Samuel Johnson

Johnson, Samuel (1709-1784), English writer and lexicographer, a major figure in 18th century literature as an arbiter of taste, renowned for the force and balance of his prose style.

Early Life: 

Johnson,usually referred to as Dr. Johnson by his contemporaries and later generations, was born in Lichfield on September 18, 1709, the son of a bookseller. He attended the local school, but his real education was informal, conducted primarily among his father's books as he read and studied the classics, which influenced his style greatly.

In 1728 Johnson entered Pembroke College at the University of Oxford. A brilliant but eccentric young man, he was plagued by a variety of ailments from which he suffered the rest of his. He left in poverty, without taking a degree and having suffered the first of two emotional breakdowns. During this time of despondency his reading of devotional literature led him to profound religious faith. 

After his father died in 1731, Johnson tried teaching and later organized a school in Lichfield. His educational ventures were not successful, however, although one of his students, David Garrick, later famous as an actor, became a lifelong friend. At the age of 26 Johnson married Elizabeth Jarvis Porter, a widow about 20 years his senior, who brought a measure of calm and self-confidenceto his life. 

In 1737 Johnson, having given up teaching, went to London to try the literary life. Thus began a long period of hack writing for the Gentleman's Magazine. Johnson's long, sonorous poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, based on the tenth satire of the Latin poet Juvenal, appeared in 1749; generally considered Johnson's finest poem, it marked the beginning of a period of great activity. He founded his own periodical, The Rambler, in which he published, between 1750 and 1752, a considerable number of eloquent, insightful essays on literature, criticism, and moral theory. 

The Dictionary:

Beginning in 1747, while busy with other kinds of writing and always burdened with poverty, Johnson was also at work on a major project compiling a dictionary commissioned by a group of booksellers. After more than eight years in preparation, the Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1755. This remarkable work contains about 40,000 entries elucidated by vivid, idiosyncratic, still-quoted definitions and by an extraordinary range of illustrative examples. 

Later Writings: 

Despite anxieties about his productivity, Johnson published another periodical, The Idler, between 1758 and 1760; and in 1759, to pay for his mother's funeral, he hurriedly completed Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, a prose romance about a young man's search for a happy life. 

"Dictionary Johnson" (as he has been called) was now a celebrity. In 1764 he and the eminent English portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds founded the Literary Club; its membership included such luminaries as Garrick, the statesman Edmund Burke, the playwrights Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and a young Scottish lawyer, James Boswell. From their first meeting in 1763 Johnson and Boswell were drawn to each other; for the next 21 years Boswell minutely observed and recorded the conversation and activities of his hero. Boswell's monumental Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest biographies ever written, was published in 1791. 

Trinity College in Dublin awarded Johnson an honorary doctorate of civil war in 1765, the same year that he published his edition of Shakespeare with its acute commentary on the characters in the plays. Sometimes after 1760 Johnson experienced a second mental breakdown. The gray hospitality of his friend Hester Lynch Thrale brought him some peace, and her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) provides valuable insights into the mind and heart of Johnson during this period of personal turmoil. In 1773, however, he was well enough to undertake and enjoy a trip with Boswell to Scotland and the Hebrides, a trip vividly recounted in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775).

Johnson's last major work, The Lives of the English Poets, was begun in 1778, when he was nearly 70 years old, and completed - in ten volumes - in 1781. The work is a distinctive blend of biography and literary criticism. Johnson died three years later on December 13, 1784.

Modern Interests in Johnson:

Nineteenth-century biographers fostered the image of Johnson as an awkward, unkempt eccentric, whose conversation was certainly lively and memorable, but whose literary influence was slight. A full-scale scholarly evaluation of Johnson's contributions as a writer began only in the mid-20th century. The psychological study Samuel Johnson (1944), by American critic Joseph Wood Krutch opened up new ways of thinking about the man and his work. The most comprehensive and penetrating scholarship has been that of Walter Jackson Bate, another American literary scholar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Samuel Johnson (1977). In these studies Johnson emerges as a troubled but undaunted man, compassionate to the poor and oppressed, relentless in his quest for truth, a humanist par excellence. His writing, in defense of reason against the wiles of unchecked fancy and emotion, championed the values of artistic and moral order. 

