Many readers assume that, as a neoclassical literary critic, Samuel Johnson would normally prefer the abstract, the formal, and the regulated to the concrete, the natural, and the spontaneous in a work of literature. Yet any close reading of Johnson’s criticism shows that Johnson is not blind to the importance of the immediate, vivid, specific detail in literature; rather, he would underscore the need for the telling rather than the merely accidental detail.
In other ways, too, Johnson’s critical method had much in common with that of the Romantics, with whom Johnson and, indeed, the entire neoclassical tradition are generally supposed to be in conflict. Johnson was well aware, for example, of the sterility of literary criticism that is legalistic or pedantic, as was the case with the worst products of the neoclassical school. His famous argument against the slavish following of the “three unities” of classical drama is a good example, as is his defense of the supposedly illegitimate “tragicomic” mode of Shakespeare’s latest plays. Note, in particular, the basis of that defense: “That this is a practice contrary to the rules of criticism,” Johnson wrote, “will be readily allowed; but there is always an appeal from criticism to nature.”
The sentiment thus expressed could easily be endorsed by any of the Romantics; the empiricism it exemplifies is vital quality of Johnson’s criticism, as is the willingness to jettison “laws” of criticism when to do so makes possible a more direct appeal to the emotions of the reader. Addison’s Cato, highly praised in Johnson’s day for its “correctness,” is damned with faint praise by Johnson: “Cato affords a splendid exhibition of artificial and fictitious manners, and delivers just and noble sentiments, in diction easy, elevated, and harmonious, but its hopes and fears communicate no vibration to the heart.” Wordsworth could hardly demur.
Even on the question of poetic diction, which, according to the usual interpretation of Wordsworth’s 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads, was the central area of conflict between Romantic and Augustan, Johnson’s views are surprisingly “modern.” In his Life of Dryden, he defends the use of a special diction in poetry, it is true; but his reasons are all-important. For Johnson, poetic diction should serve the ends of direct emotional impact and ease of comprehension, not those of false profundity or grandiosity. “Words too familiar,” he wrote, “or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions, we do not easily receive strong impressions, or delightful images; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to things.” If the poetic diction of the neoclassical poets, at its worst, erects needless barriers between reader and meaning, that envisioned by Johnson would do just the opposite: it would put the reader in closer contact with the “things” that are the poem’s subject.
Question: The author of the passage develops her points about Johnson primarily by
- contrasting Johnson’s critical methods with those of his contemporaries
- citing specific illustrations drawn from Johnson’s work
- alluding to contemporary comments about Johnson’s theories
- quoting Johnson’s remarks about the critical approaches prevalent in his own day
- emphasizing the fallacies inherent in the most common view of Johnson
Question: The passage implies that the judging of literary works according to preconceived rules
- tends to lessen the effectiveness of much modern literary criticism
- is the primary distinguishing mark of the neoclassical critic
- was the primary neoclassical technique against which the Romantics rebelled
- is the underlying basis of much of Johnson’s critical work
- characterizes examples of the worst neoclassical criticism
Question: The passage implies that the neoclassical critics generally condemned
- Shakespeare’s use of the “tragicomic” literary mode
- the slavish following of the “three unities” in drama
- attempts to judge literary merit on the basis of “correctness”
- artificiality and abstraction in literary works
- the use of a special diction in the writing of poetry
Question: According to the author, Johnson’s defense of Shakespeare’s latest plays illustrates Johnson’s reliance on which of the following in his criticism?
- The sentiments endorsed by the Romantics
- The criteria set forth by Wordsworth in his 1800 preface to the Lyrical Ballads
- The precedents established by the Greek and Roman playwrights of the Classical Age
- The principles followed by the neoclassical school of criticism
- His own experience and judgment
Question: According to the passage, Johnson’s opinion of Addison’s Cato was
- roundly condemnatory
- somewhat self-contradictory
- ultimately negative
- effusively adulatory
- uncharacteristically bold
Question: According to the passage, Johnson’s views on the use of a special diction in the writing of poetry were
- “modern” in their rejection of a clear-cut division between the diction of poetry and that of prose
- “neoclassical” in their emphasis on the use of language that appeals directly to the emotions of the reader
- “Romantic” in their defense of the idea that a special diction for poetry could be stylistically effective
- “modern” in their underlying concern for the impact of the literary work on the sensibility of the reader
- “neoclassical” in their emphasis on ease of comprehension as a literary virtue
Question: It can be inferred from the passage that in addition to being a literary critic, Johnson was also a
- surprisingly modern poet
- poet in the Augustan mode
Question: Which one of the following statements best summarizes the main point of the passage?
- Although many of Johnson’s critical opinions resemble those of the neoclassical critics, his basic concerns are closer to those of the Romantics.
- The usual classification of Johnson as a member of the neoclassical school of criticism is based on an inaccurate evaluation of his critical theories and ideals.
- The Romantic critics were mistaken in their belief that the critical ideas they formulated represented a departure from those propounded by Johnson.
- Although many of Johnson’s critical opinions resemble those of the Romantic critics, his basic concerns are closer to those of the neoclassical critics.
- Johnson’s literary criticism represents an attempt to unify the best elements of the neoclassical and the Romantic schools of criticism.
Question: The author of the passage is primarily concerned with
- defending a reputation
- reconciling conflicting views
- comparing two schools of thought
- challenging an assumption
- presenting new evidence in support of an established theory
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