The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson: Forms of Artistry and Thought 
by Philip Smallwood.
Cambridge, 219 pp., £85, September 2023, 978 1 009 36999 2
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Criticism,​ for Samuel Johnson, was female, her votaries for the most part malicious, ineffectual men. In an early issue of the Rambler from 1750, Criticism is presented as ‘the eldest daughter of Labour and of Truth’, charged by the Muses with distinguishing good from bad writing and duty-bound to confer immortality or oblivion. Eventually, worn out, she gives up trying to judge the mixed performances submitted to her inspection and retires, leaving her duties to Time, who ‘passes his sentence at leisure’.

To explain the origins of literary criticism in this way – in terms of a mythical entity whose given role, disinterested arbitration, is crushed by the human tendency to produce a hodgepodge of good and bad things – is partly to claim that no such discipline can exercise a useful purpose, or at least not for long. On the other hand, the fact that criticism begins as an attempt to recognise truth, to reward the deserving and punish the inept, suggests that such an activity might be morally defensible, even glorious, if it is cultivated by ‘select minds, fitted for its reception by learning and by virtue’.

Nine years later, in Johnson’s Idler, criticism is no longer a stern or remote celestial being, but ‘a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity.’ This beguiling slattern, one of many phantasmic women to populate Johnson’s imagination, vanquishes her pupil by giving him false, irresistible confidence in his own abilities. Roger Lonsdale identified a similar dynamic in Johnson’s sometimes disturbingly fierce reactions to the ‘seductive powers of eloquence’ and ‘overpowering pleasure’ of poetry. Documenting those responses while seeking to reframe them in general terms, Johnson creates what Lonsdale called a ‘quasi-erotic drama’ within which the male reader’s susceptibility to beautiful images and language becomes a form of delight so all-encompassing that it betrays him into surrender and captivity.

With the sheer potency of such individually pleasurable experiences, literary commentators cannot aspire to compete, and, as Johnson wrote in the ‘Life of Pope’ (1781), ‘the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside.’ When he imagined a literary critic, the figure that sidled onto the page was contrastingly feeble. Dick Minim, protagonist of two essays in the Idler, arrives at his profession ‘after the common course of puerile studies, in which he was no great proficient.’ Inheriting a large fortune, he starts to while away his time in London coffee houses, eavesdropping on actors’ gossip. At home, he reads and learns by heart the critical jargon and clichés of his day: that art should copy nature; that no writer can be perfect; that deleting is the best thing an author can do; and that no work should be published in haste. Most of his opinions are borrowed from Pope, who took them in turn from others. But when Dick rehearses his tediously unoriginal views in company, he is greeted with applause.

It might be expected that such an idle reprobate would provoke Johnson’s censure. But the lightly sketched portrait of young Minim appears in a journal whose title commits it to defending a life of easy wins, as long as that life cannot hurt anyone. The key lesson of Minim’s petty existence is that – however malicious his intentions – he remains innocent of damage. Johnson sees criticism, at least in these essays, as an essentially blameless, piffling activity. If Minim were to keep the ‘mischief’ and ‘poison’ of his views to himself, he might even become ill. By venting his spleen in public, he relieves his spite while his notional victim, the author, survives unscathed: ‘No genius,’ it seems, ‘was ever blasted by the breath of criticks.’ We are a very long way here from the possibility of a writer’s life being ‘snuffed out’, as Byron put it (with Keats in mind), ‘by an article’.

The valiant contender for literary fame is typically opposed, in Johnson’s verse and prose, to a hostile public. Such an oppositional relationship was inevitable. The would-be poet, essayist, novelist or dramatist, Johnson repeatedly suggests, ‘may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom everyone has a right to attack … To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour, but at the hazard of disgrace.’ At once heroic and faintly absurd, this quixotic vision of authorship – chasing praise, skirting infamy – bristles with comic potential. One of the most salutary aspects of Johnson’s criticism, as Philip Smallwood has pointed out in a previous study, Johnson’s Critical Presence: Image, History, Judgment (2004), is that it refuses to take itself or its subject matter entirely seriously. When Imlac, venerable tour guide of Johnson’s Abyssinian tale, Rasselas (1759), narrates his own history, he explains his efforts to achieve literary greatness at such length and with such rapturous emphasis on the difficulty of the enterprise that the prince is driven to exclaim wearily ‘Enough! thou hast convinced me that no human being can ever be a poet.’ Somewhat chastened, perhaps a little huffy, Imlac acknowledges that ‘To be a poet,’ unlike being a critic of Minim’s stripe, ‘is indeed very difficult.’

