Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson

Of his numerous achievements, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) is perhaps best remembered for his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755. Of almost equal renown are his Lives of the English Poets (1783) and his eight-volume edition of Shakespeare (1765). His most famous poem is The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), a speculation on the emptiness of worldly pursuits. He also wrote drama and a fictional work, The History of Rasselas (1759), as well as numerous essays in periodicals such as the Rambler, the Adventurer, and the Idler. In 1737 Johnson moved from his native town of Lichfield to London, which became the center of his literary life; he moved in an intellectual circle that included the conservative thinker Edmund Burke, the painter Joshua Reynolds, and the economist Adam Smith. Johnson’s own biography was recorded by his friend James Boswell, who published his celebrated Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791.

An integral dimension of Johnson’s literary output and personality was his literary criticism, which was to have a huge impact on English letters. His famous Preface to, and edition of, Shakespeare’s plays played a large part in establishing Shakespeare’s reputation; his account of the lives of numerous English poets contributed to the forming of the English literary canon and the defining of qualities such as metaphysical wit; his remarks on criticism itself were also to have an enduring impact. His critical insights were witty, acerbic, provocative, sometimes radical, and always grounded on his enormous range of reading.

samueljohnson_3136821bIn his fictional work, The History of Rasselas, written during the evenings of a single week to pay for the funeral of his mother, Johnson expresses through one of his characters called Imlac certain central insights into the nature of poetry. In chapter X, Imlac undertakes a disquisition on poetry which has often been regarded as a summary of neoclassical principles; to what extent he represents Johnson’s own opinions is debatable, especially since his requirements for the poet are shown in the text to be impossibly comprehensive. Yet much of what he says is reiterated by Johnson elsewhere and therefore deserves to be considered – even if tentatively – as part of Johnson’s literary-critical outlook.

Imlac, who is a poet in ambition rather than in fact, states that wherever he went, he found “that Poetry was considered as the highest learning,” and that, “in almost all countries, the most ancient poets are considered the best.”1 He suggests, anticipating later comments of Johnson’s, that “the early writers are in possession of nature, and their followers of art: that the first excel in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement.” This seems to suggest the conventional neoclassical view that modern writers can only proceed by broadly imitating and refining the work of classical writers. Yet Imlac quickly remarks that “no man was ever great by imitation” and that poetic excellence can be achieved only by attending “to nature and to life.” Moreover, there is an emphasis in Johnson’s text on the direct experience of life, as well as the writer’s knowledge of his audience. Imlac also stresses that the poet must be conversant with all kinds of knowledge; he must store up “images and resemblances” such that his mind is furnished with “inexhaustible variety.” The ultimate purpose of such varied knowledge is moral: “every idea is useful for the enforcement or decoration of moral or religious truth.” In general, the business of the poet, says Imlac, is “to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances . . . He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind.” The poet must “divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstract and invariable state . . . and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same.”

Imlac also points out that “knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be acquainted likewise with all the modes of life.” The poet must be able to estimate various conditions of happiness and misery, and to observe “all of the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom.” These two sets of precepts appear to contradict: on the one hand, the poet is to express timeless, universal truths; on the other, he will show the changes that passions, cultures, and human mentality undergo. It could be that Johnson is attempting to voice through his character the need for the poet to be aware, through experience, both of the changes undergone by the human mind in different periods and of the universal truths underlying these shifting manifestations.

In a later chapter of Rasselas, Imlac makes certain comments on the faculty of imagination that again exhibit a neoclassical disposition toward the expression of truth. Imlac’s views are inspired by his encounter with a man of great learning, an astronomer, whose solitary immersion in profound thought has driven him mad, and who genuinely believes that he controls the weather. But Imlac also acknowledges that, while this “power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity,” we are all under this power to some extent: “There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason,” no man who does not “hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability” (ch. XLIV). While Johnson follows the classical path of Plato, Aristotle, and numerous others in viewing reason as the avenue to truth, it is significant that what is opposed to reason here is not passion or emotion but imagination elevated to the status of a mental faculty or disposition. The very power and prevalence that Johnson accords to imagination here, as something dangerously distortive of truth and nature, will be held up by the Romantics as a transformative power, more comprehensive than reason, and as an avenue to truths of a higher and more spiritual nature.

