The Revival of Learning: The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

Dissertation Proposal

Jack Lynch, 30 September 1996

In "The Revival of Learning" I propose to explore eighteenth-century English conceptions of what we now call the Renaissance, arguing that eighteenth-century writers used the previous two centuries to situate themselves and their cultural products within a historical narrative. Cultural historiography, by placing its practitioners within a larger scheme, is self-constitution: British thinkers of the eighteenth century used the Renaissance to understand themselves. At the center of the dissertation is Samuel Johnson, the most perceptive cultural historiographer of the century, through whose works flow the most important currents of contemporary thought.

The Quattrocento revision of the classical and Christian paradigms for periodization is most remarkable for the longevity of its influence on historiography. The early humanists themselves created the idea of the Renaissance by dividing their new age from the ostensibly barbarous one that came before, and provided the terms in which we still discuss medieval and early modern history. By late in the seventeenth century, however, it was a commonplace that this age had at last passed and another had begun. By the time Rymer could refer to "the last age," the tripartite scheme of antique, medieval, and modern required a fourth term, and the Renaissance (though not yet so named) became for the first time a distinct idea. I trace the development and the uses of this new conception in England in the eighteenth century. Most studies of Renaissance periodization have been teleological, focused on the rise of our twentieth-century ideas in Michelet, Burckhardt, and Pater. I look instead at the earliest English attempts to talk about that age and the ways eighteenth-century writers used historiography to understand their own place in history.

The Introduction makes the case for the importance of such an investigation and defends the centrality of Johnson in it. Recognizing the need to defend a fairly traditional brand of literary history from postmodern critiques, I suggest that histories that are neither materialist nor Foucauldian can still have important implications: that the history of historiography can tell us how an age constructed itself, how it used the past to authorize the present. Johnson's place, too, requires some justification. The Dictionary, the edition of Shakespeare, the Lives of the Poets, the Rambler, Boswell's Life, and dozens of miscellaneous pieces show him to be one of the most knowledgeable readers of his day on the literature of the previous centuries (among his contemporaries, only Thomas Warton can rival his learning in the authors of the last age). But my dissertation is not a reference work called "Samuel Johnson and the Renaissance," a catalogue of sources, analogues, and influences of interest only to Johnsonians, but an examination of the larger significance of the Renaissance in the literature of eighteenth-century England. To provide some center to such a potentially inchoate topic, however, I treat Johnson as Anthony Grafton treats Scaliger -- as a paradigmatic figure at the center of an age. He knew and commented on nearly all of his century's most important ideas about the Renaissance, including those of Dryden, Addison, Pope, Gray, Warton, and Gibbon, and contributed much of his own. This focus on Johnson at once lends the dissertation coherence and contextualizes his ideas among those of his contemporaries, without, I hope, reducing Johnson to a mere representative of his times: Johnson's vision of the Renaissance is far from Addison's or Gibbon's, for instance, to say nothing of Hume's. My contextualization of Johnson should make these controversies as prominent as possible so as to exhibit the full range of eighteenth-century notions.

Each chapter after the Introduction explores Johnson's attitudes toward a Renaissance work, author, or genre, and looks at what his views imply for a broader understanding of the Renaissance in the eighteenth century. Specific works, then, illuminate larger themes, just as Johnson's writings illuminate the works of his contemporaries. I begin with a sketch of the Middle Age as it was treated in two succeeding eras. Chapter 1, "History Unfinished, History Defaced," explores the historiographical rupture between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Renaissance humanists themselves set the terms for most subsequent characterizations of the Middle Ages, using two metaphors: the Middle Ages as privation of learning (seen most clearly in Petrarch) and the Middle Ages as corruption (represented by Poliziano). Johnson and his contemporaries inherited these paradigms and used them not only to understand the distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but also between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. Just as the fifteenth-century humanists used this break to mark their place in cultural history, those of the eighteenth century turned the metaphors on their creators to mark their own: Dryden does it in the Fables, Pope in the Essay on Criticism, Warton in his History of English Poetry, and Gibbon in the closing chapters of the Decline and Fall. But in both the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, these attitudes show up most clearly in textual criticism. In the fifteenth century, the texts of antiquity were examined anew and our modern conception of the "classic" was born. At the end of the seventeenth century, some of the works of the English Renaissance (Shakespeare's and Milton's above all) received an editorial treatment previously reserved for the classics, and for the first time underwent the same scrutiny that Latin texts received (Johnson in fact likens his textual practice to that of Poliziano, whose works he planned to edit early in his career). Eighteenth-century readers discovered in them a haphazard mixture -- anticipations of ostensibly enlightened modern ideas and vestiges of medieval ignorance. Their decision to emphasize one or the other tells us much about their respective visions of cultural historiography.

Chapter 2 considers the rise of the "Tudor myth" and the glorification of the age of Elizabeth, principally in Shakespeare's British histories, which provided the eighteenth century with a fund of legends about the Middle Ages and the accession of the Tudors. Many eighteenth-century historians regarded the Tudor period as a golden age, a time of nearly perfect calm after the turbulent Wars of the Roses -- partly, of course, by ignoring or repressing contrary evidence. Elizabeth I, the female paragon of masculine virtues, was often singled out as the one to effect this settlement. Especially during Anne's reign, but continuing throughout the century, writers turned their attention to the relationship between her character and her age. Historians such as Birch, Oldmixon, Hurd, and many anonymous writers -- some scandalous, some laudatory -- were fascinated with Elizabeth, and her patronage of the arts made her a frequent object of inquiry in literary histories. Johnson, in spite of his ambivalence about Elizabeth's reign, treats her (especially in the edition of Shakespeare, the periodical essays, and the uncollected biographies) as both the model learned lady and the embodiment of her age. He and his contemporaries strive to understand the relationship between Elizabeth in propria persona and the events of her reign, giving her character a degree of attention accorded to no other modern monarch.

