The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson

This is a book of meticulous carefully researched scholarship. If like me, you are only dimly aware of literary criticism and still less of Samuel Johnson then you will learn a lot from reading this book though it will require some persistence. If you are familiar with the topics or indeed a literary scholar, then there is much detail to absorb and learn from.

Literary criticism is the comparison, analysis, interpretation, and/or evaluation of works of literature. It is essentially an opinion, supported by evidence, relating to theme, style, setting or historical or political context.

Samuel Johnson was an 18th century British scholar who made significant contributions to the fields of literature and writing as an author critic, essayist, and lexicographer. He was born in 1709 in Lichfield, England. In this book the author is clearly seeking to uncover the wisdom contained in his writing. Johnson was prolific, producing 208 essays for the Rambler every Tuesday and Thursday from1750 to 1752. He wrote 103 essays called the Idler and published in the newspaper The Universal Chronicle between 1758 and 1760. Johnson wrote a collection of biographies of the Lives of the Poets – a critical appraisals of 52 poets, most of whom lived during the eighteenth century. However, Johnson is probably best known for his Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755. It is regarded as one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language. Johnson is admired for his witty definitions. For example, he wrote that oats are “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. He said that the true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

As a non-specialist in literary criticism, I see poetry as the ‘music’ of language. They both use language and sound to create meaning and evoke emotions. Both rely on rhythm, meter, and repetition to create a sense of structure and flow, and both can be used to tell stories, express emotions, and explore complex themes and ideas.

The author makes it clear that Johnson wrote from the criteria of the heart. Mathew Arnold wrote that Johnson’s utterances are valuable….because they come from a “great and original man”. The author might have added – “a man of great wisdom” – a quality that seems sadly lacking amongst current public opinion formers and requiring much clearer articulation for the modern context.

Johnson recognises the fragility of life. He writes that “Much of the pain and pleasure of mankind arises from the conjectures which everyone makes of the thoughts of others; we all enjoy praise which we do not hear and resent contempt which we do not see.” The “secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful. We always make a secret comparison between a part and the whole; the termination of any period of life reminds us that life itself has likewise its termination; when we have done anything for the last time, we involuntarily reflect that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past there is less remaining”.

The author skilfully weaves references to some of the great poets such as Pope, Drydon, Swift. Johnson wrote about the lives of numerous poets – as well as Shakespeare whose characters, Johnson recognised, speak “warm from the heart”, prior to thought or in its absence. Shakespeare is a poet of nature who permits access to nature beyond what reason affords in critical dialogue with its sometimes-cruel incomprehensibility. Johnson’s sense of the moral functioning of Shakespeare plays as a “system” goes far beyond their exploitation of propositional thought. Imlac (a character in Johnson’s novel, The history of Rasselas) observes that “Our minds like our bodies…are in continual flux …. but nature will find the means of reparation”. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason. The author points out that this work relates to the modern ideas of a “process philosophy” as developed by John Dewey, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, and Alfred North Whitehead as it explores the unfolding of happiness, freedom, and the human condition.

The author reminds us that Johnson affirmed that “Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason”. Johnson commonly acknowledges limits to unhindered theoretical speculation….in the face of universal imponderables. The author makes two judgements – that Johnson prioritises what we feel over what we can imagine and that “the heart naturally loves truth”. Fanciful narratives that have no historical basis but nevertheless can retain their emotional force. Shakespeare’s The Tempest has a “sublime and amazing imagination…which soars above the bounds of nature without forsaking sense. The break between history and mythology may not always be as sharp as historians would like. The author speculates that we live in patterns, but we do not see them except from the distance that art affords us. Johnson wrote that the “great part of every writer is only the destruction of those who went before.    The first care of the builder of a new system is to demolish the fabricks which are standing”.

In summary this is a book of great interest to all whether literary critics or not. It is a detailed source of literary cross references and contemporary analysis of the work of an influential thinker, Samuel Johnson.

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