Critics on Johnson and his Preface to Shakespeare

Critics on Johnson and his Preface to Shakespeare

W:K. Wimsatt. Johnson entertained very sound views about the philological part of an editor’s duties. His performance in this respect was, by modern standards, uneven, capricious, often notably deficient. But by any standards illustrated upon his own day, his performance was extraordinary. For reasons in part no doubt well known in the relation with Garrick which we have noticed, Johnson did only a spotty job in the department of textual collation. At the same time, he restored many readings of the First Folio and was the first editor to realize its sole authority among the other folios. In the department of explication, or, as it was then called, ‘elucidation, of the difficult passages in Shakespeare Johnson relied for the most part on his own sturdy good sense and general awareness of human nature, but now and then he made good use too of the historical perspectives which he had learned in his Dictionary labours and in which had great confidence and took a justifiable pride. Perhaps the largest philological virtue which Johtison displayed was that of restraint in the department of emendation, humility in the face of his author’s text, respect for what was given.

Jean H. Hagstrum. Samuel Johnson practiced most of the forms of literary criticism known to his day. He emended corrupt passages and explained obscure and difficult ones. He traced the development of an author’s genius — that ‘chemical process’, in the words of contemporary review of his criticism, by which the earliest yield is ‘transmuted into a substance of a more valuable kind” while “still preserving some analogy to its pristine form’. He occasionally studied “the gradual progress and improvement of our taste’, and he comprehended “as it were in one view the whole circle of the arts and sciences, to see their mutual connection and dependencies. But above all he sat on the judicial bench of criticism, inquiring into the beauties and faults of literary works and denouncing” with great accuracy on the merits of literary productions” His own learned labours resulted in an edition of Shakespeare which a contemporary scholar has characterized as “the best which had yet appeared’ and still one of the few editions which are indispensable. Johnson himself held the task of a scholarly editor in the highest possible regard. ‘Conjectural criticism demands more than humanity possesses Let us now he told no more” he said, glancing at Pope, “of the dull duty of an editor”.



Jean H. Hagstrum Thus literary research is often based upon a desire to determine the extent of an authors originality. If “the highest praise of genius is original invention’ — and no dictum of Johnson is more characteristic than this — it follows that criticism must be silent until it is determined just how original the author was; and that can be discovered only by means of scholarly tools. The apparatus criticus, which displays what the author knew, quoted, copied and echoed, has never been justified on better grounds than these. At least when he wrote his most important critical document, the Preface to Shakespeare Johnson considered historical investigation of literature to be of far greater dignity than determining the rank of any particular performance.

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