30. (Samuel Johnson)

At the same time as the novel was rising in the world, the greatest force in English letters was working in a direction antithetical to its principles of success. Johnson delights and despairs in generalization and abstractions. The best critic on the matter is the best critic of the eighteenth-century, Donald Davie, who is well aware that the tendency to generalize and personify abstract ideas was an inheritance of Johnson’s age, and a convention shared by his peers (Reynolds wrote, for instance, that the beautiful resides in the typical); who is also well aware that all art resides in the tension between the generalized and the particular. But Davie does not excuse the critical problem by way of convention or metaphysics. He turns instead to a passage of Johnson’s verse, “Prologue to A Word to the Wise.“:

This night presents a play which public rage,

Or right, or wrong, once hooted from the sage.

From zeal or malice, now no more we dread,

For English vengeance wars not with the dead.

A generous foe regards with pitying eye

The man whom fate has laid where all must lie.

To wit reviving from its author’s dust,

Be kind, ye judges, or at least be just,

For no renew’d hostilities invade

The oblivious grave’s inviolable shade.

Let one great payment every claim appease;

And him, who cannot hurt, allow to please;

To please by scenes unconscious of offence,

By harmless merriment or useful sense.

Where aught of bright, or fair, the piece displays,

Approve it only—’tis too late to praise.

If want of skill, or want of care apear,

Forbear to hiss—the poet cannot hear.

By all, like him, must praise and blame be found;

At best a fleeting gleam, or empty sound.

Yet then shall calm reflection bless the night,

When liberal pity dignify’d delight;

When pleasure fired her torch at Virtue’s flame,

And Mirth was Bounty with an humbler name.

What follows is Davie’s excellent critical analysis:

The sudden cluster of capital letters in the last two lines of this poem is no accident. The words thus dignified—Virtue, Mirth, Bounty—are personified moral principles of the sort to which we have objected on the score that they ignore the many and baffling ways in which they exert and display themselves in the world. But it is plain that this aspect of their activity is not disregarded by Johnson. They come at the end of the poem because they have been worked for in the rest. They struggle into the light, under pressure from the poet, though the brakes and tangles of human behavior. Johnson brings home to the audience of a second-rate play by a dead author the truth that their reception of the play involves a moral decision on their part and lays them open to moral judgment by others. A response which appears in the first lines as ‘no more than common decency’ (‘For English vengeance wars not with the dead’) has become, by the end, a moral judgment shrugged aside at first, in respect of the first performance– ‘or right, or wrong’–is inflexibly applied to the play’s revival.

If the reader looks back, from the vantage point of the last couplet, he seems how earlier line which pretend to finality of judgment (by their epigrammatic balance) are in fact only partial resolutions and intermediate stages. Thus: “To wit reviving from its author’s dust,| Be kind, ye judges, or at least be just…”  The pronouncement has a memorable neatness. But by the end of the poem Johnson has shown that to be kind is the only way of being just, in the given set of circumstances. Personifications and generalizations are justifiable as they are ‘worked for’. [Davie’s note: “C.f. ‘custom’ and ‘ceremony’ at the end of Yeats’s ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’. They have been worked for like Johnson’s ‘Mirth’ and ‘Bounty’, and could sustain capital letters no less imperturbably.”] If Johnson had concluded his poem with ‘Be kind, ye judges, or at least be just’, or with ‘By harmless merriment or useful sense’, the poem would have been trivial.  And for merriment or sense to take capital letters would have been more than the poem could bear. As it is, a dead metaphor comes to life. Bounty is plenitude and bonté (goodness); Mirth is thankful enjoyment of the plenitude of creative providence. It is a compelling and dignified idea.

Having typed all of this out, I feel that a basic service has been performed: Davie’s criticism here is so good, shows so well what his approach to criticism can be.

But it’s one thing to establish, as Davie does, that Johnson successfully ‘works for’ abstractions and personifications, and another thing to ask why he would work for them at all; personified abstraction need not be the end of art, though it might be, for different reasons. Against such abstraction, and the generalizing impulse it implies, is the tendency of the realist novel to enumerate, to list: the rhetorical tradition of copia, against which Johnson, not only in his poetry, but in his moral essays, is set.

