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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 27. Influence of personal feeling

The common result of this method in criticism is that the critic is at his best when he is in sympathy with the writer. Johnson meant to be scrupulously judicial; but he showed personal feelings. He disliked the acrimonious politics of Milton, the querulous sensitiveness of Swift and the timid foppery of Gray. This personal antipathy underlies his criticisms, though it is qualified, at times, even generously. Had Gray written often as in the Elegy, he says “it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him”; and Paradise Lost “is not the greatest of heroic poems only because it is not the first.” Of Dryden and Pope he wrote in friendship, and there exists no finer criticism of them. But no critic has been severer on Dryden’s negligences, or spoken more ruthlessly of the Essay on Man.

The passage on Lycidas is generally regarded as an error of judgment which marks Johnson’s limitations as a critic. With his usual courage, he stated a deliberate opinion. He gave his reasons—the artificiality of the pastoral convention, the confusion of the allegory with actual fact and sacred truth, and the absence of the feeling of real sorrow. But there is the further explanation that he was opposed to some recent tendencies in English poetry. That he had more than Lycidas in his mind is shown by the emphasis of his statement. The same ideas reappear in his criticism of Collins and Gray. He objected to the habit of inverting the common order of words, and, on one occasion, cited Thomas Warton’s “evening gray”; he might also have cited “mantle blue.” It was Warton who occasioned his extempore verses beginning—

  • Whereso’er I turn my view,
  • All is strange, yet nothing new;
  • and Warton imitated, as well as edited, the early poems of Milton. Warton was one of many in whom he found faults which he traced to Milton as their original. In criticising Lycidas, he had in mind his own contemporaries. When the new tendencies had prevailed, he was said to have judged by a rigorous code of criticism. This code would have been difficult to reconcile with the preface to his edition of Shakespeare; with the praise given by him to Homer’s heroes, that they are not described but develop themselves; with his statement that “real criticism” shows “the beauty of thought as formed on the workings of the human heart”; and with his condemnation of “the cant of those who judge by principles rather than perception.”

    His views on the matter of poetry are shown in his criticism of Gray’s Bard: “To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant’s bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions, has little difficulty, for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous.” The common growth of mother earth sufficed for him as for Wordsworth. The distinction which he draws between the Elegy and The Bard was that which ultimately divided Wordsworth and Coleridge. There was enough for him in life as he knew it. And there was a personal reason why, more than the other writers of his century, he should tend to limit nature to human experience. The tumult in his mind was allowed no direct expression in his writings; but it made him look upon the world as the battle ground of thought, and passion, and will.