Samuel Johnson walks us through, not only how to think, but how to write. Not every essay is of equal value. Further, Johnson is often responding to minute controversies in English life, for which even Google might not avail the modern reader.
Still, it is a feast on words.
Definition of wit: it is that which he [the reader; the critic] never found wonders how he missed it (Johnson 677).
The poems are uneven, but his London, if historically anachronistic, is a delight to read.
And call Britannia‘s Glories back to view;
Behold her Cross triumphant on the Main,
The Guard of Commerce, and the Dread of Spain,
Ere Masquerades debauch’d, Excise oppress’d,
Or English Honour grew a standing Jest.
On the Dictionary
In many ways the highlight of his career. The dictionary isn’t perfect, nor did Johnson intend it to be. But it is glorious and manly. And in his legendary preface he gives an interesting survey of how language works.
As always with Johnson, some words are worth feasting:
“Words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven.”
Method: “The rigour of interpretive lexicography requires that the explanation, and the word explained, should always be reciprocal.”
“So far have I been from any care to grace my pages with modern decorations, that I have studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from the writers before the restoration, whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction” (para 61).
The Rambler and the Idler
Both CS Lewis and Boswell said these essays are what put steel in the bones.
The Patriot. Liberty of conscience is a natural right, and we have no power to withhold it (582). Interestingly, Johnson here opposed the American counter-revolution (584-585).
Every now and then Johnson will deliver on a philosophical insight that is just brilliant. For example, I’ve long been an opponent of the philosophical concept of “chain of being.” It was common among ancient philosophy but has no place in a creational worldview. Unfortunately, even great poets like Alexander Pope held to it. Johnson describes it as: “The universe is a system whose very essence consists in subordination; a scale of being descending, by insensible degrees, from infinite perfection to absolute nothing” (525).
Johnson notes the problems with such a view: “The highest being not infinite must be, as has often been observed, at an infinite distance below infinity….Between the lowest positive existence and nothing, wherever we suppose positive existence to cease, is another chasm infinitely deep; where there is room again for endless orders of subordinate nature, continued forever and ever, and yet infinitely superior to non-existence” (526).
That’s bad enough, but Johnson now ends the debate: “In the scale, wherever it begins or ends, are infinite vacuities. At whatever distance we suppose the next order of beings to be above man, there is room for an intermediate order of beings between them” (526). This is Gnosticism with its endless pleroma and multiplication of hypostases. This is the heresy the church fought to the death.
Addison: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison” (676).
Milton: our language can’t perform the sonnet as skillfully as the Italian language. Johnson suggests the reason why is our language has a “greater variety of termination, [and] requires the rhymes to be often changed” (702).
Dryden: Johnson suggests it is to Dryden that we owe “the improvement, perhaps the completion of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments” (724).
Pope: “If the flights of Dryden are therefore higher, Pope continues longer on the wing” (737). Pope’s version of Homer “may have tuned the English tongue” (745).
On Writing Poetry
“The music of the English heroic line strikes the ear so faintly that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line cooperate together” (715).