1773 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anonymous, "Short Character of Dr. Johnson" London Magazine 42 (March 1773) 109-10.



We repeat it — In treating of men of letters, we will not record biographical anecdotes of any kind, whether of panegyric or of scandal: As men of letters only we speak of them.

Dr. Johnson has long possessed a splendid reputation in the republic of letters, and it was honestly acquired. His labour was unwearied, his success was undoubted, and it is crowned with a fame which posterity will not attempt to diminish.

The most laborious of his works is a Dictionary, by which he has at once extended the bounds, improved the elegance, and elucidated the genius of our unsettled and difficult language. In this immense work the variety of readings is so numerous, the investigation of the language is so precise, the definitions are so conclusive; and so many operations, traced through a variety of sources, are made so artfully to combine at one center, to complete one great purpose; that it appears to have required an association of scholars in its completion — But this serves to heighten our ideas of the singular genius which was alone equal to so arduous a study.

As a moralist his reputation is great, but not so unrivalled. He may be said to have improved, not extended, the system of moral philosophy. But if his ideas are not original, his style is: in this it may be objected to him, that he has neglected the simplicity of nature for the more studied decorations of art. He is frequently sonorous without melody, and aspiring without sublimity; and the pompous parade of his periods, though it may excite the admiration of the vulgar, will seldom dazzle the man of taste.

He has also displayed his abilities as a novelist and an allegorist. But in works which are dependent chiefly upon invention, his genius seems not to be active. In studies which demand strength of reasoning and force of expression, his capacity is not often deficient; but with this his fancy seldom keeps pace.

As a poet he possesses some happy qualities. His poetical productions are few, and we regret it. Without great elevation of the fancy, or uncommon flights of the imagination, he has the art of giving that happy dignity to his sentiments, and that pointedness to his expressions, which win our attention, and gain upon our hearts. In his poetry he is not merely a poet: he is a philosopher too.

This gentleman has also shone occasionally as a wit — in the most simple and confined implication of the word. We have many of his bon mots upon record. These generally are not so brilliant as they are pointed: and perhaps they are not so frequently just as they are ill-natured. They consist of that happy combination of ideas which is more dependent upon the judgment than upon any other faculty.

He is said to affect a singularity in his manners, and to contemn the social rules which are established in the intercourse of civil life. If this extravagance is affected, it is a fault; if it has been acquired by the habitudes of his temper and his indolence, it scarcely merits censure. We allow to the man, who can soar so high above the multitude, to descend sometimes beneath them. It is thus nature has levelled the lot of her children.