Johnson's Works:

"He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man," replied to Mrs. Williams. He has awareness of the dark aspects of human life. Johnson is a conversationalist whose talk came hot from a mind that was wise, humane, honest, truthful. His prose surpasses the virtues of his conversation. The object of the talker and of the moral essayist or critic proves, in general, to be the same,  the search for truth in the wide field of human experience,  the wit, the wisdom, and energy of Johnson's spontaneous talk are also present in his prose.

Boswell said of the Rambler Essays that "In no writings whatever can be found more bark and steel for the mind." Moral strength and health; the importance of applying reason to experience; the testing of a man by what he does, not by what he says or merely "feels"; faith in God: these are the centers to which Johnson's moral writings always return.

Walter Jackson:
Johnson uniquely offers the quality of his understanding of the human condition based on wide reading but always ultimately referred to his own passionate and often anguished experience.

The vanity of human wishes:
He expressed the theme of themes, by which he means the dangerous but all pervasive illusion of what we now call wishful thinking, the feverish intrusion of our desires and hopes which distorts reality and interferes with the possibility of sensibly relying on what we have reason to expect.

Johnson in vanity of human wishes employs an empirical survey through which he satirically examines the profound emptiness of a worldly life, then urges his readers toward what he sees as more valuable and worthy goals. Paradoxically, the empiricism of the survey is designed to show the reader the limitation of reason and to persuade the reader to join Johnson in a leap of faith at the end of the poem.

Johnson's skill in using reason in the service of faith to point out the weaknesses of reason and his interest in a religion founded on faith and fervor, albeit tempered by reason, mark a break with the Augustanism and rational Anglicanism of the earlier eighteenth century. Johnson's surveys history in order to demonstrate the universality of vain wishing, where as in London he contrasts past and present worlds in London-opposing the corrupt metropolis of his own day to the golden England of Elizabeth I.

Rambler n.156: "It ought to be the first endeavor of a writer to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor debar himself from the attainment of beauties with his view, by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator has authority to enact."

Rambler n.32: "Pretended to an exemption from the sensibilities of unenlightened mortals, and...proclaimed themselves exalted, by the doctrines of their sect, above the reach of these miseries, which embitter life to the rest of the world." Passions are "involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven with our being."

Love: In Rambler 32 is an eminently social virtue.

Patience: In Rambler 32, patience and submission are very carefully to be distinguished from cowardice and indolence. "Patience" involves for Johnson active self-restraint.

Faith: part of Johnson's faith centers on his belief that God does nothing in vain. Hence, when God gave man the capacity to wish, he did so as a testimony that man's wishing would eventually be satisfied in heaven. The infinite emptiness of worldly wishes thus serves both as a warning against putting trust in material goods, and as strong evidence of an unseen infinity. Since Johnson's faith also involves "Belief of the revealed truths of religion", he accepts the biblical assurances that 'such a state is really promised, and that, by the contempt of worldly pleasures, it is to be obtained. Faith thus encourages hope and allays fear. If satisfaction is to be found in heaven, then death need not inspire the fear it does in those who ask for "Multitude of Day." Johnson disagrees one last time with Juvenal's call for stoic self-sufficiency. Johnson conceived poetry as a branch of rhetoric; he fully acknowledges the unhappiness that pervades life, but he also asserts that it is within the power of human beings either to exacerbate or to alleviate it.

Apathy: Reason, "stoical" according to Johnson, offers an ineffective defense by itself against the 'armies of pain" which besiege mankind, and must be bolstered by patience born of faith in a christian deity:

Preface to Shakespeare:
The principle of the three dramatic unities, that there were "essential principles", which any writer must follow:
1) He must adhere to universal truth and experience to "Nature".
2) He must please, but he must also instruct.
3) He must not offend against religion or promote immorality.
4) He must avoid cold and slavish imitation of others.
5) He must not cultivate "singularity" the eccentrical origin.

The Great Cham of Literature:
In tracing the main features of the critical movement in 18th century England, we note the growing challenge to that body of neoclassical doctrine which had originated in France, and accepted in England as the Orthodox literary creed. The Rambler is a bi-weekly paper which revived the spectator tradition with its essays, ethical, social and literary. The Idler is a second series of essays written with lighter touch, all written with a view to educating the publication of short papers which we read not as study but amusement.

