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JAMES BARCLAY, Examination of Mr. Kenrick's Review, 1766
through the concurring circumstances of inattention in the Editor, and
sanguine expectation in the reader, the performance, I am afraid, has
incurred the public censure.
This being a true state of the case, the injured party has certainly a
right to complain, and an open declaration of the general sense would
not have been unjust: But let me add, the manner in which it is conveyed
to Mr. Johnson is UNJUST AND UNWARRANTABLE.
A deference is certainly due to established fame, and decorum to
those members of the community who have been honoured with the
public approbation: IT is A DOWNRIGHT AFFRONT TO NATIONAL
APPROBATION, TO STIGMATISE THAT MAN WITH
IGNORANCE, WHO HAS BEEN SELECTED FROM THE
COLLECTIVE LEARNED AS PECULIARLY DESERVING THEIR
Little, I believe, did any person wish to see Mr. Johnson treated with
irreverence, or attacked with malevolence, and still less think to see him
represented as a self-sufficient literary impostor. Will posterity believe
that an obscure man has dared to do this, and prefix his name to the
libel? that he has dared to give the lie to the applause of domestic
seminaries and foreign academies? Such an attempt, I hope, needs no
comment with the friends of candour and merit. Would that Mr. Johnson
were to stand or fall by their determination! But human wishes are not
to transgress the bounds of moral probability; and as the prejudiced,
ignorant, and unwary, arrogate the liberty of decision equally with the
qualified judge, an analysis of the Reviewer’s offences against criticism
and decency is altogether necessary.
I suppose I need not remind the reader that W.Kenrick proposed in his
advertisements, to detect the IGNORANCE AND INDOLENCE of the
late Editor, intending, as it is natural to conclude, to give the reader a
sample of his abusive powers. What could not the public expect from a
writer, who in the most summary manner informed them of that which
a common genius would at least take a volume to demonstrate, viz. Mr.
Johnson’s IGNORANCE? As much struck must they have been at his
ingenuity, who could convert an advertisement into a VIRULENT LIBEL.
It was a natural question in every reader of such prefatory abuse,
Who is this W.Kenrick? What works have proceeded from his pen
sufficient to countenance this unaccountable charge? To these interrogatories, few, very few, could make a satisfactory answer, and the
world was apt to conclude, THAT A MAN WHOM NO BODY KNEW,
HAD ATTACKED A MAN WHOM EVERY BODY KNEW.
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
To obviate these mortifying questions, while the Review was in the
press, the friends of Mr. Kenrick gave out that he was a prime hand in
the Monthly Review, and consequently a man of profound erudition and
extensive abilities: The consequence some may say does not flow from
the premises; but in spite of such infidels, the argument was admitted
by the many as conclusive, and W.Kenrick revered accordingly.
In the space between the advertisement and publication, the friends
of Mr. Johnson suspended their judgments; and though they thought it
passing strange that his learning and ingenuity should pass muster with
Oxford, and Dublin, at home, and the academy Del Crusca abroad, and
at last be insinuated as fictitious by W.Kenrick; yet reasoned they, This
discovery may have been reserved for him alone, and it is unreasonable
to suppose he would dogmatize in the public prints in so uncommon a
manner, without great foundation for his positiveness.
At length the performance appears, with the extraneous
recommendations of a fine type, white paper, and the internal advantages
of petulant raillery. Instead of convincing argument, it fobs us off with
unmeaning sophistry; and instead of its demonstrating the author to be
a critical writer, it betrays him to be the uninteresting RETAILER of trite
silly ABUSIVE ANECDOTES.
It is indeed a matter of great surprise to every liberal reader, to find
such a vast profusion of LITERARY DIRT spattered over the face of
the Reviewer’s performance: Does Mr. Kenrick imagine a few errors of
judgment can authorise the vile epithets and personal abuse with which
he urges his claim? No, surely! Common decency and the general voice
discountenance such proceedings.
But upon what foundation is this general charge of ignorance
supported? Upon the result of a mature examination of Mr. Johnson’s
collective works? By no means; for in them the critic and the scholar
every where plead in his favour, and, if I may use such an argument
coram Aristarcho nostro,1 the christian and moralist.
Mr. Kenrick, it seems, was sensible of the impropriety of such an
important charge proceeding from one with whom the public has not
had any acquaintance in the literary walk: To obviate this, he kindly
informs us, the world is obliged to him for the EPISTLES TO
LORENZO, which no body reads; and a translation of the infidel
Rousseau’s Emilius, which no body ought to read.2
Any man, unhackney’d in the ways of writers, would be led to
‘Before our Aristarchus’ (the famous Alexandrian critic).
