Samuel Johnson and the Revival of Learning

By Jack Lynch

Delivered 25 October 1997 at EC/ASECS at Ursinus College

Some projects sound too easy to be worthwhile. This is one of them. We start with a banal undergraduate thesis: The Renaissance was important to Samuel Johnson. We amass evidence by reading the Shakespeare edition and the Life of Milton, and then counting Dictionary quotations from Spenser, Hooker, and Bacon. We sprinkle in a few citations from DeMaria's recent biography, and wrap it up with a Q.E.D. I confess that when I first embarked on this project, I had visions of doing something almost that mechanical.

But some projects that sound too easy to be worthwhile turn out to be far more complicated than they first seem. This is one of them. Before we can answer the question, "Was the Renaissance important to Samuel Johnson?," we need to determine whether the question itself makes any sense. Our first obstacle: the word Renaissance was not used in English until more than half a century after Johnson's death. In fact, according to the standard accounts of early modern periodization, there was no notion of the Renaissance as a distinct age until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Michelet and Burckhardt first arrived at a "true periodic concept." Now, if this is true, our mission is aborted even before liftoff: however much Johnson knew about Shakespeare and Milton, it was impossible for him to think about "the Renaissance." I'd like, however, to look briefly at the history of the idea of the Renaissance; and I hope to demonstrate that Johnson's age, although it lacked some useful critical vocabulary, did in fact have a conception of it as a coherent entity.

The first to describe the Renaissance were the Renaissance humanists themselves. C. S. Lewis's formulation is pithy: "The legend of the Renaissance is a Renaissance legend."1 Petrarch was the first to reject the ancient and biblical models of history, with their six ages or four monarchies, and to introduce a new historiographical scheme, one with three great periods of history: ancient, middle, and modern. The Middle Age was for Petrarch an unbroken stretch of darkness and barbarism; the modern period, he thought and hoped, would restore the glories of the ancient. Many in the eighteenth century knew this humanistic account well. Johnson, for instance, refers to "the Revival of Learning in Europe" and "the revival of polite literature," and Thomas Warton to "the restitution of letters," "restoring grammatical literature," and "the revival of modern learning."2

This much of the story sounds familiar; it's borrowed from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is recycled in the nineteenth and twentieth. The Renaissance recognized -- or at least propagandized -- itself as something new; for the early humanists, constructing a Renaissance meant first constructing a Dark Age, against which to measure the brightness of modern enlightenment. Later ages borrowed this almost uncritically. But paradoxically, at the very time that the humanist periodization received its definitive form in the late seventeenth century, this vision of a homogeneous modern period came to seem inadequate. Thinkers from Dryden through Johnson, that is to say, no longer thought of themselves as part of the same "modernity" as Erasmus and Shakespeare; and defining the boundaries of the Renaissance meant defining one of the boundaries of their own age. The three-term system of ancient, medieval, and modern needed a new term: modernity had grown unwieldy, and had to be split in two.

In that split the Renaissance was born. The humanists invented their own modernity, but it took the next age to turn it into a period with a beginning and an end. At the end of the seventeenth century, therefore, Thomas Rymer could refer to the time of Shakespeare as "the last age."3 A new scheme of history was being formed. However vague this conception of the last age in Rymer's day, by the end of Johnson's life there was a clear sense of the cultural distinctiveness of the age of Elizabeth -- distinctiveness from what came before it, and especially from what came after it. The "long" eighteenth century, in other words, made the same sort of declaration of modernity that humanists like Petrarch and Erasmus had made four centuries earlier. And just as the humanist historiographers created the conception of the Middle Ages as a by-product of their self-construction, the thinkers of the eighteenth century developed an idea of the Renaissance in drawing a line between themselves and their predecessors. The eighteenth century, therefore, repeated the Renaissance's historiographical self-constitution: we can call it the dynamic of modernity. The invocation or creation of an ever-new sense of now (along with its resulting creation of a series of thens) is one of the most powerful means of periodization.

The dynamic of modernity, I should note, is most often invoked exultantly and polemically: it amounts to a manifesto on the superiority of the present and the inadequacy of the immediate past. The boundary between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century, however, had no such single character. For some it was indeed a triumphant emergence from barbarity to propriety, as the clownishness of Skelton's age gave way to the refinement of Waller's. For others, though, it meant a wistful acknowledgment of a lost national and cultural glory, the passing of the age in which England's greatest literature had been produced.

The eighteenth century's Renaissance, to be sure, is not Burckhardt's, and it is not ours. To appreciate it on its own terms, we have to abandon many of our associations. For Johnson and his age, Fracostoro and Grotius were more important than Raphael and Rembrandt. The eighteenth-century literary canon had little room for Marlowe and Herbert, but plenty for Hooker and Camden. Robert Anderson notes that the editors of the 1792 Edinburgh anthology of British literature considered including Langland, Gower, Lydgate, Barclay, Skelton, Sidney, and Marlowe, but rejected them as too obscure, giving the space instead to such more familiar authors as Davies, Drayton, Hall, and Drummond.4 And the differences lie not only in the individual texts, but in the big picture. The state had not yet been recognized as Burckhardt's work of art; Hegel's World-Spirit was nowhere to be found; and, in spite of some comments on the passing of feudalism, the emphasis on the high-culture superstructure was far more important than Marx's economic base.