Chapter 3, "Studied Barbarity," is an expansion of my article by that title: it examines the idea of cultural progress and Edmund Spenser's complicated place in eighteenth-century literary culture. Ben Jonson best exemplifies a model of cultural progress from medieval rudeness to modern refinement, and many poets and critics after Dryden and Waller saw in Jonson a vindication of Augustan poetic practice. But the descent of his reputation over the course of the eighteenth century corresponded with the rise of Spenser's, whose apparently barbarous design, allegory, and versification frustrated proponents of cultural progress such as Addison. Spenser, especially as he was defended by Hughes and Hurd, forced eighteenth-century readers to question the inevitability of a progression toward the decorum of their own practices, producing the tension evident in the Rambler, the Dictionary, the Vision of Theodore, and the Lives, especially Cowley. Only the most perceptive and least doctrinaire of eighteenth-century readers and critics could account for Spenser's mysterious attraction, and in so doing made possible many of the insights of the Spenserians of the Romantic age.

Chapter 4, "A People Newly Awakened," explores a more sophisticated variety of the idea of progress. It looks at the eighteenth-century reception of the Renaissance as an educational and scholarly movement, and relates the growth and development of children to the growth and development of a culture. Europe as an infant in the fourteenth century, growing to young adulthood in the sixteenth and full maturity at the end of the seventeenth, is a recurring image (and a dominant one in both Johnson's edition of Shakespeare and Warton's History of English Poetry), and provides an early English analogue for the metaphor of rebirth. The suggestion of a single maturing organism points up not historiographical rupture but fundamental continuity between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. In scholarship, especially pan-European Latin scholarship, there is no obvious break between the sixteenth century and the eighteenth, and in his correspondence and the Journey to the Western Islands, Johnson places himself within this tradition. The metaphor of maturation also suggested to some that Europe had passed its prime and had entered a decline -- a familiar notion in scholarship on the Ancients-Moderns quarrel, but given less attention as it appears among the advocates of the early moderns who nevertheless saw their own era as a falling off from a golden age.

Chapter 5 studies the relationship between the Renaissance and the Reformation. For orthodox Anglicans, Elizabeth established the true religion, a delicate via media between Roman superstition and Calvinist iconoclasm. When, after 1660, English orthodoxy found itself seeking a similar path among threats from Catholics, Dissenters, Deists, and Evangelicals, the age of Elizabeth, especially as represented in the works of Hooker and other Anglican divines, exerted a powerful attraction, and reinforced the English self-image as a reasonable middle ground between extremes. Ecclesiastical historians such as John Strype, Gilbert Burnet, and Thomas Ward made sixteenth-century church history an essential part of modern theology for many writers. William Law, it is true, had little historical grounding; but William Wake, for instance, was very consciously historical. The prevalence of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theologians in the Dictionary (Hooker, for instance, is the tenth most quoted writer in the entire work) suggests their importance for Johnson. His most personal writings (the Prayers and Meditations) show in miniature what his conversation, sermons, and other public writings show: an attention to the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to find a path for both the individual Christian and Christianity itself.

Chapter 6, "The Ground-Work of Style," examines the development of the English language and the English sense of nationhood. In the Dictionary, Johnson calls for a diction free from "Gallick" impurities, and suggests as a model the writers from Sidney to the Restoration, "the Wells of English undefiled." The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries thus became England's linguistic golden age, just as the Renaissance apotheosized Ciceronian Latin over medieval barbarism. The analogy goes further still, putting the modern French in the position of the medieval barbarians threatening to poison English wells -- an attitude that appears even in the less jingoistic Britons, who often appreciated the works of the Scaligers, de Thou, Montaigne, and others. For many, English national identity and linguistic identity were mutually dependent and equally insular, and both looked backwards to the Elizabethan age.

Chapter 7, "Renaissance Lost," provides some symmetry by returning to the themes of chapter 1: an age's creation of a historiographical break between itself and what came before. This chapter considers the break at the other end of the Renaissance -- the seventeenth century -- when, for the first time, the Renaissance became "the last age." Milton achieved a liminal position between the two ages within a few decades of his death, and allowed eighteenth-century historiographers to connect the traditional political signs of periodization with the literary and historical productions that formed the basis of a developing cultural historiography. Milton's controversial involvement in the events of the Civil War and Interregnum allowed, even required, eighteenth-century literary historians to reconsider the grounds on which the boundaries between eras are marked. Johnson's Life of Milton stands at the center of a heated eighteenth-century debate, and the controversy provides a number of contradictory answers to the questions about the relationship between history and aesthetics. Milton, partly through Johnson's controversial account of his life and works, was instrumental in developing a historically grounded conception of literature, even as proto-Romantic bardolatry worked to turn Shakespeare into the genius who transcended history.

Preliminary Bibliography

Note: This represents my earliest bibliography. A fuller one reflects additions since it was put together.
As my concern is partly the history of scholarship, a distinction between "primary" and "secondary" texts is difficult to maintain. I avoid the problem by putting all texts in a single alphabetical sequence.