Johnson, Samuel

Assigned: Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler, #4 “On Fiction” (387-90); from The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (390-92); from “Preface to Shakespeare” (392-405); “On Metaphysical Wit” from Lives of the English Poets (405-08). Also read the editors’ introduction (383-86).

“On Fiction” (The Rambler, #4, 1750)

1. On 387-88 (“The works of fiction, with which…”), how does Samuel Johnson sum up the “task of our present writers” (387) as opposed to yesteryear’s purveyors of romance epic and other such genres? In what sense has the gap between author and readership narrowed, and with what results to the status of the new texts? In addition, what sort of people does Johnson suggest are the main readers of the new kinds of fiction? With regard to this readership, what vulnerabilities or susceptibilities must authors bear in mind?

2. On 388 (“In the romances formerly written…”), how does Johnson describe the relationship between readers and the characters in the new sort of fiction? How, according to Johnson, do “familiar histories” (realistic fiction, popular novels) prove more useful than “the solemnities of professed morality”? In what sense are they useful to the readers who attend closely to the actions and fortunes of the characters in modern fiction? In light of this utility, what moral responsibility does Johnson lay upon authors of realistic fiction, and why? In what sense is Johnson attributing considerable power to realistic fiction, rather than simply conceiving of it as entertainment?

3. On 388-89 (“The chief advantage which these fictions…”), what “chief advantage” (388 bottom) does modern fiction have in comparison with the real-life objects it imitates or represents (ordinary people, events, and things)? How does Johnson turn this advantage into a moral imperative? How does his use of the metaphor of a polished and properly mounted diamond help him drive home his point about the strong effect of carefully selected and shaped representations? In essence, how is Johnson following the ancient program (which began with Plato in The Republic) of modifying a pure mimetic or imitative theory of art to suit moral purposes?

4. On 389-90 (“Many writers, for the sake of following…”), how does Johnson refute those who insist that it’s acceptable to represent morally ambivalent or composite characters in their full ambivalence and complexity? This is a point that he will also make in his “Preface” to Shakespeare with regard to the greatest of dramatists: Shakespeare didn’t always show due care, in Johnson’s opinion, to demonstrate the villainy of the wicked with sufficient intensity and unity—Richard III comes to mind, and so does Macbeth. Why, according to Johnson, is this such a pernicious and dangerous failing on the part of literary authors?

5. General question: In The Rambler,No. 4 “On Fiction,” Johnson is obviously concerned about the moral welfare of the eighteenth-century novel-reading audience, and some politicians, social critics, and religious people show a similar concern today, even to the point of urging legal censorship. Plato, of course, is the father of all such moral arguments about the pragmatic effects of art. (See the Norton selections from The Republic, Leitch 58-89.) To what extent, if at all, do you think such arguments or concerns are valid? Explain.

6. General question: How many of Sir Philip Sidney’s ideas (Leitch 260-91) can you find in Johnson’s “On Fiction” from The Rambler, No. 4? In what ways do you think Johnson differs from Sidney’s expressly religious moral framework, or has transformed some of his ideas? Alternately, how much of Plato (Leitch 58-89, The Republic selections) or Aristotle (Leitch 95-131) do you find in Johnson? For example, how close does Johnson come to Plato’s brand of moralism? How might Johnson’s explanation of how we can take pleasure in watching a tragic play be compared with Aristotle’s remarks in Poetics on our response to representations of painful or otherwise troubling, “stressful” things? (Leitch 101-02)

From The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)

Chapter X. Imlac’s History Continued. A Dissertation upon Poetry

1. On 390-91 (“Wherever I went, I found that Poetry…”), what most surprises Samuel Johnson’s philosopher Imlac about modern people’s judgment of the ancient poets? What comparison does Imlac make between the earliest authors and those who come after them? In The Rambler, No. 4 (“On Fiction”), Johnson insists that a writer’s duty is to choose subjects judiciously. With regard to the poet’s powers and duties of observation, what new thoughts about the connection between morality and representation (“imitation”) does Imlac offer here in Rasselas?

2. On 391-92 (“In so wide a survey, said the Prince…”), Imlac declares that poets who know their trade do not “number the streaks of the tulip” (391) or “describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest” (391-92). Most readers today, as inheritors of the Romantics’ love for individuality and particularity, would probably disagree—one can hear William Blake’s marginal comment next to an orthodox neoclassical observation by Sir Joshua Reynolds: “To generalize is to be an idiot!” But be more generous with Dr. Johnson’s character Imlac: what is the basis of Imlac’s argument—in what vital way do tulip-streakers and verdure-shade-describers, in his view, fail as artists and with respect to the perceptual-intellectual capacities of their audience? Furthermore, in what sense does Imlac embrace the notion that artists should observe human nature and the physical environment closely?

