Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

First things first: there are better Johnson pages. The best is Jack Lynch's Johnson page at Rutgers:

There's also a great illustrated display on Johnson's Dictionary at the Stanford
Library page:

But if you really want my class notes, read on!
--Dr. K

Samuel Johnson is called many things: the poet who celebrates human unsuccess, the Rambler, Dictionary Johnson, a Grub Street hack--and he is all these things and more. You have him to blame for a lot of what you study in English literature classes, so come to grips with him.

Like Pope and Swift (fellow Tories), Johnson is an outsider who gained insider status with his literary genius. He was a bright youngster and made it into Oxford, but had to drop out after two years because he couldn't afford the school fees. He became an itinerant school teacher and part-time journalist, eventually marrying a well-off woman twenty years older than he was, and after several failed ventures ended up moving with her to London in 1737, where they took lodgings among the Grub Street hacks. He supported himself writing for periodicals, and in 1744 cashed in on the middle-class demand for more information about famous writers by publishing his Life of Savage, perhaps the first literary critical biography of an English writer. Johnson established three standards for literary biography that are still held today:

Building on the success of his biographies, Johnson managed to raise enough money by subscription publication to underwrite the nine-year process of writing The Dictionary of the English Language, with the help of six young assistants. The Dictionary is the first systematic effort to apply the principles of the New Science to lexicography, a science Johnson can be said to have invented. It was based on careful examination of many examples of the use of words, a collection of best examples, a selection of literature from Sidney to Pope (Johnson didn't use examples from living writers), and careful distinction between competing meanings. His etymologies are generally very accurate as well. These principles are set out in the preface to the Dictionary (Longman p. 2731 ff.) If you go to the Stanford library page referenced above, you can see some of his best (and funniest) definitions.

Johnson had originally sought the patronage of the Earl of Chesterfield to underwrite the Dictionary, but Chesterfield gave him the cold shoulder. Years later, when the Dictionary was about to appear, Chesterfield published two letters in periodicals praising the Dictionary and implying that he (Chesterfield) was behind the financing. In response, Johnson wrote one of the most acidic, sarcastic, and effective letters of refusal ever written (p. 2792-93). It's a masterful example of tone--try reading it aloud!

The success of the Dictionary made Johnson's reputation, but he had already begun publishing periodical essays, first in the Rambler and then in the Idler, which also cemented his position as the Dean of English Literary Criticism. If you only read one Rambler, make it Rambler #60 on Biography (p. 2708), which sets out the principles on which The Life of Savage was written. His followup, Rambler 84 on autobiography (p. 2727), further supplements his views on life writing.

Following the Dictionary, Johnson capitalized on his fame by starting a new subscription edition of The Works of Shakespeare. His edition was much preferable to those which went before because he didn't try to "improve" Shakespeare but to look at the various early printed editions and try to establish a critical text of the plays. His edition is best known for its excellent Preface (p. 2753), which you should read very carefully. He celebrates Shakespeare for his "just representations of general nature" (2755), but also identifies what he perceives as faults in Shakespeare, including the famous attack on Shakespeare's puns ('quibbles'); see p. 2759. From 2760 ff. he presents his famous demolition of the notion of dramatic unities, pointing out that playgoers always realize they are watching fiction, not truth, and that their willing suspension of disbelief (to steal a phrase from the Romantics) makes them able to deal with one scene in Rome and the next in Athens.

Johnson was also an accomplished poet, and many people prefer his poetry to Pope's because Johnson, while he celebrates the universal and generic in human characteristics, ties them to actual human beings--for instance, the humble 'doctor' Robert Levet (p. 2701) whose "virtues walked their narrow round, / Nor made a pause, nor left a void; / And sure th' Eternal Master found / The single talent well employed." In his most famous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, like The Essay on Man a Juvenalian satire, he looks at the falls of great historical personages and how every man's life, in some way, can be reduced to its barest characteristics, as in Charles XII of Sweden (who remembers him now?) who "left the name, at which the world grew pale, / To point a moral, or adorn a tale" (p. 2697). The warning to all students should ring home with you:

Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the jail. (157-160)

The part of the Vanity of Human Wishes to which you should give most attention is the last verse paragraph, beginning on p. 2699, line 343: "Where then shall Hope and Fear their objects find?" Johnson's answer, unlike Pope's smug "Whatever is, is best", relies on human frailty and divine justice: "Still raise for good the supplicating voice, / But leave to Heav'n the measure and the choice.../ Implore His aid, in His decisions rest,/ Secure whate'er He gives, He gives the best." This is Lockean belief, not Hume--a real proof of the Mind and God question coming down on the side of believing in a Divine Architect who could see the larger picture.