JOHNSON AS A LITERARY CRITIC

JOHNSON AS A LITERARY CRITIC

Introduction. Among the most renowned critics Johnson’s position is second to none. It is true that we often find ourselves disagreeing with what he says, and some of his arguments may not be convincing, yet most of his view points are well argued and intelligible. He is generally regarded as a pillar of the new-classical school, although he sometimes seems to challenge some of its basic theories and turns quite amazingly imaginative and impressionistic. So far as his ways of expression are concerned he is a true new-classicist, but regarding his views we must not blindly stamp him as a neo-classicist. Johnson as a critic, is unmistakable a moralist, but he does not seem incapable of enjoying and valuing works of pure literary qualities. 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.

Johnson’s temperament as a critic. Johnson’s literary doctrines involve some salient features. First and foremost Johnson relied upon reason (opposed to imagination) and hence the rationality in his approach. He was, in a sense, experimental and logical rather than sticking to a particular point of view which is established and unquestioned for a long period. Secondly, his conservative tendencies played a crucial role in the making of his critical I perspective. The third point is that Johnson’s views are often tinged with his personal judgement. They are based on sturdy common sense’, his experience and wide knowledge acquired from reading literary works and the classics. The fourth important factor is his own moral and religious outlook developed from an austere philosophy of life. The nucleus of Johnson’s critical tenets is a combined product of all the above factors. Johnson is not, in the least, a romantic, yet a certain amount of emotion can be seen to have influenced his rationalism. But, at the same time, he was against sentimentalism. He was a man of dictatorial views, yet he showed no reluctance to accept all that was verified, basically sound and tested. Johnson’s approach an author is not as a critic who sets out fully armed and prepared to tear him down—but as a man of mature intellect, an open mind and sound standards of judgement. Thus, his approach towards Shakespeare is intimate and judicious. But his own code in turn attained a dogmatic character, and became hardened against all threat of a change. He showed an utter distrust of any innovation in literature. He looked upon the heroic couplet as the best form of verse. He thought that rhyme was indispensable to poetry. He discarded all the proposals of imitating the Spenserian stanza. Thus classicism now became a dogma kept alive through its connection with the moral and social needs of authority, orderliness, and tradition, rather than through the direct and simple demands of aesthetic tastes.

Definition and function of criticism. Johnson has, at more than one place, endeavoured to define criticism. The definition of a critic in his dictionary runs as ‘a man skilled in the art of judging in 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. He admires Dryden’s contribution to English criticism and maintains that it was he who first taught Englishmen “to determine upon principle the merits of composition”. Criticism, for Johnson, was both an art and a science. It can immortalise a work of art and illuminate it as well as unveil its hidden truths and values, he was much concerned about the perversion of criticism in the hands of ‘modern’ critics. “In practice, criticism is a study by which men grow important and fi)rmidable at very small expense he whom nature has made weak, and idleness kept ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic”. Johnson believed that the task of criticism is to establish principles and improve opinion into knowledge. It demands a disciplined approach because it is a vocation rather than a profession or even a career. According to Johnson criticism is not merely the art of appreciation, nor are its principles to be grounded in fancy or imagination; instead, it is to be built on the solid ground of reason and intelligence. He never goes about telling how a given work of art has been appealing to his heart unless it is equally appealing to the majority of readers. In this sense we see him opposed to the ‘impressionistic’ school of criticism.

Johnson relied much upon experience and experimental investigation and considered the faculty of memory crucial since it is the faculty in which experience is stored. This is convincingly put in the following passage that comes in the early part of his Preface to Shakespeare: “To works of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientific, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem what mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared and if they persist to value the possession it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinions in their favour….in the productions of genius, nothing can be styled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. Demonstration immediately displays its power, and has nothing to hope or fear from the flux of years; but works tentative and experimental must be estimated by their proportion to the general and collective in a long succession of endeavours.”

