Doctor Johnson: A Study in Eighteenth Century Humanism

By Percy Hazen Houston | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
Johnson and Boileau

WITH Boileau, the chief exponent of French classicism, Johnson had many and striking affinities. It is but natural that the last important representative of the classical spirit in eighteenth-century England should have turned to Boileau as the great master of modern criticism. We find Mrs. Piozzi saying that Johnson was a great reader of French literature and delighted exceedingly in Boileau's works; Murphy asserts that he was an outspoken admirer of Boileau; and Thomas Tyers after Johnson's death informs us that he had lately read over his Boileau.1 Perhaps as he grew older and confirmed his critical dogmas he returned more and more to the former masters of classical criticism. He himself declares that "Boileau will seldom be found mistaken, and that "he surely is no mean writer to whom Boileau shall be found inferior."

The doctrines and characters of these two men, who represented the culmination of neo-classical criticism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resembled each other in many ways. Both possessed strong reasoning faculties and minds rather logical than imaginative, though Boileau revealed during a long period of critical activity a surer taste and a sensitiveness to aesthetic values, gaining for himself the distinction of being the literary mentor of the chief writers of the Golden Age of French literature; both preached virtue and morality, though in this respect Johnson outstripped his predecessor in

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1
Tyers, it is true, says that he ( Johnson) took neither Aristotle, Bossu, nor Boileau "from the shelf." Misc. II, 372.

-72-

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