Week 06, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson
General Notes on Alexander Pope
Nature: nature is structured like the human mind, and it operates in a rational and stable way. The ancients based their works upon Nature, so studying Homer is like going back to nature. So the “rules” are actually based on nature—that’s why we should follow them, and why we should value the ancients. Not to hold them in high regard merely shows that we have gone astray from what Dr. Johnson will call “just representations of general nature.”
Imitation: Notice the predominance in the C18 of certain mimetic figures: mirror, speech as dress, ornament. What is to be dressed and finely decked out is “nature,” human nature, or the social and political hierarchy. These are already solid and “there”; the point is to make them memorable and attractive. In this way, poetry is something like elegant rhetoric, whose point is to reaffirm our sense that our ways and understandings are right. “Whatever is, is right.”
The point is that neoclassical critics generally support the principle of hierarchy underlying the social order, so they can conceive of a genial, erudite critic who does justice to the work itself and helps a broader public (gentlemen, not Dickensian kitchen scullions and hookers) understand the work’s complexities to as great an extent as possible. Such a critic serves the text and the public. Modern formulations, by contrast, betray an anxiety that culture is either a top-down ideological control mechanism or an exercise in commercial vulgarianism: bread and circuses, the nightly news as entertainment, etc.
Analyzing the relationship between author/work/public and criticism calls for consideration of the cultural value of art: does it reflect an already held value system and merely dress or adorn it? Or is art a shaping force, a creator of culture, rather than a passive storehouse of normative ideas and aesthetic images? We can see art as establishing and maintaining consensus, or as tearing it down in favor of something new. It seems reasonable to say that it has done all these things—it is interesting to watch how critics and artists have reacted to them (example: romanticism).
Some critics see themselves as guardians of culture—highbrow watchdogs, one might say—while others see themselves as unmasking texts’ claims to normative status, and still others claim they’re more or less operating in a politics-free zone where they should strive to “see the object as in itself it really is” (to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase).
During the C19, the notion of a “public” and even of several levels of public readership, from the low to the high, becomes an issue. We see the rise and fall of the man of letters and the advent of what George Gissing describes in New Grub Street as hack journalists and critics churning out semi-cultured pablum for a quarter-educated public. Pope isn’t really facing this crass commercialization of art to the lowest common denominator. But you can see in his admonitions to critics to “know their limits” a flicker of anxiety that criticism may be starting to pander to a paying public. Modern artists have had to try and turn this stricture into a positive thing, but it isn’t easy to do, and to varying degrees it may mean ceding ground on the claims surrounding art’s power to change individuals and even entire societies.
a) Is the literary author superior to the critic?
b) Is critic’s task to explain the text, or add to it and go beyond it? (Arnold/Wilde)
c) To what extent should authors be familiar with criticism?
d) Today, literary theorists assert something like an independent right to do what they do, and not simply to serve as handmaids to art. This claim rejects the notion that art innocently exists as an autonomous realm or that it straightforwardly adorns a culture’s values.
e) Rejecting the responsibility to make texts accessible to a broad public by explaining them amounts to an atrophying of the critical function, or at least a narrowing of it to wholly academic circles. This is not necessarily to be condemned since there is much of value that the public can’t appreciate and yet shouldn’t be hounded out of existence. But if that’s all there is to it, it’s easy to see that the arts would be too divorced from just plain folks to have much of a social impact. They would be the products of marginalized, specialized labor—not something vital in which everyone has an interest.
Page-by-Page Notes on Alexander Pope
441. “Too many critics” would be troubling. Pope values criticism for the same reason Horace does—it can notice the best work and make it available for public appreciation and emulation by modern authors. But criticism quickly becomes an industry, almost detached from its object. Consider modern formalism as a looming, institutionalized propagator of artistic standards. Bad critics pander to a vulgar public—this would be a good place to mention Pope’s background as a Catholic and as someone who had to earn his living as a writer.
442. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan….” Here at lines 46-49 is the lesson adapted for critics. You can’t just spin out literary rules from your own head. The great author of classical times isn’t to be condemned because he does something you don’t understand. Homer and Virgil constitute an external, transhistorical, universal set of standards to which you must conform your sensibilities: taste is intricately tied to education. This is an anti-mass way of understanding art—we shouldn’t go up to the work with our hands in our pockets and expect it to please us at first sight or upon first reading. If we do that, art loses all its power to change us for the better.
“Unerring Nature….” Nature is Pope’s sun, source, and end. Mind and nature work analogously; the world follows Reason—it is an intelligential order. Homer follows human nature, which accords with natural process. See page 443, where Pope writes that the rules are themselves rooted in nature. So conventions are natural to humanity, not mere extrinsic ornaments. The artist and critic help us appreciate the intelligibility of the natural order, the compatibility of mind and nature.
