Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Dr. Johnson judges by the rule and reason of his own with a reference to the truth of life. Indeed, no critic was ever more independent, or free from slavery to traditional rules than Dr. Johnson. His measures of literary merit are impartial. He judges even a Duke with the same standards of the poorest of poetasters. John Everett Butt, in The Augustan Age, pertinently remarks, “He was a poet, and no doubt his poetical experience assisted his criticism; but he did not write like Dryden, as an artist examining another art’s methods. He wished to form his reader’s judgment, to qualify their minds to think justly about poetry, and his appeal is, therefore, to the hearts and minds of his readers and not to the authority of books.”
His judgments are followed by his rules, the rules which are not set by Aristotle, but from the deepest knowledge of the human heart. He was not interested in nature, but in “life and manners”, and what takes place in the minds and hearts of man was to him of paramount interest. He criticizes Paradise Lost, for it lacks in human interest. As he pointed out, its plan comprises neither human actions nor human manners. The stage is dominated by the supernatural, and the purely human is pushed into the background. Even the traditional idolatry of Shakespeare fails to awe him. There is nothing sectarian about his praise; he speaks as an independent man of letters, and will not consent to be sealed of the tribe of Shakespeare. Much of Shakespearean criticism is laudatory; it avoids any mention of the faults of Shakespeare and always tries to show that the dramatist had good and sufficient reasons for what he wrote, but Dr. Johnson has boldness enough to point out many of his faults. His attitude is not that of a disciple but that of a critic. Discipleship is a necessary stage in the study of any great poet; it is not a necessary qualification of the mature critic. Independence is more necessary, and Dr. Johnson has that independence. He is bold enough to enumerate the faults of Shakespeare, which he attributes to two causes-carelessness and excess of conceits. The detailed analysis of the faults is a fine piece of criticism, and has never been seriously challenged.
The Vanity of Human Wishes: Summary and Analysis
Preface to Shakespeare: An Overview