Dr. Samuel Johnson: Critic and Moralist


Dr. Samuel Johnson: Critic and Moralist

I don’t read Johnson for his moralism’s, I read him because of his astute observations and literary prowess. He was and is the greatest of the literary critics, the progenitor of all those who have ever entered into the contested space of strife that is the literary Canon, singular or multiple. Right here in his estimation of Alexander Pope, the poet laureate of his age (Augustan), one gets a hint of that intellect in which he attributes to this great neo-classical poet the only powers of the Mind worth having as poet: Invention, Imagination, and Judgement – along with that ever present master of the “colours of language” – rhetoric and trope:

Pope had, in proportions very nicely adjusted to each other, all the qualities that constitute genius. He had Invention, by which new trains of events are formed, and new scenes of imagery displayed, as in the Rape of the Lock; and by which extrinsick and adventitious embellishments and illustrations are connected with a known subject, as in the Essay on Criticism. He had Imagination, which strongly impresses on the writer’s mind, and enables him to convey to the reader, the various forms of nature, incidents of life, and energies of passion, as in his Eloisa, Windsor Forest, and the Ethick Epistles. He had Judgement, which selects from life or nature, what the present purpose requires, and by separating the essence of things from its concomitants, often makes the representation more powerful than the reality: and he had colours of language always before him, ready to decorate his matter with every grace of elegant expression, as when he accommodates his diction to the wonderful multiplicity of Homer’s sentiments and descriptions.

A master of many forms Johnson wrote a biography of his drinking buddy of youth Richard Savage, one great poem The Vanity of Human Wishesand would produce the first great essays on Shakespeare, Milton, and other dramatists and poets. Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson which is a master biography in itself one gets about as intimate with this critic as one can stand. Having learned much from the literary critics I still love to return to Johnson’s oeuvre, reread passages from the Rambler and Idler.

As that Last of Romantic critics of our age, Harold Bloom says of Johnson and his immediate descendent, William Hazlitt:

CANONICAL CRITICISM, which is what Johnson consciously writes, has its religiopolitical and socioeconomic motivations in Johnson, but it fascinates me to watch the critic push aside his own ideologies in his Life of Milton. Our current apostles of “criticism and social change” ought to try reading, in sequence, Johnson and Hazlitt on Milton. On all issues of religion, politics, society, and economics, the Tory Johnson and the Radical Dissenter Hazlitt are totally opposed, but they praise Milton for the same qualities… (The Western Canon)

Here is Johnson on Milton:

The highest praise of genius is original invention . . . of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thought or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them.

Here is Hazlitt:

Milton has borrowed more than any other writer, and exhausted every source of imitation, sacred or profane; yet he is perfectly distinct from every other writer. He is a writer of cantos, and yet in originality scarcely inferior to Homer. The power of his mind is stamped on every line. . . . In reading his works, we feel ourselves under the influence of a mighty intellect, that the nearer it approaches to others, becomes more distinct from them. . . . Milton’s learning has the effect of intuition.

Both would write of influence or what those sociopathic critics of our age term derisively: cultural appropriation. The point being that all poets – and, all writers for that matter – “borrow” from previous poets and writers, and yet this according to the above two greatest literary critics of ours or any age was just part and partial of the way a poet-as-poet (or, writer, novelist, short story, dramatist, essayist, etc.) becomes a poet through that endless and exhausting navigation of every previous “source of imitation, sacred or profane”. But here’s the kicker: as both critics agree, the great poet as compared to a poetaster becomes not just a borrower, imitator, echo of the past, but “distinct” – original in her own right – and complete, an intellect of such high caliber that the voicing of such communal inheritance is felt to have accumulated such wealth and made it so much a part of her mind that it has become who and what she is – what Johnson termed “a thinker for himself,” and Hazlitt the “effect of intuition”. This is what used to be called making the works of the past a part of oneself to the point that they become new in your very voicing of their thought and images.

The poetaster or bad poet is unable to do this and instead of making it new, making it a part of herself merely echoes and appropriates the very mind of the other poets work, the very thought and images as if ghosting them into existence. James Joyce and Marcel Proust would take the modern novel to its extreme limits: the one maximalizing the structure and form of our literary inheritance (Joyce), while the other would do the same for memory and desire (Proust). Both would produce various inheritors, the best of these in Samuel Beckett (Minimalist) and – possibly, Lawrence Durrell or Thomas Pynchon ( both strangely convoluted and influenced by the heretical Gnostics).

I’ve often wondered what Dr. Johnson if he were alive today would think of the PC (Political Correctness and Multiculturalist) debates over appropriation, influence, and adaptation, etc. would have to say of such things. I’m sure being both a moralist and a great reader of various cultures he’d be extremely ticked off at the inanity of it all and how literature had fallen from its great estate as the refined portion of what is best in humanity, and become instead but the handmaid of political warfare in the hands not of literary critics but of hackneyed and unlearned journalists of political malfeasance.

If there are to be no more generations of common readers, free of ideological cant, then Johnson will vanish, together with much else that is canonical. Wisdom does not die so easily, however. If criticism expires in the universities and colleges, it will reside in other places, since it is the modern version of wisdom literature.

—Harold Bloom, The Western Canon 

Let us hope that the time we live in, when the political praxis of ideological rather than aesthetic appreciation has become the mainstay of our literary journalists, will not last and the ancient notions of canonical appreciation will return as aesthetic critics take up the banner of literary criticism once again.