Samuel Johnson marks himself as a man of keen sensitivity when he acknowledges in his review of Shakespeare's King Lear that he was "so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor" (1765). This may seem like a fair assessment from the man who gave the English language of the first and greatest and wittiest dictionaries of all time; but upon a second examination, it may perhaps reveal something about Johnson and his age that is so foreign to the ideas which Shakespeare presented in King Lear that he could do nothing but recoil in horror. Johnson was, after all, an Anglican -- of the Church that persecuted Campion (Jesuit priest) and Lyne (the woman martyred for harboring Catholic priests during the Protestant takeover and memorialized in Shakespeare's Phoenix and the Turtle) (Kilroy 22). If Shakespeare represented the demolition of the old world and the old world Christ (of whom Cordelia may be said to be a symbol -- the dutiful, truthful, obedient, self-sacrificing child), Johnson may be said to represent that genteel and intellectualized age that followed the Anglicization of England: a period of Enlightenment -- but a period removed from the medieval religious spirit. This paper will analyze Johnson's writings concerning Pope, Lear, Dryden, and Milton as well as Boswell's representation of the literary light, and show how the spirit of Johnson's age may be discerned in every work.
Samuel Johnson may seem more in his element when he critiques Milton's Paradise Lost than when he critique's Shakespeare -- the reason being that Milton was a man with whom he shared a Protestant spiritual affinity. Yet both men had a healthy respect for the artworks that had preceded them: Johnson could admire the Bard and Milton, during his travels throughout Europe and Italy, could admire the Catholic art and artists with whom he came in contact. What they shared was a common world view -- a view that was definitively broken from the worldview of the past, in which Church and State were united for the greater glory of God. While this information may seem by the way or at best trivial it helps us put in perspective the reason why Johnson could so well gauge the man: "Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions" (2774).
Certainly Johnson has both Milton and his great literary and poetic work pegged. While pegging it, of course, in his typical humorous fashion, he both admits its faults and acknowledges its greatness: Paradise Lost is a teacher, rather than a friend -- and no one could say that better or more eloquently than Johnson, whose own literary styling made him one of the most popular men in London. He was like the modern day Ebert of cinema.
It is not surprising therefore to find that Johnson takes on any detraction and/or praise of the poet and thoroughly deconstructs it. Johnson balances his critique of Milton (and of everyone) against what other critics before him or contemporaneous to him have said. His voice, it appears, is one of reason -- the lone survivor of a demolition derby in which all other voices have been beaten into submission. For example, note the way in which he dismisses Dryden's criticism that "Milton has some flats among his elevations": "In every work one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages, a poem must have transitions…Milton, when has expatiated in the sky, may be allowed sometimes to revisit earth" (2774). Yet, while Johnson acknowledges that Milton may not be said to be an original when it comes to the epic poem, he admits that Milton's "work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first" (2774). Thus we see in Johnson a reflection of a kind of pride in his countryman's talents and vision. What Johnson displays is not vanity so much in a man as it is in an idea -- and that idea is that England was in a golden time. Shakespeare had written during the Golden Age of the English theater and Milton had followed the Bard with his pen, and now Johnson was following both with his own. There is, in his critique of Milton, a sense of the worth of not only his own greatness but of that of the time -- of the age in which he lived. What Johnson praises Milton for is a kind of free-thinking -- a novelty of the Age of Enlightenment: "He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities and disdainful of help or hindrance; he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them" (2774). In Johnson, one notes a relish for the independence of spirit that had converted England from a Catholic nation to an Anglican one.
Of Johnson's critique of Alexander Pope, we see something else entirely. Johnson praises Pope's "good sense," but laments that such sense is not enough to lift the poet to new heights: "it collects few materials for its own operations, and preserves safety, but never gains supremacy" (2775). In other words, Johnson appears to suggest that while Pope was a master commentator and critic of society, he lacked the kind of ambitious scope that made Shakespeare a master. Or do we get ahead of ourselves? Even Johnson admits that Pope had "genius," that his mind was "always investigating, always aspiring…always imagining something greater than it knows, always endeavoring more than it can do" (2775). Johnson seems to intuit the coming of Browning and the Romantics in the spirit of Pope: he seems to see already in his mind "Andrea del Sarto," in which Browning asks what a Heaven is for, if man's grasp cannot exceed his reach. Johnson somehow sees all of this in Pope -- and, perhaps, it is this reason that Pope for Johnson presents a kind of paradox.
Pope was, after all, a Papist -- a man whose convictions had more in common with the old world than with the modern. Yet, accordingly, while the virtues which these convictions engendered were certainly lauded by good men such as Johnson, his religion made him out of step with the day and age. England, once more, had been Protestantized. It had become pragmatic. And here is Pope, a man of "poetical prudence," who wrote and re-wrote and then re-wrote again so as to perfect his work. Johnson goes on at length in adumbration of Pope before getting down to particulars or details. Whatever exactness existed in Pope does not at first come to light in Johnson's critique. If Pope is precise, Johnson is long in finding his way to precision. Perhaps it is the precision in Pope that incites Johnson to exercise a fervor of words; or perhaps it is simply that he knows not what to do with Pope upon serious inspection, Pope already having said plainly enough what there needs be said. Oddly, one feels the same sense in reading Johnson's critique of Pope as he feels in reading Johnson's critique of Shakespeare -- that there is something profound just lurking outside the realm of the analysis that is not being touched upon. Could this profundity possibly be related to the old world spirit which both men imbibed and which Johnson could only partially partake, being himself of a genteel age that preferred to intellectualize? We might take a page out of Johnson's book and let the matter fall. Let it be periphery. In comparing Dryden and Pope, Johnson's analysis is superb: "Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with frequent astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight" (1781). Johnson's praise of each is deserving and fair.
And now let us look at one whose book is a work of praise of Johnson himself -- Boswell's Life of Johnson. What we gain from Boswell is a deep and sincere affection for his friend Johnson, of whom from the start he had in mind penning a biography (and made no secret of it to Johnson). The latter inspired, the former desired to preserve in writing that inspiration -- and, therefore, the man.
Boswell's biography begins at the beginning and records all the significant moments of the man's history -- his birth, baptism, schooling -- event after event is listed and described. Whether is it the depiction of his marriage or the detailing of the events surrounding the publication of his Dictionary, there is always a supreme example of the man. The anecdote in…