Epistles to Lorenzo, published 1756; the Rousseau translation in 1762.
imagine, from the general good reception with which they are received,
that scurrility and paradox are necessary ingredients in every composition,
as most likely to introduce the Author to publick notice. To lead the reader
through the inextricable mazes of a paradox, till you bring him to an
unexpected meaning, like a Chinese Hah! hah! is now become
fashionable. To be esteemed ingenious, we must lay down a proposition,
the palpable absurdity of which stares every body in the face, and then,
—do what? Assault common sense (that obstinate enemy of such
heterodox opinions,) with a storm of logic and a peal of syllogisms. But
where is your application, sneers Mr. Kenrick? —My application? Why,
you have given into this fashion with a witness; and that your pamphlet
might go down the glibber, made it one continued PARADOXICAL
LIBEL. After all, perhaps, some excuse may be urged in extenuation of
‘the heresies of paradox.’ They contribute to set off the writer’s ingenuity
in the eye of the reader, but even this can by no means be predicated of
scurrility, for IT is A RECEIVED AXIOMATICAL TRUTH, THAT
DULNESS AND ABUSE SELDOM MAKE THEIR APPEARANCE
BUT IN THE ABSENCE OF REASON AND ARGUMENTATION. Such
is the frailty of human nature, that when we are hard put to it for fair
disputation, we cannot for the life of us keep clear from the stink-pots of
Billingsgate; imitating in this respect, the ignorant and unequal boxer,
who, when he cannot cope with his adversary by mere honest bruising,
flies for assistance to dirt and other offensive weapons.
Many are the conjectures of the public concerning the reasons for
such ungentleman-like treatment used by the Reviewer towards Dr.
Warburton and Mr. Johnson. He himself declares in his preface, he has
never been disobliged by either of these gentlemen. Shall I hazard a
conjecture, gentle reader, and endeavour to account for such behaviour?
Here it is.
Mr. Johnson, it is well known, joins to the COMPLEAT SCHOLAR,
yes, the compleat scholar, Mr. Kenrick, the BELIEVING CHRISTIAN.
It is well known by those who are acquainted with the creed of the
Reviewer, that to the RAILING author he joins the UNBELIEVING
CAVILLER. Here then the difficulty vanishes. The Reviewer thinks it
This supposition is not founded upon hearsay, but a perusal of Mr. Kenrick’s various
performances. His Epistles to Lorenzo proceed upon deistical principles, and those of the
blackest, most detestable nature, —UNIVERSAL SCEPTICISM; for if I mistake not, he
proposes raising an altar to The unknown God—A kindred mode of thinking led him to
the translation of Rousseau’s Emilius, a book pregnant with the most blasphemous notions.
And in the Review before me, he makes such a jest of the language of inspiration, as to
apply it to a ludicrous occasion! Judge, then, reader, if the charge above is ill founded.
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
strange, any man above the degree of a natural, should be found on the
side of CHRISTIANITY; and as it is not likely Mr. Johnson should, on
the instance of Mr. Kenrick, or Lorenzo’s friend, subscribe to the
infidel’s articles of faith, he wants to reduce him to the degree of a
natural: This we know is not very uncommon with gentlemen of Mr.
Kenrick’s kidney, as may be proved from the treatment the bishop of
Gloucester, and his dead friend Pope, received from the hands of the
abusive, the infidel Bolingbroke.3
The Reviewer’s first attack being levelled against the two greatest
supporters our religion can boast, may we not reasonably expect in a
short time, a farther attempt upon other CHURCH CHAMPIONS, until
at length he prove, THAT AS ALL CHRISTIANS ARE FOOLS, so,
NONE BUT A FOOL WOULD BE A CHRISTIAN?
[Barclay provides a page-by-page commentary on Kenrick’s Review. His retort
to Kenrick’s remarks on Johnson’s note on Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1v, iii, 161
(No. 31) will serve as an example.]
