1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Henry Kett, in Elements of General Knowledge (1802, 1805) 1:100-01.



Whether we consider the nature of his essays, or the general use for which they were intended, it must be evident, that such subjects call for peculiar perspicuity of expression. Johnson seems to have judged the style of Addison more worthy of praise, than proper for his imitation. Our literature indeed dates a new era from the publication of his works: and some of the words he uses, if they were not of his own coining, are rarely to be met with in former writers. By endeavouring to avoid low and familiar expressions, he is frequently lofty and turgid; and to a reader unacquainted with the learned languages, must sometimes be wholly unintelligible. His new modes of expression, involution of periods, frequent use of the substantive instead of the adjective, and stated introduction of triads, are peculiarities, if not innovations, which have drawn after him a train of imitators. Some of them are indeed entitled to praise on account of their possessing sufficient judgment to keep their style in constant subserviency to their thoughts; and others have exposed themselves to ridicule by the ludicrous association of pompous words with feeble and trite ideas.

If our subject required us to weigh the general merits of this celebrated author, as well as to remark the peculiarities of his style, we should readily concur in the commendation bestowed upon his transcendent abilities, and acknowledge, that the energy of his language was oftentimes a sufficient apology for his elaborate pomp; and that our censure must in some degree abate its severity, when we consider the force and the discrimination of his terms, the correctness, variety, and splendour of his imagery, the power of his understanding, his love of virtue and religion, and his zeal for their promotion, so extremely well adapted to the different characters he sustained in the literary world as a moralist, a philologist, and a critic.