443. “Those rules of old, discovered, not devised….” Neoclassical authors such as Pope are careful to insist on selection from nature. Nature must be “methodized.” They do not say authors should copy nature in the lowest sense. This carefulness is partly due to the moral (pragmatic) demand of neoclassical criticism: art should teach by delighting. But it is also an Aristotelian demand to derive the universal significance from the particular instance.
446. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Pope is against mediocrity for the same reason as Horace: art should reflect our society and values to us elegantly; that is the meaning of decorum. Otherwise, we end up with Plato’s demagogues and critics and artists pandering to the lowest common denominator. In that case, art would not exert any shaping power, and we would be on a degenerative arc with respect to the ancients. At the bottom of the page, Pope insists we must know the whole work, not just the parts.
447. “True wit is nature to advantage dressed.” True wit does not get itself a raised podium or become its own order of things. Some C18 authors distrust words and wittiness because they tend to get in the way of truth, of things as they are, and so forth. Witty language “dresses” nature to advantage. Just as fashion succeeds only when it knows the body well, so art must accord with human nature. Words “clothe” thought, which implies that thought itself refers to a stable order of things prior to language. The emphasis is on coherence, on building and maintaining consensus. True wit is like nature in that both give us back a proper image of our minds.
448. “But true expression, like the unchanging sun….” Pope makes the same point about language here: it should clarify things and “gild them.” But it should not change the object. True felicity lies in apprehending the order of things, and in expressing that order attractively. Later we will see Matthew Arnold refer nostalgically to what he calls “the object as in itself it really is.” He thereby reasserts human values and facts, not scientific objectivity (which may be cast as opposed to stable, sustainable human values).
450. “Some foreign writers, some our own despise; / the ancients only, or the moderns prize….” Pope does not simply say the ancient authors are better: the category true-false does not reduce to old-new.
454. On achieving consensus in public taste: the phrase “the public” implies a degree of democracy, at least in the sense understood by a market society. Since the function of the critic is to be positive and to form public taste and morals, the critic must behave in a civil manner. At lines 631-32, Pope says pride is the main fault of intellectuals. Sir Philip Sidney describes the way to move people towards virtuous action along similar lines: they must have enough humility to see that it’s their job to please the public and move its members towards virtuous action. Art shouldn’t be about self-aggrandizement, and neither should criticism. That is a typical 18th-century notion, too—literature is better than philosophy because it has broader appeal. If the critic is an authority, he is a benevolent one, not a tyrant and not destructive because you cannot achieve consensus by tyrannical or destructive means.
Page-by Page Notes on Johnson’s “The Rambler, No. 4.”
Johnson remains interesting partly because he writes at the point where neoclassical precepts are about to be challenged by romantic practice and theory. One the whole, however, he is a fine example of the best sort of neoclassical “pragmatic” criticism—perceptive, flexible, and sound in his comments. His defense of Shakespeare, for instance, still rings true today.
Discussing the relatively new and popular genre, the novel, leads Johnson to lay bare his mimetic and pragmatic theories in combination. As with Aristotle and Corneille and Dryden and Pope, the poet’s task is to imitate nature. But as with the same critics, that doesn’t mean simple-minded copying of the environment, human characteristics and habits, or social conventions. It involves SELECTION and arrangement with a PURPOSE—in Johnson’s case a directly moral purpose.
463-65. Johnson was called “the last great critic who understood absolutely nothing about art” because he is straightforwardly didactic in his demands of artists. He is especially worried about the novel in this regard—it reaches a broad audience of semi-educated people. Johnson isn’t as cynical about this new kind of relationship between authors and readership as, say, the late Victorian George Gissing in New Grub Street, one of whose characters refers to the reading public as "quarter-educated," but he is determined to lay down some moral rules that the novelist ought to follow.
Novelists are usually realists—”they are engaged in portraits of which every one knows the original” (463). Novelists write for an audience that knows the world they are evoking with the stroke of a pen. So they can judge a novelist's mimetic performance, but they can also be morally corrupted by a book whose author doesn’t select carefully what ought and ought not be shown to the reading public. After all, the novel in Johnson’s day probably had about as much impact, comparatively, as film today. Today, we sometimes hear arguments about how corruptive the internet can be to people’s sense of fact, and perhaps to their sense of right and wrong. Culture critics still complain sometimes that there’s no “moderator” for internet information—that is, no authority figures step in to make appropriate selections. This argument has something of the flavor of Johnson's moral concerns about art’s power to corrupt the ignorant by appealing to their basest passions.
464. SELECTIVE IMITATION based upon sound moral principles is the key to good art. Johnson is very blunt on this point, more so than previous critics we have read.
