What is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Criticism?

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a learned figure in the Neo-Classical period (1660-1798) was a versatile personality—a poet, playwright, essayist, biographer, critic, etc. He formed a great influence as a critic on his age than any other contemporary English critic. He was the most celebrated critic of Shakespeare who uplifted the criticism of Shakespeare on a higher level. His criticism of Shakespeare has provided new dimensions to the Shakespearean literature and many later critics followed Johnson in estimation of the words of Shakespeare. He expressed his critical views on poetry, drama, historical approach, versification, diction, etc. he wrote a compact Dictionary of English Language also known as Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), a lasting work in the history of English language. It took seven years to complete and he sole completed it. He did not compose single or special treatise on criticism but we find his critical opinions in the following works:
1. 12 Papers in the Rambler, a periodical he started and edited from 1750 to 1752.
2. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia popularly known as Rasselas (1759), a fiction, apologue (a fable often exaggerated).
3. Preface to the Plays of Shakespeare (1765), one of the celebrated works.
4. Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets shortly known as Lives of Poets (1779), short biographies and critical remarks on 52 poets.
Let’s discuss his views on literature in detail:
1. His Views on Historical Approach: for Johnson, the age or time is significant in the evaluation of a poet or author. A poet is the product of his/ her age and hence it is necessary to place him/ her in that particular time. The contemporary time or age is reflected in the works of an author. The careful study of that particular time is very important to estimate and decide the value of the literary creation of an author. He made the following statement in Lives the Poets: “To judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time, and examine what were the wants of his contemporaries, and what were his means of supplying them. That which is easy at one time was difficult at another.”
Here is the scope for comparison among various authors and poets to evaluate their performance in that age. From this, we can that Shakespeare is the product of Elizabethan Age who outnumbered in the performance than his contemporaries. It is evident from his Lives of Poets that he went carefully through the time and environment of each poet he delineated. He covered the span of hundred years in the Lives of Poets. According to him, Milton’s work is not the greatest one for it is not the first. The test of time is also essential to have a clear picture of the works produced by the author. Johnson’s emphasis is on evaluating the historical background and the environment in which a poet or author lived. George Watson rightly said about Johnson: “Johnson is an unambiguously historical critic and the true father of historical criticism in English”. His estimation of the 52 poets is his best of the works for his minute observations on poets’ lives and their critical appraisals.
2. Views on Poetry: Johnson defined poetry in the Life of Milton (in Lives of Poets) as “poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason”. Here he stated the nature and function of poetry—first poetry is an art, and imitative art meant for pleasure but it should come with truth. The very basic component of poetry is imagination but imagination with reason or conscience. In his views on poetry, he follows Plato and Horace, though he directly did not mention morality; but in his Preface to Shakespeare, he said, “the end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing”. It seems, for him, instruction is primary task of any literature, pleasure/ entertainment secondary. He was fond of the classical rules of poetry and formed his opinions based on it. As poetry imitates life but what kind of life it imitates is given in his illustration of Shakespeare and his plays:
“Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life. His characters are not modified by the customs of particular places, unpractised by the rest of the world… they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find.”
Poetry should express the truth of life, the universal truth through imitation. Why Shakespeare became an outstanding poet? Because he imitated the very human life and shown mirror to readers, a ‘genuine progeny of common humanity’ is his strength. According to him, the element of pleasure is dominant to morality. Here is a contradiction in his definition of poetry that if a poet has to imitate the life as it is, it is difficult him to fit it into morality lesson.
3. His Views on Kinds of Poetry, Versification and Poetic Diction: Johnson considered epic as more significant form of poetry as it exploits elements of truth with pleasing manner. In his own words, “epic poetry undertakes to teach the most important truth by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting manner”. Again, here, his test of great literature is based on the maxim of teaching morality and revealing truth. Further, he adds the element of pleasure. He considers pastoral poems and Pindaric Odes less significant. Pastoral elements in poetry do not form a charming effect on the readers. A reader gets bore for constant repetition of such elements in a poem. He harshly rejected Milton’s Lycidas:
“In this poem, there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply, are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind.”
He clearly shown his dislike for the pastoral elements in Milton’s poem. There is a reason for the rejection of Pindaric ode that it is of no use in the modern period, and it has a random stanza form and metre. From this arises his concept of versification i.e. metre and stanza form used in poetry. Regular metre and stanza form has more credibility in composition because “the great pleasure of verse arises from the known measure of lines and uniform structure of the stanza”. He gave preference to the use of heroic couplet. It has harmony, sound pattern and rhyming and satisfies the want of readers.
In the use of diction or language, he suggested to avoid the extreme kind of words that very Common or low words and strange or unfamiliar words; words between these extremes should be preferred in composition. According to him the language or diction of poetry “is a system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use, and from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts”. It means too familiar and too remote vocabulary may spoil the very purpose of poetry.
Simile is a noteworthy figure to use which has great expressive value. He praised pope for a skillful use of simile in his essay on criticism.
4. His views on Drama: following are his views on drama.
1. The Nature of Drama: for Jonson, literature should reflect the common entities or manners of people. Drama is not a story of a few men or characters, but they should represent, in general, the common or particular attributes of human beings applicable in any age or all ages. And hence, Shakespeare is above all poets. It is the representation of truth and nature of human beings. He said of Shakespeare, “the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible its effects would probably be such as he assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.”
Here lies the greatness of Shakespeare that he predicted the most possible action of human beings in a conditioned or particular situation.
2. The Unities in Drama: what Shakespeare did in the composition of drama regarding the three unities is justified by Dr. Johnson. He things the unity of action more justifiable by reason. Plot of the play must be connected and form a whole for desired effect. The proper arrangement of incidents is an essential element of any play, otherwise it would lead the play in chaotic direction. The unities of time and place are not so significant as the events or action in the play. They may be observed but not on the loss of action. Action must be in fact. He provides the ground for rejection of unity of place and time. According to him, “the spectators are always in their senses, and know from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players.” Audience already know about where the action is taking place and doesn’t bother about changing the place. The same is true about theme. Audience can consider the lapse or large span of theme into a few hours.
3. Pleasure from the Drama: pleasure is an essential quality of literature. There is a natural pleasure in imitation as Aristotle said; and Jonson also supports to this view. He says the following about tragedy and pleasure of imitation:
“The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more. Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind.”
There truth in the fiction and pleasure embodied with truth which was a basic element for Jonson.
4. The Concept of Tragi-Comedy: He approves the concept of tragi-comedy. Though many critics apposed the mix of tragedy and comedy, he stated that the mixing of tragedy and comedy derive natural pleasure and our life is a mixture of sorrow and happiness. And a drama or literature mist reflect the realities in our life; so it is acceptable. Tragi-comedy is a separate form of drama or literature based on realistic elements and hence it is nearer to life. He justified Shakespeare for evolving this ‘distinct species of dramatic art.’
“Exhibiting the real stage of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination.”
Good and bad is the inevitable part of Human life which should be exhibited in drama or literature. Hence tragi-comedy.

Download Pdf
Watch Video on Dr.Samuel Johnson’s Criticism? Part 1
Watch Video on What is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Criticism? Part 2