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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 14: Johnson and Hume

Reading Assignment:

Johnson, Hume (NATC 455-499)
Report: Bob Batchelor; Response: Saritza Legault

Class Objectives:

  • Analyze Johnson's critical prose -- several excerpts
  • Analyze Hume's essay Of the Standard of Taste;
  • Discuss report by Bob Batchelor and response by Saritza Legault.

Our authors for today are an interesting pair; Johnson was a conservative, arch moralist, and David Hume a highly influential skeptical philosopher who was reviled as an atheist. While worlds apart in their ethical systems, they shared many concerns of the British Enlightenment. Throughout the writings of both you will find a strong appeal to common sense. As you read, consider what exactly common sense is, how it is constituted, and how the authors employ it. You might also consider how this authoritative concept derives from empirical models of epistemology.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


Rambler No. 4

Johnson begins this essay by contrasting the fiction of the present age with those of the past, which he denominates comedy of romance and heroic romance respectively. What are the characteristics of these types of writing, and what are Johnson's main concerns with them?

How does Johnson describe the audience for present fictions and how does this audience operate in the theory of fiction that ensues?

What is the connection between the artistic practice of mimesis in fiction and the need for what became known as poetic justice?

History of Rasselas chap. X

Imlac explains why the Ancient poets are always considered best while later writers are but imitators: "the first excel in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement" (466). How does this do for a theory of literary history? How does it compare with Young's nearly contemporaneous thoughts on the subject? Why, do you think, is there so little reverence today for ancient writers?

"No man was ever great by imitation" (466). What knowledge becomes necessary for Imlac's development as a poet and why? How does this idea compare with Horace and/or Vinsauf?

The passage that begins, "The business of the poet... is to examine, not the individual, but the species" (467),is generally taken to be Johnson's statement on Augustan aesthetics. How do you understand this theory of art in context with earlier statements on poetics, such as those by Aristotle, Horace, Sidney or Pope? What is the relationship between the universal and the particular in this theory of poetry? What role or duty does it ascribe to the reader? To the author? To nature or the universe?

At the end of this passage, Imlac proceeds to describe the ideal poet. What are his characteristics? How does this compare with Pope's ideal critic? Implications?

The next chapter in Rasselas begins: "Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize his own profession, when the prince cried out, 'Enough! Thou has convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet." What does the fictional context for this representation of poetic theory suggest? Why does Johnson undercut his spokesman for poetics?

Preface to Shakespeare

While apparent in the earlier pieces, the grand periodic structure of Johnson's sentences in the Preface call for attention. Students should watch the way Johnson uses abstractions as proper nouns, attributing agency to generalities. You might also try to familiarize yourselves with the weighty balanced structures of the clauses and the withholding of the conclusion through a protracted series of clauses.

Johnson begins this piece with a consideration of current controversy and critical thought, in this case the lazy tendency to revere the ancients and disparage the moderns. Yet he does refer some works to the test of "length of duration and continuation of esteem" (468). Which works appeal to this test and why?

Johnson puts Shakespeare in the category of the Ancients. Thoughts?

"Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature" (469). What does this statement mean? How does it operate as a literary theory? In what ways does Shakespeare, according to Johnson, fulfill this?

On page 471 Johnson evaluates past critics of Shakespeare. How does Johnson answer objections made by previous critics? What does this suggest about Johnson's method of criticism? What does this list of critical treatment suggest about Shakespeare criticism in general?

How does tragicomedy fare in Johnson? Consider the historical objections to tragicomedy made by Sidney, Corneille, and perhaps Dryden. How does Johnson's estimation of Shakespeare differ or improve -- if it does -- upon Dryden's?

What are Shakespeare's faults? Why does Johnson dwell on them? What does this suggest about Johnson as a critic?

When Johnson lists Shakespeare's faults he provides a clue to his perspective on the plays when he adds that Shakespeare "seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of the reader" [after a cold declamatory speech] (475). How does Shakespeare differ when considering him from a reader's, as opposed to a theatre-goer's, perspective? How might Johnson's role as editor entitle him to make some of these criticism?

Johnson famously said of Shakespeare: "A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it" (476). Evaluate.

Johnson approaches the question of the rules from the perspective of commonsense. What happens to the unities in light of this authoritative discourse?

From Lives of the English Poets: Cowley

What does this essay contribute to our understanding of wit? Considering that Cowley was roughly contemporaneous with Dryden, what does this change in literary opinion over the course of a century suggest?

In what sense, for Johnson, do the "metaphysical poets" succeed in wit? Where do they fail?


"It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another" (486). Why is it important to establish a standard of taste? What is at stake? What are some of the conditions that prevent a standard of taste from being easily discerned? Why does Hume feel, nontheless, that it is worth doing?

"Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty" (488). Yet there are agreed upon tastes. How does Hume reconcile this?

What are the origin and basis for the rules of composition he describes?

How does Hume define "delicacy of imagination" (491) and why is it important to his argument?

Hume suggests by his examples that an individual can educate or tutor his own taste. What is the process? How might this aesthetic education operate in teaching literature?

Why is true taste rare? What are the conditions that allow for true taste (494-5)?

Hume claims that the persuasiveness of philosophical or scientific arguments give way through successive generations, BUT the great writers of literature remain unchanged (495-6). How does this square with modern understanding and how might you explain the difference?

This question relates to the idea of canon making raised by the editors. They suggest that Johnson, in Lives of the Poets is not making a canon. But he does make the test of time definitive for literary greatness. What is the value of time passing? How might that be contested in modern views of historical contingency?

What does Hume add to the discussion of the quarrel between Ancients and Moderns? Put this in context with Dryden, Pope, Young, and Johnson.

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