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A look in the life and works of Samuel Johnson

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  • Category: Life Work

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Samuel Johnson, a prominent English writer of the early eighteenth century, brought vivid life to the literary realm of that era. He is known by many to be a writer of great intellect, thought, and positive influence in the writings of literary to follow. Johnson has been hailed as a literary giant in his day, as well as in present times. Samuel Johnson is a great writer because of the critical approval of specific elements, namely satire, the moral romance, and the biography. The first element for which the critics have praised Johnson is his powerful satire.

Johnson’s best example of this is displayed in his work The Vanity of Human Wishes. In this highly regarded poem, Johnson intertwines moral elegance and majestic verse in this satirical masterpiece. The Vanity of Human Wishes is hailed as one of Johnson’s greatest literary accomplishments. This wonderful work illustrates, according to Albert Perry Walker in his book Life of Johnson, “The futility of man’s ambitious struggles for happiness… “1 Samuel Johnson had a keen sense of his surroundings, as he was a common figure in English society.

Johnson did not, however, begin his life in a stately position within the class system. He grew up beneath the weights of poverty as his family struggled to make ends meet. Determined to get the best education possible, Samuel Johnson worked hard to earn his acceptance into Oxford where he eventually received his degree from. A decade or so upon graduating from the university, Johnson compiled the satirical poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, which keenly expounds on his tragic yet comical view on life.

Despite growing up in poverty and the unfortunate death of his wife, Johnson sees life as a cherished gift that should not be taken for granted. In The Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson clearly expounds on his views toward life using well-embodied satire. Another element for which the critics have praised Johnson is his moral romance. A moral romance in eighteenth century literature is equivalent to the modern-day adventure. Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas is his most famous work in the category of moral romance. The Arabian Nights served as Johnson’s primary source of thought in developing this work.

In Rasselas, “the story serves merely as the connecting thread of a series of moral disquisitions, but no attempt is made to solve the problem of life,”2 says Albert Perry Walker. As Johnson incorporates moral dilemmas in his piece, he draws parallels from The Vanity of Human Wishes. In Johnson and English Poetry Before 1660 by W. B. C. Watkins he says, “There is in all Johnson’s work, scholarly, critical, creative, a striking unity, proceeding from the clarity of his mind and purpose, from the integration of personality and age.

This unity, which is very important, is sometimes misinterpreted as rigid conformance to rule. “3 Johnson’s literary style was by all means unprecedented in that he seemed to surprise his readers by developing a basic theme and then implementing underlying principles concerning morality. Rasselas, in turn, is such a praised work in that Samuel Johnson was able to incorporate moral principles into this adventurous tale known as a moral romance. Perhaps the most important element for which the critics have praised Johnson is his aid in the development of the biography.

According to Isobel Grundy, the biography was vital in the realm of literature as he had this to say about it: “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition… “4 Today, the biography ranks among the top of the literary charts in both sales and production. The vast acceptance of the biography amongst critics has quickly increased over the years.

Samuel Johnson’s extraordinary work, Lives of the Poets, set the stage for the modeling of the contemporary biography. In publishing this work, Johnson simply sought to biographically and critically analyze certain poets such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Philip Sidney. Johnson obviously had a great respect and reverence for the many writers he chose for this last great work of his. Not knowing how people would accept Lives of the Poets, Johnson completed this wonderful piece of literature, which came out in two parts in 1779 and 1781.

Critics were intrigued with this publication, as they had never before seen a work of literature in biographical form. To Johnson’s surprise, Lives of the Poets was a hit in English society. As this masterpiece was so widely accepted, it began to filter itself down through the ages, greatly affecting many writers and readers in the years to come. Today, the biography is one of the most widely written pieces of literature. Samuel Johnson gave the world his gift of the biography in which people can freely express themselves in a written work of their life.

The critical approval of his powerful satire, moral romance, and aid in the development of the modern-day biography make Samuel Johnson a great writer. Johnson gave the world his gift of literature. Through his gift, the realm of literature is held in higher regard. To be a writer is a privilege; to be a writer as gifted as Samuel Johnson is a vast world of imagination that the finite mind cannot comprehend. Samuel Johnson truly was a beacon of light for those to follow his example. Without his remarkable contributions, the greatness of Samuel Johnson would never be known, and that would be a great deprival on the part of humanity.

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