Mr. Johnson owns himself at a loss for the meaning of Knot; and his
opponent, through his sleep, tells him, ‘The Poet meant a bird called a
Knot, alias Avis Canuti.’ Mr. Kenrick! awake, Mr. Kenrick. Rub your
eyes and look about you. You should never sit down to criticise when
you are sleepy, man; you see, what comes of it—Incoherent raving—
When you are broad awake, I shall ask you, Why of all the species of
birds must a water-fowl, and of these the Knot, be picked out for the
King to be changed into? Indeed, Sir, you must shake off this
drowsiness: I have perceived it to be creeping upon you this long time,
but here we catch you napping indeed! Downright sleepy talk; I wish
it may not grow into a lethargy before you doze through the eight
volumes of Mr. Johnson’s Shakespeare. But now you are pretty well
awake, let me ask you, how you came to dream of the Knot? Belike you
sat down to write with a belly full of them: I cannot account any other
way for such an expected meaning for the word—Let us however
endeavour to come at the real signification, fresh and fasting.
In Bolingbroke’s Familiar Letter to the most Impudent Man Living, 1749.
33. Voltaire, ‘Art Dramatique’, in
Questions sur l’Encyclopédie
Translated from Oeuvres, Paris, 1878, xvii. 397.
Voltaire is classed with Dennis and Rymer in Johnson’s Preface;
their objections to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Romans and kings
are dismissed: ‘These are the petty cavils of petty minds.’ Boswell
remarks: ‘Voltaire, in revenge, made an attack on Johnson…I
pressed him to answer. He said, he perhaps might; but he never
did’ (Life, i. 498–9).
I cast my eyes over an edition of Shakespeare produced by Mr. Samuel
Johnson. I found that he describes as ‘petty minds’ those foreigners who
are astonished to find in plays by the great Shakespeare that ‘a Roman
senator should play the buffoon and a king should appear drunk on the
stage’.1 Far be it from me to suspect that Mr. Johnson is given to clumsy
jokes or is over-addicted to wine; but I find it rather extraordinary that
he should include buffoonery and drunkenness among the beauties of
the tragic theatre; the reason he gives for doing so is not less remarkable.
‘The poet’, he says, ‘overlooks the casual distinction of condition and
country, as a painter who, satisfied with having painted the figure,
neglects the drapery.’ The comparison would have been more accurate
if he had been speaking of a painter who introduced ridiculous clowns
into a noble subject, or portrayed Alexander the Great mounted on an
ass at the battle of Arbela and the wife of Darius drinking with the
rabble in a common tavern.
34. Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and
Translated by John Black (Bohn edition, 1846), 360–1, 365.
The German translator of Shakespeare and Romantic critic, August
Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767–1845), proposed in his lectures to
rescue Shakespeare from what he regarded as the misguided
criticism of English, mainly eighteenth-century, writers. Johnson
was numbered amongst them. See Introduction, pp. 8, 27.
The English critics are unanimous in their praise of the truth and
uniform consistency of [Shakespeare’s] characters, of his heart-rending
pathos, and his comic wit. Moreover, they extol the beauty and sublimity
of his separate descriptions, images, and expressions. This last is the
most superficial and cheap mode of criticising works of art. Johnson
compares him who should endeavour to recommend this poet by
passages unconnectedly torn from his works, to the pedant in Hierocles,
who exhibited a brick as a sample of his house.1 And yet how little, and
how very unsatisfactorily does he himself speak of the pieces considered
as a whole! Let any man, for instance, bring together the short characters
which he gives at the close of each play, and see if the aggregate will
amount to that sum of admiration which he himself, at his outset, has
stated as the correct standard for the appreciation of the poet. It was,
generally speaking, the prevailing tendency of the time which preceded
our own (and which has shown itself particularly in physical science,)
to consider everything having life as a mere accumulation of dead parts,
to separate what exists only in connexion and cannot otherwise be
conceived, instead of penetrating to the central point and viewing all the
parts as so many irradiations from it. Hence nothing is so rare as a
critic who can elevate himself to the comprehensive contemplation of a
Hieroclis Commentaries in Aurea Carmina, ed. P.Needham, 1709, 462. Cf. Johnson,
work of art. Shakespeare’s compositions, from the very depth of purpose
displayed in them, have been especially liable to the misfortune of being
misunderstood. Besides, this prosaic species of criticism requires always
that the poetic form should be applied to the details of execution; but
when the plan of the piece is concerned, it never looks for more than
the logical connexion of causes and effects, or some partial and trite
moral by way of application; and all that cannot be reconciled therewith
is declared superfluous, or even a pernicious appendage…. In this they
altogether mistake the rights of poetry and the nature of the romantic
drama, which, for the very reason that it is and ought to be picturesque,
requires richer accompaniments and contrasts for its main groups. In all
Art and Poetry, but more especially in the romantic, the Fancy lays
claims to be considered as an independent mental power governed
according to its own laws….
