Johnson was a poet, biographer, lexicographer, and an essayist on criticism and morals (The Rambler , The Idler ); he was the most influential literary figure of his lifetime in England, and he is the hero of one of the most acclaimed biographies ever written, his friend Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson .
Johnson is the last important critic of the neoclassicism, in an age where pre-Romantic ideas are more widely accepted than neoclassicism. Johnson is usually less dogmatic and more eclectic than Pope in his assertion of the neoclassical values. Moreover, sometimes Johnson's claims are contradictory: for instance, he wants at once realism and poetic justice on stage. He is not a consistent theorist, but rather a practical critic of penetrating insights, honesty and common sense. In Johnson we can witness both the dead weight of a tradition and the signs that a new conception of literature is emerging. Johnson had a strongly classical mind, and a great desire for order and coherence. But he had very little patience with whatever he perceived to be false, useless or pretentious, and he made short work of many neoclassical prejudices. He has become an emblematic character among literary critics, as a personification of English common sense and distrust of vague abstractions or fantastic theoretical systems. One anecdote told by Boswell exemplifies this hard-core common sense, with both its advantages and its limitations. The following anecdote from Boswell exemplifies this hard-headed no-nonsense theory, which has its limitations as well as its virtues:
1. After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus." (Boswell 162)
A large part of Johnson's criticism consists in rejecting what he sees as logical absurdities both in criticism or in literature. His common sense leads him some times into narrowness, because he tends to interpret poetical or critical conventions too literally; no doubt he also does away with a lot of nonsense and rubbish.
One main critical statement is the preface to his edition of Shakespeare's works. His judgement on Shakespeare is similar to Dryden's. He recognises his greatness in spite of being unable to reduce him to his principles, and in spite of his admiration is often narrow in judging him: he complains that Shakespeare is not moral enough, that he cares so much to please and to portray life that he seems at times to be writing without moral purpose. He also complains that Shakespeare has no sense of geography or history, and too often puts high-sounding speeches in situations where they are out of tune. And he has a pernicious love for puns which makes him spoil his best effects. Shakespeare is ready to abandon all artistic purpose for the sake of wordplay. Besides, he adds, Shakespeare's plays are incorrectly designed and he does not submit to decorum. But Shakespeare remains the greatest: with all his defects, he is a force of nature which no careful writer han hope to surpass.
However, Johnson was the one who rejected once and for all the doctrine of the unities; Shakespeare, he says, was right in paying no attention to them. Johnson rejects classical dramatic doctrine in the name of common sense, the same common sense that was said by Dryden and Pope to have established it. He maintains the unity of action, but sacrifices the unities of time and place to the higher pleasures of variety and instruction, which are best attained without them. He also accepts tragicomedy, as being more pleasurable than both tragedy and comedy, and having the same didactic potential. "I am almost frightened at my own temerity," Johnson says.
His main work in practical criticism is found in The Lives of the Poets (1777), dealing with Savage, Cowley, Milton, Gray, Dryden and Pope, among many others. There is a balance of biography and criticism in this work, as Johnson is interested not merely in the poet, but in the man as a whole. This is already revealing of a new attitude towards poetic creation. We may note that he is sound enough while writing on neoclassical poets, seeing their defects as well as their merits, but that his prejudices as a Royalist make him undervalue Gray, who was a democrat and a pre-Romantic, and Milton, a Puritan and regicide.
Didacticism is still important for Johnson. Fiction he defines as "truth invested with falsehood." Witness also his definition of poetry:
2. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.
In an essay on fiction Johnson grounds critical judgement on morality. Realism can be dangerous if it is not moral. Not everything in nature is fit for representation: art must imitate only those parts of nature which are fit for imitation. The artist must polish real life and offer us an ideal image. Vice, if it is shown, must inspire disgust.
In his novel Rasselas , Johnson further develops his ideas on imitation:
3. The business of a poet . . . is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind.
The poet must not only have a wide knowledge, but also magnify his attention to have an increased perception of similarities in nature; they must be free of prejudice and must be able to rise to eternal and transcendent truths.
