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(19) Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784)

Life and Career

- his father's lack of financial resources obliged him to leave Oxford without a degree (1731), but later in his career was awarded doctorates by Trinity College in Dublin (1765) and by the University of Oxford (1775)

- unsuccessfully tried to support himself as a schoolmaster, later as a journalist, which made him recognize the perils of the life of a young writer in London and formed the sentiments of his Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744)

- at the suggestion of the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds founded the informal group of writers and artists known as the Club, later the Literary Club, which included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Thomas Percy, James Boswell, Hester Thrale (later Piozzi), Fanny Burney, the actor David Garrick, and others

Style and Subjects

- uses a balanced and measured style in poetry and long, shapely, and supple sentences in prose

- despite the complex syntax his style is not obscure, each sentence precisely follows the structure of the thought

- masters the syntactical skill of both granting and gradually withdrawing assent to an argument or proposition

- typically conditions or undoes an initial proposition through dependent clauses, parallelisms, and antitheses

- shows his mastery of lexicographical skills, most evident in his Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

- plays with definitions, makes a learned use of Latinate vocabulary, and takes delight in using polysyllabic words

- deals with the great facts of human experience, with hope and loss, happiness and duty, and the fear of death

- emphasizes moral strength and health, faith in God, the application of reason to experience, and the test of virtue by what we do rather than what we say or feel

- bases his understanding of the human condition not only on his wide reading but also on his own often painfully gained experience


> Irene (1737, 1749):

- an early blank verse tragedy written to earn his living

- performed belatedly through the good offices of his friend David Garrick, but was not successful


> London: A Poem (1738):

- a verse satire modelled on the Third Satire of the Roman poet Juvenal

- reflects on London as a city destructive of artistic talent and of the physical and mental well-being of the artist

> The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749):

- a verse imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal

- closely follows the order and the ideas of the Latin poem, but employs his own personal approach to the satire to expresses his own sense of the tragic and comic in human life

- seeks to reproduce in English verse the qualities he thinks especially Juvenalian, that is the stateliness, pointed sentences, and declamatory grandeur

- uses extremely compact style, forces every line to convey the greatest possible amount of meaning

- follows his theory that the poet should deal with the general rather than the particular, but makes sure that the general does not fade into the abstract

- illustrates the folly of human aspiration on examples of blind confidence challenged by time or destiny and rejects the precarious secular hope in favour of a stoic Christian submission to the will of God


> Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744):

- denounces the evils inherent in a writer's dependence on the whims of his patrons for support

- expresses both sympathetic appreciation of the struggles of a young outsider and irritation at his bad inclinations

> The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759):

- a philosophical fable in the form of an Oriental tale, tracing the wanderings of an African prince and his sister

- locates the source of human discontentment in the 'hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life' and which makes us cling to our illusions despite the contrary evidence of experience

- gives a minimal incidental plot, rather concentrates on a series of encounters, experiences, and discussions which serve as evaluations of the different ways of the pursuit of happiness tried out by the two travellers

- does not pretend to have solved the problem, ends with a conclusion 'in which nothing is concluded', and the last short sentences lead back to the point at which the story began


> The Rambler (1750 - 1752):

- his own journal in which he published his periodical essays

- introduces a wryly humorous, discursive, informed, and moral narrator a opposed to the middle-brow entertainer of Joseph Addison's The Spectator

- examines aspects of literature, biography, religion, philosophy, and ethics

> The Idler (1758 - 1760):

- the title for his series of periodical essays contributed to the Universal Chronicle


> A Dictionary of the English Language (1755):

- before Johnson there was no standard dictionary and in the absence of any authority English seemed likely to change utterly from one generation to another

- Johnson codified a respectable number of forty thousand words, provided them with excellent definitions and with more than a hundred thousand illustrative quotations gathered from the best English writers to exemplify the usage of the words as well as their meanings


> Shakespeare (1765):

- his edition of Shakespeare's plays with a substantial critical Preface, carefully revised texts, and extensive explanatory notes on each of the plays

- his revisions of the texts did not always found assent of subsequent editors, but his Preface and the notes remain landmarks in the development of textual and critical study

- the Preface seeks to consolidate Shakespeare's reputation as a national classic by rejecting the criticisms of those who had seen him as defective in both learning and dramatic tact, and to project an image of him as the poet who holds up a faithful mirror to our manners and lives

- addresses the now standard topics of Shakespeare as the poet of nature rather than learning, the creator of characters who spring to life, and a writer whose works express the full range of human passions

- may be often prescriptive, but unfailingly detects both Shakespeare's particular problems and particular felicities

> Lives of the Poets (1779 - 1781):

- a series of biographical and critical prefaces commissioned for a new edition of those English poets of the late 17th and 18th centuries who were deemed by the booksellers to have achieved classic status

- the selection follows current fashions, starts with Abraham Cowley and John Milton, and ends with Thomas Gray

- omits such now standard poets as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, John Donne, or Andrew Marvell, but includes e.g. John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, James Thomson, Alexander Pope

- the prefaces intermix literary criticism, biographical information, and a delineation of cultural context

- his biography insists on truth, even about the subject's defects, and includes concrete, often minute details, using much information acquired at first hand

- does not deny the poets their right to flights of imagination, but asserts that poetry must make sense, please readers, and help them not only understand the world but also cope with it

- his criticism engages some of the deepest questions about literature, why it endures, and how it helps us endure

James Boswell (1740 - 1795)

> The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791):

- presents Johnson as the doyen of his age, generous, honest, compassionate, censorious, and devout

- at the same time attempts to show him as a more troubled private man prone to self-examination and vexed by both religious gloom and divine hope

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    Ema Jelínková.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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