However, Johnson’s classical commitment to reason, probability, and truth was complemented by his equally classical insistence on the moral function of literature. In a brief essay written for the Rambler No. 4 (1750), he applauded contemporary romance fiction for moving beyond the stock, unrealistic themes of earlier romance, which had been filled with giants, knights, ladies in distress, and imaginary castles. Modern romances, he states, “exhibit life in its true state.”1 Hence, modern writers require not only the learning that is to be gained from books but also “that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse, and accurate observation of the living world” (Rambler, 10). However, given the audience for these modern romances, says Johnson, the prime concern of the author should not be verisimilitude but moral instruction. These books are chiefly addressed to “the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life” (Rambler, 11). Johnson acknowledges that “the greatest excellency of art” is to “imitate nature; but it is necessary to distinguish those parts of nature, which are most proper for imitation” (Rambler, 12–13). Hence the “realism” that Johnson advocates is highly selective, constrained by moral imperatives: while the author must indeed adhere to probability, he must not represent everything; he must not “confound the colors of right and wrong,” and must indeed help to “settle their boundaries.” Vice must always produce disgust, not admiration; and virtue must be shown in the most perfect form that probability will allow (Rambler, 14–15). Johnson’s position appears to be solidly entrenched within the tradition of classical realism: like Aristotle, he desires literature, even the newly emerging genre of the novel, to express truth in general and universal terms, rather than being tied down by the need to represent a multitude of “accidental” events and circumstances; in this way, the author’s choice of material and manner can be circumscribed by moral imperatives.

However, there are many instances in Johnson’s work where he shows himself to be flexible in his adherence to classical formulations. Many of the rules and principles that have been long honored, he says, are nothing but the “arbitrary edicts” of self-appointed legislators who have “prohibited new experiments of wit, restrained fancy from the indulgence of her innate inclination to hazard and adventure, and condemned all future flights of genius to pursue the path of the Meonian eagle [Homer].” Johnson stresses that rules should be drawn from reason rather than from mere precedent (Rambler, 197–199). In No. 156 he had also urged that “many rules have been advanced without consulting nature or reason.” Among these, he cites some long-held precepts about drama: the rule that only three persons should appear at one time on stage; the limitation of a play to five acts; and the unity of time, whereby a play should be performed in the compass of one day. Johnson retorts that these precepts, aimed at realism, fail to accommodate our general willingness to be “deceived” that the events on the stage are real: “some delusion must be admitted, I know not where the limits of imagination can be fixed” (Rambler, 193–194). He applauds the “mixed” genre of tragicomedy, suggesting that this does not violate either reason or the essential function of drama, which “pretends only to be the mirrour of life.” Johnson does, however, commend the absolute need to observe the rules of unity of action and unity of character. In judging which rules to follow, he states that it “ought to be the first endeavor of a writer to distinguish nature from custom” (Rambler, 194–196). There seems to be an admission here, not that the foundations of classical precepts – adherence to nature, reason, and truth – were wrong, but that some rules have not been truly derived from these foundations.

Many of these issues are taken up in more detail in Johnson’s renowned Preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Three basic concerns inform this preface: how a poet’s reputation is established; the poet’s relation to nature; and the relative virtues of nature and experience of life as against a reliance on principles established by criticism and convention. Johnson begins his preface by intervening in the debate on the relative virtues of ancient and modern writers. He affirms that the excellence of the ancient authors is based on a “gradual and comparative” estimate, as tested by “observation and experience.”3 If we judge Shakespeare by these criteria – “length of duration and continuance of esteem” – we are justified, thinks Johnson, in allowing Shakespeare “to assume the dignity of an ancient,” since his reputation has survived the customs, opinions, and circumstances of his time (60–61).

Inquiring into the reasons behind Shakespeare’s enduring success, Johnson makes an important general statement: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature” (61). Once again, by “general nature,” Johnson refers to the avoidance of particular manners and passing customs and the foundation of one’s work on the “stability of truth,” i.e., truths that are permanent and universal. And it is Shakespeare above all writers, claims Johnson, who is “the poet of nature: the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and of life.” His characters are not molded by the accidents of time, place, and local custom; rather, they are “the genuine progeny of common humanity,” and they “act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated.” Other poets, says Johnson, present a character as an individual; in Shakespeare, character “is commonly a species.” It is by virtue of these facts that Shakespeare’s plays are filled with “practical axioms and domestick wisdom . . . from his works may be collected a system of civil and oeconomical prudence” (62).

In contrast with the “hyperbolical or aggravated characters” of most playwrights, Shakespeare’s personages are not heroes but men; he expresses “human sentiments in human language,” using common occurrences. Indeed, in virtue of his use of durable speech derived from “the common intercourse of life,” Johnson views Shakespeare as “one of the original masters of our language” (70). Though Shakespeare “approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful,” the events he portrays accord with probability. In view of these qualities, Shakespeare’s drama “is the mirrour of life” (64–65).