3. On 392 (“But the knowledge of nature…”), what does Imlac apparently mean by his declaration that the poet “must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind […] , and […] as a being superiour to time and place”? What is he thereby suggesting about the durability of human nature and about the moral function and dignity of art? How does Imlac view artists’ responsibilities towards their fellow human beings?

4. General question: In our selection from Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, it is clear that Samuel Johnson’s philosopher Imlac endows poetry and poets with a great deal of dignity and authority—he characterizes them as wonderfully observant, sensitive, erudite, and wise in the ways of human nature itself. In all this, he says that he takes his cue from tradition, from history: “Wherever I went, I found that Poetry was […] regarded with a veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the Angelick Nature” (390). Where does poetry seem to stand today, in the context of early twenty-first-century America—from what you have been able to read and observe, what is the relative place of poetry, drama, and fiction in the hierarchy of the literary arts? Should we feel obliged to add other genres to the hierarchy, such as biography (sometimes called “life writing”) due to their popularity and critical regard? Explain.

From “Preface” to Shakespeare (1765)

1. On 392-94 (“That praises are without reason…”), how, according to Johnson, should we determine the literary value of works “of which the excellence is not absolute and definite” (393 top)? In his view, what is the only thing that can please the majority of people over long periods of time? How does he describe the inquiry he is about to undertake regarding the value of Shakespeare’s drama?

2. On 394-96 (“Nothing can please many, and please long…”), what praise does Johnson bestow on Shakespeare’s handling of human nature? In his view, what does Shakespeare get right about representing human nature and human interaction that many other literary artists do not? What does Shakespeare also understand about history and the “casual distinction of country and condition” (396) that other poets or dramatists may not? Consider also what Johnson writes about love, in the sense of romantic entanglements and high passion—how does Shakespeare treat this component of his plays, as opposed to many other dramatists and literary authors? (394 bottom – 395 top) Why, too, is it high praise when Johnson writes of Shakespeare that he “has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men…” (395 middle)?

3. On 396-97 (“The censure which he has incurred…”), how does Johnson defend Shakespeare from charges that his mixing of comic and tragic scenes or moments in his plays is inappropriate and ineffective with respect to genre-based expectations? Why, according to Johnson, is Shakespeare right to include comic elements in his tragedies, and tragic elements in his comedies? Why is rigid application of “the rules of criticism” itself inappropriate where the aim is to do what Horace said a poet should do, which is to “instruct by pleasing” (396)? In Johnson’s view, what is the basis of any kind of pleasure, and how, in light of Shakespeare’s handling of the comic, tragic, and historical dramatic genres as understood in his time, does Shakespeare show us he has understood this common wellspring or basis of the various kinds of pleasure? (397)

4. On 398-99 (“Shakespeare engaged in dramatick poetry…”), Johnson points out that since Shakespeare was relatively unburdened by hidebound dramatic rules or, for that matter, a learned audience that might call him out for breaking such rules, he was largely free to create the plays he wanted to. How does Johnson assess Shakespeare’s comedies in comparison with his tragedies, to the mild detriment of the latter and full praise of the former? Do you agree with his judgment here? Why or why not? In any case, how does Johnson go on to describe the permanence of Shakespeare’s appeal in terms of his representation of character and emotion as well as his style, his way of selecting and arranging the language for his characters from an appropriate source?

5. On 399-401 (“Shakespeare with his excellencies…”), Johnson meets the more censorious among the critics half-way: he levels some serious criticisms against Shakespeare. The worst among them, in Johnson’s view, is that Shakespeare “sacrifices virtue to convenience” (399). Why is this the least excusable fault he finds in the great playwright? Which faults seem less important to Johnson, and therefore at least partly excusable or mostly insignificant? Consider at least a few of the following: loosely constructed plots; hasty final acts; sloppy representation of the customs and characteristics of other times and nations; crude jests and jokes given to aristocratic characters; labored work in his tragedies; pompous diction; weak oratorical declamations; stubbornness in trying to express “unwieldy sentiment[s]” (400); inappropriately fancy language chosen to convey trivial thoughts; overwrought attempts to convey something “soft and pathetick” (400); and perhaps worst among the not-so-bad, falling prey to any quibble that suggested itself to him. (401)

6. On 401 (“It will be thought strange, that…”), how does Johnson defend Shakespeare for a fault that many neoclassical critics find in him—namely, his violation of the unity of action? How does he invoke Aristotle’s Poetics (Leitch 95-131; see, in particular, 105-06) in defense of Shakespeare’s fundamental soundness regarding the logic, coherence, and unity of his plots (aside from the histories, which, Johnson writes, make no promise of unified action)?