The torch of criticism, he suggests, had originally been created by Labour and lighted by truth, having been designed to reveal all sophistries, absurdities, false rhetoric: Degraded by Flattery and Malevolence, criticism, he added, ultimately withdrew from among men. He defined criticism:"The study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense." The critics duty was neither to depreciate nor dignify by partial representation but to hold out the light of reason whatever it might discover. Johnson's rejection of Neo-classicism is therefore of considerable interest in critical history and with regard to its fundamental doctrine of imitation. The truth is he flatly declares "No man ever yet became great by imitation." Nor again can he accept the doctrine that all literature could be conveniently classified under different species on "kinds" and defined accordingly. His main contention is that these neoclassical rules had been built up on shifting foundations; and he would have all literary laws dictated, not by mere precedent, but by an unchanging reason or nature thus directing attention anew to the psychological study of literature. He urges that: "A poet may neither violate essential principles by a desire for novelty, nor debar himself from the attainment of beauties... by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact."

Non-Essential Neoclassical Rules:
1) That the three speaking personages only should appear at one time on the stage.
2) The mysterious decree that required a play to consist of five acts, was not dictated by the nature of things. Johnson, therefore, advocates an approach to literature based on nature, the watchword and controlling idea of 18th century thought. The main structure of his doctrine was determined by principles intuitively discerned in Nature, namely those of order, proportion, fitness, perspicuity, as well as by others inherent in human nature, and embodying qualities satisfying to the mind of rational man.

Poetry in general:
As regards poetic expression, in the first place, he stands definitely for clarity and simplicity, for "natural thought expressed without violence to language", so as to counteract those ornamental devices which he complains had accumulated since Dryden's day. He who write upon general principles or delivers universal truths may hope often to be read because his work will be equally useful at all times and in every country. To avoid monotony inseparable from an unbroken repetition in a long poem, he recognizes the need for some variety of effect, and this was afforded by the occasional use of a "mixed measure". A line with irregular accents tonal quality or verbal music was one of the factors that contributed to effective verse, and this was obtained by proper mixture of vowels and consonants. The device should not be employed in epic poetry but should be confirmed to dramatic poetry as bringing that verse nearer to prose and ordinary conversation. He found in blank verse a disordered freedom with the verse pattern thus obscured so that there was neither the easiness of prose nor the melody of numbers. Poetry, he allows, might subsist without rhyme, he doubts whether English poets could safely dispense altogether with its use, and hold in general that rhyme is necessary for the full music of the deca syllable. The music of the English heroic line, strikes the ear so faintly that it is easily lost unless all the syllables of every line co-operate together, and this cooperation he maintained, was obtained by the use of the rhyme. So, he does less justice to blank verse; he stands for the ordered regularity of the heroic couplet.

He defined "wit" of the metaphysical: philosophic kind as (discordia concors) consisting of a combination of dissimilar images or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Thus heterogenous ideas, he explained, are yoke by violence together. The essence of poetry, he declares is invention, the producing of something unexpected that causes surprise and delight. Yet, religious themes, he adds, are few and familiar, they could receive no added grace from novelty of expression. He cannot approve of the new form of poetry known as burlesque. His main objection lies in the nature of burlesque itself which he describes as consisting of "a disproportion between style and sentiments and containing therefore an element of corruption, since all disproportion is unnatural."

Prose writing:
The business of the biographer, was not mere panegyric or the collecting of matter from public records. It was rather to reveal character in the light of illuminating details of daily life, and rarely a life passed.

Johnson's demand is therefore for "plain truth in plain language; and the affections he ridicules did not cease with his day. When refusing to accept Neo-classicism as his creed, rejecting also the test of mere individual taste, he found in the law of nature or reason his guide; and in thus making his main test the appeal to the mind of rational man, he gave direction to contemporary criticism, the necessity for judging a work of art as a whole, or the need for taking into account historical considerations in forming literary judgement.

His criticism to Dryden and Pope:
The style of Dryden is capricious and varied, that of Pope is cautious and uniform; Dryden obeys the motions of his own mind; Pope constrains his mind to his own rules of composition. Dryden is sometimes vehement and rapid; Pope is always smooth, uniform and gentle. Dryden's page is a natural field, rising into inequalities, and diversified by the varied exuberance of abundant vegetation; Pope's is a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe and leveled by the roller.

Dr. Johnson: Pope exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish dignify didactic composition, selection of matter novelty of arrangement justness of precepts, splendor of illustration, and property of digression.