1775 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

George Colman, "A Sketch of Dr. Johnson" 1775; Colman, Prose on Several Occasions (1787) 2:97-100.



Dr. Johnson is certainly a genius, but of a particular stamp. He is an excellent classical scholar, perhaps one of the best Latinists in Europe. He has combined in himself two talents which seldom meet: he is both a good English and Latin poet. Had his inclinations led him to have mixed with the fashionable world (where he was warmly invited) and had he been a nearer inspector of the follies, and vices of high life, he would certainly have been called by the election of the best criticks to the Poetical Chair, where Pope sat without a rival till his death; and then the Laurel, like the kingdom of Macedonia, at the death of Alexander, was divided among many. It must be owned that Dr. Johnson's two Satires in imitation of Juvenal, are among the best titles that have been produced for the poetical inheritance.

Indeed his morals and manners are so ill suited with loose opinions, and thoughtless dissipation, that it is no wonder he was soon disgusted with what he saw and heard, and which he so well painted and felt in his LONDON. — His second Satire (the tenth of Juvenal) though written with great force and energy, yet seems more the fruit of study than observation. His sagacity is wonderful: though near-sighted, he can discover and describe with great humour the nice discriminations, and almost imperceptible touches of the various characters of both sexes: his "mind's eye" has a keeness and certainty that seldom misses the mark; and did his pen convey his discoveries in characteristick language, he would be equal to the best writers — but here he fails. In his Rambler and Idlers, whenever he introduced characters, their actions, deportment, and thoughts, have a most accurate, and minute resemblance to nature, but they all talk one language, and that language is Dr. Johnson's. Words are the vehicle of our thoughts, as coaches are of our persons; the state equipage should not be drawn forth but upon solemn occasions. His peculiarity of diction has given the Publick a suspicion that he could not succeed in Dramatick Composition. His Tragedy of Irene is a work of great and just sentiment, of Poetical, though not Dramatick Language, fine imagery, and of "Os magna Sonaturum;" but the very soul of Tragedy, Pathos, is wanting; and without that, though we may admire, our hearts will sleep in our bosoms. — Dr. Johnson has wit, humour, and a strong imagination, which are often exerted with great effect in conversation. I will give, in a few words, the best advice I can to young readers. Let them admire and study his Strength of Argument, Richness of Imagery, and Variety of Sentiment, without being dazzled with the splendor of his diction. Let them listen with attention and delight to his entertaining and improving conversation, without imitating his dress or manner!

The "Simplex Munditiis" of Horace may, perhaps for the first time, be as properly applied to the dress of the mind as of the body — the best taste will be ever shewn where ease, elegance, and simplicity are united.

CHIARO OSCURO.

London Packet, Dec. 22, 1775.