1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anonymous, "The Adversaria: Dr. Johnson" Port Folio [Philadelphia] S3 4 (September 1814) 307-09.



DR. JOHNSON. — The student of belles lettres derives a peculiar pleasure from considering the great variations that our style has undergone, which is effected by a comparison between those authors who have been most celebrated in the different aeras of English literature. Among these Johnson stands preeminent. No man has contributed so much to the improvement of our style. He is a great master of a new school, who has had many imitators, but few scholars. Hawkesworth's manner approaches nearer to his than that of any other author.

Johnson's style varied the style of English prose in the form of its phrases, in the construction of sentences, and in the diction. Of the changes of phraseology, the principal is the substitution of the substantive expressing the quality in the abstract, for the adjective expressing it in the concrete, or the verbal substitute for the verb itself: by placing the oblique case at the beginning, and introducing between it and the verb by which it is governed some qualifying circumstances, and by crowding together at the end of his sentences, a number of phrases, similarly constructed. It is by this nice selection and correct use of words, that he is .eminently distinguished, and the English language principally benefitted. His introduction of exotic words has long been a theme of criticism for "unfrocked grammarians," and sometimes by scholars whose learning should have prevented them from joining in such objections. Among others, Mr. Kett, in "Elements of General Science," has described the peculiar abilities of some of our principal authors with much taste, and, in general, has assigned to each his proper grade in the ranks of literature with considerable accuracy. But he has made a remark upon Johnson, which shall not pass unnoticed, since it is either made with great boldness, or great carelessness.

"Our literature indeed boasts a new aera from the publication of Johnson's works: many of his words are rarely to be met with in former writers, and some of them are purely of his own fabrication."

Upon this remark he makes the following note in the margin of the page.

"Resuscitation, orbity, volant, fatuity, divaricate, asinine, vulnerary, empyreumatical, papilionaceous, obtund, disruption, sensory, cremation, horticulture, germination, decussation, eximious, &c. If these words be not peculiarly Johnson's, I know not where they are to be found."

Now if Mr. Kett had been as cautious as he should have been, not to censure where it was not strictly merited, he might have learnt by consulting JOHNSON'S DICTIONARY, that all these words are justified by the authorities of Pope, Bacon, Quincey, Wilkins, Milton, &c. except "horticulture," which may be found in Tusser's Husbandry — "eximious" in Lodge's Letters, and "cremation," which I must honestly confess I know not where to find at this moment — though I have no doubt that its existence can be proved, without calling upon Johnson, to enter into recognizance before the guardians of language for its support. This much may be affirmed for the present, that it may boast of Pliny in the line of its ancestry. We all know that Johnson said he never made but one word. Let us hear no more, then, of his pedantry and affectation. It is a remark which no scholar should make.