Although there is much sensible, stimulating criticism in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, yet he shows positive repugnance to the pastoral references—the flocks and shepherds, the oaten flute, the woods and desert caves—of Milton’s Lycidas. “Its form,” says Johnson, “is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.”
General Characteristics.—While he is best known in literary history as the great converser whose full length portrait is drawn by Boswell, Johnson left the marks of his influence on much of the prose written within nearly a hundred years after his death. On the whole, this influence has, for the following reasons, been bad.
[Illustration: CHESHIRE CHEESE INN, FLEET STREET, LONDON.]
First, he loved a ponderous style in which there was an excess of the Latin element. He liked to have his statements sound well. He once said in forcible Saxon: “The Rehearsal! has not wit enough to keep it sweet,” but a moment later he translated this into: “It has not sufficient vitality to preserve it from putrefaction.” In his Dictionary he defined “network” as “anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections.” Some wits of the day said that he used long words to make his Dictionary necessary.
In the second place, Johnson loved formal balance so much that he used too many antitheses. Many of his balancing clauses are out of place or add nothing to the sense. The following shows excess of antithesis:—
“If the flights of Dryden, therefore, are higher, Pope continues longer on the wing. If of Dryden’s fire the blaze is brighter, of Pope’s the heat is more regular and constant. Dryden often surpasses expectation, and Pope never falls below it. Dryden is read with frequent astonishment, and Pope with perpetual delight.”
As a rule, Johnson’s prose is too abstract and general, and it awakens too few images. This is a characteristic failing of his essays in The Rambler and The Idler. Even in Rasselas, his great work of fiction, he speaks of passing through the fields and seeing the animals around him; but he does not mention definite trees, flowers, or animals. Shakespeare’s wounded stag or “winking Mary-buds” would have given a touch of life to the whole scene.
Johnson’s latest and greatest work, Lives of the English Poets, is comparatively free from most of these faults. The sentences are energetic and full of meaning. Although we may not agree with some of the criticism, shall find it stimulating and suggestive. Before Johnson gave these critical essays to the world, he had been doing little for years except talking in a straightforward manner. His constant practice in speaking English reacted on his later written work. Unfortunately this work has been the least imitated.