There is of course the necessity of checking the hoarder’s urge–of demanding fewer specifics, a generalizing principle: analysis must yield to synthesis and closure, the list cannot go on indefinitely, the world’s specificity and granular detail must be forsaken by the imagination.  “To generalize is to be an idiot,” Blake said–and it IS, if we recall that being an idiot means silencing ourselves, ceasing to speak; something is gained from such idiocy. So we find R.S. Thomas: But there is a problem bound up with the question of the exact word. Significant poems seen to be written about Stone Curlews, Dartford Warblers, and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, nor about military orchids, water lobelia and antirrhinums, but rather about birds and flowers…It is as though, for poetry, general words will do. So we find Yvor Winters complaining of the Joyce’s self-assigned task of, in the words of Edmund Wilson, “finding the precise dialect which will distinguish the thoughts of a given Dubliner from those of every other Dubliner”: Let me say this: Winters writes, that my own interest in this kind of particularity is mild indeed, for the world is teeming with such particularity, and as we grow older we become less interested in details and more interested in such conclusions as can be drawn from details; and conversely our interest in details becomes more and more concentrated on those details from which conclusions may be drawn or which contain important conclusions implicit in them.

One critic remarks, in response to Thomas, that it might not make sense to speak of preferring the general to the particular at all–but different writers nonetheless feel to different degrees the urge to move rapidly from the one to the other, and the proportions of either which an author would feels ought to be respected or included in a work will differ from author to author, era to era. Johnson, as in the passage Davie discusses, often moves rapidly not only to abstraction or personification of abstractions, but to clusters, even multitudes of these; his descents into the particulars are infrequent and shallow. Johnson can even complain of the particulars of biography on principles that are near in kin to Winters’: “If now and then they condescend to inform the world to particular Facts, they are not always so happy as to select those which are of most Importance.” And this because, for Johnson, “there is such an Uniformity in the Life of Man, if it be considered apart from adventitious and separable Decorations and Disguises.” On account of which, Johnson is generous in his view of which subjects are most fit for biographies: “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a Life of which a judicious and faithful Narrative would not be useful.”  (These quotations all from The Rambler 60)

Though Johnson writes of biography, his attitude towards the potential use in a narrative of each and any life–a limitless fascination in the lives of all–is at one with the impulse that drives novelists still to write novels that are concerned, above all else, with delineating the shape of a life.

But Johnson’s view is braced against another, one that we might find it strange for all but a few novelists to share (Beckett, consciously in Johnson’s camp, might have): and this because there are a finite number of experiences, not necessarily all common to the life of any single individual, but common across what would amount to a fairly small number of individuals. How many of these biographies would we need to read? It suggests a tremendous sense of isolation in Johnson that he could entertain the thought of finding sources of entertainment and endurance in a copia of biographies, the copious details of any of which would be less relevant, less useful, less of interest than the fundamental principles of human life which he would find repeated, like family resemblances, throughout each, derived without much difficulty, after the particulars were scraped away, or judiciously ignored by the biographer.  What would remain would be something like what we find variations of in Johnson’s moral essays: “The Main of Life, is, indeed composed of small Incidents, and petty Occurences; of Wishes for Objects not remote, and grief for Disappointments of no fatal Consequence; of insect Vexations which sting us and fly away, Impertinences which buzz a while about us, and area hear no more; of meteorous Pleasures which dance before us and are dissipated, of Compliments which glide off the Soul like other Musick, and are forgotten by him that gave and him that received them.”

With such a view, how could the novel be held in esteem? each life is distinguished by its unique lattice of dross, but the dross fades quickly; why set it on a page?

This is not to say that Johnson did not enjoy novels. Though he disparaged Tom Jones and forecast oblivion for Tristram Shandy, which pleased him still, he corrects a friend for finding Richardson tedious: “Why, sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”  He admired Defoe and Robinson Crusoe also–a novel more to the point since its concern with sentiments is inextricable with its concern for the merchandise of survival. And he even wrote what might be a novel in Rasselsas.

But whatever his pleasures and tastes, the pull of his own prose is away from the novel’s impulses, and it can be thought of in terms of the profound pessimism of “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” wherein the particulars of the world as too empty and fleeting to be trapped for any good, where abstraction, extracted from the waywardness of individual follies, proves the only reliable and sturdy handle on life. He simply has very little truck at all with details of individuated and unique objects.

Seen in this light, Johnson’s abstraction, generalization and personification is not only a convention of his era, but a facet of his mind, a way of preemptively restraining the imagination from temptations, its hunger for vivid realizations of particularized fancy; a way of saving himself from by blinding himself to the prodigal delights of meaningless proliferation. Such a view slightly reorients Davie’s remarks: rather than find in personification and abstraction a dignified purchase over the knotted moral brambles scraping against individuals, Johnson sees in it personification and abstraction as the sole stable and safe vantage point from which the world can be surveyed.

From the vantage of the abstract, Johnson can take in what is essential to all, common to all. The drive to universalize spans across civilizations and even history; in his essay on Johnson, T.S. Eliot observes that he was deprived of a historical imagination, and suggests that this is on account of the age in which he lived; but the eighteenth century was the golden age of British historiography, with Hume, Gibbon, Robertson, and the Scottish Enlightenment; Johnson adheres to a view of a common humanity over which historical conditions sit as finery, inevitably accompanying, but not altering, humanity’s urges and failings.

