Samuel Johnson Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

ph_0111201559-Johnson_S.jpg Samuel Johnson Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Samuel Johnson was a journalist, essayist, critic, scholar, lexicographer, biographer, and satirist. Early in his career, he wrote reports on the debates in Parliament for The Gentleman’s Mazagine. Until 1762, when he received a pension from the British government, Johnson was a professional writer and wrote what publishers would buy. The most important results of his efforts, in addition to his poetry, were his A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar (1755), his essays in The Rambler (1750-1752) and The Idler (1758-1760), and Rasselas (1759).

A Dictionary of the English Language remains one of the outstanding achievements in the study of language. Johnson contracted in 1746 with a group of publishers to write the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Nine years later, with the help of only six assistants, he produced a work that is notable for its scholarship and wit. Although scholars fault its etymological notes, its definitions are generally apt and often colored by Johnson’s wit, biases, and sound understanding of English usage.

The Rambler and The Idler are composed of periodical essays, which, when combined with those that Johnson wrote for The Adventurer (1753-1754), number more than three hundred. The essays discuss literature, religion, politics, and society. They were much admired in Johnson’s day, but are...

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The diversity of Samuel Johnson’s writings can be daunting; he was a novelist, playwright, essayist, journalist, editor, critic, scholar, biographer, lexicographer, etymologist, moralist, social and political commentator, philosopher, and poet. His poem London was published at least twenty-three times during his lifetime, and the popularity of his poetry contributed much to his reputation as the quintessential man of letters. In his era, no one had read more of the world’s literature than he, and few equaled his literary achievements. Johnson seems to have so dominated the literary life of England that the period from 1750 to 1784 is often called the Age of Johnson.

“Poet” was a term of honor in eighteenth century England. The poet was at the apex of literature, and Johnson took pleasure in being referred to as one. After his death, his reputation as a poet fell from the high esteem of his contemporaries to a level of near disregard. His best-known poetry is the product of intellectual work, not inspiration. The Romantics and their nineteenth century descendants valued emotional and inspirational verse. Johnson’s verse is well organized, often satirical, filled with social commentary and moralizing, and more realistically observational than metaphorical; his poetry is well within the Augustan style. He was among the best poets of his day, his verse being dynamic and rich in thought. He believed that poetry should emphasize the contemporary language of the poet and be accessible to the poet’s contemporary readers. In this belief, he is in the same tradition as John Donne, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and even poets such as Karl Shapiro. The language of Johnson’s verse is still accessible to readers; it is distinctive in its combination of precision, nearly explosive anger and contempt, and acute observation of the human condition.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The range and quality of Samuel Johnson’s literary output is almost unparalleled in either English or American literature. He wrote tragedy, poetry, biography, periodical essays, and travel books. He is most famous for his A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar (1755), Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, his critical edition, with notes and a preface, of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), and his collection of essays The Lives of the Poets (1779-1781). Johnson was also known as a brilliant conversationalist, and James Boswell, in his The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), fortunately preserves this fascinating side of Johnson as a critic and verbal artist.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As the widely used historical label “Age of Johnson” reveals, Samuel Johnson was the most famous man of letters in the second half of the eighteenth century. His neoclassicism, his Christian humanism, and his political conservatism were thoroughly grounded in the rational aesthetic of his predecessors, but he was no slave to the formal standards of his era. He is considered a pioneer in modern scholarship and practical criticism as well as a neoclassical poet. His dictionary, produced almost single-handedly; his introductory essays on English poets, which use the works to illuminate the poet’s life and the life to interpret the poet’s works; and the combination of philosophy, allegory, and travel adventure in his short novel—all combine to secure his special place in the history of English literature, regardless of literary trends.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

As the dominant figure of the mid-eighteenth century English literary world, Samuel Johnson produced works—published both under his own name and for others under their names—that ranged throughout practically every genre and form. In verse, he wrote London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated (1749); his poem “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet, a Practiser in Physic” appeared first in The Gentleman’s Magazine (August, 1783) and later in The London Magazine (September, 1783). His play Irene: A Tragedy was performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in February, 1749, and was published later that same year.

The prose efforts of Johnson tend to generate the highest degrees of critical analysis and commentary. Johnson’s biographical studies include The Life of Admiral Blake (1740), An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers (1744), and An Account of the Life of John Philip Barretier (1744). His critical and linguistic works are by far the most important and extensive, of which the best known are Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth (1745), The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (1747), A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The quantity and quality of firsthand biographical material compiled during Samuel Johnson’s life and immediately following his death have helped considerably in critics’ assessment of the full measure of his contributions to British life and letters. Particularly through the efforts of James Boswell, John Hawkins, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, and Frances Burney, the remarkable personality began to emerge. Through his early biographers, Johnson became the property of his nation, representing the most positive qualities of the Anglo-Saxon temperament: common sense, honest realism, and high standards of performance and judgment. His critical judgments came forth as honest and rigorous pronouncements that left little room for the...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Compare Samuel Johnson’s motivation in his works concerning, respectively, Richard Savage and Dr. Robert Levet.

Juvenalian satire was important in the eighteenth century. Compile a list of Juvenalian elements in Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Examine the lexicographical achievement of Johnson. Mention practices still used and those no longer attempted by dictionary makers.

What traits of Johnson’s personality made him an outstanding subject for the kind of biography James Boswell was able to write?

Examine Johnson’s assessment of human nature as revealed in his essays.

How does Johnson show himself to be “more scrupulous” in Rasselas than Voltaire in Candide (1759)?


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Clingham, Greg, and Philip Smallwood, eds. Samuel Johnson After Three Hundred Years. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. This collection of essays covers various topics, including his writings and thought.

Hibbert, Christopher, and Henry Hitchings. Samuel Johnson: A Personal History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. A biography that focuses on Johnson’s personal life and how it affected his public self and his writings.

Lipking, Lawrence. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. In Lipking’s terms, he has written a life of an author, not the life of a person—by which he means that he concentrates on the story of how Johnson became a writer and a man of letters.

McIntyre, Ian. Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson’s “Dear Mistress.” London: Constable, 2008. Hester Lynch Thrale (later Piozzi) was a diarist and patron of the arts and a friend of Johnson. She appears in his writings as Mrs. Thrale, and she published a book of Johnson’s anecdotes and of her letters after his death.

Martin, Peter. Samuel Johnson: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. Martin attempts to reconcile the varying aspects of Johnson’s life, including his depression. Contains a chapter on the poetry.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Meyers takes the position that Johnson’s life was a struggle, physically, economically, mentally, and personally. Contains analysis of his poetry throughout.

Nokes, David. Samuel Johnson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2010. Portrays Johnson as an active force in the Enlightenment rather than simply a recorder of events. Brings in the viewpoints of his wife, a black manservant, and Hester Lynch Thrale, who was a friend of Johnson and a biographer.

Reinert, Thomas. Regulating Confusion: Samuel Johnson and the Crowd. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Reinert reexamines Johnson’s views of human nature, urban culture, and individualism. “The crowd” of the book’s title refers to Elias Canetti’s theories of crowds and power, which Reinert applies to his reevaluation of Johnson.