7. On 401-03 (“To the unities of time and place…”), Johnson freely admits that Shakespeare paid no attention to the neoclassical demand for adherence to the unities of time and place. However, what false assumption does Johnson suggest is at the root of these demands in the first place? (402) Furthermore, what frankly absurd limitations of understanding on the spectators’ part does the demand for rigidly logical, accurate handling of time and place assume? How does Johnson’s excellent observation that “Delusion, if delusion be admitted, has no certain limitation” (402) drive home the silliness of such assumptions as put forth by the unity-pushing critics?

8. On 403-04 (“It will be asked, how the drama…”), Johnson, having shredded the often-promoted claim that a play’s spectators actually believe what they see on the stage to be “real,” turns to addressing the question as to how, in that case, an audience “credits” a drama. In other words, what do audience members believe they are witnessing at the theater, and what accounts for the strong emotional and moral impact that a good play makes on them? Why does the audience find a well-produced drama credible and compellingeven though the members don’t believe they are witnessing a real-life event? Why, that is, do “Imitations produce pain or pleasure” (403) in spite of our knowing they are only imitations?

9. On 404-05 (“Whether Shakespeare knew the unities…”), how does Johnson sum up his consideration of Shakespeare’s treatment of the so-called “three unities”? How does he position himself in relation to the most strident fellow neoclassical critics of his day, and to critical orthodoxy more generally? What final defense does Johnson make of Shakespeare as one of the most remarkable playwrights ever to have lived, even in consideration of all the faults Johnson himself has admitted belong to that author?

10. General question: In Ch. 14 of Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge observes that his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads involved concentrating on supernatural or eccentric characters, and bestowing on them just enough “interest” and “truth” to “procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (Leitch 593). Compare Coleridge’s notion of “poetic faith” with Samuel Johnson’s ideas in “Preface” to Shakespeare about the manner in which an audience grants a drama “all the credit due to a drama” (403). What points of agreement and disagreement might the two critics have?

11. General question: In his “Preface” to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson shows a decided preference for Shakespeare’s comedies over his tragedies. What are his reasons for preferring the comedies? Which Shakespeare do you prefer—the comic or the tragic—and why? Does your response have to do mainly with your own personality (i.e., “brooders” usually go in for tragedy, while those with a sunny disposition and those who are disturbed by dark representations and violence may prefer comedy and, to some extent, romance), or with certain features of Shakespeare’s language, plots, and stagecraft that you admire? Explain.

12. General question: On 403 (bottom) of “Preface to Shakespeare,” Samuel Johnson writes, “if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more.” He is surely right, at least in the sense that direct viewing of such things in real life would horrify most people. But what about cinema? To what extent might it be argued that we come very close to taking the powerful images on a movie screen (or a television or laptop screen, since many of us now watch films this way) as real, at least during the time we are watching the film or television show? Do we necessarily find the sight of such “almost real” representations unpleasant? Does your response affect your view of Johnson’s argument against extreme proponents of “dramatic illusion”? Why or why not?

“On Metaphysical Wit” from Lives of the English Poets (1783)

1. On 405-07 (Cowley, like other poets who have…”), how does Johnson delineate the eighteenth-century key term, “wit”? How does he use this definition to criticize the conceptions of the so-called “metaphysical poets” (Cowley, Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell, and others). How did the metaphysical poets’ display of wit, according to Johnson, fall below the genuine level, and how did that supposed failure impact their poetry’s impact on their readers?

2. On 407-08 (“Yet great labour directed by great abilities…”), how does Johnson pay at least a partial, limited tribute to the ingenuity of the metaphysical poets? In spite of what he considers their numerous faults, in what sense does their poetry sometimes yield worthwhile results? Explain.

3. General question: Samuel Johnson obviously has issues with the metaphysical poets. “On Metaphysical Wit” from Lives of the English Poets can scarcely be intended as high praise, even if it does not amount to dismissal. If you have read some poetry by one or more of the metaphysical poets, do you agree with Johnson completely, partly, or not at all in the criticisms he makes of their poetry? Does he have a point about these difficult poets, or is he just being narrow-minded and “overly neoclassical” in this instance? Explain. An addition to this question, time permitting, would be to compare and contrast Johnson’s view of the metaphysical poets to that of T. S. Eliot (Leitch 891-98): whose view of these poets do you prefer, and why?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake