Thomas Warton's "Observations on the 'Faerie Queene' of Spenser", Samuel Johnson's "History of the English Language," and Warton's History of English Poetry": Reciprocal Indebtedness?

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Several commentators have discussed in varying detail the long, sometimes troubled friendship of Samuel Johnson and Thomas Warton, which began in the early 1750s (when Johnson was in his forties and Warton in his twenties) and apparently lasted until the former's death in 1784; and the same investigators have usually treated some of the numerous literary relationships obtaining between the two men.(1) But no one, so far as we are aware, has pointed out the possible connections between Warton's Observations on the "Faerie Queene" of Spenser (1754) and Johnson's "History of the English Language" (in his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755); and only one person has touched on the possible affiliations between Johnson's History and Warton's three-volume History of English Poetry (1774, 1778, 1781).(2) In this article, we present the results of a fresh examination, which, while admittedly not conclusive, pose new circumstances of composition, and new causes of specific parts, of the two latter works, especially Warton's.

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Extant evidence suggests that the putative relationships originated in 1754, when Warton sent Johnson a copy of his recently published Observations and Johnson responded with a letter, dated July 16, 1754, praising the study for its disclosure of the books which "our ancient authours" "had read." He proceeds to express the hope that his forthcoming Dictionary (presumably including the "History of the English Language") will reduce the "ignorance" regarding such authors. Then he states his intention of "visiting the libraries of Oxford . . . in about a fortnight" in order to "finish" the Dictionary(3) - mainly the preliminaries (the Preface, History, and Grammar), researchers have plausibly inferred, since the bulk of the wordlist had been completed by the summer of 1754 and since none of the preliminaries was "yet begun" as of April 3, 1753.(4)

If he was indeed thinking seriously about composing the Preface, History, and Grammar during the spring and summer of 1754, Johnson must have paid unusual attention to the section of Warton's Observations (pp. 227-39) casting a backward glance at English poetry "from Spenser's age thro' the state of poesy in this kingdom." For, whatever their affiliation, it is noteworthy that the Observations and Johnson's History, both referring to earlier English poets as "bards," select for comment - in the same order - Robert of Gloucester, John Gower, Chaucer, John Lydgate, Sir Thomas More, and John Skelton.

Moreover, portions of Warton's and Johnson's remarks about these authors are comparable, though far from identical. First, in Warton's opinion, the rhyming "chronicle of Robert of Glocester [sic], who wrote . . . about the year 1280," is an example of "the last dregs of that kind of composition which was practic'd by the British bards . . ." (p. 227). Likewise, Johnson says that "Robert of Gloucester," who employed rhyme and "is placed by the criticks in the thirteenth century, seems to have used a kind of intermediate diction, neither Saxon nor English; in his work therefore we see the transition exhibited" (first ed., sig. E2r).

Second, Warton comments that "Gower and Chaucer were reputed the first English poets because they first introduc'd INVENTION into our poetry; they MORALIZED THEIR SONG . . . ." He adds, "Chaucer . . . deserves to be rank'd as one of the first English poets, on another account; his admirable artifice in painting the manners . . . ; and it should be remember'd to his honour, that he was the first who gave the English nation, in its own language, an idea of HUMOUR" (p. 228). For Johnson, Gower, "the first of our authours, who can be properly said to have written English" and who "calls Chaucer his disciple, . . . may . . . be considered as the father of our poetry." Of Chaucer, Johnson remarks in part, "The history of our language is now brought to the point at which the history of our poetry is generally supposed to commence, the time of the illustrious Geoffry Chaucer, who may perhaps, with great justice, be stiled the first of our versifyers who wrote poetically" (sig. …