370. (Samuel Johnson)

Lately, I’ve been thinking—as a teacher and reader of criticism—about how criticism depends on discerning and working out various puzzles. That lends itself nicely to an account of analytic and academic criticism, but might be thought to be a stretch when applied to criticism as it has, for the vast stretch of literary history, been understood: an evaluative act, a judgment of a work or author. But I think that it is helpful to frame the best traditional (evaluative) criticism as a response to, and working out of, puzzles, too.

In part because he is so far removed from analytical criticism (unlike, say, Coleridge), Samuel Johnson serves as an ideal model for evaluative criticism. He sought not to analyze but to establish principles capable of answering the strengths and shortcomings of authors and texts; it was his aim to convert opinion to knowledge. Johnson’s criticism is many things: descriptive, metaphorically vivid, argumentative, occasionally dismissive, curt, generous. His principles share in all of these qualities. They are also, I think, keys to the central puzzle of evaluative criticism: the puzzle of why something works and why it does not. It is a relative, though not identical, to a puzzle about the incontinence of the will: if we can aim at what is good, why do we do what is bad? But it is more complex, since not all authors can aim at the best conception of a particular undertaking and because the causes of failure and success are not theirs alone, but instead seem to reside in the text itself, as if it were possessed of its own judgment and will.

The sudden feeling of the success or failure of a work of literature—the exhilaration or disappointment we feel reading it, or re-reading it—is not just related to puzzles of analysis, but precedes all others: why does this language seem so right, so moving, and so intelligent? That is the primordial puzzle of literary criticism, no matter how academic, and it is, I think, the first and last word of criticism to respond to that puzzle. The first word might be garbled, barely articulate, and yet it is essential for other work; the last word, converting opinion into knowledge, is hardest won.

Johnson’s central works of literary criticism are, uncontroversially, the lives of Milton, Dryden, Pope, and maybe Gray and Cowley, and then the “Preface to Shakespeare.” This latter is maybe the single greatest work of English literary criticism. That makes it helpfully illustrative:

In tragedy his performance seems constantly to be worse, as his labour is more. The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

In narration he affects a disproportionate pomp of diction and a wearisome train of circumlocution, and tells the incident imperfectly in many words, which might have been more plainly delivered in few. Narration in dramatick poetry is, naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour.

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in words such as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and evolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it.

Not that always where the language is intricate the thought is subtle, or the image always great where the line is bulky; the equality of words to things is very often neglected, and trivial sentiments and vulgar ideas disappoint the attention, to which they are recommended by sonorous epithets and swelling figures.

But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

These are some of Johnson’s censures of Shakespeare. Though it might be tempting to dismiss them as narrow-minded, I suspect that, over the entirety of Shakespeare’s body of work, they are not groundless.

What I want to draw attention to, though, is how they could be said to respond to, and clarify, Shakespeare’s failures as puzzles. To do so, it is necessary to conceive of a puzzle as depending not just on whole and part, and not just on form and fit, but on something more valuable for criticism: pattern and part. The puzzle emerges when the parts of a pattern do not cohere, or when the pattern fails to emerge, or when the parts are not appropriate for a pattern, or when one attempt at a pattern is less than other attempts . Pattern is capacious as “form” is not, pointing to a regularity and order that might extend into conduct or habit, as well as literary design; it presumes less than “whole,” without denying the likely sense of completion that we can expect. What matters for a puzzle, though, is that there is relation between pattern and part, and that the relation requires further explanation.

Johnson’s criticism shows how explanation can take the form of description, in the sense that the description of the dissatisfaction suggests how the parts do not fit the pattern, or do not make a pattern, or something along those lines. Hence the description is a discovery, an account, of a misalignment of pattern and part; they are unhappy puzzles.

Take the first of his complaints above: The effusions of passion which exigence forces out are for the most part striking and energetick; but whenever he solicits his invention, or strains his faculties, the offspring of his throes is tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.

This cannot be called analysis because it does not break apart any particular object, but this is, in quite obvious terms, the stuff of a puzzle, the pattern of which is characterized by effusion of passion, the successes of which are dependent on exigence and the failures of which “invention,” and which yields a pattern in language of “tumour, meanness, tediousness, and obscurity.” The puzzle could be put: there are moments of remarkably powerful passion and moments of tedious, mean, obscure passion, and what distinguishes them? Or it could be a puzzle in terms of the nature of these bad parts of passion as opposed to the good—or even what the parts of the bad parts passion consist of.

Or, from the second: Narration in dramatick poetry is, naturally tedious, as it is unanimated and inactive, and obstructs the progress of the action; it should therefore always be rapid, and enlivened by frequent interruption. Shakespeare found it an encumbrance, and instead of lightening it by brevity, endeavoured to recommend it by dignity and splendour. Here is one of Johnson’s famous, and sound, principles, and this principle, like others, is a key to taking hold of a puzzle that that is inherent to art: how to narrate in dramatic poetry? The question is, against the principle that it should be rapid and frequently interrupted what Shakespeare did instead: which was to attempt to establish a pattern of dignity and splendor. But such a pattern does not accord with the demands of narration within the conventions of dialogue and action in a drama; it cannot make animation and activity.

The third: when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader. The pattern is common among dramatic writers to fail, in declamations and set-speeches, but here the objection is the failure to recognize the pattern of the occasion; to fail to see how the part fits into the larger pattern of the instance.

I will skip to the final example: But the admirers of this great poet have never less reason to indulge their hopes of supreme excellence, than when he seems fully resolved to sink them in dejection, and mollify them with tender emotions by the fall of greatness, the danger of innocence, or the crosses of love. He is not long soft and pathetick without some idle conceit, or contemptible equivocation. He no sooner begins to move, than he counteracts himself; and terrour and pity, as they are rising in the mind, are checked and blasted by sudden frigidity.

This is an account of a pattern within pathos, which undoes itself by conceits or equivocation. It is probably the most controversial of Johnson’s criticisms. But it is also the richest in its account of what goes wrong, of the patterns that are established to be thwarted.

In all fairness, someone might say that I am merely interpreting Johnson’s words, recasting them in this terminology of puzzle and pattern, and that I might do the same with any hack reviewer. And both points are valid. My own argument is not that this makes Johnson a great critic—but I think that, instance by instance, the specific puzzles and patterns and parts he discerns and describes, the range of puzzles and patterns and parts, within Shakespeare’s plays and across English drama and literature, are uniquely persuasive and illuminating. They are not, of course, unanswerable, but they direct us towards an analysis of the parts and patterns of the plays so that we might see new puzzles there, or better resolutions than Johnson admits to the puzzles that he perceives.

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