Johnson’s writing on such matters, while shot through with irony, often shades into allegory of a peculiar emotional intensity even when it seems most doggedly committed to everyday life. Among his earliest intellectual heroes were English and Continental humanists of the Renaissance – Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Erasmus – questing, chivalric figures who pursued their arduous scholarly experiments in a landscape fraught with dangers and temptations (Smallwood also discerns a ‘tantalising’ series of parallels with Montaigne). Those antecedents went on to influence 18th and 19th-century biographical interpretations of Johnson himself, and of the monuments of scholarship that he produced, especially his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). The abiding impression made by such works, however, is not only one of amazement at their scale, complexity and intelligence. Johnson was always eager to acknowledge the distinction between what he had designed and what he had achieved, or ‘the difference between promise and performance’. An honest consciousness of inadequacy, as well as sheer ambition, is a hallmark of his authorship.

Literature and literary criticism may not be vocations associated with bravery, yet Johnson was nothing if not courageous. The first judgment on record of his character – ‘Here is a brave boy’ – was uttered by the male midwife who delivered him, ‘almost dead’, after his mother’s ‘very difficult and dangerous labour’ in September 1709. His godfather remarked that ‘he never knew any child reared with so much difficulty.’ Decades later James Boswell pictured Johnson in childhood, grappling with disease and burdened with premature sagacity, as ‘the infant Hercules’. For Thomas Carlyle, in 1840, Johnson was the first hero as ‘man of letters’. Unlike his German counterpart Goethe, however, he ‘did not conquer’; rather, he ‘fought bravely and fell’. Johnson himself would have concurred with the spirit of this appraisal. As he wrote in 1753:

To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity; the next is, to strive, and deserve to conquer: but he whose life has passed without a contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit, can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence; and if he is content with his own character, must owe his satisfaction to insensibility.

Strength and perseverance were the qualities he most admired and which he still appears to many readers to exemplify. Johnson’s life has often been depicted as a series of contests from which he emerged more or less victorious. The diaries he left behind are melancholy, desultory and remorselessly self-recriminating, consisting in large part of resolutions, inevitably broken, to rise early, study hard and control himself. Yet Johnson was also a convivial, energetic, witty man, the cure for whose weakness (as he said himself) was company. The drive to escape solitude for a crowd may explain his dislike of eccentricity, idiosyncrasy and singularity, and his efforts as a critic to translate vivid personal encounters with literature into rational generalisations about the way everyone thinks and feels.

What T.S. Eliot observed of his own critical assertions also applies to Johnson’s: ‘I am convinced that their force comes from the fact that they are attempts to summarise, in conceptual form, direct and intense experience of the poetry that I have found most congenial.’ Yet some of Johnson’s most memorable views on literature evidently sprang from what he considered the least congenial of his experiences as a reader. His notorious objection to Milton’s pastoral elegy Lycidas (1638), for instance, was that ‘where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.’ Why, then, write about Milton at all? Johnson didn’t have the final say on which authors were to be included in his late masterpiece Lives of the Poets (1779-81) – in which this judgment of Lycidas appears – although he did add five names to the commissioning booksellers’ list. He also insisted that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,’ and that he would therefore write about anyone or anything if the price were right – a hard-nosed attitude to his craft which dismayed many of Johnson’s admirers (Boswell among them). That attitude was born of having had to graft at authorship for decades before winning recognition and a pension in middle age; it was also (relatedly) the consequence of a robust, combative nature honed by reviewing the works of other writers. Tackling a subject, and an author, tended to involve elements of resistance and competition.

The same cannot be said for Smallwood’s method of appraising his subject in his latest book, The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson, which is expansive, patient and sympathetic. Smallwood remains feelingly alert to traces of Johnson’s personal history, in chapters ranging in emphasis from the editorial and structural to the moral, dramatic, philosophical and poetic. He often suggests ways in which Johnson’s tenacious memory, as well as his conversations or letters, might lead us to the origins of his biographical and critical statements – so that we could say of his writing, as of Eliot’s, that ‘emotional experience’ is ‘realised as principles of art’.

