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Samuel Johnson is a successful critic or not?

Updated on August 13, 2014


Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784), a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, is a pillar of the neo-classical school. He is also known as a true neo-classicist and a history of the history of English literature, because of his argumentative and tenable and justifiable expression especially as an editor of Shakespeare’s plays. He is famous for his critiques on Shakespeare’s plays.

Description about Samuel Johnson as a successful critic

Among the most renowned critics Johnson’s position is second to none. He is generally regarded as a pillar of the neo-classical school, although he sometimes seems to challenge some of its basic theories and turns quite amazingly imaginative and impressionistic.

♦ Now we are going to describe some criteria that prove the success of Samuel Johnson as a literary critic.

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson | Source

Samuel Johnson at a glance

Born: 18 September 1709 (O.S. 7 September) Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

Died: 13 December 1784 (aged 75) London

Occupation: Essayist, lexicographer, biographer, poet

Language: English

Nationality: English

Spouse: Elizabeth Jervis Porter

Johnson's temperament as a critic:

Johnson's literary doctrines involve some salient features:-

  1. Firstly, He was experimental and logical rather than sticking to a particular point of view which is established and unquestioned for a long period.
  2. Secondly, his conservative tendencies played a crucial role in the making of his critical perspective.
  3. Thirdly, Johnson's views are often tinged with his personal judgment.
  4. The fourth important factor is his own moral and religious outlook which was developed from an austere philosophy of life.

The nucleus of Johnson's critical tenets is a combined product of all the above factors. But, at the same time, he was against sentimentalism. He was a man of dictatorial views. Thus, his approach towards Shakespeare is intimate and judicious.

Johnson’s definition and function of criticism:

Johnson has, at more than one place, endeavored to define criticism. The definition of a critic in his dictionary runs as “a man skilled in the art of judging literature”.

He also passes his approval on Dryden’s opinion that by criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant a “standard of judging well”. Johnson calls Aristotle, the father of criticism and Dryden, the father of English criticism.

The aim of poetry:

Although Johnson follows the classical concept that the chief objective of a work of art is to please and instruct, he gives it a new coloring. For him the main end of art is to instruct by pleasing.

But Johnson clearly assents that pleasure should be the medium of instruction. There can be literature which merely pleases, but according to him, there can be no literature which merely instructs.

Johnson and the traditional creeds:

Generally, Dr. Johnson is regarded as one of the advocates of neo-classicism. This is true in a certain sense. From another perspective, he seems to oppose the neo-classical principles. However, he clearly believes in the neo-classical concept of ‘generality’ or universality.

He also conforms to the neo-classical preference for 'types' in character, but he is not prepared to take this doctrine to the extreme; he firmly disregards the objection that Shakespeare's Romans are not sufficiently Roman.

Johnson — the renovator of ‘Rules’:

Although Johnson is a follower of neo-classical rules, he has done much to improve them and make them sensible and relevant in their application to all works.

He renovates the classical doctrine with an appeal to inner observation and to the resources of literary psychology. He compares reality of life with that of art and defends the tragi-comedies of Shakespeare.

Johnson's critical method:

Criticism, as much as creative literature, can be classified as romantic and classical. Johnson lived in an age dominated by classical tendencies. But it has to be borne in mind that there was also a romantic streak in his disposition.

Johnson's method of criticism is, to quote his own words, to “judge upon principles the merit of composition”.

Macrice Morgann maintains in his “Essay on Falstaff”, "the impression is of the fact” in literary criticism. But Johnson had a horror of judging, by impression.

Johnson's attitude to Shakespeare is judicial rather than reverential. He defined criticism as the art that “relates to the judging of authors”.

Johnson's works on criticism:

1744:- * Life of Mr. Richard Savage.

1745:- * Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth.

1756:- * "Life of Browne" in Thomas Browne's Christian Morals.

* Proposals for Printing, by Subscription, the Dramatick Works of William Shakespeare

1765:- * Preface to the Plays of William Shakespeare.

* The Plays of William Shakespeare, edited by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens.

1779 – 81:- * Lives of the Poets

Statue of Dr. Samuel Johnson at Lichfield's Market Square, opposite the house where he was born
Statue of Dr. Samuel Johnson at Lichfield's Market Square, opposite the house where he was born | Source

The structure of the ‘Preface’:

Johnson’s ‘Preface’ is in essence an amazing exercise in descriptive criticism, with an excellent essay on theoretical criticism, the argument against the unities of time and place incorporated in it, and with a long narration on editorial techniques and methods. We may divide the Johnson’s ‘Preface’ into seven parts:-

(1) Shakespeare treated as a poet of nature.

(2) Johnson’s shielding of Shakespeare's mixing comedy and tragedy.

(3) The style of Shakespeare.

(4) Shortcomings of Shakespeare.

(5) Johnson’s defense of Shakespeare’s violation of the unities of time and place.

(6) History and Shakespeare.

(7) Johnson’s opinion of his own as well as others’ editorial methods.

Johnson’s detailed discussion in his ‘Preface’ proves that the value of Johnson’s criticism derives also from the fact that he was a qualified critic.

Dr. Samuel Johnson is an argumentative and successful critic or not?

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Johnson as a critic is unmistakably a moralist, but he does not seem incapable of enjoying and valuing works of pure literary qualities. Obviously he is a successful critic. Most often, he is regarded merely as a judicial critic of the “indispensable eighteenth century” of English literature. As a critic and prose-writer and also as an editor of Shakespeare's plays, his influence on the later critics was deep and enduring.


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