The aim of poetry. Although Johnson follows the classical concept that the chief objective of a work of art its to please and instruct, he gives it a new colouring. For him the main end of art is to instruct by pleasing. To put it in a different way, great art stirs an awareness, ushers in a process of enlightenment in those who experience it, which is inseparable from the action of providing delight. When Johnson maintains that literature instructs us by Pleasing, we may have a sense of emphasis being laid on the aspect of moral instruction. 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, yet, 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 new-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.It is enough for Johnson that they are sufficiently human. He also opposes the neo-classical insistence on purity of genres. He does not accept the view that the tragic and the comic must never be mixed. The exponents of this rule advance two justifications in support of their argument. Firstly, they maintain that a tragedy must never admit a comic scene because it may spoil the purity of lie genre and hinder the even flow. Secondly, they consider tragedy and comedy to be separate genres, distinct and exclusive in their effect and hence alternate comic and tragic scenes may prove to be mutually cancelling in effect. Johnson established how both these arguments are untenable. According to him the basic thing in art is truth, and the mingling of the comic elements with the tragic is acceptable because it is true to life. What is true can hardly be inartistic. Again, the mingled drama provides us with pleasure through its variety. If the basic function of art is to instruct by pleasing, mingled drama, due to its variety of pleasure, should be in a better position to discharge this function than pure drama (i.e., pure comedy or pure tragedy). Thus he proves that a mingling of the serious and light elements is not merely permissible but, in fact, effective in fulfilling the function of literature.

Johnson and the unities. The period of neo-classicism is a period of rules. There was a tendency to bring art inside the framework of orderliness and discipline. Thus, the champions of this literary movement insisted on sense and reason in art. They accepted the classics as their models. Proper word at proper place was the guideline for their style. In drama too they had certain pre-determined notions about structure, plot and characterization. One of these was their insistence on the three unites. Neo-classical critics criticized Shakespeare because of his disregard. of the unities. But Johnson is more open-minded and he appeals to reason and common sense rather than rigid rules in judging a play. He chides the blind followers of absolute realism in a play and points out that drama has aspects other than realism and these aspects are equally important in a critical evaluation of a dramatic piece. Change of scene and passage of time do not spoil the dramatic illusion. The proof of this argument lies in the fact that a spectator, who thinks that by. entering a theater he has moved from the London of his own times to the Rome of Antony, can equally take it for granted that in another act he has moved from Rome to Alexandria. In fact the spectators are thoroughly conscious that the theater is only a theater and the players are only players. It is the power of human imagination that leads them to compare the enacted incidents to real life and evaluate the worth and significance of the dramatic performance. The attempt of neo-classicism was to build, mainly on one side of experience, on order, arrangement, unity and uniformity. Its aim was to transform the purely subjective content of experience into a highly stylized, general product. Aristotle holds that art is an imitation of nature. Unity of impact is the ultimate ideal of classicism. But this unity of impact is not the least hurt by either the shifting of place or by the duration of the action being more than a day. Nor is it affected by the mingling of the tragic and the comic within the same work—if done artistically.

Johnson and poetic fidelity. The doctrine on which Johnson refutes poetic justice is quite antithetical to the one which he uses in criticizing the doctrine of unities. His inherent bias for a moral conclusion in a work of art might have made him sympathetic to the idea of rewarding the good and chastising the bad. Thus the death of innocent Cordelia in King Lear was unbearable to him. However, he does not approve of the validity of poetic justice as an artistic device or critical principle. Johnson rules out Dennis’s criticism of Addison’s Cato on the ground that it violates the principle of poetic justice. His contention is that dramatic poetry is nothing but an emulation of reality and so its rules are not broken by displaying the world in its true nature. Johnson might have been aware of the fact that the works of writers who rigidly observe Poetic justice are poor whereas Shakespeare’s plays are exceptionally powerful in spite of their violation of the so-called poetic justice. It may be on account of this inward awareness that he defends the plays by stating that they show the real state of sublunary things.

