‘Johnson’s critical writings are living literature as Dryden’s for instance, are not. Johnson’s criticism, most of it, belongs with the living classics; it can be read afresh every year with unaffected pleasure and new stimulus. It is alive and life-giving”.
–Dr. Leavis in Scrutiny, Vol. XII.
Dr. Johnson was the grand cham of the realm of letters of his day. A critic observes. There are four great dictatorial figures in English literature, each of whom seems to have been recognised in his age as the supreme authority in the realm of letters. In the time of James I there was Ben Jonson reigning at the Mermaid Tavern; after the Restoration came Dryden to give his views in the coffee-house, then followed Pope and after him arose Dr. Johnson to utter his downright judgments in tavern and drawing-room and book-shops4and at the Literary Club.” As is clear from BosweH’s inimitable biography ”Life of Johnson), Dr. Johnson was particularly good at purposeful and witty conversation. Indeed the last thirty years of his life he spent talking and, by talking, and by overwhelming his friends and foes alike: He gathered around himself a galaxy of the most important literary figures of the age. The Club was organised in 1764 and from hen till his death in 1784 Dr. Johnson completely dominated it. Moody and Lovett maintain that Johnson’s so-called dictatorship of English letters was largely the result of his conversational supremacy in the Literary Club which included nearly all the famous writers of the time. Among these “famous writers” were Sir Joshua Reynold the famous painter, Garrick the actor, Malone the Shakespearean scholar, Bishop Percy the collector of ballads, Adam Smith the political economist, Gibbon the historian, Boswell, Fox, Burke the orator, and Oliver Goldsmith. “They met,” Boswell tells us, “at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard street, Soho, one evening in every week at seven, and generally continued their conversation till a pretty late hour.” Dr. Johnson was the soul of his learned assembly and acted visibly as the dictator thereof.
His Equipment as a Critic:
As critic of literature Dr. Johnson was well equipped. About his classical reading there cannot be any doubt. He had an amazingly retentive memory and could cite passage after passage from English and classical poetry without having to look at the text. He had tremendous mental vigour as well as clarity of perception. His acuteness of observation was combined with a wonderful candour of judgment and expression. Of all the English critics Johnson is the last to mince matters. He is very forthright, even downright. He has some central points of view which he defends with all his bullish strength. Last but not least is his delightful style.
But he has many limitations too. He is a man of very strong likes and dislikes-the dislikes being much stronger than the likes. He has pet prejudices which impair some of his criticism. Many have questioned his ear, and some have attacked his dogmatism and his incapacity to appreciate what is, dubiously, called “pure poetry.”
“Preface to Shakespeare”:
The two important works of Jonson as a critic are:-
(i) Preface to Shakespeare; and
(ii) (ii) Lives of the Poets.
Let us consider the first of the two and see what idea of Johnson as a critic it gives.
Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare appended to his edition of Shakespeare is, in the words of David Daiches, “one of the noblest monuments of English neoclassic criticism…and an exposure of some of the weaknesses, contradictions, and unnecessary rigidities of some widely accepted neoclassic principles…Its pungent style, emphatic clarity, and tendency to epigrammatic summing up of each argument carried its ideas home with enormous force.” No modern editor of Shakespeare can ignore what Johnson has to say about Shakespeare–his comments on characters, his quite illuminating notes on the meanings of words, and his general assessment of Shakespeare as a poet and dramatist. The Preface represents effectively all the good and bad qualities of Johnson as a critic. It is, according to a critic, “certaiftly the most masterly piece of literary criticism. All Johnson’s gifts are seen at their best in it: the lucidity, the virile energy, the individuality of his style, the unique power of first placing himself on the level of the plain man and then lifting the plain man to his, the resolute insistence on life and reason, not learning or ingenuity, as the standard by which books are to be judged.”