Johnson has objected to Shakespeare that his pathos is not always
natural and free from affectation.2 There are, it is true, passages, though
comparatively speaking very few, where his poetry exceeds the bounds
of actual dialogue, where a too soaring imagination, a too luxuriant wit,
rendered a complete dramatic forgetfulness of himself impossible. With
this exception, the censure originated in a fanciless way of thinking, to
which everything appears unnatural that does not consort with its own
tame insipidity. Hence an idea has been formed of simple and natural
pathos, which consists in exclamations destitute of imagery and nowise
elevated above everyday life. But energetical passions electrify all the
mental powers, and will consequently, in highly-favoured natures, give
utterance to themselves in ingenious and figurative expressions. It has
often been remarked that indignation makes a man witty; and as despair
occasionally breaks out into laughter, it may sometimes also give vent
to itself in antithetical comparisons.
35. Coleridge on Johnson’s Shakespeare
The first two extracts are taken from Coleridge’s ‘Lectures on
Shakespeare and Milton’, (Nos. 6 and 12), delivered November
1811–January 1812 (Coleridge’s Essays and Lectures on
Shakespeare…, 1907, 413–4, 477–8); the third comes from a letter
to Daniel Stuart, 13 May 1816 (Letters from the Lake Poets to
Daniel Stuart, 1889, 262–3).
I have been induced to offer these remarks, in order to obviate an
objection made against Shakespeare on the ground of the multitude of
his conceits.1 I do not pretend to justify every conceit…. The notion
against which I declare war is, that when ever a conceit is met with it
is unnatural. People who entertain this opinion forget, that had they lived
in the age of Shakespeare, they would have deemed them natural.
Dryden in his translation of Juvenal has used the words ‘Look round
the world,’2 which are a literal version of the original; but Dr. Johnson
has swelled and expanded this expression into the following couplet:—
Let observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind from China to Peru;
Vanity of Human Wishes.
mere bombast and tautology; as much as to say, ‘Let observation with
extensive observation observe mankind extensively.’3
Had Dr. Johnson lived in the time of Shakespeare, or even of Dryden,
he would never have been guilty of such an outrage upon common sense
and common language; and if people would, in idea, throw
themselves back a couple of centuries, they would find that conceits,
and even puns, were very allowable, because very natural. Puns often
arise out of a mingled sense of injury, and contempt of the person in
Cf. Johnson, Shakespeare, 74.
Tenth Satire of Juvenal, l. 1 (‘Look round the Habitable World’).
Coleridge apparently relished this jibe; he repeated it on at least four other occasions.
See Shakespearean Criticism, ii. 170; Letters, iv. 1031; Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T.M.
Raysor, 1936, 225–6, 439.
flicting it, and, as it seems to me, it is a natural way of expressing that
mixed feeling. I could point out puns in Shakespeare, where they appear
almost as if the first openings of the mouth of nature—where nothing
else could so properly be said.
Another objection has been taken by Dr. Johnson, and Shakespeare
has been taxed very severely. I refer to the scene where Hamlet enters
and finds his uncle praying, and refuses to take his life, excepting when
he is in the height of his iniquity. To assail him at such a moment of
confession and repentance, Hamlet declares,
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
Act III, Scene 3.
He therefore forbears, and postpones his uncle’s death, until he can
catch him in some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t.
This conduct, and this sentiment, Dr. Johnson has pronounced to be so
atrocious and horrible, as to be unfit to be put into the mouth of a human
being.4 The fact, however, is that Dr. Johnson did not understand the
character of Hamlet, and censured accordingly: the determination to
allow the guilty King to escape at such a moment is only part of the
indecision and irresoluteness of the hero.
