therefore, to the hearts and minds of readers and not to the authority of books. “ (J. T. Butt).