Doctor Johnson: A Study in Eighteenth Century Humanism

By Percy Hazen Houston | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
Doctor Johnson's Relations to Classical and French Critics, except Boileau

JOHNSON'S position at the end of a period of extended critical activity, during which a literary practice had been built up with the writings of former critics as the standard of procedure, makes the task of pointing out his indebtedness to the masters of criticism who wrote before him peculiarly difficult. The immense range of his reading somewhat further complicates the matter, for he must have held the results of previous thinking as a scholarly equipment, without much inclination to acknowledge the authority for his views. If we add to this the fact that he was in the habit of passing his critical decrees somewhat arbitrarily, we have before us a situation full of pitfalls for the unwary. Some discussion, of a general nature, of what he has said of the critics of other times and places should, however, be of service in making clear the starting-points of his own criticism. Incidentally, many of Johnson's critical ideas should in the process come to light.1

Of the three great critics of antiquity -- Aristotle, Longinus, and Horace -- Johnson bore some resemblance to the first and the third. To Aristotle he felt drawn by inclination, by training as a classical scholar, and by his inheritance of the whole neo-classical tradition. If Coleridge's division of all men in their intellectual lives into the ranks of Aristotelians or

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1
That he was thoroughly familiar with the history of criticism may be inferred from the title of his projected work: History of Criticism, as it relates to judging of authours, from Aristotle to the present age. An account of the rise and improvements of that art; of the different opinions of authours, ancient and modern. Bos. IV, 381.

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