It is among the feebleness of our nature, that we are often to a certain
degree acted on by stories gravely asserted, of which we yet do most
religiously disbelieve every syllable. Nay, which perhaps, we happen to
know to be false. The truth is, that images and thoughts possess a power
in and of themselves, independent of that act of the judgement or
understanding by which we affirm or deny the existence of a reality
correspondent to them. Such is the ordinary state of the mind in
dreams…. Add to this a voluntary lending of the Will to this suspension
of one of its own operations (i.e. that of comparison and consequent
decision concerning the reality of any sensuous Impression) and you
have the true theory of stage illusion—equally distant from the absurd
notion of the French critics, who ground their principles on the principle
of an absolute delusion, and of Dr. Johnson who would persuade us
that our judgements are as broad awake during the most masterly
representation of the deepest scenes of Othello, as a philosopher
would be during the exhibition of a magic lanthorn with Punch and
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
Joan, and Pull Devil Pull Baker, &c on its painted Slides. Now as
extremes always meet, this dogma of our dogmatic critic and soporific
Irenist would lead by inevitable consequence to that very doctrine of the
unities maintained by the French Belle Lettrists, which it was the object
of his strangely overrated contradictory and most illogical Preface to
Shakespear, to overthrow.
36. Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear’s Plays
Extracts from the Preface to Characters of Shakespear’s Plays,
1817, xv–xxiii. See Introduction, pp. 8, 27.
[quotes from Schlegel’s Lectures, ‘by far the best account of the plays of
Shakespear that has hitherto appeared.’]
We have the rather availed ourselves of this testimony of a foreign critic
in behalf of Shakespear, because our own countryman, Dr. Johnson, has
not been so favourable to him. It may be said of Shakespear, that ‘those
who are not for him are against him’: for indifference is here the height
of injustice. We may sometimes, in order ‘to do a great right, do a little
wrong.’1 An overstrained enthusiasm is more pardonable with respect
to Shakespear than the want of it; for our admiration cannot easily
surpass his genius. We have a high respect for Dr. Johnson’s character
and understanding, mixed with something like personal attachment: but
he was neither a poet nor a judge of poetry. He might in one sense be
a judge of poetry as it falls within the limits and rules of prose, but not
as it is poetry. Least of all was he qualified to be a judge of Shakespear,
who ‘alone is high fantastical.’2 Let those who have a prejudice against
Johnson read Boswell’s Life of him: as those whom he has prejudiced
against Shakespear should read his Irene. We do not say that a man to
be a critic must necessarily be a poet: but to be a good critic, he ought
Merchant of Venice, 1v. i. 216.
Twelfth Night, 1. i. 15.
not to be a bad poet. Such poetry as a man deliberately writes, such,
and such only will he like. Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his edition of
Shakespear looks like a laborious attempt to bury the characteristic
merits of his author under a load of cumbrous phraseology, and to weigh
his excellences and defects in equal scales, stuffed full of ‘swelling
figures and sonorous epithets.’3 Nor could it well be otherwise; Dr.
Johnson’s general powers of reasoning overlaid his critical susceptibility.
All his ideas were cast in a given mould, in a set form: they were made
out by rule and system, by climax, inference, and antithesis:—
Shakespear’s were the reverse. Johnson’s understanding dealt only in
round numbers: the fractions were lost upon him. He reduced everything
to the common standard of conventional propriety; and the most
exquisite refinement or sublimity produced an effect on his mind, only
as they could be translated into the language of measured prose. To him
an excess of beauty was a fault; for it appeared to him like an
excrescence; and his imagination was dazzled by the blaze of light. His
writings neither shone with the beams of native genius, nor reflected
them. The shifting shapes of fancy, the rainbow hues of things, made no
impression on him: he seized only on the permanent and tangible. He had
no idea of natural objects but ‘such as he could measure with a two-foot
rule, or tell upon ten fingers’:4 he judged of human nature in the same
way, by mood and figure: he saw only the definite, the positive, and the
practical, the average forms of things, not their striking differences—their
classes, not their degrees. He was a man of strong common sense and
practical wisdom, rather than of genius or feeling. He retained the regular,
habitual impressions of actual objects, but he could not follow the rapid
flights of fancy, or the strong movements of passion. That is, he was to
the poet what the painter of still life is to the painter of history. Common
sense sympathises with the impressions of things on ordinary minds in
ordinary circumstances: genius catches the glancing combinations
presented to the eye of fancy, under the influence of passion. It is the
province of the didactic reasoner to take cognizance of those results of
human nature which are constantly repeated and always the same, which
follow one another in regular succession, which are acted upon by large
classes of men, and embodied in received customs, laws, language, and
institutions; and it was in arranging, comparing, and arguing on these kind
of general results, that Johnson’s excellence lay. But he could not quit his
hold of the common-place and mechanical, and apply the general rule
Burke, Second Letter on a Regicide Peace, 1796, para. 7.