Cri′ticism. n.s. [from critick.]
1. Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant a standard of judging well. Dryden’s Innocence, Pref.
Johnson’s criticism has many sources: in seventeenth-century French critical accomplishments and their contemporary English translations, in Renaissance interpretive scholarship, and in classical Greek and Roman criticism. But it is shaped in no slight measure by the inspirational critical writings, in both verse and prose, of Johnson’s immediate predecessors, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Johnson called Dryden “the father of English criticism” (Lives, 2:118), and described An Essay on Criticism (1711) as one of Pope’s most dazzling effusions (Lives, 4:68–70). And while Johnson made no personal addition to the established tradition of poetical works on critical subjects, the couplet wisdom of Pope’s poem constructs an idea, and an ideal, of criticism that artistically transcends what can be expressed in simple propositions, and provides Johnson with an articulation of the critic’s role. Many of the attributes of the critical writings of Dryden and of Pope are, at the same time, echoed in the formal properties of Johnson’s criticism, and they presage these properties.
Prefaces and essays
Johnson’s critical writing has roots deep in the tradition of literary-critical “short views” such as Pope had both celebrated and enacted in his Essay. For all its variety – biographical, essayistic, anecdotal, emotional, comedic, closely analytical – his critical work contains no extended treatise or lengthy theoretical excursion.