4. He must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations; as a being superior to time and place. (328).
In his Preface to Shakespeare , Johnson asserts that
5. Nothing can please many, or please long, but just representations of general nature. (330)
Shakespeare is a "faithful mirror of manners and of life," but what he shows are not particular manners: he depicts not the individual, but the species. This idea has of course a long Aristotelian and neo-Platonic ancestry; it is being strongly emphasized at the time by Reynolds in his discourses on the theory of painting (Discourses on Art, 1770-86). Poets or painters should concern themselves with the representation of "general nature", rather than particular experience; oddities or personal whims (Tristram Shandy is one of Johnson's examples) will not do. Particulars are that which is limited to a given age or place (Johnson : the Puritans in Butler's Hudibras ). Universal is that which is common to all ages and countries. In opposing the elaborate conceits of the metaphysical poets, Johnson asserts that "great thoughts are always general." The passage describing "metaphysical wit" is one of the best known passages in the English critical tradition:
6.Wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, [the metaphysical poets] have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased. (Life of Cowley).
Sublimity or greatness in poetry is for Johnson dependent on essentials, and not to details (cf. Longinus against picturesque detail as detracting from sublimity). This is opposed to the ideals of the Romantic critics that will follow immediately after him. The Romantics would rather insist on dwelling on particular experience and on minute detail as its proof. But in fact the opposition is less acute than it looks at first sight: the neoclassical standard of universality, of "general nature," is never well defined; it subsumes many different concepts (ideality, actual frequency, intelligibility, essence, etc.). Johnson's "species" or generality which must be examined by the poet is not a Platonic universal, but rather a generalization from the average sense experiences. This we must associate to his demand that the poet have an encyclopedical knowledge, and write free from the prejudice of his age and nation. While for the neo-Platonics the knowledge of general ideas is achieved through some kind of direct inspiration, through their inborn presence in the mind of the poet, Johnson insists on the need of long experience in the world before being able to deal with general truths. This is in the spirit of empiricism. His reaction against the rules, too, is in the spirit of empiricism: here he appreciates "nature" over "convention", and opposes those critics who can't distinguish between the two.
Johnson is remarkably sensitive to the feelings of the public. His discussions of drama are usually grounded on the feelings or effects of the audience: he says that the difference between a tragedy or a comedy depends on their effect, not their structure. Johnson thinks that the common public is usually right on issues which have been long debated. Even his own definition of wit, the one he prefers over metaphysical wit, is dependent on general consensus and common experience:
7. If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed, to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen.
Johnson may have endorsed the principles of Neoclassicism, but in reality he is a transitional critic, and he is not alien to the influence that empiricist philosophy has on critical thought in this age. And his personal taste often reveals a sensitivity towards detail, the picturesque and the individual (for example, biography and personal morality, as opposed to philosophy) which appears obscured in his theories. There is often a gap between Johnson's theoretical concepts and his actual critical judgements: his judgements seem to be independent of the theories he is supposed to be applying. For instance, he repeats the traditional Neoclassic view of style as ornament. He defends the ideas of different levels of style, of specifically poetic diction. But in practice he also holds a different, more modern conception of style. In Johnson's practical criticism, style is seen as a way of perceiving the world. This can be seen above all in his rejections of poetic clichés and worn-out, trite expressions which derive from previous literature and not from personal experience.
This is in the line of the general shift form a conceptual, taxonomic view of style (that best exemplified by Ramism) to the perceptual, experiential view of literature which is foreshadowed in the concern of the late 17th century for a more intelligible and persuasive oratorical style, a view which is developed by the aestheticians of the 18th century and surfaces in the Romantic movement. Poetry makes familiar things new and new things familiar (Cf. Horace, but Wordsworth and Shklovski too) by creating an image of a mind in action. Johnson says that art is imitation, and that we can imitate either the object perceived or the process of perception. His criticism of the metaphysical poets is that their works imitate neither the object nor its impression. This "mimetic principle" is often used by Johnson as a criterion of unity, when he is opposing the intrusion of mannered styles.
So, Johnson is superficially a neoclassical critic, above all in his explicit theoretical statements. But in his personal taste and his practical criticism, we can see that he is in fact a transitional critic, just like many others which will be dealt with now. "His stylistic criticism, and probably in some degree his personal taste, reveal the strain of a contradiction which he did not perceive." This is to a certain extent the contradiction of his age; we will see now the emergence of this new literary standard in the esthetic though of many other writers apart from Johnson.