Having argued the case, then, that the eighteenth century had at least a nascent conception of what we call the Renaissance, I return to my original question: did it matter to Samuel Johnson? He may seem a perverse choice for a guide to eighteenth-century thought on sixteenth-century literary history. Most of his writing, it's true, concentrates on the period after the Civil Wars, and some have gone so far as to suggest that, apart from a few major authors, he was almost ignorant of Renaissance literature and history. But Johnson, who refers casually to such learned figures as Cornaro, Pontanus, Caius, Camerarius, miglecki, and Sabinus -- to say nothing of such comparatively familiar names as Cynthio, Buchanan, Ficino, Scaliger, and Melanchthon -- was eminently qualified to weigh in on these questions. Among his published works we can count an edition of Shakespeare and biographies not only of Cowley and Milton but also of Drake, Browne, and Ascham.5 He arrived in London with the hopes of finishing and producing his tragedy, drawn from a source of 1603 and set in 1453; after its failure, he began translating an early seventeenth-century history of the Council of Trent. Among his planned but never attempted works are a "History of the Revival of Learning in Europe" and "A Hist. of the Reformation (not of England only but) of Europe."6 The hundreds of allusions in the periodical essays and the thousands of illustrative quotations in the Dictionary suggest the extent of his knowledge of, and interest in, the English Renaissance.7
If, then, there was a Renaissance to know about, and if Johnson did in fact know about it, what did he make of it? One question that particularly concerned Johnson was the nature of the historical rupture Petrarch first described. This meant tracing the progress from the barbarous Middle Ages to the revival of learning, a progress was often understood through the analogy of the growth and maturation of the individual from infancy, through childhood, and into adulthood. This comparison of cultural progress with the development of a child was one of the favorite metaphors of eighteenth-century critics, for whom cultural phylogeny recapitulates individual ontogeny. One of the most famous instances comes in Johnson's "Preface to Shakespeare": "Nations," he writes, "like individuals, have their infancy."8 And this infancy drew much critical scorn. Late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century critics vigorously and repeatedly dismissed the trappings of medieval culture as the playthings of children. "A people newly awakened to literary curiosity," writes Johnson of Shakespeare's age,
being yet unacquainted with the true state of things, knows not how to judge of that which is proposed as its resemblance. Whatever is remote from common appearances is always welcome to vulgar, as to childish credulity; and of a country unenlightened by learning, the whole people is the vulgar. The study of those who then aspired to plebeian learning was laid out upon adventures, giants, dragons, and enchantments.9
"Of these trifles enough," writes Johnson. Beginning in the sixteenth century, "When Learning's triumph o'er her barb'rous Foes/ First rear'd the stage," England entered its cultural adolescence and traded its trifles for truth.10 Johnson places Caxton and the late Middle Ages in the "infancy of learning,"11 and traces through the sixteenth century England's growth from boy to man. The early Renaissance, then, marks the turning point of adolescence. And this adolescent was helped along by a regimen of education: during the reign of Henry VIII, England was sent to school under the tuition of an Italian master.

England's sixteenth-century educational revolution was helped along by the serendipitous occurrence of a fifteenth-century political revolution. "About the year 1453," Warton writes, "the dispersion of the Greeks . . . totally changed the state of letters in Europe."12 Before the fall of Constantinople, the West was benighted; Medieval learning was "clogged with pedantry, and depressed by the narrow notions of the times."13 The new learning, however, moved west when Constantinople fell, and dispersed "the scholastic cloud which inveloped our universities."14 When Johnson refers to "The first race of scholars, in the fifteenth century,"15 therefore, he means the years after 1453. His clearest account comes in the Life of Ascham:

The destruction of the Constantinopolitan empire had driven the Greeks, with their language, into the interiour parts of Europe. . . . Learning was, at that time, prosecuted with that eagerness and perseverance, which, in this age of indifference and dissipation, it is not easy to conceive.16
He suggests the importance of this fortunate fall by using it as the backdrop of his only drama, Irene.