Yet the common is susceptible to degradation. One reason to turn to particulars, to eschew what is generalized, is that the counters by which the general and abstract and mark have been so horrendously worn down. They count for so little so often. What is commonplace is too often reduced to a form of language that is the mere verbiage of cliche and platitude, too frequented a patch to be maintained.

Davie’s criticism concludes with what has become—or once was—the essential insight into Johnson’s verse: “a dead metaphor comes to life.” Before Davie, F.R. Leavis had pointed it out, commenting on the line, from “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” “For such the steady Romans shook the world”: “That ‘steady’ turns the vague cliché, ‘shook the world’ into the felt percussion of the trampling legions.” And since Davie and Leavis wrote, Christopher Ricks has deepened the critical channel in an essay, “Samuel Johnson: Dead Metaphors and ‘Impending Death.'”

Johnson’s simultaneous reliance on and renovation of cliché is not simply the mark of his skill as a writer; he turns to them more often than most, and his doing so needs to be understood as a part of a deeper ambivalence towards the commonplace: what is widely accepted, generally true, well-and-not-so-well-worn, reducible and reduced to tokens of exchange that can find universal passage. His relationship to cliché is continuous with his relationship to the “common,” which in turns is continuous with his relation to abstraction.

Johnson both accommodates and resists the common and even commonplace: in the moral essays, thought rests on platitudes; the greatest poems are translations, accommodating themselves to the words of others; the dictionary gathers the common tongue. But the moral essays are also demonstrations of the exertion required to bend a platitude upon itself, revolving it diligently till it has been utterly turned, not away from the platitudinous (easier to do), but into a different platitudinous shape (much harder); the translations succeed where the words of others are arrayed against the rest of us; and the dictionary gathers to cull.

He recognizes that the commonplace cannot be embraced; that it represents a threat as well as a haven. His wariness towards his place of refuge is felt, I think, when he arrives at one of his most famous critical notions, that of the “common reader.” At the end of the life of Gray, defending the Elegy, he grounds his approval of the poem: In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honors. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.

Geoffrey Hill, whose sympathies with the common reader of his day are limited, is nonetheless a staunch defender of Johnson’s principled support and the terms on which that principle is erected. Demurring at a “Editors’ Preface” to a series of “Contemporary Writers,” which appeals to “our time,” Hill turns to Johnson:

my skepticism, and the views of those who might share my skepticism, are effectively excluded from consideration by being included in the complacent locution. This appeal to the supposed consensus seems to me in direct conflict with Dr Johnson’s meaning when he wrote that Gray’s ‘Elegy’ ‘abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’, though Bradbury and Bigsby [the Editors] doubtless ‘rejoice to concur with the common reader’ according to their understanding of taht term. To the suggestion that Johnson’s statement is itself merely a matter of opinion delivered with aplomb I would reply that his priorities strike me as being right and that he avoids blurring or eliding the implications of his words. For Johnson it is the poem that establishes and maintains the tone; the sensibility of the ‘common reader’ may be judged by his or her capacity to echo or reflect its intrinsic qualities. The fact that, in the case of Gray’s ‘Elegy’, so many common readers have manifested this capability is a tribute to the poem itself rather than to ‘the spirit of contemporary criticism’.

Hill points to what might easily be missed: Johnson “rejoices to concur” because on occasions, he feels his own opinion to be alienated, by dogmatism and literary prejudice perhaps, from that of the common reader; but he concurs not with the consensus view, but instead with a common reader that is proven by its alignment with the poem’s internal qualities, and that he discerns, extrapolating those readers from all of those corrupted by refinement. He works for and he works for “the common reader”: he cannot arrive at the notion of the common reader by a show of hands, but by an act of judgment of the poem itself.

Such a reading of Johnson makes it easier to reconcile his respect for an abstraction of what is common, from what is common, for his disdain for the faddishness of the commonplace. In his life of Dryden, he pities and sighs at his predecessor in the art of criticism, where Dryden tears ruthlessly, heatedly into Settle: Such was the criticism to which the genius of Dryden could be reduced, between rage and terrour; rage with little provocation, and terrour with little danger. To see the highest minds thus levelled with the meanest, may produce some solace to the consciousness of weakness, and some mortification of the pride of wisdom. But let it be remembered, that minds are not levelled in their powers but when they are first levelled in their desires. Dryden and Settle had both placed their happiness in the claps of multitudes.

Johnson would not approach the commonplace through the art of leveling; instead, he approaches it by a heightening, moving above the inessential, refining away the accidental idiosyncrasies.

