The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 11 Dec 2008
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To my astonishment, and great delight, Johnson turned out to be as prolific and diversified a writer as few others. This book contains an overwhelming range of literary output: poetry (and good poetry it often is too), criticism (and not just literary), essays, biography, travel writing, fiction. Even better, in his writings Johnson comes across as an astonishing talent and a fascinating man. A true 'uomo universalis', writing - often with great verve and sound judgement - on the most diverse topics: marriage, sorrow, political partisanship, how to become a critic, capital punishment, epitaphs, .... And whatever the subject, Samuel Johnson has a style completely his own: at times dense, always learned and astute, and often full of irony and wit.
I've read less than half this massive book (792 pages, not counting the introduction and notes) as I'm writing this, but I simply could not restrain myself from extolling Johnson's praise. I personally found this not so much a book to read from cover to cover (my deepest respects to those who do), rather to keep on my bedside table, and from time to time take in hand and read a small bit (as I do with Montaigne's The Complete Essays (Penguin Classics)). Each time I do, I come away with some new insight, looking at something familiar from a completely new angle, and a confirmation of Johnson's eminently sound judgement. Just to whet your appetite, consider how he characterizes Mr Richard Savage, whose biography he wrote: 'It was his peculiar happiness that he scarcely ever found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added that he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.'
This is the sort of book (and author) that becomes a lifelong friend.
Johnson was nothing if not opinionated. Yet, coming from him, they are never merely opinions. There is always a great degree of heft and weight supporting them (no pun intended, as he was an immense man physically as well as intellectually)). Though he received only an honorary degree from Oxford (he was too poor to remain at school), he was one of the most learned men of any era. The range and breadth of his reading is unsurpassed by any other major literary figure, with the possible exception of Milton. Yet Johnson never comes across as overblown, nor does he ever trumpet his learning. His writing is informed be a sense of humility and compassion, that no doubt were among the attributes that endeared him to so many of the leading lights of his generation. And of course, he also had a marvelous sense of humor, which also comes through in this collection. Unfortunately for him, his good moods were often followed by serious bouts of depression, which is reflected in his most famous poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes." By today's standards, he would be diagnosed most probably as a manic-depressive. There were many days when he found it difficult to summon the resolve to get out of bed and face the day. What saved him was his naturally gregarious nature. He thoroughly enjoyed the company he found in London's taverns.
His compassion for others is legendary. He thought that the character of a country was determined by the degree to which it ministered to the poor. He was an ardent foe, as exhibited in one of his "Idler" articles, of so-called scientific experimentation on animals. He viscerally describes the cruel and inhumane use that dogs were subjected to by anatomy researchers in his era. It is one of the most compellingly moving diatribes against this still-controversial subject that one is likely to encounter. One of the marks of great authors is that they say things we sometimes think of ourselves in such an adroit and pithy manner that we think they could not be better expressed. Take this Johnson quote on "idleness," for example: "As pride sometimes is hid under humility, idleness is often covered by turbulence and hurry. He that neglects his own duty and real employment, naturally endeavors to crowd his mind with something that may bar out the remembrance of his own folly, and does anything but what he ought to do with eager diligence, that he may keep himself in his own favor."
Dr. Johnson was also one of the foremost literary critics in history. Though one may not always agree with his assessments, one has to acknowledge the force of his arguments. In his encomiums to such writers as Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, he intermittently sprinkles censure. For those of us who don't like to see our icons brought down to earth, this is sometimes painful. What Johnson is really doing, however, is showing us that our own judgments are often unbalanced, and we fail to see what are real flaws in the great edifices. Johnson is never interested in pure panegyrics. His task is to examine the entire picture and to report as accurately as possible the grandeur, as well as the shortcomings of a work, whether it is Pope's Iliad, Shakespeare's Hamlet, or Milton's Paradise Lost. If there is a last word that could be said to have been delivered on these monumental works, it may well be Johnson's.
If you haven't visited the Doctor recently, do yourself some good and remedy the situation.
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