In his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) Samuel Johnson wrote of Skye, “We came thither too late to see what we expected, a people of peculiar appearance, and a system of antiquated life.” Robert DeMaria, Jr., correctly applies this sense of belatedness to Johnson’s “general sense of his own intellectual lateness in the history of literature, imagination, and faith.” Johnson’s burden of the past manifests itself in his lifelong attempt to link himself to the tradition of European Renaissance humanism.
By the time Johnson entered Oxford in 1728, this strain of thought was already evident. After leaving Stourbridge School in 1726, Johnson had returned to his father’s Lichfield bookshop to embark on an extensive course of reading in Latin authors. In addition to the conventional classics such as Horace, Ovid, Catullus, and Quintillian, he probably studied Marco Giralamo Vida (c. 1480-1566), Jean Le Clerc (1657- 1736), Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) and his son Joseph (1540-1609), and the late Roman grammarian Macrobius. Johnson would startle his tutor at Pembroke College by quoting from Macrobius. DeMaria cites the oft-repeated observation of William Adams, master of Pembroke College, that Johnson was “the best qualified [person] for the university that he had ever known come there.”
Johnson was to write in London (1738) in capital letters, “SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPRESS’D,” a truth he felt along the pulse: After only thirteen months he was forced to leave Oxford for lack of money. The experience did nothing to weaken his devotion to the humanist tradition or his determination to be a part of it. In 1734 he issued proposals for an annotated edition of the Latin poems of the fifteenth century humanist and scholar Angelo Poliziano. The projected work, never finished, was to have included a history of neo-Latin poetry from the time of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) to that of Poliziano. Throughout his life Johnson himself wrote Latin poetry; his was the only Latin contribution to A Miscellany of Poems by Several Hands(1731), edited by John Husbands of Pembroke College. Johnson’s two greatest poems in English,London and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), are imitations of the Roman satirist Juvenal. DeMaria notes that London draws not only on the Latin original but also on the scholarship that had arisen around the poem in the Renaissance.
Irene (1749), Johnson’s neoclassical tragedy, unfolds against the backdrop of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, regarded in the eighteenth century as the event that triggered the revival of learning in the West, another subject that Johnson proposed to write about. At the end of the play Demetrius and Aspasia flee to Florence, where “Poetry shall tune her sacred voice,I And wake from ignorance the Western World.” DeMaria observes that the notes on Johnson’s draft of the play suggest a treatise rather than a drama, because the manuscript is filled with references to classical sources. Even in a work intended for the public stage, Johnson sought to establish his connection with Renaissance scholarship.
Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) offers yet another instance of his efforts to link himself to this European scholarly tradition. His careful distinction among shades of meaning suggests the thesauruses of Basilius Faber, who published a dictionary in 1571, and Robert Estienne, whose Greek lexicon was a monument of humanistic learning. In compiling his dictionary Johnson was imitating the French and Italian academies of the previous century, and his illustrative quotations were, according to DeMaria, intended to make the work into an encyclopedia, the compendium of knowledge that had been a Renaissance desideratum. As Johnson wrote in his preface, he sought “to…exhibit every production of art or nature in an accurate description, that [the] book might be in place of all other dictionaries, whether appellative or technical.” After Johnson finished revising the fourth edition of the Dictionary in 1773, he addressed a poem...
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