He looked at things with the coloured glasses, and much of it smacked of dogmatism which had the full weight of his personality at its back. He was sought and adored in the literary circle of his age. His words carried weight in the sense that it overawed the readers and the sales shot up and down at his thundering evaluation of the subject he treated. He could both malign and elevate. He damaged the reputation of Milton, as they say, for two generations of readers but the subsequent criticism acquitted, nay uplifted the poet from the position he was pushed to by this great literary dictator. Johnson was the moving spirit of his circle of literary friends which included the brains of the age. Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, Fox, Reynolds, Gibbon, Sheridan and many others. The intellectual dynamo had the ready wit, and the pen dipped in acid to wield against the writers. He cudgled Gray. He cudgled Fielding. He cudgled Milton. They were severely bludgeoned and they bled, but the judgement of the time ran against the dogmatism of Johnson.
Johnson was an intrepid critic of his time, but his criticism, though marshalled with an absolute integrity and vigour, remained wanting because of his personal prejudices. His was an authentic literary voice, yet it gets corroded with the passage of time.
The literary dictator of the Eighteenth Century was a man of relentless brutal candour, but no one could challenge’him for his courage of conviction. He spurned an untested dogma. The lucid approach to a fact was his tendency, but the personal temperament of the man interfered with the proper judgement. Often the political prejudices ran counter to the man he was out to evaluate. But he, no doubt, thrilled people with his witty remarks. He was anything but impartial, at least to a degree. He was a man of robust commonsense. He loathed extremes in everything, yet he himself carried his criticism to an extreme. It is no wonder that his verdicts, at least some of them, have been revised since then.
Johnson was a man of classical temperament. Anything smacking of romanticism made him sniff with a distaste. He smote Gray for it. He smote Collins for it, simply because they looked ahead of their age. Johnson loved the traditional values and simply refused to see the rise of a new tendency. The transition left him cold and looked down upon any kind of innovation. He had an extreme dependence on the strength of his :xperience. There is a sort of savage glow about his observations. He was much beloved of the English people, and catered to their taste with his typical conservatism; and John Bull fed himself pleasantly at what he chose to cater. He voiced the middle-class aspirations, so much so that Carlyje called him a ‘national hero’. His strong personality could bridge the distance between the middle-class and the aristocracy of his time. But he remained terribly moored to his literary conservatism. “A bigoted and extreme Tory Johnson had to criticise the principles and political actions of one who held doctrines as extreme.” How could the Prime Minister of Literature tolerate the adverse political opinion! But it does not mean that he was not magnanimous; he was magnanimons indeed. Often he was found ‘hard to please, and easily offended, impetuous, and irritable in temper. The humour in him was sardonic and not genial. John Bailey observes about him in the following words :
“Samuel Johnson was in his life time a well-known figure in the streets, a popular name in the press. His popularity is certainly not diminished by the fact that he was the complacent victim of many of our insular prejudices and exhibited a good deal of the national tendency to a crude and self-confident Philistinism….they laugh at him and love him still.”
Mr. C. H. Firth considers his popularity as a biographer more enduring than his criticism. His criticism has been evaluated as ‘superannuated’, but it has in its womb something of permanent value, indeed. Perhaps Macaulay strikes the true note while evaluating a man like him. “His criticisms are often excellent and even when grossly provokingly unjust well deserve to be studied.” About his criticisms he says further, “They are the judgments of a mind tramelled by prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and acute ………..they, therefore, generally contain a portion of valuable truth which deserves to be separated from the alloy.”
For Johnson ‘truth’ was the basis of’excellence’, but the trouble is about the perception of the same. A truth for one may not be the truth for other. The absolute truth might be a misnomer for Johnson. But no one can deny him the two virtues, ‘dependence’ and ‘sincerity’. He ‘judges quite at home in judging the didactic type of poetry, and not the highly imaginative ones’. It is one reason that he could not judge Milton properly. ‘His literary criticism is the expression not only of the man but of his age.’ He could not perhaps catch the subtle nuances of the romantic flight of poetry though one cannot call in question his ‘broad sanity’, ‘mighty intellect’ and ‘integrity of feeling’. He had the vast moral problems with great critical acumen; and, indubitably, most dictatorial in his pronouncement, as he was. Mr. Cazamian upholds the position of Johnson for several reason his philosophy of experience, reflection, clear judgment, balanced mind, the ‘resolution of an energy bound up with the supreme needs of action,’ ‘the rough vigour’, ‘the gravity’, ‘the obstinate realism’, and for his capacity to make ‘a silent appeal to the deep instincts of the English people.’
As a critic Johnson took to the ‘sober reason’ and stated facts with a certain clarity of mind. He was most outspoken in his utterance. Johnson himself observes about the task of a critic ” in order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merits of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age and the opinions of his contemporaries.’ He says further about it in the following words : ‘The business of a critic is not to point out beauties rather than faults to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover.’ The criterion of Johnson is partly correct, and partly incorrect. I suppose it is also the task, and a major one too, to discern the beauties of a work of art. He is correct about the ‘light of reason’, but who is to judge reason, which might be fallacious in its inception. It is not only the power of intellect but catholicity and dispassionate observation are what a critic needs while evaluating a work of art. Johnson’s power of intellect is beyond dispute, but his catholicity can be called in question. Dispassionate he never is, his very personality rises to check this vital impulse. He is a convicting magisterate in the realm of criticism. He ‘delivers himself with severe magisterial dignity’ though with vigorous authoriatative brevity.’ He works himself on the high sounding general propositions. The classical dogma casts its shadow across his path of critical approach. He has a vast capacity to perceive an intellectual fact rather than the emotional one. The Romantic disproportion would invariably set him on fire. He has been aptly described as ‘genius irritable’ and ‘a snarler of his time’. However Georges Saintsbury adjudges him on a sound footing when he says : ‘Johnson is quite as prejudiced; but his prejudice is not in the least insane. His critical calculus is perfectly sound on its postulates and axioms.’