What types of stylistic elements can you identify in Samuel Johnson's prose in The Rambler?

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In an age when elegant writing was the norm, Johnson's prose was both typical and exceptional. This is because, in the eighteenth century, writers (and those who practiced any of the arts) strove not to be "different" so much as to be better at the same things others accomplished. "Conformity" was not seen as a negative quality. To quote Johnson's predecessor Pope,

True Wit is Nature to advantage dressed,

What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.

Though to us the essays of The Rambler may seem elevated and formal in style, as all writing from the time does, Johnson's approach is actually to establish an intimacy with his readers. Much of the material he deals with still strikes a chord with us today. He writes in the first person and projects a degree of humility about many of his personal feelings. In one of the numbers the thoughts he expresses about the multitude of books one encounters in a library and his reaction to them are similar to what I myself have felt. A simple observation such as the following gives the impression of a man not necessarily a great scholar but just an ordinary person reflecting on a fact of life that many people would not have thought of on their own, but can immediately identify with once they have read Johnson's words:

I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful, for not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition as himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from the adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to humankind. (Rambler #60)

Though this is a much longer and more complex sentence than practically any author today would write, the idea is stated with such lucidity that the complication of that sentence recedes into the background. The style is ennobled, but in a natural and appealing way that even the twentieth-century reader can appreciate and can relate to.

The style also conveys the didactic approach we reflexively expect from writers of Johnson's era. But it's not a tedious didacticism, as such a style might easily lapse into when handled by a lesser author. Those same qualities are conveyed in his later prose writings, such as his Lives of the English Poets, as well as in Johnson's verse, including his best-known poems, "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes."

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In the Rambler essays, Johnson uses an elevated prose style rather than the conversational, colloquial diction common among many other essayists of the period. This reflects Johnson's interest in setting a high moral tone in these essays, which were designed to impart piety and wisdom.

The style is Neoclassic, emphasizing balanced, rational, and dignified prose modeled on Greek and Roman writers. Johnson wrote of his Rambler essays that he hoped they would “refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. He wanted the style of each essay to add "to the elegance of its construction, and ... to the harmony of its cadence.”

Johnson often constructed his sentences in a three-part style, as can be illustrated in Essay #134. In this famous essay, Johnson wrote about the pitfalls of procrastination and idleness, subjects with which he was quite familiar. Sentences that show this balanced, three-part form include the following:

There was however some pleasure in reflecting that I, who had only trifled till diligence was necessary, might still congratulate myself upon my superiority to multitudes who have trifled till diligence is vain; who can by no degree of activity or resolution recover the opportunities which have slipped away; and who are condemned by their own carelessness to hopeless calamity and barren sorrow.

The semi-colons separate the three ways Johnson considers himself superior to the multitudes: they have procrastinated too long to make up for it with "diligence" or hard work, they now can't recover their lost opportunities, and they are therefore condemned to calamity and sorrow.

Another example is this sentence:

Thus life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd.

Here it is the participles that divide the sentence into three measured parts: collecting resolution, forming purposes, and reconciling ourselves.

Johnson's sentences might remind of us of carefully balanced neoclassical buildings, where if there are two windows on one side of a door, you can be sure there will be two identical windows on the other side, all in harmony.

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