Johnson eminently represents the persistence of classical dogma. His claim as a critic rests chiefly upon:
2. Preface to Shakespeare
3. Lives of the Poets.
Among other assets of Johnson as a critic, are his sound scholarship and sturdy independence.
He was well-steeped in the writers of antiquity which had formed his reading since earliest times and so his classicism is based on habit. A respect for tradition is innate in him; he has, “a fear of, or contempt for, all innovations, and his criticism everywhere reflects his search for stability and disciplined order.
His various critical references to the nature of poetry show that he regarded poetry as artful intellectual embroidery, not as the only fit utterance of an exalted mood.
He could not appreciate blank verse, and Milton, Gray and Collins certainly do not deserve the judgment that Dr. Johnson passed upon them. Orthodox critics would have us believe that in interweaving comedy and tragedy, Shakespeare committed the most unpardonable of offences. But Dr. Johnson praises him for this inter-mixture. Johnson had greatness enough to realize that such dramatic relief is restful and according to the need of human consciousness.
He not only codified the floating and uncertain rules of spelling and grammar, but in his Preface to the Dictionary also recognized that a language is a living thing and that it must grow and change likes a living being.
Dr. Johnson was singularly deficient in aesthetic sensibility. He had no ear for music and no eye for the beauty of nature. But his shortcomings should not blind us to his real greatness. No doubt he is “classic” and as such, rational, but his outlook is not narrow. He constantly appeals to reality and experience. Rules he followed, and by rules he judged, but the authority for those rules was derived, not from Aristotle, but from the deepest knowledge of the human heart.