Johnson's Pendulum: Introduction

Freya Johnston and Lynda Mugglestone

in Samuel Johnson

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199654345
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191745003 | DOI:
Johnson's Pendulum: Introduction

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Describing Samuel Johnson's prose style, William Hazlitt turned to the image of the pendulum. It is depicted by him as oscillating with predictable regularity, its movement inflexible as well as circumscribed within a narrow axis. Johnson's metaphorical pendulum is, for Hazlitt, rendered incapable of latitude and compromise. In this light, patterns of opposition and contrast in Johnson's prose merely represent a mechanical reflex rather than creative response and control. This opening chapter to the volume argues, however, that both Johnson and the pendulum merit rereading and further scrutiny. Eighteenth-century writing (including evidence from Johnson's Dictionary) reveals that the pendulum was often used to suggest movement, variation, and mutability in ways which set up their own oppositions to Hazlitt's often-cited assumptions. Similarly, rather than being trapped in a rigid pattern of balance and opposition, Johnson's ability to embrace rival impulses emerges as a positive feature of his life, work, and reception. The introduction concludes with a discursive summary of the ensuing 15 chapters, arguing that each of them demonstrates that Hazlitt's brilliantly flawed reading of Johnson's pendulum remains open to dispute and critical revision.

Keywords: Samuel Johnson; William Hazlitt; prose style; pendulum; latitude; compromise; rereading; opposition; reception; critical revision

Chapter.  4542 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (1500 to 1800)

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