Johnson neglects the merits of other Elizabethans and pays this glowing tribute to Shakespeare: “The stream of time which is continually washing dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakespeare. Poetic reputations blaze up and dwindle and the fire which heartened one generation will be but cold ashes to the next. Yet for three centuries Shakespeare’s fame has giowed so steadily that he has come to be looked on as the supreme expression not only of the English race but of the whole world.” The basis of Johnson’s exaltation of Shakespeare is essentially neoclassic. He does not passively accept the decision of generation after generation. According to him “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”. This is the neoclassic expression of Aristotle’s conception of imitation. Shakespeare is great because he is a poet not of freaks and whims but of general human nature which “is still the same.” Shakespeare’s “persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion.” The emphasis on general truths rather than on the investigation of details is a basic tenet of the neoclassic school. “To generalise is to be an idiot,” said Blake; but the neoclassicists did not count the streaks of a tulip.
Johnson is, however, not a strait-jacketed neoclassicist. He admits of an occasional departure even from his pet principles. As he puts it, “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.” The imitation of general nature which he insists on should, in his opinion, be subjected to moral and didactic considerations. “The end of writing,” Johnson says, “is to instruct: the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.” And this is Shakespeare’s “fault” : “He sacrificed virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.” Thus, one of the reasons we praise Shakespeare for is treated by Johnson as his “defect.” This also explains Johnson’s plea for poetic justice. He supports the happy ending of King Lear as manoeuvred by Nahum Tate and others. He admits that a play in which the virtuous suffer and the wicked prosper “is a just representation of the common events of human life.” But even then the playwright should preferably show “the final triumph of persecuted virtue,” as that will please the audiences more.
Johnson does not show evidence of any real grasp of Shakespeare’s-poetic powers. He feels that Shakespeare was better at comedy than tragedy. Nor is he aware of the psychological subtleties of his characterisation. His criticism of Shakespeare’s verbal quibbling is also indicative of his deficiency of perception. Shakespeare’s puns, truly speaking, are not always senseless. When Margaret in Richard III says :
And turns the sun to shade; alas! alas!
Witness my son, now in the shade of death,
Witness my son, now in the shade of death,
she is not just playing on the words “sun,” “son”, and “shade.” She is in fact fulfilling a deeply compulsive psychological necessity. Her wordplay is, in the words of Oliver Elton, “in the nature of a safety valve, with a grim kind of hiss in it, for the escape of passion.”
“The Lives of the Poets”:
Johnson’s most mature and sustained critical work is The Lives of the Poets originally published as Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, between 1779 and 1781. It was intended to be a series of introductions to the works of the English poets from Cowley and Milton down to Johnson’s contemporaries like Akenside and Gray. As many as fifty-two poets are dealt with. It is characteristic of the work that it deals with only the poets of the neoclassical tradition. As David Daiches says, “for the most part Johnson is dealing with men writing in a tradition he understood and employing the kind of verse for which he had an extremely accurate ear.” Many of the poets dealt with are read by nobody nowadays-Thomas Yalden, Edmund Smith, William King, James Hammond, and Gillbert West. Only six of the rest-Milton, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Collins, and Gray—are of real significance today.
In each of the LivesJohnson gives the biographical facts about the poet, his observations on his character, and then a critical asessment of his poetry. Except in the case of the minor poets he makes little contribution to biographical facts. Anyway, his style is attractive throughout. We may not accept The Lives of the Poets as a guide, but, certainly, it is a good companion. Johnson’s criticism is of the “judicial” kind. He passes a clear verdict on every poet. He defined, in his Dictionary, a critic as “a man skilled in the art of judging literature; a man able to distinguish the faults and beauties of writing.” Obviously, the emphasis is on judgment and discrimination. His method and conception of the function of a critic were later to be opposed by the poets and critics of the romantic school, who put emphasis not on judicial verdict but on the “imaginative interpretation of literature.”
Dr. Johnson’s premises as a critic in this work are as essentially neoclassic as in his criticism of Shakespeare. Again, his insistence on the function of poetry-“to instruct by pleasing”-is ubiquitous. All poetry is the work of genius, and genius is “that power which constitutes a poet; that quality without which judgment is cold and knowledge is inert; that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates.” Invention, imagination, and judgment are included in genius. What is a poet, according to Johnson? The answer as interpreted by David Daiches is as follows: “The poet is a man seeking to give pleasure by conveying general truths about experience with freshness and skill, the questions to be asked of a given poet are: what kind of a man, living in what age and circumstances, was he, and being that sort of a man, with what degree of success did he produce works capable of giving pleasure by their truth and liveliness?” The emphasis is again on “just representations of general nature.” Any departure from this basic neoclassic prerequisite is stoutly opposed by Dr. Johnson. Of course, some strong personal prejudices also have a free play in his criticism. Thus Milton is partly attacked on political grounds: “Milton’s republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient of control, and pride disdainful of superiority.” Johnson’s contempt for Milton’s sonnets is due to his dislike of the sonnet as a poetic form. He is harsh to Swift as he somewhat suspects his religious sincerity. Such instances of prejudiced views can easily be multiplied. We certainly agree with George Sherburn that Johnson’s “errors are gross, open and palpable.”
