Samuel Johnson: Contribution to English Literature

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      The case of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is a glaring example of the 'personality cult' in literature. Indeed, his personality counts for more than his literary works. In his lifetime he dominated the age and had become a sort of 'national institution'. He attained a kind of apotheosis, a kind of semi-legendary position like that of John Bull, as the embodiment of the essential features of the English character. Englishmen found in him their own magnified arid glorious selves. He was the centre of a wide circle which included almost all celebrities of his time.

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is a glaring example of the 'personality cult' in literature
Dr. Samuel Johnson

      Scholars, poets, statesmen, orators, painters gathered around him like a galaxy and the great Doctor shone like a central sun as it were. His reputation was not confined to this limited circle. Actresses delighted in his conversation; soldiers were proud to entertain him in their barracks, inn-keepers boasted of his having slept in their inn. The King and Prime Minister felt flattered to receive him in audience. Such was the prestige and position of the man in his lifetime. Even today though few people read him, his name is familiar to all. He is often quoted in talks, writings, newspapers and sometimes even apocryphal sentences are attributed to him. The unique personality with its strength and weakness lives for the modernist in the pages of Boswell's immortal book, Life of Samuel Johnson. Carlyle, who resembled the Doctor in many ways, treats Johnson as a national hero- 'Hero as man of Letters' in his great book Hero and Hero worship. 

      Dr. Johnson mainly lives as a prose writer, as the author of the Dictionary of English Language, of Lives of Poets, and as the editor of Shakespeare. He wrote some verses, notably London and Vanity of Human Wishes in imitation of Juvenal. Some of the famous lines of his poems are still quoted for their brevity of expression and truth of experience. Prose is his natural medium. He wrote periodical essays for Rambler and Tatler, which are in the tradition of Addison's Spectator. The slow moving and verbose style of many of his essays is often relieved by brief and piquant generalisations, of which Johnson is truly one of the greatest masters in English language.

      In The Dictionary (1747-55) marks an epoch in the history of English. It was a kind of challenge to the world. Other nations had till the Age of Johnson become inclined to look upon English language and literature as barbarous. Great men in Italy and France had thought their languages worth the labours of a lifetime. Those languages had their dictionaries, but English had none. The Dictionary filled the nation with a pride in its language. Foreigners who wished to learn English could now learn it in the method and spirit of a scholar from this Dictionary. It is a monument of labour and scholarship. Samuel Johnson frankly recognised that language is a living thing and that life means growth and change. The meaning, the spelling, the arrangement of words could not therefore be regulated by immutable laws. "Language is the work of man, of a being from which permanence and stability cannot be derived". In The Dictionary he records the present use and the past history of words as accurately as he could find them. He thought it more important to codify the floating and uncertain rules which a student of the language found it difficult and impossible to reconcile. This is the aim he set before him namely "to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of our English idiom". His Dictionary has many faults, especially ot etymology, it is not guide to pronunciation of words; his definitions (meanings) of words are sometimes incorrect, some prejudiced, some verbose. But they are based on commonsense.

      Dr. Johnson's services to Shakespeare are immense. His Preface to his edition of Shakespeare is the most masterly piece of literary criticism. In the sixty pages of the Preface he said what it took centuries to be said by others. Johnson's best gifts as a critic are seen in it: lucidity, the virile energy, the individuality of his style, the unique power of first placing himself on the level of the plain man and then lifting the plain man to his: the resolute insistence on lite and reason not learning, as the standard by which the plays of Shakespeare are to be judged. His difference of "unities (in drama) is a piece of masterly writing. We cannot expect from him the imaginative criticism that since the days of Goethe and Coleridge has become a must' for every writer on Shakespeare. But Johnson first suggests what is called the historical and comparative criticism of Shakespeare. Never has the praise of Shakespeare as the master of truth and universality been better set forth than by Johnson.

      The Lives of the Poets (1777-1781) is his popular work and shows him at his best as a critic of literature. It shows both the strength and weakness of Johnson as the critic of poetry. It abounds in manliness and courage; it never forgets for a moment that literature exists for life and not life for literature: it has no esoteric claims; it says the plain things in plain words, These are certainly valuable qualities for a literary critic. But Johnson has his limitations too, He is entirely without aesthetic capacity. He has no musical ear or power of imagination to understand the melody or pictorial quality of verse, of the higher possibilities of poetry he has no conception. His criticism of Milton's Lyctdas and Paradise Lost are unfair and biased. His famous criticism of the 'Metaphysical Poets' has remained a classic even now. His criticisms of Cowley, Dryden and Pope are masterpieces. Everybody remembers his famous line about Pope "It ope is not a poet, then where is poetry to be found"? He wrote periodical essays for the Rambler (1750-52). The papers which appeared twice a week are full of deep thought and observation and are founded upon his Own experience of lite, but they lack the elegance of the Spectator: He wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), a novel.

      Lastly, the prose style of Samuel Johnson has something unique in it. It is an individualistic style that has both admirers and detractors. At its worst Johnson's prose is inflated, pompous, artificial and verbose qualities which led to the coinage of the word Johnsonese. In his earlier works the style is heavy, affected and rhetorical. But the detects of style disappear from his mature works, Lives, Preface, etc. The style there is easy, lucid, forceful and almost conversational. His sentences are packed with meaning and challenge the readers to give them the thought which they demand. Thus it is that Johnson's supremacy in English literature is "due as much to the personality as to the greatness of the writer." Dr. Johnson wrote little poetry. His longish poem is the Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). The poem is written in imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal. London was his first poem written in 1738 in heroic couplet. It depicts the vanity and sins of city life viewed from the depressing standpoint of an embittered and poor poet. Samuel Johnson's drama Irene (1737) is written in ponderous blank verse. It ran only for nine nights.

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