Johnson’s sound common sense. In the present age Johnson is remembered most of all for his critical studies and his novel Rasselas. As a critic Johnson has established his position and his two works, The Preface and the Lives of the Poets, are the most popular of all that he has written. The value of his opinions as a critic, especially in his Preface, rests on the massive strength and keen penetration into the heart of Shakespeare’s art. But this perception, admirably accurate on the whole, is not devoid of certain fallacies when it comes to details. Johnson’s critical analyses of Shakespeare’s plays are based on his preconceived opinions. That is why he is shocked at Shakespeare’s indifference to morality, anachronism and craze for word play and quibbles. Actually, Johnson’s emphasis is on the points in which Shakespeare’s aesthetics differed from his own. Even if most of his remarks are justified and even if his positive appreciation is wholly animated by a warm sympathy, it be said that his judgement remains essentially dogmatic.

Johnson_the renovator of ‘Rules’. Although Johnson is a follower 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 if life with that of art and defends the tragic-comedies of Shakespeare. A’ life is enriched by various experiences, he seems to argue, a work but this is, undoubtedly, enriched by various elements of sorrow and pleasure. Shakespeare was thus right in inserting comic scenes  among tragic ones. It may not be according to the rules, but it conforms to the realities of human life. Dryden had already advanced a similar argument but Johnson’s daring intellect broadened it further. He attacks the unities boldly and promotes, quite adventurously, the idea of experimentation in the field of drama. He acknowledges only the unity of action and holds the unites of place and time to have been the outcome of an abstract notion of theatrical illusion. The fictitious change from one place to another or from one period to another does not demand more credulity from the audience than that general goodwill without which no dramatic performance is possible. In this matter, again, Dryden’s wavering intuition is improved upon, and the Romantic theory of freedom is advocated. It has already been averred that in many instances Johnson rises above the limits of neo-classicism and shows his independent intellect with its mature insight and perception. We even feel a hint of irony in his praise of a ‘regular and correct’ writer. He admires Shakespeare in colourful words, speaks highly of the ages of youthful freshness and vigour when literature relied upon pure observation and natural intuition, borrowed nothing from books. It shows that in his subconscious mind he too shared the change which was in the process of asserting itself among his contemporaries.

Conclusion. Most often, Dr. Johnson is regarded merely as a judicial critic of the “indispensable eighteenth century” of English literature. But a curious student of literature may easily discover that he was an artist, a philosopher, a moralist and to an extent a man who based his judgement on instinct .and common sense. He cherished a fine sense of relationship between form and content, and in the majority of cases he judged form with felicity and sureness. He attached great significance tO construction, structure, harmony of tone and various other literary techniques. He was one who recognized the charm, the evocative force, the music, the sublime beauty and the superb rhythm of a verse or image. He was also a critic or a writer of creative intuition. But in spite of all these healthy virtues, he was a man of limitations and reservations. He was not prepared to accept new movements that were too new for him. He criticized Gray and Collins who were the fore-runners of the Romantic Revival and who differed from the traditional literary standards and notions. He was not able to foresee the advent of Romanticism: instead, his attempt was to consolidate classicism in the field of literature. Johnson’s wide scholarship, his reliance on psychological principles and his refusal to be cowed down by any prescriptive authority are the significant aspects of his literary criticism. But, after all, one cannot help admitting that his arguments are intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking.

His whole critical career is as notable for what it attacked as for what it attempted to. establish. From its beginning to its end, both in the earlier topical essays on such matters as the pastorals, versification, cordial verses, romances, and letter-writing and in the later consideration of specific literary works one by one, as they had appeared chronologically in the production of an author’s life-time, he waged relentless war upon authority, prescription, and outworn tradition. He attempted to cut away the overlaying and obscuring growth of pseudo-statement and to substitute only such determinations as were capable of verification by first hand experience. Johnson’s reader is never asked to believe that a general law has been operative from Homer to Black more or Virgil to Pom-fret. He is asked instead only to accept whatever general principle seems to arise from an inductive and empirical process of specific examination, sometimes line by line and stanza by stanza and sometimes work by work through the entire career of an author. Often the treatment is too brief and summary, and the steps of. the reasoning are lost in a sudden conclusion. But more often than not such evaluations are intended as vigorous challenge to the reader to make an examination himself. As Professor Tinker has said, the opinions of Johnson make us review the evidence, restate the case, and criticize the critic. The highest praise of his critical endeavors is that they are empirically lively in themselves and the cause of empirical liveliness in others.

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