Johnson now defends Shakespeare against charges brought by critics and writers such as John Dennis, Thomas Rymer, and Voltaire. These critics argue that Shakespeare’s characters insufficiently reflect their time period and status, that his Romans, for example, are not sufficiently Roman, and his kings not sufficiently royal. Johnson retorts that Shakespeare “always makes nature predominate over accident; and . . . he preserves the essential character,” extricated from accidental conventions and the “casual distinction of country and condition” (65–66). A more serious form of censure concerns Shakespeare’s mixing of comic and tragic scenes, thereby violating

the classical distinction between tragedy and comedy. Johnson acknowledges that Shakespeare’s plays “are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination.” The ancient poets selected certain aspects of this variety which they restricted to tragedy and comedy respectively; whereas Shakespeare “has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind but in one composition” (66–67). It is here, in his defense of tragicomedy, that Johnson appeals to nature as a higher authority than precedent. He allows that Shakespeare’s practice is “contrary to the rules of criticism . . . but there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature. The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing. That the mingled drama may convey all the instruction of tragedy or comedy cannot be denied, . . . and approaches nearer than either to the appearance of life.” Moreover, says Johnson, the mixed genre makes for greater variety, and “all pleasure consists in variety” (67). Johnson also points out that when Shakespeare’s plays were first “edited” in 1623 by members of his acting company, these editors, though they divided the plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies, did not distinguish clearly between these three types. And through all of the three forms, Shakespeare’s “mode of composition is the same; an interchange of seriousness and merriment,” and he “never fails to attain his purpose” (68).

Johnson does concede, however, that Shakespeare had many faults. His first defect is that he is “more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.” Johnson acknowledges that from Shakespeare’s plays, a “system of social duty” may be culled. The problem is that Shakespeare’s “precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil,” leaving his examples of good and bad actions “to operate by chance.” And it is always a writer’s duty, Johnson insists, “to make the world better” (71). Among other faults of Shakespeare cited by Johnson are: the looseness of his plots, whereby he “omits opportunities of instructing or delighting”; the lack of regard for distinction of time or place, such that persons from one age or place are indiscriminately given attributes pertaining to other eras and locations; the grossness and licentiousness of his humor; the coldness and pomp of his narrations and set speeches; the failure to follow through with scenes that evoke terror and pity; and a perverse and digressive fascination with quibbles and wordplay (71–74).

There is one type of defect, however, from which Johnson exonerates Shakespeare: neglect of the classical unities of drama. Johnson takes this opportunity to elaborate on his earlier cynicism regarding these ancient rules. To begin with, he exempts Shakespeare’s histories from any requirement of unity: since these are neither tragedies nor comedies, they are not subject to the laws governing these genres. All that is required in these histories is that “the changes of action be so prepared as to be understood, that the incidents be various and affecting, and the characters consistent, natural and distinct. No other unity is intended” (75). Johnson argues that Shakespeare does observe unity of action: his plots are not structured by a complication and denouement “for this is seldom the order of real events, and Shakespeare is the poet of nature.” But he does observe Aristotle’s requirement that a plot have a beginning, middle, and end.

For the unities of time and place, however, Shakespeare had no regard, a point on which Johnson defends Shakespeare by questioning these unities themselves. Like Corneille, he views these unities as having “given more trouble to the poet, than pleasure to the auditor” (75–76). Johnson sees these unities as arising from “the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.” And such a requirement is premised on the view that the mind of a spectator or reader “revolts from evident falsehood, and fiction loses its force when it departs from the resemblance of reality.” The unity of place is merely an inference from the unity of time, since in a short period of time, spectators cannot believe that given actors have traversed impossible distances to remote locations. Such are the grounds on which critics have objected to the irregularity of Shakespeare’s drama. In Johnson’s eyes, such premises are themselves spurious: in a striking counter-argument, he appeals to Shakespeare himself as a counter-authority, asserting: “It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible” (76). Spectators, Johnson observes, are always aware, in their very trip to the theater, that they are subjecting themselves to a fiction, to a form of temporary self-delusion. And we must acknowledge that, “if delusion be admitted,” it has “no certain limitation.” If we can believe that the battle being enacted on stage is real, why would we be counting the clock or dismissing the changing of places as unreal? We know, from first to last, that “the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players” (77).

Imitations give us pleasure, says Johnson, “not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind” (78). Johnson concludes that “nothing is essential to the fable, but unity of action,” and that the unities of time and place both arise from “false assumptions” and diminish the variety of drama (79). Hence these unities are “to be sacrificed to the nobler beauties of variety and instruction,” the greatest virtues of a play being “to copy nature and instruct life.” Johnson is well aware of the forces arrayed against him on these points, and that he is effectively recalling “the principles of drama to a new examination” (80). Yet his strategy is both to argue logically against the incoherence of the unities of time and place and to set up Shakespeare as an alternative source of authority as against the classical tradition. Ironically, his own views are thus sanctioned by a playwright to whom he himself has painstakingly accorded the dignity of a classic.

