Monday, 21 March 2016

Rules of Writing by Samuel Johnson.

'Rules of Writing', or 'The laws of writing not always disputable, Reflections on tragi-comedy' as it is also known, is an essay by Samuel Johnson for his periodical 'The Rambler' and was first published on 14th September 1751 (no. 156).

The essay starts with a quote from Juvenal's Satires (1st - 2nd Century A.D.):
Nunquam aliud Natura, aliud Sapientia dicit.
[For Wisdom ever echoes Nature's voice]
Juv. Sat. xiv. 321.
Johnson begins,
Every government, say the politicians, is perpetually degenerating towards corruption, from which it must be rescued at certain periods by the resuscitation of its first principles, and the re-establishment of its original constitution. Every animal body, according to the methodick physicians, is, by the predominance of some exuberant quality, continually declining towards disease and death, which must be obviated by a seasonable reduction of the peccant humour to the just equipoise which health requires.
As with governments and animals, so writing and creativity is "perpetually tending to errour and confusion". Like a disease passed through the generations, what was once 'simple and true' is lost along the way and writers "lose their strength and splendour, and fade at last in total evanescence".

Johnson therefore proposes to start with fresh eyes and not accept that which has been dictated throughout the ages:
Criticism has sometimes permitted fancy to dictate the laws by which fancy ought to be restrained, and fallacy to perplex the principles by which fallacy is to be detected; her superintendence of others has betrayed her to negligence of herself; and, like the ancient Scythians, by extending her conquests over distant regions, she has left her throne vacant to her slaves.
Truth and knowledge, he argues, is confused and muddled - some general principles are sound, some excellent, and some completely useless. He then suggests,
That many rules have been advanced without consulting nature or reason, we cannot but suspect, when we find it peremptorily decreed by the ancient masters, that only three speaking personages should appear at once upon the stage; a law, which, as the variety and intricacy of modern plays has made it impossible to be observed, we now violate without scruple, and, as experience proves, without inconvenience.
He uses the number of acts in a play as an example - "By what accident the number of acts was limited to five, I know not that any author has informed us". And then there is the length of the play - "With no greater right to our obedience have the criticks confined the dramatick action to a certain number of hours". From here he goes on to discuss 'tragi-comedy', asking "For what is there in the mingled drama which impartial reason can condemn?", and
Is it not certain that the tragick and comick affections have been moved alternately with equal force, and that no plays have oftener filled the eye with tears, and the breast with palpitation, than those which are variegated with interludes of mirth?
On the other hand, he then suggests perhaps the mixture of tragedy and comedy is counter-productive; referring to Shakespeare he writes, "we might have been more interested in the distresses of his heroes, had we not been so frequently diverted by the jokes of his buffoons". 

Invoking the spirit of Aristotle's Poetics (335 B.C) he argues,
As the design of tragedy is to instruct by moving the passions, it must always have a hero, a personage apparently and incontestably superior to the rest, upon whom the attention may be fixed, and the anxiety suspended. For though, of two persons opposing each other with equal abilities and equal virtue, the auditor will inevitably, in time, choose his favourite, yet as that choice must be without any cogency of conviction, the hopes or fears which it raises will be faint and languid. Of two heroes acting in confederacy against a common enemy, the virtues or dangers will give little emotion, because each claims our concern with the same right, and the heart lies at rest between equal motives.
Finally, he concludes,
It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established; that he may neither violate essential principles by a desire of novelty, nor debar himself from the attainment of beauties within his view, by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact.
I must admit I did struggle with this essay's digression into the nature of tragi-comedy, but the essential argument shown in the conclusion was most enlightening. Johnson, who was a highly intelligent man, encourages, nay, demands of others to question and not simply relay on reputation, tradition, and antiquity to decide what is right and what is wrong. For that this is an excellent essay, though as I say that digression did confuse me a little.

The essay can be read in full online here.

And that was my twelfth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake.


  1. it sounds like he was rather proud of his success with "Irene"; reviews i've read of it kind of explain why it has vanished in the sands of history. interesting observations, though...

    1. I haven't come across Irene yet, and it's not included in the Major Works edition... I'll look out for it, I'm curious now!

  2. Sam Johnson is always a pleasure . Thank you!

    1. He is indeed! Love Johnson :)


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