Unlike Dick Minim, Johnson wasn’t bound by rules or tradition in his critical judgments of other writers; indeed, dismissing one familiar charge against Shakespeare’s plays – that they are neither tragedies nor comedies, but an uncertain combination of the two – he concluded that their mixed character faithfully reflects real, ‘sublunary’ life, and that ‘there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature.’ Recognising in his subject a ‘mingled’ drama of beauties and faults, of tones, ironies, genres and plots, Johnson, unlike the personified Criticism of the Rambler, finds himself capable of adjudication and of praise.

The appeal that remains open from criticism to nature partly explains why he was prepared, as a critic and editor, to leave some questions unanswered – not indiscriminately, and not when he thought himself capable of settling matters with reasonable certainty, but when there were interpretative difficulties that he simply could not resolve. These moments of apparent defeat are faced with admirable straightforwardness in his ‘Preface to Shakespeare’: ‘I have not passed over, with affected superiority, what is equally difficult to the reader and to myself, but where I could not instruct him, have owned my ignorance.’ He did the same thing when asked why he had wrongly defined the word pastern as ‘the knee of an horse’ in the first edition of his Dictionary, confessing immediately to a female guest that the mistake was due to ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.’ When he got the chance to correct himself, he did: the 1773 Dictionary defines pastern correctly as ‘that part of the leg of a horse between the joint next the foot and the hoof.’

In criticism, as in life, Johnson was ‘clubable’ (an epithet he coined to mean ‘sociable’ but chose not to put in his Dictionary); that word might further be said to indicate the wish of several readers, including William Cowper, to rain down blows on him for what they understood to be his prejudiced, wrong-headed views. Not all his judgments have stood the test of time. (‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’) But such opinions were often thrown off in casual conversation rather than declared in print; ‘he owned’, Boswell wrote, that ‘he sometimes talked for victory’.

However dogmatic or unreasonable Johnson might occasionally have seemed, whether in speech or in writing, he was usually willing to admit that his opinions would be challenged and that the business of criticism was collective and collaborative. He was the first editor of Shakespeare to invite revisions to his own work, doing so in the belief that such activity amounts to an open-ended discussion. It is not only evaluative but interpretative. Hence his interest in the various stages by which a literary work arrives at its final form: where there is manuscript evidence of revisions, as in the case of Pope’s translation of the Iliad, Johnson pauses to quote and invite consideration of it, aware that he is undertaking what was still, in the 18th century, an unusual form of critical investigation:

Of these specimens every man who has cultivated poetry, or who delights to trace the mind from the rudeness of its first conceptions to the elegance of its last, will naturally desire a greater number; but most other readers are already tired, and I am not writing only to poets and philosophers.

Here, as always, Johnson has the varying demands and interests of his audience in mind. The critic’s task, like the editor’s, is not merely to single out beauties and faults, to praise or to blame, but to disentangle complications, a task in which he or she will always need the help of other readers. The mind of the literary critic can therefore be neither self-sufficient nor conclusive, but must remain amenable to change and suspicious of ‘the cant of those who judge by principles rather than perception’.

Hester Lynch Piozzi’s loose, gossipy Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (1786) ends with a striking image of her subject’s mental landscape:

The mind of this man was indeed expanded beyond the common limits of human nature, and stored with such variety of knowledge, that I used to think it resembled a royal pleasure ground, where every plant, of every name and nation, flourished in the full perfection of their powers, and where, though lofty woods and falling cataracts first caught the eye, and fixed the earliest attention of beholders, yet neither the trim parterre nor the pleasing shrubbery, nor even the antiquated evergreens, were denied a place in some fit corner of the happy valley.

A particular biographical vantage point is implicit in this passage. While some writers of Johnson’s life will choose to celebrate the ‘lofty woods and falling cataracts’, Piozzi attends rather to the ‘trim parterre’ and ‘the pleasing shrubbery’: in other words, to Johnson in a domestic and private setting. The idea of comparing a writer’s mind to a fruitful pleasure ground might have come from his ‘Preface to Shakespeare’ (1765), where he argues that ‘the composition of Shakespeare is a forest,’ or indeed from the comparison of Dryden (‘a natural field’) to Pope (‘a velvet lawn’) in Lives of the Poets. (Boswell, Piozzi’s rival, wrote that Johnson’s mind ‘was so full of imagery that he might have been perpetually a poet’.) But the immediate prompt for Piozzi must be the first chapter of Rasselas, in which the ‘royal pleasure ground’ or ‘happy valley’ of the Abyssinian princes is depicted as a place of verdure, fertility and variety. Here, too, are woods and cataracts, lawns and pastures. That lush description serves only to introduce the discovery that the prince is sickening for the lack of something to want in his ‘prison of pleasure’. The satisfaction of all human desires turns out to make everyone in the happy valley secretly miserable. Everyone longs to escape, but none can do so. Instead, they try their best to recruit more prisoners.