Johnson broadly agrees with the tradition that Shakespeare lacked formal learning; the greater part of his excellence “was the product of his own genius.” In contrast with most writers, who imitate their predecessors, Shakespeare directly obtained “an exact knowledge of many modes of life” as well as of the inanimate world, gathered “by contemplating things as they really exist” (89). He demonstrates clearly that “he has seen with his own eyes; he gives the image which he receives, not weakened or distorted by the intervention of any other mind.” In summary, the “form, the characters, the language, and the shows of the English drama are his” (90). Johnson also shrewdly points out that Shakespeare’s reputation owes something to his audience, to its willingness to praise his graces and overlook his defects (90–91). In this text, Johnson’s appeal to nature and direct experience and observation over classical precedents and rules, as well as his assessment of Shakespeare as inaugurating a new tradition, effectively sets the stage for various broader perspectives of the role of the poet, the poet’s relation to tradition and classical authority, and the virtues of individualistic poetic genius. His assessment of Shakespeare is backed by a laborious editing of his plays.

Another area in which Johnson exerted great influence on his successors was that of biography and comparative estimation of the poets in the English canon. His accounts of the lives and works of numerous English poets were first produced as a series of prefaces to a large edition of the works of the English poets. These prefaces, fifty-two in all, were published separately as Lives of the English Poets in 1781. In general, Johnson raises biography to an art: far from being slavishly adherent to facts, Johnson’s text is replete with all the apparatus of imaginative texts: figures of speech, imaginative insights, hypothetical argumentation, vivid descriptions, and speculative judgments; he appeals not only to the intellects of his readers but also to their emotions, backgrounds, and moral sensibilities. His most fundamental appeal, throughout these prefaces, is to the notion of “nature,” as encompassing reason, truth, and moral propriety. He considers various genres and styles of poetry, the nature of imitation, the problems of translation, the classical rules of art, and the duties of literary criticism.

The typical structure and composition of each preface contributes important elements to both the art of biography and the theory and practice of literary criticism. Johnson characteristically places the work of a given poet within a detailed account of his political context, his personal circumstances, his learning, his character, and his relationship with his literary contemporaries and with the public. He usually cites the ways in which a given poet was praised and blamed; he engages in a close analysis of some of the poet’s verses; and he attempts a general, comparative estimate of the poet’s greatness and significance, and his place in the English literary tradition. All of these accounts are to some extent informed by Johnson’s own critical maxim that to “judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time.”4 Johnson’s assessments have proved influential in the establishing of an English canon or literary tradition. It was he, for example, who most comprehensively defended Shakespeare and other poets against the charge of violating the classical unities; it was he who named Dryden both “the father of English criticism” and the poet who transformed English poetry: “He found it brick, and he left it marble” (Lives, 157, 194). Likewise, it was Johnson who, after considering Pope’s merits and defects, took it as a given that Pope’s reputation as a poet had been secured: “If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found?” (Lives, 402). Again, it was Johnson who saw Addison’s prose as “the model of the middle style,” and his essential literary-historical function as the presenting of “knowledge in the most alluring form, not lofty and austere, but accessible and familiar” (Lives, 236–237).  4

Considered as a whole, Johnson’s assessments of the English poets have survived as what Arnold called “natural centres,” points of reference to which criticism can repeatedly return. Though Johnson’s criticism rested on the classical foundation of adherence to nature, reason, and truth, as well as moral instruction, what Johnson added was the need for historical contextualization (exemplified in his work on Shakespeare, in his Lives, and in his Dictionary) of authors and their works, as well as the obligation to place nature – in its most comprehensive sense – above the authority of mere precedent or classical authors, an obligation that might empower new or revised visions of the literary tradition. Johnson stresses that “truth . . . is . . . superior to rule” (Lives, 94). It is worth remembering also that by “nature,” Johnson does not mean primarily the world of external, physical nature, but rather human nature in its universal and historical embodiment of reason and moral sensibility. In his essay on Milton he states that “the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind . . . the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth . . . Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance” (Lives, 23). In both of these respects – the need for historical contextualization and comparison, and the appeal to nature and truth over convention – he anticipates, and sets the stage for, much Romantic and modern criticism.


1 Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), ch. X. All citations are from this text.

2 Samuel Johnson, Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, ed. W. J. Bate (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 9. Hereafter cited as Rambler.

3 The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson. Volume VII: Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, introd. Bertrand H. Bronson (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 59. All further page citations from Johnson’s preface refer to this edition.

4 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, introd. John Wain (London and New York:
Dent/Dutton, 1975), p. 158. Hereafter cited as Lives.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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