Maturity finally arrived in England with a great infusion of Continental culture, especially the new Italian approaches to classical texts:

The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity. The philology of Italy had been transplanted hither in the reign of Henry the Eighth; and the learned languages had been successfully cultivated by Lilly, Linacer, and More; by Pole, Cheke, and Gardiner; and afterwards by Smith, Clerk, Haddon, and Ascham.17
This is a remarkably learned cast of characters, and yet Johnson was determined to explain Shakespeare's works with reference to his age -- the kind of historical understanding of which Johnson was a great early champion, and which became possible only after there was an age to use as an explanation. And this age was defined by the revival of classical learning, a subject Johnson knew thoroughly. This is the refined air he breathed throughout his life. If the almost mythical story is to be believed, his first taste of learning came from one of the early figures in the revival of letters. Boswell tells the story, with its suggestions of Eden:
Having imagined that his brother had hid some apples behind a large folio upon an upper shelf in his father's shop, he climbed up to search for them. There were no apples; but the large folio proved to be Petrarch.18
It was a taste that stayed with him. Shortly after his arrival in London, Johnson proposed an edition of Poliziano, and soon compiled the massive catalogue of the Harleian library; near his death, "He seriously entertained the thought of translating Thuanus."19
I've tried to suggest here not only that these authors are important to Johnson individually, but that collectively they represent the voice of an age -- an age now past. The combination of triumph and wistfulness is evident throughout his writings. On the one hand, Shakespeare's age was still struggling to emerge from medieval barbarity, which was not wholly shaken off until the late seventeenth century. On the other, in Rambler 108, Johnson praises Erasmus as one who "will stand for ever in the first rank of literary heroes,"20 one figure in an entire age of literary and intellectual heroism. Erasmus and his contemporaries were for Johnson heroes in a way almost no one in his own age was: they were trailblazers, finding the way out of the intellectual darkness and childhood of the Middle Ages. But this heroic age, like others, paradoxically rendered heroism itself unnecessary. "Learning was, at that time, prosecuted with that eagerness and perseverance, which, in this age of indifference and dissipation, it is not easy to conceive." The last age had passed.
So: back once more to our banal undergraduate thesis. Was the Renaissance important for Samuel Johnson? Of course. But it might be more accurate -- or at least more interesting -- to say that Samuel Johnson was important for the Renaissance. Johnson and his contemporaries presided over an important moment in cultural history: the codification of the age of Elizabeth into England's literary golden age. It was not simply a matter of recognizing the excellence of the works of the Renaissance, but of recognizing the Renaissance itself. By the end of Johnson's life, England had pictured the revival of learning as a distinct period in literary history, and used it to shed light on Shakespeare and Milton. Of course, the painting was not complete until Burckhardt; but we owe the early sketches and studies of the age of Elizabeth to the age of Johnson.


1. C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, p. 56.

2. History of English Poetry, III, 414, 420, 418.

3. Thomas Rymer, The Tragedies of the Last Age Consider'd, t.p., p. 142, etc.

4. Works of the British Poets, I, 4.

5. He at least contributed to the 1761 edition of Ascham, and may have edited the work, as a note by Croker in Boswell suggests: "Johnson was, in fact, the editor of this work": Life, I, 464. Although some remain skeptical, O M Brack, Jr., agrees with Croker in "Samuel Johnson Edits for the Booksellers."

6. Life, IV, 381-82.

7. The two most extensive surveys of Johnson's interest in the Renaissance, one old, one recent, are W. B. C. Watkins, Johnson and English Poetry Before 1660, esp. pp. 1-15, 58; and Robert DeMaria, The Life of Samuel Johnson, esp. pp. xi-xvi.

8. Shakespeare, VII, 82. Compare Bolingbroke's fifth Letter on the Study and Use of History: "The truth is, nations, like men, have their infancy" (Political Writings, p. 66).

9. Shakespeare, VII, 82; see also VII, 49.

10. Shakespeare, VII, 123; "Prologue Spoken at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury-Lane, 1747," lines 1-2, in Poems.

11. Idler 69; p. 215. See also Life, V, 59, and Shakespeare, VII, 88. Edward Howard in 1671 refers to "a Childhood of knowledge" (The Womens Conquest, sig. A2r).

12. History of English Poetry, III, 408.

13. Warton, History of English Poetry, III, 420, 432. Such phrases echo throughout the History, often stressing pedantry: "the pedantries of a barbarous theology" (III, 412); "monkish pedantry" (III, 414). More recent investigations of humanist culture have turned the accusation of pedantry on the humanists themselves: they ousted a living philosophy in a living language for a systematic attempt to reproduce and recapture the conditions from a millennium and a half earlier. Johnson perhaps has this in mind when he suggests a more balanced appraisal than Warton's: "in Italy you may expect to meet with Canonists and Sch[o]lastic Divines, in Germany with Writers on the feudal Laws, and in Holland with Civilians. The Schoolmen and Canonists must not be neglected for they are useful to many purposes, nor too anxiously sought, for their influence among us is much lessened by the Reformation" (Letters, I, 309; to Frederick Barnard, 28 May 1768).

14. The History of English Poetry, III, 421.

15. Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, p. 15.

16. 1825 Works, VI, 504-505.

17. Shakespeare, VII, 81-82???.

18. Life, I, 57.

19. For the edition of Poliziano, see above, chapter 1; for De Thou, see Life, IV, 410.

20. Rambler, IV, 214.