465. Literature, says Johnson, should be uplifting. That was the idea during the Renaissance as well: as Sidney wrote, the poet should “lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of” (333). But now novelists (not the poet) is the “right popular philosopher[s],” and they reach bigger audiences than ever. There is some danger that the moral stuffing will go out of the genre and authors will simply give the public what it wants: mere titillation, entertainment without further value. Such entertainment would amount to pandering, not instruction from a position of cultural authority. We might illustrate Johnson’s concern by referring to a diagram in terms of the novel. One might draw it as follows: Work | Critic | Public—as if they’re all on the same level, rather than there being an hierarchical relationship with the work at the highest level, the public at the bottom, and the critic mediating between the two.
Page-by Page Notes on Johnson’s Rasselas
466. “It is commonly observed that the early writers are in possession of nature, and their followers of art....” Johnson makes the same point as Alexander Pope—Homer knows best. But again, that is true of Homer only because he first looked to “nature and life.” Johnson’s philosopher Imlac does the same.
466-67. “To a poet nothing can be useless. Whatever is beautiful, and whatever is dreadful, must be familiar to his imagination....” A fair amount of Johnson’s phrasing shows up in the work of subsequent authors. If we didn’t know better, we would think Johnson was Shelley with that phrase “legislator of mankind.” This is probably where Shelley got the phrase, though he added “unacknowledged” as a qualifier, thus signaling a fundamental temporal and spiritual split between poetic imaginative vision and the utilitarian, bourgeois public of early C19 Britain. Shelley says that the poet is “superior to time and place.” The romantics borrow the rhetoric of universality, but the universal passions are what they emphasize, and there is less emphasis on reason. Oscar Wilde and the modernists will also borrow the idea that nothing is useless to the artistic consciousness.
When Johnson says the poet must not streak the tulip or color his work with the “prejudices of his age or country,” he is making a broad point, not painting pictures of nightingales singing to please themselves, in total isolation from their fellows. Rather, poets themselves should skillfully select from, abstract from, their own age’s customs and manners to present an ideal moral vision that will shore up the moral consensus amongst their contemporaries. This “superiority,” therefore, has to do with the smooth transmission of cultural values based upon a sound hierarchy of education and rank—not with romantic self-isolation and exaltation.
467. “The business of a poet, said Imlac, is to examine, not the individual, but the species: to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features, as recall the original to every mind....” This passage does not mean that Johnson ignores the need for close empirical observation of manners, customs, nature, etc. In fact, close observation is required as the raw material for proper selection. Still, I wouldn’t make a romantic of Johnson—there’s a big difference between most of his statements about “just representations of general nature” and Walter Pater’s claim that “it is only the roughness of the eye that ever makes two things appear alike.” Johnson might say, “you may be right, but who cares about the streaks on the tulip? We want an idea of the tulip, an image we can all recognize—that idea is vital to the reaffirmative function of art.” I believe Johnson would be fully capable of appreciating streaked tulips in nature, but when he writes about art (i.e. representations that send us back to nature armed with an intelligible scheme for comprehending it), such inexhaustible variety isn’t to the point. The phrase “interpreters of nature” clues us in to the element of good Baconian empiricism in Johnson’s pragmatic theory of art. Johnson betrays a certain distrust of particularity at this point—like many 18th-century philosophers, he distrusts words, images, representations that might come at us as if they were the thing itself. A representation that tries so hard to rival physical nature (or human nature, for that matter) that it displaces it might succeed in averting our gaze from “things themselves.”
The poet should bring out what is universal about nature and humanity. Johnson’s poetics are deeply social and pragmatic. Selection is the lifeblood of civilized society. As Oscar Wilde says later, “it is a mark of the civilized man to be profoundly moved by statistics.” That is very different from romanticism—Blake says, “to generalize is to be an idiot.” Of course, that statement is itself a generalization.
Page-by-Page Notes on Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare”
468. “To works... of which the excellence is not absolute and definite... no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem.” Johnson says only time can test poetic value. Obviously, he projects his culture’s values to an infinite point in the future and links them back to the ancients. Continuity is central to him—we might compare his ideas in this regard to T. S. Eliot’s claims in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
469. “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” Shakespeare has stood the test of time because he offers “just representations of general nature.” He offers us common humanity, the “general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated.” We may be surprised to find Wordsworth using much the same language to describe the poet’s subject matter. He, too, believes that certain “passions” are universal to all humankind, though of course he favors the natural environment and rural speech as the best means of digging down to this bedrock of general human nature. Johnson calls Shakespeare’s characters “species,” not mere individuals. (Don’t we get the sense that Shakespeare’s characters are individuals? What would Johnson say to that? Well, probably that they seem so “lifelike” precisely because we recognize elements of our own common nature, not because Shakespeare’s characters are unique.)
