Both the scope of Johnson's reading and the tenacity of his memory were prodigious. It would be difficult to name a major author, either what his contemporaries called an an Ancient or a Modern, with whose works he was not familiar, though he was perhaps most influenced by Shakespeare, Donne, Dryden, and Pope. He was a fine classical scholar, and he was, perhaps, the best-read man, so far as modern literature was concerned, of his day. He did not dabble in literature, but wallowed in it, ponderously; and yet he was able to bring all of his learning, all of his accumulated knowledge, aptly and appropriately to bear upon whatever subject he had in hand, whether he was writing an original work or an imitation of a work by a classical author. He was the central figure of the literary period still referred to as the Age of Johnson, and yet because he was essentially a miscellaneous writer (though all of his important works in various genres share certain themes and concerns) he received a great deal of criticism during his lifetime, and even more criticism after it. During his lifetime he did not mind it much: "It is advantageous to an author," he wrote, "that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends."
Johnson's shuttlecock, of course, has been kept in the air ever since. Succeeding generations, familiar with him less from their acquaintance with his own work than through Boswell's great Biography, read him "through Boswell's spectacles," and reacted according to their own tastes and predelictions: Jane Austen would continue to admire both Johnson and his works, while Carlyle would profess admiration for the one, transforming Johnson into a Carlylean Hero, and disdain for the other. The Romantics rejected all of what they believed to be Johnson's most important assumptions concerning man, nature, and human existence: Blake, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and De Quincey all attacked him.
Coleridge derided "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (text) as "bombast and tautology." Jeremy Bentham referred to him as "that pompous preacher of melancholic moralities." Lytton Strachey, as late as 1906, could write with smug equanimity, of Johnson's Lives of the Poets, that "as serious criticism, they can hardly appear to the modern reader to be very far removed from the futile. Johnson's aesthetic judgements are almost invariably subtle, or solid, or bold; they have always some good quality to recommend them — except one: they are never right." With a few significant exceptions, it was not until the twentieth century and the explosion of scholarly criticism that his works were read seriously again: it was T. S. Eliot, in 1930, who wrote that "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes" were "amongst the greatest verse satires of the English or any other language."
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000