Field List

Inventing the Renaissance: The Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson

Jack Lynch

The first use of the word Renaissance in English came only in 1840, and it is therefore only natural that the nineteenth century -- the age of Schiller, Burckhardt, Pater, Hegel, and Marx -- should be an obvious starting point in an investigation into the origin of our notions of the Renaissance. But even though the Renaissance was not christened until the 1840s, the previous century anticipated much of the thought of these Victorians, and laid the ground for the constitution of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries as a coherent period in literary and intellectual history. I propose therefore to extend the recent projects in the history of literary history backward from the nineteenth century into the eighteenth, and to identify there the paradigms for understanding the Renaissance that determined the direction of subsequent histories of English literature.

The most important and powerful critical intelligence of the eighteenth century inevitably occupies the central ground in this investigation. Samuel Johnson produced no History of the Renaissance, no History of English Poetry; but he did stand at the center of the age's critical efforts, and perhaps had more influence on subsequent literary history and literary historiography than any other single figure of the eighteenth century. Although in my dissertation I want a scope broader than Johnson himself -- one that focuses not solely on Johnson, but places him in the context of Dryden, Dennis, Warton, and so on -- I hope in the Field Exam to focus especially on Johnson's role in the creation of these paradigms for understanding the age now known as the English Renaissance.1

Some parts of this territory have already been mapped thoroughly: the place of Shakespeare and Milton in the eighteenth century has been widely studied (see, e.g., de Grazia, Griffin, Parker, Sherbo, and Tomarken, below), and Johnson's Life of Cowley has led to extensive study of the Metaphysical poets in the Augustan age. Other areas, however, are nearly virgin territory, each treated by perhaps a handful of articles, if at all. Shakespeare, for instance, has nearly completely displaced the study of other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists in the eighteenth century, even those as important as Jonson and Marlowe. The most thorough survey of eighteenth-century Spenserianism is an introductory chapter in a book devoted to Keats and Shelley (see Kucich, below). And the Augustan reception of the prose works of the English Renaissance -- More, Ascham, Browne, Hooker, Burton, Bacon, Raleigh, and Donne, as well as such writers of prose fiction as Sidney, Lyly, Lodge, Greene, and Nashe -- has not received nearly the attention it deserves.

Even given my restriction here to Johnson and the English Renaissance, my choice of texts (already at sixty volumes) must inevitably be extremely selective. I have therefore excluded many primary titles (such as The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and Hamlet) because their familiarity obviates the need to include them on a list -- though of course I count them as fair game for the exam. The texts I have chosen for my "official" list suggest four large areas of inquiry, which may provide the broad rubrics under which I'll arrange my dissertation chapters.

The first is the eighteenth century's reception of Renaissance drama: Shakespeare above all, of course, but not exclusively. The importance of the drama is too obvious to need much justification. Johnson came to London hoping to stage his own tragedy, set in the fifteenth century and drawn from an early seventeenth-century source. The Augustans (and Johnson among them) were the first to give Shakespeare's works the editorial treatment previously reserved for classical texts. Perhaps most important, the rise of Bardolatry in the eighteenth century owes much to Johnson himself and to his pupil and lifelong friend, David Garrick. To this end I include not only Johnson's own criticism on Shakespeare but also works on eighteenth-century Shakespearean studies by De Grazia, Parker, Sherbo, and Tomarken.

Shakespeare is also relevant in the second area, history, as Shakespeare's plays were the conduit through which the Renaissance chronicles passed into the eighteenth century's popular consciousness. Since the historiography which distinguishes the Renaissance from the Middle Ages seems an important topic with which to begin -- in England, the Renaissance was associated with the accession of the Tudors and especially Elizabeth -- I hope to turn to the most culturally influential accounts of the rise of the Tudor myth. In addition, therefore, to the most important of the chronicles, Holinshed's, I include Shakespeare's ten British histories, along with Phyllis Rackin's study of the plays.