470-71. “But love is only one of many passions....” Shakespeare’s universalism does not come at the price of unrealistic ideals—we see human beings on the stage, not heroes. “Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men....” No matter what the Beatles say, love is not all you need. Other strong passions may exert just as great an influence upon us. (Madame de Staël makes the same point, by the way.)
471. “Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful....” Shakespeare “mirrors” life—but again, Johnson’s notion of imitation isn’t narrow copying. Shakespeare’s Romans don’t look like Romans. (See Thomas Love Peacock’s hilarious send-up, “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 690 near bottom.) He draws the universal principle from close scrutiny of the accidentals and particulars. So who says he had insufficient Greek? He’s a good Aristotelian natural scientist. We might also say that Shakespeare is the master of metaphor—Johnson’s description of Shakespeare’s ability to make remote things feel close and wonderful things familiar is a pre-romantic way of saying that Shakespeare “strips away the film of familiarity” or, as Shelley writes, that art should teach us to “imagine that which we know.”
472. “All pleasure consists in variety.” Robust appreciation of Shakespeare lifts Dr. Johnson out of the run of neoclassical critics here—the bard’s drama embraces the high and the low, and Johnson, in spite of his moral quibbling, refuses to condemn its variety.
473. “Shakespeare engaged in dramatic poetry with the world open before him; the rules of the ancients were yet known to few....” Shakespeare was a genre-buster. Maybe he wasn’t a follower of strict rules formulated by critics, but he understood human nature so well that at times he is effectually a law unto himself. But he’s really just a good observer of humankind. So it’s okay to have a gravedigger scene in Hamlet: that’s the way life is, the tragic is always next to the comic and ridiculous. King Lear mustn’t be allowed to stray too far from his Fool. Coleridge and others will take this notion much farther, since of course they’re interested in Shakespeare as a sublime example of genius, a capacity that generates its own laws in the process of artistic creation.
But do you agree that Shakespeare put only his skill into tragedy, and his genius or instinct into comedy? Could that be because tragedy is Dionysian, and requires surrender of identity? Or because tragedy requires more stylistic rigor? I don’t know. At any rate, Johnson says Shakespeare is universal, a poet for all ages. Well, so far I’d have to say he’s making good on that claim. Still, forever is a long time.
474-76. Shakespeare’s faults: 1) he sacrifices virtue for the sake of convenience, and generally fails to keep good and evil apart, so sometimes we get too attractive a portrait of vice; 2) he is loose in his plots, as in King Lear’s letter-plot hatched by Edmund; 3) he does not observe the niceties of history—see Thomas Peacock’s satire in “The Four Ages of Poetry” about Elizabethan dealings with history; 4) there are too many faults in his diction—he would give up the world for a quibble, and has tried every style except simplicity (“Tis scarce two hours since the worshipped sun peered forth the golden window of the east,” etc.); 6) he does not observe the unities.
476. “I shall... adventure to try how I can defend him. His histories, being neither tragedies nor comedies are not subject to any of their laws....” Johnson’s defense of Shakespearean poetry involves him in a discussion of neoclassical verisimilitude.
477-78. “The necessity of observing the unities of time and place arises from the supposed necessity of making the drama credible.” The upshot is that we are not fooled into taking the performance on the stage for reality; rather, it calls to mind reality. As Johnson says on 478, “The reflection that strikes the heart is not, that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposed. If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment.” We know the difference between reality and representation. Imitations “bring realities to mind.” In such and such a way might we feel or act in such and such a well-played situation. The emotion that arises when a mother reflects upon the possibility that death might snatch her child away is real and true to life. We fancy ourselves happy or unhappy—but such a fancy is still an authentic feeling.
It simply isn’t the case that we get so drawn into the whole affair that we feel for the characters themselves or absolutely identify with them. There’s more critical distance here than some neoclassical theorists—especially bad ones—allow. We appreciate fiction as fiction, and we don’t mistake it for life. It is arguable whether or not this kind of claim is fully compatible with Aristotelian catharsis, which some theorists who really like the Dionysian background of tragedy find has a lot to do with genuine emotion getting stirred up in spectators for the characters. But Johnson clearly doesn’t see drama as an opportunity to stir up communal frenzy in the name of Dionysus.
And of course modern dramatic theory like that of Artaud in The Theater and Its Double wouldn’t accept the way Johnson treats engagement with a work of art as something neatly delimitable and reflective, in a kind of mirror relation with real life. For Artaud, we have lost the ability to experience anything in real life or at least to appreciate its full power; the point is to make theater a genuinely unsettling experience, to immerse us in it, stripping us of the everyday ego that helps us make the kinds of firm separations and distinctions Johnson thinks necessary. We must stage events, says Artaud, not petty men wrapped up in themselves. So Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty isn’t like life, it is life. It doesn’t abstractly instruct us about life, it is life.
Edition: Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1st edition. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.