kaelan's Reviews > Samuel Johnson: The Major Works

Samuel Johnson by Samuel Johnson
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Nov 07, 2013

it was amazing
bookshelves: criticism, essays, for-school, poetry
Read from January 23, 2012 to January 09, 2013

I like to think that reading this book—an activity which has occupied me for about the last year of my life—has been rather akin to an arranged marriage. What began without love—or, at most, the minutest spark of attraction—has developed, over the arduous months, into a bond of considerable strength. I can't say that I love Johnson; but I feel, for better or for worse, that he is a part of me now.

The following sub-reviews concern what I deem to be the most important works in this collection, and were written at various points during my reading.

The Vanity of Human Wishes: 4/5

I had to read this a few times (over the span of several months) to realize that it is a great poem. The heroic couplets may get tiresome, but that only means you're reading it too fast. Take your time, and Johnson's genius will reveal itself. Good to read in conjunction with Rasselas, as the two are very similar thematically.

An Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage: 4/5

Savage was the original Neal Cassady. Johnson, for his part, strives for both honesty and compassion in his portrayal of a man who's singular, complicated, and often rather unlikable.

Periodical Essays: 4/5

These essays, taken from The Rambler and The Idler, offer a taste of the range and depth of Johnson's opinions. The essays are short—two-and-a-half pages on average—and are both articulate and engaging. Highlights include the more 'fiction-y' pieces, such as "The Vultures View of Man"—a vignette about a couple of vultures debating the possible rationality of human beings—and "European Oppression in America"—a moving argument against colonialism. While the prose and the subject matter are sometimes dated, the general sentiments contained in these essays are not.

A Dictionary of the English Language: 4/5

In 1755, Dr. Johnson published the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. In this preface to his monumental achievement, he (predictably) discusses linguistics and lexicography—the value here is mainly historical; but also (more unpredictably) he touches upon the nature of ambition, and what it means—and what it feels like—to attempt the impossible.

Rasselas: 4/5

I have nothing against a writer spouting their personal ideology under the guise of fiction; it only bothers me when it's done poorly—see: Ayn Rand. Like Rand, Johnson's characters often serve as literal mouth-pieces for the author's own ideas. Unlike Rand, however, Johnson can actually write.

The work functions as a(n incomplete?) priamel: a quest for the fount of human happiness. Of course, while Johnson dismisses many possible routes, his answer is not immediately forthcoming. In fact, Rasselas may be looked at as a slightly more pessimistic version of "The Vanity of Human Wishes"—and that's saying something.

This work is also chock-full of quotable passages (OK, that depends on what your definition of "quotable" is). Among my favourites:
When the desultory levity of youth has settled into regularity, it is soon succeeded by pride ashamed to yield, or obstinacy delighting to contend.

Now tell that to your parents!

The Plays of William Shakespeare: 3/5

The centerpiece of this work is the preface, in which Johnson embarks on a slightly long-winded—yet rhetorically admirable—defense of Shakespeare's artistic merit. This is followed by a (not-so-brief) account of his (Johnson's) editorial procedures in regards to the present edition. It's interesting to note how much Johnson's methodology actually anticipates modern critical approaches. Also interesting is Johnson's response to Voltaire, who had complained about Shakespeare's depiction of royalty: "petty cavils of petty minds," Johnson writes back—what a guy!

The Fountains: A Fairy Tale: 4/5

I think "The Fountains" may encapsulate everything I love about Johnson: his cynicism, his delightfully heavy-handed morality, and, of course, his satirical genius. An online copy of the text can be found here; and I dare you to read it. If you don't like it, then you probably won't enjoy this book. But on the off chance that it happens tickle your fancy, perhaps you might try some of his longer works—maybe "Vanity," or, if you're particularly adventurous, "Rasselas."

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland: 2/5

I can only really see this appealing to the a priori fan. Johnson was never particularly adept at conveying imagery; and, for the most part, his description of the Scottish landscape is rather terse and flat. That being said, he occasionally embarks on a digression worthy of note. For instance, he delineates a compelling (and subsequently verified) argument against the authenticity of Macpherson's "Ossian"; and throughout, he offers some truly sagacious commentary on the effects of Scottish subjugation. Worth reading in conjunction with Johnson's other works, but not so much on its own.

Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets: 3/5

If these pieces afford any interest to the modern reader, it is in regards to the criticism, not the biography. Johnson, for the most part, had little to no interaction with the poets whose lives he chronicles, so there is little to recommend in the way of personal anecdotes; and, of course, more extensive and factually accurate biographies have since been written. His literary theory, however, is a slightly different matter.

In one of the prefaces, Johnson, with a touch of posthumous irony, calls Dryden "the father of English criticism": retrospectively, that title is better reserved for Johnson himself. Of course, it might be easy to dismiss his theories as parochial and antiquated—here, I'm thinking primarily of his caustic condemnation of the so-called "metaphysical poets" (I can't help but wonder how he would react to the knowledge that Donne, in our current day and age, is read far more than his beloved Dryden). Johnson, it goes without saying, was a product of his time; yet on occasion, he displays insight that transcends the narrow bounds of his temporal situation.

For instance, I found that many of the complaints he raises against open-verse forms (such as Pindaric odes and blank-verse) may, with minimal alteration, be applied to certain practitioners of contemporary free-verse. Take heed of the following passage:
This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren and flattered the laziness of the idle that it immediately overspread our books of poetry.

That is to say, to simply write off his critical views as out-dated would be to act with unnecessarily temerity; and would, at the end of the day, only serve to exclude oneself from a genuinely important—albeit obviously non-definitive—fountain of literary opinion.

The downside to these pieces, however, is that the actual occurrences of such critical perspicuity are few and far between. For the most part, Johnson contents himself with the mere expression of how much he likes or dislikes a particular poet or work, with relatively little time given to articulating the specific reasons behind his sentiments. Nonetheless, these ten prefaces represent a milestone in literary criticism; and Johnson's achievement is much more palpable—not to mention more palatable—when this is kept in mind.

Diaries and Letters: 3/5

April 13, 1775. Maundy Thursday. Of the use of time or my commendation of myself I thought no more, but lost life in restless nights and broken days, till this week awaked my attention.

This year has passed with very little improvement, perhaps with diminution of knowledge. Much time I have not left. Infirmities oppress me. But much remains to be done. I hope to rise at eight or sooner in the morning.

Despite the editor's suggestion that Johnson's journals form part of "a programme of 'self-pyschoanalysis' to mitigate the deep depression he suffered," the previous entry is about as candid and intimate as they get. That is not to say they are without interest, merely that if one wishes to gain insight into the inner-workings of the man's mind, they ought to look elsewhere (namely, Boswell's biography and, in this present edition, the short Greek poem "Know Thyself").

The letters, however, are a riot: particularly those addressed to the Edward Cave, Earl of Chesterfield and, of course, James McPherson, in which the reader finds Johnson at his confrontational best.
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message 1: by Richard (new)

Richard A very excellent review! Have you ever tackled Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson?


kaelan Thanks. I haven't, but I really need to.


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