Symposium of Critics on Johnson and his Preface to Shakespeare

Symposium of 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.


Johnson Wood Krutch : If, as may certainly be maintained, the final test of a critic is willingness and ability to recognize excellence even when he cannot account for it, to be able to put loyalty to greatness before loyalty to his own theories, then Johnson passes that test with flying colours like all critics of his century — perhaps like all critics of our own — he did not always know why the good was good or the bad was bad; but in the case of Shakespeare, at least, he not only seldom failed to acknowledge what was good but also seldom failed to realize just how good it was. No doubt it was because he thus recognized that a poet can be understood only if we open our minds to receive his impact, that he gave in the Preface that excellent advice which ought to be surprising to those to whom “Johnson’ and ‘pedant” seem equivalent terms. Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakespeare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that drama can give, read every play from the first to the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop at correction or explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged, let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theobald and of Pope. Let him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption,; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.


Joseph Wood krutch : It is also true that Johnson once remarked, when he was again praising Congreve: “Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault. But he was merely saying what every critic without exception from the days of Ben Johnson on, had said and what was perfectly obvious to any one familiar with what the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had come to mean by faultless or “correct” rhythm or diction and by “propriety”. Yet Johnson was as far as Dryden from supposing that this put Shakespeare below the “correct” poets. Out of this same sense that Shakespeare’s greatness is his greatness, he could humorously turn upon Mrs. Thrale, who tried to force him to agree that Edward Young’s description of night was better than Shakespeare’s or Dryden’s because it was more “general” and therefore, according to the poetic theory, which Johnson ostensibly accepted, more poetical, “Young froths, and foams and bubbles”, he retorted, “sometimes very vigorously; but we must not compare the noise made by our tea-kettle here with the roaring of the ocean”.


Joseph Wood Krutch It should also be remembered that in one respect, at least, Johnson’s effort to discover the moral as well as the other qualities of Shakespeare carried him a definite step beyond his contemporaries; he saw, as most of them did not, that one must always contemplate the whole of a play rather than its constituent parts. In so far as his predecessors had attempted analytical appreciations, they had tended to discuss “the beauties of Shakespeare”—i.e., isolated poetic passages—or, at most, to analyse individual characters in the plays. If Johnson had really been as much merely a moralist in his attitude toward literature as he is sometimes said to have been, he would have followed in this tradition and added the weight of his influence to those who delight in selecting copy book maxims or proving Shakespeare’s greatness by the number of such sayings as “Unto thine own self be true” and “0 that men should put an enemy in their mouths” which he has to his credit. But Johnson does nothing of that sort. He may have had little conception of what later and more esoteric critics mean by the “unity of Shakespeare’, but if so, he at least made a step forward by ‘ recognizing that this unity is of the first importance. It would, then seem reasonable to say that Johnson the moralist seldom gets seriously in the way of Johnson the aesthetic critic of Shakespeare and that, at the cost of a certain amount of consistency, he treats what he proclaims a major deficiency as though it were, in reality, a very minor one.

W.K. Wimsatt : Johnson is a man of powerful and spontaneous responses to Shakespearean drama, but it is apparently not just these responses, or not these responses in their purest, simplest or most immediate shape, that give him his theoretical, his reasoned, his celebrated defence of Shakespeare’s adulteration’s. Johnson’s emotional responses are more like the standard ones of his time; they are fairly close to the theoretical neo-classic norm, to the ideal of rational orderliness, the contemporary spirit of idealism and benevolism. This might be taken to mean that Johnson’s defence of mingled drama was a mere abstract and thin cerebration which for some reason he undertook in opposition to this own genuine responses. But perhaps not. It is difficult to imagine any external reason which could have coerced him. The defence of mingled drama is indeed a testimony to Johnson’s theoretical intelligence, but at the same time it would seem to be tied into something very deep, though sometimes less articulate and clear, in Johnson’s nature — that is, his strongly religious sense of mystery in the universe, of the inscrutable — the supernatural. This sense, when it. is operating, induces in him a much less demanding attitude towards the terrestrial distribution of good and evil, rewards and punishments. It is this sense largely which moves the Johnson who wrote the pleasantly darkened fable of Rasselas, the Johnson who turned his withering scorn on the complacent rationalism of Soame Jenyn’s Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil.



Why should Johnson have thought Shakespeare’s comic parts were spontaneous, and that his tragic parts were laboured? Here; it seems to me, Johnson, by his simple integrity, in being wrong has happened on some truth much deeper than he knew. For to those who have experienced the full horror of life, tragedy is still inadequate. Sophocles felt more of it than he could express, when he wrote Oedipus the King: Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet : and Shakespeare had the advantage of being able to employ his grave-diggers. In the end, horror and laughter may be one only when horror and laughter have become as horrible and laughable as they can be ; and—whatever the conscious intention of the authors—you may laugh or shudder over Oedipus or Hamlet or king Lear—or both at once then only do you perceive that the aim of the comic and the tragic dramatist is the same : they are equally serious. So do the meanings of words change, as we inspect them, that we may even come to see Moliere in some lights as a more serious dramatist than Corneille or Racine: Wycherley as equally serious (in this sense) with Marlowe. All this is suggested to me by the words of Samuel Johnson which I have quoted- What Plato perceived has not been noticed by subsequent dramatic critics; the dramatic poet uses the conventions of his day; there is potential comedy in Sophocles and potential tragedy in Aristophanes. and otherwise they would riot as such good tragedians or comedians as they are. It might he added that when you have comedy and tragedy united in the wrong Way. or separated in the wrong way, you get sentiment or amusciflelit.

The distinction between the tragic and the comic is an account of the way in which we try to live; when we get below it, as in King Lear, we have an accent of the way in which we do live.


Joseph Wood Krutch : In the first place, he (Johnson) is primarily concerned, not with convicting Shakespeare of vulgarity but of explaining how he has come to be charged with such a fault by persons who mistake custom for nature. In the second place Johnson is demonstrating not that time has served to render Shakespeare ridiculous but that his poetic force triumphs easily over apparent faults which changes of fashion have created.

Undoubtedly there are a few, though only a very few, occasions when Johnson’s judgement on a particular passages or event is led astray by his concern for formal moralizing. One striking example of such an occasion is a remark in the general comment on As You Like it. Most present-day readers would certainly agree that the opportunity was well lost and, if they are among those who find artistic reasons for what the vulgar take to be lapses, would certainly insist that the perfunctory treatment of the usurper’s reform is one of Shakespeare’s way of suggesting that no realism is intended in this particular play. In any event, if he had done what Johnson so unwisely wishes, we would only have had a passage more like Addison than like Shakespeare and hence open to the objection which Johnson had elsewhere made — that one is reminded of the author than of the play. Such occasional lapses from his own better judgement into the taste of his time might also be illustrated by an occasional emendation which not only weakens the text but violates Johnson’s own principle that emendation should never be made simply because one feels that an author ought to have written something different from what he did write.

George Waston : Three major inconsistencies emerge from the Preface as a whole. First, tragi-comedy is justified on conflicting grounds. This, the second section, is one of the most original parts of the Preface . Dryden too had occasionally defended mixed plays, but only as the occasion suited; he had condemned them too. And given that the neo-classic critics had abandoned, or forgotten, the Renaissance distinction between tragedy and comedy, it must indeed have seemed important to justify Shakespeare’s mixture of ‘crimes’ and absurdities’. But it will hardly do to justify tragicomedy on Dryden’s grounds that contraries set off each other, and then to excuse the rules of criticism” on the grounds that ‘there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature” and that ‘the mingled drama’ can be shown to have instructed as well as pleased “this is a characteristically Johnsonian use of the escape-clause. Second, the extravagant (or at least unqualified) praise of Shakespeare as supremely, “the poet of nature” in the first part of the Preface seems discredited in the light of some of his disparagements towards the end: “As we everything to him, he owes something to us we fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loathe or despise He has perhaps not one play which if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary writer would be heard to the conclusion’. This has the ring of sincerity but if sincere, it makes the veneration of the opening pages look prescriptive indeed. And finally, Johnson’s somewhat Coleridgean praise for Shakespeare as the poet of the “central” style, probably to be sought in the common intercourse of life, among those who speak only to be understood, without ambition of elegance”, seems out of tune with the attack that follows, in the list of Shakespeare’s defects, upon his tumour” his weak declamation, his “unwieldy sentiment”. More than once, the Preface seems torn apart by Johnson’s failure to qualify either his praise or his blame. But there are moments of scintillating perception. The refutation of the unities of time and place, and the assertion of the special status of dramatic illusion, is a model of logical demonstration, and rich in those effects of mock-simplicity which Johnson loved to affect.

Walter Jackson Bate: When the circumstances under which it was written are considered, the achievement of this work can only become a matter of conjecture for the moralist or the historian of human genius. For this triumph of sanity, of rounded understanding, was attained against an ominous background of personal experience. After the magnificent general opening occurs the famous paragraph which makes the transition to the basic premise on which the Preface is to build. In it we may sense the pull of “novelty’— of the ‘romance of chivalry” he had read as a boy and of the “irregular” agitation of his own unruly emotions. We may feel the weight of the “satiety of life” of which he speaks, the irritable and nervous “quest” for novelty which it incites, and Johnson’s own weary but constant realization that the vividness of “sudden wonder” that he craved is only too “soon exhausted’. And so hard-won is the weight of experience that the muscular laying aside of all that “novelty” signifies, in favour of the “repose”, the “stability” and ordering of experience through objective perception, is all the more final and genuine. ‘Nothing” he begins, “can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature’, of the broad, enduring aspects of external reality.

John Bailey: No man did more, perhaps, to call criticism back from paths that led to nowhere, or to suggest directions in which discoveries might be made. The most marked contrast between him and earlier critics is his caution about altering the received text. He first stemmed the tide of rash emendation, and the ebb which began with him has continued ever since. He neither overestimated the importance nor underestimated the difficulties of the critic of Shakespeare. With his usual sense of the true scale of things he treats the quarrels of commentators with contempt; “it is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property not liberty”, and in another place he characteristically bids his angry colleagues to join with him in remembering amidst their triumphs over the “nonsensical’ opinions of dead rivals that we likewise are men and, as Swift observed to Burnet, “we shall soon be among the dead ourselves’. He knows too that “notes are necessary evils” add advises the young reader to begin by ignoring them and letting Shakespeare have his way alone.

Jean H. Hagstrum : It clear that Johnson has, though in complex and often underground ways, exerted considerable influence on twentieth century criticism. As Edward Emley has pointed out,
I. A. Richards and William Empson have, in their preoccupation with Coleridge and other critics, never fully realized their own affinity with the psychology and semantics of Johnson. But the so called New Critics have more than once had to test their strength against Johnson, especially in their rehabilitation of metaphysical, and have more than once come out of the fray admiring their adversary.

T.S. Eliot: The Preface to Shakespeare was published in 1765 and Voltaire, still writing ten years and more after this event, was maintaining an opposite point of view. Johnson saw deeper than Voltaire, in this as in most matters. Johnson perceived, though not explicitly, that the distinctions of tragic and comic are superficial for us — though he did not know how important they were for the Greeks; for he did not know that they sprang from a difference in ritual. As a poet and he was a fine poet — Johnson is at the end of a tether, but as a critic — and he was greater as critic than as poet — Johnson has a place comparable to that of Cowley as a poet in that we cannot say whether to classify him as the last of one kind of the first of another.

Joseph Wood Krutch : It is hardly necessary to repeat that Johnson was not “a literary dictator.” England has never known a man to whom that title could justly be applied, for not even Dryden, whose authority was probably more widely respected in the literary world than Johnson’s ever was, never exercised anything like undisputed sway. But Johnson did take all literature for his province, and did, before he had finished his career, manage to have his say concerning most of the English writers whom he thought of as first-rate.

George Watson: With Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English criticism achieves greatness on a scale that any reader can instantly recognize. Johnson certainly believed that the object of criticism was, in a very literal sense, to lay down the law, to ascertain and apply general principles of poetic excellence.

From his earliest years, Boswell tells us, he loved to read poetry, but hardly ever read any poem to an end, and he once asked an acquaintance incredulously : “Sir, do you read books through?” This is not the language of the close critical analyst. In suggest virtues of quite another kind: momentary but brilliant insights, a gift for perceiving relationships, certainty of judgement, breadth. And these are precisely the virtues of Johnson’s criticism. And finally, Johnson is an unambiguously historical critic and the true father of historical criticism in English.

George Saintsbury: The Shakespeare Preface is a specially interesting document, because of its illustration, not merely of Johnson’s native critical vigour, not merely of his imbibed eighteenth century prejudices, but of that peculiar position of compromise and reservation which, as we have said and shall say, is at once the condemnation and the salvation of the English critical position at this time. That Johnson might have been greater still at other times need not necessarily be denied; though it is at least open to doubt whether any other time would have suited his whole disposition better. But, as he is, he is great His critical calculus is perfectly sound on its postulates and axioms; and you have only to apply checks and correctives (which are easily ascertained, and kept ready) to adjust it to absolute critical truth. And, what is more, he has not merely flourished and vapoured critical abstraction, but has left us a solid reasoned body of critical judgement We may freely disagree with his judgement, but we can never justly disable his judgement; and this is the real criterion of a great critic.



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