The third area, the Renaissance epic, has been widely studied with respect to Milton, although other epic poets (such as Spenser) and prose writers who approach the epic (Cervantes, Sidney) have received little attention. As I have already written on Spenser, I hope to focus in the Field Exam especially on Milton, on his position at the boundary between the Renaissance and the Restoration. I therefore include not only Johnson's Lives (particularly the Life of Milton) but also Griffin's Regaining Paradise.

The fourth area is probably the least studied, but perhaps the most important for Johnsonian studies: the great Renaissance prose writers whose works he read, edited, quoted in his periodical essays, and extracted in his Dictionary. The popular identification of Johnson as a "humanist" (most visibly in Paul Fussell's title The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism) suggests that a general study of English humanism may be illuminating. Browne and Ascham are especially important, since Johnson wrote a Life of each, and may have edited their works. Boswell attests to Bacon's importance for Johnson, and the Rambler provides the most visible record of the influence not only of Bacon's genre and prose style, but also of his temperamental skepticism and empiricism.

Finally, many of the works on my list are included either for the light they shed on Johnson's critical habits (such as The Rambler among the primary texts and Hagstrum and Watkins among the secondary), or for their attention to eighteenth-century literary history generally (Hurd and Warton in the eighteenth century; Ferguson, Kucich, Lipking, and Wasserman in the twentieth). Johnson's criticism and literary history come together in the Lives and especially the Dictionary, where Johnson at once analyzes and canonizes the Renaissance in works that were among the most read of Johnson's works (and among the most influential works of intellectual and literary history) in the following century.


1. Although it will be impossible to exclude Continental figures from this study altogether -- Erasmus, Grotius, Montaigne, Cervantes, and Poliziano, for instance, can hardly be ignored -- I hope to focus in the Field Exam almost exclusively on the English Renaissance. I'm convinced this artificial restriction will ultimately prove inadequate, and it's defensible only insofar as it's expedient in my initial survey of the field.

Field List, 30 October 1995


Samuel Johnson:

  1. Johnson, Irene, in The Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941).

  2. Johnson, The Rambler, ed. Walter Jackson Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, vols. III-V of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969).

  3. Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London, 1755).

  4. Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo, vols. VII and VIII of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968).

  5. Johnson, Lives of the Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).

  6. The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992-94).

  7. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1934-64).

  8. Donald Greene, Samuel Johnson's Library: An Annotated Guide (Victoria: English Literary Studies, 1975).


  1. Roger Ascham, The Scholemaster, in English Works, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1904).

  2. Bacon, The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, ed. Michael Kiernan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985).

  3. Thomas Browne, Christian Morals (New York: Kraus, 1969).

  4. Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, ed. R. H. A. Robbins (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972).

  5. Thomas Elyot, The Boke named the Governour, ed. H. H. S. Croft (London, 1883).

  6. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles (London, 1577).

  7. William Shakespeare, the ten British histories (King John, Richard II, I Henry IV, II Henry IV, Henry V, I Henry VI, II Henry VI, III Henry VI, Richard III, Henry VIII).

Other Restoration & Eighteenth-Century:

  1. Richard Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance, in The Works of Richard Hurd, 8 vols. (London, 1811).

  2. Thomas Warton, History of English Poetry, 5 vols. (London, 1775).

  3. Thomas Warton, Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London, 1762).


  1. Margreta De Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

  2. Wallace K. Ferguson, The Renaissance in Historical Thought: Five Centuries of Interpretation (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1948).

  3. Dustin Griffin, Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

  4. Jean Hagstrum, Samuel Johnson's Criticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1952).

  5. Greg Kucich, Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1991).

  6. Lawrence Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970).

  7. G. F. Parker, Johnson's Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989).

  8. Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990).

  9. Allen Reddick, The Making of Johnson's Dictionary 1746-1773 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).

  10. Arthur Sherbo, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1956).

  11. Edward Tomarken, Johnson on Shakespeare: The Choice of Criticism (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1991).

  12. Earl R. Wasserman, Elizabethan Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1947).

  13. W. B. C. Watkins, Johnson and English Poetry Before 1660 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1936).