To pursue this parallel, the very abundance of Johnson’s mind could not afford him any lasting solace for being trapped within himself. He could only seek out more companions to share his unhappiness. Piozzi doesn’t dwell on the meaning of her image, but it seems compatible with Boswell’s terrible picture of Johnson’s mind as a Roman amphitheatre, in which his judgment was incessantly combating beasts he could never destroy. The happy valley is both heaven and hell, luxuriously oversupplied yet eternally inadequate. A royal pleasure ground might also be a hunting arena, one in which countless diversions cannot afford any lasting refuge from human failings. However ‘expanded beyond the common limits of human nature’ Johnson may have been, he suffered (to quote Imlac again) from ‘that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life’. Earlier in the Anecdotes, Piozzi confesses that what she calls the ‘perpetual confinement’ of Johnson’s company was ‘terrifying’ to begin with, and ‘irksome’ towards the end of their friendship.

Many 18th-century biographers of Johnson were tempted to compare him with his fictional characters, and especially with those in Rasselas: most often with the sententious Imlac, but also with the gifted, deluded astronomer who imagines that he controls the weather, and with the flawed philosopher who ‘speaks, and attention watches his lips’. The very fact that Rasselas was criticised for its lack of discrimination between characters and genders encouraged readers to believe that each of the people depicted in the tale was a portrait of some aspect of Johnson himself. Everyone reasons fluently at all times, even the astronomer in the grip of his delirium. As an episodic, anecdotal text, full of quotable sentiments delivered by characters who narrate their own histories, Rasselas also suggested a way of organising early lives of Johnson. Arthur Murphy wrote in his Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson (1792) that whoever reads ‘the heads of the chapters’ in Rasselas ‘will find, that it is not a course of adventures that invites him forward, but a discussion of interesting questions’. In this context, ‘interesting’ is designed to convey the forcefully active sense of moving the reader’s passion, a sense which Johnson includes in his Dictionary definition of ‘To INTEREST’, with specific reference to the phrase ‘an interesting story’, and in the Rambler, where he writes that biography, of all genres, ‘enchains the heart by irresistible interest’.

William Gerard Hamilton lamented that, when Johnson died, he ‘made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up’ – nothing, that is, other than new tales about Johnson. Murphy noted that ‘the press … teemed with anecdotes’ from the moment Johnson died. These little stories plugged gaps and supplied vacuities. They served to palliate melancholy. The subject matter of some anecdotes is synonymous with the instinct that produced them to begin with: the abhorrence of a vacuum. That feeling also comes in for scrutiny in Imlac’s comments on the pyramids, where the prowling, hungry mind is described as in ceaseless need of ‘some employment’.

Johnson’s creative instincts coincided with his critical attitudes in a deep-seated resistance to systems – moral, philosophical, literary, historical – and in a related awareness of the confusing variety of life, a sense of its arbitrariness and uncertainty, and of how little of it can ever be determined by our own plans. Hence, in part, his love of what he sometimes called ‘secret history’. In the Rambler he argued that biography should circumvent a great man’s public career and lead us instead into the recesses of his private life – in other words, into ‘anecdote’ as it is defined in his Dictionary definition of 1773: ‘a biographical incident; a minute passage of private life’. Biography must be anecdotal so that we are able to understand its subjects as people close to ourselves; literary criticism, in turn, must remain close to biography so that we can understand its origins in human ambition and human fallibility, and in order to ensure that criticism itself remains hospitable to ‘the transactions of the world’.

Perhaps Johnson’s bravest critical act was that he always proved ready, as Christopher Ricks has observed, to acknowledge the limits of criticism itself. If it is ‘the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge’, it will also remain forever unable to explain or account for what the Rambler calls ‘the nameless and inexplicable elegances which appeal wholly to the fancy, from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it, and which may well be termed the enchantresses of the soul’.

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