The movement that Davie traces is not from particular to general–but from trivial commonplaces to valid, magisterial personification: the real danger against which Johnson girds himself throughout his work is not against particulars, which do not represent a danger so long as they are admitted with only potent infrequency or else subordinated to abstraction, but instead against the commonplace of the wrong sort: against principles that are no more than platitudes, against abstractions and virtues that are no more than cant, and against the mock-heroic, mock-magisterial.

Personifying abstract concepts (or allegorizing them into the landscape) is not enough on its own to achieve the end that Johnson intends. And he does not always follow the pattern in the poem that Davie discusses. He needs to show that he working for the abstractions–and he needs to show it without it seeming just a show of work. The way he accomplishes this oftentimes is to show that the abstractions are themselves laboring, rather than inert. Because they move into, upon, and through one another, they cannot be so easily shaken out into trite formulae; and yet because they are abstractions, their hold on the essential common is maintained.

“The Vanity of Human Wishes” shows the effect better than any poem by Johnson: the choreography of abstraction as concepts act on concepts, as the grammar sets them in ptolemaic revolutions, makes it more difficult to read than “Tintern Abbey,” in my experience.

But the effect is seen on a much reduced scale even in that most accessible of Johnson’s great poems (T.S. Eliot called it a poem “unique in piety, tenderness, and wisdom”), the one most likely to win new admirers, “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet“:

Condemn’d to hope’s delusive mine,

As on we toil from day to day,

By sudden blasts, or slow decline,

Our social comforts drop away.


Well tried through many a varying year,

See LEVET to the grave descend;

Officious, innocent, sincere,

Of ev’re friendless name the friend.


Yet still he fills affection’s eye,

Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;

Nor, letter’d arrogance, deny

Thy praise to merit unrefin’d.


When fainting nature call’d for aid,

And hov’ring death prepar’d the blow,

His vig’rous remedy display’d

The power of art without the show.


In misery’s darkest caverns known,

His useful care was ever nigh,

Where hopeless anguish pour’d his groan,

And lonely want retir’d to die.

The person lives and breathes and acts alongside personifications, and both live and breathe and act within a world of solid concepts, which cast shade and possess volume and shape of the natural world. Johnson severely limits the range of particulars as they are normally understood, but he does not abandon the structure of a poem that would sustain—and be sustained by—them: their places are occupied now by abstractions, which jostle so densely as to become particularized against one another in the poem’s field, which offers them little contrast.

The same is more densely realized in “Vanity”:

   When first the College Rolls receive his Name,

   The young Enthusiast quits his Ease for Fame;

   Resistless burns the Fever of Renown,

   Caught from the strong Contagion of the Gown;

   O’er Bodley Dome his future Labour’s spread,

   And Bacon’s Mansion trembles o’er his Head.

   Are these thy Views? proceed, illustrious Youth,

   And Virtue guard thee to the Throne of Truth,

   Yet should thy Soul indulge in the gen’rous Heat,

   Till captive Science yields her last Retreat;

   Should Reason guide thee with her brightest Ray,

   And pour on misty Doubt resistless Day;

   Should no false Kindness lure to loose Delight,

   Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;

  Should tempting Novelty thy Cell refrain,

   And Sloth’s bland Opiates shed their Fumes in vain;

  Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,

  Nor Melancholy’s Phantom’s haunt thy Shade;

  Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free, 

   No Think the Doom of Man revers’d for thee:

  Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,

  And pause awhile from Learning to be rise;

  There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,

  Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.

  See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just,

  To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

It would be no good saying that there are no particulars or details–but as I’ve tried to say before, they are subordinated to the abstractions, so that they become similar to insignia on allegories of Hope or Justice: the scale is a detail, but it is a detail of something general and universal, and the details of the scale itself are valid only in so far as they indicate some common truth. The capitalized words cannot be taken as consistently indicating active abstractions or personifications, but in the context of this poetry, they do more than is usual, and even when they do not clearly do so, the frequency of abstract personifications suggests that they might. In the line “Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright,” for instance, “Praise” and “Difficulty” do not necessarily take on the independent agency of personification; but they are drawn towards it by the line that follows, where “Novelty” moves in the world by a will of its own: “Should tempting Novelty thy Cell refrain.” And the innovation is Johnson’s, as a glance at other translations will show (for a rendering in verse, see Robert Lowell’s).

Johnson’s verse and prose perches at the limits of personified abstraction—not allegory as it is commonly practiced, not possessed of the independence of life, the harrowing individuality in Dante—a personified abstraction that never loses sight of its own claims to be speaking of what common essences can be derived from a mess of particulars: the sense that this is found in all life, but that has a life of its own, independent of the shape of any life, unshaped by any single life, is never lost. All at odds with the novel (and even prose narrative) as it has grown and taken form, in Europe at least. Until Beckett, at least (and, maybe, alone).


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