Dr. Samuel Johnson, an eminent 18th-century literary figure, made significant contributions to literary criticism, many of which can be gleaned from his essay “Life of Cowley,” part of his larger work, “Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.” Johnson’s approach to criticism in this essay, as well as in his broader work, reflects certain key principles and methods that were indicative of his critical style and philosophy.
Dr. Johnson believes that literature is not written after a fixed pattern but is certainly influenced by the spirit of the age in which it is written Dryden had given utterance to a similar notion when he attributed the success of Shakespeare and Fletcher to their response to the genius of the age and nation in which they had written their plays. Pope, too, was aware of the historical approach to literature and had a word to say on the genius of the age, without which one could cavil but never criticize. It is Johnson who for the first time makes the historical criticism and essential principle. He made it abundantly clear that to judge rightly of an author, we must transport ourselves to his time and examine what were the wants of the contemporaries and what were his means of supplying them that which is easy at one time was difficult at another. Every man’s performances, to be rightly estimated, must be compared with the state of the age in which he lived, and with his own particular opportunities.
Johnson is obviously convinced that conformity to Nature and reason is the basic test to literary excellence and a consideration of the writers literary and social milieu, his opportunities and limitations are no less necessary for making a correct appraisal of his performance. The scenes of violence in Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are accounted by the uncultivated, primitive tastes of the Elizabethan audiences. Milton’s Paradise lost is also reviewed in a similar manner. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch, he was born for whatever was arduous. Dryden, Addition and many others are judged by the same yardstick.
Like all new-classic critics, Johnson also assumes that criticism is something belonging to the intellectual field and is a product of reason. It should be noted that neo-classical criticism is masculine, objective and dogmatic, and its exponents, even while speaking of inspiration and imagination, lay emphasis on literature as an art and on poetry as the art of making poems. This concept of art can be traced to the Greeks who conceived of literature, not as an inevitable expression of creative power, but as a reasoned initiation of the materials of life. For Aristotle, poetry is born of man’s imitative instinct and differs from both history and science in that it deals with the probable or possible, where as history and science deal with the real.
The Romans likewise looked upon literature as a noble art which aimed at inspiring the readers with noble ideals of life. Inspite of his penchant for the Ancients, Johnson evinces a remarkable malleability of critical temper and dislikes that race of men, that imagine it their duty, or to make it their amusement to hinder the reception of every work of learning, or genius, who stand as sentinels in the avenues of fame, and value themselves upon giving ignorance and Envy the first notice of a prey.
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- Johnson placed a strong emphasis on understanding a work within its historical context. In “Life of Cowley,” he considers the traditions and conventions of the Metaphysical poets, of which Abraham Cowley was a part. Johnson assesses Cowley’s work not just on its intrinsic merits but also in the context of the literary trends and cultural conditions of the time.
Moral and Didactic Criticism:
- A significant aspect of Johnson’s criticism is his moral and didactic approach. He often evaluated literature based on its ethical implications and the lessons it imparted to readers. Johnson believed that literature should uphold moral values and contribute positively to the reader’s moral improvement.
Focus on General Nature over Technical Analysis:
- Johnson’s criticism was not overly technical. He focused more on the general nature and impact of a work rather than on detailed stylistic or structural analysis. In “Life of Cowley,” he was more concerned with the overall effect of the metaphysical style and its contribution to the essence of poetry.
Critique of Metaphysical Conceits:
- In “Life of Cowley,” Johnson famously criticized the ‘Metaphysical Poets’ for their overuse of what he termed “metaphysical conceits” – elaborate, often strained, comparisons or analogies. He argued that such conceits were more about showcasing the poet’s wit rather than expressing genuine emotion or ideas.
- Johnson’s criticism was often characterized by a balance between admiration and censure. He acknowledged Cowley’s talents and contributions to English poetry while also critiquing the flaws in his work. This balanced approach is a hallmark of Johnson’s critical method.
Clarity and Accessibility:
- Johnson’s prose style in criticism was clear and accessible, aimed at both informing and engaging a broad readership. His criticisms were not just for academic or scholarly audiences but were intended to reach a wider public, reflecting his belief in the social function of literature and criticism.
Influence of Personal Beliefs and Values:
- Johnson’s criticism often reflected his own personal beliefs and values. His judgments were sometimes influenced by his own moral, social, and literary sensibilities, which is evident in his assessments of Cowley and other poets in “Lives of the Poets.”
In conclusion, Johnson’s criticism in “Life of Cowley” and his other works demonstrates a blend of historical awareness, moral consideration, and a balanced approach to literary evaluation. His method of placing literary works within a broader social and moral context has had a lasting impact on the field of literary criticism.