However, most of Johnson’s adverse opinions spring not from his literary and non-literary prejudices but his central point of view regarding the purpose and function of literature. This point of view is built mainly on the neoclassical premises, though with some very vital differences. Take, for instance, his condemnation of Cowley and the entire line of metaphysical poets. His views are in strict accordance with the spirit of his age. The chief fault of the metaphysicals, in the eyes of Johnson, is their sacrifice of the general for the particular and their excessive love of heavy learning. He observes : “The fault of Cowley, and perhaps all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to their last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality.” This is what he has to say about metaphysical wit: “The most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs and their subtlety surprises…”
Dr. Johnson has been frequently pilloried for his condemnation of Milton’s Lycidas. His condemnation was not, however, the unthinking stricture of a fanatic, but a natural product of his fundamental attitude. The poet, as we have already pointed out, must, according to Johnson, give representations of general nature with, to use Daiches’ words again, “truth” and “liveliness” (that is, novelty). He should maintain a delicate balance between the two. If he adheres to truth too strictly at the cost of liveliness, the odds are that his “representation” will become mechanical as he will usually employ highly traditional diction, idiom, and imagery. On the contrary, if he strives too much for novelty, it is likely that he will depart considerably from truth and get bogged down in his own whimsies. The first is the fault of Milton (in Lycidas) and the second that of the metaphysicals. Both are faults, but the latter is somewhat less serious than the former. David Daiches observes that “in the last analysis, Johnson held that exhibitionist novelty was better than the mechanical repetition of hereditary similes.” In condemning Lycidas, Johnson still shows his sense of the beautiful poetry which Milton has been able to create even with his “schoolboy” similes and images.
This deficiency in appreciating the strictly aesthetic merits of poetry leads Johnson to unfair criticism of Gray and Collins who are often called the precursors of Romanticism. His disapproval of Gray is not really due to his disapproval of all romantic tendencies, but due to his disapproval of all artificial and extravagant language, the same for which he takes Lycidas to task. Basically, Johnson was against the use of classical mythology in modern English poetry. He maintained a vigorous independence from most neoclassical dogmas. His leniency about the three dramatic unities and his disregard of the rigid conception of “kinds” and the rules of decorum are instances in pojnt. Further we must remember that he made important concessions. He helped Percy over the Reliques; he appreciated // Penseroso and Grongar Hill; he praised the Castle of Indolence; and he got over his dislike of blank verse while dealing with Milton, Thomson, and Akenside. His objection against blank verse was not that it was not good but that good blank verse was seldom written. His aesthetic capacity might be questioned but not his liberalism as a critic. He was not at all deaf to the newer and richer poetry which had begun to be written in his age. However, he is at his best when dealing with the poets who write that kind of poetry with which he is effortlessly in rapport. His criticism of Dryden and Pope is really remarkable. The famous passage in which he compares the two poets, in the words of David Daiches, “has had a permanent effect on the history of the reputation of those two poets…”
The business of criticism, in Johnson’s own words, is to free literary judgment from “the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy and the tyranny of prescription, and to assign values on rational grounds.” In his practice, Johnson was true to his conception. He may be charged with neoclassic bias; but M. H. Abrams meets this charge well : “If Johnson read Milton and Donne through the spectacles of Pope, Wordsworth and Coleridge read Pope through the spectacles of Milton, while more recent critics have read Wordsworth and Coleridge and Milton through the spectacles of Donne.” It may be more difficult to absolve Johnson of his prejudices, but the normal sanity of his judgment, his abundant gusto, and pointed expression cannot be overlooked. He can yet delight, if not guide, us.